World on a Plate

Exploring culture. One plate at a time.

Category: Bread

Giro di Italia Stage 4 & 5: Piedmont Region

I am working on reconnecting with writing and finding a place where I can create and learn all at the same time. I have had this site for nearly five years. At times more productive than lately. I thought the discipline of an event such as the Giro would help to getting me closer to understanding what it is that, or why it is that I feel the need to keep this very site going. So there may be some fits and starts along with some bumps along the way as I get my rhythm back.


Stage 4: Time Trial; 32.5 km | Savigliano to Cuneo
Stage 5: 168 km | Novara to Novi Ligure

Today marks the first of series of posts focused on Italian regional cuisine as measured by the progress of one of the epic cycling events of the year, the Giro d’Italia. Although there is no “Lance factor” with the Giro it is still a great challenge to watch and yes, it goes on for weeks–that’s the fun of it. The other two big races take place in France (July) and Spain (August).

Today and tomorrow find us at Stage 4 and 5 and through the Northwest corner of Italy through the region of Piedmont, an area surrounded on three sides by mountains.


What many don’t know is that this region is home to grissini (gruh-SEE-nee). Not those bland, ubiquitous sticks found at standard bearer Italian restaurants. A true grissini is made by hand, pencil thin and crispy. At times it can be up to nearly a yard long (or one meter for those non American readers). Thought to have been created in 17th century Turin they can be found virtually everywhere in Italy (and around the world!) nowadays.

A great bit of folklore imparts that it was created in 17th century Turin to cure the digestive problems of a duke whose had a court baker who devised a recipe leading which healed the duke’s tummy woes so well that he went on to be king. Legend has it that today the ghost of the king haunts his old castle, with a grissino in hand. It is also said that Napoleon had a mad obsession for grissini or what he called “little sticks of Turin” and would have them shipments follow him where ever he marched.

Stirato (straight) grissini are crisp and light in taste and are no bigger than 3/8″ in diameter; Rubata are hand-rolled producing a thicker and more like an ordinary breadlike taste.

A former colleague of mine often made a lunch of grissini bought at the local bakery. He’d wrap anchovies and prosciutto around each and stare out his window. Maybe he was thinking of his next vacation. It did, however, keep people out of his office long after the meal was complete.

Often you will see breadsticks served alongside the region’s signature dish, Bagna Caoda, a hot bath made of olive oil, garlic (often at a ratio of 1 garlic head to a person), chopped into a fine paste, and milk or cream. The breadstick, along with raw vegetables and sometimes cooked potatoes are used as a vehicle making for quite a satisfying meal. Often when the bagna caoda is nearly gone, an egg is added to the persons “bath,” scrambled and eaten.


Best if made and eaten on the same day as you want them crisp.

Quick light supper, wrap proscuitto around grissini, slices of Parmesan and nuts.

Piedmont References: World on a Plate

Gusto de Piedmont
Bicerin: coffee specialty
Cheese of Piedmont

Other recipes

Smitten Kitchen Cheese Straws
King Arthur Sesame Grissini
Cooking Light Parmesan & Cracked Pepper Grissini

Sweet Potatoes vs. Yams–


It’s that time of the season for sweet potato pie, biscuits and more…so I’ve dug this out from the archives and warm it up a bit to answer the ongoing question.  Enjoy!

Every Thanksgiving it’s guaranteed that someone will ask, ‘What’s the difference between yams and sweet potatoes?" It seems most don’t know and assume ‘well, it’s two different names so it must be different, right?’  This has been my answer for many years.  Well, this year I’ve decided to be the smarty pants. 

The short answer is, this–yams and sweet potatoes are similar in that they grow underground and have orange flesh however  each is botanically different from the other.  The longer explanation is that yams are tropical vines of the genus Dioscorea and have a more reddish flesh. Large, starchy, and edible the tuberous roots can grow up to two even three feet long and weigh as much as 80 pounds.  Sweet potatoes belong to the morning glory family and are native to the tropical areas of the Americas. There are two basic types of sweet potatoes: moist (orange-fleshed) and dry (yellow-fleshed).  It’s the orange-flesh version that is mistakenly called yams.

You see it was really a marketing angle adopted in the 1930s by some Louisiana farmers looking to distinguish their sweet tuber which they called a “yam” from the dry, pale sweet version grown in the North. So today in American supermarkets, “yams” are sweet potatoes with vivid orange color, and, when cooked, are sweet and moist. The most popular "yam" is the Beauregard, which is uniform in size and shape with smooth skin and deep orange flesh. 

So what we are seeing in the markets, at least here in the States and Canada labeled as yams are actually sweet potatoes with a relatively moist texture and orange flesh. 

Over at Straight Dope the following is offered:

"Contrary to what even some grocery store produce guys think, yams and sweet potatoes are unrelated vegetables, though in both cases you’re eating the root of a tropical vine. Sweet potatoes, Ipomoea batatas ("batata" is the original Taino name, whence potato), are an American plant of the morning glory family, whereas yams are of the genus Dioscorea. Yams, which are rarely seen in the U.S. and Canada but are a staple in tropical regions, can grow up to seven feet in length. The name is thought to derive from the West African word nyami, "to eat," which is heard in Jamaican patois expressions such as, Oonu wan fi nyam banana dem?, ‘Do you guys want to eat those bananas?’"

