In this week’s Coffee Self-Talk podcast, I talk about a thing called: Mindset Intervention.
This thing, a mindset intervention, can put your life on a new trajectory in a single moment, like it did for me when I was in Italy.
In this week’s Coffee Self-Talk podcast, I talk about a thing called: Mindset Intervention.
This thing, a mindset intervention, can put your life on a new trajectory in a single moment, like it did for me when I was in Italy.
My new and dear friends, here in Italy, treated my family to this cake, Torta della Nonna.
Ellen and Arrigo are a couple here in town and engaged to be married this summer. She has dual citizenship, like me, but has been in Italy much longer. Arrigo is her Italian fiancé, and they are the cutest couple, always holding hands, snuggling, and teasing each other. I can’t help but smile every time I’m around them.
I met Ellen when she contacted me via Instagram, back in the fall, after seeing my family’s interview on CNN about moving to Italy. I knew after our initial chats via WhatsApp that we’d be lifelong friends.
(BTW: If you’re planning a trip to Italy, I can’t recommend enough that you check out their gorgeous website for the most beautiful accommodations.)
Now, the story of the day is that my new friends were helping me this week with Italian paperwork down in town. We donned our masks and winter coats, and we piled into their car for the short drive. (Navigating government things like taxes, utilities, or health cards in a foreign language can be hard so I was beyond grateful for their help.)
Naturally, I wanted to thank them by buying them lunch or a coffee or something!
How great was it that Arrigo had the idea that we stop by the bakery on our way home. I thought, “Perfect! I’ll buy them a cake!”
But what do you know? They won’t let me! They buy ME the cake!
Wait! What?! I’m supposed to pay!
But you know what? I chuckle, smile, and shake my head, because life isn’t always a balance sheet. Something I’m learning living here among such wonderful people in this beautiful culture of Italian hospitality and kindness.
Ellen and Arrigo, your warmth and generosity make me want to cry. I’m so blessed to have such amazing people in my life.
From Great Italian Chefs website comes this, “A classic, Tuscan-born tart, Torta della Nonna has to be one of the most widespread and well-known Italian desserts. Its success likely lies in its simplicity: it consists of nothing more than two sheets of slightly leavened sugar pastry enclosing a creamy heart of lemon-scented custard. The top is studded with crunchy pine nuts and dusted with icing sugar, and no variants on this theme have ever gained much momentum.”
I originally shared this post on my Instagram page where Ellen commented, “Arrigo would kill me if I didn’t mention – it’s origins are Central Italy, including Umbria! Those Tuscans, they like to claim everything!!!😂❤️”
This cake, tart, custard concoction is worth the trip to Italy, and, yes, of course, it’s better here, especially when it’s sourced from a tiny bakery in a tiny town.
…because it’s only slightly sweet (which means I eat three slices at a time – in fact, that night’s dinner was a big bowl of ground beef, carnivore style, and a lot of Torta della Nonna, Italian style).
It’s hard to eat just one slice with its delectable, cool and creamy-custardy filling, a cookie-like crust around the edge, and leavened pastry… giving you the blissful experience of a bite to please your whole mouth. Your body. Heck, your soul. When I had mine, I asked my family not to talk to me while I ate my piece(s); I wanted total silence, no interruptions, as I cherished each bite, fully present. Italy does that.
Experimenting with mascarpone
(There’s an update to this post at the bottom.)
In Italy you’ll always see mascarpone available in the refrigerated section near dairy.
I never really knew what this was used for until recently. My curiosity was perked.
Prior to buying it, a Google search told me that it was like cream cheese, and I thought “Oh OK! Yum. I’ll try that! I like cream cheese.”
But when I came home with it and tried it… cream cheese… it didn’t taste like cream cheese at all.
It doesn’t have the tang that cream cheese has. Or the heft.
Well, maybe they meant a creamy-type cheese–and not the cream cheese lyou put on bagels. I don’t recall now, but I’ll admit maybe it’s my error in that respect. But still… it does not resemble cheese to me, of any kind.
