Monthly Archives: December 2012

A certain appeal

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I have a thing about orange peel. I’m also extremely fond of the fruit within: in segments just so, with fennel and black olives, squeezed rudely (no smooth and filtered juice for me thank you very much.) But it’s the peel – especially of Sicilian navel oranges -  rugged matte-orange peel with deep pores, pith as-thick-as-your-thumb and the most exquisite heady scent that makes me hum.

I grate orange zest – intensely aromatic and oily – into cakes, biscuits, pastry, salads and soups. I shave orange curls into cocktails, tea and sticky sauces. I chew the half-moon in my Campari and relish the curious dry, bitter, oily gasp that fills my mouth. My Sevile orange marmalade is as chunky as my nephew’s thighs and orange peel dangles in an ungainly manner from radiators so rooms are filled with citrus scent. And then there is candied orange peel.

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I am extraordinarily fond of candied fruit per se. I always have been: my young eyes finding the suspiciously red cherry on top much more exciting than the tart or biscuit below, my fat little fingers picking out the opaque orange cubes from whatever they were suspended in. While other children clambered up onto kitchen counters in search of biscuits, I was rummaging in the baking drawer and prising open squat tubs of glacè cherries, angelica and peel bound for mincemeat. I was probably about 12 when my dad bought my mum a tray of Italian candied fruits: pears, oranges, cherries, figs and plums. A glorious tray of whole fruits that had been soaked in syrup until their colour and curves were perfectly preserved in an opaque sugar gown. Sweet, firm and just exquisite.

But I never even considered making candied fruit or peel. I imagined it involved complicated and elaborate procedures, that it was fiendishly difficult and bound to end in disaster. Then I read Molly’s post. A post about – amongst other nice things – making candied orange peel. A post which charmed me (Molly always does) enlightened me and started what was to escalate into a week of simmering syrup. To begin I made two batches of Molly’s thick and thin candied peel: stout match sticks and slim curls which you roll in sugar. Then feeling bold and bolstered by my success I adapted her recipe in order to make larger pieces of candied peel that I didn’t roll in sugar.

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I’m bound to make this sound complicated and pernickerty. It isn’t. A flurry of activity demanding your full attention is necessary to get started, but then it’s all about the long, seductive simmer that requires nothing more than a curious prod and satisfied nod every now and then.

You cut both ends from each orange (6 is a good number and make sure they’re unwaxed) and then score the fruit with a sharp knife so you can ease away four arcs of peel. Now you need to blanch the peel three times: that is put it in a pan, cover it with cold water and bring to the boil, drain, recover the peel with fresh cold water, bring to the boil again, drain, recover and reboil. Did that make sense? I hope so.

Having blanched the peel, you need to simmer it in simple syrup (2 cups of water and two cups of fine sugar) until the arcs are tender and translucent. Tentative touch and taste are the best gauge -  trust yourself, you are right. Mine took an hour and 45 minutes. Once your orange arcs are candied, you use a slotted spoon to scoop them from the amber liquid and onto a wire tray set on baking parchment. You leave them to dry for a day and a half by which point they are no longer wet (but still a little bit tacky) and shine like polished leather. Store them in a screw top jar. Don’t forget to pour the amber cooking syrup into a bottle and keep it in the fridge, It’s good on greek yogurt and glorious poured over sliced oranges, slivers of dates and mascarpone (thank you Frances and thank you too for your delightful drawings, they are sheer joy in a world of too many photos)

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Of course you can eat the peel just so. I do. It’s heady stuff, the absolute essence of orange really: sweet, fragrant, spicy, oily and acerbic. Not for the citrus faint hearted. It’s good with an espresso and a square of lindt. Or with tea, Darjeeling is particulary nice. You can dip the ends of your fat, fragrant match sticks in melted dark chocolate to make scorzette d’arancia candite al cioccolato (or Orangettes). Alternatively you could (and you should) make possibly my favourite christmas treat – which is saying something considering the throng of heavily fruited cakes, suet-laced puddings, Panetone, profusion of marzipan and gaggle of spiced delights that clammer for attention during my schizophrenic AngloItalian festivities – Panforte di Siena.

Panforte di Siena is a flat, rich, boldly spiced cake, dense with toasted nuts and candied fruit peel that dates back to Medieval times. Don’t let its appearance deceive! A dark, shadowy, curiously bumpy appearance barely concealed by a blizzard of icing sugar, panforte is a most delicious thing. I’ve described it as a cake! It’s actually more like soft, chewy, heavily spiced nougat (with a whisper of cake) that’s crowded with toasted almonds, hazelnuts and masses and masses of candied fruit.

