Italian Baking with Chef Angela Ranalli
Just announced: Chef Ranalli will be co-leading our May tour Food & Wine in Campania.
Meet Angela Ranalli, celebrated pastry chef at Philadelphia's Le Virtù and Brigantessa. Her work has been profiled in the Philadelphia Inquirer, Philadelphia Magazine “Best Desserts 2014”, and Zagat.
Angela’s interest in Italian desserts began in childhood when she starting making traditional pastries with her mother and siblings to sell at markets and fairs. Angela has traveled extensively in Italy and spends her summers teaching classes as The Peasant Baker. She lives in South Philadelphia with husband Chef Joe Cicala. Enjoy my interview with Chef Ranalli where I get to ask all my burning baking questions and look for news about an upcoming pastry class we'll be teaching together in late October in New York City.
So many of the most beloved Italian pastries are ones that are usually purchased, not made at home. How did you learn to make them?
I grew up in a household where three generations of Italians lived together, eleven people in one little house and someone was always cooking. My grandmother was Abruzzese, an amazing baker, and my greatest influence. Most of my recipes were handed down from her, while my great-grandmother was from Afragola near Naples. so her recipes were totally different. I learned to make sweets like pastiera from my great-grandmother while the biscotti and serpentone I learned from the Abruzzese side.
My mother opened a small business in the '80s selling Italian cookies at markets all over New Jersey and her kids were her assistants. We made every cookie and cannoli by hand. Over the years, I was the only one who stuck with baking and went on to learn from a French chef, Michel Gras in Cape May, NJ, who was also very passionate about doing everything the old fashioned way. I lived in Italy for a while and also took many culinary research trips with my husband to different regions of Italy. Tasting everything at the source really helps you to recreate it. I've also been lucky enough to have recipes and the techniques shown to me by local people in Italy, often times in their home kitchens.
Are you worried about these traditional Italian pastries disappearing as fewer and fewer people know how to make them? (I am!)
Yes, definitely. In America, we live our lives at lightening speed. Gone are the days where a housewife would spend hours on end in the kitchen constantly cooking for the next family meal. People have so many deadlines and cram a million tasks into their day, often ordering out or buying prepared foods, so the thought of making anything from scratch seems like a huge time killer. This is bad though because they are rapidly losing their connection to their culture. I think a lot of people from this generation reminisce about a dish from childhood made by someone in their family and think only that one person could make it because she had a special touch or it was complicated and time consuming. This is why I like teaching. I'm able to give them a hands on experience that may stay with them or stir up memories and then they are more like go to try it on their own at home, after they realize how rewarding cooking, (especially together with the family), can be.
Do you need the precision typically associated with baking when making Italian pastries? Is it possible to improvise?
This is a tricky one. Yes and no. It really depends on what you are making. If a recipe calls for a leveling agent then yes. You can totally destroy a dessert by mismeasuring yeast, or baking powder. However, many things are made " to taste " or my favorite that I've been told many times in the kitchen by Italians when I ask the amount of flour or water I should add to a recipe, and the answer is " enough". Italian desserts are made by hand so you need to have a feel for the dough or keep tasting what you are making and go with your intuition. Piano piano...add a little flour etc at a time. Repetition is the greatest teacher. Eventually you'll make the dish in your sleep, just as your great grandmother could!
Are sfogliatelle as hard to make as they look?
Let me just say, it's worth the effort. Hahahah! Honestly there is a level of difficulty to them, but it's about temperature control, elbow grease, and time management. It requires a lot of room and four hands to roll the pastry out (about six feet), and then roll it back up, so it's a team effort for my husband and me to make these. Greasing the dough with lard as you roll is the best kept secret.
"This is our old-school set up for making sfogliatelle. We smear the dough with lard, then wrap it around the rolling pin which is braced on two bags of flour to stretch it paper thin."
Are you sick and tired of people asking you where to get the best cannoli? (And um, who makes your favorite cannoli?)
I'm asked this constantly! As a matter of fact, this is what led me to create the moorish cannoli at Brigantessa. Just to switch it up I filled hand made shells with two types of cow's milk ricotta . One flavored with rose water and dusted with pistachios, and the other with orange blossom water and candied citron. My favorite though, is from Pasticceria Napoli in Maiori, along the Amalfi Coast. Best traditional cannoli hands down. Sweetened Ricotta and candied citron. Simple and perfect.
What advice can you give readers who are trying to capture and carry on a beloved family tradition when the original recipe no longer exists (or there wasn't a recipe in the first place)?
