Tuesday, August 22, 2006


Moving to Italy presented a lot of challenges, not the least of which was trying to figure out all the kitchen stuff. Although I brought a lot of cooking utensils and plenty of cookbooks with me, there are still things I needed to buy here, like electrical appliances.

The first thing you need to do is to figure out what’s different, and once you have that down, you can combine the best of both worlds. Unfortunately for me, this hasn’t been an easy road.

Italians don’t use cups and teaspoons to measure ingredients. Most recipes will tell you how much flour, sugar or whatever to use by weight, which is where my new electronic scale comes in useful. This scale switches back and forth between ounces and grams, allowing me to convert American recipes to Italian style and vice-versa. Armed with a scale and Cristina’s handy conversion chart, I’m ready to cook.

The teaspoon/tablespoon conversion is a bit trickier. An Italian recipe will instruct you to use “a spoonful”. What spoonful? The tiny one for espresso? A teaspoon from the table setting? A tablespoon?

And then there are the recipes that tell you to use “a glassful”. Only because I have friends who’ve lived here for a while and who also cook do I know that this normally means this size glass, the one I call my everyday wine glass.  Yes, after you’ve been cooking for a while you get to know when a recipe needs a bit more of this or that, but it’s nice to at least know what the starting points are.

A trip to the grocery is interesting even if you’re only on vacation, but once you’re living here full-time you end up needing things that you probably never thought about when you were in that vacation rental.

First of all, you have to learn the Italian names for all your favorite spices, and then you need to discover, however painful it might be, just which of those aren’t available in Italy.

Coriander/cilantro? Better bring your own. Like lemon pepper and dill weed on your fish….stuff some in your suitcase. Vanilla extract? Celery seed? Cream of tartar? Bring ‘em along or do without.

Next you have to figure out what things are called in Italy. Oregano and basil are pretty easy to figure out, but cinnamon is called canella, nutmeg is noce moscata, and then there’s ginepro….juniper berries, which I NEVER used in the states, but use quite often here in Italy. I did bring a good dictionary of Italian/English cooking terms, and I use it all the time.

Cornstarch is here, but it’s called corn flour like it is in England. Additionally, when food terms are translated into English, quite often the British English will be used, not American English. Eggplants become aubergine, zucchini are courrgette and arugula is rocket.

Sometimes the things you want are here, but you just have to know where to look for them. Want baking soda? Don’t look with the baking stuff, check out the aisle with the bottled water and drinks.

Sugar is usually off somewhere all by itself, nowhere near the baking aisle either.

Eggs aren’t in the dairy case,  but usually on an unrefrigerated shelf near the boxed (UHT) milk, and they're sold in cartons of 10, not 12.

Fresh milk is pretty expensive here…we pay about €1 for one liter, so we normally use the UHT (Ultra High Temperature) stuff, which is a little cheaper.

We see people buying this UHT milk by the case, so this must be the norm. It comes whole (intero) and skim (parzialmente scremato).  Although the UHT milk comes unrefrigerated, make sure that once it’s open you keep it in the frig. It usually has a shelf life of 2 months or so (unopened), but be sure to check the dates when you buy it. I always reach to the back to get the milk with the longest shelf life.

In the dairy case you won’t find cheddar cheese or sour cream, (use plain yogurt as a substitute), and although cottage cheese is available here (Jocca by Kraft), Art’s says it’s not very good. You will find cream cheese here…just ask for “Philadelphia”, and sliced cheese similar to Kraft slices. (But don’t be surprised that it’s not orange…it’s white!) At first I thought it was ridiculous for a country that makes such amazing cheeses to make processed cheese, but when you want a grilled cheese sandwich, this works great.

Sometimes you have to know what to call the thing you’re looking for. Corn starch is called corn flour, and oatmeal is called fiocchi di aveno. Although you can buy baking powder here, be careful! Most of the baking powder here will have vanilla flavor included, which might be fine if you’re making a cake, but if you’re baking biscuits it might not be what you expected. Look for “American style” baking powder, or better yet, bring your own.