So I did more research and learned that it’s also considered like triple cream. Oh, this is more like it. If I had never spent time in the UK I might not even know what that meant.
Because in the UK you can buy “double cream” which is a most ultra heavy cream. It pours out of the container slow, almost like molasses. Almost.
Mascarpone, in this light, makes more sense to me.
Yes. It’s like super thick, like spreadable cream. Heftier than even double cream, as the description of triple-cream implies. It comes in a tub, mascarpone, like a step shy of butter.
I learned that you can put it on vegetables and bake with it, add it to soups, make desserts– all kinds of things.
Basically, it adds delectable creaminess to your recipe.
So, of course, I tried it in my coffee. It works! Just like cream or butter, though I had to whisk it, as if it were butter.
But look at that frothiness!
After that, I added mascarpone to soup. Nice.
Some people say it’s divine with honey drizzled over it. I can see that.
Another day, I made tuna salad with it, like a mayo replacement. It was perfect for that!
So there you go. Mascarpone.
Update: So today I’m on a walk with my Italian girlfriend. She mentions that she saw this blog post of mine and says, “Kristen… mascarpone is for tiramisu. You know tiramisu?”
I facepalmed myself. OMG. Duh. Yes. One of my favorite desserts which I haven’t had in far too long.
Although there are many things I like about winter, in my late 20s, I moved to Arizona for a reason: better weather. Prior to that, my knowledge of winter came from living in Michigan.
My Michigan winters, as an adult, were gray and cloudy and quite slushy. Dirty slush, from the cars. My childhood winters were more white, crisp and clean. Either way, they were always cold, and I hadn’t yet understood the beautiful notion that it’s only cold if you’re not properly attired.
So I moved to Arizona, and the next fifteen winters were glorious. Filled with sunshine and just enough coldness for jeans and sweaters. Even a coat at night.
But the funny thing is, my Arizona winters didn’t feel like winter. Either because I’d grown up with a different kind of winter in Michigan, or perhaps because movies always depict winters that are completely unlike those in Arizona. So while I liked the winters in Arizona—loved them!—because they were sunny and never too cold, they just didn’t feel like winter to me.
Some people say Arizona has two seasons: hot and very hot. It’s funny, and it’s partly true, but not entirely.
Nonetheless, the description has merit, and so it is with that idea that I write about my winter in Italy.
We spent our first Italian winter in 2019/2020. Part of which was in northern Italy, where we were dumped on with snow the day we left the region! Not entirely common in our town, despite its northern location.
We spent the other part of that winter in the southernmost part of Italy (the heel of the “boot”), the beautiful region of Puglia.
So, in a single season, we experienced both the northern and southern versions of Italian winter. But we weren’t in either location for long, or live in our own home, and so the experience lacked a certain authenticity. Staying in an AirBnB affects your mindset. Your brain never really leaves vacation mode, and everything has an extra rosy cast to it.
And at the very beginning of February 2020, we went to Arizona to visit family for a month (which turned into six, courtesy of COVID). So our winter in Italy wasn’t even an entire winter.
Today, I write about my experience living in central Italy during the winter. This time, we actually have a proper home, an apartment in a 700-year-old building, in a medieval hilltop town. We have been here since August, and we will be here through the entire Winter. Many, in fact.
I’m happy to say, if a bit surprised, that winter in central Italy has caused me to upgrade my estimation of winter. It’s now possibly my second favorite season! (Behind spring.)
We don’t have snow here, at least not yet. And if it does snow, the locals say it’s short-lived. But right now, the lows at night are in the mid 30s, and the daytime highs are in the upper 40s. Sufficiently cold to feel like a real winter.
(I have an amazing coat that keeps me warm and toasty when I’m outside, and rain boots when it rains. These contribute massively to my enjoyment. As the saying goes, “there’s no such thing as bad weather, just bad clothing.”)
