Liz: Well, hello. Welcome to a Special Travel Edition here at food for fun. I hope you brought your passport, as we’re going International today.
First, you’ll want to meet my friend Saucy of Saucy Gander. She puts my simple and homespun cooking to shame with her out-of-this-world elegant, showstopping fare. Saucy, everybody. Everybody, meet Saucy!
SG: Hi, all! Liz and I have been talking about a cocktail party for a while. Not just any cocktail party, but a stupendous affair that came straight from Sicily. Think the freshest seafood, fabulous cocktails, and sweet, sweet desserts. The only snag? We have to gate-crash that party.
We heard the host likes her food and wine. Liz had the idea of showing up with such beautiful food and drink that we would be the most popular people at the party. We prepared for our dramatic entrance. And then …
Host: Hello? …oh my goodness, it’s Liz and Saucy! Welcome, ladies! Please come in… And you have food? Bless you! Looks like you brought clams? And red punch? Cake? Liz, is it all as deLizious as it looks? Only the best for this party!
Liz: Saucy asked me to come up with Sicilian fare for your party, so I did what any self-respecting Midwestern cook would do: I googled. Clams casino seemed a lovely appetizer for an outdoor party—Your terrace is breathtaking, by the way. Those orange blossom flowers are stunning!—and they were simple to make. At their most basic, clams casino are clams on the halfshell topped with breadcrumbs and bacon. My recipe had more filling than clams, but the filling made a lovely side on its own.
Though an American dish, clams casino was invented by Italian immigrants using ingredients of their home country. Legend attributes the first clams casino recipe to a maître d’hotel at the Little Casino in Narragansett, Rhode Island in 1917, serving a woman of means who wanted something special for her guest. More specifically, Good Housekeeping Great American Classics names Mrs. Paran Stevens and maître d’hôtel Julius Keller. Stevens coined the dish after the hotel, and word and popularity of the dish has since spread.
Here, try them!
SG: How can you go wrong with clams and bacon?
Host: Loving these, thanks. We’ll pass them to guests *hands platter to passing guest* and now I’m hoping you‘ll tell us more about that cocktail. It’s bright red! Any chance it’s a negroni?Liz: You know your Sicilian cocktails! It is indeed a negroni. History here is a bit less certain than the clams, but the most widely reported account is that it was invented in Florence, Italy in 1919, at Caffè Casoni. Count Camillo Negroni asked bartender Fosco Scarselli to strengthen his favorite cocktail, the Americano, by replacing soda water with gin. An orange garnish, instead of the typical lemon, set it apart from the Americano as well.
History aside, all you need to know is that it’s a wonderful and bracing appetif—something to kick the appetite into high gear. The bitter Campari cuts the sweet vermouth, so if you like your drinks sugary, you’ll have to look elsewhere. But paired with these clams and the rest of your party fare, we have a good fit. And we’re going to get plenty of sweet from Saucy’s contribution. Prepare to be floored.
*pours negronis for all* Cheers! Now tell us about your cake, Saucy!
SG: The Triumph of Gluttony – a marvellous cake confectionery made in Sicilian convents from secret recipes.
Host: Gluttony, I like that.
SG: *laughing* Good! There are many version of this cake. According to Sicilian food: Recipes From Italy’s Abundant Isle, one version has five thin layers of pan di spagna (sponge cake) holding a delicate biancomangiare filling. Biancomangiare, by the way, is an old-fashioned ‘custard’ thickened with cornflour. In the filling, there are ‘bright green chips of pistachio and green-gold cubes of glistening zuccata’ looking like ‘so many tesserae from the mosaic wall of an Arab-Norman chapel’. And, ‘the faint suggestion of jasmine gave context to an affirmation of stick cinnamon, crushed in a mortar and sprinkled over every layer.’
Some recipes are more like cassata, with a sweet ricotta filling. Others are covered in pasta reale (marzipan) or pistachio jam.
My version is a mixture of these recipes: pan di spagna, sweet ricotta, chopped pistachios, candied citron (instead of zuccata), and pistachio jam poured down the side. Oh I also sprinkled chocolate crumbs over each layer. Because, chocolate.
Host: Proof of Gluttony is in the eating. I’m going to have a taste. Oh I like this, I’m going to have more.
*a minute or so passes as the host enjoys bite after bite*
SG: But… You’ve eaten the whole cake?!
Guests: *crowding around* We also saw a cake? Are you bringing that around??
SG: Liz, time to go mingle with the party guests!
Liz: I can’t wait! Thanks for finding this party, Saucy, and for making this phenomenal (and quick-to-disappear) dessert.
And the rest of the evening was as splendid as we expected…
- 2 tablespoon unsalted butter
- 3 strips pancetta or center-cut bacon, each sliced into 6 equal pieces
- 3 tablespoons finely diced red bell pepper
- 3 cloves garlic, minced
- 1/3 cup breadcrumbs (from 1 slice stale bread)
- 1 tablespoon finely grated Parmesan cheese
- 1/8 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
- 18 medium-size (about 2 1/2 inches) littleneck clams
- 2 tablespoons chopped fresh flat-leaf parsley
- Lemon wedges
In skillet, melt butter over medium heat. Add pancetta; saute until cooked, but not quite crisp. With slotted spoon, transfer pancetta to paper towels to drain. Add bell pepper to skillet; cook, stirring, 2 minutes. Add garlic; cook 1 minute longer. Remove from heat; stir in breadcrumbs, cheese, and black pepper.
Add about 2 inches water to Dutch oven or other heavy pot with tight-fitting lid; bring to a rapid boil over high heat. Add clams; cover. Cook 5 minutes or just until shells open. (It’s critical to remove and drain clams as soon as they open.) Cool clams until they can be handled. Twist and pull clam shells apart; remove clam. Place clam back into deeper of 2 shell halves. Set filled clam shells on broiler pan.
Heat broiler to high.
Divide breadcrumb mixture evenly among clams; top each with 1 piece pancetta. Broil about 8 inches from heat until topping is browned and pancetta edges are crisp. Sprinkle with parsley; serve hot with lemon wedges.
- 1 1/2 ounces sweet vermouth
- 1 1/2 ounces Campari
- 1 1/2 ounces gin
In old-fashioned glass filled with ice, combine all ingredients; stir well. Garnish with orange slice.
Find Saucy’s cake recipe here.