Category Archives: Eggs

water everywhere

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The first time I visited Saturnia I didn’t even go and look at the thermal springs. My reluctance was a combination of a flying visit, overcast skies, an overcast state of mind and the impression I was being asked to visit a muggy stream. The muggy, foul-smelling steam flanked with giant cane that ran across the ploughed fields and under the road we had just argued our way down. I spent the afternoon at the agriturismo reading, feeling overcast but stubbornly righteous as the rest of the group disappeared into the mist armed with costumes and towels.

Three years later and I now know what other (wiser, less stubborn) people have known for thousands of years; there is stream, only it isn’t muggy. It is a fast, foaming torrent of warm water, appearing milky-blue against the calcium-coated rock, its sulphurous vapours entirely forgivable. It is a source that erupts from deep within the volcanic earth – at which point a clever man built a spa – before surging across a field and then bursting into an almost unreal cascade by an old mill. A cascade reminiscent of a champagne fountain, the smooth, shallow travertine pools like a cluster of old-fashioned saucer glasses, the foaming water flowing like formula 1 spumante. It is a startling place of natural beauty.

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Our Hotel was just meters from the cascade. Consequently – come rain or more rain or shine – we spent much of our time in the water, arms wide on the curved lip of our chosen pool, water pummeling our necks, cleansing, exfoliating, softening, circulation stirring while we watched the most fantastically eclectic, occasionally bonkers, crowd do exactly the same thing. For the rest, we explored a part of Maremma.

Maremma is a large territory that saddles lower Tuscany and higher Lazio. It is a variegated place; vast flat plains fit for cowboys (Butteri), bleak cities, coniferous and metalliferous hills, exquisite hill-top towns, swampy natural park and coastal retreats: some craggy, others sandy. We were in Fiora Valley, five minutes from Saturnia, a rich, deep-green land of dense forest, undulating hills covered with vines, olive groves, oaks and chestnuts, of medieval hill-top towns their fortified walls rising like stone crowns.

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I read so obsessively about the food before the holiday I was almost weary of it by the time we arrived (a sharp editing lesson that too much suggestion of delicious, hearty, rustic, humble and bumble can leave people cool). I was jolted out my weariness short sharp.

Most of the places at which we ate were in small towns in the midst of groves and vines, meaning the oil and wine was produced just meters away. Sulphurous soil and thermal springs reap full-flavoured things, and so our meals were rich with excellent local produce; game, cured meat, sheep’s cheese, wild herbs, pulses, recently bottled fruit and vegetables. You can quite literally taste the land. Local salame with unsalted bread and pecorino with local honey, crostini topped olive paste, rosemary scented lardo and herb pesto, hand rolled pici pasta with garlic and tomato sauce, ravioli filled with ricotta and wild herbs, pappardelle with wild boar, white beans cooked in a flask and then dressed with olive oil, slow cooked meat with olives and fast seared steaks, grilled porcini mushrooms and of course acquacotta.

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Literally translated acquacotta means cooked water, it is – broadly speaking – a simple vegetable soup, served over day old bread and topped with an egg. Over 6 days we ate eight bowls of acquacotta, in six different places, each one different, each one good. Everyone I asked about the recipe said bread and water are fundamental, that onion and celery are important, but then it depends what you have; tomatoes, carrot, spinach, chard, herbs. The three best acquacotta were acutely different, one deep-red and tomato heavy, another brothy with spinach and wild mint, the third (my favourite) a dense stew of celery and onion with just a little tomato.

These days my holiday souvenirs are usually an injury, something to eat and a recipe. This holiday was no exception. I came home to Rome with a nasty scratch and three large bruises (my fault, do not enter the cascade after drinking more than your fair share of a bottle of Bianco di Pitigliano) a loaf of tuscan bread and this recipe for acquacotta.

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Acquacotta, is to my mind, a particularly satisfying and complete dish. Made well, it is pure tasting and savory (that will be the onion and celery) given warmth and rosy cheeks by tomato, body by celery leaves and something wild by the herbs if you choose to add them. The bread at the bottom ensures it is a dish with its feet firmly on the ground and the egg, well what doesn’t taste better with an egg on top?

As much as I liked the addition of chard and mint in the acquacotta at Il Tufo Allegro in Pitigliano, I have stayed true to Graziella’s recipe which was the closest to my favourite bowlful. You chop and then saute a weepingly large quality of red, white and yellow onion and lots of celery (the tender stems and their soft pale leaves) in plenty – this is no time for parsimony – of extra virgin olive oil. Once the onion and celery are soft you add some chopped tomatoes, salt and pepper, possibly a little chilli and let everything cook a few minutes longer. Then you add boiling water a ladelful at a time, so the pan never stops bubbling, until the vegetables are covered by a few inches of water. You leave the pan to bubble away for 40 minutes.

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While the acquacotta is bubbling you prepare the bowls by pitting a  slice of day old lightly toasted bread at the bottom of each, sprinkling it with a little grated pecorino or parmesan if you like. Once the acquacotta is ready you divide it between the four bowls – covering the bread with vegetables and some broth so it can inzuppare – but leave an inch of the broth in the pan. Into this remaining broth you break four eggs, cover the pan and then let the eggs poach gently over a low flame for 3 minutes. You use a slotted spoon to lift the eggs on top of the acquacotta in each of the four bowls. You eat.

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Acquacotta or L’acqua cotta

Everyone I asked, including Graziella, was reluctant to give very specific quantities, preferring instead q.b or quantobasta, or how much is enough. After all they assured me acquacotta is good enough to merit experimentation – amount of water, choice of vegetables, herbs ‘Yes or absolutely not‘, to toast or not to toast the bread and other points of contention – and adjusting according to season, place and taste. However based on the few measurements I was given and the two panfuls I have made at home, I have noted my measurements.

Adapted from a recipe given to me by Graziella Tanturli At Hotel La Fonte del Cerro

serves 4

  • 3 medium onions (one red, one white, one yellow)
  • 4 pale stems of celery heart with pale leaves
  • 100 ml extra virgin olive oil
  • 8 small plum tomatoes – ideally de-seeded.
  • salt and pepper (a little chill if you wish)
  • four slices of day old bread (ideally Tuscan bread, otherwise sourdough or a good quality compact country bread)
  • pecorino or parmesan cheese
  • 4 eggs

Bring a pan of water to the boil as you will need it shortly.

Peel and very thinly slice the onions. Chop the celery into thin arcs (cut any particularly wide stems in two lengthways). Warm the olive oil in large heavy-based pan and add the onion and celery. Saute the vegetables over low heat until soft and translucent. Add the chopped tomatoes, a good pinch of salt, a grind of pepper and the chilli if you are using it and cook for another few minutes.

