Category Archives: cakes and baking

an eye on a fruity loaf

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It started off as one cake a week, usually on a friday, something to go with the builders last cup of tea before they packed up for the weekend. Then it was two. ‘After all, They’re all working so hard and Tim loves a slice of cake ‘ my mum said sounding just like her mum. Now, as house renovations come to an end and my Mum and Dad contemplate life without Tim the kindest and hardest working builder in Dorset, Tim’s brother-in-law, Matt and his son Sam, the electrician Glen, the plumber Richard and Linda the painter, mum is making almost a-cake-a-day. Two cakes a day once my brother and his wife, my sister and her husband and I all descended on my parents with all our kids. The kettle didn’t know what had hit it. ‘Shall I put the kettle on?‘ has chimed as reliably as a chiming clock these last two weeks. The answer is almost always yes to the offer of tea in the Roddy house, even from me, the only member of the family to properly defect to the coffee side. ‘Would you like a bit of cake too‘ my mum asks, now sounding like aunty May.

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The house my parents are renting is opposite the house being worked on, so there is an almost endless steam of back and forth, of cake and cake compliments being passed across the road that divides the two houses in Symondsbury village. We were all sitting around the kitchen table of the rented house drinking tea, eating cake, bickering mildly and doing the quick crossword when Tim popped his head round the low kitchen door – ‘It’s a house for bloody hobbits’ my tall dad keeps saying, often while rubbing a bump on his head. Once the query about the brickwork had been resolved, I asked Tim which was his favorite cake. ‘I like them all’ he said diplomatically. I persisted. ‘If you had to pick one?’  He paused as if he had all the time in the world, clearly thinking hard about cake. ‘That lemon drizzle cake was lovely, but then again, so was the Bakewell tart.’  There was yet another longish pause in which Tim turned to say hello to a woman walking up the hill, before he turned back. ‘My favorite is the fruity loaf your mum made today’  he said while eyeing up another fruity loaf in the middle of the table.

The fruity loaf was my favourite too, full of fruit that’s plump and drunk on tea scented with orange zest, sweet but not overly so. The final cake is softly crumbly, but squishes together beautifully between your fingers. Mum made three during the two weeks I was in Dorset and I ate slice after slice with sharp, smooth Godminster cheddar and cups of English breakfast tea at my parent’s kitchen table during book editing breaks (I am nearly there, nearly).

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Fruity teacake

300 g mixed dried fruit, berries and cherries
225 ml hot tea ( we used English breakfast)
the zest and juice of a large unwaxed orange
50 g butter
100 g light brown sugar
1 large egg
225 g self-raising flour
4 tablespoons of demerara sugar.

You will need a 2 lb loaf tin.

Put the dried fruit, hot tea, orange juice and zest in a large bowl, cover with cling film and leave for at least 4 hours or, even better, over night.

Heat the oven to 180°/350 F and line a 2 lb loaf tin with greaseproof paper. Beat together the butter and sugar until creamy. Beat the egg into the butter and sugar mixture one by one and then add the flour and finally fold in the fruit mixture. Scrape the mixture into the lined loaf tin and sprinkle over the demerara sugar. Bake for an hour or until a skewer come out cleanly. Allow to cool in the tin for 10 minutes or so, before turning into a wire each to cool. Serve alone or with sharp cheese such as cheddar.

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Filed under cakes and baking, fruitcake, Rachel's Diary, recipes

the whole triangle

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Even a tiny triangle of lemon embellishing a drink was enough to make my grandpa shudder and suck his breath. Vincenzo’s grandfather on the other hand ate a lemon a day, skin, pith and flesh all. Now to be fair, there was a continent of difference between the two lemons. Between the heavily waxed, leather-skinned, shockingly sharp ones my grandpa might have found a triangle of in his drink in an Northern English pub in 1980 (my other granny had one such pub and I was a deft hand at slicing lemons and pulling pints by the age of 8) and the pale, fragrant, almost sweet lemons Vincenzo’s grandfather grew on his farm in Sicily.

