Life under lockdown and a Neapolitan recipe for Easter

It’s funny how life can suddenly change. School runs. Meetups with Miss C’s preschool classmates and their mums at the local playground. Walks to Parco Ruffini to lose the pregnancy weight and to put the younger Miss C, now a bouncing baby of 10 1/2 months to sleep. Metro rides to after school dance lessons. Coffee and lunch dates with friends. Dinners at local restaurants. Appointments at the hairdresser and beauty salon. Weekends away in the countryside. Commutes on public transport to get to work on the other side of the city. Food shopping at the market in Corso Brunelleschi. Dry goods shopping in the neighbourhood supermarkets. Enjoying a morning cappuccino, brioche and pleasant chit chat with the owners at my local cafe-patisserie. Exchanging recipe notes with my macellaio di fiducia or ‘trusted butcher’. It all seems like a distance memory now.

Like many people here, it took a while for me to take on the gravity of the public health situation. I remember watching the television in disbelief on Sunday 23rd February as the regional authorities announced the closure of all schools and day care centres for the entire week. Appalled by reports on attacks on Chinese members of the community and bemused by the panic buying of hand sanitisers and masks at pharmacies and pantry staples at the supermarket, I was determined that life would continue to go on as normally as possible.

I took my girls to the park. I didn’t hesitate to let them play with the other bored kids there. I chatted with their exhausted mothers and grandparents about how we couldn’t wait for the schools and day care centres to reopen. We stopped by our local cafe for a brioche where it was impossible to maintain a metre’s distance from anyone. My family and I even met up with a group of friends at a favourite agriturismo of ours in Cocconato d’Asti for Sunday lunch in late February and made a booking for the younger Miss C’s baptism in April. We kissed hello and goodbye as we always had and looked forward to seeing each other at the same location for the upcoming baptism.

But, as boredom set in, not to mention, alarm at the increasing infection rate and death toll from the virus, I began reading books about past pandemics and epidemiology. I kept myself up-to-date with the latest reports from the World Health Organization and the local and international press. Much of what I read seemed to suggest that the public health consequences could be catastrophic if strict measures to contain the virus weren’t adopted. I began to understand why the very inconvenient school closures were warranted.

I politely declined invitations to meet with people I would not have hesitated to accept previously. I restricted my grocery shopping trips to the bare minimum. I gradually accepted that my brisk walks to the park would have to come to an end simply because some of the people out and about weren’t as conscientious about maintaining a safe distance as others. Out of concerns for their health, TP and I stopped making trips to see his elderly parents. We gave them strict orders to stay safe and at home, reassuring them that we were only a phone call away. TP started taking steps to work from home. We made a phone call to the priest who had scheduled the younger Miss C’s baptism for late April. With the ban on church masses, baptisms, marriages and funerals in the region, we quickly came to a mutual agreement that that event would have to be postponed. Then, on the evening of 9th March, came Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte’s decree, expanding the quarantine of the red zone in northern Italy to the entire country until the 3rd April (now extended until 3rd May).

After a month of lockdown, the new ‘normal’ has become routine at our home. TP or I (only one person per household is allowed out at a time) will only venture out,  if strictly necessary, to buy medicines at the pharmacy around the corner from our home, for example. Instead of going to the butcher and discussing the finer points of cooking vitello tonnato for half an hour with my butcher like I used to, I simply send him a message on WhatsApp with my meat order for the week and send TP to pick up our package on a designated day and time. We prefer to have our groceries delivered from one of the local supermarkets for the time being too. For the moment, we’ll make do without the market.

The elder Miss C and I keep busy with the activities her teachers post on her online virtual classroom and the household chores she loves ‘helping’ her mother with. Then there’s keeping the extremely mobile younger Miss C amused and safe as we go about our day. Though he is busy with work during the week, TP is flexible enough to lend a hand with the girls, cleaning up after mealtime, nappy changing and even participating in conference calls with the girls in his lap whenever I need a breather. With all his colleagues in the same boat too, no one will complain, he points out.

