Zia Lucia passed away five years ago this week. She never married and lived all her life in Poggio Catino, a village in central Italy, in the house where she and all her siblings, among them my father, were born and grew up.
In my childhood and adolescence, she played the role of Fairy Godmother, knitting, sewing and cooking for me pretty much whatever I fancied. She taught me to make crema pasticcera, as a way of making me consume fresh (raw) milk, which I did not like to drink by itself. For decades, that was pretty much the only thing I could make in the kitchen, in the sense of both knowing how to make it and being allowed by my mother to make it in her kitchen.
When I made crema under my aunt's direction, I would pour it in my special gold-rimmed china bowl and carry it to the dispensa, a walk-in pantry located in the coolest part of the house. The dispensa was a special cabinet of curiosities. My aunt made different kinds of jam, fruit in syrup, and giardiniera (pickled vegetable medley). She used ancient-looking glass jars to preserve fresh sausages in olive oil (salsicce sott'olio), let grapes dry into raisins and hung braids of garlic from nails hammered on the edge of the top shelf.
When mid-afternoon came around I retrieved my bowl of crema from the dispensa. Sometimes my aunt scattered on the smooth sunny surface some of her deep purple amarene sotto spirito (sour cherries preserved in alcohol) and I would eat my crema while sitting on the front steps of the house, basking in the sun, surrounded by her pots of hydrangeas, fuchsias and dahlias. I know that my aunt's happiness in life was seeing me so completely content.
I didn't get to say farewell to my aunt. And I didn't get to ask her for her recipes for a long list of goodies she would make for her brothers and their families, when they visited her and for special occasions, like Christmas and Easter. I have decided that, instead of spending my energy regretting something I cannot change, I will invest it into improving my cooking skills.
Here is my recipe for crema pasticcera, derived from my aunt's instructions. I no longer eat a bowl of crema for my afternoon snack. I usually make it as filling for crostata, using the ingredients listed below. Last summer I shared the recipe with Paz of The Cooking Adventures of Chef Paz and she honored me by using it to make a special anniversary dessert.
- 2 extra-large eggs [see Notes below on alternatives]
- 1/3 cup sugar (65 g) [see Notes below on sweetness level]
- 500 ml milk (slightly more than 2 cups) [see Notes below on milk options]
- 3 strips of lemon peel about 3" long and 1/2" wide (using a potato peeler to cut the strips makes it easier to avoid cutting the white part of the lemon) [see Notes below on alternatives]
- 3 tablespoons pastry (or unbleached regular) flour (25 g) [see Notes below on alternatives]
Pour the milk into a pan, add the lemon peel and warm up to to well below boiling point. In a mixing bowl, beat the eggs with the sugar until the mixture is bubbly. Sift the flour over the egg mixture and beat briefly until it is incorporated. Temper the egg mixture with a small quantity of milk, then slowly add the rest of the milk, mixing with a wooden spoon. Pour the mixture into the pan and set it to very low heat, stirring at least every couple of minutes. When the froth on the surface disappears completely, the crema starts to feel slightly thicker. From then on stir almost continuously. When the crema reaches boiling temperature and thickens, cook briefly (1-2 minutes), then remove the pan from the heat, remove the lemon peel, place the saucepan in a cold water bath, and stir the crema to bring down its temperature. While the crema cools down, stir it every now and then to prevent the formation of a film over it.
I remember my aunt telling me that the crema should not boil, but according to Harold McGee, it must do so. In the recipe, the addition of flour has the objective of making the crema able to hold its shape. As McGee explains in his book "On Food and Cooking," cream fillings (to which category crema pasticcera belongs) must be boiled in order to get the desired effect, because, "egg yolks contain a starch-digesting enzyme, amylase, that is remarkably resistant to heat," and, unless neutralized, will "digest the starch and turn the stiff cream into a pourable one" (page 98).
- When I have leftover yolks, I use 1 egg and 2 yolks, or 4 yolks. Using all yolks makes a more traditional crema pasticcera. The crema in the photo above was made with 4 yolks that came from having made another batch of the exquisite chiffon cake from last month Daring Bakers' challenge. My aunt's version is lighter in color and texture.
- My crema is not very sweet. You can certainly add more sugar.
- I have made crema using whole milk and also lower fat alternatives (including non-fat milk). However, I have never tried to use a milk-substitute.
