Heirloom recipes tell a story about family through food — the sort of food that, ironically, doesn’t come out of a cookbook. (13)
Thinking back to the grey March morning when the delivery person handed me a package, I thanked him, shut the door, and did what I always do: shred open the parcel to get at what’s inside. More careful than when I started, I pulled the new cookbook, Tortellini at Midnight, from the wrapping and at once I’m struck by how physically beautiful the book is. Just glancing at the front cover, I could see that this cookbook would focus on family recipes and, as I flipped through the book it was full of maps, pictures (old and new), recipes, and stories all printed on thick, heavy paper with a textured edge that reminded me of an antique book. So much thought was put into the book’s design — in one way I felt like I was picking up a piece of history (I would later realize the truth of these feelings). Such a treasure and, such a powerful reminder of how recipes anchor us to the past. All families should be so lucky to have a tangible link to their family history and, their family food.
Part of me feels that this review has been a long time coming but in all honesty, I just couldn’t rush it. Some nights after I finished getting my daughter to bed and the house was quiet, I would sit down to lingeringly read through Tortellini at Midnight because, while, Emiko Davies has presented some delicious and hearty recipes she is a storyteller who has written such a rich and interesting family history. Whether it was the story of how Emiko’s husband Marco’s great grandparents, Nicola and Anna met, or the generations of tortellini, or of the first dish Emiko cooked Marco, I read with rapt attention. Davies intertwines family history with geography, which then, in turn follow the recipes through Taranto to Turin and then to Tuscany. This is how the recipes are organized — geographically. Sprinkled through each section are stories and interesting facts. While Davies draws upon her husband’s family history, she also provides a list of books she uses and refers to in the Reference section (some books are in Italian, some in English). It is through this cookbook that I came to discover Honey from a Weed by Patience Gray.
Raised in Australia by a Japanese mother and an Australian father, Davies writes about how her upbringing contrasted with that of her husband, who grew up in a small Italian town. Tortellini at Midnight is a gastro-geographical guide through the places connected with Marco’s family history. This cookbook also beautifully tells the family story in relation to the food they cook and enjoy. It was surprising to me that, although these are heirloom recipes, they are the perfect inspiration for family-friendly, weeknight cooking. These recipes are the epitome of comfort food, and at times make more with less.
Take the recipe for Torta di Mandorle di Nonna Vera (Nonna Vera’s Almond Cake) — made with 7 ingredients using just a bowl and a fork (a great recipe to bake with a child). A great example of making more with less. It’s not about fancy techniques or ingredients. The resulting cake is delightful: moist in the centre with a slightly crisp exterior, the top dotted with lightly toasted blanched whole almonds. Dusted with icing sugar, I enjoyed my slice topped juicy pink grapefruit segments and an afternoon espresso. A sweet treat for a quiet afternoon at home. Davies also gives her mother-in-law, Angela’s, summertime variation for this cake — skip the almonds in favour of luscious whipped cream and strawberries. I think this recipe might have just become an instant heirloom to me.
For the most part the recipes are achievable for any level of home cook — squashed potatoes, baked ziti, polenta biscuits, deep-fried grilled cheese — all recipes that I have made a few times now. While not a vegetarian cookbook or a book focused on dietary needs or preferences, I happily found enough recipes to satisfy my vegetarian family. Easy enough to enjoy on a weeknight — some, like the ziti or the Pasta al Pomodoro Crudo, saved me on nights when I had no idea what to cook. I appreciate that Davies’ recipes helped me to use what I have in my pantry or fresh in the fridge. One afternoon I served my daughter a small portion of Pinzimonio (raw vegetables with a side of extra virgin olive oil), and she loved it! Slicked with floral yet peppery EVOO, the lively crunch of the carrots and fennel was so enjoyable for her!
While she definitely enjoyed the Pinzimonio, my daughter’s favourite recipe (shockingly even ranking above the Cioccolato e Pane/Grilled Chocolate Sandwich) is the Paste di Meliga (Polenta Biscuits). Humble and unassuming, these lightly sweetened cookies really captured my daughter’s heart! A few times I could hear the metallic clink of the cookie tin as she snuck a couple. I found that these are also great to pack in her lunch — being nut-free they make for a nice treat that is suitable for school. This is the beauty of a cookbook like this, being able to enjoy a Turin trattoria classic in the comforts of my Nova Scotia kitchen.
Using Tortellini at Midnight, I made my first attempt at making Orecchiette. Davies’ uses a semolina and water mixture to make the dough and, she helpfully provides clear instructions as well as a pictorial step-by-step guide on how to form the orecchiette. As with many of the recipes I try while reviewing cookbooks I approached this recipe with confidence and a can-do attitude. The resulting orecchiette would probably make a nonna cringe but for a morning my daughter and I had fun trying our hand at pasta-making with the promise of trying again. I realized through this recipe that heirloom recipes don’t just happen, they can take practice and that practice is good for the spirit.
Tortellini at Midnight is a treasure of a book for many reasons, least of which are all of the delicious heirloom Italian recipes. Davies helped to remind me that the simple joy of cooking for one’s family transcends time. It’s as true today as it was for women like Nonna Anna and Nonna Lina. If you’re curious about what heirloom recipes we’ve been enjoying, then check out my custom Instagram hashtag #tortelliniatmidnightiseatworthy or my dedicated Facebook post (as I keep trying recipes I’ll keep updating these).
I would like to take this opportunity to thank Hardie Grant Books and Raincoast Books for providing me with a free, review copy of this book. I did not receive monetary compensation for my post, and all thoughts and opinions expressed are my own.