I am a firm believer in saying your dreams out loud.
Speak up to the universe, and you will set in motion enough energy for the Universe to provide for you.
Zaira, who entered my life one quiet, foggy day in January in Venice, is proof of this.
She, too, is a firm believer that all you want you should pray for to the Universe, and have faith that what is yours will eventually be given to you – or better, given back, as wishes were just things that have always belonged to us and that need be given back at the right time in our lives. Just ask, she says, and have faith, without demanding or expecting anything, for each wish has its right time that we are not to know beforehand. This kind of quiet firmness shines through her eyes and glows through her soul, and turns her to a sort of ethereal goddess to my eyes.
Sometimes you have to wait. Sometimes it’s quicker. But many times it’s about that patient, calm waiting game. That’s why the ‘no expectation’ factor is so important.
I have spent a good chunk of my life feeling a laggard. I was the last one to kiss a boy amongst those my age. I was the last one to date someone. It took me a whole 24 years to find one real girl friend, and nearly 26 to find a guy who actually does not think what I do is weird. Now, the moments are treasure most are the moments I spend with them, moments I can’t resist the urge to capture with my camera.
I realize that we all spend a good chunk of life feeling like this, and forgetting our achievements. I was the first to learn to read and write (I taught myself), I was the first to learn english fluently (I taught myself), an I was the first one to establish a business. I am now 26 and have learned that there is a right time for everything. And another time has come for me.
Having been driven by wanderlust my whole life, my sudden urge to nest has taken me by surprise. I guess my wanderlust time is slowly but surely starting to transition to a will to just stay get some piece and quiet in a place I can call home. It took me 25 years to feel at home in this little corner of the world, and now that I do I can’t wait to leave more of a mark of my own here. Of course, I’m thinking of things that had never touched my mind before, like kids and marriage. It’s the kind of thing you never believe when they tell you when you’re 16.
But, most of all, I am feeling the urge to make Hortus get a little larger. I want to find a place a new home, one where I will be able to host workshop, wine tastings, foraging trips, pasta classes. One with a wood fired oven. I don’t only want to host the crazy expensive photography workshops, I also want to host retreats on all themes, about Italian food, vegetarian food, local herbs, edible flowers, wine. An all-round experience. I am restyling the website (this time for good I hope), making it prettier and faster, and preparing a few downloadables too.
I am saving and working hard, so that I might have my own place within a couple years. I want to make videos, collabs, have people over, have little gatherings, and set up a proper B&B other than the AirBnB I am running now here in Gradara. Of course, it might take much longer. But I am saying it out lout, as a sort of good luck wish.
In the meantime, the only thing I can do currently to make more of a home around myself is cook. The cooking that will happen in my own home will inevitably be different from my mom and grandma’s (my grandma still makes her tomato sauce with pancetta and calls it healthy), but some staples will remain. I like to dream of a future where my children will hide under the table and steal strozzapreti when (they think) I’m not seeing, just like we did as kids.
But when everything seems impossible and faithless, I learned that, as Zaira says, all you have to do is ask. Ask for your wishes, ask for whatever you need, have tons of faith, work hard, but do not obsess. Ask, if anything, just in case. It won’t go through 9 times out of 10. But if you ask 100 times you’ll have gotten it 10 times, and that’s all the times you need.
This is one of the oldest, most common recipes in our household. ‘Crostata’, a kind of Italian tart, has been constantly present for breakfasts, parties, birthdays and any other time in which jams and eggs needed to be used up. It is one of those treats we confidently serve to our AirBnB guests and always a winner. There is a version of this in my book as well! It is usually stuffed with jam and fruit, but this one is stuffed with jam and custard!! I also made mini ‘crostatine’ versions, which was a super popular snack at school when we were kids, or after playing in the park in the afternoon. This one is stuffed with a jam I made out of rustichelle plums, a kind of wild, small purple plums I found on wild trees all around the countryside. I love to go crazy and decorate a good crostata with lattice tops and flowers, which is a real novelty for a classic Italian countryside home where a grandma still visits. Crostatas have the sole purpose of being large and satisfying, therefore requiring zero need to be pretty at all. But I remember, when I was a kid, me and grandma would make crostata together, and we would put great care in rolling the strips to arrange on top of the crostata by hand, and arranging them to form a diamond pattern. It is one of my dearest childhood memories, and here I present it to you to sort of wish myself the same chance to give these memories to others. I want my dreams to be as poised and elegant and Zaira, and as earthy, fragrant and grounded as these memories – as this crostata.
