Being the only one in our apartment that a) isn't jet-lagged, and b) hasn't been awake all night long fixing and setting up our new HP Mini 5101 laptop, I bound out of bed this morning refreshed, full of energy, and ridiculously happy. Most everyone I care about is sleeping near me, and I have the entire apartment to myself, including the most important room—the KITCHEN!
Immediately I get to work, feeling peaceful, full of creativity, and effortlessly productive. Thanks to our grocery stopping excursion last night, I even have a fairly full pantry at my disposal!
First I start with a bowlful of plums that don't taste as good as they perhaps should. When I bite into one, all I taste a mealy disappointment. Like a mouse, I take small bites out of the others and find them all to be the same. I deem them inedible raw and decide they will just have to become a delicious jam! I chop the plums into small pieces and put them in a saucepan with lots of sugar, a pinch of salt, a bit of cinnamon, a squirt of lemon juice, and some drizzles of balsamic vinegar. I light up the gas stove and soon the concoction is bubbling away nicely, quickly metamorphosing from a fragmented mess into a brilliantly purple plum jam. I leave the pan over a medium flame, stirring occasionally while I start on my next project.
It is my dad's birthday today and he loves apple pie. Every time Tyler and I bake pie in our little oven, he always emails me, drooling over the photos. I set about making a pie crust, crumbling cold butter into a bowl of flour with my fingertips. Next I mix in a pinch of salt and a little sugar, then comes the ice water, a little bit at a time, until I can form the dough into a ball. I stick it in the fridge (I actually have a fridge!!) to chill. Searching around in the cupboards, I realize there is no pie pan in this kitchen. Undeterred, I run outside to the garage where our bikes are stowed and grab our mini pans from the cooking pannier. While I'm in there, I start a much-needed load of laundry before running back to my pie-making.
I take a few apples sitting nonchalantly in the fruit bowl on the dining room table and begin to slice them, tossing them into a saucepan as I go. Normally people don't cook their apples before baking them in a pie, but I am so used to doing it on our trip (so the crust doesn't burn before the apples are cooked) that I light the stove out of habit. Into the saucepan I throw a hunk of butter, a pinch of salt, some sugar, a squeeze of lemon, and lots of cinnamon. Some nutmeg, cloves, vanilla, and a bit of honey would be nice, but we don't have them. No matter, I am very used to making do. Slowly the apples cook down, their sugars and the butter becoming a sticky, cinnamony caramel sauce.
I take the dough out of the fridge, flour the table, and begin rolling out half of the dough with a drinking glass as there is no rolling pin. I line the mini pan with my flat(ish) disc of dough and pour in some apple mixture. I wet the edge of the dough before laying another flat disk on top and squishing the edges together. I trim the overlap, make a quick fluted edge, whisk up an egg in a bit of water to glaze the top, cut little vent holes, and pop it in the oven. There are more apples and dough so I make a quick pie for Tyler to thank him for all of his hard work on my new laptop (we're doing so much writing on this trip we decided to get another!).
In the midst of pie-making, I check on the jam. It is thickening up nicely, but it needs more acid to really change from cooked fruit to a jam. I add more balsamic vinegar and it really does the trick. It tastes divine and I spoon it into a cup, getting it ready for the breakfast table.
Still no one is awake. Taking advantage of my alone time and my own personal kitchen, I set about making a spinach and ricotta filling for the homemade pasta we're going to make later. First, I chop endless amounts of garlic. In a giant skillet I sautée the garlic and some chopped onion in Mezzapiaggia olive oil, then add spinach bit by bit, waiting for it to wilt creating more space in the pan before adding more. Finally all the spinach fits in the pan and I season it with salt and pepper, herbs and spices. Finally I fold in the deliciously creamy Mezzapiaggia ricotta cheese. It is the most delicious ricotta I have ever tasted. Store bought ricotta in the States has a weird mealy texture, but this was smooth on the tongue, thick, and creamy, though much firmer and fresher tasting than any cream cheese.
One by one my family members wake up. It is almost 1:30 in the afternoon! I think to myself that I should have woken them up for the good of their internal clocks but I got lost relishing my kitchen alone-time. Nevertheless, everyone is now awake and hungry!
Tyler joins in by making a crepe batter while my mom sets the table and my dad does my dishes. I start cooking crepes for everyone. It is amazing how much better they are when you have milk! Lian sets out my plum jam, but not before sticking his finger in it and exclaiming "damn, this plum s**t is good!" Yogurt, fruit, Mezzapiaggia apricot jam, and a little bit of leftover cooked-apple filling also grace the table.
Finally I'm done flipping crepes, but I realize that my mom doesn't eat wheat. I whip up a quick omelet for her (a tiny bit of baking powder makes it fluffy just like the restaurant kind—a trick we accidentally learned yesterday), filled with the spinach I cooked earlier and shavings of pecorino cheese, garnished with a fresh tomato and some salt and pepper. Food all prepared, we sit down and celebrate not only being together, but also my dad's birthday.
It is hours before we get up from the table. We have spent all afternoon talking together and hanging out and now it is time for dinner! Though my dad is fully prepared with several food options recommended by Rick Steves, we go visit Lidia, our host, to get her opinion. Looking at the guidebook, she frowns and says "wellllll they are okay, but you must try these." As she explains where to go, I take notes so we'd be able to find it. She gives us two options—one in the center of Siena and one in the countryside. We go for the one in the country.
After a twenty minute drive we manage to find "Osteria Bottega dell Abate". We had asked Lidia for somewhere simple and cheap, but pulling up to the beautifully lit villa, I have my doubts. It looks too beautiful to be cheap and homey! Of course Lidia was right, and we are greeted with a friendly welcome. The waiter ushers us in and makes room at a large table where three people are already eating. We introduce ourselves to our friendly neighbors, and in nearly perfect English, they help us decipher the menu.
Ceramic dishes, bottles of olive oil, and balsamic vinegar fill our table. We share the Antipasti del'Abate (various meats, roasted eggplant, and toasted Tuscan bread topped with tomatoes) before ordering the rest of our food. Gnocci with cream sauce, pici pasta with an indecipherable deliciousness, sweet caramelized onions, mini carrot tarts, creamy garlic spaghetti, and other treats come our way and we all share. By the time we start thinking about dessert, everyone but Tyler and I are too full to enjoy it. We both order chocolate torte and savor the brownie-like cake.
Full and satisfied, we bid goodbye to our Italian neighbors and file out to the car, stuffed. The air is cool and the night sky is lit by frequent lightning in the distance. Arriving at home we all fall instantly asleep, hoping to get enough rest before our early morning drive to Florence.