Diaries from an Italian Summer – Surrendering to the Florentine Sunset

August 14th
Mid-morning, after a beatific breakfast involving a cornetto or two on our Air BnB terrace, we reluctantly bid goodbye to Rome to embark a bullet train chugging off to Florence. Like any railway station, people pour in in throngs and the order of the day is confusion(in our head only because the truth is, it is very well organized). We thread through the melee, almost scurrying off to find the right train. The journey is short and we intend to get some shut-eye in preparation for a hectic day: more than a handful of places to visit, heaps of history to absorb and plenty of boxes to check-off. Distractions, however,  demand attention. Rolling hills dotted with houses, their balconies alive with tumbling flowers and swaying clothes and acres of lush olive groves are fleeting under a sunny Tuscan sky. One of those times when reality surpasses dreamland. On my right, an Italian mother serenades her little daughter to sleep. I learnt that the cosy outcomes of a lullabye are hardly dependent on language.
Our hotel in Florence is seconds away from Brunalleschi’s Il Duomo, the dome resting it’s sheer magnificence on the Florence Cathedral. Flashes of memories from reading Dan Brown’s ‘Inferno’ occupy my excited mind and I ‘m hankering for that long-awaited glimpse of the gilded Gates of Paradise, that fated ceiling of the Palazzo Vecchio. There’s an undeniable urgency to vehemently drown in the present and imbibe everything.
However, at the moment, we hear Sicilian Pizzas calling our name.
(These little square pieces are quite thick and fluffy much like the focaccia and they’re derived from their authentic cousin, the sfincione.  Sfincione are topped with a tomato sauce, breadcrumbs and a hard cheese and traditionally made on festivities. What we devoured was a slightly different counterpart, more like a pizza with a mozzarella topping. Delicous!)
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This is followed by a sonorous gelato call( that surprisingly arrive at very close intervals when in Italy!).
Don Nino’s is a charming gelato and pastry shop attired in a pristine white and is home to gooey, flavour-bound gelatos. Sprawling in front is a cobblestone street and patio seats with a magnificent view of the Duomo. A dash of modern snuck and surrounded by ancient stone architecture.
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Just outside the Duomo, an oil painter, unwavered by the frenzied crowd ambling past him, has parked his ware & is buried deep in brushwork,. By his side, clipped poster-card sized paintings flap in the summer breeze. Mr. Aroen Morina paints abstract imitations of the city and its historic architecture. He’s also an Italian infatuated by Indian television and we converse about how similar our cultures can be. Him gesticulating in an Italian accent, us talking in our Indian accent. The world can be quite small and the old adage is justified yet again.

 

 

I’ve promised the husband an enchanting  scene to capture. Not that it will ever satiate the photographer in him but maybe for the day?  We hurry amid the hustle-bustle to get there in time. The distractions make their play yet again:
-the labyrinthine alleys flanked by  walls so high and lamps so ornate;
-the ornamented doors, so gigantic, they make one feel like a lilliput ;
-the sculptures seizing Piazza Della Signoria in their thrall: an imitation of Michelangelo’s ‘David’ & Bandinelli’s ‘Hercules and Cacus’;
-street artists stopping everyone in their tracks as they play the violin.

 

 

 

{Palazzo Vecchio(L) & Bandinelli’s ‘Hercules & Cacus(R)}

Beauty and history all around, cobbled roads below, merry wafts of food in the air….our brisk pace transforms to a saunter but we manage get to Piazza De Michelangelo a couple of hours ahead of time(there is some steep climbing involved but that’s exactly what the gelato is for).
Atop, the husband is on a quest to secure a spot for his tripod while I’m pursuing a spot in a little patio restaurant. He is intent on capturing memories for us while I sip wine and inhale the effervescent view ahead.
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The sun retreats Florence for the day. Ironically though, it appears that the city is surfacing from quiescence. A vespertinal awakening. Emerging at the far end of the piazza is a sprawling view of Florence, swathed intensely in the evening sun, like a diaphanous veil, capable of rousting every tired cell in the body. The scene is crowded profusely with red rooftops and in the background, Brunalleschi’s Duomo proudly looks on. The entire city is splashed in a soft orange, like a painting! Oh my! Mr. Morena’s painting has come to life…..
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To be continued…

(All photographs by Deepak Mohan Photography)

The ‘Stop to Smell the Roses’ Cake

Not that a chocolate or an orange flavoured cake doesn’t entice me substantially, but that winter morning demanded a distraction from the familiar. I was fortunate Sumayya Usmani’s ‘Mountain Berries and Dessert Spices’ had sailed from it’s confines of the store and landed amid the cozy comforts of my living room. The author is driven by authenticity and her recipes are brimming with tradition. She paints the book with dishes showcasing the magic of rose petals, cardamom, berries, pistachios and other produce native to her homeland.