- I sometimes use vanilla sugar instead of regular sugar. You can also make a vanilla-flavored crema, by infusing a piece of vanilla bean split in half lengthwise, in the heated milk for an hour or so before using it.
- There are many recipes for crema, and some use different types of starch, like wheat starch and corn starch. I have never tried using them. The higher the amount of starch, the thicker the crema. Keep in mind though that crema thickens a bit as it cools.
- When I made crema with my aunt, I used one egg and 250 ml (a cup) of milk. I sometimes make the same amount (for various uses), in which case the amount of sugar is 3 tablespoons (33 g), the amount of flour is 1 1/2 tablespoons (12 g) and the amount of lemon strip is half the one specified above.
All the possible variations make crema quite versatile. Did I say it that it is delicious?
This is my submission for the Apples & Thyme memoir event co-hosted by Jeni of The Passionate Palate and Inge of Vanielje Kitchen. Here is Jeni's round-up and here is Inge's roundup of Apples & Thyme #1.
Click on the button to hear me pronounce the Italian words mentioned in the post:
or launch the crema pasticcera audio file [mp3].
[Depending on your set-up, the audio file will be played within the browser or by your mp3 player application. Please, contact me if you encounter any problems.]
HI Simona! Your writing about your aunt is so touching. That dispensa sounds like a magical pantry indeed! Thanks for the crema recipe, I'll have to try it...
Posted by: Lori Lynn @ Taste With The Eyes | November 09, 2007 at 09:13 AM
Fantastic post. The crema sounds so comforting...actually something I would like right this minute! I love the memories of your aunt, her preserves, her cooking!
Thank you for participating,
Posted by: Jeni | November 09, 2007 at 03:52 PM
What a special aunt, zia Lucia. Thanks so much for sharing the recipe with us. I plan on making it again very soon.
Posted by: Paz | November 09, 2007 at 03:56 PM
What a lovely remembrance for your zia, Simona. Thank you for sharing it with us and thank you for entering it in Apples & Thyme. It will be part of a collection of remembrances of some amazing women. Your aunt will be in good company
Posted by: African Vanielje | November 09, 2007 at 05:48 PM
Thanks Lori Lynn: to me it was. I could always walk in it and find something delicious to eat.
You are welcome, Jeni. The crema is indeed quite comforting.
You are welcome, Paz. It was my pleasure.
You are welcome. Inge. I can't wait to read about the other women.
Posted by: Simona | November 10, 2007 at 08:19 AM
What a fantastic memory - and a wonderful way to get your milk!
Posted by: Katie | November 10, 2007 at 12:32 PM
What a great post, Simona. Thank you for your recipe. I'm keeping it :)
Posted by: [email protected] | November 10, 2007 at 06:40 PM
Thank you very much for the heartfelt tribute to your zia Simona. This recipe is truly a tribute to her!
Posted by: Valli | November 11, 2007 at 07:51 AM
Hi Katie. Indeed, it was.
You are welcome, Maryann and Valli.
Posted by: Simona Carini | November 11, 2007 at 04:27 PM
Sounds like some home-cooked comfort food.
Posted by: Kelly Mahoney | November 11, 2007 at 05:07 PM
Golosissima questa crema pasticcera.
Posted by: lenny | November 11, 2007 at 11:54 PM
Io invece faccio la crema pasticcera di nonna Loreta :-) Bellissima la foto con gli alberi che si rispecchiano sul tavolo! Un abbraccio, Alex
Posted by: Alex | November 11, 2007 at 11:56 PM
I can see you, Simona, sitting among the pots of some of my favorite flowers, "so completely content." A very pretty post, with many lovely, lyrical moments. Thanks for taking me along.
Posted by: Susan | November 12, 2007 at 04:28 AM
Hi Kelly. It's certainly comfort food, sweet and soothing.
Ciao Lenny: certamente golosa.
Ciao Alex e grazie. Come e' la crema di nonna Loreta?
Hi Susan and thanks for your kind words.
Posted by: Simona Carini | November 12, 2007 at 09:47 AM
Congratulation for your italian "cucina" from Italy!
Posted by: Finazio | November 13, 2007 at 07:36 AM
I've just recommended this blog in the main Italian translators' list (langit), since I find it (your blog) really interesting. I believe you’re creating a wonderful encyclopedia, not just a "simple" dictionary!