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It is pleasingly (ridiculously) straightforward to make. You toast the nuts until they are fragrant and (just) golden. You need 300g for the panforte so I suggest you toast at least 500 g so you have some for with an aperitivo. Prosecco please. Then you chop the nuts roughly (very roughly they can almost be whole) and small dice the candied peel. In a large bowl you mix together the flour, cocoa, spices – nutmeg, ground cloves, black pepper and cinnamon – nuts and candied fruit. You note your kitchen smells like Christmas. Hum (bug.)

Now you make a syrup of sugar and honey. You can get involved with thermometers here! Or you can – like me – choose to follow a recipe that simply tells you to warm the sugar and honey gently until they’ve dissolved into a syrup. Now working quickly, you pour the syrup onto the dry ingredients and stir until everything comes together into a sticky mass. Now using a spoon and your hands, you press the mixture down into a shallow tin you have lined with rice paper or wafers. You bake your panforte for 30 minutes. Once it is cool you drench it with icing sugar.

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For a woman like me, a woman with a weakness for toasted nuts, candied peel, heavily spiced confections and medieval undertones, this is a pretty stupendous slice. Gillian Riley notes that in the 1500s panforte (which literally translated means strong bread) with its strengthening sweetness and stimulating spiciness was considered an ideal gift for women after childbirth. Now I know it’s been more than a year, but I’m still in need of strengthening sweetness and stimulating spiciness. Hum.

Panforte di Siena

Adapted from Sapori d’Italia and Le ricette Regionali Italiane

  • 150 g peeled almonds
  • 150 g peeled hazelnuts
  • 300 g best quality candied fruit peel (orange, cedro, melon, lemon)
  • 150 g honey
  • 150 g sugar
  • 1 heaped tbsp cocoa powder
  • 1/2 teaspoon ground nutmeg
  • 1 /4 teaspoon ground cloves
  • 1/ 2 teaspoon cinnamon
  • 1 /4 teaspoon of black pepper (optional)
  • 100 g plain flour
  • icing sugar to dust
  • rice paper wafers /rice paper or baking parchment

Preheat the oven to 160° and line a 9″ by 2″ (23 cm by 5 cm) cake tin with rice paper or baking parchment

Spread the nuts on a baking tray and then toast then in the oven until they are lightly golden and fragrant. Chop the nuts very coarsely (very roughly they can almost be whole). Small dice the candied peel.

In a bowl mix together the cocoa, spices and flour. Add the nuts and diced peel. Stir.

In a heavy bottomed pot over a low flame warm the honey and sugar stirring until the sugar has dissolved. Raise the heat and cook the mixture until is just starting to bubble at the edges.

Quickly pour the sugar and honey syrup into the other ingredients and stir until they come together into a sticky mass. Working swiftly scrape the mixture into the lined tin then use your hands to press the mixture evenly down.

Bake for 30 minutes. Allow the panforte to cool in the tin, then remove it carefully and dust really generously with icing sugar. Panforte keeps brilliantly for days. It keeps best (and for weeks) if it is covered or in an airtight container in a cool, dark place.

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Filed under almonds, cakes and baking, christmas, hazelnuts, preserves and conserves, rachel eats Italy, Rachel's Diary, recipes, spiced cakes

Reliable

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The daily act of turning raw ingredients into good food not only gives me great pleasure, it gives me a sense of purpose and place. Purpose, because this daily act and the sequence of tasks that sustain it: planning, shopping, sorting, washing, soaking, prepping, tasks which can occupy a scant 30 minutes of one day and then eight hours of the next, give structure and sense to my day. Place, because good food requires good ingredients and sourcing good ingredients makes you acutely aware of where, of here and there.

This daily act can also leave me floundering, frantic and furious! When this is the case it’s almost always because I’ve mislayed my sense of purpose, that is structure, common sense and good taste, or my sense of place. By place I don’t just mean my physical place, that is Rome in early December (quince, potatoes, pumpkins, celery root, artichokes, kale, carrots, porcini, olives, grapes, winter melon) but my place as a cook. A home cook with strengths but also limits, a small child and a propensity for mess, tears and very bad language when things go squew-wiff.

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I get most pleasure and have the greatest sense of purpose and when I’m turning raw ingredients into the habitual dishes that sustain me, my family and my friends week after week, year after year. I am – as you’ve probably noticed – extremely habitual. The bean soups, sauces, pastas and risottos that are the cornerstones of my diet. The roasts, pans of beans, trusted cakes, jams, salads (usually green) and vegetables (often boiled until unfashionably soft) that nourish me so often and so well.

