When Jeff, our Italian personal chef, invites you for tea and cake at four you may arrive to find he has set out two fresh cakes and a big American-style mug of good coffee instead. ‘Non ce male’ as we say in Italian.
Jeff is a favorite of ours, one of the easiest and most charming people to be with. He has cooked in various Homebase Abroad‘s Tuscan villas for guests and hosted many for cooking classes in his home. Teaching especially appeals to him– not only because he enjoys sharing his encyclopedic knowledge, but for the inspirational moments. Not least of which include teaching a successful businessman how to crack an egg for the first time, inspiring a young man to go to cooking school after eating Jeff’s food and learning from him over the course of a three week family holiday at Via Lambertesca. Jeff is happiest making people happy.
I know I always am, especially when I am eating whatever he has prepared. The first cake he sets out during my last visit is his own made-up coffee cake, but he calls it Cappuccino Cake so as not to confuse Americans. He made one up quickly so he could take a picture to send to a Rai Due cooking show. He has now done two segments for “Detto Fatto.” The ratings went up when he was on the first time – preparing his chiffon cake – they asked him back for a second segment. The Cappuccino Cake is luscious, soft and light.
This was followed by an extremely delicious ginger cake– almost a scone in consistency and filled with big chunks of chewy, carmelized ginger. It is rich, mouth-filling and satisfying. Jeff had just gotten home from his TV taping in Milan at 3:30 and two of these ginger cakes were sitting hot from the oven by the time of my arrival at 4:30!
Foccaccia di Recco
Then the conversation goes on at such a speed — with much laughter and many diversions — the next thing you notice is Jeff playing with an elastic dough he is working carefully. He has it draped over the backs of his hands, fingers tucked in, rings, bracelets and watches all removed. This is the beginnning of a Foccaccia di Recco. Recco is near Camoglia in Liguria. Jeff agrees — this is the ‘real’ Liguria..
This foccaccia is not a yeasted dough. It contains nothing but flour set out in a ring, olive oil poured in the center, then worked with a bit of water to develop the gluten (protein) strands which make it stretchy. It is rolled but then must be spread very thinly; so he takes it on the back of his hands. One sheet is layered in the bottom of a deep-dish-pizza style pan. Then he breaks off chuncks of ‘stracchino’, a mild white cheese, and dots them around. The top crust is similarly prepared. Jeff is very careful not to make holes during the stretching but then makes sure to prick a few openings to let air escape during cooking. “Otherwise you have a big empty ball.” He then cuts and crimps the excess dough from the edge, doing it roughly because this is a ‘rustico’ dish. A dousing of good olive oil spread by hand and a sprinkling of salt concludes the prep and Jeff pops the foccaccia in a hot oven for 12 minutes.
The result is full of such simple satisfying goodness, just what real Italian food is. He places the just-baked focaccia on the table with a huge mixed salad and mozzarella that was in Naples the day before (and not refrigerated or it turns to rubber). And so we had a ‘reverse dinner’ that started with cake and ended with more laughter. So it goes in Jeff’s company.