Tag Archives: coffee

Italian breakfast, and why a cornetto isn’t a croissant

Cornetto, saccottino and cappucino at Baylon Cafe, Trastevere, Rome

Let the Games Begin (Che la festa cominci) is the latest novel by Italian writer Niccolò Ammaniti. He’s probably best known for Io non ho paura (I’m Not Scared), the 2001 novel that became a film in 2003.

A pretty broad satire of contemporary Roman society, Let the Games Begin is passingly entertaining, but it suffers from less-than-perfect translation and editing. As well as some fairly rudimentary editorial errors, the idiomatic translation doesn’t feel quite right. It’s also quite haphazard with its translation of Italian food names. While it’s content to refer to supplì as supplì, it seems to determinedly translate cornetto as croissant.

A cornetto (“little horn”) is not a croissant (French for “crescent”). Nor is it an ice-cream. It’s an Italian relative of the croissant, likely with the same origins, but today a distinct product. Sure they look similar, but they’re slightly different. Read on.

No one is in agreement about the origins of the crescent-shaped pastry, but one abiding story (or myth) is that it was invented in Austria to commemorate the defeat of the Ottomans, who besieged the city in 1683. Wikipedia gives more background. Whatever the origins of the pastry (other variables include chiffel and kipfel), since its birth the regional and national versions have diverged.

Breakfast pastries
Both the croissant and the cornetto are breakfast pastries. The quintessential breakfast I witness being consumed day-in day-out in Rome is a coffee – either a simple caffè (espresso) or cappucino (often just called cappuccio in Rome) – with a cornetto, normally just a cornetto semplice (“simple”, ie plain).

Many cafés offer a large selection of different breakfast pastries, or lieviti (literally “yeasteds” or “risens”, meaning pastries made with a yeasted dough) and if possible I get a saccottino al cioccolato. In Italian, a sacco is a sack, so this literally is a “little sack with chocolate”. And yes, it closely resembles another French – or Viennese – pastry: the pain au chocolat, known by many ignoramuses as a “chocolate croissant” . Guys, it’s not a crescent-shape, so how can it be a croissant?

The cornetto semplice is also apparently also known as the cornetto vuoto (“empty”), to contrast it with various types of cornetti ripieni (“filled”). These include cornetto alla crema (with custard), alla marmellata (with jam, marmalade or other conserve), al miele (with honey; this is often made with an integrale, wholewheat, dough), and cornetto al cioccolato. The latter is an actual cornetto that is usually filled with that vile brown vegetable-oil product beloved of Italians, Nutella.

Choice of pastries at Baylon Cafe, Trastevere, Rome

The (subtle) difference
The French really don’t go in for all these filled variables, beyond ones with almond paste, but the biggest difference between cornetti and croissant is the lamination.

A proper croissant must be made with butter, and must be repeatedly folded and rolled, to achieve a lamination wherein the rolled dough contains several thin layers of the fat. When the croissant is baked, water in the dough is turned to steam, but this is trapped by the fat, causing pressure and rising between the layers. The resulting pastry, when done right, should be crisp and flaky, with a taste of butter but no greasiness.

A cornetto on the other hand isn’t so assiduously laminated, and can even be made with lard, not butter. The dough also contains more sugar. The result is a pastry that is just a lot sweeter than a proper French croissant, and can have a more enriched bread or cake-like texture, more like a French brioche. Some cornetti are very flaky and like croissants, but many others are more cakey; there’s a lot of variation.

Indeed, cornetti are sometimes called brioche in some northern parts of Italy, though in Naples, Sicily and parts of south with a historical French influence, the name brioche is used for a pastry more like the Gallic version. But that’s another story.

Cappuccio, spremuta, pastries at Caffe Arabo, Trastevere, Rome

A couple of cafés
Our lifestyle at the moment takes us to two cafes regularly for weekend morning cornetti. I’m not saying these have the best cornetti in Rome – how could I, without sampling cornetti in every single one of the thousands of cafés and pasticcerie in Rome? – but they’re places we enjoy.

The first is Baylon, which we started frequenting because… well, I can’t really remember. They’re so grumpy and resolutely unfriendly that even after we’ve been going there two years only one of the staff actually acknowledges us. The Ricardo Darin-lookalike is a particular sourpuss. Unlike many more traditional Roman cafés, however, it has space to hang out, and Wi-Fi. Plus, unlike many places in the tourist nexus of Trastevere, they don’t charge stupid prices.

So we keep on going back – partly for the space, partly as we can get our Saturday morning weekly English language paper nearby, and partly because they it has great selection of lieviti. Apparently it used to be a local landmark pasticceria (pastry bakery), so at least they have their own kitchens for the baking.

Our Sunday routine, on the other hand, developed as we used to go down to the farmers’ market in Testaccio’s Ex-Mattatoio every week. Although that’s now sadly been shunted further out of town, at least a direct-from-farm shop has opened near Ponte Testaccio, on the Trastevere Station side of the river, where we can get many of the same quality fresh products. There’s also Porta Portese market every Sunday, with its enormous selection of tat, junk and bric-a-brac.

Case of pastries at Caffe Arabo, Trastevere, Rome

On our route down the hill from our house, via the massively grand 19th century, weed-infested, broken-glass strewn, graffitied Ugo Bassi steps, we go to Caffè Arabo on Viale di Trastevere. This is a more traditional Roman café, no Wi-Fi or anything of that poncy nonsense, but it’s still kinda idiosyncratic. Plus, a couple of the staff not only recognise us but are friendly, even amiably laughing at my ordering a (hot) tea on a hot day. “The British drink tea in every season, every weather,” I shrugged.