Add the boiling water a ladleful at a time, so the vegetables never stop bubbling. Once the vegetables are covered by 3 inches of water, lower the flame and leave the acquacotta to simmer for 40 minutes. Taste and adjust for salt and pepper.

Prepare the bowls by putting a slice of toasted day-old bread at the bottom of each and sprinkling it with a little cheese.

Once the acquacotta is ready, divide it between the four bowls – covering the bread with vegetables and some broth so it can inzuppare – but leave an inch of the broth in the pan.

Break four eggs into the remaining broth, cover the pan and then let the eggs poach gently over a low flame for 3 minutes. Use a slotted spoon to lift the eggs on top of the acquacotta in each of the four bowls. Eat and imagine you are in Pitigliano.

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I am always wary of recommending places as other people do it so much better than me and things change and we all have different ideas and well, um, what if you were to go to a place I’d recommended and it turned out to be.….. However on this occasion I would like to mention:

Da Paolino, via Marsala 41, Manciano. Notably the cinghiale in umido (slow cooked wild boar), baccalà alla maremmana (salt cod with tomatoes and onion) and acquacotta. Moderately priced and attentive, friendly service.

Il Tufo Allegro in Pitigliano. We ate here twice, both meals were superb in every respect. The surroundings are stylish but warm in an ancient, warren-like building in the Jewish quarter of staggeringly beautiful Pitigliano (pictured above).  Notably: aquacotta with spinach, mint and quail’s eggs, pici all’agliata (thick spaghetti-like-pasta with tomato and garlic sauce), grilled porcini, cinghiale with fennel, tagliata di manzo and a gorgeous pudding of creamed ricotta, grilled, caramelized pear and warm chocolate sauce that almost made me sing (I had drunk rather a lot of wine). Expensive but offers a good value set lunch. Slick service. We drank wines from Sassotondo.

We stayed at La Fonte del Cerro. A beautifully situated, extremely well and thoughtfully tended family-run hotel with an almost private entrance to the Cascades (pictured below). Almost everyone we met was returning. We will too.

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Filed under Eggs, fanfare, In praise of, Maremma, rachel eats Italy, soup, tomatoes, vegetables, winter recipes

give a fig

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We drove for miles – our faces tight with sea salt, our shoes full of sand – looking for figs. ‘This used to be marshland‘ I was told. ‘Uninhabitable and shrouded with mal aria (bad air) until Mussolini herded down thousand of workers from the north of Italy to bonificare or make good the land‘. Now the air smells of late summer, of sea and buffaloes. At least it did on Saturday as we scuttled along in the panda. ‘Buffalo, cow, mucca‘ Luca squealed as we passed another mudbath enclosure in which barely discernible black, horned creatures wallowed. Creatures whose rich morning milk would provide our supper, this is, after all, the land of mozzarella di Bufala. We flew past signs for Sabaudia, San Felice Circeo, Terracina; seaside towns punctuating the coast between Rome and Naples.

Figs.‘ An emergency foraging inversion was undertaken so we could pull up alongside the tree, and a fence. A woman lurking on the others side looked over, eyes narrow. ‘I thought the tree was on the road‘ I said as we pulled away. Then I ate my stolen fig, a drop of nectar at it’s eye, its flesh tasting somewhere between honey, sweet wine and ripe berries. ‘Buffalo’ said Luca. We drove some more, passing dozens of fig trees, their branches heavy with fruit, all behind fences of varying degrees of seriousness. More signs for Terracina, Sabaudia, San Felice Circeo, another field of wallowing buffaloes. It was all beginning to feel a little like dejavu. Which of course it was! We had been here before, fifteen minutes before. We were driving in circles. Maybe everyone was right, maybe I had imagined the roadside figs.

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Figs.’ This time there was no doubting the liberty of the tree. Nor its precarious position. Not that a bracken filled gully was about to stop me. I straddled the gap while wishing I was wearing trousers and had done some sort of stretching these last eight years. I grabbed a branch and tugged it down. Figs, dozens of them. Pause. Dozens of figs the size of grapes and as hard as acorns. At which point I let the branch ping upwards and admitted defeat. ‘I don’t understand, the trees in the gardens are full of ripe fruit!’ The stench of beast whipped through the car window and up our noses. ‘Buffalo’ said Luca. We pulled into a lay by farm shop-of-sorts, which rubbed salt into my failure. As she wrapped two trays of pale green figs and a bag of deep purple plums the woman told us it’s been a strange year for figs, what with the rain, which made me feel slightly better.

Half one tray was eaten on the way back to Rome, washed with bottled water out of the window while waiting in traffic just south of Pomezia. The other half was eaten the next day for lunch, with prosciutto, a superb combination of sweet and salty, soft and resistant. I started the second tray of figs at about 5 0 clock, with the last slice of prosciutto and a square of pizza bianca.

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Pizza bianca: a soft foccacia-like flat bread brushed with olive oil and strewn with salt that’s made in every breadshop, baker and pizza-by-the-slice establishment in the city, is an icon of Roman food so beloved by Romans it makes me jealous. At this time of year, when figs are ripe but sodi, vinous and sweet, Romans tear and tuck them along with a slice or two of prosciutto between the two ripped halves of pizza bianca. The salty prosciutto contrasts deliciously with the sweet, floral fig, the seeds grate gratifyingly against the smooth meat and get caught in your teeth, the pizza acts as slightly crisp, oiled and salted pillow enveloping everything. Tasty and good.

As is this tart, for which I used the last six figs. An almond and fig tart, a frangipane of sorts based on the River Cafe pear and almond tart on page 282 of the blue book I have been meaning to make for at least 15 years.

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Unlike my Granny Alice and Mum, I am not a natural pastry maker. I’m afraid you see, of puffing up and shrinking down, of cracked crusts and soggy bottoms. Especially soggy bottoms, as there has been quite enough of those these last two years. I like tarts though, and like is more powerful than fear. So with cold hands I rub cold butter into flour until it looks like fine breadcrumbs, then add some sugar – not too much as the filling will be sweet enough – then a whole egg and a yolk for good measure, bring everything together and then leave it to rest in the fridge.

Once the pastry is cold you roll it into a circle bigger than the tin – overlap is important – then maneuver it into the tin, patching and pressing as you go. Then you bake this scraggy-edged tart case, with or without baking beans (I prefer without, the sticking is another anxiety I’d rather avoid) until its pale gold or the colour of a rich tea biscuit. You can neaten the tart case if you like, by breaking off the scraggy edge, or you can leave it just so. Then you fill the tart case with a coarse ivory coloured-cream of ground almonds, butter, mascarpone, sugar and egg. To finish, you stud the cream with halved figs. The tart needs at least 45 minutes in a low oven. My tart was deeper than it should have been, so it took an  hour and five minutes at 160° for the filling to set into a soft, crumbling marzipan-like affair with a golden crust, and the figs to wrinkle into even sweeter, chewier things the colour of Chianti.