Try to find out as much as possible about your family's genealogy. Pinpointing where the relative came from who cooked the recipe you want to recreate plays a big part in figuring it out. It's important to consider what crops, meats, cheeses, etc are indigenous to each region. If you're trying to make a cake using butter, and it just isn't coming out the way you remember, the issue may be that the region didn't have cows, therefore no butter, and they would have used olive oil instead.
Keep in mind what would have been substituted..(lard, butter, almond flour, semolina, sunflower oil, olive oil), and have a test kitchen day. Try using different grains or flours for a recipe and taste everything. You would be surprised at how quickly your senses can link you to a nostalgic moment. If you take a bite, and have an emotional flashback of Sunday dinner at your nonna's, then you'll know you've got it!
Also, remember there is a chance that the recipe you are trying to make may have originated in a totally different country and been adapted in Italy by an ancestor who immigrated. There is a lot of culinary cross over when you think about the spice trade routes in Italy and also the foods and traditions that were brought to the country by the Arabs, Moors, Greeks, French, Jews, etc... Religion plays a part as well. Think about what time of year you ate this special dish. Ingredients may have a symbolic meaning and you can trace them back to whatever grain for example, that may be connected with a certain holiday.
If all else fails, and you just can't seem to dig up enough of the past to string it together, start your own tradition. Just be sure to write it down to pass onto future generations!
Did you learn anything about your history or background as the result of exploring Italian cooking and baking?
I came across a few interesting facts about my lineage through cooking over the years. I always wondered if DNA played a part in the job you were cut out to do since so many craftsmen pass their trade down to the next generation, and each excels at it. After some research, I found out that my great grandfather was also a baker in Giulianova, Italy, making us four generations of bakers on my mothers side! Also, while cooking together around the holidays, my mother would suddenly remember stories from her childhood about how her grandmother prepared certain dishes. For example, while arguing over how to cook a Thanksgiving turkey one year, she said, "If you want a tender turkey, give it a shot of whiskey! My grandmother kept a turkey in the yard a week before thanksgiving and gave it a shot of whiskey everyday to relax it before she slaughtered it. That keeps the meat tender.
I discovered our roots further south, outside of Naples, in Afragola through a recipe though...I wasn't very sure about my grandfather's maternal side and everyone in America was either too old to remember or deceased. My mother swore our family was part Sicilian, but my grandfather had a recipe for pig's blood pudding and I remembered my aunt raised pigs and kept the blood after for this dessert. This was in the days before online genealogy, so I never put it together until years later when I visited Naples and realized it was very popular there. This led me to dig further, and it turned out that side of my family was from the Naples area.
What’s your second favorite cuisine next to Italian and why?
My second favorite cuisine next to Italian is Mexican. It's my comfort food for sure. Mexican food is very soulful and I love anything spicy! I'm a big fan of tradition, and these guys stick to it. I think because Mexicans are a newer wave of immigrants to America, they haven't lost their cultural ties to their country and it's reflected in their made from the heart food. They aren't "Americanized". Ask a chef and they tell you, when there is Mexican employee making staff meal, nobody misses it.
Tell us about painting with wine!
Chocolate chestnut cake with Montepulciano sauce is to blame. Last November, I was cooking down a bottle of Montepulciano di Abruzzo for a sauce for a dessert special at Le Virtù, in honor of I Glorie di San Martinofestival held in Scanno. When I poured a little of the wine reduction on a white plate, it was such a gorgeous color I thought, " I wish I could paint with that!", so I tried it. I was instantly addicted to painting with wine! I use a variety of wines which I cook for different lengths of time to develop the colors in my paintings. The wine ages on paper the way it does in a bottle, so the painting changes slightly over time. Some colors lighten and some deepen. I've sold my work in Italy and was invited to paint" in real time" at CortonART this past June, having twenty minutes to paint with wine live at a fashion show in Cortona, Italy with Italian artist, Sara Lovari. I also started holding painting with wine classes in Cortona. The great thing about painting with this medium is you don't need to be an artist at all! You drink a little wine while you paint, you get relaxed, and the creativity starts to flow. Some of the most interesting artworks have come from people who claimed to have zero creative bones in their body. I highly recommend trying it. It's good for your soul.
What's next? Classes? A move to Italy? How can people connect with you and learn to bake?
It has long been a dream of both my husband and I to spend as much time as possible in Italy, teaching cooking classes. After spending this summer teaching in Tuscany, I would like to move to a city further south next summer, and hold my pop up pastry classes in Campania or Puglia. If you can't make it to Italy, but want to bake with me stateside, I offer baking parties in PA, NJ, DC & NYC at your location, girls night-in parties, children's baking classes, and corporate team building culinary events.