A friend who, bless her heart, bought seven copies of my cookbook for holiday gifts wanted to tuck in some Italian ingredients that could be used in the recipes. She’d already settled on little packets of pistachios, almonds and pine nuts, but asked for other ideas. I suggested some other go-withs that are easily shipped: tins of Italian anchovies or tuna, small packets of dried porcini, dried artisanal pasta and beans, farro, Sicilian sea salt, dried herbs (e.g., branches of Mediterranean oregano) and spices (e.g., saffron).
With or without a cookbook, there’s no finer gift than a bottle of freshly pressed olive oil. Two I can vouch for are Frescobaldi Laudemio from Tuscany, and Olio Verde Novello from Sicily, both imported by Manicaretti, which is also promoting tempting jars of Savini Tartufi, black truffles from Tuscany. There’s plenty of under-$20 panettone around but all too often this billowy holiday sweet is dry and disappointing. In hopes of doing better, I’m pondering whether to spring for Chef Luigi Biasetto’s $70 rendition, which importer Gustiamo swears is worth every penny.
Going back to the idea of pairing an Italian cookbook with a food contained therein, why not make one of the recipes and give to someone you love? My mother-in-law Helen used to make biscotti from Carol Field’s Italian Baker (a new edition of this classic is just out) to package in a pretty way for friends. I can vouch for the lemony carrot marmellata I learned to make years ago from innkeeper Maria Pellizzari; spoon it into half-pint jars with a “From the kitchen of” label. That recipe is in Piatto Unico, along with my recipe for taralli. A crunchy, assertively seasoned cocktail snack that keeps well, taralli could be given with a bottle of Punt e Mes or any worthy Italian wine.
Taralli with Black Pepper and Fennel Seed
Makes about 3 dozen
1 teaspoon dry yeast
1 pound unbleached all-purpose flour (about 3 ½ cups), plus more if needed
1/3 cup extra virgin olive oil, plus more as needed
1/3 cup dry white wine
1 1/2 teaspoons sea salt or kosher salt
1 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
1 tablespoon whole or crushed fennel seed or anise seed, or a combination
1. Combine the yeast with ½ cup warm water (110°F to 115°F) in a liquid measuring cup. Let stand for a few minutes, until a beige scum forms on top.
2. Meanwhile, combine the flour, olive oil and wine in a mixing bowl. Using an electric mixer fitted with a paddle, mix over low speed until well blended. Add the salt, pepper, and fennel seed, and mix briefly until blended.
3. Add the yeast mixture and, on low speed, mix until a dough forms. On a pastry board or other smooth surface dusted with flour, knead the dough briefly and form a ball. Coat a medium bowl lightly with olive oil; turn the dough to coat and let rest, covered, until more or less doubled in size, about 2 hours.
4. Preheat the oven to 400°F. Divide the dough in half. Flatten one piece to form a rectangle, and tightly roll from one long side to the other. Roll with both hands, working from the center outwards, to make a thick rope about 1 ½ inches in diameter and 12 inches long. With a dough scraper or knife, cut crosswise at 1/2 –inch intervals. Roll each piece to make a skinny rope about 7 inches. Loop it to make an oval shape with one end crossing the other. Press firmly with your thumb to make an indentation at the point where the ends intersect (see Note). Repeat with the rest of the dough, lining up the taralli on 2 trays or rimmed baking sheets.
5. Bring a medium saucepan about two-thirds full of water to a simmer. Drop in 8 taralli; line the space freed up on the baking sheet with a clean dish towel. Simmer for a few seconds until the taralli rise to the surface; scoop out with a slotted spoon and lay on the dish towel. Simmer the rest of the taralli in the same way, unfolding the dish towel into the freed-up space and returning the taralli to dry until moist but not slimy to the touch.
6. . Lightly oil 2 baking sheets. Arrange the taralli about 1 inch apart. Bake on center racks for half an hour. Turn the taralli and return to the oven (switching the position of the pans). Bake 20 to 30 minutes longer until browned and crisp; cover with aluminum foil or parchment paper if they seem in danger of burning.
7. Cool the taralli on racks and store at room temperature in sealed containers; they can also be frozen.