We even have a lot of gray and rain, which lends an air of mystery to everything. An atmosphere. Yellow lamplight cuts through the thick fog in narrow, cobblestone alleys. The gray misty mornings are some of my favorite! I rush to put on my coat to experience it fully outside. And there’s the most beautiful walk around the town, like walking along the edge of a cliff, in the clouds. Or on some days, above them.
My imagination runs wild in these moments.
That said, there are still plenty of sunshiny days. But frankly, with the pandemic, we spend most of our time at home anyway.
The wintery atmosphere is the backdrop of my day. Each morning, I start by reading nonfiction books. I do my Coffee Self-Talk, and I tap into some Taoism (or something of the like: Untethered Soul, Outrageous Openness).
This morning routine straightens my mindset and fills me with gratitude. And simple joy. I am so happy. In fact, last night, I went to sleep and couldn’t fall asleep because I was so excited about the following day. When nothing particularly different was expected to happen. I was just excited about another ordinary day!
We haven’t used our heat in our apartment yet (in-floor heating), mainly because we don’t know how. There’s a thing with a lot of buttons on it. My landlord is a simple text message away; he lives above us and he’d be happy to come show us. But every day, we keep thinking it’s not so bad. The tile floor is frigid however, but we wear slippers, so that takes care of that.
My husband wears a scarf at all times. Even to bed. It adds to the Dickensian character of his piratey winter beard.
My daughter dances around barefoot all day in shorts and a T-shirt. Kids.
I’m somewhere in-between on the sensitivity to cold spectrum. I found the most amazing sweater in the Benetton store a couple weeks ago. Here in town. And when I put it on, I look like a bear. It’s fluffy (the fluff turning to scruff after multiple wearings) and black and rather shapeless. My husband calls it my “bear suit.” He rubs my belly when I wear it, and speaks of honey.
He’s not entirely wrong. Bears don’t actually sleep the whole time they hibernate. They just get cozy and snooze a lot. That’s me, minus the snoozing. Cozy.
My bear suit keeps me so warm. Almost too warm. But not quite. And so I’m grateful to have found this. Greg often wears a coat in the house with his scarf, but I don’t want that much bulk. It’d make it weird to type, with my arms sticking out stiffly at weird angles.
As I mentioned, our daughter wears a T-shirt, shorts, and no socks, and when I touch her feet, they feel cold, but she says she’s comfortable. So I get a kick out of the fact that it’s cold outside, winter, but we haven’t put on our heat yet. I assume this is possible due to the three-feet-thick stone walls of the apartment (that includes the interior walls, too). It’s more like a cave, constantly cool (including summer, when it’s in the 90s outside).
It’s never bone-chilling cold, and I think it makes me more sprightly, energized.
After my morning routine — in which I have my coffee and self-talk, and my reading, which lately includes some poetry and classics — my daughter gets up, and it’s time for breakfast.
Then, I either go on my walk around the base of the hill (where I’ve seen such magical things as hidden cave entrances, wild boars, and cinematic views of mist-filled valleys), or I settle into writing my own fiction books.
Or blogging, like today.
I also meditate often. And then the day just goes on. I spent a good portion of it reading fiction, which helps my writing process. I eat lunch, and I have a 1 PM espresso.
We do dinner later, and watch a show while eating. It might seem weird to people to watch TV while eating, but we spend all day together, talking and sharing, so it’s nice to take a break and watch a movie or laugh non-stop with an episode of Brooklyn Nine-Nine.
In the evening, we play ping-pong, or a game, or I just read more, and Kamea and Greg have Daddy-Daughter time.
During the day, sometimes I have to go to the store. I like to go between 1-4 PM, when it’s empty. Everybody else is at home resting for lunch or taking a nap. My butcher also closes shop during the afternoon. So I usually visit him after his lunch break when there aren’t many people there.
We have cats that live on our rooftop and down in the courtyard. They’re part feral, part domesticated. Wildish. I sometimes toss sardines or meat from our balcony to the stairwell they like to hang out on. When I wear my furry bear sweater, I often wonder if they think I’m one of them. Or a bear. I could swear they look at me differently.
