q.b.

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I was too confused and cross to appreciate anything. It was Monday at 6 o’clock and I was late and lost, fooled again by the exaggerated curves of the Tevere river, staggering with an oversized child in an undersized sling down another cobbled street, in the shadow of another cupola, past another ancient fountain. The man at the bus stop shook his head and made a gesture that confirmed I was – as suspected – a long way from where I wanted to be. No directions were forthcoming. Mad dog Englishwoman tourist his eyes seemed to snigger. ‘I’ve lived here for nearly nine years‘ I wanted to tell him, only every single word of Italian eluded me.

Relief at finding myself on Via del Corso was short-lived. In front of me was the bus stop from which I’d caught the first of two ill-advised buses an hour before. The sun beat down and Luca beat his hot little hands on my chest. So we walked some more, wading really, against a tide of shoppers and tourists. ‘You want the 116‘ said a kind woman at another bus stop. ‘I know, I’ve lived here for nine years, I take buses everyday.‘ I wanted to tell her, but grazie was all I could manage.

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The 116, a dwarf bus, bumped along Via del Babuino, women with expensive shoes and immaculate toe nails teetered on so I tucked my shabby ones under the seat. We stopped just after Piazza di Spagna and there it was, Europe’s broadest staircase and another mass of bodies, shopping bags and blinking cameras. ‘Get off here‘ said the kind woman. ‘But walk up the other staircase just behind. Which we did, and at last I appreciated something. That was the cool, quiet, stone steps and the fact that we, just meters away from busiest staircase in Europe, had our own private one. Not as marvelous obviously, but in that moment nearly. Villa Medici took me by surprise, looming grandly as it does over Viale Trinità dei Monti. As did the deep purple blossoms pouring over walls and then, as we walked a little further, the view.

Nearly nine years ago on a similar evening the view from the Pincio had made my heart swell and skin flush. It had also made me cry. It happened again yesterday. Which was partly the sense of relief that we were no longer lost, that I was no longer flipping furious. But mostly it was because the view across Rome from that particular point at that particular hour : a hazy patchwork of terracotta, brown and gold, of gleaming cupolas, uneven tiles, fading palazzi, hidden roof gardens and the distant plateau of Janiculum with its shadowed umbrella pines is so sublime.  ‘Mamma, mummy, mamma, look, look!‘ Luca insisted while tugging at my shirt, his eyes full of wonder. ‘Look mamma, dog!‘ A large dog, leg cocked, was relieving himself against the kerb. At which we turned and walked briskly – our Tupperware box of biscuits keeping time – across Villa Borghese to the picnic party.

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Fortunately Ciambelline al vino are hardy biscuits that happily withstand hours of inept traveling and a brisk jolt across the park. They are also particular – as only a biscuit made with olive oil with fennel seeds can be – and delicious – as only a biscuit made with wine intended to be dipped in wine can be. Last but not least, they are quintessentially Roman (which is my preoccupation these days) and a good recipe with which to mention q.b.

Q.b. means quantobasta which literally translated means how much is enough. Or as Vincenzo puts it: what you think is the right quantity. You find q.b. dotted liberally throughout Italian recipes, the older your book or more southern your travels the more you encounter it. It isn’t a question, but an assumption that you know how much whatever – salt, pepper, flour, oil, wine, sugar, fennel seeds, salt – is enough for the recipe concerned according to your particular taste. It’s an assumption that you have good taste, good instincts and/or that the recipe is good enough for you to make it again and again until q.b is second nature.

Unlike some recipes I’ve bookmarked in which every single ingredient is followed by q.b. at least today’s recipe has measurements of sorts. That is: a glass of wine (red, white or fortified), a glass of extra virgin olive oil and a glass of sugar. The size of the glass is – of course – the one you think is right. I used my trusty 100ml duralex. To your pool of sugar, wine and oil you add salt and fennel seeds. A pinch and a teaspoon seemed the right quantity to me. Then you add the flour q.b. , little by little, working it in with your hands until the dough has come together into a manageable mass that comes cleanly away from the sides of the bowl. You will know.

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You let the dough rest – an hour or so – then you pull away walnut sized balls, roll them into a slim logs which you then curl into rings. A pinch helps seal the circle. You dip your rings in sugar before arranging them on a baking tray and sliding them into the oven until they are done. That is crisp and golden. In my oven (which of course is different to your oven) this took 25 minutes. I then took my friend Anna’s advice turned the oven off , opened the door a crack but left the Ciambelline al vino to harden in the cooling oven. All the better for dipping in wine she noted.