A damp, dense, richly flavored tart – figs and almonds have a nougat-like quality when combined – that manages to be both homely and exotic, here and there – wherever there may be. Even better the next day and mauybe even better the day after that. Serve in smallish slices with unsweetened espessso, black tea or a dry dessert wine.

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Fig and almond tart

Adapted from recipe for pear and almond tart in The River Cafe Cook Book.

For the tart shell

  • 250 g plain flour
  • a pinch of salt
  • 125 g butter
  • 40 g icing sugar
  • 1 whole egg and one extra yolk

For the filling

  • 6 ripe figs
  • 125 g mascarpone cheese
  • 125 g butter
  • 200 g caster sugar
  • 200 g ground almonds
  • 2 whole eggs

Set the oven to 180° / 350 f. You need a 26cm / 10 inch tart tin. Loose bottomed is best (but not essential.)

In a large bowl rub the cold diced butter into the flour and pinch of salt with your fingertips until it resembles fine breadcrumbs. Add the sugar, stir and then the egg and extra yolk. Bring the mixture together into a smooth, cohesive dough.  This can be done in a food processor. Wrap the dough in cling film and chill it for at least an hour

On a floured board roll the dough into a round at least an inch larger than your tin. Using the rolling-pin, maneuver the dough into the tin and then press it down carefully, patching any cracks. Leave the overhang. Bake blind for 20 minutes until very light brown. Reduce the oven to 160° / 300 f.

While the tart case cools a make the filling by mixing together the butter, mascarpone, sugar, almonds and eggs. Spoon this cream into the tart case, smooth it out a little with a fork and then stud the cream with fig halves – seeds to the sky.

Bake the tart for 45 – minutes to an hour or until  the filling has set firm and has a nice, golden crust and the figs are wrinkled and dark red.

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Filed under almonds, Eggs, figs, fruit, summer food, tarts, Uncategorized

The same but different

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I feel lucky to have both: Italy and England, Rome and London. Of course there is the missing, the often exasperating toing and froing, the grass is greener and bouts of in-between when I’m not sure where I belong. But mostly I feel lucky and glad to have two countries, two cities and that in different ways I belong to both.

The day before I left I had my first Roman asparagus, long thin sprue, finer than a pencil, part boiled-part steamed under a tea towel turban until tender enough to bend but not flop with olive oil, lemon and parchment thin slivers of pecorino that swooned and wilted in the presence of such splendid warm spears. Then today, back at my parents house just outside London, I had my first English asparagus.

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As you can see they are plumpish spears, which needed just a little whittling with a peeler to remove the not-too-woody tougher end. We steamed them, sitting on a nifty implement that looks rather like a perforated metallic flower, in Mum’s largest lidded sauté pan. I tried and failed abysmally to make hollandaise sauce, so we settled for melted butter instead.

It was such a nice lunch: new potatoes: taut, waxy and flecked with snipped chives and tender asparagus spears – like sweet slightly sulphurous peas – fearlessly doused with melted butter. There were hard-boiled eggs too. Not too hard-boiled though, more like tender-boiled eggs and sourdough bread. There were things to celebrate so I had a glass of Hugel muscat. The same but different.

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Asparagus, new potatoes, hard-boiled eggs and melted butter.

This is hardly a recipe, more an assembly. Serves 3 and a quarter (Luca)

  • 2 bunches of asparagus
  • 4 good eggs
  • 8 new potatoes
  • a very fat slice of best butter
  • chives
  • salt and pepper.

Prepare the asparagus by either breaking off the tough woody end or using a peeler to carefully whittle it away. Scrub and boil the new potatoes in well salted water until tender. Hard boil the eggs. Cook the asparagus until tender enough to bend but not flop. Melt the butter.

Dress the potatoes with melted butter and snipped chives and the asparagus with the remaining melted butter. Give everyone a hard-boiled egg to peel and remind them to roll the asparagus and potatoes in the puddle of melted butter as they serve themselves. Obviously white wine and good bread wouldn’t go amiss.

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I’m back in Rome on Sunday so hope to be back here with plumper post late next week.

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Filed under asparagus, Eggs, rachel eats London, Rachel's Diary, spring recipes

The case of the pudding

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I have a book called English puddings Sweet and Savory by Mary Norwak. Actually it isn’t my book, it’s my dad’s, a gift from my mum to her pudding devoted husband. Dad – it will be returned. It’s a glorious little book, part history, part recipe book and part rhapsody on the noble treat that is English pudding. I’ve spent the last few days lost in fools, flummeries and frumenty, in thoughts of thin cream pancakes scented with orange flower water, tipsy cakes and trifles, in hungry contemplation of apricot tansy, spiced cherries and Mrs Wightman’s delicious sauce.

Uncharacteristic behaviour I know. For although I am most definitely my father’s daughter: height and shortsightedness, views on breakfast and taking the bus, Elvis Costello and fractious Philip Larkin, I don’t usually share his intense passion for pudding. That’s not to say I don’t enjoy a spoonful or slice every now and then, I do. I just don’t save space or get unduly excited about pudding. Well not usually.

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I pulled The book of English puddings from the shelf to cross reference a recipe that had caught my eye in Claudia Roden’s The Food of Italy called tartarà dolce. Always on the lookout for connections and similarities, a sort of inept Miss Marple contemplating evidence in old recipe books, the recipe for tartarà dolce or almond pudding seemed familiar. On opening my dad’s treasury of puds at chapter 3: Custards, creams and fools, I realised why! Tartarà dolce, an old farmhouse recipe from Piemonte in northern Italy, is almost identical to an old English recipe for almond cream I’d bookmarked a while back.

Of course there is sense to this gastronomic likeness, reasons why two such different places have almost identical dishes. Sense and reasons comprehensible even to an incompetent detective like myself (that said, I did single-handedly resolve the case of the missing gorgonzola last week: it was Ms Roddy, with a cheese knife, in the kitchen.) The Greeks are credited with the invention of custard; that is milk – whether it be cow’s, sheep’s or almond – thickened with eggs. The Romans, great keepers of domestic fowl, borrowed the idea. The Normans too. Both of whom brought these ideas to England. Medieval recipes in both English and Italian recipes books note the delicate custards and creams of the wealthy (often scented with spices and thickened with almonds brought by boat from the Mediterranean,) while folklore gives us clues about the elemental and sustaining dishes of those of more modest means.

