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Food writer reveals unusual side of Italian desserts

Italian delicacies like tiramisu and cannolis are familiar to people around the globe and the list may grow as veteran food writer Francine Segan shares unusual Italian desserts in her newest book.
/ Source: Reuters

Italian delicacies like tiramisu and cannolis are familiar to people around the globe and the list may grow as veteran food writer Francine Segan shares unusual Italian desserts in her newest book.

"Dolci: Italy's Sweets," is the result of her extensive research looking for recipes. Segan met Italian home cooks and professional chefs who make usual pairings like sugar, honey and chocolate with pasta, chickpeas, eggplant and even meat.

The New York native spoke to Reuters about the wide range of Italian desserts, her motivation for doing the book and the surprises she encountered.

Q: Why did you decide to focus on desserts with this book?

A: "I felt I traveled a lot through Italy. While my first loves are pizzas, pasta and prosciutto, I realized that there are so many desserts we don't know about here in the States. I was shocked. As I travel more and more, I realize not only don't we know about them in the states. But from one region (in Italy) to the next, they don't even know them."

Q: How do you think that happened?

A: "Italy was so divided. It was more like 20 different countries. Now it's definitely like 10 major regions. They are really competitive with each other. It became a treasure hunt for me to discover authentic recipes, not just from a restaurant, but a restaurant that's been around and is really entrenched ... Then I was fascinated by some of the bizarre ones."

Q: What is the biggest shock you discover during your research for the book?

A: "The biggest surprise is that they eat pasta for dessert. That was a shock. I thought it was a joke. I thought it was just one place. And then I was doing an article on chocolate in Piedmont. That's where I learned about it two years ago ... More and more people started looking at me like 'You don't know we have pasta for dessert?' There are dessert raviolis. Then I was shocked by how many recipes there were in the different regions. Some of these recipes you could find them in books going back to the 1700s. They are not new at all."

Q: Did you manage to convince anyone here to taste those unusual desserts?

A: "There is this mini meat-and-chocolate turnover pie from Sicily. When I tell people that it has meat and chocolate, people don't want to taste it. I have to lie to them. I have to say there is a surprise in there and ask whether you are vegetarian."

Q; This book is a collection of other people's recipes, not original ones you created for your other books? Why?

A: "I personally feel I want to preserve the integrity of regional food. Sometimes I feel there is almost a little too much tweaking going on. I personally don't love going to an Italian restaurant here in the States and find dishes you have never even seen in Italy, that would appall Italians, the combination of flavors.

"There is too much sauce. I feel like they really do a good job over there. Most of all, I feel like I want to give you a little travel trip about what is real in Italy, so I wanted them to be 100 percent authentic.

"When I wanted panna cotta, I went to the region where it was created. I went to a cooking school where the person is known to make the best panna cotta. I went to establishments which have been around for dozens and dozens of years. There are recipes handwritten in books going back to the 1800s and made the same way. There are also bloggers who are doing what I am hoping to do, which is to preserve some of the classic recipes before we nouveau cuisine, gastro, micro ourselves crazy."

Q: What is a common mistake of making Italian desserts?

A: "People put too much butter and sugar (in the dessert). You don't drown butter and sugar in Italian desserts. You don't want too many ingredients."

Q: Since writing this book, what Italian desserts you make at home for yourself?

A: "The thing I want to go back to a lot because they are so amazingly flexible ... are these little peach-shaped cookies (pesche dolci). They could sit inside a sealed bag for months. You could fill them with lemon curd, Nutella or pastry cream. There are also the pasta crisps. You use leftover pasta, twirl it with fork and fry it in olive oil and drizzle them with honey and pistachio nuts. It sounds so simple but it really holds together. It's not greasy. It's crunchy on the outside and chewy on the inside."

Hazelnut Chocolate Pasta (Pasta al Gianduiotti)

Serves 4

1/2 pound angel hair or other thin long pasta

12 gianduiotti, hazelnut chocolate candies, or 12 tablespoons quality hazelnut chocolate spread

Whipped cream or mascarpone cheese

Chopped hazelnuts

Hazelnut liqueur such as Frangelico (optional)

Cook the pasta according to package directions. Drain.

Put 1 gianduiotti in each of 4 wine glasses or dessert bowls. Divide the hot pasta among them and top each with 2 more gianduiotti.

Serve immediately, topped with a dollop of whipped cream or mascarpone cheese, a splash of hazelnut liqueur and sprinkle of hazelnuts, if you like.