I am not going to try and convince you otherwise, if you don’t like the distinctive taste of fennel seeds you won’t like these Ciambelline. Of course you can leave the seeds out! But without the sweet, grassy, anise whiplash they are – in my opinion – as lost as I was on Monday at 6 o’clock. I’ve heard you can substitute wine with milk! But why would you want to do that?

Somewhere between utterly sweet and charming, and hard work and curious, ciambelline al vino are ring biscuits made with wine to dip in wine – I think this just about sums it up. Unsurprisingly I adore them. They keep brilliantly in a tin or box.

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Ciambelline al vino Ring biscuits with wine and fennel seeds

Adapted from various recipes but most notably one by the brilliant cucina di calycanthus

makes about 20 biscuits

  • 1 glass of sugar
  • 1 glass of wine (white, red or fortified wine such as Madeira)
  • 1 glass of extra virgin olive oil
  • salt q.b
  • fennel seeds q.b
  • plain flour q.b
  • sugar for finishing q.b

In a bowl mix together the sugar, olive oil and wine. Add the salt and fennel seeds and then flour q.b a little at a time, mixing with your hands, until you have a soft but manageable dough that comes cleanly away from the sides of the bowl.

Move the dough onto a board dusted lightly with flour and then work until smooth. Cover and leave the dough to rest for an hour.

Pull walnut sized pieces from the dough and then on a floured board, with floured hands, roll the balls into slim logs that are roughly 8 – 10 cm long.  Curl each log into a round and pinch the ends so you have a ring. Invert and dip the top of each ring into a dish of sugar so it is well coated.

Arrange the rings on a baking tray lined with baking parchment. Bake at 180° for 25 – 30 minutes or until the rings are golden and crisp.  Allow to cool.

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78 Comments

Filed under biscuits and biscotti, cakes and baking, fennel seeds, rachel eats Italy, rachel eats Rome, Rachel's Diary, recipes, wine

78 responses to “q.b.

  1. Loved everything about this post. I have always been fond of the q.b. in Italian recipes too, it’s like the recipe writer has confidence in you, given you the benefit of the doubt in knowing how and what you need to do, that you have the palate and the touch to do as you wish to the recipe, rather than so many English recipes that you see nowdays that spell out every little thing as if we’re idiots. Cannot wait to make these cimabelline. We do love our fennel seeds in this house – what Tuscan doesn’t?

    • rachel

      I like Elizabeth David’s chapter on the measurements – as always, she puts the perplexity of it all beautifully. Ah yes, you Tuscans and your delicious finicchiona.

  2. Wonderful read. I attended a conference in Rome a while ago and rented a flat near Trinità dei Monti, and your description was so vivid, it felt like I was there. As to Ciambelline, I have never tasted them, but I am quite convinced I would love them, except that I am not very good at judging “quanto basta”!

    • rachel

      I’m not sure how good I am at judging q.b. Just when I think I am getting better, I get it spectacularly wrong. You picked a pretty perfect place to rent a flat!

  3. Great post Rachel. Love taralli / ciambelline (what’s the difference?) with fennel seeds. Will have to try this… but… well, ha, you know me – qb notwithstanding, I want to know what size Duralex glass you used. 200ml? Less? More?

    I want to find your alternative-to-the-touristy-steps now too.

    • rachel

      Not sure, I find all the rings quite baffling. 100 ml, which I should add to the post. Walk up the side street soon after the metro and there it is, the quiet staircase.

  4. Lauren

    I have the wine! In fact 2 Dozen bottles arrived yesterday. I hope you were able to relax after such a journey.

  5. Don’t feel bad for yourself, I get lost too very very often!!

  6. Auguri – we have a “came to Italy” anniversary the same month :)

  7. laura

    Getting lost can be fun, but not in the sun … or with a small child you end up carrying. “QB” used to feel like getting lost to me … am better now … adopting “less is more” helped. LOVE fennel seeds (and fennel pollen!) on scamerita and other pork dishes. Complimenti on the superb series of photos in this post.

  8. Cle

    I love love love love them!
    q.b. and more! much more!!!!

    • rachel

      Of course you do, and you are probably blessed with that innate Italian ability to judge q.b. Please come and give me a lesson?

  9. Ha ha q.b indeed! Luca will be saying that next at which point you must whisk him back here for a holiday (and some English ways) immediately. xx

    • rachel

      There has been more than enough of the sling. I can’t can’t handle the pushchair with the flipping cobbles. We are back in Aug so maybe we can find a way to meet? x

  10. I hope the picnic party proved to be worth your awful journey to get there. At least you had those ciambellini to look forward to. If I ever get into my kitchen to bake again, I’ll be sure to add the fennel seeds! q.b–another Italian notation I love.
    xo

  11. Rachel, you write so beautifully. We were on the Pincio last night with our aperitivo picnic. You describe it so well

  12. A stressful way to start your picnic but a terrific biscuit to enjoy with a much needed glass of wine, I’m sure.

  13. I know I will love these. Plain and anise-y. My favorite! The best thing is I always have everything in the house to make these and will be trying this recipe immediately.