That said, I still like the (unfair) comparison between the two; John Roddy grimacing at the sight of a small yellow triangle in a pub near Sheffield, Orazio D’Aleo eating the whole fruit in a field in southern Sicily. Apart from the citrus difference and the language, we think our Lancastrian and Sicilian grandfathers would have got on well, in an awkward, silent way.

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Lemons are important in this house, Vincenzo doesn’t eat them whole, but almost. He squeezes them in and on the obvious: fish, salad, vegetables, tea, and the less obvious; strawberries, watermelon, bread, potatoes, espresso. He also washes the dishes with the squeezed out halves. Although less exuberant with my squeezing and still trying to get in the washing up-habit, I am – and this is might sound like pseuds corner – devoted to Italian lemons, delighted by their pale, unwaxed skins and oily spritz, gentle pith that’s as thick as a thumb and flesh that tastes clean and citric.

Rainy days and the fact everyone has been under the weather has made the bowl of lemons even more imperative, and not just for their suggestion of sunshine. Lemons have been lifting, cutting, sharpening, encouraging and brightening. They’ve been squeezed with blood oranges to make juice the colour of a desert sunrise, spritzed on greens, fat fringed pork chops and into my eyes, twisted into dressing for salad and vegetables and then – for the third time this week – grated into batter for a cake.

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I’ve written about this cake before and I’m sure I will again. It’a actually the only cake I can make with any sort of ease, which has much to do with the inclusion of olive oil which renders everything, including cake batter, sleeker and more effortless. I think I could make it blindfolded, although it’s probably best I don’t try. Three cups of flour, one of olive oil, one and a half of sugar, another of yogurt, some baking powder and the zest of two lemons (which also clears your sinuses and lifts your spirits, although not as effectively as a gin and tonic with a curl of lemon peel) all whisked (energetically) together into a pale, creamy batter which you bake in ring-tin until firm and golden.

Simple and good, an everyday cake with a dose of mood lifting citrus. An accomadating cake that is as comfortable on a breakfast table as it is wrapped in a paper napkin and stuffed in a pocket for a morning snack, as good beside a cup of tea at about 4 as it is with a beaker of hot milk (with a nip) at about 9. I think both grandfathers would have approved. Serve in wedges or eat the whole thing, it is entirely up to you.

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Ciambellone al limone – lemon ring cake

You need a ring-tin. I used a 100 ml glass as my measuring cup which worked well. Many people use a small yogurt pot (100-125 ml) as the measuring cup, which works well too. This is a small cake, which I’m sure many of you may like to double, which means adjusting cooking times accordingly. I have not tried this yet, so would appreciate feedback from anyone who does. Update from my friend Elizabeth – my cup, or a small yogurt pot (100 – 125ml) is a half US cup. The cake can also be baked in a loaf tin, small loaf tins or doubled to fill a bundt tin.

  • 3 cups of 00 or plain flour
  • a cup of extra virgin olive oil
  • a cup and a half of sugar
  • a cup of plain whole-milk yogurt
  • 3 large eggs
  • a heaped teaspoon of baking power or half a packet of Italian lievito
  • the zest of 2 unwaxed lemons

Set the oven to 180°

Whisk together the flour, olive oil, sugar, yogurt, eggs and baking powder in a large bowl. Grate over the lemon zest and whisk again (vigorously.) Pour the batter into a greased and floured ring tin and bake for 25 – 30 minutes or until the cake is golden and cooked through (I test with a stand of spaghetti). Allow to cool before turning onto a plate.

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Filed under cakes and baking, fruit, lemons, rachel eats Italy, rachel eats Rome, Rachel's Diary, winter recipes

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

Glazed over

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Did I mention we have a school in our courtyard? It’s a very small school, a large room with appendages really, in the middle of our vast courtyard. A vast, cavernous courtyard onto which more than 100 apartments peer. We also have palm trees, seven of them, a dozen blooming oleander and a gangly pine which tempts sparrows and the occasional exultation of larks. There are also two pizzeria in our midst, the back of them at least, in the far left and far right hand corners, which means all sorts of hullabaloo, wood oven girding, pizzaiolo hollering, chair scraping, cutlery clinking and general rowdiness. But only after seven pm, so long after the school bell has rung. Long after 24 five-year olds have scattered like excited marbles across gravel and into arms and Luca and I have finished making our lunch or – rather uncharacteristically – our cake.