I still haven’t figured out all the flour in Italy. Basic flour is either “0”, all purpose or “00” for bread. But then the shelves are lined with other flours….for tortas, for dolce, for pasta, even “American style”!  Maybe this is why my bread is never quite the way I want it.

Pickles are available in limited quantities, and I’ve never found the variety that we have in the states: dill, sweet, bread and butter, pickle relish, etc. We usually bring back sweet pickle relish from the states because Art likes it in his tuna salad, and a dear friend grew her own dill and pickling cucumbers so that she could enjoy a good dill pickle. She even shared a jar with us!

Don’t’ bother looking for Crisco or PAM, or even canola oil. You’ll find corn oil, sunflower oil and of course olive oil. If you don’t have Crisco you can substitute butter or lard (found in the dairy case). I’ve found that Crisco sticks pack quite nicely for those times when I lard or butter won’t do.

I haven’t found evaporated milk, but I have seen sweetened condensed milk….both in cans and in TUBES! Europeans seem to put lots of stuff into tubes and it’s such a great idea. Many years ago I saw tubes of mayonnaise in a Swiss grocery store, which made it quite handy to take on a picnic. I love having tomato paste in a tube…in the states once you open that tiny little can you either have to use it all at once or risk finding dried-up black tomato paste in your refrigerator the next time you look.

Red wine vinegar, white wine vinegar, apple vinegar and balsamic vinegar are here, but not regular white, distilled vinegar or apple CIDER vinegar, although I still don’t understand the differences.

There are no pecans in Italy, no Karo syrup, no rye flour (or rye bread for that matter). Ethnic food is made by Uncle Ben, so if you get a craving for Mexican or Chinese you might be able to put something together. I’ve bought soy sauce here, and some flour tortillas, but boy! are they expensive.

More and more convenience foods are creeping onto the shelves and into the frozen food case, but don’t expect to find pancake mix, chocolate chip cookie dough or Lean Cuisine. Don’t look for anything low or no fat, except yogurt and milk.

Yeast for bread doesn’t come in those cute little packets, or even the economy sized jar. Yeast here comes in little cubes with a much shorter life span that the packet yeast.

Back in the kitchen, I’m using all the stuff I brought with me, as well as quite a few handy new gadgets I’ve bought here. Of course I’ve bought the basic kitchen appliances….a mixer, a food processor and a toaster.

The toaster is a bit different….the bread doesn’t pop up automatically! If you want to spend a LOT of money you can buy a toaster with an automatic pop-up, but we’ve settled for the budget model. Because we only have 3.3 Kw of power coming into the house, an appliance like a toaster draws a lot of energy and the bread takes forever to toast. This is also the reason I haven’t bought a toaster oven in Italy. In the states I used my toaster oven a lot….for toast of course, but also for those times when I just needed to bake something small, or to reheat something that the microwave would turn to rubber. In Italy I’m afraid that it would take too long to cook anything and that the huge draw of electricity might cause the circuit to trip if I wanted to iron or use the washer.

Thank god they have stick blenders in Italy because I don’t know what I’d do without it!  My favorite recipe for spaghetti sauce starts off with everything being roughly chopped, then after it’s cooked down, tells you to transfer the contents of your HOT saucepan into a food processor. Yeah right…I can just see the mess I’d make trying to pour hot spaghetti sauce, and let’s don’t even think about the burns…or the clothes I’d ruin. A few quick pulses with the stick blender, right in the saucepan and I’m ready for dinner.

My new cherry/olive pitter, bought last week at the outdoor market, is wonderful, as is my cheese grater. Although it’s an Italian brand, my daughter gave it to me several years ago and I love it for grating large quantities of Parmesan cheese. When I need just a little something grated I was using a Microplane grater

I had to buy a pan to make crostata, a fruit filled pastry dish that’s popular here. I did bring my pie pans with me, as well as cupcake tins, although I have started to see them here. Although I usually make bread on my stoneware baking sheet, I also brought American style loaf pans too, for when I want to make a meatloaf or bake a loaf of American style bread.

One thing that was an unexpected purchase was a flame tamer. In the states I cooked with gas, just like I do here, but for some reason the flame just doesn’t go low enough when cooking long grain rice. (Another thing you won’t find here.) The Italians don’t have a problem when they cook rice, because they’re usually making risotto which has to be stirred continuously.