Last night, we wanted to go for a little celebration, and we went to the bar around the corner to have a spritz. It’s a small bar, called Blue Bar, and we love the owner. He’s French and speaks French, Italian, and English. He likes to play blues guitar for us. We have a coffee or drink every couple of weeks, just a neighborly gesture really, during these hard times.
Even though the temperature was in the 30s, we sat outside because there were people inside… with masks pulled down to eat and drink. We sat in our warm coats, bundled up together on a bench, and enjoyed our spritz, sans ice cubes. Kamea had a decaf cappuccino. And it was memorable. Probably more memorable because of sitting outdoors in the cold.
So that’s my winter in Italy right now, and that’s my routine.
I love it.
I was going to write a little piece on Christmas in Italy. The decorations in town, the window dressings, the passion Italians have for nativity scenes all over the country (even live-action, when COVID isn’t a thing), and how they decorate their Christmas trees on December 8th, the Day of Immaculate Conception.
But I decided that all I really wanted to write about was… panettone. It is now officially anchored for my family as a Christmas holiday tradition.
Our first Christmas in Italy was last year (2019), when we explored Puglia and stayed in the gleaming white town of Martina Franca. There, we tried a couple of different panettone, enjoying them, and it’s there that our
obsession tradition began.
Well, aside from my not typically imbibing in bready desserts, I make an exception for a daily slice of panettone in the Christmas holiday season. I really love saying the word, too. Feel free to take your time as you let it roll off your tongue: pahn-eh-TOE-neh.
For authentic Italian, pause for half a beat on the double-T’s.
It’s a strange thing, my fondness for panettone. It’s not like some wonderfully sweet, chocolate, decadent cake with buttercream frosting that shoots off fireworks in your brain, or mom’s homemade cinnamon apple pie, with flaky buttery crust that you eat warm and bubbly from the oven topped with ice cream that’s just beginning to melt.
Panettone is much simpler. It’s more like sweetened bread.
There are many varieties of panettone: chocolate, apple, caramel, liquor, olive oil, coffee… you name it, it’s out there. And many prices. But our favorite is the traditional version, without extras (chocolate is a fun addition, but not ever a substitute). All the more reason to have multiple panettone throughout the season, to try different ones.
I’ve paid from as little as five euro up to 26 euro for panettone. For the most part, they’re all usually delicious, save for a couple that seemed a bit dry (nothing that a splash of red wine or Baileys can’t help). The one we are saving for Christmas will have small strawberry bits and chocolate in it (pictured above in the beautiful pink wrapping).
Artisanal panettone is very simple. It has only flour, sugar, fresh egg (at least 4% yolk, by law!), butter (16% or more!), raisins and candied citrus peel (no less than 20%), and natural yeast from sourdough (yes!!!), plus salt.
I love the dance of give and resistance when you bite into it and chew. It’s most satisfying because of this. The texture itself rivals the most tasty cake with frosting. The feel when you bite and chew is rather… sublime.
But then there also are the jewels inside! More texture! Raisins and candied citrus, giving you little bites of the most dazzling buried treasure.
I think I might love panettone so much also because of the color. True panettone comes with a set amount of butter and egg yolks, yielding a gilded hunk of not-too-sweet decadence in your hand.
I love how you can quite literally, just rip off a hunk of it. I always cut the first piece, but after that, my family tends to just tear chunks and eat it, plate or no, it doesn’t matter as there are practically no crumbs.
People slice it, toast it under the broiler, and drench it in butter (you’d think I’d be all over this one, but I like it by itself). Some make French toast with it. Some eat it a la mode (I approve of this one). Some people make sandwiches with it. Some people, my husband in particular, enjoy it with rum poured on top or alongside coffee with Bailey’s.