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It was timely connection too. I’ve been meaning to write about a custard-like pudding here for a while. I was toing and froing between something Italian: zabaglione (whipped eggs yolks, sugar and Marsala wine) or Creme di mascarpone (mascarpone cheese with egg yolks, beaten whites, sugar and an unruly slosh of rum) or something English: honey syllabub (double cream, sherry, clear honey) or the irresistibly named suck cream (cream, sugar, egg yolks and white wine.) Then there was this, a recipe common to both here and there, a gentle egg custard scented with lemon zest and thickened with both sweet and bitter almonds! Almond cream or tartarà dolce it would be.

Having separated the eggs (and set the whites aside while mumbling I will, I will make meringues! I will not watch you slither shamefully down the plughole on Sunday) you put the yolks and sugar in a bowl suspended over a pan of gently boiling water. You stir until the mixture is as pale and smooth as Tilda Swinton and then you add the milk you have warmed with the lemon zest. You keep stirring diligently, figure of eighting and beating as best you can with a wooden spoon (a metal balloon whisk would make the mixture too frothy.)

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Once the mixture has thickened a little – not much though, it should coat the back of the spoon in much the same way as single cream – you add the ground and chopped bitter almonds. You stir and stir. The almond cream is ready when the mixture is as thick as double cream but still pourable, at which point you divide your almond cream between four glasses or ramekins.

Luca and I ate a glassful immediately while sitting on the kitchen floor. I spend rather a lot of my time on the kitchen floor these days! Alas no! I’m either wiping, weeping, picnicking, arranging farm-yard animals or constructing some sort of tiny transport system. Sat on the floor eating a warm, softly set custard-like-cream. A custard-like-cream given substance by almonds, a tart lift by lemon zest and marzipan whiplash by bitter almonds.

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There is something othertimely about this pudding. It’s adaptable too, one moment an elegant, scented cream fit for a fine table, the next a wholesome, nourishing pud at ease in a rowdy family kitchen or a cramped Roman one in April.  Ah yes, what an excellent thing is an English/Italian pudding I might have thought if I was Dr Johnson or hadn’t been quite so busy supervising an over excited 18 month old brandishing both our spoons and a glass of sweet cream pudding.

We ate another at lunchtime, chilled, which meant it was another thing altogether; more firmly set, the flavours settled but more pronounced without the warmth. It was maybe even more delicious! I think almond cream would be nice with shortbread or sable biscuits. Now If you’ll excuse me I need to go and investigate the case of the missing telephone. I have a horrible feeling the child did it, with a splash, in the bathroom.

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Almond cream, Almond pudding or Tartarà dolce

Adapted from English puddings Sweet and Savory by Mary Norwak and Claudia Roden’s The Food of Italy

serves 4

  • 4 egg yolks
  • 75 g fine sugar
  • 500 ml whole milk or single cream
  • the zest of a large unwaxed lemon
  • 100 g ground almonds
  • 6 bitter almonds finely chopped or a few drops of almond essence
  • a few drops of orange flower water (optional)

Beat the egg yolks together with the sugar in a bowl sitting over boiling water until smooth, pale and creamy. In a small pan mix the milk and the lemon zest, bring to the boil, cool slightly and then add to the egg mixture which is still balanced over boiling water.

Keep stirring the mixture until it thickens (it will only do so a little.) Add the almonds, essence and orange flower water if you are using it and continue to cook, stirring occasionally, until the mixture has become a thick cream. Pour into glasses or ramekins. Serve warm or cold.

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Filed under almonds, Eggs, food, Puddings, 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

This is the way.

Good chickens are – like true love, reliable plumbers and excellent espresso – hard to find. They are also, when you finally get your hands on one, costly things! Quite right too! We should be deeply suspicious of cheap (even modestly priced) chickens, they almost certainly have the darkest, dirtiest story etched into their tragic flesh. The chicken above, the one sitting in my new enamel roasting tin from Emanuela, is a good chicken. A blooming good chicken in fact, from my butcher Marco who in turn procured it from the blazing beacon of conscientious husbandry: Azienda San Bartolomeo. Having parted with the best part of 16€ (an investment in our sustenance for the next three days) and taken possession of our bird, we – that is Luca and I – also picked up half a dozen San Bartolomeo eggs, a fat pat of butter, five lemons, some bitter salad leaves and a piece of Lariano bread. After all, good chicken deserves good company.

We walked home the long way, following the deep arc of the river, which meant there were leaves to crunch and dogs to bark at! I crunched and Luca barked. We stopped, as we usually do, at Giolitti for an espresso before crossing our vast echoing courtyard and barking some more. Time was taken climbing the stairs, after all it’s important to peer between every other railing. It’s also important to ring the doorbell 17 times, especially when there is nobody at home. Then while Luca played with something inappropriate and slightly dangerous, I set about roasting.

Roast chicken is one of my favourite things both to make and eat. It’s also a significant meal for me, maybe the most significant. We ate roast chicken and then soup made from the leftovers and carcass, at least once a week when I was growing up. It’s a meal evocative of home, the kitchen in Kirkwick Avenue, my family and the meals we shared. Over the years roast chicken has bought us – parents, relatives and three Roddy kids in turn doe eyed bundles, eager fat-fingered toddlers, grasping children, grubby rascals, sullen teenagers and floundering/flourishing adults – together again and again and again. A burnished bird has the capacity to stir deep (food) memories, some crisp and golden, others as dark and sticky as the juices stuck to the bottom of the roasting pan.

I think of my mum and my granny Alice when I roast a chicken, especially at the beginning when I wash it in very cold water and then pat it absolutely dry with a clean cloth. My granny was – and my mum still is – a great believer in very cold water, clean cotton cloths and patting things absolutely dry. I rub my chicken, as my mum does, with butter. Butter I’ve remembered to leave out in the kitchen so it’s smearble. I’m as liberal with the salt and freshly milled black pepper as I am with the gin in a Gin and tonic: very.

I put a lemon up my chicken’s bottom (that was for you Ben) long before I came to Italy. However it was cut in two so the juice could be squeezed over the chicken and the hollow halves tucked inside. Now, as taught by my old neighbor Mima and guided by Marcella Hazan, I roll a lemon vigorously around the kitchen counter so it is soft. I prick it 37 times with a toothpick and then stick it up my chicken’s bottom just so.