NOTE: You can flavor the custard with various flowers or syrups, like rose, lavender, elderflower. If using syrup, substitute half the weight of the sugar with the syrup. If using flowers, add the (dried) petals into the milk when you’re warming it, and let it infuse for about an hour or so, then warm it again to make the custard.
- 200g stone-milled flour (I used Italian 1 type)
- 20g rice flour
- 30g almond flour
- 1 tsp baking powder
- ½ tsp baking soda
- 1 egg + 1 yolk
- 80g butter, softened
- 4 tablespoons rum, or other flavorful alcohol you like (the actual alcohol will evaporate with the heat. you can sub the alcohol with any milk if you prefer)
- Scraped seeds from half a vanilla bean, or 1 tsp vanilla extract
- Zest from ½ a lemon
- Pinch salt
- 4 large egg yolks
- 100g zucchero
- 40g potato or rice starch
- 400 ml whole milk (plant milk, especially almond, works equally well)
- Half a vanilla bean
- Zest from ½ lemon, peeled in one long stripe
- Plum jam (preferably wild plum, but if you can't find it, sub any fruit jam you like)
- 1 egg yolk, to brush the top
- Almond slivers
- Powdered sugar to finish
- Just combine all ingredients together and knead until combined, either with a stand mixer or by hand. The dough should be quite limp and slightly sticky. If it seems too dry, add a tablespoon or two more liquid and combine. Wrap in clingfilm and refrigerate for 20 - 30 minutes.
- To make the custard, warm the milk until slightly smoking.
- Add the egg yolks, sugar and starch to a pot and whisk well, vigorously, until you obtain a smooth mixture. Scrape the vanilla bean seeds and add them to the mixture, then throw in the bean and lemon peel as well (scrape off the white part if it's on the peel). Add the warm milk little by little, whisking constantly.
- Turn on the burner to medium heat under the pot. Whisk constantly while the custard cooks, and always keep an eye on it. Once it gets close to boiling, It will go from liquid to solid in just a few seconds, at which point you will have to whisk faster. Once it has thickened to a pourable consistency, turn off the burner and keep whisking for another minute. Let cool, and remove the lemon peel and vanilla bean. You can sprinkle some caster sugar on top to avoid the thin film forming. Store in the fridge until ready to use.
- Preheat the oven to 350 F˚ / 180 C˚.
- At this point, you have two options: bake the shells and add the custard and jam later, or bake the cream and jam as well. Baking all the ingredients together is what we always did in my family, and cooking the custard a second time makes the crostata last a little longer (though I have yet to see a crostata lasting longer than a day and a half).
- For the 1st option: Roll out the dough between two pieces baking sheet, slightly dusted with flour, to about ⅛ inch / 4 mm thickness. Line the tart pan (or the small ones if making crostatine with the rolled out dough.
- Line the shells with baking paper and add some beans or baking beans to avoid it growing too much, and bake until golden, about 15 minutes. When cool, fill with a layer of jam, one of custard, and another spoonful of jam, spreading it evenly. top with almond slivers and fresh fruit slices if you wish.
- For the 2nd option: reserve ⅓ dough for the decorations. Line the tart pan(s) just as above, but, instead of baking alone, fill with a layer of jam, one of custard, one of jam, and spread evenly. Decorate the top with leftover dough strips, or cut off shapes like leaves and flowers, and decorate as you prefer. I love making lattices and adding almond slicers all round the edge of the tarts!
- Brush the top/exposed dough with the egg yolk.
- Bake for about 30 to 35 minutes, or until brown gold on top and cooked through. If the dough looks too pale, leave it a few minutes more. This largely depends from your oven.
- When ready, let cool before slicing. Keep the crostata refrigerated.