    I bake pork ribs covered in a powder made of crushed red pepper, fennel seeds, salt and pepper blitzed in a coffee grinder (used only for spices). They are my little personal treat when I am cooking for myself

    • rachel

      You will. I love the sound of your pork. Laura above ( a florentine) has also suggested pork with fennel pollen. I will try both x

  14. oooo, excellent receipe & lovely evocation of the hot tendrils of back-street chaos panic! I once had these biscuits with caraway, which is a cousin to fennel flavour-wise I think, and also v v good…

  15. Wow, I really felt the emotion in your writing. Bravo! I just started reading your blog and really enjoy your tales and unique recipes.
    I must ask, what are these biscuits best served with? Only wine? Thx a bunch!
    - Mark

    • rachel

      Best with wine but also nice with coffee, tea of all kinds and liqueurs obviously. thank you and so nice to have you reading along.

  16. There is so much Italian/Roman to love about this post. The getting hot and lost and frustrated, but ending up in an extraordinarily beautiful place. The You will figure it out aspect of the recipe (and life, and directions) and best of all cookies made with wine for a children’s party. These are just a very few of the reasons I love it here.

  17. “… only every single word of Italian alluded me.”

    “eluded me?”

  18. Lovely post. Every parent with a young child and packages know that moment when the question When-is-this-journey-going-to-end? morphs into I-just-want-find-a-bench-and-lie-down.

    The concept of q.b. is so compelling. It reminds me of the way Coleman Andrews, the founder of Saveur, used to write recipes, along the lines of “Take a medium-sized onion and caramelize it in olive oil.” How can you not love that? When writing our own book, we were told that style was unacceptable to current readers, and so had to write: “Chop a medium-sized onion (4-6 ounces) into 1/8-inch dice. Heat 2 tablespoons of olive oil in a large heavy-bottomed sauté pan over medium heat, add the onion and cook, stirring frequently, until the onions begin to turn golden brown (8 – 10 minutes), etc.” You get the picture. While novice cooks were grateful for the specificity, it used to drive me crazy. Despite my love for q.b. style recipes, I have a bit more sympathy. Fewer and fewer people learn how to cook from their families, so they have to start somewhere, and that’s often in the pages of a very precisely written cookbook. Alas… Ken

    • rachel

      I nearly did lie down, by a fountain.

      I think we agree on this. I too like the idea of q.b and know it helps my cooking, but also like sound advice. I think there is a balance. I think I need to know more about this book and come to E mail for advice Rx

  19. Kat

    But Rach, I didn’t know you went through so much to get to us. guess that “we got a bit lost” was a huge understatement. :P but reading/hearing you here and how the amazing biscuits came about (and I have to tell you I truly enjoyed them, as did many others but I greedily kept a few to have for breakfast today). Adamo managed to steal more than one. anyway, this was another enjoyable “trip” with you. :) Love

    • rachel

      I was entirely to blame. I even lòooked on google maps but still managed to get in the most ridiculous pickle. It was worth it though, we had such a nice time x

  20. I loved reading this post. Bill and I got similarly lost, walking from Vatican City to Piazza del Popolo. Those river bends are very very tricky; one slight misjudgment, and you are veering in the wrong direction, even when it feels right. I was never so happy to find Via del Corso, after we made our correction.
    I so enjoyed eating taralli pugliesi, and want to make them. they seem very similar to these Roman biscuits, although they have no sugar.
    “Trusty Duralex” is how I have always referred to my fave mixing bowl.

    • rachel

      The spell check changed it to trusty durex which rather altered the feel of the blog post. I should look at some taralli recipes, I adore them too.

      It seems such a long time ago now, i still wish we’d had more time to wander and get lost together xx

  21. Yes, I loved this post too. And I love ‘qb’! I’d never heard of it. It would drive my poor husband nuts. An un-confident cook, he’s really quite alarmed to realise that not all teaspoons are the same size, whereas with me, all recipes are ‘qb’ whether they’re meant to be or not.

  22. The size of Rome’s centre can be so deceiving and more than once a walk I had expected to take 10 minutes ended up taking 30 (more if I got horrendously lost). Glad you made it to Villa Borghese in the end.