I roast my lemon filled chicken with its breast down for 20 minutes. I then turn it breast up, crank up the oven a notch and roast it for another 40 minutes. I don’t baste. Then  – as taught by Simon Hopkinson in his aptly named book Roast chicken and other stories – I turn the oven off, open the door a jar and leave the chicken sitting in the cooling oven for another 20 minutes. These twenty minutes are vital. It is during this time, the cooking equivalent of a perfect vinyl fadeout, that the cooking finishes, the skin dries and flesh relaxes but clings to the precious juices making for a roast with properly crisp skin, succulent, tender flesh and easy carving

Actually carve is not the right word for a bird like this – a bird with runner’s legs and a lean breast – pull and tear is more appropriate. Using my hands, a knife and my poultry shears, I pull and tear my chicken to pieces. I do this in the roasting tin and then roll the pieces in the best sort of gravy: the buttery, lemony, nut-brown juices that have collected at the bottom of the tin.

Did I mention how I feel about the smell of roasting chicken? Oh you know! Of course you do, because you feel the same way! Excellent. Today we ate our chicken with mayonnaise (see below), a mixture of bitter and sweeter salad leaves and bread. What a good lunch! I had some wine too, an inch, maybe two and raised my glass to us, to my family – who seem a long way away these days – the whole delicious, tender, dark, messy, sticky lot of us.

Roast chicken with lemon

With advice from Granny, Mum, Simon Hopkinson and Marcella Hazan

Notes. A good roasting tin of the right size is pretty vital. It should be large enough to accommodate the chicken comfortably but small enough to contain the precious juices. I like, really like, this tin. You do not need to baste the chicken.

Serves 4 or in my case serves 1 and a quarter (Luca) for 3 days.

  • 1.5 – 2 kg / 3 – 4 lb chicken at room temperature
  • 50 g / 2 oz good butter at room temperature
  • salt
  • freshly ground black pepper
  • 1 large unwaxed lemon

Set the oven to 180° / 350 F.

Wash the chicken both inside and out with cold water. Leave it sitting on a slightly tilted plate for 10 minutes or so, to let all the water drain away. Pat the chicken absolutely dry with a clean cloth.

Put the chicken in a roasting tin that will accommodate it with room to spare. Smear the butter with your hands all over the bird and then season it liberally with salt and freshly ground black pepper.

Wash, dry and then soften the lemon by rolling it back and forth across the kitchen counter while applying pressure with your palm. Prick the lemon 37 times with a cocktail stick or trussing needle.

Tuck the lemon in the chicken cavity and then close the opening with two cocktail sticks. Don’t make an expert job of closing the opening or the chicken might just puff up and burst.

Turn the chicken beast side down in the roasting tin and place it in the upper third of the preheated oven. After 20 minutes turn the chicken the right way up. Do not baste.

Turn the oven up to 200° / 400 F and continue roasting the chicken for another 40 minutes. Turn the oven off, leaving the door ajar and let the chicken rest in the cooling oven for another 20 minutes.

Before carving tilt the chicken slightly so all the juices run into the tin. Stir the buttery, lemony, nut-brown juices  – scraping the thick dark ones from the bottom of the tin – with a wooden spoon. Carve, rip, tear, pull the chicken in the roasting tin letting the pieces and joints roll in the juices.

And may I suggest you make some mayonnaise!

mayonnaise

  • 2 egg yolks (at room temperature)
  • salt
  • 150 ml sunflower or grapeseed oil
  • 150 ml extra virgin olive oil
  • juice of half a lemon or dab of Dijon mustard

In a heavy bowl (which doesn’t require too much effort or holding to keep it firm) start whisking the egg yolks with a generous pinch of salt.

After a minutes, when the yolks are thick and sticky, start adding the groundnut oil very gradually – by very gradually I mean drop by drop and then a very thin stream. Do not rush and keep whisking as you add the oil.

Keep adding the oil until the mayonnaise seizes into a very thick ointment, at this point you can relax and add the sunflower oil in a slightly thicker stream.

When you have added all the groundnut oil, add the extra virgin olive oil (again in a thin stream) and keep whisking until you have a smooth, silky and firm mayonnaise. You may not need to add all the olive oil. Add a few drops of lemon juice or a dab of mustard, whisk, taste and then, if necessary a few drops/dab more. Add salt as you like.

Eat.

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Filed under chicken, Eggs, fanfare, food, In praise of, Rachel's Diary, recipes

Oh I do like

…to be beside the seaside, oh I do like a sardine for my tea, oh I do like to roll my spuds in may-on-naise, and some fine green sauce, Tiddely-om-pom-pom! 

My Dad was 70 on Saturday and so, agreeing a week of merrymaking was in order, we are all – all being the celebrated one, Mum, my brother Ben, Kate, their little boy Stanley, my sister Rosie, Paul, their little girl Beattie, Luca and I – staying in a farmhouse in Penare in Southwest Cornwall. Even the pretty persistent rain hasn’t dampened our spirits (actually that’s a lie, it drenched our spirits on Wednesday, thank god for the fudge) or appreciation of the pure loveliness of this part of England.

Secluded, seductive wood-fringed pebble beeches and tiny, unspoiled coves punctuate the undulating coastline. Serpentine cliffs provide a craggy and fierce backdrop to white-sand beaches and the turquoise ocean. Vast gorse and heather covered moorlands are dotted with hairy buttercups and grazing ponies. There are quaint shops in every town, village and hamlet whose sole purpose is selling clotted cream fudge. The ratio of pubs to people is excellent. Dark-green pastures and lush, often magnificent gardens thrive and thrill in Cornwall’s unique damp, warm and almost tropical micro climate.

We’ve been threading our way through leafy lanes over babbling brooks (Really! proper bona fide babbling brooks) in search of tiny fishing villages where we take alternating gulps of salty sea air and local beer. We’ve been to Lizard lighthouse, Roskilly ice-cream farm, Helford, Kynance cove, Gillan cove (where we happened upon a keg of beer on the beach with a note attached inviting us to help ourselves) and St Ives, which is, despite the crowds, twee shops and nostalgia for its artistic heyday, as luminous and lovely as the art it inspired.

We’ve eaten well, Cornish crab, whitebait with proper tartare sauce, hake baked with potatoes, almost perfect fish and chips, local lamb with new potatoes, Cornish yarg, Cornish blue, broad beans, butter lettuce and curly kale from the local allotments, raspberries with sugar and thick, yellow clotted cream, sea-salt and caramel ice-cream (that rivalled anything from my favourite gelateria in Rome), copious quantities of clotted cream fudge, treacle tart, gooseberry fool, gooseberry tart and on Tuesday evening sardines.

My brother Ben undertook the fishy investigations and arranged to pick up 18 freshly caught sardines from the Cadgwith Fishseller. I’m not sure we should have driven down to this exquisite tiny end-of-the-world fishing village wedged into a cleft in the silver-grey rock. But we did. ‘Bloody tourists‘ a local (a crusty old sea-dog no less) snarled as we snaked the car back up the long and winding road with our spankingly fresh fish.

