LONDON, Ont. — A few years ago, Grace Massa-Langlois’ life was a shambles.
In 2003, the Londoner had to abandon a career she loved as a financial services manager in the automotive industry because of a debilitating medical condition. In 2004, her husband died suddenly, leaving her with two young children.
She says she spent years in a “fog.”
But now the word Massa-Langlois uses to describe her life is “exciting,” and with good reason. She is soon to become the published author of a cookbook on Italian desserts called Grace’s Sweet Life, which is to be distributed worldwide.
In effect, she says, food saved her life.
It all began innocuously when, with unaccustomed time on her hands, she started watching television food programs. Soon she was buying all the cookbooks and gourmet magazines she could afford, and outfitting her kitchen with all the latest gadgets.
She comes from a big Italian family and was particularly intrigued by Italian desserts.
“I’ve always loved cooking, and being Italian, you’re always surrounded by food,” she says. “But Italians, we just don’t have a ton of sweets.” Her mother would bake cookies or an occasional cake for special events, but “we didn’t have dessert every night. Our dessert was fruit.”
The highlight of the week was an outing to a local Italian bakery every Sunday after church, where they would satisfy their taste for traditional cakes and pastries.
Massa-Langlois started quizzing her mother, doing research online and cooking at home, some things “my mom has been making since she was a little girl and a lot of things my mom didn’t make that I wanted to learn how to make.”
Soon her sisters were calling her for advice and her kids were urging her to find a way to expand her hobby.
So in April 2010 she started blogging (“Before that I didn’t even know what a blog was.”) about her Italian cooking adventures on a website she first called La Mia Vita Dolce, now Grace’s Sweet Life — gracessweetlife.com. The response was overwhelming, with more than two million visitors the first year.
Then in February 2011, Massa-Langlois received an email that just floored her. It was from Ulysses Press, a publisher in Berkeley, Calif., asking if she would be interested in writing a cookbook on Italian desserts.
“I thought it was a joke,” she says. “I had never thought about doing a cookbook. It had never entered my mind. Why would it?”
But it was a legitimate company and a legitimate offer and in short order she signed a contract and was assigned to work with the company’s cookbook editor. She spent the next 10 months choosing recipes, honing and testing them, learning how to write them properly and working through the editing process. The anticipated publication date is in March.
It was a lot of hard work, complicated by a couple of major setbacks caused by computer problems, but it was an incredible education, she says.
Keith Riegert, acquisitions editor at Ulysses Press, says it was the strong content of Massa-Langlois’ blog that caught his attention.
He describes Ulysses Press as a “niche publisher.” Employees do a lot of research to identify the latest and emerging trends on subjects they think are “underpublished” and will be “strong in the marketplace.” Then they look for someone to write about those topics.
But in this case, he says, he wasn’t specifically looking for someone to write about Italian desserts. He came across Massa-Langlois’ blog and was impressed by “what she was doing. I loved her photographs and her recipes and the way she was presenting them … her ability to produce great recipes and to develop recipes.”
When Riegert researched the subject, he found there was room for another cookbook on Italian desserts, so he made her the offer. Massa-Langlois’ daughter, Liana Langlois, 20, shot all the photos for the book, as she does for the blog.
Some of the selections in Grace’s Sweet Life are family recipes, some classic Italian desserts with Massa-Langlois’ twist on them and many of them are not recipes she has featured on her blog. They sound decadently delicious, with names such as tartellette al cioccolato e caramello (chocolate caramel tarts), bomboloni alla crema krapfen (Italian cream-filled doughnuts) and torta de fragile e crema soffice di yogurt (yogurt mousse cake with strawberries).
Technical issues aside, Massa-Langlois says the biggest challenge of working on the book was physical. “My mind is still working at full force, but the body isn’t,” she says of her ongoing health problems, adding this is especially worrisome to her son Matthew, 18.
But the rewards have been far greater than the challenges, and given the opportunity, she says, she would definitely do it again. “There’s so many good things. It’s just been exciting.”
Here are delicious recipes for sweet family-favourite treats from Grace Massa-Langlois’ website and soon-to-be-published cookbook
Pizzelle-Ferratelle (Italian Waffle Cookies)
Traditional pizzelle is flavoured with anise, but lemon or vanilla can be used instead, or some of the flour can be substituted with hazelnut or almond flour for a nutty flavour.
These versatile and not overly sweet treats can be served as flat cookies, rolled and filled with cannoli ricotta cream or formed in a cup shape and filled with mascarpone cream and fresh berries or even with gelato or ice cream.
To make these cookies you need a pizzelle iron (like a small waffle iron). To make the horns, you need a cannoli mould.
6 large eggs
150 ml (2/3 cup) vegetable oil
325 ml (1 1/3 cups) caster sugar (superfine granules)
925 ml (3 3/4 cups) all-purpose flour
3 ml to 10 ml (3/4 tsp to 2 tsp) anise seeds, to taste
5 ml (1 tsp) pure vanilla extract (optional)
30 ml (2 tbsp) vegetable oil, for dipping spoon (optional)
Mascarpone Cream (recipe follows)
Heat pizzelle iron for at least 10 minutes after it’s come to baking temperature.