A scientific side-by-side comparison

Imagedb The Bread Bible

by Beth Hensperger

Sweet Potato Biscuits

1 large sweet potato, baked and peeled (about 10oz.)

1 2/3 cup unbleached all-purpose flour

1 tblspn light brown sugar

2 1/2 tspns baking powder

1/2 tspn salt

6 tblspns cold unsalted butter, cut into small pieces

1/4 cup cold milk or heavy cream

Mash or puree the sweet potato pulp by hand, in a blender, or in a food processor until smooth for a total of 3/4 cup.

Preheat the oven to 425 degrees.  Grease or parchment-line a baking sheet.  In a bowl using a whisk or electric mixer, combine the flour, sugar, baking powder, and salt.

Using a pastry blender or two knives, cut the butter into the dry ingredients.  The mixture will resemble coarse crumbs, with no large chunks of butter.  If the butter gets very soft at this point, refrigerate the mixture to chill the butter.  Add the sweet potato pulp and milk or cream, stirring just to moisten all the ingredients.  The dough will be moist, then stiffen while stirring.  It should be slightly shaggy, but not sticky.

Turn the dough out onto a lightly floured work surface and knead gently about 6 times, or just until the dough holds together.  Roll out the dough into a rectangle no more than 3/4′ thick.  Take care not to add too much flour at this point or the biscuits will be tough.  Cut with a floured 2" biscuit cutter, pushing straight down without twisting.  Re roll the scraps to cut out additional biscuits.

Place the biscuits 1/2" apart on the baking sheet.  Place the baking sheet on a rack in the center of the oven and bake 15 to 18 minutes or until golden brown.  Let rest a few minutes and serve hot.

Cruise West to Go Inside


If you are looking here for continuation of The Baker’s Passport series you’ll need to wait another week or so while I get this post out of my system.  I’ve been away for two weeks on holiday. And while this is a bit of a "what I learned on my summer vacation" this next statement will shock a good many of you so I’m just going to put it out there.

I was on an Alaskan cruise.  Not a big mega cruise ship but a small cruise line, Cruise West based in Seattle.  And do they know how to show a girl a good time. This trip is a huge benefit of my job and the best surprise of all to me is that I would do it all again and again.  There ships are designed for an up close and intimate experience, sorta like Alaska in hi-def.  And they are conscious about the impact they are having and do something about it actively by reaching out to the communities they travel in.  Plus if you are into the nature up-close thing their boats can do "donuts"…oh there a whale, no wait over there…!

Over seven days 70 of us floated among bitty bergs and glacial waters peeping at glaciers, (they are all pretty much receding), bears (looking very lean from a longer than typical winter), and humpback whales, dolphins, stellar seal loins, puffins, and the one of the single most spectacular moments of  my life occurred in 25 degree weather at 12:30am, a viewing of the Aurora Borealis. My 8th grade dream realized!

I’m a bit of a lucky gal as this was my second time in Alaska. I’ve stayed at Camp Denali during a fall pro photographer’s tour a few years back and now I’ve seen the Inside Passage from a puffin’s view (interestingly they do look as they appear on the Trader Joe’s cereal box!). So, the icing on the cake on this sailing was that most of the passengers onboard were not only there for the marine and wildlife they were all into talking about light, exposure, pixels and the ongoing raw vs. jpeg debate. (When will this question end?)  Mark Kelly, a local Alaskan and professioinal photographer helping out with the logistics of putting us in the right spot at the right time (see photo above) and their was another professional, Julie Smith, helping us out with all types of photo-related problem solving.


Vacations to state the blind obvious, are magnificent things. Often we don’t realize how much we need the escape of routines. To be pulled from the ho-hum ordinary into the extra ordinary. To hear stories about others and to think maybe, just maybe I could be that, I could do this or that. That’s what this trip did for me. You see if you have a leaning, I mean a real passion for something like nature, or for the bigger prouder "environment" you need to go to Alaska.  The size and shape of the land will shock you and humble you all in one breath. And it’ll sneak right up on you and make you re-evaluate most of what you thought was important in existence. Really, it’s that big. You learn to use the full range of your senses allowing you to return to your previous existence slightly changed.

Before the trip began I took a rather indulgent and pricey 40-mile excursion south of Juneau on a float plane over the Juneau Ice Fields taking in the Taku Glacier and landing for lunch at the same-named lodge.  Now what drew me to this quiet rather senior citizen outing was of course the notion of eating the pink fish in Alaska in a wild and rustic setting. Oh yes and although I persuade people all day to buy things they may or may  not want I was drawn in by the "your cool beverage will be chilled with chips of 1,000 year old glacial ice." Hey, we all by bottle water so back off.

