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Last year I went on an expedition with Citty Katt to an estate sale in Minneapolis, at a grand old brownstone house near the Art Institute.  It was there I found a book entitled, The Italian Baker, by Carol Field- and it’s a really great guide.

Here is a good recipe for a typical bread from Sicily, and it makes a very enjoyable  loaf, which is made with durum or very fine semolina flour.  You can shape the bread one of 3 standard ways – the Mafalda (like a curled snake with a baton laid across the top); a scaletta (ladder); or a Corona (crown).

I made a couple of substitutions to make this today – using part milk as liquid, as well as butter instead of olive oil – and I reduced the salt by half, which I think is still plenty salty.

But here are the ingredients as they appear in Ms. Field’s book (makes 2 loaves):

2-1/2 tsp dry yeast

1/4 cup warm water

1 T olive oil

1 tsp malt syrup

1 cup water, room temperature

~ 2-1/2 cups (350 grams) durum flour or very fine semolina for pasta

1 cup plus 1 T (150 grams) unbleached all-purpose flour

2-3 tsp salt

1/4 cup sesame seeds.

Proof the yeast in the warm water for 10 minutes before whisking in oil, sweetening and 1 cup water.  (For reference, the author said to pulverize the semolina flour in a food processor until it is silky, if you use American semolina, which is coarser than its Italian counterpart – I did that and it worked just fine).  Mix the flours together and add 1 cup at a time along with the salt, beating vigorously, and when it is ready to knead, put your heart into it.  Semolina is a hard wheat with a very high gluten content, which makes it ideal for breadmaking.

Allow to rise for about 1-1/2 hours before punching down and shaping into loaves.  For my Mafalda, I shaped the dough into a long rope, probably 2+ feet long, and formed it directly on the baking pan, which was lined with parchment and sprinkled with cornmeal.   I misted some water over the top, followed by sesame seeds- which are very characteristic in Sicilian breads.

This will be one more rising of 1 to 1-1/2 hours.   In a 425F oven mist some water when you place the loaves in the center rack.  In the first 10 minutes, spray additional water in a total of 3 times, before reducing the heat to 400.  Continue baking for another 25 minutes or so before cooling on racks.

When I was living in Taipei about 25 years ago, my landlord was kind enough to walk me through his recipe for Ma Po Dofu (known among other names as Stinky Tofu, because of the unmistakable  pungency  of fermented black beans.  They’re like micro- truffles).

I always order this dish in restaurants when it is available anywhere in the country, but I have never had the courage to try and prepare  it myself.  I always thought it was complicated, and it’s not.

I made MaPoDofu today for the first time in my home-wok and it was almost as good as my landlord’s version, cooked on a hot-plate in the northern suburbs of Taipei City.  Shih Lin District, Section 6.  It’s a rich dish, with lots of fire.  You’re going to be using Szechuan peppercorns, and they are no joke.  They also define the dish, if it’s an authentic recipe.  You have to roast them and then grind them – and the amazing thing is they retain their flintiness, as well as the heat.  Also, find DaBanJyaon (a bean and chili paste, spelled in a few highly confusing variations), and some hot chili oil.

I referred to two fine recipes online to cook this dish to the best of my memory-, and consulted a couple of good Chinese cookbooks.  One version included fresh ginger, and the other didn’t.  I include ginger in my version.

20 oz silken tofu

1/4 # ground pork

3 T Spicy bean paste (Toban Djan, see above)

2 T ground chili (I used 1/2 ancho and 1/2 Hungarian Paprika)

2 T cooking oil

3 T chili oil

1 T Szechuan peppercorns (roasted and ground)

1 T soy sauce

1 tsp fermented black beans (rinsed and pounded)

2 stalks of leeks/scallions for garnish- cut them at a sharp fine angle

2 cloves minced garlic

an equal amount of minced ginger, and 1/2 cup of water.

I cut my tofu into cubes, about 3/4″, and set them in a sieve to rest and become firmer.  Meanwhile, heat the cooking oil and chili oil over medium heat, adding the garlic, pork, spicy bean paste stirring well with a good, metal wok-spatula (this  tool makes your job as a cook much easier).  If you’re using a skillet or a deep skillet instead of a wok, a regular spatula or metal spoon may work equally well.

Now add in your ground chili (something from a good Asian market is better than my short cut, but I think I was still coloring inside the lines), the soy sauce, and your black bean paste.  Now you have something special.

Add the dofu and water, incorporating everything carefully into the stew,  decreasing the heat and simmering no longer than 5 minutes more.  Serve this with steamed white rice.  This dish helps define an entire province in China, as a minor player on a much larger stage.