In a large bowl and using a hand-held electric mixer, beat eggs, oil and sugar at medium-high speed until pale and fluffy, about 3 minutes.
Reduce speed to medium-low; gradually add flour and beat until well combined.
Choose the amount of anise seeds to suit your taste; crush seeds, add to batter and beat to just combine. Add vanilla, if using, and beat to just combine.
If using, place the 30 ml (2 tbsp) of extra vegetable oil in a small bowl. Dip a spoon in oil, tapping off any excess oil, and spoon a walnut-sized amount of dough onto waffle iron. Bake until lightly golden, 45 to 60 seconds (depends on your iron) and transfer to a wire rack to cool. For a softer, chewier pizzelle, bake for less time (remove when blond in colour) and place on a tea towel-lined wire rack.
Variations: To make pizzelle cups or horns, you can work with only one pizzelle at a time because they stay soft for only seconds. To make cups, take one cooked pizzelle, centre it over a cup, ramekin or muffin cup and using a tart tamper, press pizzelle gently into cup. Hold securely for 1 minute. Remove pizzelle from cup and transfer to a wire rack to cool completely.
To make horns, again working with one pizzelle at a time, roll pizzelle around a cannoli mould, hold securely for 1 minute, remove pizzelle horn from mould and transfer to a wire rack to cool completely.
Makes about 5 dozen.
Crema di Mascarpone (Mascarpone Cream)
125 ml (1/2 cup) heavy cream (35 per cent), cold
105 ml (7 tbsp) icing sugar, sifted, divided
Zest from half a lemon
150 g (2/3 cup) mascarpone cheese
2 ml (1/2 tsp) vanilla
In a small bowl, using a hand-held electric mixer, beat heavy cream at high speed until frothy.
Add 15 ml (1 tbsp) sifted icing sugar and continue to beat on high speed until barely a stiff peak.
In a separate small bowl (you can use the same beaters; no need to wash up in between), beat mascarpone cheese at medium-high speed until creamy. Add remaining sifted icing sugar, lemon zest and vanilla and beat until smooth and creamy.
Using a medium-sized, flexible rubber spatula, fold half of the whipped cream into mascarpone mixture and then fold in remaining whipped cream until combined.
Chill in the refrigerator until ready to serve.
To serve, transfer mascarpone cream to a small pastry bag fitted with a large pastry tip. For waffle cups, pipe cream into cups and garnish with fresh berries. For rolled pizzelle, insert pastry tip into one side of the shell and gently squeeze until the shell is half full. Repeat from the other side. Garnish with sprinkles, chocolate chips or nuts.
Source: gracessweetlife.com or Grace’s Sweet Life: Italian Desserts by Grace Massa-Langlois (Ulysses Press, March 2012).
Grace Massa-Langlois says there’s definitely an art to mixing this batter for these cookies, which are a family favourite. If you beat the egg whites too long, you’ll get flat cookies and no soft, chewy centres. See note about ground almond flour.
3 large eggs, separated
325 ml (1 1/3 cups) caster sugar (superfine granules)
1 l + 50 ml (4 1/4 cups) almond flour
Icing sugar, for rolling
Silver dragees, for decorating
In a large bowl, using a large balloon whisk, beat egg yolks. Gradually add sugar, whisking until well combined.
Add almond flour; whisk to just combine (do not overmix).
In a separate bowl, using a large balloon whisk (clean and dry), beat egg whites to barely a soft peak (do not over-beat).
Using a large flexible spatula, fold one-third of the egg whites into the almond mixture (this will loosen the almond mixture). Fold in remaining egg whites just to combine (do not over-mix).
Cover and refrigerate amaretti cookie batter for at least 1 hour or overnight.
Heat oven to 160 C (325 F).
Line baking sheets with non-stick baking paper or silicone baking mats and set aside.
Using 15 ml (1 tbsp) of dough for each cookie, roll amaretti dough into balls, coat in icing sugar and place a dragee in the centre. (Do not flatten cookies.) Roll 20 amaretti cookies per baking sheet. Chill dough in between baking times.
Bake until lightly golden, 25 to 30 minutes.
Almond flour can be difficult to find, although it is available in some high-end grocery or specialty stores. But it is easy to make at home. If you want to use blanched almonds, drop the nuts into boiling water for about 1 minute. The skins will then slip right off. (It’s not necessary to use blanched almonds.) Whether using blanched or unblanched nuts, place in a single layer on a baking sheet and toast them, making sure they don’t burn. Let the toasted almonds completely cool, then process in a food processor to a fine or slightly coarser consistency.
Dragees are edible little ball-shaped food garnishes, available almost anywhere. They can come in different colours.
Makes about 6 dozen.