Now that the weather has taken a warmer and sunnier turn, we spend as much time as possible on our balcony. Painting, drawing, cutting and gluing, the elder Miss C does all this at the little plastic Ikea table we’ve set up for her there, while her younger sister looks on in curious delight from her high chair. She’s even come up with the idea of having lunch here. It’s a bit of a tight squeeze around that tiny table of hers but our lockdown balcony lunches are fast becoming the highlight of our long, homebound days.

I know I’m in a relatively lucky position. Though I had just returned to work and was disappointed when that came to a screeching halt in late February, I can get away with minimal income for the time being, in great part because TP is the main breadwinner in our household and is able to continue working. Other freelancers and small business owners, I realise, may not be so fortunate. Unlike some overstretched parents juggling ‘smart-working’ (the Italian term for working from home) and the responsibilities that come with attending to their children’s schooling, I also have the time to help the elder Miss C with her school work. And while I’m on the subject of school work, let’s just say I’m relieved that Miss C is in the final year of scuola materna or preschool. At least it’s painting Cubist portraits, making Easter bunnies and learning beautiful songs like this one that I get to help with, and not algebra exercises or end-of-school exam preparation.

There is the odd petty squabble from being continually in each other’s company. But, for the most part, we are happy to be together all day, every day. Despite the five year age gap, the two Miss Cs just adore one another. They’re also delighted to have their father around, even if he is in work mode and they’d rather he played hide and seek with them when he needs to write emails or reports. I’m sure, however, that being stuck at home is hardly ideal for many people in the long run. Those of us in a precarious work situation may be very worried about what the future holds. Those of us living alone or in self-isolation due to exposure to COVID-19 may feel the solitude. Those of us in bad company may very well be unsafe. So, I don’t want to sugar-coat this lockdown situation at all. This is no holiday and I can’t think of anyone whose life has not been turned upside down by the quarantine of the country.

On a personal level, however, I have come to appreciate one thing about life as we know it coming to a halt. One is that time, precious time, suddenly seems infinite now. I may not be able to teach English or cooking face to face for the time being but I have all the time in the world to be creative again in the kitchen. And that has led to my first blog post in over a year and a renewed desire to cook, write and photograph like I used to. Well, with two children to take care of now, and other refound personal priorities such as reading for pleasure, health and fitness, maybe not quite on the same scale as before. But I’ll settle for the odd blog post whenever I feel inspired to share a recipe or food story from my kitchen here in Turin. I’ve missed you all.

Casatiello napoletano

The dried and fresh yeasts I used to easily buy at the local supermarket no longer seem to be available from the supermarket online so I’ve had to resort to rationing what I have left. Fellow culinary-minded friends who still go to the supermarket have also reported supply issues to me with this key ingredient. This apparent shortage has led to some experimenting with long, slow leavening of yeasted doughs on my part at home. With time and basically everything at a standstill, what could be better than experimenting with taking things slow in the kitchen?

One of those yeasted doughs I’ve been preparing lately includes a rich Easter bread from one of my favourite culinary regions in Italy, Campania. Danubio napoletano, gnocchi alla sorrentina, ziti alla genovese di cipolle, gattò di patate, pastiera and babà al rhum are just some of the decadent dishes I’ve come to love hailing from the southern Italian region. Cheese and salami-filled Casatiello, is no exception to the rich and decadent rule. After the ascetic period of Lent, Neapolitans break the fast with iconic, ring-shaped Casatiello. Distinct for the eggs encased in crosses into its top crust – symbolic of the resurrection – this savoury, fat-enrichened delight is traditionally served as an antipasto for Easter Sunday lunch or as next-day leftovers for the traditional Pasquetta or Easter Monday picnic.

For obvious reasons, our usual Easter Sunday lunch will be strictly limited to household members. We’ll have to make do with phone and video calls to other loved ones who would normally be with us in person. As for our annual picnic in the countryside on Easter Monday, we’ll happily settle for the balcony of our flat here in Turin. We’re determined though to have the best possible Easter under the circumstances, and this bread will be a part of our intimate, albeit quarantined, celebrations.