I love the familiar and reassuring sequence of movements required for these dishes. Pasta and beans comes to mind: podding, chopping, the execution of the soffritto – a task repaid with both deep flavour and a glorious smell wisping around the kitchen, the reassuring rumble and occasional burp from the simmering beans and then the thick bean soup, the engaging and amusing stir-squeeze-squelch-stir as you pass some of the soup through the food mill. Or roast chicken, which I talked about the other week! The mere thought of cold hands and colder water, patting dry, slathering butter recklessly all over a good bird, shoving a lemon up its bottom and then roasting it’s until burnished makes me feel sanguine. Or salad: green leaves swirling in cold water, the spinning, tearing and dressing (with my hands.) Eating it with my hands too, but only when I’m alone.  And then there’s tomato sauce.

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I make six different types of tomato sauce all of which have numerous variations. The sauce I make depends on the time of year, wether I’m using fresh or tinned tomatoes, what type of pasta I fancy eating, who I am cooking for and my (wholly unpredictable) state of mind.  Today’s panful is a stout but handsome winter sauce made with a deeply flavored soffritto of onion, carrot and celery, tinned plum tomatoes and a glug of red wine. A rich, thick and almost burgundy coloured sauce which can be served with just about any shape of pasta or with a gently poached egg and some bread.

This sauce is decidedly Italian, but I learned to make it in decidedly unItalian circumstances. That is in the old kitchen in my parents house in Harpenden (a suffocating provincial town in the home counties.) I imagine my mum drew original inspiration from a recipe by Elizabeth David or Jane Grigson but the need for the printed page had long passed. I’d love to tell you that as a little girl I stood on a stool and stirred the sauce with a battered and charred wooden spoon! But I didn’t. I watched keenly though, as my Mum chopped the vegetables, then sautéed the harlequin heap in an ungodly quantity of olive oil, added a big tin of imported plum tomatoes and slug of wine and then let the sauce bubble away on the cooler plate of the AGA for a good long while.

I spurned this sauce when I first came to Italy, enchanted by simpler, fresher ways and sheepish about my anglicized Italian cooking. It took a few years and much obsessive questioning about how Italians make their tomato sauce to discover this sort of hearty tomato sauce made with a soffritto is typical all over Italy in these darker months. One difference though, Italians (at least the ones I know) nearly always pass this sort of sauce through a food mill so the texture is smooth. I rather like it chunky – you could say that makes it more of a ragù than a sauce – but I’m extremely happy to go smooth if that’s the general consensus.

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I imagine you know the routine as well as I do: peel and chop, the long slow sauté in as much oil as you dare, the sizzle as the tomatoes hit the pan and the deep glug as the wine meets the tomatoes. The slow, burping simmer. Stir from time to time and don’t be afraid to add a little more wine or plain water if the sauce is looking dense but still needs cooking a little longer. If you prefer a smoother sauce (all the Italians in my life prefer a smoother sauce) pass it through a food mill or a sieve.

Rich Tomato sauce

4 generous portions

  • 5 tbsp extra virgin olive oil
  • a small white onion.
  • stick of celery
  • 1 small carrot
  • 500 g / ml / 1lb 2 oz tinned plum tomatoes, chopped.
  • red wine (optional)
  • salt
  • a pinch of sugar (optional if the sauce is very acidic)

Peel and then very small dice the onion, celery and carrot. In a heavy based pan over a medium/low flame warm the oil. Saute the onion until it’s soft and translucent then add the celery, carrot and a pinch of salt. Stir well so all the vegetables are well coated with oil. Reduce the heat and keep sautéing, stirring every now and then, until the vegetables are soft, lightly golden and – with much of the water evaporated away – richly flavored. This should take about 8- 10 minutes.

Add the tomatoes and a healthy glug of wine if you are using it, stir and then raise the heat so the sauce comes to a gentle boil. Then reduce the heat and leave the sauce to simmer very gently uncovered for 30 – 40 minutes or until it is dense (but still saucy) and dark red. Taste and season as you see fit. Pass the sauce through a food mill you prefer a smoother texture.

So lunch

We had the sauce with spaghetti and parmesan. Then broccolo romanesco cooked until unfashionably soft dressed with grassy new season extra virgin olive oil and fat anchovies. To finish, an apple and more parmesan. Pleasure, purpose and place.

