This month, I have the honor, together with nine other bloggers, of being a judge in a challenge that has a theme suited to the time of the year: If we think about January as the morning of the year, then breakfast is a perfect topic to consider during this month. All the details of the challenge are explained on this page, so I won't repeat them here. You have until Monday, January 30th to submit your entry according to the specifications laid out on the page referenced above. We are looking forward to reading about breakfast traditions from around the world. As a judge, I won't participate, but I am presenting a recipe to go with the announcement. But first a few words about the Italian breakfast par excellence.
Italy has given to the world the best breakfast: cappuccino. In other words, cappuccino makes the best breakfast of the world. I know I am making a rather broad statement, but I stand by it. Un cappuccino prepared come si deve (as it must be prepared) makes a perfect breakfast and does not need any accompaniment. The latter statement is my personal opinion and preference: many people in Italy eat something while sipping their cappuccino, usually a pastry, whose name depends on where you are. For example, cappuccio e brioche in Milan correspond to cappuccino e cornetto in Rome. If I close my eyes I can taste a warm cornetto in Rome, crispy outside, soft inside (but not as buttery as the French croissant). Other pastries are available in the bar (coffee bar), where the breakfast I am describing usually occurs. One can also purchase something for a mid-morning snack at a bakery, like a piece of pizza or focaccia. And if you are like my father, panzanella is your ideal breakfast.
Many Italians like to eat their breakfast after leaving home. As a child, my mother gave us breakfast before we went to school, usually a slice of bread with homemade jam (pane e marmellata), sometimes biscotti (photo above) and always a cup of caffelatte. We never had anything cooked. Having breakfast as a family was a once-a-year event that occurred only on Easter Sunday. That breakfast comprised traditional foods and was a ritual more than a meal. My current breakfast habits are very Italian, in the sense that I cannot eat anything early in the morning and my first meal of the day is actually a mid-morning snack made up of fruit.
Back to Italy, when we settled on the theme for the challenge, I had no doubts about what I would talk about, because there is a breakfast treat from my childhood that I had been wanting to describe for some time: uovo sbattuto (beaten egg). It was my Sunday breakfast when we had fresh eggs from friends or relatives that raised chickens. I am talking about what are now called pastured eggs. (Disclaimer: I am about to describe the use of raw eggs. I am not hereby suggesting or advocating the consumption of raw eggs: such course of action is a choice you may want to make and take responsibility for, or you may prefer to avoid.)
After obtaining permission to make myself a uovo sbattuto for breakfast, the breaking of the egg and separation of yolk and white occurred, first done by my mother, then, when I was a bit older and could be trusted with this potentially disastrous operation, by myself. The big difference between my mother and me was that I had learned to keep a bit of the egg white (albume) together with the yolk (tuorlo) for better result. The rest of the white was set aside for use in frittata.
I had my own mug for caffelatte that had a handle, which made holding the cup while beating the egg more comfortable. To the egg yolk plus a bit of the white I added 2 small spoons of sugar, which correspond roughly to a measured tablespoon. Then, using the same small spoon, I would vigorously mix the egg and sugar until light and bubbly. The vigorous movement amounted to beating even though I did not use an eggbeater. Part of the fascination of this ritual was that my breakfast was slowly taking shape in front of my eyes.
When I was satisfied with the look of the creamy mix, I would eat it by the spoonful, but not the whole of it. I guess I had to have some milk, so half a cup of that ingredient, warmed up, was added after I had eaten half of the cream. The result was a bit foamy, slightly egg-y and sweet: a very nice drink. When I was older, I changed the last part. I cannot remember whether my aunt Lucia had anything to do with me trying to add a splash of coffee instead of milk, but when I did it, it was a revelation and there was no going back to milk. This version was not as liquid as the one with milk so I ate it with the small spoon instead of drinking it.
Discussing breakfast was not common with my friends when I was a child, so I don't know how many of them shared my passion for uovo sbattuto, but a while ago, I read this interesting paragraph in La scienza in cucina e l'arte di mangiare bene (The Science of Cooking and the Art of Eating Well) by Pellegrino Artusi, the seminal Italian cookbook first published in 1891. The book has been translated into English and you can take a look at some of it on google books. Recipe number 719 is called Un uovo per un bambino (an egg for a child):
Non sapete come quietare un bambino che piange perché vorrebbe qualche leccornia per colazione? Se avete un uovo fresco sbattetene bene il torlo in una tazza in forma di ciotola con due o tre cucchiaini di zucchero in polvere, poi montate soda la chiara ed unitela mescolando in modo che non si smonti. Mettete la tazza avanti al bambino con fettine di pane da intingere, colle quali si farà i baffi gialli e lo vedrete contentissimo.
E magari i pasti dei bambini fossero tutti innocui come questo, ché per certo ci sarebbero allora meno isterici e convulsionari nel mondo!
I decided to give the full quote because it is charming, in an old-fashioned Italian that rings sweet to my ears.
You don't know how to quiet a child that is screaming for a morning treat? If you have a fresh egg, beat the yolk in a mug together with two or three teaspoons of powdered sugar, then beat the white until stiff and delicately fold it into the yolk. Put the mug in front of the child together with slices of bread to dunk. He will get himself a yellow moustache and will be in heaven. If only meals for children were as innocent as this, there would certainly fewer hysterical and convulsive children in the world! [source]
Truth be told, Artusi then writes a sentence against coffee, tea, wine and other products, so I doubt he would approve of the variation so close to my heart that involves a splash of coffee, though by the time I started eating it, I was no longer a child.
I had not made myself a uovo sbattuto for decades and had never made one for my husband, so last Saturday, I did it... and the magic was completely gone. I had trouble adjusting my hands to the use of a different mug and spoon and at the end of my beating it, the egg mix did not look like I remember. My husband thought that the egg tasted too sweet and the addition of coffee did not make much of a difference. As you can imagine, I was quite disappointed. I guess that there are certain things that belong only to our childhood and cannot be brought back, even for a noble reason.
Disappointed, though not devastated, I changed the breakfast menu and prepared French toast for my husband. This is a breakfast I learned to make after moving to California and that I prepare often, especially when I have my homemade challah available. But I have made it with other breads and also, last year, with slices of Stollen and of meringue coffee cake (photo below: the cheese is my homemade English-style coulommiers cheese).
For my most recent rendition, I used slices of pane alla zucca (pumpkin bread; see photo below).
The original recipe is in Deborah Madison's Vegetarian Cooking for Everyone. My adaptation follows.
Ingredients for one serving:
- 1 egg, possibly pastured
- 1/2 cup milk of choice
- a splash of orange blossom water or of vanilla extract, optional (if the bread I use does not contain any flavoring)
- slices of bread (when I use my challah, I usually cut three slices)
In a bowl with a flat bottom, beat egg with a fork until yolk and white are blended, then add milk and flavoring (if using). Beat again briefly until mixed. Add the bread and let it soak well (the amount of time depends on the type of bread), turning it after a little bit.
Warm up an oiled skillet and, when it is hot, add the bread and then pour over it the egg remaining in the bow, if any. Cook on medium-low heat for a few minutes on both sides, until deep golden. Serve immediately with fresh fruit or other light accompaniment. Most recently, this role has been played by my roasted applesauce. I'd describe this is French toast with an Italian influence (in the form of my distate for sugary syrup).
Click on the button to hear me pronounce the Italian words mentioned in the post:
or launch the fare colazione audio file [mp3].
[Depending on your set-up, the audio file will be played within the browser or by your mp3 player application. Please, contact me if you encounter any problems.]