The lodge site is between two glaciers on the Taku River. Lunch was already in progress.  The BBQ pit was being stoked and fanned with alder wood by the young chefs in preparation for the wild King salmon bake. Inside the lodge the finishing accompaniments of reindeer sausage, baked beans, blueberry coffeecake scones, baked compote and herb biscuits was being pulled together.  There was little to be seen of Scarface the bear that lives well during the season on salmon droppings.


After lunch we heard the story of the long-time previous owner of the lodge Mary Joyce who in 1935 at the age of 27 decided that just for fun she’d like to drive a dog team 1,000 miles from Juneau to Fairbanks. Frankly, everyone thought she was off her sled but she arrived in Fairbanks, where she learned she was entered in the Miss Alaska beauty contest and declined that in favor of honorary membership in the Pioneer Women of Alaska.   Ms. Joyce also had a salmon-eating cow and a connection to the Smith in Smith-Corona but that’s a whole ‘nother story.

Finally we were invited to ask questions.  After I asked enough appropriately worded but pointed questions about personal observations on global warming, waste disposal, the source of the wild king salmon (locally caught and sustainable) and about the realness of glacial ice in my glass all was confirmed with the yarn about "how" these young lodge keepers keep their "refrigerated" goods chilled by an itty bitty berg.

Imagine that, all in the last true frontier, and just one day.

Taku Herb Biscuits

Adapted from Taku Glacier Lodge Secret Recipes

These biscuits were all flaky goodness. 

4 cups bread flour

3/4 cup dry milk

2 tsp. baking powder

2tsp. salt

1/2 cup Parmesan cheese

1 level tbsp each of dried thyme, parsley, tarragon, basil

1/2 tbsp. garlic powder

1 cup cold butter

About 1 1/2 cups very cold water

Preheat oven to 450 degrees.

Place all ingredients except butter and water in mixing bowl, cut butter into mix (so pieces are not smaller than a peanut).

Make a well and add cold water. Don’t add all the water at once. Work enough to make a slightly sticky dough, adding water as needed.

Place dough on floured board. Fold, turn it over and fold again. Do this about 8x. You may need to add a little flour between folds if the dough is too sticky.

Pat into a square about 1" thick, cut into square shaped biscuits or simply use a round cutter.

Place on an ungreased cookie sheet and bake for 25-30 minutes.

Best served hot accompanied by butter and honey. 

Rosca de Reyes


The last two weeks has seen quite of a lot of requests for this post from the archive. So here’s a piece of Rosca de Reyes for everyone all around!

Today marks the end of the Christmas holiday in many parts of the world. Twelfth Night or The Epiphany is also often referred to as Three Kings Day in some parts of the world. At feasts marking the occasion, there is often a special bread or cake with a bean, coin, or figurine baked in it. The person getting the piece with the good luck token becomes the Twelfth Night King or Queen, leading revelers in merrymaking.

The day celebrates the Biblical story of the three gift-bearing kings who reached the Christ child on January 6 after following the star of Bethlehem. According to the story, the Three Wise Men– named (Gaspar, Melchor and Baltazar – presented the Baby Jesus with gifts of gold (spiritual wealth of Jesus), frankincense (the image of the earth and sky) and myrrh (for medicinal and spiritual use).

Traditionally in Mexico, Three Kings Day was the gift-giving time, rather than Christmas day. In some rural regions of Mexico it is customary for children to leave their shoes out on the night of January 5, often filling them with hay for the camels, in hopes that the Three Kings would be generous. Mexican children would awake on January 6 to find their shoes filled with toys and gifts. Today many will write a letter to the kings (or choose one king as their favorite) asking for their special gifts and will leave the letter on the eve of Three Kings Day in an old shoe, under a bed.

In many cultures the day is commemorated with a Three Kings Cake. In Germany it is known as Dreikönigskuchen and is made with pecans and fruit. The French take is Galette des Rois is a typically a puff pastry filled with frangipane (almond cream) and a simple syrup icing. Many of us are here in the States are more familiar with its colorful and close cousin from New Orleans. In Mexico and Spain the “cake,” Rosca de Reyes is a bit more brioche like and flavored with lemon and orange zests, brandy, orange flower water and almonds.

The Rosca de Reyes, "kings ring" is a crown-shaped sweet bread decorated with pieces of candied orange and lime resembling the jewels of a crown.  It is often filled with nuts, figs, and cherries. Into this bread is baked a small plastic doll symbolizing a secure place away from Herod´s army where the infant child could be born. As each piece is cut with a knife, symbolizing the danger in which the Baby Jesus was in, everyone carefully checks their slice, hopping they didn’t get the figurine as they will need to host, Candelaria or Candle mass day. This day, February 2, is exactly, 40 days after Christmas when the Virgin Mary was purified. The nativity scene is put away and the baby Jesus, in the form of a porcelain doll, is clothed in his christening gown and presented in church.

Like pan de muertos, many women still prepare the breads at home.  Today, however, more and more families go to local bakeries where small versions serving two-three people and huge breads for 20 can be bought.  Tamales and hot chocolate can also be found on the feast table at this time.

Patricia Rain’s Rosca de Reyes recipe