Cake making wasn’t on the agenda. Actually nothing was on the agenda, what with no lessons, both of us being out of sorts and me still reeling from the fact that the evening before, raw and ragged discussions were had and I managed to say things that have needed saying for far too long, A day in, on and around the bed recuperating with Quentin Blake, Bruno Munari and orange jelly was the plan. Then at about ten thirty, as the moka rattled to a climax for the second time, the sun poured, children squealed and my son’s kitchen pan drumming confirmed considerable recovery, I decided both a walk and a cake was in order.

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We walked the other way along the river. Meaning instead of imperial arches, lofty columns and clusters of cupolas we pounded through another Rome. Gasworks, a slaughter-house, a defunct port and derelict storage silos were our cityscape, harsh monuments all, but eerily beautiful ones and witnesses to a slow, stealthy regeneration trying to pervade this part of the Eternal city. As we walked back  I made mental notes of buildings that might suit us and realised, rather surprisingly, that the thought of a new flat near but not actually in Testaccio was not only manageable but comfortable.

I’d made a list: oranges, fine polenta, ground almonds and cardamom pods. First the oranges, from the market, two kilo’s of perky leaved, dusty orange orbs, not a wisp of wax in sight. We ate two immediately! Which wasn’t a particularly prudent idea for an over excited, sling-suspended 17 month old and his ill prepared mother who was wearing her nicest jacket. Orange scented, sticky fingered and stained we visited Laura at Emporio delle spezie, an indispensable cubby hole of a shop, selling every conceivable herb, spice and condiment. A kilo of fine polenta, 500 g of ground almonds, a bag of cardoman pods and we were all set.

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Now I’ve think we’ve established that as much as I like cake – unfussy, damp, scented and absolutely no frosting please even on my birthday – I don’t make them very often. Cakeless weeks fly by and then, mighty boosh, I’m cakestruck and tins are greased, and eggs cracked. For a long time plain madeira was my weakness, but over the last few years I’ve been seduced by cakes made with almond flour and scented with citrus. Dense, fragrant and sticky rounds, as much puddings as cakes. I tried and tested various recipes before settling on a lemon and almond cake and a clementine take on Claudia Roden’s marvelous orange and almond cake. I was content. Then this.

This being my friend Dan‘s cake, A cake based on Nigel Slater’s recipe in the Observer some years back that Dan – an excellent and generous baker and caker – made for a lunch a couple of Sundays ago. Forget everything I’ve said before, this is my cake. An almond, polenta, orange and cardamom cake that’s drenched, soaked and sodden with orange, lemon and honey syrup. It is, as you can see, unprepossessing and possibly the wrong side of burnished for many. But please don’t let this dissuade you, it’s ridiculously good: a dense, damp, deeply aromatic and heady affair.

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Pretty standard practice, cream the butter and sugar, add wet ingredients: orange and eggs, and then dry ones: polenta, ground almonds and a teaspoon of baking powder. Last but not least you add the crushed seeds of 12 dusty green cardamom pods. As you grind the tiny black seeds you might well be transported somewhere else. For me that somewhere else is the medicine cabinet, as cardamom has something of Vick’s nasal spray about it. Then, as medicinal eucalyptus gives way to sultry floral citrus, I’m transported –  rather more romantically – to Mysore in Southern India some 13 years ago and a bowl of cardamom scented rice pudding eaten on a crowded roof top!  I’ve never talked about India have I? Which is extraordinary considering how much I love to harp on about it!  Another time!

The cake needs 30 minutes at 180° and then another 25 or so at 160°. It will be deeply burnished. Then – and this is the particularly nice bit – you bubble up a syrup of orange, lemon juice and honey to spoon over the still warm cake you have prudently picked all over with a strand of spaghetti. The cake: beautifully absorbent and pricked, obediently and obligingly soaks up the syrup in much the same way that I soak up my first drink of the day – sip, sip, woosh. Now you wait, a few hours if you can, wriggle the cake out of the tin, slice and eat.

