June 15th 1982, I was standing in line at the University of Belgrade School of Languages waiting to enroll in French as a double major (I had already been accepted in the English program). A curly-haired woman wearing really thick glasses looked at me and said, “Dear, everybody who has applied has had at least four years of French. You would be at a disadvantage. Why don’t you pick another language?” I moved away from the line, weak in the knees, my heart pounding. The world did not end, but I had to think fast. My heart was saying goodbye to MoliÃ¨re and Jacques PrÃ©vert, promising not to abandon them. As I moved down the corridor toward the Department of Italian Studies, I felt lighter and less restrained. The line was much shorter and the smiles more sincere. I got the official stamp in my student booklet, and took the first bus home.
In October, when classes began, I became quite infatuated by Italian. Almost all the teachers were young, passionate, extremely knowledgeable, and friendly. In two years at the University, I spoke Italian as fluently as English, which I had studied since fifth grade. Most of the classes were informal. The professors would lean or sit on a desk facing us, lighting a cigarette, nodding their consent if we did the same. In a couple of minutes the Department’s housekeeper would appear with small cups of Turkish coffee for all of us, and we would translate the Italian newspapers, or conjugate the verbs between puffs of cheap Serbian tobacco.
On the other side of the building, our English professors were suffocating us with lifeless lectures and ex-catedra pontifications. They fancied themselves far superior to the masses of students and faced us with perpetually raised eyebrows, expecting an Oxford answer from a province-educated teen. I rebelled and my grades suffered.
I graduated in 1987 with a double major in English (and English Literature) and Italian (and Italian Literature). I live in the U.S., but my heart is wandering through the Appenini every day. I read Italian authors, I listen to Italian music, and I indulge in Italian food.
I am pretty alone in my little home in Southern California. I yearn for company. I search for kindred spirits. And I discovered a Book Club close to my heart. In the I Heart Cooking Club’s event, the participants choose a book and cook from it for months, as long as there are recipes.
The members chose Giada de Laurentiis as a host to the event. I voted for Lidia Bastianich, but anything Italian, done well, will suffice. As a welcome gesture, we were supposed to execute one of Giada’s appetizers. I searched and researched, and in the end found a perfect recipe: crostini with gorgonzola, toasted walnuts, and honey.
CROSTINI WITH GORGONZOLA, TOASTED WALNUTS. AND HONEY (Giada’s recipe featured on Oprah)
These little bites were perfectly balanced. The bread was crusty, the cheese creamy, soft, and strong enough to counterbalance the the concentrated sweetness of fig jam, and the walnuts delivered a nutty bite melding everything together.
- 2 tablespoons olive oil
- 24 1/3-inch-thick diagonal slices of baguette
- 6 ounces creamy gorgonzola cheese, coarsely crumbled
- 2/3 cup walnuts, toasted, coarsely chopped
- 1 ripe fig , thinly sliced crosswise (I used fig jam, just a 1/4 tsp dollop on each crostino)
- 3 tablespoons honey (I thought honey would be an overkill alongside fig jam)
Preheat the oven to 375°. Arrange the baguette slices on a baking sheet in a single layer. Lightly brush the baguette slices with oil. Toast in the oven until the baguette slices are golden, about 8 minutes. (You can toast the baguette slices 1 day ahead. Cool, then store them at room temperature in an airtight container.)
Toss the gorgonzola with walnuts in a small bowl. Spoon the cheese mixture onto the baguette slices and press slightly to adhere. Return the baking sheet to the over and bake until the cheese melts, about 8 minutes.
Arrange the crostini on a platter. Top each with a slice of fig, if desired (or plop a bit of fig jam, as I did). Drizzle with honey (you can omit this step if you used fig jam) and serve warm.