This post should be tagged Bencooks as my brother took charge of both cleaning the sardines – slitting along the bottom of each fish from the throat to the rear vent, then pulling out the innards and rinsing the inside of the fish – and then cooking them – perfectly it must be said, charred on the outside, tender within – on the BBQ. He also made mayonnaise, by hand, whilst sipping locally brewed, optimistically named doombar beer.

I thought I’d already written about making mayonnaise, I’ve certainly rattled on about how much I like this glorious, creamy, silky- smooth ointment of egg yolks, oil and lemon juice, a home-made concoction incomparable to even the smartest commercially produced jar full . But having trawled backwards through my sporadic posts (my shoddy index of recipes was no help) it appears I haven’t. This then, seems like an opportune moment.

I avoided making mayonnaise for many years, believing it to be fiendishly difficult and liable to curdle, split or suffer some other terrible egg suspension/emulsion fate at any moment! Then one evening a few years ago, whilst leaning up against my friends kitchen counter, glass in hand, my tongue a-wagging, she whipped up some mayonnaise. Just like that. No fuss, no palava, no curdling. I peered into her bowl of glorious yellow ointment, ‘What was her secret?’ I whispered in case I really was mayonnaise jinxed and my voice split her master bowl. She looked bemused. There was, as far as she was concerned, no secret and certainly no reason for mayonnaise anxiety (which is rather like pastry and custard anxiety only worse.) Making mayonnaise was, with sound advice and practice, a pretty straightforward affair.

And so the advice: eggs at room temperature, a heavy bowl which doesn’t slide all over the counter, a small whisk, adding the oil (a mixture of groundnut and olive oil) very very slowly, whisking energetically between each addition and – the vital bit – practice. Lots and lots of practice, so you – and I know this might sound pretentious – learn feel the moment when the yolk and oil transform, seize really into an ointment, when the speed you add the oil is instinctive, when the texture feels right – feels like mayonnaise. And if it does split? Pour yourself a glass of wine and then add a drop of boiling water to the mixture. If that doesn’t work start again with another egg yolk in a clean bowl. Beat the yolk and then slowly whisk in the curdled mixture.

But enough talk of curdling, let the whisking begin.

mayonnaise

  • 2 egg yolks (at room temperature)
  • salt
  • 225 ml groundnut oil
  • 75 ml extra virgin olive oil
  • juice of half a lemon or dab of Dijon mustard

In a heavy bowl (which doesn’t require too much effort or holding to keep it firm) start whisking the egg yolks with a generous pinch of salt.

After a minutes, when the yolks are thick and sticky, start adding the groundnut oil very gradually – by very gradually I mean drop by drop and then a very thin stream. Do not rush and keep whisking as you add the oil.

Keep adding the oil until the mayonnaise seizes into a very thick ointment, at this point you can relax and add the groundnut oil in a slightly thicker stream.

When you have added all the groundnut oil, add the extra virgin olive oil (again in a thin stream) and keep whisking until you have a smooth, silky and firm mayonnaise. You may not need to add all the olive oil. Add a few drops of lemon juice or a dab of mustard, whisk, taste and then, if necessary a few drops/dab more. Add salt as you like.

Dollop on Tiddely-om-pom-pom!.

May I recommend serving your home-made mayonnaise with freshly grilled sardines, waxy new potatoes, a spoonful of salsa verde and a slice of lemon. And for pudding (our tea this afternoon, my niece Bea was beside herself with cream induced excitement) raspberries with sugar and Cornish clotted cream. I hope you are having a good summer.

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Filed under Eggs, fish, food, In praise of, olive oil, Rachel's Diary, recipes

The Other Half.

Always one for too much of a good thing, I was tempted to make another batch of gnocchi with the remaining half of my green mound. An absence of ricotta put an end to that idea. An absence of milk nearly put paid to my second spinach plan – a savory courgette and spinach cake – until I remembered the small stout carton of cream sitting, squatting really between the Campari and the Tanqueray in the door of the fridge. Surely something made with milk would be even nicer if made with cream? It is! But I will come to that presently.

The spinach and courgette cake I was plotting was to be a variation on David Tanis’s very good, very green spinach cake. Now the first time I made this spinach cake, it was rather disappointing. This had everything to do with a misreading of the recipe and my distracted, careless, scurrying execution of said cake and nothing to do with David Tanis’s recipe. Having learned my lesson, I made it a second time, reading diligently, sautéing attentively, seasoning the green batter generously, adjusting cooking times to compensate for my oven and keeping a watchful eye as my cake puffed up proudly in oven. My reward was, as promised, a quite lovely green round.

Like the song in which a love-sick teenager finds truth and solace, spinach cake was on heavy rotation for a while – I’m not sure why I didn’t tell you about it here – and I soon discovered that you can indeed have too much of a good thing. Fortunately neither of us wanted things to turn nasty, so we agreed not to see each other for a while. Then last summer when we were all gathered  in Branscombe for the week of my best friend Joanna’s wedding, Joanna’s mum Rosamund made a delicious starter one evening, a pale green, delicate bake which seemed very like a slightly softer, creamier relative of my spinach cake, but made with courgettes. Nostalgia was felt, plans hatched and notes were scribbled.

As usual, I dragged my cooking heels and it wasn’t until a couple of weeks ago, in possession of a half mound of spinach (of which I used only half, the post about the final quarter is still to come) that I finally deciphered my notes about Ros’s dish, grabbed two courgettes, a handsome leek and half a pint of cream and set about making a spinach and courgette cake.

As with David’s Tanis’s recipe, I began by softening leek in little oil and butter over a medium flame. Once the leek was suitably soft, I added rounds of courgette, nudged them around the pan until they were nicely coated with oil and butter before adding a little water, lowering the flame and then letting the leeks and courgettes to bubble and cook gently – half frying/ half braising, for about 15 minutes or until all the liquid has evaporated the courgettes were tender and collapsing. Then I left the green panful to cool.

My spinach (as you know) was already cooked and well-drained (I repeat, water is the enemy) so once the courgette and leeks were cool and transferred to a bowl I added my pile of chopped spinach. Then using my trusty immersion blender, I blitzed the vegetables into a smooth green paste that begged both to be tasted and smeared upon my face. I resisted smearing and simply tasted before adding 5 eggs, cream, grated parmesan, a good grating of nutmeg, an equally good grinding of black pepper and a flick of salt. As I poured the pale creamy- green batter into my reliable non-stick pan I made a mental note  ‘This is the colour I’d like to paint the living room‘ before maneuvering the pan into the oven for about 25 minutes in which time the batter set and puffed gently into a very green cake.