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Eat and be reminded of how well ground almonds work in lieu of flour: nutty, milky and of course oily which means the cake is almost rudely moist. Notice the polenta, it’s gritty, granular texture and how well that fits. The orange zest flecking the cake: warm, acerbic and aromatic, you’ll notice that too, as you will the tiny black specks of cardamom, at once eucalyptus, ginger and something sultry and unexplained. And then there is the glaze, a hot syrup of orange, lemon and runny honey that drenches the very heart of the round, soaking cake and crumb. This is my cake.

Of course a spoonful of very cold, very heavy cream, mascarpone, crème fraîche, vanilla ice-cream or Barbados cream (a lovely lactic concoction of greek yogurt, heavy cream and soft muscovado sugar) would all work beautifully here.

Cake, cake, range, range*, woof, woof.

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Almond, polenta, orange and cardamom cake with honey and citrus syrup

Adapted from Dan’s recipe which is in turn adapted from Nigel Slater‘s recipe in the Observer

  • 220 g butter
  • 220 g golden caster sugar
  • 3 eggs
  • zest and juice of a unwaxed orange
  • 300 g ground almonds
  • 150 g polenta
  • 1 tsp baking powder
  • 12 green cardamom pods
  • for the glaze: juice of two oranges, one lemon and 4 tablespoons of honey

Line the base of the cake tin with a piece of baking parchment. Set the oven at 180° / 350 F / Gas 4.

Cream the butter and sugar together till light and fluffy. You can do this by hand or in a mixer. Break the eggs into a small bowl and beat them lightly with a fork, then stir into the mixture. Carefully grate the zest and then squeeze the juice from the orange. Add both the zest and the juice to the mixture. Mix the ground almonds, polenta and baking powder together, then fold into the mixture.

Crush the cardamom pods and extract the little black seeds, grinding them to a fine powder. Add the spice to the cake mixture.

Transfer the cake mixture to the lined tin and smooth the top-level. Bake for 30 minutes, turn down the heat to 160 C/ gas 3 for a further 25 -30 minutes or until the cake is firm.

To make the syrup, squeeze the lemon and orange juice into a stainless steel saucepan, bring to the boil and dissolve in the honey. Keep the liquid boiling until it has formed a thin syrup (4-5 minutes).

Spike holes into the top of the cake (still warm and in its tin) with a skewer then spoon over the hot citrus syrup. Leave to cool, then lift out of the tin.

* range is of course orange.

This is a picture of Dan’s cake.

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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

Nothing, all and some

For almost a third of my life if I made a cake, it was nothing, or all. Nothing, not even a wisp of batter or a wayward crumb, only the purposeful sliding of slices onto other people’s plates, their appetite nourishing my steely abstinence. All, meaning I ate it all, then felt wretched and furious. Lashing feelings assuaged only by renewed vows of temperance.

At the time all felt monstrous and much harder to bear than none. I now understand none was the uglier face of my symptoms: tight, calculated and superior, the antithesis of the generous, cake bearing hostess I fantasized I was being. The all, the part of myself I loathed and feared the most: the greedy, needy, messy part was in fact my salvation. For it was this grabbing, gorging Rachel that begged desperately for help.

And help would come, again, gallons of it,  So too would terror and denial, that familiar and toxic pair, surging through my veins. Deadlock.

I come from a family who can talk as intently (and obsessively) about our behavior as we do our food. A family whose fingers reek of garlic and who talk endlessly of behavior and food over food, which can make for terrible table manners. We all knew perfectly well my nothing or all behavior was perverse. But we were helpless in the face of insidious and entrenched habits that had – and I know this may sound absurd –  become my way of surviving.

I was 30 when things began to shift. A fierce period of nothing, sustained by a conveniently abstemious few months in India doing Yoga, was followed, unsurprisingly, by an even fiercer period of all. The beginning of the end of a relationship I thought would last forever and the uncomfortable truth about my acting career collided with all. I was, quite literally, on my knees.