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Filed under food, pasta and rice, Rachel's Diary, recipes, sauces, tomato sauce, tomatoes, winter recipes

Plan for a flan

As a rule I like my spinach served simply. That is: washed and then cooked in a heavy pan under an equally heavy lid with nothing more than the water that still clings to its crinkled leaves, drained (well,) cooled (slightly) and served just warm on a white plate. I’ll dress it myself if you don’t mind, with extra virgin olive oil, coarse salt and a squeeze of lemon.

The dapper Signore sitting at the other end of our long table in the trattoria Sostanza likes his spinach this way too. Having finished his bistecca alla fiorentina he turned his attention to the small, oval dish of dark-green leaves, dressing them as stylishly as he had himself that morning – scatter, drip, flick, squeeze, twist. Then – having adjusted his napkin and sipped his red wine – he took his fork in one hand and a nub of bread in the other and ate his green mound.  As his plates were lifted away our elegant table companion caught the waiters eye, murmured il solito (the usual) and seconds later was presented with five almond cantuccini and a small glass of vin santo. He ate and sipped and ate and sipped. Then, fingers dusted, mouth dapped and napkin folded, il signore made his way to the marble counter, exchanged intimate words with both waiters, paid, raised his hand to the kitchen and left leaving domani (tomorrow) echoing around the small white-tiled trattoria.

It was during that same stay in Florence that I came across a book containing a spinach recipe enticing enough to make another exception to the rule. Luca and I were visiting my London friends Kitty, Cicely and Laura who were staying just outside the city. Lunch at Trattoria Sostanza – a clatter of plates to share: Sopressata, tortellini in brodo, penne al ragu, bistecca alla fiorentina, pollo al burro, tartino di carciofi, bollito with salsa verde, stracotto di manzo, porcini and copious red wine – followed by gelato had left us jocund and well sated. We really didn’t need any supper.

No supper that is, apart from the globe artichokes Laura simmered in a lemon scented bouillon, the arcs of fennel, curls of radicchio, new season olive oil, slices of glistening lardo on toast and squares of Kitty’s walnut studded Castagnaccio. We ate, drank vino novello and talked about food, tights and other people’s business. Then something in the conversation prompted Laura to pull a book from the shelf.

Now this is probably going to seem contradictory considering what I do and write here, but I have an odd relationship with recipe and food books these days, finding that most of them – however beautifully composed, photographed and styled – leave me both over and underwhelmed, stuffed, starved and strangely uninspired. That said – as with spinach – there are exceptions.

One such exception is the red book pulled from the shelf. A book I now possess. A book called Beaneaters and bread soup written by Laura’s friends (and employers at the Towpath in London) food writer Lori di Mori and photographer Jason Lowe. The book is a collection of evocatively written portraits of Tuscan food producers and craftsman whose work relates to the culinary arts, including a beekeeper, a shepherd and cheesemaker, a tripe vendor, a knife maker, a cook, a winemaker, a coffee roaster and a Lardo di Colonnata producer. Each portrait is followed by several appropriate recipes. The writing is exquisite and compelling, the photography stunning but utterly unpretentious and the food producers inspiring. I’ve decided I want to keep bees. And then there are the recipes: bean and bread soups aplenty, braises, intriguing pasta, plump grains, game, dark green vegetables, marvels with chestnuts, figs, apricots, almonds, chocolate and of course lashings of Tuscan extra virgin olive oil. I want to make everything.

Lately I’ve become a little obsessed with boiled beef so I began with the bollito di manzo. I served it, as suggested with mayonnaise and salsa verde! It was the best I’ve ever made! At least I think it was, I’d consumed rather a lot of red wine so it’s possible my judgement was impaired. It was also far too dark to even consider taking pictures. I plan to make it again next week. I’ve also made the olive oil cake and the sformato di spinaci or spinach flan.

Actually this is my third in 10 days. It’s quite simply brilliant and delicious. How to describe it? Well, it’s a sort of superlative constructed creamed spinach. Or you could describe it as bed whose base is crisp breadcrumbs, whose mattress is a plump spinach soufflé and whose cover is a soft, warm, quivering blanket of béchamel. Does that make any sense?  Maybe it’s best I explain how you make it.

First you make your béchamel: A good pan with a heavy base is important, remember the butter and flour roux should cook until thick without turning brown! Also keep whisking and whisking. Then while your béchamel is cooling you cook the spinach as usual – that is in heavy pan under a heavy lid with only the washing water still clinging to the leaves – until completely wilted. Once the spinach is cool enough, you squeeze out the access water, chop it coarsely and then mix it with 3 egg yolks, freshly grated parmesan, a dollop of the bechamel and season with salt and pepper before folding in the egg whites you have patiently mounted.

