When I was 15 I was prone to fall in love, a little too promptly, with any young man who was introduced to me. There was an Ascanio, and then a Fabio, followed by Stefano and Pietro, there were Carlo and Giovanni, and also Jacopo. These young people all shared the same trait: they thought I was part of the background, an opaque shadow, an out of focus object that nobody really saw. I dreamt of being asked to dance, but I especially wished to be kissed. Yes, kissed. That most racy activity, the culmination of the action in all the romantic books I used to read. From the pages of Jane Austen to the Brontë sisters, from Emma Orczy to Delly -- the latter being the very prolific author of many fabulous novels that formed "La Bibliothèque de la Rose" -- I had learned that a kiss sealed serious love and innocent passion.
Well-versed in the genre, I too had written a novel at the age of 12. It had been my subterfuge to escape the hated hour of "Economia Domestica," during which I was supposed to embroider bed sheets for poor kids. (Why on earth would indigent children need to sleep under embroidered linen was beyond my understanding, as I personally thought unfussiness was much nicer.) Therefore, in order to escape the ordeal of holding a needle in my fingers, I made a pact with my classmates: they would do my work and I would entertain them by reading my manuscript out loud.
"The Duke of Heidelberg," as it was so cleverly named, was a huge critical success, but I still had never been kissed and the door to splendid nuptials and a happily-ever-after life never sprung open. Why was romance eluding me? I needed to feel my legs give way under my body, the earth tremble and moon rays descend on me, caressing, the way my novel described so well and with such realism.
Some of my unsuspecting targets were cadets at Livorno's Naval Academy and would arrive at our parties in their splendid uniforms, with their gold spadino, dress-sword, hanging from their belts. Such spadini were the stuff of legend. Apparently if a girl was able to extract one from its sheath, she would then be kissed by the owner. That was an exciting possibility, of course. A heap of gold swords was piled up on the tables at the entrance, next to the coats, tantalizing possibility for a romantic end to the evening. All I needed to do was to put my hands on that heap and pull out as many as possible. The rest would be easy.
But, no matter how many spadini I was able to seize (when all the doors were closed and no one could see me) no one ever sought my lips.
What to do? There was just one possibility left. Organize a party at my home and prepare an amazing menu of various desserts. The coveted cadets would discover that I, Patrizia, had baked them all.
Bustling at the stove was second nature to me and I never thought much about preparing a complicated meal. When the day that was to be my great social exploit arrived, I had a new weapon under my sleeve: a strawberry tart, my pièce de resistance. I had prepared the dough, chilled it, rolled it, baked it and finally filled it with homemade Chantilly cream and decorated with trillions of fragoline di bosco , the tiniest strawberries, all meticulously arranged in concentric order. It was beautiful.
Carlo, my target of the day, was immediately invited to plunge the knife and cut the first slice. He tried, but no matter how he pushed with the strength of his 18 years, he couldn't even perforate the surface. Somehow my dough had turned into cement. Disaster! The harder he tried the worse it was; the golden cream started to slide everywhere and the minuscule strawberries got smashed during those awkward attempts. The harder he tried the redder I turned, desperately hoping to disappear from the face of earth.
Pity surfaced in the eyes of my guests; slowly the entire group started dancing. I was left behind, with a steely cake, a few gold swords and not even a kiss ...
But here is my Cherry Tart recipe -- the fool-proof one, naturally! -- for those who have asked for it after my last blog. Buon Appetito! (If you wish, you can always substitute the cherries with fresh fruit of your choice)
1 cup 1/3 flour
1 cup 1/3 butter (room temperature)
1 cup 1/3 sugar
3 egg yolks
A pinch of salt
Cherries, enough to fill the tart. I use 1 pound, more is fine.
2 tablespoons brown sugar
2 tablespoons rum
In a bowl, work the butter into the flour, salt and sugar with your hands or a fork, and then add the egg yolks to make a firm, if somewhat sticky, dough. Transfer the dough on to a piece of wax paper or baking parchment, piling it up with the spatula as it will be difficult to work with your hands. Wrap the paper around it and put it in the refrigerator for a couple of hours. (OK to leave in the refrigerator for a day or two.)
In the meantime, pit the cherries and cook them quickly, for about 10 minutes, in a pan with sugar and rum. Leave them to cool.
Prepare a pie dish. Take the dough out of the refrigerator and quickly (very important) place the dough -- still on the wax paper -- in the pie dish. Spread it with a spatula until it fills the entire pan, making sure to leave a thick border. Fill it with cherries and bake at 325 for about 50 minutes.