    As for the q.b. it used to drive me nuts nut now I welcome it, it adds to th charm of a recipe and also makes me feel like I added my own touch to the final product. As for these ciambelli, I absolutely adore them, but they have to have fennel seeds and wine for me as well. My Italian boyfriend’s aunt gave me her recipe once – I was ecstatic until I realized her recipe was firmly in qb territory … Like pretty much all the other recipes for ciambelli
    I have come across!

    • rachel

      I was blooming glad too, not an experience (self inflicted of course) I want to repeat, The view however I must inhale that more often.

  23. Hilary

    oh, I love, love, love ciambellini and will try your recipe. What happened to the apricots?

    • rachel

      I poached them, which i have already written about and the pictures were terrible. Do try, they are lovely. oh and thank you x

  24. ahahahha poor Rachel… but the point is Rome’s transportation is a mystery and you should get a side motor car to ride with little Luca!

    • rachel

      Lets both get sidecars and tear around Rome with Luca and Adamo squealing. Thank you again for a lovely picnic xxx

  25. Love your blog brings Rome alive for those of us stuck in hideous cold London. Wondered if you could remind me of the Berlin blog you mentioned. Older woman- I lost the name and can not find it. I found it moving. Thanks from an art writer who is skiving in the kitchen.

  26. I’ve never been very brave with my cooking, always one to stick to recipes and weigh out all of my ingredients. But with this beautifully written post you’ve inspired me to be a little braver! I think I will have to give these a go. Thank you.

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  28. KIm

    Reading the caption of the picture of Luca in the park, I wonder if you were there with Deb, Alex and Jacob? She posted on her blog that the boys had a couple of play dates while they were in Rome and your “smitten” comment made me think of it.

  29. deb

    I guffawed, loudly, when I read this because the 116! (exclamation point added) was also our torment. One day, we waited 20 minutes for it (it claims to come every 10, I think to mock us), then Jacob wandered a few steps away and it passed us. Then we waited another 15. The next day, we waited 30 and then found a taxi stand. (Also something that in two weeks, we couldn’t figure out how to intentionally locate.)

    q.b. is the very antithesis of my recipe-writing; I want everyone to know exactly what would make it work so that cooking will be less anxiety-provoking, and more frequently successful on the first go. However, q.b. makes people better cooks in a shorter period of time, so I have no doubt those Italians are onto something.

    • rachel

      Ha, yes, you know the joy (lessness) of Roman transport. I am assuming gelato helped make things better post bus trauma. We talked about this didn’t we – I agree that it is nice to know, especially if you trust the recipe writer (and we do). I like a bit of q.b very now and then too, especially when there is no pressure, mucking around with ingredients really and yes, making me a better cook. I hope.

  30. Rachel, I just read this post out loud to my husband, and we both looked at each other when I was done, raised our eyebrows, and agreed you are some writer. I always know when I come over here that I will be transported to another world, one of Italian words and wine-filled cookies (today!) and lyrical writing that feels like I’m reading a magazine.

    • rachel

      Thanks Shannon that is kind and especially nice coming from you. Glad I transported you to Rome – even if it was a hot and cross Rome – for a while. Now you need to visit x

  31. Hi Rachel,

    Can’t wait to try these now the sun’s out in the UK!

    Busy Bird

    • rachel

      Glad to hear the sun is shining. Hope it keeps doing so until i am back next week: I can’t wait for English strawberries and double cream. Hope you make the biscuits q.b. luck to you.

  32. My father proposed to my mother at the Villa Medici … and my mother makes great ciambelline … yours sound wonderful especially because you are comfortable with the Q.B. “thing”. Marcella Hazan would love you .. only today I read the following, and it ties in so beautifully with what you wrote … sigh … To me, QB is all about ‘feeling’ as opposed to ‘showing off’ … bravo Rachel, bravo! (actually brava, but never mind ….). http://www.campaignindia.in/Article/349142,dave-trotts-blog-marketing-begins-with-the-market.aspx#.UddS9JfWX8U.facebook

    • rachel

      That is a good way of putting it: feeling which is all tied in the instinct and sense memory. I imagine you make a good ciambelline too. Next time I walk under the glorious Vila M I will think of your Mum and Dad. x

  33. I am not one for the Italian love for fennel seeds in sweets but I do love reading every word you write. Can never get enough.

    • rachel

      My sister once said ‘My heart sinks when I hear the words fennel and biscuit in the same sentence.’ Thank you, so glad to have you reading along.

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  35. Samantha

    Have made these twice in the last week…absolutely brilliant. Thank you for sharing!

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  38. Helen Madden

    Oh my, that’s the best cookie I’ve had in years! Made them with dry marsala, the fennel seed may have been a little old (I toasted it, hoping that would help), I was a little slack kneading the dough and they still turned out really great. Thank you, thank you! Bet Rome surfaces in a dream tonight.

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