The love for baking isn’t new. You know that. Let’s just say this cake is a product of inspiration, madness and wild curiosity. For the sake of nostalgia, accompany me on a trip down memory lane, will you?
In Kannada, there is a phrase – ‘MaTa MaTa MaDHyana’. It refers to blazing afternoons when the sun is at it’s peak, the air warm, the roads desolate and the atmosphere blanketed by laziness. These breezy summer afternoons in the 80’s and early 90’s meant mom-made orange candy set in little ice cube trays or mom-made lemonade with pungent hints of cardamom and a tinge of salt. They were special treats stored away for school breaks only. These drinks were rarely(I mean, really rarely) punctuated with a rose drink that many of you are familiar with, RoohAfza. The cool hit from the floral notes of rose intertwined with sugar and hued in a deep fuschia-red was nothing short of a celebration on lackadaisical Banglaorean afternoons. Then there was also the coveted, ‘Rose Milk’. Another blush toned concoction that got the tastebuds singing.
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Finally one morning , in the present day, I wondered why I have absentmindedly ignored this mellifluous flavour. If anything, my cakes deserve to feel special! The previous evening was spent scouring for rose petals. A Chinese market bottled thousands of tiny rose buds meant to be steeped in tea. I bought a handful and chalked up a simple recipe.
This egg free cake is entangled with rose petals and mildly laced with cardamom. Dousing the cake, is a simple sugary rose glaze. Bear in mind, this cake is brimming with the rose flavour. Like an opera singer’s high pitched chorus. Beautiful, at the same time, strong. Hence, I suggest you to feel free to play around with the Rose water measurements. We were happy with the outcome but take it down a notch if you like.
This cake takes me back to a simpler time and parallelly transports me to an ethereal one. One that my taste buds are familiar with and yet oddly, not. I hope you like this as much as we did!
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RECIPE FOR : The ‘Stop to smell the roses’ CAKE (for a 6 inch EGGFREE cake)
INGREDIENTS
For the Cake
3/4th cup Self Raising Flour
1/2 tsp Baking Soda
1/2 cup of Granulated sugar
2-3 green cardamoms powdered with a pinch of sugar
1 tsp Rose water
3 tbsp Oil (I used canola)
1 tbsp + 1/2 tsp Vinegar
1/ 2 cup Milk
Dried organic Rose Petals (Optional)

For the Glaze
2-2.5 tsp of water/milk
3/4 cup of icing sugar
1 tsp of Rose water(optional)
A drop of Pink food colouring (optional)
For the Garnish(Optional)
Chopped Pistachios
Dried organic Rose Petals

METHOD
1. Preheat the oven to 350F
2. Cut a round piece of parchment the size of the base of the cake pan and keep aside. Grease the entire cake pan and place the parchment to cover the floor of the pan. Then dust the sides with the flour.
3. In a medium sized bowl, bring together the dry ingredients and give it a whisk.(Self        Raising Flour, Baking Soda, Granulated Sugar & Powdered Cardamom)
4. To the dry ingredient mix, add, Oil, Rose water and 1/2 tbsp of vinegar.
5. In a small bowl make buttermilk by mixing milk with 1/2 tsp of vinegar. Once it curdles, add it to the remaining ingredients.
6. Mix well to ensure there are no lumps.
7. Add rose petals(optional)and gently fold it in and pour into the prepared cake an.
8. Bake for 20-25 minutes or until a toothpick comes out clean.
9. Meanwhile, prepare the glaze by mixing together, icing sugar, rose water(optional)    and milk/water. Add a drop of pink food colouring if you like and keep aside.
10. Once the cake is out of the oven, keep it on a wire rack for 5 minutes. Gently slide a        knife along the sides to loosen it from the pan.Then carefully turn the pan upside down onto a tray to make sure it comes out in one piece.
11. Once completely cool, pour the glaze on the cake and garnish with rose petals & pistachios.

I hope you like this cake as much as we did: )
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