When we first arrived in Italy I did see ice cube trays, but only ones that made those teeny tiny little cubes. I was glad I’d brought my own trays with me, but recently I’ve seen “normal” size trays on the shelf.

One kitchen gadgets I love is my food chopper,  another gift from my daughter. Since I’ve been in Italy I have bought a mezzaluna,  which is quite handy when I’m in a hurry, or when I need to chop frozen spinach just a little finer.

Speaking of spinach, I love the way it comes packaged in Italy. Instead of buying a frozen block of spinach, it comes in a bag filled with lots of small cubes of spinach. I just weigh out the amount I want, then stick the rest back in the freezer. This comes in quite handy when making cannelloni or ravioli….or when you just want to make a single serving.

I brought some flexible chopping boards  with me when we first arrived and I find myself still using them. It’s so easy to just curl the plastic up and carry the whole thing to the stove where you can just dump the chopped onions or whatever right into the skillet.

Ziploc bags aren’t found in Italy, so I usually try to stick a handful of them into my suitcase every time I visit the states. Out of the box they take up very little room and weigh next to nothing, which is a good thing since the airlines keep reducing the weight limits.

For whatever reason, Italian plastic wrap and aluminum foil are incredibly bad. The plastic wrap isn’t just thin, it’s damn near impossible to handle, and just trying to tear a piece off the cutting edge of the box usually results in one large tangled ball of plastic that’s impossible to lay flat. The aluminum foil is so thin as to be laughable, and I’m glad I included regular, heavy duty and the non-stick varieties in my shipment from the states.

Another item essential to make the transition was a good oven thermometer. My Italian gas oven doesn’t have a temperature knob that’s as easy to adjust as an American oven. It also tends to lose heat if the door is open tool long, then to overcompensate by heating up above 400º! Because of this, and because I’m now also using Italian recipes, knowing the exact temperature in Celsius or in Fahrenheit is a must.

I ordered a gas oven, thinking that it would be more reliable for many reasons. I wouldn’t have to worry about the electricity going out…something that I’d been warned could happen. I also wouldn’t have to worry about tripping the electrical circuit if I had the oven on and wanted to do something else requiring a lot of electricity, like ironing.

In Italy it’s possible to have three different levels of electrical service. The basic is 3.3 Kw, or for an additional charge you can move up to 4.6Kw, but you’ll also pay more each month. I’m not even sure how high the last choice will take you since it’s never even been a consideration for us. If you plan to have an electric oven, an electric dryer, or the most decadent choice of all, an air conditioner, be prepared to upgrade….and to pay dearly for your choices.

The size of a standard oven in Italy is also quite different. Don’t bother bringing your large roasting pan…not only will you not be able to find a 12-14 pound turkey to put into it, you also won’t be able to fit the roasting pan into your oven.

It is possible to buy a larger oven, but you’ll have to buy a one piece stove….the type that’s the most common in the states. Here in Italy it’s the norm to have a gas cooktop and an electric wall oven. If I had it to do over again, I’d buy a larger five burner stove with a large, American style oven.

As you can tell, my kitchen and I haven’t become completely “Italianized”. I’ve been fortunate enough to visit the states to replenish my supplies, or to have friends bring a few goodies when they visit. I still want a graham cracker crust when I make a cheesecake, vanilla extract and Ghirardelli chocolate chips when making a batch of cookies, and decaffeinated tea bags for iced tea. Art still wants Hellmann’s mayonnaise and sweet pickle relish, as well as some decaf coffee and pecans for a pie. I recycle the 48 ounce plastic mayonnaise jars and use them to protect salt, nuts, and other items from the humidity.

Speaking of plastic containers, I’m glad I brought a lot of plastic storage containers because they seem to be quite pricey here Additionally, I’m also glad I brought a one gallon pitcher from the states…I’ve never seen anything larger than a two liter pitcher here. It’s also nice to have my favorite Calphalon pots and pans and my Cutco knives. Every cook has his or her own special needs, and in my new Italian kitchen I’m happy to say that I have just about everything I could ever want or need.


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