Tuesday, November 17, 2015


The Italian theory of evolution
I was born in the mid-70s in Italy, which means my childhood was spent during the economic boom of the 80s (Alpine vacations in winter AND summer) and my adolescence and young adult years in the cozy and undemanding arms of modern technology. Between a game of Simon, a text message, and a Napster download, I never found the time or reason to question whether my body truly represented the latest model of an evolutionary process started 15 million years ago (I'm talking about human evolution). Given how quickly I could recover from hangover, I just assumed it did.

Everything changed after my pregnancy and the birth of MiniBee, experiences that compelled me to test the process of reproduction, which I believe biology still considers the main goal of human existence. My first stance towards the experience was one of great curiosity and excited anticipation, but after only a year that stance had turned to one of bewilderment. I have to say, human reproduction really doesn't seem as well-planned as popular science wants us to believe. The so-called "miracle of birth" seems more to me like a half-assed experiment, an unconvincing and unconvinced attempt at evolutionary success, a random dart thrown drunkenly at the future in an attempt to somehow cope with the harsh demands of natural selection. Perhaps this shouldn't surprise me, but Mother Nature has revealed herself to be just like any other parent: godlike and omnipotent at first, but ultimately just a mom, tired and overwhelmed, with eyes filled with disillusionment. I can't help but to imagine our confrontation.

ME: "Mom, was this really the best plan your could think of? Stuffing women with a 9-lb meatloaf that has to come out of their vaginas?"
MOTHER NATURE: "Oh, stop it. You have no idea how busy I was, and how hard I had to work. Do you think humans are the only ones I have to take care of? You don't hear the lemmings complain, and I have them jumping off a fucking cliff. And remember, your father is never around."
ME: "My father?!?"
MOTHER NATURE: "You humans call him God, which is frankly kind of rich, given that he left me completely alone to take care of you, the house, and all the animals."
ME: "Are you telling me that God exists?!? Where is He now?"
MOTHER NATURE:"I told you a million times already, but you never, ever listen. He left. He made this world in six days, this wonderful world of whales and gemstones and instincts and quantum particles. That was just one of his projects back in the day. Did you think he was going to just magically settle down and help me raise you all? No, of course not! He's too much of an artist to be a parent. Mr Know-It-All needs to create! And I was stupid enough to support him... Now leave me alone. I need a smoke."
ME: "Do you smoke cigarettes?!?"
MOTHER NATURE: "Are you crazy? With those prices? I'll just inhale some of the carbon dioxide you kids have kindly provided me with. Now leave me alone! It's November, for fuck's sake. Shouldn't you start collecting acorns for you den?"
ME: "Are you talking about squirrels?"
MOTHER NATURE: "Whatever."

But I still have lots of questions! Well, I have three actually.


Wooly mammoths needs to be cooked to
a 145F temp for safe consumption.
Right from the bat, women are saddled with a punitively long pregnancy during which they are at increased risk for listeria (18 times more likely than general population, according to this). What is the purpose of this immune weakness? Women are growing another human inside their bodies: bone, muscle, brain tissue and whatever else is there. Shouldn't their immune system be at its strongest? And mostly, shouldn't they be able to eat whatever they want, raw or cooked, especially when their strongest instinct is to eat any and everything they see or even imagine?


The human advantage and a tricky storage problem.
Okay, you know this. We humans have developed massive heads to contain our massive brains, and we are born basically premature otherwise we would never make it out of the birth canal from the neck up. This makes human birth more difficult and painful than for most animals, and results in human newborns who can't literally do anything. A foal will stand and walk right after birth, but babies take weeks just to focus enough to see there's more to our faces than a nose. Still, I have to wonder how a species who has to told their tiny babies for one or two years or more was able to survive this long. How is a woman supposed to gather (as in "hunt and gather") with a child constantly attached to her?


First they're screaming and now they're drawing on the walls?
When is this day going to end?
Why do children cry so much, and so loudly? This doesn't make any sense to me. Why on earth would an insignificant, tiny, clawless, non-poisonous being call so much attention on itself? If I were a cave woman, hidden in said cave, freaked out and exhausted after birth and waiting for someone to deliver my Paleo dinner, the last thing I want is for my baby to advertise its juicy presence to all saber-tooth predators for miles around. And babies do not scream only in their infancy. In fact, their loudest and most irrational cries happen in toddlerhood and early childhood, when I would think a mother would want to leave her cave to go back to gathering (as in "hunting and gathering"). Why can't babies simply whimper quietly and adorably like newborn kittens? How great that would be?