I let the cake settle and cool for a while before cutting it into wedges and serving it with sliced tomatoes – the deeply ribbed ones with thick skins and sweet spicy flesh – and Roscioli bread.

I know I’m courgette biased, but they lend something lovely to this green cake, complimenting the deeply satisfying flavor of the spinach. Tanis’s recipe calls for milk! Cream, as you can probably imagine is another thing entirely, it’s a perfect foil for the green grassy vegetables. The cake is creamier obviously, deeply dairy, luscious and luxurious,. In using cream though, the nutmeg – maybe my favorite spice – becomes even more important, as not only does it perk up the greens no end, but cuts through the dairy, making it less cloying.

I think the cake really does need to rest for at least 40 minutes (and up to 5 hours) after coming out of the oven so it can firm up a little and it’s flavors settle. It is a most delicious wedge, the happy collision of a frittata (which is, as you probably know, an Italian open-faced omelette), a soufflé, a mousse and a savory custard. Lunch.

Last thing, regarding cooking times. David Tanis suggests 40 minutes at 200° for for his spinach cake. In my oven I found this too hot and too long for such a delicate egg and dairy laced thing. I find that 25 minutes or so at 170°is about right so your cake is  gently puffed up and set, but still tender and with a very slight wobble. I love a slight wobble.

Last last thing, a well buttered dish/pie plate will do but a non-stick ovenproof 12″/24cm frying pan is best (I find.)

Spinach and courgette cake

Inspired by Rosamund’s recipe and adapted liberally from David Tanis’s recipe in a Platter of figs – I can’t seem to find a site for the publisher and I am boycotting bloody monopolizing amazon, so please excuse the lack of a link.

Serves 4 as lunch, 8 as a starter.

  • 2 tbsp olive oil
  • 30g butter
  • 1 medium-sized leek
  • 2 medium courgettes
  • salt
  • 100ml white wine/water
  • 300 g spinach
  • 5 eggs
  • 250 ml fresh cream
  • 50 g grated parmesan
  • freshly grated nutmeg
  • black pepper
Preheat the oven to 170°
 .
Trim the leek and peel off the tough outer layer. Cut the leek into small dice, fill a bowl with water and add the leeks. Agitate the leeks with your hand. Let the dirt and sand settle in the bowl and then scoop the leeks from the water and pat the dry in a clean tea towel. Warm the oil and butter in a heavy based frying pan and then sauté the leek until it is soft and translucent.
 .
Top and tail the courgettes and then slice them into 1/2cm thick rounds. Add the courgette to the leek and stir so each round is well coated with butter.
 .
After a few minutes, raise the heat a little and add the wine/water. Allow it to bubble enthusiastically. Now reduce the heat again and allow the onion and courgettes to bubble and cook gently – half frying/ half braising, giving a stir and nudge every now and then and adding a little more water if the pan looks dry – for about 15 minutes or until the courgettes are very soft tender and collapsing and all the liquid has evaporated. Remove the pan from the heat and set aside to cool.
 .
Soak the spinach in several changes of water and discard any wilted or bruised leaves and trim away any very thick, woody stalks. Put the spinach in a large pan with nothing but the water that clings to the leaves, cover the pan and cook on a low flame until the spinach has collapsed and is tender. This should take about 2 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. Chop the spinach roughly and transfer to a bowl.

Add the cooled leek/ courgette mixture to the spinach and then using a hand blender blitz the mixture into a smooth green paste.

Add the cream and eggs to the bowl and blitz again before stirring in the parmesan, a grating of nutmeg, salt and black pepper.

Pour the batter into in ovenproof sauté pan, buttered baking dish or 10-12 inch deep-pie dish and then slide into the oven. Bake uncovered for 30 minutes or until the cake is set but still with a slight tremble/wobble at the center.

Allow the cake to sit, cool and settle for at least 40 minutes before serving in wedges.

I really should learn to not make promises I can’t keep! I apologise, It’s the optimist in me, she’s extremely unrealistic sometimes. A promise I am trying to keep though, is not inflicting too much babyboringness on you all! However as I write about what I’m cooking and eating, and now that Luca is my prefered lunch date, it feels appropriate to mention that alongside breastfeeding (we have surprised ourselves, we are total enthusiasts, quite boring proponents and in it for for the long haul) he’s started eating some proper food. Neither of us could face those purees and all that spoon-feeding and so following in the footsteps of my sister Rosie and my niece Beattie and properly inspired by this brilliant book and site we are having a lot of extremely messy fun

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Filed under antipasti, courgettes, cream, Eggs, food, picnics, Rachel's Diary, recipes, spinach, spring recipes, vegetables

Just One

If I had to keep just one cookbook, it would be a red hardback wrapped in a bright blue sleeve with a lobster on the front, a single volume which comprises three of Elizabeth David’s classics of the kitchen; Book of Mediterranean Food, French Country Cooking and Summer Cooking. I might have a moment of doubt and consider Jane Grigson’s ‘Good Things’ or my dog-eared copy of ‘English Food’. I may clutch my battered copy of Simon Hopkinson’s Roast chicken and Other Stories closely for a moment, but my definitive choice, my desert island trilogy, would be my crustacean adorned copy.

Elizabeth David is not just my favorite food writer, she’s one of my favorite writers and one of the reasons I absconded to Italy. For years I’ve returned to at least one of her eight books or one of the two anthology’s of her articles, letters and notes – which are invariably scattered all over my flat – most days, be it in the kitchen, in a chair, writing here, or last thing at night in bed. Her introduction to Mediterranean food, description of Provence in French Provincial Cooking and anything from An omelette and a glass of wine are all favorites to fall asleep to.

She is a masterful writer: scholarly, witty, informative, elegant, fiercely opinionated, and the passion and enthusiasm with which she communicates her love of good food, well cooked is contagious. Her writing, essays, descriptions of weather, food, herbs, colours, smells, tastes, and of course her meticulously authentic recipes collected during her travels in France, Italy, Corsica, Malta, India, Eygpt and Greece are timeless (she began writing in the 1950’s) and as bright and brilliant as sunshine. But for all their bright brilliance, Elizabeth David’s books, illustrated with John Minton’s black and white drawings, are also a refuge, evoking a way of cooking and thinking about food so entirely different from the loud, fussy, over styled but often hollow food culture I can (and do) bombard myself with.

Over the last five months Elizabeth David has mostly been a bedside companion. But now I’m emerging – sleep deprived, disoriented, quite grumpy but uncharacteristically content – from my postnatal vortex and my very bonny five and a half month old son, if armed with a wooden spoon and a Tupperware lid, is happy to bounce away in the doorway, I’ve started working my way through the fringe of bookmarks. The first being Quiche Lorraine.

