Saint of the day:
Saint Benedict of Palermo
Patron Saint of Black Catholics in America, African Americans, African missions, black missions, black people, Palermo and San Fratello, Sicily
Saint Benedict of Palermo (1524-1589) was the first Christian saint of African origin to be canonized in modern times. He was born in Sicily (then part of Spain) of parents who were freed slaves, and who were said to have come from Ethiopia. Saint Benedict was admired as a model of extraordinary religious devotion, wise counsel and spiritual leadership. After his death a grassroots movement to make him a saint ensued. By the early 1600s Saint Benedict was widely venerated in Italy, Spain, and Latin America. José Montes de Oca's statue, carved in Sevilla in the 1730s, masterfully captures Saint Benedict's charismatic personality. The glass eyes and bone teeth add to the saint's life like quality. Yet it is the concentrated facial expression, Benedict's welcoming gesture of his spread arms, the movement of his cowl and his contrapposto stance, by which Montes de Oca renders the saint's inspiration within the statue's every inch.
Church of Santa Maria di Gesù, Palermo, Italy
A dish dating back to the Middle Ages, biancomangiare, meaning ‘white dish’, is a simple cooked dessert, essentially milk infused with spices and thickened with starch to form a kind of pudding not unlike its far better known cousin panna cotta. It is usually topped with cinnamon or ground nuts. It can be served simply in a bowl or molded into decorative shapes for a more elegant presentation to end an important meal—like Easter dinner perhaps?
The original recipe for biancomangiare was savory, a preparation of fowl or (on fast days) fish poached in milk or almond milk, flavored with exotic ingredients like rosewater, saffron and cinnamon. Rice or rice flour was the usual thickener. The origin of the dish is in some doubt, although many suspect an Arab influence. Given the flavor profile and the use of rice—and its strong association in Italy with Sicily—that sounds right to me. In the 17th century, the dish evolved into a dessert thickened with eggs and cream; it took on its modern form during the 19th century.
You can use almond milk in the modern recipe, as well. The amounts of sugar and thickener can be varied according to your taste. I’ve seen recipes calling for just a couple of spoonfuls of sugar—fine if you’re using almond milk, which is already sweet. Some recipes call for honey rather than sugar. You can increase the amount of thickener for a firmer texture, an especially good idea if you want to mold your biancomangiare into a fancy shape. While cornstarch is the most common thickener today, equal amounts of potato or tapioca starch would work equally well, as would gelatin or the traditional rice flour. (I’ve even seen recipes calling for wheat flour, but I have my doubts.)
Instead of cinnamon, some modern recipes call for a vanilla bean or a few drops of vanilla extract to flavor the milk. The toppings can vary, too. The toppings above are probably the most common, but you can use your imagination: the mild taste of the biancomangiare makes it a fine ‘canvas’ for your personal culinary ‘painting’.
1 liter (1 quart) whole milk
250g (8 oz) granulated (caster) sugar
100-125g (3-4 oz) cornstarch or other thickener (see Notes)
1 cinnamon stick (or a pinch of powdered cinnamon)
A few scrapes of lemon or orange zest
Ground or shaved almonds
Grated or shredded orange or lemon peel
Grated or melted bittersweet chocolate
Place the milk, sugar and thickener in a saucepan over very low heat.
Whisk them all together until the sugar and starch have dissolved into the milk, then add the cinnamon and zest.
Continue stirring the mixture over low heat for a few minutes to give the flavorings some time to infuse. Raise the heat a bit and slowly bring the mixture just to the simmer. When it gets hot enough, the mixture will thicken. This tends to happen rather suddenly, so make sure you're at the stove mixing to avoid the mixture forming lumps. (If not, a vigorous whisking should make things right.)
When the mixture is thick and smooth. Remove it from the heat and let it cool for just a minute or two, then pour it into serving bowls or, if you want to get fancy, into decorative molds.
Let everything cool for a good ten minutes or more, then place in the fridge to chill until your biancomangiare is quite thick and perfectly cold. (It can be made ahead up to this point.)
To serve your biancomangiare: unmold onto plates (if using a mold), and top with one or more of the toppings suggested above. Serve while still chilled.
Petto di vitella alla fornara