Until that point I’d frantically avoided practical help – the make a list, make a plan, keep a diary, avoid that shop, avoid that food, count to three, make a phone call sort of help. What’s more I’d jeered and sneered at it, believing it pathetic and useless in the face of the complex deep-rooted problems I’d been burrowing for with at least six different therapists since the age of 16. Then just after my thirtieth birthday, drowning in all, I sat down and made a list. A list of the all the advice I’d been offered, given, thrown, administered, heard and read over the years. I still have it somewhere. Third or fourth on the list was: stop making cakes until. Until what?  I’m not sure.  Just until.

I stopped.  I stopped other things too, dozens of them. My symptoms roared, subsided and roared again. I started going to groups I swore I’d never go to. I stopped more things and started others. There was talking and more talking and sharing and counting the days, months and years. I weighed the beans. Symptoms subsided and people rushed over to tell me how well I was doing and I knew they were right. But I felt like a zombie. ‘It’s normal‘, they cried. ‘Remember what it was like.‘ But I still felt like a zombie. ‘Don’t go back‘ they cried with terror in their eyes, as if my doubt was contagious. ‘I don’t want to go back ‘ I replied. ‘I also don’t want to stay here‘ I thought as I drank my fucking herbal tea.

I took flight.  I drank more coffee during that first week in Naples than in the entire two and a half years following the list. I also ate Rum baba and drank red wine. I pounded the streets of Naples, fueled by caffeine, sugar and a lick of alcohol wondering if I might topple back into something terrible. Then on the third or fourth day, as I walked – yet again – along the sea front eating yet another booze laced confection I realised that everything, the all and the nothing, my families uncompromising tenet that we eat and talk, the medical, the philosophical, the analytical, the practical, the blasted steps, my list and my impulsive flight to Naples had all clotted together. I was alright.

Of course my moment of realisation was followed by a more sober reality as I built a new life. But I didn’t topple back.  I picked up habits I’d stopped. Feelings roared, subsided and roared, but I didn’t topple back. I cried and raged and stood panic-stricken on the top of Mount Etna in the snow for three hours. But I didn’t topple back. In fact as far as my food was concerned – to put it clumsily –  I toppled forward, somersaulted really, into what was to become a pretty sane and often joyous way of eating. I never, even for a moment, doubted that leaving England was the right thing to do.

It took me a couple of years to make a cake. I’m not really sure why, I’d returned to habits that were historically more threatening than sponge. The first cake was a madeira cake. Which come to think of it, was a toppling back of sorts! Toppling way back, to my perfectly imperfect childhood and the years before eating twisted into something distorted and peculiar.

The memory is sharp as a red currant, I’m standing by the kitchen door in the flat in Via Mastro Giorgio creaming the butter and sugar, noting how perfectly right making a cake felt and that, more importantly, the doorstep needed a bloody good scrub. The cake was pretty lame, but that didn’t matter. I slid a sunken slice onto Vincenzo’s plate and another on to mine. We ate. The next day I did the same thing. Then later that same day I cut myself another thick slice, tucked the foil back round the cake, ate and marvelled at the beauty of some.

Breath.

I’ve just bombarded you all with that in much the same way as I’ve lined the cake tin above: clumsily, quickly and carelessly. I apologize. It’s just that when I sat down to write about today recipe, sat down at my red table and thought about how best to talk about the cake, this is what tumbled out. At first I tried to stuff it back in: surely an ode to blazing pumpkins or quaint Roman markets would be more appropriate! After all that’s what you come here for. Then I realized I couldn’t stuff it back anywhere and that maybe it was important. After all cake matters.

On Sunday, in a fit of kitchen management, I bought pumpkin the size of my son 14 months ago – that is 3.850kg precisely – and set about planning a series of very orange meals. There would be a risotto of course – which I am going to write about. There would be soup, gnocchi, puree and if I could find the right recipe a cake. Jess had planted a seed you see. I wasn’t actually recipe hunting in the Guardian newspaper, but there it was. A seed, a pumpkin, a recipe, a sleeping baby, a cake.

