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Seriously Italian: Cinnamon Breakfast Toasts

Editor's note: On Thursdays, Babbo pastry chef Gina DePalma checks in with Seriously Italian. After a stint in Rome, she's back in the States, channeling her inner Italian spirit via recipes and intel on delicious Italian eats. Take it away, Gina!

20090319-breakfasttoast-cup.jpgItalians favor something quick, light and sweet for breakfast, usually enjoyed with a creamy cappuccino or a spremuta at the neighborhood bar. Rich, buttery brioches and cornetti filled with fruit jam or pastry cream are standard, but the sweet breakfast lineup can also vary from region to region. In Florence, you might start the day with a creamy budino di riso or a warm bomboloni; in Torino, you can get your morning rush from sugar-topped, buttery, roll swirled with almond paste, or flaky pastry folded over gianduja; in Friuli, have an apple strudel with your caffé.

South of Naples, the morning traditions were once far simpler and much less sweet. In Calabria, my mother remembers having crumbly, biscotti-like toasts called frese for breakfast before leaving for school. Just slightly sweet and spiked with anise or fennel seed, they were perfectly suited for dunking into a long-pulled shot of espresso with warm milk. Her grandmother made them with yeast, to rise high and light before they were double-baked: once to cook them through, then again to toast them crisp for keeping.

My own grandmother carried on the tradition by making the same frese for me; she insisted on buying her anise seeds from Arthur Avenue, where she knew she could find them imported for Italy. Cocoa Puffs they were not; there was no mistaking that this was a recipe born from lean times, made with a only few other ingredients besides flour and a little bit of sugar. But as most grandmothers do, she managed to turn them into a special, cherished bit of food nostalgia.

This is my non-yeasted version of those same breakfast biscotti, but instead of anise seed, I loaded them up with a generous amount of ground cinnamon and some cornmeal for some extra textural dimension. Feel free to use anise or fennel seeds instead of cinnamon, but my advice is to limit the flavor to a perfect, singular note, because that's they way my nonna would have liked it. Transportable, dunkable, loveable, and pennies per piece, they're breakfast, 2009-style.

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