On feeding people
The joy in food, anti diets and persimmon tiramisu.
Today’s letter comes with a seasonal recipe for persimmon tiramisu — but not before a little talk about feeling comfortable around food, taking pleasure in it even, and why I love my child’s infectious enthusiasm and joy for food.
I first came across this combination last year thanks to Rome-based Elizabeth Minchilli who filmed the making of it at Florence’s Trattoria Cammillo. I adore persimmon, especially the sweet, jammy, ripe ones that you can only eat with a spoon, and I cannot believe I had never thought of making tiramisu with them — honestly, they are made for the job!
I was taking the ingredients out of the fridge and setting them on the table to photograph them and my three year old Luna saw the eggs, the bowl, the whisk, dropped everything, pulled up a chair and exclaimed, “Mummy I‘ll help you!” My heart did a little leap because that phrase is pure music to my ears.
My love of cooking also started in the kitchen, helping out and tasting things (who doesn’t love sticking in a finger in the bowl to taste it?) and I have always encouraged both of my children to get involved with cracking eggs, whisking, pouring, scooping out flour, no matter what kind of mess is produced, because that hands on experience is an amazing way to get children interested and comfortable in the kitchen and around food. I believe it is a healthy way for them to build a relationship with food.
I pulled out my phone and just captured Luna in her element, mixing, tasting, making all the sounds, laughing. She is this enthusiastic about playing in the kitchen with me, whether we are making pasta, minestrone or gutting fish — I should have caught that one on video too but my hands were too slimy to pick up the phone! Rather than be put off, she pulled that chair up, just like she did when she saw the eggs and mascarpone on the table, she stuck her face right next to the fish and held out a finger about 1mm away from the fish’s eyeball: “Please can I touch it?” And proceeded to examine the fish head to tail like a forensic scientist.
All the things that I think make me a good cook today are things I see in Luna — she always wants to "help" in the kitchen, she always wants to see what I'm cooking and will drag that chair to the stovetop (so glad we moved to an induction cooktop, this makes this safer!) to look into the pot, she will willingly taste anything once, even things that disgust or scare her — like the time I took her on a crab fishing boat in Venice and she tried a tiny, whole deep fried soft shell crab that she had moments before been running away from, screaming. She has an endless curiosity for and enthusiasm for food.
I posted the video of Luna helping me make this seasonal tiramisu to share this joy and enthusiasm that she has for pretty much everything in life (“Wow, look, mummy, it’s an ANT!”), a recipe of seasonal fruit, fresh eggs, cream, simple biscuits and sugar, as wholesome as can be if you ask me. But I was gutted when a couple of people felt they needed to comment on Luna’s body and suggest that we as parents were doing something that was not right. I am trying not take it personally (which is hard, it’s one thing to have a stranger comment on your body, let alone your child’s), but I have come to realise that the people who don't just see joy and a happy, healthy child are people who don't have a healthy relationship with food, or their own bodies, themselves.
There is a lot of unlearning to do around fatphobia, diet culture and how children should eat (the no sugar or no sweets and forcing kids to eat everything on the plate need to stop). And please don’t listen to me talk about this, there are some incredibly qualified experts on this subject doing great work that I think anyone who is interested in food or anyone who is a parent should take a look at. One of my favourites and a good place to start is Virginia Solesmith, who writes for NY Times Parenting and is the author of The Eating Instinct: Food Culture, Body Image, and Guilt in America, and who has an excellent Substack newsletter, Burnt Toast — just read through the titles of her posts, you will want to read every one of them! (See this post on what anti-diet means).
Dieticians4Teachers is another anti-diet dietician whose work is directed towards educators but so insightful for everyone. Another useful one that I learned of recently for family feeding and intuitive eating is nutritionist Bub Appetit. And along similar lines, Dr Katja Rowell, aka The Feeding Doctor, who specialises in difficult feeding and helping take away the stress around that is “on a mission to bring peace and joy back to the family table.”
So many women (in particular) have a distorted relationship with food. We are taught to not want to like to it, that it's bad to enjoy it, and the every day, casual language we use around food, such as it's "naughty" or “oh, I really shouldn’t” reinforces this idea that it is bad, that we need to eat less of it to have a (much more desirable) smaller body and that we should feel guilty for eating it — little side note, one of my favourite pieces of food writing is Nigella Lawson’s essay on guilty pleasure, an absolute gem:
“No one should feel guilty about what they eat, or the pleasure they get from eating; the only thing to feel guilty about (and even then I don’t recommend it) is the failure to be grateful for that pleasure. I am very aware that the joy I celebrate in food is a privilege. And for me, it’s vitally important not to belittle that, or to forget it. Taking pleasure in the food we eat is an act of gratitude. And truly, the world is not always rich in occasions of joy.”