With regards to the recipe below, inspired by those of Katie Parla, Roberto Di Pinto and Luciano Pignataro, do feel to make it your own. There really are as many variations for making Casatiello as there are Neapolitan households. The basic filling consists of cubed Provolone and cured Neapolitan salami, but there are others which include even more pork like cubed ham, pancetta and ciccioli. If you don’t have provolone, an aged or smoked scamorza works well too. TP wouldn’t let me use strutto or lard, the traditional fat for enrichening the dough, but I obtained good results using the olive oil I’ve indicated below too. Butter is also a good substitute. Oh, and unless you really hate it, don’t skimp on the pepper! It really is one of the defining ingredients of this showstopping bread.

As for method, this can vary as well. I’ve opted for the simplicity of Neapolitan chef Di Pinto’s, who simply adds the cubed cheese and salami to the dough, shapes it roughly into a log and then places it into a bundt cake tin (his video on Giallo Zafferano is in Italian but very instructive, should you wish to watch it). If, however, you’d like to try your hand at another technique which encloses the cheese and salami filling, you may wish to consult the recipes of Katie Parla and Luciano Pignataro. Both their recipes are accompanied by photos demonstrating the procedure.

Wishing you all a safe and healthy Easter at home with your loved ones.

Ingredients

  • 330 g water, tepid
  • 5 g sugar
  • just enough fresh or dried yeast for a long, overnight rise*
  • 60g extra virgin olive oil
  • 600 g flour (I used a mix of strong bread flour and a coarsely stonemilled tipo 2)
  • 12 g salt
  • 1 g freshly ground black pepper
  • 150 g cured salami, cubed
  • 150 g ham, cubed
  • 150 g Provolone or Scamorza cheese, cubed
  • 4 eggs

Method

Pour water into a large bowl and add yeast and sugar. Stir and leave to sit until the yeast dissolves and foam rises to the surface . Add the olive oil and add the flour in steady stream, using a fork to bring the flour and liquid together into a rough dough. Cover with a tea-towel and leave to sit for 10 minutes. Transfer dough to clean and lightly-dusted work surface. Add salt and knead until dough is smooth and elastic. Roll into a ball, score the dough with a cross on top and place in a large, clean bowl. Cover with a tea-towel and leave to rise overnight away from cool draughts. It will have almost tripled in size.

Grease and dust a 24 – 28 cm bundt cake tin. Deflate the dough carefully. Transfer to clean, lightly dusted work surface and knead. If making egg cages, remove 60 g of the dough and set aside. Gradually add the freshly ground black pepper, cubed salami, ham and cheese to the remaining dough and knead until evenly distributed throughout. Roll the dough into a log long enough to fill the bundt cake tin. Fit the log snugly inside with a gentle push and bring the ends together to form a seal. If using, place the eggs on top of the log, equally distanced apart in a vertical position. Very gently press them into the dough. Roll the reserved 60 g of dough into 8 equally-sized strands. Use these strands to form cross-shaped cages around the eggs. Seal the ends of the strands onto the log. Cover with a tea-towel and set aside to prove for 2 hours or until almost doubled in size.

Preheat the oven to 170°C. Place the proved Casatiello on the bottom floor of the oven and bake for 65 to 75 minutes or until you hear a hollow sound when tapping the golden brown top.

Allow to cool completely before carefully unmoulding and slicing. Serve at room temperature or lightly toasted as part of an Easter Sunday antipasto or for an outdoor picnic lunch on Easter Monday.

Buon appetito e buona pasqua!

* I’m reluctant to indicate the precise amount you’ll need to use because the yeast I’m currently using – a dried yeast made with an organic spelt sourdough and a relatively small amount of brewer’s yeast – may be different to what you have on hand in your kitchen. Basically, to get an almost tripled rise in two hours, I need to use 100 g of the yeast for every 500 g of flour. I need about 25 g to get the same results overnight or in about eight hours. You’ll need to read the instructions of your yeast carefully and do the maths. 

Coming out of lockdown and a recipe for pasta with peas

In the past couple of weeks, Italy has been taking baby steps towards some semblance of normality. Provided we wear masks, we can now venture outside our homes to go for a jog, take our…

2020-05-20

Italian pantry staples and a recipe for spaghetti alla puttanesca

I used to be quite an impulsive food shopper at my local market in Corso Brunelleschi, attracted by all that was rare and unusual. Perhaps the most extreme example comes from one Saturday morning almost…

2020-04-29

2 comments

Leave a Reply to Bryony Cancel reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *