Basic recipe for Lidia's new cookbook? Testing 10 to 15 dishes a day

When writing a cookbook, Lidia Bastianich and Tanya Bastianich Manuali like to follow a common-sense approach keeping the home cook in mind.

Every recipe needs to be doable by being simple and straightforward; attention is paid to the easy accessibility of products; there’s latitude for substitutions; ingredients are budget-friendly and expense cuts of meat are kept to a minimum; and recipes are authentic Italian. And importantly, they have to work, and so each recipe is tested.

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A taste of ‘Celebrate Like an Italian’
Lidia Bastianich will be at Lidia’s Pittsburgh from 4:30 to 10 p.m. on Tuesday to sign copies of “Lidia’s Celebrate Like an Italian.” The Strip District restaurant will feature a four-course prix fixe menu by executive chef Daniel Walker using recipes from the cookbook and includes crostata with wild mushroom and onion; pear and pecorino ravioli, pork shank with barley risotto and coffee panna cotta. Cost is $55 plus $40 for wine pairing. Reservations: 412-552-0150.

For their eighth book together, the mother and daughter have stuck to that blueprint. The number of chapters are just as extensive as the number of recipes in “Lidia’s Celebrate Like an Italian: 220 Foolproof Recipes That Make Every Meal a Party” (Knopf; $35), which came out on Oct. 17, but they are not complicated. Suggestions for different kinds of parties — from sports and surprise ones to brunch and picnics the Italian way to wedding menus — are sprinkled throughout the book.

“The book has been a longtime in the making,” Ms. Bastianich says over the phone. “I was often asked questions like ‘How do you cook for multiple people? How do you prepare in advance? What kind of foods need to be made?’ So I wanted to put it all together in this party-for-any-occasion book.”

“Celebrate Like an Italian” has also meant testing 10 to 15 recipes a day for five or six days at a time, says the younger Bastianich when she came to town last week to check in on their restaurant, Lidia’s Pittsburgh in the Strip District, and work the floor for two nights. “I get a pulse for what’s going on in the business, and the dining room floor gives me a feel for the hospitality that our guests are getting.”

Ms. Manuali had initially gone down an academic route — she got her bachelor’s degree from Georgetown, master’s from Syracuse University and doctorate from Oxford University, England, in Italian Renaissance art, and spent a lot time during her post-graduate degrees in Florence, Italy. She enjoyed being a social art historian, and was interested in who painted the works, who paid for them and where they were located. She even applied for and got teaching jobs when she returned to the States but found that they did not pay well.

So she found a compromise by running high-end art, food and wine tours to Italy mainly for corporations for a few years. “I had the time of my life for I got to lecture about art, food and wine,” she says. But after 9/​11 when budgets dried up and she had her two children, she could not be away in Italy as much and closed the company.

Soon after, Ms. Manuali immersed herself in that one thing that she had been familiar all her life — food — and got into the Bastianich family business by doing research for the TV shows and cookbooks.

She said she had an almost osmosis-like knowledge of food growing up. “When we were kids and my mother was trying to educate herself about Italian food, she would drag my brother and me around Italy,” she says. “We would go to wineries and on truffle hunts, and had an exposure that was immense.”

That experience helped her when it came doing research for her mother’s cookbooks. Ms. Bastianich leans on Ms. Manuali for her academic knowledge and they have a system that “really works.” They first think about the idea for the book. Then Ms. Manuali would pull together 100 to 150 recipe titles and fills out each section of the book. whether it’s vegetables or desserts. She also would research for recipes that have previously not been in other “Lidia” books.

Once they have the list of recipes together, the editor of their publishing company, Knopf, is involved. “Peter Gethers takes a look at it to make sure it is what they are hoping the book is going to be,” she says, adding the title for the book comes much later.

A key person in the evolution of the cookbook is Amy Stevenson, who originally is from Pittsburgh. In addition to being the culinary producer for the TV shows, she is part of their recipe-testing team. Once they comb through the recipes they want to use in the book, Ms. Stevenson and Ms. Manuali write skeleton recipes.

Two weeks before the testing, Ms. Manuali would select the measuring cups, pots, pans and dishes needed for cooking from Ms. Bastianich’s basement. Then the food would start coming in. “There’s a lot of thinking and coordinating that comes into play,” Ms. Manuali says. You cannot order everything at the same time as the meat will go bad by Day 5. You also cannot do seven oven recipes on the same day because there won’t be enough room in the oven.”

Then the three of them get into the kitchen for weeks and test every single recipe. “I become the prep cook and do all the chopping, cutting, measuring and weighing,” Ms. Manuali says. “Amy and Lidia cook together. While Lidia cooks, Amy notes all the techniques that Lidia is using, checks if the measurements work and modifies and switches them accordingly.”

Ms. Manuali shoots photos during and after the cooking that she saves reference purposes; an official photographer is used for the cookbook photos. On the day of the photo shoot, staff from Knopf comes by the house, and that includes the interior book designer who gets an early idea of how to lay out the photos in book. A prep person brings all the forks, knives and props while Ms. Bastianich plates the food and does her own styling.

Her mother, Erminia Matticchio, 97, who lives with her, would join the testing team when it comes to “eat it all.” Calling her a critic extraordinaire, Ms. Manuali, says her grandmother holds nothing back. “There’s an Italian saying that translates to there’s no hair on her tongue. Whatever she thinks, comes out. In fact, we have to be careful sometimes with grandma.” The remaining food is packed to give to the mail person and those in their Queens neighborhood in New York City.

All the prepping and cooking is physically tiring on the back and knees, Ms. Manuali says. In fact, she continues, the hardest part of writing a cookbook is coming up with a good idea and physically testing the recipes, but it is fun and worth it. “Our goal is to have a person use the book for every one of the recipes.”

So along the way, is there any friction between mother and daughter? “We do butt heads now and then,” says Ms. Bastianich, “but we work it out.” Ms. Manuali says they did it more when she was younger and at a time when she thought she knew more than she actually did. “I was trying to prove myself and trying to get out of my mother’s shadow.” She calls it “more of a rubbing than actual fighting.”

But these days, Ms. Manuali says her mother is aware that she is well-versed, super organized and efficient. “She has her talents and I have mine,” she adds.

There are no photos of Ms. Manuali in the book except a head shot in the back cover or text that she takes credit for barring a line in the beginning of the book: “A seat at the table opens a window to the heart.” And Ms. Manuali, who used to ghostwrite all the text in the earlier books, is plenty OK with it.

“To be in the center focus, you have to have a certain personality. I’m not that kind of person,” she says. “I like to work a lot, and work hard, but I don’t need the attention. It’s not something I’m after.”

The duo are coming out with Ms. Bastianich’s memoir next year. But that doesn’t mean that they are taking a break from their recipe testing. They have already started cooking for their next cookbook that is based on Ms. Bastianich’s first restaurant, Felidia in New York City, and it will be coming out in fall 2019.

Almond Torte With Chocolate Chips 

PG tested

The cake is not too sweet and so you could start your day with it for breakfast or brunch. It can served straight or with dusting of powdered sugar or whipped cream.

10 ounces (2½ sticks) unsalted butter, softened, plus more for the baking pan

1¾ cups all-purpose flour, plus more for the baking pan

1/2 teaspoon baking powder

1/4 teaspoon kosher salt 1 cup sugar

5 large eggs

Grated zest of 1 lemon

1 teaspoon pure almond extract

2 cups almond flour 

1 cup semisweet chocolate chips

1/2 cup lightly toasted sliced blanched almonds

Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Butter and flour the bottom and sides of a 10-inch springform pan. Sift together the all-purpose flour, baking powder, and salt onto a piece of parchment.

In a mixer fitted with the paddle attachment, cream the butter and sugar at medium-high speed until light and fluffy, about 2 minutes. At medium speed, add the eggs one at a time, mixing each in thoroughly before adding the next, and scraping down the sides of the bowl as needed. Beat in the lemon zest and almond extract, then raise the speed to high and beat the batter until very light, a minute or more.

At low speed, mix in half of the sifted flour mixture, beating just until it is incorporated; beat in half the almond flour. Scrape the bowl, and mix in the remaining flour and almond flour. Beat briefly at medium speed to make a smooth batter. At low speed, mix in the chocolate chips just until evenly distributed. Scrape the batter into the prepared pan, and spread it in an even layer. Scatter the sliced almonds all over the top.

Bake, rotating the pan halfway through the baking time, until the cake is golden brown on top and a knife inserted in the center comes out clean,about 45 minutes. Cool the cake in the pan for about 10 minutes on a wire rack. Run the blade of a paring knife around the edge of the cake, then open the spring and remove the side ring. Cool the cake completely before serving. Cut it into wedges, and serve.

Serves 10 or more.

— “Lidia’s Celebrate Like an Italian” by Lidia Bastianich and Tanya Bastianich Manuali (Knopf; $35; October 2017)


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