It’s Mush Damn It

Originally Published in 2015

“In 1492 Columbus sailed the ocean blue…” so they told us in school. What slipped past some history teachers was the return voyage to Spain.  I guess once you have supposedly discovered something comin’ home makes no difference to anyone, especially those same history teachers.

Now don’t get your knickers in a wad I’m not saying all people with Ph.D.’s in history are nuts. Just some of them. Why several of my friends have a Ph.D. in history and they are not nuts… Now, what makes the Columbus voyage home so important? Why boys and girls it was what was in the cargo hold of those ships. Corn, that’s right CORN.  Until then Europe and in particular that country called Italy had never heard of corn.   That by the way was in the early to mid-1500. It still took them a few years to figure out just what to do with corn.

Corn was originally grown in the mountainous region of the northern part of Italy. Yea, I know who knew there was an Italian hillbilly. I guess I will have to leave that for another time. I have far more important issues to deal with.

Someone in one of those mountain hamlets decided to make a favorite Italian dish called Polenta.  Traditionally Polenta is made with ground Barley, linseeds, coriander, and sufficient salt. That is according to Pliny but Apicius, y’all remember him and the fried chicken don’t ya. Well, Apicius stuck his big nose in it the debate and altered the recipe to wheat flour served with honey.

Back to the mountains of Northern Italy. Someone, a Yankee at that decided to use cornmeal and had the nerve to call the final product Polenta.  I am certain that more than one Native American was not happy over that. Why, because Mush, is Native American, made the same way as the traditional Polenta, but with cornmeal same cooking time, in fact, the same everything.

My response to this and to all those T.V. Chefs who insist they are right and the rest of us are wrong is NO. Not just NO but HELL NO, that’s not POLENTA. It’s MUSH damn it.

To prove my point I will give you my grandmothers mush recipe:

Mush

3/4 cup – cold water (177.5 ml)

3 cups boiling water (709.8 ml)

1 cup – cornmeal (236.6 ml)

1 tsp – salt   (4.93 ml)

First, make a paste with cold water and cornmeal/salt mixture, then stir in boiling water. Continue to cook (stirring often) over low heat for about 20 minutes, then pour into a small loaf pan and chill thoroughly in the refrigerator, until the mush is set. Slice thinly (about 1/2 inch slices) and fry in oil until crispy brown. (We used lard to fry them in but in today’s world, you may use whatever floats your boat.)

Options:

If you have Cracklin’s, that’s the way I remember it but if you have crispy bacon or some dried fruit layin’ around then by all means toss a handful in after the cookin’ is done.

You can serve hot with eggs and bacon or with syrup or sausage gravy, but my favorite is apple butter, preferably homemade.

Now if you see one of those celebrity chefs and you know who they are use this recipe and call it Polenta you can do two things… Scream at the T. V “NO” and then write a proper and polite little note telling them that what they made is Mush. It is of course your Southern duty.

Olive

Below is the original from that Apicius fellow I have been fighting with.

Fried Cream Wheat from the Ancient Romans

Accipies similam, coques in aqua calida ita ut durrissimam pultem facias, deinde in patellam expandis.  Cum refrizerit, concidis quasi culdia et frigis in oleo optimo.  Levas, perfundis mel, piper aspergis et inferes.  Melius feceris, si lac pro aqua miseris.

Take flour [semolina], cook in hot water so that it becomes a very firm polenta, and then spread it on a plate.  When it has cooled, cut it as for sweet cakes and fry in oil of the finest quality.  Remove, pour honey over, sprinkle with pepper, and serve.  You will do even better if you use milk instead of water.

The De re coquinaria of Apicius as found in A Taste of Ancient Rome, by Ilaria Gozzini Giacosa, Translated by Anna Herkolotz

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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To add or not to add? That is the question. Is it proper tiramisu if you don’t …

At the top of an almost-mountain in Umbria in a small but beautiful hotel with fabulous views, surrounded by olive groves (but not one olive served in the hotel!) a little contretemps broke out in one of the cooking classes. Chef insisted that tiramisu, in Italy, does NOT include alcohol.
Sacred blue!
Reluctant to describe memorable encounters with said ‘cake’ in Rome (brandy), Venice (brandy), Sorrento (Marsala), in an Italian boyfriend’s home (long ago – his mother came from Rome and used Marsala – Marsala all’uovo – which was swoon-worthy), I determined to investigate …
Enter Apicus, The Roman Cookery Book. No mention of tiramisu. Suggestions for sauces to serve with sterile wombs offered under ‘Gourmet’ did little to tempt … but no coffee and chocolate confections.
Next stop, Buon Appetito, Your Holiness. The Secrets of the Papal Table. Surely I’d find the true history of the national treasure there. But no – although the old-style pecorino and walnut pie is on the hit list. And soon. Sounds wonderful.
Gino D’Acampo, author of umpteen Italian food books, reassured readers in fantastico! that the claim made by the French to have invented tiramisu ‘is rubbish. Tiramisu is the ultimate Italian dessert’. Phew.
That gorgeous book, written and illustrated by Sally Spector, Venice and Food – a feast for the eyes as well as the tum – advised that the dessert ‘is not “Venetian” and is quite a recent creation’.
A whirl round Google provided much conflicting information. I had always understood that tiramisu was created in honour of Grand Duke Cosimo III, in Sienna, towards the end of the seventeenth century. This is hotly disputed by the frontrunner, “Le Beccherie” a restaurant in Treviso, Veneto, Italy, which gives the 1960s as the first appearance in restaurants. Meanwhile, food writers Clara and Gigi Padovani, found recipes from the 1950s, for a dessert called “tirime su”, concocted by Chef Mario Cosolo in San Canzian D’Isonzo, near the border with Slovenia.
Bet that went down like cold lumpy gravy.
I also learned that the recipe for tiramisu may have originated as a variation of the dessert Zuppa Inglese, English Trifle, beloved at Christmas and all family get-togethers and loaded with sweet sherry.
So, after trawling numerous books and websites, does tiramisu have alcohol?
Tiramisu is believed by Italians to have aphrodisiac qualities, not surprising given another history of this delectable dessert. Invented inside the brothels in lovely Treviso, renowned for its relaxed mores, attitudes and pleasure-seeking inhabitants, tiramisu literally means “pick me up, lift me up”, or, more literally, “pull it up”. Local dialect offers two more meanings: “carnage” and “cuckold’s lair”. Until 1958 when brothels were closed by the government, the cake was served for centuries to bolster flagging clients throughout taxing ‘conferences’(hah!) to keep them going and the money coming.
This restorative concoction was known as ‘sbatudìn’ and visiting these houses of pleasure was regarded as part of the local colour – Anyone Who Was Anyone was seen there. Those not seen there – gentlemen, merchants, VIPs – were definitely not part of the in-crowd. These gentlemen took to contributing some of the ingredients on the day the brothels were closed, according to their profession or access – coffee, biscuits, cream cheese, chocolate. The ladies and their guests would lunch together and then get down to business … with lots of tiramisu on the side to fortify them.
Happily, after the gentlemen’s clubs were closed, the owners of Le Beccherie rescued and perfected the recipe and to serve it to patrons to this day – probably in smaller quantities! Its effects might be embarrassing after a languorous lunch.
This confection of mascarpone, biscuits, coffee, chocolate, sugar and cream is purported to be given to babies (boys) by Italian mothers to ensure they will grow up to be strong and manly. Small wonder Italian men are regarded as the best lovers.
The dessert is simplicity itself – dip ladies fingers biscuits (langue du chat) in strong coffee (FRESH coffee. Not that coffee-flavoured cardboard sold as instant granules) to moisten. Beat mascarpone – do find a good one, had some awful stuff from a supermarket recently – waxy and tasteless – and cream together, add sugar or honey to taste, and layer the biscuits and cheese mix, ending with cheese. Sprinkle with grated chocolate – again, use a good quality chocolate or chocolate powder. Chill.
If you are feeling more adventurous, you could make zabaglione instead of the cream and cheese. It is delicious and worth the effort. Or use both! Best ever zabaglione is to be had in La Mama restaurant in Johannesburg. Julio creates a truly magical custard – how I miss dining there!
The booze? Your choice but I add Marsala, Marsala all’uovo if I can get it. Lots. But Madeira, rum, brandy, Amaretto or coffee liquor are also acceptable. Frangelico is delicious too!
It rather comforting to know that English trifle (Zuppa Inglese – English soup) was possibly the inspiration for tiramisu. I am sure this will be a great aid to the smooth passage of Brexit – The Great British Break Off.
References
Apicus, The Roman Cookery Book. Harrap, London.
Buon Appetito, Your Holiness. The Secrets of the Papal Table – Mariangela Rinaldi and Mariangela Vicini. Pan Books.
fantastico! – Gino D’Acampo. Kyle Cathie Ltd.
Venice and Food – Sally Specter. Arsenale Editore, SRL. EBS – Editoriale Bortolazzi Stei
www.news.com.au/lifestyle/food/eat
www.telegraph.co.uk/news/2016/05/17/italian-regions-battle-over-who-invented-tiramisu

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