One of the (many) ironies of living in Italy is that I barely twitch my eyebrows at the products that gourmets fantasize about (white truffles, Barolo wine) because they are here in abundance, while my pulse races at certain items that would be staples in every American supermarket, yet are nearly impossible to find in Italy. This phenomenon is not limited to only me; one of the highlights of our class trip to France was the discovery of a vendor stocked with cilantro at the Dijon market. The ensuing stampede of students who each snapped up two or four bunches must have left that vendor shaking his head in confusion as to what was causing the run on cilantro. When in Bra, we covertly swap info on where to find cilantro as if we are Soviet spies. (Tip: you must ask for it to be brought out, but there is a particular butcher who sells cilantro on Fridays and Saturdays. Who knew.)
What exactly is in this set of verging-on-unicorn-mystique goods? Well, cilantro, for starters, but in general any sort of Asian or Latin American product is in hot demand. Thankfully, the back corner of the Ortobra on Corso Novembre IV has a section that is dedicated to carrying international products. There are no words that can really capture the twist of joy and confusion I felt when I discovered peanut butter placed in the ethnic section. You can also take a trip to Torino and find a good selection of Asian groceries just west of Piazza della Repubblica on Corso Regina Margherita. Prices can be exorbitant compared to the US, but hey, there’s nothing like the taste of home. Latin goods are even more difficult to find. There is an upscale Mexican store in Torino that mostly carries furniture and household items, but does have some canned and dried food products. I nearly wept when I saw the €5 package of tortillas. In Chicago, they would have cost a quarter and still been steaming. What I would give for a plate of Big Star tacos right now…
Then there are the items that I didn’t even realize were unusual, but have now acquired a magnetic attraction: oatmeal, sharp cheddar cheese, sour cream, canned pumpkin, hummus, brown sugar, black beans, bagels, sourdough bread, baking powder…the list goes on and on. Baking powder? Yes, that magical white powder that you use to make pancakes and pumpkin breads without the hassle of rising time. Much to my surprise, it is nearly impossible to find this in Italy. Hence, while in a Brussels Carrefour, when Danielle barreled toward me holding a box of baking powder, I jumped about a mile and shrieked with giddiness.
And so, I celebrated my newly purchased baking powder with the following banana bread. I still had to make a few ingredient substitutions, so feel free to use the more commonly found “ethnic” American ingredients noted parenthetically.
Based on Lindstew Foodies
1 c mashed ripe bananas (about 3 small)
1/2 coarse cane sugar (or brown sugar)
1/2 c ricotta (or sour cream)
1/4 c oil
2 cups 00 grano tenero flour (or all-purpose)
1 t baking powder (!!)
1/2 t baking soda
1/4 t salt
1/2 c crème de marrons (leftover from France, originally I was going to use Nutella)
Mix the wet ingredients (bananas through eggs), then sift together the dry ingredients (flour through salt). Combine everything in one bowl. Grease a loaf pan and add half of the batter, then add half (1/4 c) of the chestnut spread in small dollops. Swirl with a chopstick or toothpick. Repeat with the remaining half of the batter and chestnut cream. Bake at 350 F/175 C for one hour or until top is browned and a knife stuck in the center can be removed cleanly.
The resulting bread had a nice layer of slightly chewy carmellized chestnut paste at the top. Now, it is time to plot what to do with my previous four remaining envelopes of baking powder…