I'm trying to make sure my daughters don't grow up with this twisted idea that food is bad. They will already be bombarded with SO much diet culture through school and media, especially as girls, and especially as one of them is bigger bodied — I know (from experience) that she will hear a lot of it directed right at her too. At least at home they need to know that food is safe, food is love and that it's healthy to love it and find joy in it.
Feeding people, especially your own little people, is not easy.
My eldest, Mariù, nearly 9, is what you would call a “picky” eater (a term I don’t like either as it belittles the anxiety she feels about eating and trying new foods). Any parent who has had to deal with this kind of anxiety around food will understand the immense relief it is to have a child who finds joy in it and is pretty easy around it. We are slowly growing out of the worst phase (which peaked at ages 4-6, just as Bee Wilson said it would in First Bite, another excellent book on the subject of how we learn to eat), where Mariù’s anxiety around school meant she dropped breakfast, refused to eat school lunches and I could start to see her the silhouette of her rib cage. Invites to schoolmates’ places for lunch or dinner would leave her in tears, "Mummy you have to pick me up before dinner," she'd insist desperately. She even had a teacher last year who made the entire class applaud if she put anything in her mouth and still is uncomfortable eating in front of other people in case they are watching her. It is heartbreaking.
I have learned that all I want for my family, or anyone who I feed, is for them to feel comfortable, safe and loved at the table. I trust their appetites, I trust them to listen to their own bodies and I respect their preferences — we all have them! Feeling good at the table together is just as important — if not more — as the food itself.
Ironically, neither of the girls would eat this persimmon tiramisu. Luna liked the elements, licking the spoon and a nibble of a savoiardo (dipped in mostly egg yolk and sugar before it was mixed properly!), but what she liked best was the jammy persimmon (her first time tasting it) on its own, just like her mamma. Mariù, in true Mariù fashion, quietly declined a taste. And that’s ok. More tiramisu for me.
This is a variation of my strawberry tiramisu that I make in the spring and early summer when strawberries are truly ripe so that enough juice comes out of them to dip the savoiardi in — but here with the persimmons, I use some freshly squeezed orange (or mandarin) juice to dip. If you’re not worried about it being boozy, then a splash of rum, cointreau or vin santo is delicious here too. You’ll notice there’s not a lot of sugar in this recipe, it’s to balance out the super ripe persimmons and ripe oranges, they add so much sweetness to this dish already.
Note that this is a half recipe as I turned these into ‘individual’ tiramisus — there is enough here for 3 larger ones like in these old champagne glasses or 4-5 smaller glasses or ramekins. If you want to make a cake-sized one or in a tray, which would easily feed 8, double this as in the strawberry tiramisu recipe above.
For 3-4 serves
3 ultra ripe persimmons
2 fresh organic eggs (we will only use 2 yolks and 1 egg white)
250 grams of mascarpone
50 grams of sugar
250 grams of savoiardi (or about 8-10 biscuits)
1 orange, juiced (or a couple of mandarins)
Scoop the jammy fruit out of the persimmons and set them aside (taste at your leisure, no really, these should be really sweet and delicious).
Separate one of the eggs, placing the white in a medium metal or ceramic bowl, and the yolk in another medium bowl. Separate the second egg but you will only need the yolk (together with the other yolk). Keep that egg white in the freezer for another use!
Whip the egg white until firm peaks hold and set aside.
Add the mascarpone and sugar to the egg yolks and whip these too (no need to clean the beaters of the egg white). Then fold in the whipped whites until well combined and you have a smooth, fluffy, creamy mixture. Lick the spatula clean.
Place orange juice in a shallow bowl. Dip one savoiardi biscuit in the juice on all sides, break it into sections to fit in one layer of your chosen glass or ramekin. Spoon over a generous blob of persimmon to cover, then spoon over a smaller blob of mascarpone cream. Add another layer of dipped savoiardi, followed by more persimmon and finished with mascarpone cream.
If doing a tray, it’s the same procedure just no need to break the savoiardi biscuits, place them whole, lined up next to each other to make one layer.
Place in the fridge to chill for a couple of hours at least. For a more set tiramisu wait overnight. Enjoy!