Now the layers. First the butter, smeared generously on the base and sides of your baking tin. Then a layer of fine breadcrumbs scattered on the butter. Next a layer of spinach on the breadcrumbs and after that a (glorious) layer of béchamel. To finish, a shower of grated parmesan. The flan needs about 25 minutes in the oven. It then needs – as so many dishes do – a rest, lets say 15 minutes, so the flavors can settle, the crumbs tighten, the egg-bound-spinach firm slightly and the bechamel settle into a soft but significant layer.

And to drink, the end of a very nice bottle of Isole e Olena Chianti.

The first of my three flans was made for an unpredictable supper with my parents two weeks ago. I prepared the flan in the afternoon. Then once I’d heard the plane had landed I slid the pale, slightly wobbly tinful into the oven and opened the wine. The airport pantomime and train journey from the airport to my flat took longer than expected, meaning the flan sat on top of the (still slightly warm) stove for 40 minutes and I drank rather too much of the wine. I considered warming the flan again, but I’m glad I didn’t as it was a just right and a pretty perfect supper with a fennel salad. Last thing – I am going to sing the praises of my enamel baking tin once again, it is the best kitchen purchase I have made in a long time. Romans we have Emanuela. Otherwise here.

Sformato di spinaci Spinach flan

Serves 4 (6 at a push but who the heck wants to push) as a main course.

Adapted from  a recipe in Beaneaters and breadsoup by Lori di Mori and Jason Lowe

  • 1.5 kg spinach
  • 3 large eggs
  • salt and freshly ground black pepper
  • 50 g parmesan
  • nutmeg
  • 1 litre / 2 pints whole milk
  • bay leaf
  • 80 g butter plus more for smearing the dish
  • 80 g plain flour
  • fine breadcrumbs for dusting the tin.

Set the oven to 180°

Make the béchamel. In small pan heat the milk and bay leaf until it almost reaches boiling point. Remove the milk from the heat and then leave to sit for 5 minutes. Heat the butter in a heavy based pan; as soon as it starts to foam, whisk in the flour. Keep whisking steadily for 2 minutes, then remove the pan from the heat. Add a little of the milk and whisk until you have a smooth paste. Return the pan to the heat and then add the rest of the milk, whisking continuously until the milk boils. Season with salt and black pepper. Lower the heat and simmer, stirring and whisking frequently for about 10 minutes or until the sauce is thick. Allow the sauce to sit for 10 minutes.

Pick over the spinach, discarding withered or discoloured leaves and particularly tough stalks. Wash it in several changes of cold water. Stuff the spinach in a large pan with no extra water (enough will be clinging to the leaves to stop it burning until the leaves start giving out their juice.) Put a heavy lid on the pan and then stand over a low/moderate flame. After about five minutes, give the leaves a prod and a stir. Raise the heat so the spinach cooks more rapidly. Continue cooking until the spinach has collapsed and is tender. This should take about 5 minutes depending on the freshness and age of the spinach.

Drain the spinach and once it is cool enough squeeze and press it gently with your hands to eliminate as much water as possible.

Put the spinach in a large bowl and then chop it roughly with scissors. In a small bowl beat the three egg yolks lightly with a fork and then stir them into the spinach. Add 30 g of parmesan, 3 tablespoons of béchamel, salt, freshly ground black pepper and a good grating of nutmeg. In a clean dry bowl whisk the egg whites until stiff peaks form. Gently fold the egg whites into the spinach mixture.

Smear your (23 x 30cm) baking tin generously with butter and then dust it with fine breadcrumbs. Spread the spinach mixture evenly over the breadcrumbs. Pour the béchamel evenly over the spinach. Scatter the remaining parmesan on top of the béchamel.

Bake for 25 minutes or until the sauce is bubbling and the cheese golden. Let the flan rest for at least 15 minutes and up to an hour before serving.

Update – there have been a couple of helpful comments about the quantity of béchamel. There is a lot – 1 litre - which I think works with a large tin. I suggest you pour the béchamel cautiously, and don’t use it all if your dish is smaller or you feel it might be too much. Also the béchamel should be thick (but not stiff) and coating the back of a spoon (you know the way) so make sure you cook it enough.

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Filed under Book review, books, Eggs, flans, food, rachel eats Italy, Rachel's Diary, spinach