Cooking Chapbook

Notes from my kitchen in the D.C. area & beyond

Category: Holidays

5 foods I loved in Venice at Christmas

A quiet Piazza San Marco during Christmas week 2012

A quiet Piazza San Marco during Christmas week 2012

We spent our Christmas this year in Venice, a beautiful, misty old city I immediately loved. I’m convinced now more than ever that off-season is the way to travel. The Venice of my guidebooks – crowded streets, lines for Saint Mark’s Basilica, packs of people pushing by you – was nothing like the Venice of Christmas time. The streets are easily passable; the main square is only scattered with tourists posing like scarecrows with the pigeons; and there are no lines at all, except for Midnight Mass. With cars forbidden, Venice felt like a city of long ago, cloaked with a quietness that is so rare today.

A little Christmas touch in Venice, 2012

A little Christmas touch in Venice, 2012

The food was also wonderful. Here are five foods I’m still thinking about.

1. Seafood risotto

Rice spotted with bits of mussels, fish, shrimp, and other swimmingly good things. In Venice, surrounded by water, seafood risotto is sublime. We had it twice. Once, the rice had a satisfying bite in the middle. Once, it was softer throughout, nearly a porridge. Both times, we lapped it up. I’m dreaming now how to make it myself, maybe with a shrimp stock. (I’ve read that simmering leftover shrimp shells in water is the easiest way to make a seafood stock. Has anyone tried that?)

Seafood risotto in Venice

Seafood risotto in Venice

2. Cuttlefish

Anything cuttlefish. I thought this seafood might be chewy and oddly shaped, like octopus, but it was cut into tender bite-sized pieces and draped in a thick jet-black sauce, savory and warm and as comforting as a crackling winter fire. (Though not as fun to look at …) We tried it a few times – once with polenta on the side (which almost made this list; we ate polenta over and over again in Venice, and I grew more curious about the corn-based dish I had thought was bland and boring) and once in a risotto. Delicious.

Cuttlefish in ink sauce with polenta, at Vino Vino in Venice

Cuttlefish in ink sauce with polenta, at Vino Vino in Venice

3. Sgroppino

We had Christmas dinner at Taverna Ciardi, a cozy traditional restaurant a winding kilometer or two from Piazza San Marco. We thought the fixed-price menu in Italian listed two choices for a starter, a first course (in Italy, pasta or rice), a second course (meat/seafood), and dessert. Oh no. We were served two plates each for each course! We had cuttlefish, octopus salad, risotto, spaghetti, fish … and just when we couldn’t imagine ever putting a fork in our mouths again, the waiter brought out glasses filled with a thick fizzy whiteness. What was it? Oh, lemon sorbet, vodka, Prosecco, the waiter said. He had me at lemon sorbet. We toasted and sipped and felt our fullness dissipate into a clear citrus happiness. Oh my. A web search with results like this and this makes me think it must have been Sgroppino. I’m very happy to have met you, Sgroppino!

4. Panettone

The first night we arrived, tired after taking a train, two planes, a bus and a waterbus, we almost didn’t have dinner. But somehow, we pulled ourselves up and walked a minute to Vino Vino. After risotto and cuttlefish and feeling like a person again, I ordered a dessert that came with muscato, a sweet wine. The waiter, a kind Italian gentleman, said they had replaced the regular option with pan-ah-TOE-nay. Which was? A Christmas dessert, a holiday cake. It’s good. Okay. Let’s do it. We would have panettone two more times before we left, once as part of our Christmas feast and once left in a complimentary little carton in our hotel room. It can be made many ways, but the kind we had in Venice was yellow, airy cake, sometimes dusted with powdered sugar. We also saw locals in the grocery store buying panettone in natty angular boxes with a cord to carry on top.

Panettone with custard and muscato wine

Panettone with custard and muscato wine

5. Sarde in Saor

I must be my father’s daughter, because I’m in love with sardines and anchovies. Fresh or fried or plucked from a jar and sauteed with olive oil and garlic and chili flakes and tossed in pasta – but let’s not too get carried away, Brianne. Sarde in saor is a Venetian specialty, sweet-sour fried sardines. I’ve since seen recipes with pine nuts, raisins, cloves, sugar, bay leaves, white wine. I have no idea what was in ours, but they were fantastic, scrumptious little fish. Dad, you would have loved them!

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German springerle cookies

This may be a little late, but I’m taking solace in the handy fact that the Christmas season truly lasts until January 6, the Epiphany. 

At the Stuttgart Weihnachtsmarkt, or Christmas market, I first spotted these intricate molds, arrayed on a stall’s walls, from stamp-sized rectangles to frisbee circles. Amazingly detailed nativity scenes.  Saints. Musical instruments. Animals. Hearts. I was immediately taken.

But what were they for? I couldn’t tell at first. Were they for wax creations? Paper prints?

Or cookies!

Springerle cookie mold

Springerle cookie mold

In a deliberation mode of locals, we bought a 2€ cookie to try. It was beautiful and elegant, but was it edible? Springerles, as these cookies are called, are hard and dry, completely unappealing solo. But dunked – rather, soaked for a good 4+ seconds – in a cup of hot tea or coffee, they give way to soft, delectable sweetness laced with anise.

So you can guess how this adventure turns out. My only hesitation was that I wanted to substitute the anise  for some other flavor. Maybe lemon or almond?

Pressing springerle cookie mold

Pressing springerle cookie mold

I went back to the market a few days later and bought a collection of springerle molds: little Biblical scenes, a hairy camel, a violin (or is it a cello?), a pretzel, a heart, and an enormous Saint Nicholas. In Germany, St. Nick is still a bishop with a croiser, rather than an elderly bearded man with a bulging sac of toys.

The prices were all over the place. A small mold might be 2€. A larger one made up of many little molds could run north of 50€. 

Springerle cookie

Springerle cookie with Mary, Joseph, Jesus and a donkey

We tried the Joy of Cooking instructions and ended up adding heaps of extra flour. As written, it was too sticky for me. The dough kept climbing into the molds’ crevices and refusing to leave. Only after two of us wrangled the dough into a floury submission did the imprints start to emerge. But goodness. They are so much more gorgeous than American cookie-cutter creations.

Assorted springerle cookies

Assorted springerle cookies, including a camel, a pretzel, and a violin

I did substitute almond extract for the anise, which blended into the recipe nicely. But the rest of the recipe was a mystery to me. Eggs, but no butter? Flour, but no oil? Also: You must rest the dough, once molded into cookies, for at least 10 to 12 hours. Not in the refrigerator – out on the counter.

Tray of springerle cookies

Tray of springerle cookies

I’ll post a recipe when we find one that works without so much haggling. After all, with heart-shaped molds, I imagine these could be pretty Valentine’s Day cookies, too …