Category Archives: christmas

what’s in a jar

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My mum makes mincemeat every single year. For years I helped, stirring the ever darkening mass of dried fruit, candied peel, apples, nuts and suet, then squashing it into jars.  I liked the way the house smelt, a spiced and boozy fanfare for festive things to come. We’d have the first batch of mince pies in mid December, the pastry scented with orange zest, still warm from the oven.

My dad would eat whole pies in one gulp, which we thought was hilarious and my mum would say ‘Martin really, you’ll just encourage them‘ Which of course he did. Jar after jar was spooned into round after round of pastry, warm pies presented at every opportunity, to postmen and neighbours, callers, and us, especially us. Of course a mince-pie was always left for father christmas on christmas eve. The next morning we’d find it half eaten and Ben would say ‘It’s icing sugar and Dad did it‘ while Rosie stared at Father Christmas’s snowy footprints.

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Then for years I didn’t help. I didn’t eat the pies either. I’d eat a whole jar of mincemeat though, crouched on the cellar stairs when everyone else was in bed. Then I’d feel as dark as the contents of the jar I’d just eaten and furious. Furious with the mincemeat, my with mum for making the bloody stuff, with myself.

It went on for years, mincemeat, like so many things, was something to be battled with, first with steely resistance, then otherwise. Later, it was on a list, two actually, to avoid and gratitude. I can’t remember exactly how it worked? Avoiding things but being grateful for them at the same time maybe! Looking back it all seems so absolutely absurd, comical even, that it’s hard to remember it made absolute sense at the time.

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I don’t make mincemeat every single year. However when I do, everything is there, swirling around in the spiced and boozy scent, 41 years of mincemeat, of pans stirred and pans not stirred. I could get absorbed in detail, nostalgic or absurd, but I don’t, enjoying instead the heady vapours and a nip of brandy.

Luca clambers up on chair and demands a stir. His little hands clasp the wooden spoon and flick it upwards and then downwards splattering the stove, an amber fleck handing on his wrist ‘ It’s hot meat’ he tells me.  I feel relieved Luca is a boy and yearn to talk to my mum.  As I spoon stuff into jars and screw on the lids, I remind myself it’s only mincemeat.

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Usually I make Jane Grigsons mincemeat (which is turn Mrs Beeton) from English Food. Not having found suet, I made Gloria Nicol’s apple and quince mincemeat, two batches actually, the first back in October. Unlike JG’s recipe the mincemeat is cooked, in cider no less, for about an hour, the result is glorious, thick, rich, fragrant, well-spiced mincemeat to which you add (plenty of) brandy. Purist will not agree, but I think it is just as good as mincemeat with suet.

Apple and Quince mincemeat

Adapted from Gloria Nicols recipe in the Guardian.

Gloria notes this makes 1.75 g of mincemeat. Both my batches filled 3 standard jars and one smaller jar. For those in Rome I bought all the Ingredients from Emporio delle Spezie in Testaccio, it is an Aladdin’s cave of spices, herbs, seasonings, dried fruit, nuts, grains and tea – all sold by weight.

  • 500ml cider
  • 225 g soft brown sugar
  • 1 kg Bramley apples (or mixture of quince and apples), peeled and cored
  • 1/2 tsp freshly grated nutmeg
  • 1/4 tsp ground cloves
  • 1/2 tsp ground cinnamon
  • 100 g dates
  • 100 g currants
  • 150 g raisins
  • 150 g sultanas
  • 100 g candied peel, chopped
  • 50 chopped almonds
  • juice and zest of 1 lemon
  • 150ml brandy

Put 3 scrupulously clean standard jars and a smaller one with lids in a low oven to sterilize for 10 minutes.

In a large heavy based pan warm the cider and sugar, stirring to until the sugar has dissolved. Peel, core and chop the apples and grate the quince if using them. Add all ingredients except the brandy, to the pan. Over a low flame let the mincemeat simmer and bubble gently for around 1 hour – stirring every now and then – until the apples have turned into puree and the mixture looks rich and thickened.

Remove from the heat, allow the mincemeat to cool and then stir in the brandy. Spoon the mincemeat into the sterilised jars and seal immediately. Leave for a month – and up to a year – to mature before opening.

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Mincemeat tart

Why wait until christmas ? I like my pastry plain, unsweetened and more crisp than crumbly. My tin is a fluted and measures 8″ across.

  • 120 g plain flour
  • 60 g cold butter (or a mix of butter and lard)
  • a pinch of salt
  • iced water
  • a jar of mincemeat

In a bowl rub the fat into the pastry with your fingertips until it resembles fine breadcrumbs. Add the salt and then enough water to bring the ingredients together into a smooth soft dough.

On a floured board roll the dough into a round a little large than the tin. Carefully lift the dough into the tin and press it gently into the base and the edges. Trim the overlapping pastry and set the scraps aside. Leave the pastry case the fridge for 30 minutes.

Spoon the mincemeat into the case and then decorate the top with lattice or a pattern. Brush the pasty with beaten egg and bake at 180° for 30 minutes.

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Filed under almonds, candied fruit, christmas, jams and preserves, preserves and conserves, Puddings, recipes, tarts, winter recipes

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