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Do You Know This Italian Almond Bread?

Italian bread art poster

Food Mystery!

One of our readers has written in with a wonderful food mystery on his hands — there’s a certain almond bread he remembers from back in the 1970s, and he is hoping to find the recipe to share with his family. Now, I’ve run this question past a couple of food-savvy friends, and checked my own cookbook library, but the bread isn’t ringing a bell…

Can you help?

Here’s the story.

Gary from California writes:

Every time I see someone with Italian Recipes I look in VAIN for a recipe my Godmother used to make. Nobody in the family bothered to get it from her and write it down.

I am now the only one left of the Grandchildren, and am teaching my boys and their familys to cook different Italian dishes, breads etc.

I believe it was called “Ocenti“… a small sweet bread with an almond flavor and topped with sugar … may have been a regional recipe.

She was from Lamporo, located in Vercelli, Piemonte, Italy.

It didn’t taste like a yeast bread but more like a roll, it was about 4 inches long shaped liked a log, cut at an angle on the ends. She would make 2 indents on the top using the sides of her hands so it had 3 humps on the top, sweet, light almond taste with sugar on the top.

If you have anything close to this recipe… I would be forever thankful as I have been looking for the recipe since 1971 when she died.

I am now 70 yrs old and would like to give this recipe to my family.

Now, I’ve run this question past a couple of chef friends, and the bread isn’t ringing a bell in any of their memories. We did wonder if maybe “Ocenti” might be a half-remembered variation on “Osso d’ Santi” — sort of in there somewhere between the “Osso dei Morti” cookies/biscotti that are traditionally baked for All Souls’ Day, and the “Pan de Santi” bread for Easter — but that’s pure conjecture, with no basis in fact. Another theory — could “Ocenti” have been “Occitani” (as in Occitan Valleys) originally? No way to know… and I’m just throwing it out there, in case someone can confirm (or rule out) any of these wild theories.

My friend, the bread-loving Guilherme Zühlke O’Connor, who lived for some time in Italy, says that “by the description it could be a variety of breads or pastries, almonds (and bread for that matter) are very popular over there.” Without more to go on, it was hard to say…

So then I got hopelessly lost (and very hungry!) browsing the beautifully photographed bread recipes at Il mondo di Milla and Academia Barilla / Italian Food Academy.

And I’ve flipped through my cookbooks on Italian cuisine without finding any bread that looks like it might fit the bill…

Nothing.

So, over to you!

Can you help Gary to find that old family recipe? Does the long-lost Italian almond bread sound like a recipe you know and love?

If you have any idea of what it might be, please leave a comment — Gary and his family would be grateful, and I’d love to know as well!

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2 comments… add one

  • Domestik Goddess 2011/10/06, 12:42 am

    “A unique bread, just like all the others” – what a great saying! You may very well be right, Gui; it is very possible that the bread Gary remembers was unique to his grandmother, something she developed from one or more “recipes” through her bread-making lifetime. After all, how many of us, even following a written recipe (i.e. list of measured ingredients with specific written directions) can manage to bake exactly the same product every time?

    That is part of the joy of baking, for sure.

    :-)

    Still, I hope we’ll be able to find some sort of similar bread — as Gary says, “something close” — that he could use as a starting point to try to recreate the bread of his memory.

    Speaking of which — Gary, I just thought of one more chef I know who might have a comment to add, too — but he is one of those rare people who never use the internet, so no way he’ll see this and weigh in! This will take a phone call IRL, so stay tuned and I’ll update right here, if he has anything to suggest.

  • Guilherme Zühlke O'Connor 2011/09/30, 9:10 am

    The difficulty on this quest is that Italian cuisine is that is intrinsically organic. It’s not a cuisine centralised on a few experts or being scrutinised by an authoritative voice (something Italian politics certainly could learn from).

    Therefore, individual recipes may be as varied as the Italian dialects. There are literally thousands of breads and there may be some that are typical and traditional and being baked and are well known for centuries, but just among a few hundred people.

    It may be like the saying goes: A unique bread, just like all the others.

    Best thing to do, if one can afford, is to pick up all the clues available, go to Italy and put up with searching for it. Talk to local bakers, travel, travel, travel and bake, bake, bake, bake.

    IMHO, it will be very difficult to retrieve that recipe. It may well be that it was already adapted by his grandmother and even if he gets the recipe, it’s unlikely he’ll be able to bake it just like her.

    Baking is not unlike conducting an orchestra, just because you have the music sheet one maestro used, it doesn’t mean your version will sound the same.

    There are a few flavours I have in my mind that I’ve been trying to reproduce for years. There is one particular variation of scramble egg that I’ve been trying to do and I only got close once, for instance. But this slightly unsettling feeling is what one can call motivation.

    Good luck with that.

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