Tuesday, November 3, 2015


Torta di riso alla Carrarina - Tuscan rice cake with rum and custard

My mom is visiting from Italy. Her presence has of course been a great help with my two children, but has also turned into an opportunity for me to rediscover old recipes–both from my childhood and from the land of my grandparents. My maternal grandfather was from a tiny town in the north of Tuscany called Montignoso, an adorable little place that I remember fondly for the cute-as-a-button farm behind my grandparents' house (bunnies everywhere) and the amazing food we got to eat everyday. My favorite memories concern a fantastically oily and delicious farinata (a simple triumph of chickpea flour and olive oil), the soft and sweet donuts filled with pastry cream called bomboloni, and the torta di riso alla Carrarina, a custardy rice cake infused with rum that I would savor in slow, meditative bites in a state of generalized gratefulness. 

It is this rice cake that my mother and I decided to prepare a few weeks ago. We used the recipe from our relatives in Tuscany and we set to work right away, following the original recipe to the letter in excited and deferential expectation. Two hours later we were both kneeling in complete awe before the most beautiful and perfumed cake we had ever baked in our lives. The top of the cake was perfectly caramelized, almost brûlée, and smelled of rum and lemon and vanilla like a mythical Arcadian paradise. We then tentatively tasted it, and there it was, the wonderful physical manifestation of my childhood's torta di riso in all of its starchy, custardy, and boozy glory. The rice worked as a soft crust, and above it was the perfectly firm custard that gently yielded to the pressure of our spoons. It was a complete success, with a touch of divine apparition.

But as much as this success made me proud, there is the dark side of this story. A week later, I decided to make the rice cake again for friends, and I had the gumption to add my "personal touch" by cutting the original amount of sugar and substituting rum with bourbon. I mixed the ingredients quickly, distractedly, arrogantly–leaving some unbroken lumps of egg white in the custard ("It'll work fine"), and threw the cake into the oven. When it finally came out, an unsettling feeling grabbed the pit of my stomach, telling me that the gods of Italian food had decided to punish my insolence. The surface was not as caramelized as the first time, and the lumps of egg white had solidified independently into an unappealing reminder of scrambled eggs. When I finally tasted the cake (in the company of my guests, no less), I had to admit to myself with great shame that the bourbon was almost undetectable, and that the lack of sugar had allowed the eggs to dominate in flavor. It was a half sweet, eggy frittata with a base of lumpy rice, a grotesque imitation that filled me with shame and my guests with useless cholesterol.

I apologized to my friends and family for the botched rice cake, and then closed myself into my confessional pantry—my altar to Italian food—and promised to never again take lazy initiatives with perfect Italian classics. No rash substitutions, no presumptuous subtractions, no distractions. Just humble, grateful respect. And you, reader, should do the same.

Read about another of my baking fails in Happy Easter, Bitter Memories.
Torta di riso alla Carrarina - Tuscan rice cake with rum and custard
A slice of the good torta di riso.


1/2 C short-grain white rice (Arborio or Carnaroli, but I used sushi rice and it worked fine)
5 eggs
1 1/4 C sugar + a tbsp for dusting the pan
1 tsp vanilla extract
1 lemon (zest and juice)
2 C whole milk
1/3 C rum
a pinch of salt

  • Cook the rice in 2 cups of lightly-salted water for no more than 10 minutes. Rice should be al dente. 
  • Drain the rice and let cool.
  • Preheat the oven to 350 F.
  • Butter a 10'' cake mold and dust it with sugar.
  • In a large bowl, mix together the eggs, sugar, lemon zest and juice, milk, and rum. Use a spoon for this, and make sure all of the egg white is broken to avoid a scrambled-egg top (no big lumps, just very small patches).
  • Add the rice to the mix. It will be very liquid.
  • Pour the mixture into the cake mold.
  • Carefully transfer the cake into the oven, and bake for one hour, or until custard has set and looks brûlée like in the picture above (do not skip the browning!). If you're using a glass mold, it will take you up to 90 minutes.
Serve cake lukewarm or at room temperature, or the next day (it really shines after resting for a bit).