Here we are, the end of November. Italy seems farther and farther away. I get voice messages over Whatsapp from my girls and Snapchats from Giulia from her new high school, jittery and rapid Italian shrieked between boys and girls who have just become teenagers. I think about it when I'm at work at an American public high school, turning pallid under bright lights and staring at the cement-block building outside the window, while I scroll through pictures of the freshest mozzarella and foccacia that I ate a few months ago. Olive oil poured in a thin stream over tomatoes, over soft-boiled eggs, over a plate of agnolotti. The shine of it, the glistening drizzle, is lush.
When her two sisters were away, one at summer camp and one at the sea with the grandparents, Francesca and I had a week together alone in the big house in Rivarossa. She was excited to cook with me and I was excited too. She went to day camp in the morning, and I would make her breakfast. Two cups of tea, one for each of us, a spread of chocolate biscuits and muesli. Maybe an egg if she wanted it. One day, I told her I was going to make her one of my favorite breakfasts.
My dad didn't cook much when I was little, but when he did, he cooked breakfast. During Passover, he made a matzo brei that consistently knocked my little socks off. Aunt Jemima syrup and scrambled eggs and matzo that was soggy in the best way, because it was soggy with syrup. That was the only dish that made me look forward to Passover (I have been passionate about gluten my entire life). He once made scrambled eggs for my sister and I. They tasted different than normal- soft. They tasted like the scrambled eggs I had at Cindi's, a New York Jewish deli that we would go to as kids. I was amazed at how my dad had managed to recreate the exact taste of Cindi's scrambled eggs (the incredible secret: cooking them for slightly less time!!! WHAT?) Henceforth, I asked for "Cindi's eggs" when my dad made breakfast. That, or toad in a hole. My dad blew our minds when he threw a toad-in-the-hole in the mix. A simple piece of sandwich bread, an egg, some butter. I always put grape jelly on mine as a kid. This meal reminds me of being a kid, and it's still one of my favorite breakfasts.
I'm never, ever stingy with the butter. Butter is what takes the most humble ingredients possibly in America and makes them into a breakfast that truly feels decadent. Butter foaming on cast iron wakes me up more than coffee. I never let Francesca see how much butter I used. First, I knew that even at nine, she would berate me for it. Most people berate me for it. Second, I knew she would urge me to use olive oil instead. But I was a wise American and I needed her to trust me. I crisped the bread perfectly before even cracking the egg in. You have to make the bread itself something otherworldly before you introduce the MVP. It takes some patience. Crisp it, make it golden, make it perfect. More butter in the cut-out circle. Crack the egg, let it sizzle. I sprinkle it with pepper and pyramids of flaky salt. I butter the skillet again and flip it. Salt and pepper, a few sizzling seconds, and it's time to eat. I served it up with Francesca's cup of tea.
Outside, we ate breakfast in the garden on a rickety little green table. They set the table for every meal, even breakfast. I liked the formality of that. Francesca took a bite and seemed to ascend. We drank our tea in the garden and sopped up egg yolk with buttery toasted bread. Her dad walked through the garden on his way to work. Francesca showed off her toad-in-a-hole to him with pride, and he took a curious bite. I ended up making him his own-- he scarfed it down happily and left for work, driving like a Fast and Furious maniac like all Italians did. There is something quietly comforting about sharing breakfast with another person. I shared a taste of my own childhood, egg yolk and humble white bread, with a child from another generation. She was olive oil; I was butter.