Cooking With Italian Grandmothers: A Conversation With Jessica Theroux

Bay Area chef and teacher, Jessica Theroux spent a year traveling throughout Italy, cooking and talking with Italian grandmothers from whom she learned the true art of food, family, and love. Her new cookbook/travelogue, Cooking with Italian Grandmothers, features over 100 delicious recipes, stunning photography, and the poignant stories of 12 grandmothers from nine regions, each of whom welcomed Theroux into her kitchen to share their wisdom and a soulful meal. Along the way, she meets Armida in Lunigiana and her Pasta di Farro with walnut-parsley sauce; Maria in Sicily and her homemade Ricotta; and Usha’s dense, flaky hazelnut roll in Le Marche. I recently had the pleasure of speaking to Theroux about her journey and how Italy’s grandmothers profoundly changed much more than her approach to cooking.

You weave a beautiful story not just of cooking, but of the importance of listening, paying close care and attention, and also the wisdom of our elders. What inspired you to write this book?

I was inspired by my beloved Grandmother Honey, to whom the book is dedicated, and who shaped me. She was a friend and companion. I grew up interested in the stories of an older generation; there is a lot wisdom to be shared, being engaged with older people lends itself to something very rich and deep. Honey would make me her wonderful Irish bacon cabbage when I would visit her each summer. That dish held for me the mystery of my Irish ancestors; it was both romantic and satisfying at once—and it had lots of black pepper! In the same way, I fell in love with cooking with these women. They shared a lifetime of experience, passed through the memory of food. Being with them embodied everything I know about food, socially-politically, culturally. At end of the day, people in Italy gather around the table and eat food cooked by their grandmothers. The year taught me so much: about pleasure and history, the centrality of place to food, and our relationship to the land, family, and our larger community.

You mention in the book that you started cooking because of a serious illness. What role has food played in your well-being?

At a young age, I had intense digestive problems and was hospitalized. I was told I would have to take medicine for the rest of my life. Within a year, I started seeing a nutritionist/herbalist and through healing foods and herbs, weaned myself off the medicine. I had to learn to cook for myself by the time I was 10, so from an early age, food became something which with I was engaged. Food became my medicine. The food I ate then to heal myself is different than what I eat today and I’ve learned through my journey that coming into better health is about listening to the body and what it needs and that constantly evolves.

How did this journey change your cooking?

I learned to cook in a way that was almost completely dependent on what was available from the local land, farmers, and fishermen. This fostered an intuitive approach to cooking, and a kind of creativity that is born from restriction. It also meant that my eating has become very seasonal, and as a result I have felt more deeply connected to the rhythms of my local environment.

You grew in London and now live in the Bay Area. What’s your experience of our food culture?

London was a grim place for food. Things were not fresh or nuanced in any way. My mother is American and she would make homemade cakes, so I learned how to bake from her and I was a pastry chef for a while. Her lessons served me really well: Making cake is a great skill. Now that I live here, I am excited by the vibrant Bay Area food culture. I live in Berkeley and love the Tuesday farmers’ market and I love to eat at Boulettes Larder—I cooked there for a bit—I like to go to places where I know the chefs and I love to see how people cook. It can be challenging being here, though, because while we have so much, there’s still so much work to be done in the rest of the country.

What does the future hold for you?

I would love to work with kids and food and health in a pleasurable way. Perhaps write a book for children about food or work on a project focusing on food and school garden programs. I love working with kids because once you teach them about food, they retain those lessons forever.

Usha’s Hazelnut Roll
From: Cooking with Italian Grandmothers

This hazelnut roll changed my life. Upon first bite, it revealed itself to be the nuttiest, flakiest, most comforting baked good I have ever eaten….It marked the beginning of my learning about how love can transform food and cooking, and it remains one of my favorite things to eat. I find a slice of this roll to be quite perfect for breakfast, with tea or coffee midafternoon, or as an after-dinner dessert. The roll is rich and dense, and will easily feed many, making it an ideal treat for a large group.

For the dough:
10 1/2 ounces all-purpose flour
2 teaspoons baking powder
10 tablespoons (1 1/4 sticks) frozen unsalted butter
1/2 cup sugar
1 egg
2 tablespoons milk, water, or cream
1/2 teaspoon vanilla extract
For the hazelnut filling:
2 egg whites
1 egg yolk
6 tablespoons water
3/4 cup sugar
4-5 drops bitter almost extract, or 3 bitter almonds (optional)
2 cups toasted hazelnuts, finely chopped or ground into rough pieces

For the glaze:
1 egg yolk
1 teaspoon milk

Preheat the oven to 385 degrees F, and line a baking sheet with parchment paper.
To prepare the pastry dough, mix together the flour and baking powder, and place them in a mound on a clean surface. Cut the frozen butter first into thin slabs, then long rectangles, and finally into very small cubes, about 5 to 10 millimeters. It is easiest to do this if you coat the butter and knife with some of the flour; this prevents the knife from sticking too much. Spread the butter cubes around the periphery of the flour mound. Make a well in the center of the flour. Add the sugar, egg, milk, and vanilla extract to the well. Scramble these together using a fork, then slowly incorporate the surrounding flour, using the fork to stir it in. When the mixture becomes too thick for the fork, use a large knife to cut in the rest of the flour and butter. Continue cutting the dough together, remembering to scrape under and turn over the dough during this process. Do this for a couple of minutes, until the dough is in the form of large, crumbly lumps. Wash and flour your hands. Briefly knead the dough until it is no longer sticking strongly to the board. If the dough is wet, feel free to sprinkle on a little extra flour. Do not overknead. You still want to see the little pieces of butter in the dough; this will produce a flaky crust. Form the dough into a ball, wrap it in plastic, and refrigerate for 15 to 30 minutes. While the dough chills, make the hazelnut filling; Whisk together the egg whites, yolk, water, sugar, and bitter almond. Stir in the chopped toasted hazelnuts. After the dough has chilled, sprinkle 1 to 2 tablespoons of flour onto your work surface, to prevent the dough from sticking. Roll the dough out to form a large rectangle, about 2 feet long and 1 foot wide. Remember to scrape underneath  the dough, and flip it over a few times; sprinkle a little flour on the surface each time you do this, again to keep the dough from sticking. Spread the filling evenly over the dough, to about 1/2 inch from the edges. Roll the long side of the dough over itself, using a knife to scrape under the dough if it is sticking. Roll all of the dough to form a long log. Carefully transfer the log to the baking sheet, forming it into a half circle. Fold each end of the dough over itself, pressing it together to close. Using a knife, cut a zigzag along the top of the roll. Whisk together the egg yolk and teaspoon of milk; lightly brush this over the top of the roll. Bake for 40 to 45 minutes, until the roll is crispy and dark golden brown on top. Serve warm or cooled to room temperature.

Photo: Jessica Theroux

Originally published on InsideScoopSF

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