The ingredient list is promising: grated pumpkin, grounds almonds, raisins, lemon, nutmeg – there is always a nutmeg in my house – eggs, flour, sugar. The procedure is straightforward and the cake excellent: properly moist (but not soggy) richly flavored and absolutely delicious. Hugh describes it better than I ever could.

Good with milky coffee and Earl Grey tea. Also being the sort of damp cake that’s happy to help the puddings out every now and then, I imagine it would be a fine finish to a meal, especially if topped with a spoonful of very cold, very thick cream. Would you like some?

Pumpkin, raisin and nutmeg loaf (cake)

Adapted from Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall’s recipe in this weeks Guardian

  • 200 g soft brown sugar
  • 4 large eggs
  • 200 g of raw pumpkin flesh, grated coarsely
  • zest and juice of a unwaxed lemon
  • 100 g ground almonds
  • 100 g raisins
  • 200 g self-raising flour or 200 g plain flour and 1 tbsp baking powder
  • pinch of salt
  • nutmeg

Heat the oven to 170C/335F/gas mark 3 and line a 10cm x 20cm loaf tin or with baking parchment.

Beat together the brown sugar and egg yolks for two to three minutes – using a hand or electric whisk – until they are pale and creamy. Gently stir the grated pumpkin, lemon zest and juice, raisins and almonds into the egg and sugar mixture. Sift the flour into the mixture and the add the salt and a good grating of nutmeg. Stir.

Whisk the egg whites until they hold soft peaks. Then using a metal spoon fold the mounted egg whites into the rest of the mixture.

Scrape the mixture into the prepared tin. Bake for about an hour, until a skewer comes out clean. Leave to cool for 10 minutes in the tin, than invert to a wire rack to cool completely before slicing.

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Filed under almonds, cakes and baking, food, pumpkin, Rachel's Diary, recipes

A ring and a pot

1. (noun) ciambella [tʃam'bɛl:a]

dolce a forma circolare con buco al centro

This can’t go on for much longer. I mean it’s fine once in a while, once a week even, but not every single morning. I really must take myself in hand and return to a more fibrous start, ideally a worthy cereal with superberries, fruit and yogurt with seeds, pebbles and oily fish, brown toast at the very least.

I’m thoroughly enjoying it while it lasts though, my two, sometimes three stumpy slices of cake, ciambella that is, and small bucket of milky coffee for breakfast. This cakey state of affairs has been going on for just over three weeks now, ever since my friend Ruth (who along with her Calabrian husband Ezio is one of my cooking/olive oil pressing/tomato preserving/ jam making/chicken and child rearing/wood chopping heroes) shared her recipe with me and I discovered the joys of ciambella or pot cake. Now you may be either disappointed or relieved to know I’m not about to share a recipe for a pot cake in the puff the magic dragon sense with you, the pot refers to a yogurt pot, a 125g pot of whole plain yogurt to be precise.

The pot of yogurt serves two purposes, The first, unsurprisingly, is the yogurt itself which is the first ingredient. The second is the empty pot which provides a nifty measure with which to scoop up the rest of the ingredients. Having tipped the yogurt into a large bowl, you add two pots of flour, one of ground almonds, another of sugar, 3/4 of a pot of extra virgin olive oil and two teaspoons of baking powder. To this you add three eggs and whatever embellishment takes your fancy – I will come to these a bit later. You give the mixture a very energetic stir or whizz with the immersion blender and then tip the thick batter into a well buttered and floured ring tin. You bake your ciambella at 180° for about 30 minutes. I estimate preparation time to be about 4 minutes and dirty dish and implement count 4 if you include the yogurt pot.

As much as I like minimal washing up and even though I’m the first to be extremely slap happy with measurements, I was rather skeptical when Ruth told me about this recipe!  I’ve always been suspicious of cups (pots) and sticks when it comes to baking, they just seem too vague and wildly imprecise, especially in my hands. Also I have such a nice reliable scale. This ciambella however has dented those fears, I’ve made it – to my slight embarrassment – 8 times in the last few weeks and it has turned out brilliantly each time.