They don’t have a kitchen, so their cornetti are bought-in, but they’re not bad. And occasionally they even have saccottini al cioccolato to satisfy my chocolate cravings.

Neither places, however, has croissant. A few Roman cafés do apparently do French-style croissant, but I’ve yet to sample them.

Of course, not everyone has a coffee and cornetto for breakfast or elevenses here in Rome. We sat down at Arabo last Sunday, Fran ordered a cappucino and cornetto, I ordered a spremuta d’arancia (freshly sqeezed orange juice) and a saccattino al cioccolato – then two guys sad down beside us and ordered beers. It was 10.30am.

Info
Baylon Café
Via San Francesco A Ripa 151, 00153 Rome
bayloncafe.com

Caffè Arabo
Viale di Trastevere 20, 00152 Rome

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Filed under Cakes (yeasted), Discussion, Other food, Restaurants etc

Mocha ricotta marble cake

Marble cake 2 slices

I don’t drink coffee. There, I said it. I live in Italy, but I don’t like the national drink/quotidian drug. It’s a slight problem for me, as really, the caffè (café) is all about the caffè (coffee), right down to sharing the same word. Having said that, I don’t mind a little bit of coffee flavoured cake-action. I think it’s a fond memory of my grandmother’s coffee-walnut cakes, which I’d happily eat as a small child, while never actually developing a taste for the actual drink.

Oddly, though, I do like really bitter ch ocolate, and other bitter flavours. People have told me this is silly, as the bitterness of a serious dark chocolate is not unlike the bitterness of a good coffee. (My favourite chocolate at the moment is 73 percent cacao with cacao bean nibs.) Although I realise I miss out on a major factor in the Italian socio-cultural dynamic, in many ways it’s good I never developed a taste for it: I’m a fairly twitchy person and a bad sleeper at the best of times. A caffeine habit wouldn’t help.

Anyway. One of my Christmas presents was Short & Sweet, a collection of baking recipes by Dan Lepard, some of which from his ever-reliable column in The Guardian. I had some butter than was threatening to go rancid, so I had to bake something, subito! (Which is Italian for “immediately”, even though in English we use the Italian word pronto – meaning “ready” – to mean “immediately”. How did that switcheroo happen?) It was unsalted, and I suspect they hadn’t washed the buttermilk off the fat sufficiently well.

uniced 2

Browsing the book, I found his Coffee and ricotta marble cake. There’s something eminently satisfying about the mottled crumb of a marble cake, plus coffee and ricotta are quintessentially Italian. We have some wonderful fresh ricotta available to us here. At the farmers’ market in the Ex-Mattatoio in Testaccio (open 9am to early evening Sat, 9am to around 2pm Sun), you can get sheep, cow or goat milk ricotta. Possibly even buffalo ricotta, as you can get buffalo mozzarella (bufala) – the best type, ahead of cow’s milk mozzarella, which is distinguished by being called fiore di latte, “milk flower”.

Dan L’s recipe divides the mixture, and mixes one with strong coffee, the other with marsala or rum. Given my attitude to coffee, I wasn’t entirely convinced by this, especially as I didn’t think it’d make the sponge distinctly dark enough, so I made a coffee/cocoa mix instead. Hence it’s a mocha ricotta marble cake. Which, frankly, has a lovely ring to it too. I knocked back the sugar in his recipe too as quite so much didn’t seem necessary.

Recipe
10g ground coffee
10g cocoa powder
25g boiling water
125g unsalted butter
175g caster sugar
200g plain flour
150g ricotta
3 medium eggs (about 50g each)
2 teaspoons baking powder
25g marsala or rum

1. Preheat the oven 180C.
2. Grease and line a deep loaf time, around 18cm long.
3. Pour the boiling water onto the coffee and cocoa powder.
4. Cream together the sugar and butter.
5. Add about 50g of the flour to the sugar and butter mixture and beat in.
6. Sieve together the remaining 150g flour with the baking powder.
7. Beat the ricotta into the sugar and butter mixture.
8. Beat in the eggs, one at a time.
9. Gently beat the remaining flour/BP into the mix.
10. Divide the mixture in two. You don’t have to weigh it unless you’re especially pedantic.
11. Mix the mocha liquid into one half, the marsala into the other.
12. Put alternating spoonfuls of the mixtures in the tin, smooth down the surface with wet knuckles, and run a skewer or spoon handle through the mixtures to create some marbling. .
13. Bake for around 50 minutes, or until a skewer comes out clean.
14. Cool in the tin for around 20 minutes, then remove and cool on a rack.

To serve
You can serve it dusted with icing sugar or drizzled with a smooth basic water icing made with around 50g icing sugar and cold water. Add the water in tiny amounts and blend until you have a slightly runny consistency.

I did my icing  with a small paper piping bag. They’re nifty little items. This video shows you how to make them, but I would say divide the initial triangle into two smaller triangles as you only need a small bag for such a small amount of icing. Also, for small bags (I’m talking about the length of a finger), you don’t need a nozzle either, just snip the very end off to make a whole of around 2mm and it’ll be perfect for drizzling.

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Filed under Cakes, Recipes