by Laura A

“Auguri!” That’s how people say “Happy Birthday!” in Italy.  Everyone in our family has a fall birthday, and yesterday was Sarie’s. She turned 18.

I told her she was almost grown up.  “Stop scaring me,”  she said. So I replied, “But you’ll always be our dear girl.” Then I started cooking, which at times is more reassuring than words.

This is our second go-round of birthdays in Italy. I’m trying to get my cake recipes adapted. For years, in both Georgia and New York, I made the Thunder Cake from Patricia Polacco’s book with the same name. Somewhere in the middle of all those years, though, we switched over to my friend Susan’s Beet Chocolate Cake, probably because beets were readily available at fall farmers’ market in NYC, and besides, it’s a very moist cake.

In Torino, you can’t get beets at all until October.  When they arrive, they are come already roasted, for bagna cauda. This is fine with me, but I still can’t use them for beet cake, because I still don’t have a working blender or food processor.  (This is one of those Italian stories that I’ve left out.)  So we’ve reverted to Thunder Cake.

And we’ve had to adapt our icing recipe. You can’t get bitter chocolate in Italy. I kept hearing rumors of unsweetened chocolate, but when I’d get to the store where it was supposed to be sold, it would turn out to be sweetened, though sometimes not with sugar. My icing recipe is just too sweet unless the chocolate is bitter.

So I asked the people in the grocery store how they make chocolate cake icing. From what I understood from their responses, they don’t really do chocolate icing. They pour sweetened cream over the top of their cakes. I asked, “What do you use for sachertorte?”  (Sachertorte is a seriously chocolate German cake with glazed icing, widely available in Italy.)  They said I should ask at a pasticceria.

At the pasticceria down the street, the baker naturally thought I was trying to order a cake. This would have been an expensive miscommunication, given the price of the cute little meringue ghosts I bought from them last week when we had guests. But in the end he told me that they used cream, chocolate powder, and powdered sugar.

When I got home, Sarie, sensing an opportunity to lick the spoon, said, “Just leave it to me!  I’ll figure it out!”  So while the cake was in the oven, Sarie got out sweetened chocolate bars, powdered sugar, chocolate powder, and milk, and heated some of each in a pan on the stove. In the end, she said, she substituted chocolate powder for half of the sugar. The result was very viscous, and it didn’t quite cover the cake. In fact, it started to tear up the cake when I spread it. But oh, my, was it ever chocolate! I think this is a recipe worth perfecting.

Then we moved on to dinner. Sarie’s request had been, “Something with pancetta.” Somehow I picked up that what she really meant was, “Fall comfort food.” So I went with a mushroom risotto based on a recipe in The Barefoot Contessa’s Back to Basics.

As you might imagine, you can get all kinds of wonderful ingredients for risotto here in Italy: Several different kinds of risotto rice. Saffron in tiny packages just right for one meal. Shallots year-round. Smoked pancetta. Real porcini mushrooms. Broth hens with feet. And of course, all the wine you want.

Admittedly, when I saw how much the mushrooms cost, I drew in my breath. But I trust this produce seller, and they looked first rate. When I cut them, they made a spongey, whooshing sound. And they were very light and flavorful. Next time I can use the regular ones, but your children don’t turn 18 every day.

Risotto was one of the things we worked on in cooking class, though I’d made it in the US too. But now I have learned that no matter which risotto you make, there are always certain steps, which have distinct names in Italian. American cookbooks seem to skip the step in which you stir the rice in the oil or butter until it becomes transparent, just before putting in the wine. In addition, I’m starting to successfully negotiate the fine line between crunchy, al dente, and mushy rice at the end.

At any rate, this risotto looked warm, smelled smoky, and tasted comforting. We ate it with a fizzy red lambrusco. I honestly don’t know if that’s what it goes with, since I think lambrusco is an appetizer wine, but it seemed to make sense. Then we had cake, with silly pink candles on top, and “cream” gelato, which was better than vanilla ice cream.

I’m not quite sure what it means to turn 18 in a country where people often go to high school until they’re almost 20, and may live with their parents until they’re in their 30s. But I’m proud of Sarie’s negotiation of the past couple of years, which haven’t been easy. Growing up doesn’t really happen at the flip of a calendar page, but this was a pretty good day to celebrate taking a step closer.