This ciambella is rather like a simple pound, Madeira or what some people call everyday cake. It’s pleasingly unfussy, firm yet light and thanks to the yogurt and almonds, really moist. The olive oil gives the ciambella a distinct brightness and a subtle fruity flavor, it also seems to help it keep better. Now I should add my ciambelle have been slightly different every time, even when I’ve stuck to the most basic recipe with no variations! But they’ve been unfailingly good and these differences, these ciambella idiosyncrasies, seem appropriate for something made this pleasingly hung-ho way.

Making this ciambella reminds me of when, at 8 years old, I learned how to make Corn flake crispies (melt arbitrary quantities of butter, golden syrup, sugar and cocoa powder in pan, mix with corn flakes, divide mixture between cake cases, chill, consume entire batch with best friend at bottom of garden and then feel very peculiar). They were one of the first things I was allowed to make all on my own and consequently – giddy with kitchen freedom and the promise of a large quantity of refined sugar – I made corn flake crispies at every available opportunity. The discovery of this recipe has had a similar effect, dizzy with the prospect of cake, minimal mess and virtually no washing up, I keep disappearing into the kitchen and making another one. A spare 4 minutes? Infant sleeping? Ad break during a film! Unexpected guests! Low blood sugar! A sniff of yogurt and I’m off.

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So the variations. My favorite addition (the very first picture in this post) is lemon. You add both the zest and some juice of an unwaxed fruit to the basic olive oil and almond spiked recipe.  If I was feeling fancy could call this version of my pot cake ‘Olive oil, lemon and almond ring’ or if I was feeling Latin ‘Ciambella con olio d’oliva, mandorle e limone’. I’m feeling neither fancy nor Latin so lets stick with Lemon ciambella. Second prize goes to ciambella studded with the Piedmontese special, a heavenly couple, the one that fills a zillion pots of Nutella: hazelnut and dark chocolate. Bronze medal, surprisingly, goes to ciambella with grated apple, sultanas and nutmeg: a spicy, fruity little number that feels very seasonal indeed. Consolation prize must go to ciambella with banana, not my kind of thing at all, but beautifully moist it must be said and loved by everyone else.
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For my most recent 4 minute baking session I made a ciambella with Demerara sugar, almonds that had been ground with their skins and a handful of chopped dark chocolate. I did wonder if it might be a little rich for someone whose always banging on about liking savory breakfasts. It wasn’t.
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Hopefully the above has been so inspiring and the description so straightforward and clear you already know the recipe. If not (which means I have failed Ruth, the cake and as a blogger) here it is.
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Ciambella
  • 125g pot of whole-milk plain yoghurt
  • 2 pots of plain flour (ideally italian 00)
  • 1 pot ground almonds
  • 1 very generous pot sugar (I prefer coarse brown sugar)
  • 3/4 pot extra virgin olive oil
  • 2 teaspoons of baking powder
  • 3 medium eggs
  • 75g coarsely chopped dark chocolate or chocolate chips/zest of a whole unwaxed lemon or orange plus 50ml juice/ a mashed banana/a grated apple, handful of sultanas and grating of nutmeg/ 50g coarsely chopped hazelnuts and 50g chopped chocolate.

Set the oven to 180°/ 350F and butter and flour a 26cm ring tin

Tip the yogurt into a large bowl.

Using the yogurt pot as a scoop, add 2 pots of flour, 1 pot of ground almonds, 1 pot of brown sugar and 3/4  pot of olive oil and the baking powder to the bowl and stir.

Break three eggs into the bowl and stir the ingredients very energetically until you have a smooth batter.

Add the additions and stir again.

Pour the batter into the ring tin and bake in the middle of the oven  for 30 minutes or until a skewer inserted into the cake comes out clean.

Let the cake cool for 20 minutes or so before turning out onto a cake rack.

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Filed under almonds, cakes and baking, Chocolate, food, Rachel's Diary, recipes