But honestly, of all the ways, I can’t improve on the way it is, au naturale. The unmistakable smell of panettone that fills your nose when you open a package is the promise of the flavor that will play on your tongue. I typically do not like to mess with this, as it’s this true anchor of panettone to me, that flavor, aroma, and feel in my mouth.
To tear a hunk off and head out for my walk, chewing, enjoying… that is the way I love it.
Panettone originally hails from Milan. The cake dough takes several hours to make, using a process much like making sourdough bread. (No wonder I adore it.) It must rise and fall three times before it’s baked. This makes it a health food, right?
I read a darling story in Italy Magazine which tells of how the name of panettone came to be.
It is said that at the 15th century court of Duke Ludovico, during a Christmas celebration, the chef burned the dessert. When the Duke demanded that dessert be served, the chef became visibly distressed and, seeing this, a scullery boy named Toni approached him and explained that he’d made a sweet loaf out of left-overs and offered this bread to the chef who accepted and served it at court. The dessert was a success and the Duke called the chef to congratulate him in front of his guests, however, unable to take the credit, the chef told everyone who had really made the bread and that’s how it became known as panettone; the bread of the scullery boy, Toni.Italy Magazine
And another story of its origins, this one romantic… ♥️
The popular legend is that of a nobleman and falconer named Ughetto, who fell in love with Adalgisa, the daughter of a baker whose business had hit upon hard times. Ughetto’s family were unhappy with his choice and forbade him to marry such a lowly girl. In a bid to continue seeing his lover, Ughetto in disguise took a job at the bakery where one day after selling some of his falcons, he purchased butter and sugar and added it to the bakery’s bread mix. Ughetto’s sweet bread became popular and the ailing bakery soon began to see better times, which pleased Adalgisa. To continue pleasing her, one day near Christmas, he added candied peel and raisins to the mix and the popularity of his bread surpassed everything the bakery had ever produced before – in fact it became so popular that his family relented and gave their permission for the couple to marry.Italy Magazine
And so, panettone has become a cherished tradition for my family. We eat it almost daily from December 1st until the last week of December. Panettone! Panettone! Panettone!
In our tiny village in Italy, I get amazing sourdough bread for my family from the lovely people of The Beehive Hostel in Rome (a great place to stay once travel resumes).
Turns out, the family who owns it lives in our town and with COVID destroying tourism, they’ve turned to making food and selling it. Nice pivot.
One of the things we buy from them, well two (I’ll share the other in a minute), is homemade sourdough bread, just like I used to make pre-carnivore and pre-travel days. It’s the good stuff: just water, flour, salt, and starter, and delicious.
One day I ate a lot. The next day I ate carnivore. Balance, huh?
I usually start my day with beef (lately, a steak), but I’ve been enjoying a lot of this bread the past couple of weeks. And with the bread, I’ve made a strange sandwich that is addictive.
The reason it’s strange is because it also has hummus on it. And salmon. Now, even though I sometimes eat sourdough bread, napoletana pizza, and rice… even pasta on occasion, I usually eschew beans and legumes. I haven’t had hummus in years.
But, for the hell of it, I made an exception when I ordered The Beehive’s hummus. I wanted to support them. Plus? The strangest thing… it just sounded good. So I bought some, fully expecting to only buy it once.
I put it on this weird open-faced sandwich I’m about to share and frankly my mind was kinda blown. Greg’s too.
Why in the hell is it so tasty? Something about the synergy of ingredients.
Anyway, without further ado, here is this Very Strange Delicious Sandwich.
One day I didn’t have hummus, because Greg ate the rest of it in the middle of the night, so I used cream cheese instead. Not. the. same.
And that time with the cream cheese, I added pickles. That was fine, but not necessary.
Anyway. I hope you and yours are doing well.
Apart from eating strange salmon sandwiches, I’m working on romance novel number nine, and we’re almost ready to publish number eight, Christmas Beauty in about ten days!
The weather just dropped to mid 40s during the day here so I’m wearing a bigger coat on my wonderful almost-daily walks.
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