Saluti da Roma,
Posted by: Carolina | November 13, 2007 at 10:50 AM
Thank you Finazio for stopping by. As a side note, I lived in Sesto for a couple of years before I moved to California.
Thank you so much, Carolina, for the kind words and the recommendation: I am honored. I actually worked as a translator (of nursing books) right after I got my degree: I liked it a lot.
Posted by: Simona Carini | November 13, 2007 at 02:39 PM
Ah sweet memories.
Sweet in more ways than one.
Thank you for this lovely, nostalgic post. I love crema too, and I used to make it for my mother, with the recipe from the book "Under the Tuscan Sun". It's funny that after a lifetime of crema, that's the recipe we ended up liking.
Posted by: anna maria | November 14, 2007 at 06:54 PM
What lovely memories... and what a wonderful-sounding dish!
Posted by: Ann | November 15, 2007 at 10:56 AM
I would love to be in a dispensa like your aunt's -- your description was as good as a picture. I wonder if your aunt didn't boil her pastry cream because she was giving it to you as a milk substitute? Lovely recipe, great writing, what's not to like? So, I am now a subscriber to your blog -- thank you!
Posted by: Laurie Constantino | November 15, 2007 at 11:58 AM
We have one thing in common, we both learned from our aunts. Cheers!
Posted by: Gay | November 15, 2007 at 06:00 PM
Ciao Anna Maria. I have the book, so I'll look at the recipe you mention.
Thank you, Ann. I can assure you, it is quite yummy.
Thank you, Laurie. I wish it were not too late to ask her that and oh! so many other things.
And another one is that we are both foodies, Gay.
Posted by: Simona Carini | November 16, 2007 at 07:52 AM
How totally and unbelievably yummy. But I have a question: your profile says that you live in Berkeley and in Trinidad? Is that true?
I love that your aunt gave you cherries soaked in alcohol when you were a child and teenager. The whole guarding-children-from-alcohol thing in North America is so paranoid.
Posted by: Pieds Des Anges (Kyla) | November 16, 2007 at 09:22 AM
Hi Kyla. As a kid I was given small quantities of wine and of spumante. It's pretty normal in Italy and I think it is a good custome.
Thanks for making me think about updating and clarifying my profile. I switched the order of the two places, since for a while now I have been spending less time in Berkeley and more in Humboldt County, California. No, not the Caribbean. Sincere apologies if I confused you: I tend to forget about the homonym. Thank you for your comment.
Posted by: Simona Carini | November 16, 2007 at 09:47 AM
What beautiful memories you have of time spent with your aunt. Thank you for sharing both these and your aunt's crema recipe.
Posted by: Cakelaw | November 16, 2007 at 03:24 PM
Your memories are beautifully expressed; I so enjoyed reading this post.
Posted by: Lisa | November 17, 2007 at 06:36 AM
Thank you both Lisa and Cakelaw (I like this intriguing name).
Posted by: Simona Carini | November 18, 2007 at 12:35 PM
That looks and sounds delicious! That would definitely get me to have milk if I'd refused to drink it! Do you actually bake this into your crostata, or add it after the crostata is baked?
Posted by: Julie | November 18, 2007 at 10:13 PM
Hi Julie. I bake the crema with the crostata. One thing is that the crust we make in Italy is different from the pie crust usually made here. I am actually planning to write a post about it some time soon, so stay tuned!
Posted by: Simona Carini | November 19, 2007 at 10:02 AM
Such lovely memories, and I can honestly say that I can see at least one afternoon full of crema pasticcera in my future ;)
Posted by: Michelle | Bleeding Espresso | December 05, 2007 at 01:07 PM
Thank you I hope you'll enjoy your afternoon, sognatrice.
Posted by: Simona | December 07, 2007 at 03:19 PM
It must be now ten years since zia Lucia passed away.
May she rest in peace and light, along with all our zie who made our lives happy. :)
Thank you for this wonderful entry.
Posted by: H. | November 07, 2012 at 06:21 AM
Indeed, the anniversary has just passed. I was in Italy last month and visited her place of rest. She is alive in my memories and in my heart. Thank you for the kind words.
Posted by: Simona Carini | November 10, 2012 at 08:49 AM