A few years ago, some Italian friends came to tour the United States for the first time. Because they had been eating -- and enjoying -- American food in their travels around the country but were perhaps a little homesick, I prepared an Italian-style menu for their visit to my home. They were pleased with the pasta and delighted by the fish, but I have no doubt the thing they enjoyed the most was the big bowl of ripe fruit I brought to the table for dessert.
Either as ingredients or as dessert itself, fruit completes the meal for most Italians. In restaurants and homes, a bowl of assorted fruits is placed on the table after lunch and dinner, and young and old gladly choose a piece or two. No one needs to be persuaded to eat it.
This is not to say that Italians do not enjoy sweets like the rest of us. They do, but usually only on special occasions and not until after they have eaten some fruit.
A great number of Italian desserts are quite low in fat. No, I am not referring to cannoli or tiramisu; these are exceptions that are more popular here than in Italy.
I am talking about any number of biscotti, simple cakes, sweet breads and ices, many of which contain fresh, dried or candied fruits. Of the classic recipes gathered here, none has more than eight grams of fat per serving, and most contain far less.
After dessert, Italians may indulge in an amaro, a bitter and sometimes sweet liqueur that is said to aid digestion. The final touch is a tiny cup of espresso.
Fall fruit salad
6 cups cut-up fruits, such as apples, pears, kiwis, bananas, grapes, tangerines and oranges
1/2 cup orange marmalade
2 tablespoons maraschino or orange liqueur, dry white vermouth or fresh orange juice
Place fruits in a large serving bowl. In a small bowl, stir together marmalade and liqueur, vermouth or orange juice; gently stir into the fruits. Cover and refrigerate for 1 to 3 hours before serving.
170 calories per serving; 1 gram protein, 0 grams fat, 41 grams carbohydrate; 4 milligrams sodium; 0 milligrams cholesterol
1/2 cup all-purpose white flour
2 tablespoons unsweetened cocoa powder
1 teaspoon ground cinnamon
1/4 teaspoon ground coriander
1/4 teaspoon freshly grated nutmeg
1/4 teaspoon ground cloves
pinch of ground white pepper
1 1/2 cups coarsely chopped walnuts (5 1/2 ounces)
1 1/2 cups coarsely chopped dried figs (12 ounces)
1/2 cup coarsely chopped candied orange peel (2 1/2 ounces)
1/2 cup coarsely chopped candied citron (2 1/2 ounces)
2/3 cup sugar
2/3 cup honey
confectioners' sugar for dusting cake
Heat oven to 300 degrees. Coat the inside of a 9-inch springform pan with non-stick cooking spray. Cut a 9-inch circle of parchment or wax paper; place in the bottom of the pan and coat with cooking spray.
In a small bowl, stir together flour, cocoa, cinnamon, coriander, .. nutmeg, cloves and white pepper. In a large bowl, stir together walnuts, figs, orange peel and citron. Add the flour mixture, stirring well to break up any lumps.
In a small saucepan, stir together sugar and honey. Cook over low heat, stirring occasionally, until the syrup forms a firm ball when dropped into cold water or reaches 245 degrees on a candy thermometer. Immediately pour the syrup into the nut and fruit mixture and stir rapidly until the flour no longer looks dry.
Scrape the batter into the prepared pan; press into an even layer with a wet rubber spatula. Bake for 45 minutes (the cake will appear soft but will firm as it cools). Let cool in the pan on a rack.
Remove the side of the springform pan and invert the cake onto a piece of wax paper. Peel off the paper circle, turn the cake right-side up and set on a serving plate. Sprinkle generously with confectioners' sugar.
275 calories per serving; 5 grams protein, 8 grams fat, 51 grams carbohydrate; 4 milligrams sodium; 0 milligrams cholesterol
Makes 4 dozen
1 cup whole hazelnuts (5 ounces)
2 1/4 cups all-purpose white flour
4 teaspoons aniseed
1 teaspoon baking powder
1/2 teaspoon salt
3 large eggs
1 cup sugar
1 teaspoon pure vanilla extract
Heat oven to 325 degrees. Lightly oil a baking sheet or coat it with non-stick cooking spray and set aside.
Spread hazelnuts on a pie plate and bake 8 to 12 minutes, or until lightly toasted. If the hazelnuts have skins, place them in a clean kitchen towel, fold the towel over and rub off the skins. Let cool.
In a bowl, stir together flour, aniseed, baking powder and salt; set aside. In a mixing bowl, beat eggs, sugar and vanilla with an electric mixer on high speed until thick and pale, about 3 minutes. With a wooden spoon, stir in the reserved dry ingredients, followed by the hazelnuts (the dough will be very soft).
With two rubber spatulas, scoop the dough onto the prepared baking sheet, forming three 10-inch-long logs. Smooth the logs with a spatula or moistened hand.
Bake for 30 minutes or until the logs are lightly browned and spring back when lightly pressed in the center. Carefully transfer the logs to a cutting board; slice them crosswise into 1/2 -inch-thick slices. Stand the slices up on a baking sheet, 1/2 inch apart. Return the biscotti to the oven to bake for 10 to 15 more minutes, or until lightly colored and crisp. Transfer the biscotti to a rack to cool. Store in an airtight container at room temperature for up to one month.
60 calories per cookie; 1 gram protein, 2 grams fat, 9 grams carbohydrate; 33 milligrams sodium; 13 milligrams cholesterol.