When I studied abroad in Florence during my junior year in college, I loved exploring the city’s collection of works by Caravaggio. Michelangelo Merisi da Caravaggio was a Baroque painter known for his realistic portrayal of subjects and dramatic, often theatrical lighting. Dozens of his paintings are on display in the various museums throughout Florence (here’s a list!), and I tried to hit most of them before the semester was over.
While many of Caravaggio’s works depict serious subjects, like The Calling of Saint Matthew (1599-1600) or The Crucifixion of Saint Peter (1601), he also had a humorous side. The Toothpuller is a work of 1607-1608 that is generally attributed to Caravaggio, and is a typical example of the artist’s later style. Here we see the patient seated off- center, with his head back in obvious pain. The “dentist” is presumably extracting teeth from his patient, and smirks at the viewer. I say “dentist” because he was probably not a real medical doctor, or if he was, he had very little training. A small crowd is gathered around the table, curious onlookers who see this as entertainment. The woman to the right has a sunken face and mouth, a sign that she probably doesn’t have any teeth, and may have gone through a similar procedure.
The idea of teeth and dentistry in art is funny to me, and imagine my surprise to find out that there is even a patron saint of dentistry, Apollonia. She is generally portrayed in art as a young woman with pincers and sometimes she is even shown with extracted teeth. She suffered her martyrdom in 249 AD as a Christian tortured by having her jaw broken and teeth knocked out, which is depicted in Jean Fouquet’s illuminated manuscript, below. This representation of Saint Apollonia is pretty theatrical – she is tied to a wooden plank as her captors remove her teeth and pull her hair (ouch!).
Before she died, she promised to watch over all those who suffer from toothaches, which could be in your future if you indulge in too many of these caramels! They are super sweet and the combination of chewy caramel and crunchy nuts and pretzels is a perfect one, if I do say so myself!
Caramel Pretzel Nut Blondies
1 cup all-purpose flour
½ cup whole wheat flour
2 teaspoons baking powder
pinch of salt
1 ½ sticks unsalted butter
2 cups brown sugar
2 eggs, room temperature
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
Pretzel Nut Caramel:
4 cups roasted nuts (I used a mix of peanuts, walnuts and pecans)
2 cups sugar
¼ cup honey
½ stick unsalted butter
½ cup heavy cream
1 ½ cups thin twisted pretzels
Preheat the oven to 350°F and grease a 9 x 13-inch baking pan with cooking spray or butter.
In a medium-sized mixing bowl, whisk together the flours, baking powder and salt. Set aside. Melt the butter in a medium skillet until it starts to brown and you see little bits of brown at the bottom. Transfer to the bowl of a stand mixer and add the brown sugar. Beat on medium speed for a few minutes. Add the eggs and vanilla, mixing a little between each addition. When the mixture is combined and a little fluffy, add in the dry ingredients on low speed, and mix only until smooth. Pour into the prepared pan and bake for about 25 minutes until the blondie is golden brown. Let cool in the pan while you make the pretzel caramel.
To make the caramel:
While the oven is still hot, roast the nuts on a rimmed baking sheet for 5 minutes, stirring frequently. Set aside. Combine the sugar and ½ cup of water in a saucepan over medium-low heat. Stir until the sugar dissolves, then increase the heat. Bring to a boil, gently stirring often, and let the caramel reach a deep amber color, about 15 minutes. Add the honey and return to a boil, then turn off the heat. Add the butter and cream, and whisk until the butter is totally melted and the mixture is smooth. Stir in the pretzels and nuts.
Spread the caramel evenly over the blondie layer and let chill for at least 30 minutes, until the caramel has solidified. Slice and dig in!
Recipe adapted from Epicurious
Featured art: Caravaggio (attributed to), The Toothpuller, 1607-1608, oil on canvas
Jean Fouquet, The Martyrdom of Saint Apollonia, c. 1452-1460, illuminated manuscript on vellum, part of the Hours of Étienne Chevalier