In truth, this particular recipe for Quiche Lorraine from French Country Cooking has been bookmarked for years rather than months and the food memory behind the bookmark is decades rather than years old. Two and a half decades to be precise, 25 years, since I ate a slice of Quiche Lorraine at the vast kitchen table of the Renault family during my traumatic but gastronomically revelatory French exchange with the horrid Carolyn I was 14. I even mentioned this recipe when I wrote about savory tarts a while back. But I never made it. Then the other week my friend Ruth came over for lunch and I wanted to make something tasty, simple and nice, a thank you of sorts for all the meals her and her husband have made for me. The bookmark for the Quiche was particularly prominent, a postcard from France no less, so I finally made this Quiche.

This is the Quiche Lorraine I ate in France all those years ago, simple, authentic, understated and very delicious. Short, crumbly, flaky pastry – made with plenty of good butter and some lard – encasing a delicate, quivering, softly set filling of fresh thick cream and eggs studded with chopped bacon. This is my Quiche touchstone, the example which shames all the crimes against Quiche I’ve had the misfortune to encounter, those heavy leaden triangles of heartburn inducing pastry filled with rubbery custard and stuffed to the gunnels with too much cheese, béchamel, three types of vegetable, pineapple, two paperclips and goodness knows what else.

This may seem a mere slip of a Quiche if you are used to heftier more elaborate things! But I assure you it’s a lovely slip of a Quiche.  Unfashionably rich and unhealthy by todays standards, what with all the butter, lard, bacon and cream and just my sort of thing. My sort of thing too I can hear you shouting, hooray for butter, lard, bacon and cream. And after all, there will be salad too, crisp and green, hopefully with some bitter leaves to contrast the soft dairy creaminess of the Quiche.

It is pretty straightforward to make and involves four nice kitchen tasks all of which I am happy to interpret as dance moves if given the appropriate quantity of alcohol; rolling, tucking, frying and whisking. First you make the pastry by rubbing butter and lard into flour (with a pinch of salt) until it reassembles breadcrumbs, adding some very cold water and bringing everything together into a ball. You chill the pastry for a while before rolling it out into a circle and tucking it into a tart tin, preferably one with a loose base.  Then the frying, of the diced bacon – the smell of which along with thoughts of roast beef brought was the smell that brought me back from the other side . Finally the whisking together of the thick, fresh cream – luscious and lovely – with two eggs. Once you have sprinkled your diced, fried and provocatively smelling bacon into the pastry case and poured over the pale yellow mixture you manoeuver your Quiche (set on a baking tray)  into the oven, bake it for 30 minutes for so or until it’s set but still with a slight wobble, blistered and golden.

The Quiche is best about 20 minutes after coming out of the oven, so it has time to settle and the filling firm up a little. Also the  texture and flavors – as is so often the case – are best appreciated when the Quiche is warm as opposed to hot.

It seems appropriate that I give you Elizabeth David’s recipe as she wrote it – word for word – in French Country Cooking. I have however added metric measurements and some of my own notes at the end.

Quiche Lorraine

From Elizabeth David’s French Country Cooking

For six people

  • 6oz / 180g flour
  • 2 oz /60g butter
  • 1 oz / 30g dripping / lard
  • 6 rashers bacon
  • 1/2 pint / 250 ml cream
  • 2 fresh eggs
  • salt and pepper
  • 1/2 gill / 75 ml of water

Make a pastry with the flour, butter, dripping, a pinch of salt and the water. Give it one or two turns and then roll it into a ball and leave it for 1 hour.

Line a flat buttered pie tin with the rolled out pastry. Onto the pastry spread the bacon cut into dice and previously fried for a minute. Now beat the eggs into the cream with a little salt and ground pepper; when they are well mixed, pour onto the pastry, put into a hot oven and bake for about 30 minutes.

Let it cool a little before cutting and serving.

My Notes.

I only used 50ml of water. I think very very cold water (I add an ice-cube to the measuring jug) is best. I rest my pastry in the fridge. My tart tin has a loose bottom. I bought it here. It is a trusty tart tin. When I roll the pastry out and tuck it in the tin, I leave a pastry overlap which compensates for any pastry shrinkage when it cooks. I make sure I press the pastry firmly into the tin. I don’t worry about neat tart edges. I set my oven to 175°. I bake my tart case blind for 10 minutes before adding the filling. When I bake blind I don’t use baking beans, I simply pick the pastry with a fork – the pastry may well puff up but it quickly sinks down again. I use double, heavy cream. I think the tart is best eaten about 20 minutes after coming out of the oven.

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Filed under antipasti, cream, Eggs, fanfare, food, pies and tarts, summer food, tarts

Six Years.

It’s taken me 6 years – well, 5 years 8 months to be precise – to overcome my making pasta alla carbonara anxiety and introduce this splendid dish into my repertoire. Repertoire! Yes I know, how grand of me, please roll your eyes. For those of you who don’t know, pasta alla carbonara (the pasta is usually spaghetti but also fettuccine, rigatoni or bucatini, but we’ll come to the shape discussion later) is an Italian, most probably Roman, pasta dish based on eggs, pecorino romano, guanciale (unsmoked Italian bacon prepared with pig’s jowl) or pancetta and black pepper. Recipes and techniques vary – of course they do, this is Italy – but the basic idea is that the diced guanciale is fried in fat (olive oil or lard), then the hot pasta is dropped in the pan with the guanciale to finish the cooking for few seconds. Once the pasta is coated with the flavoursome fat of the guanciale, the pan is pulled from the flame and then the mixture of eggs, cheese and black pepper is combined with the hot pasta away from the fire, thus avoiding to cook the egg that must remain liquid. Adding the egg mixture to the hot pasta away from the heat means it thickens (but doesn’t scramble) and transforms – I think the correct verb is coagulate but that’s such a disturbing word – into a subtle creamy sauce. A well made carbonara is a quite delicious thing.

Now you may well be wondering what all my fuss was about,  I mean really! Five years, 8 months to fry a bit of pig cheek, whisk up a couple of eggs, grate some cheese and colgate. No, that’s the toothpaste, I mean coagulate. Let me explain! It took me four years to even eat a plate of carbonara never mind make one. My first 48 months in Rome were spent trying to overcome PBCSD  – Post Bad Carbonara Stress Disorder resulting from several bad experiences in England involving vast mounds of overcooked spaghetti, cream, bad bechamel sauce, mushrooms, scrambled eggs and on one especially unfortunate occasion, sausage. Once in Rome I quickly realised that real pasta alla carbonara was another thing entirely from the horrors I’d encountered, but the hangover persisted. My Italian friends championed their favourite plate, rolled their eyes at my stories and urged me to leap. Many a handsome carbonara was ordered in my presence. But rather like my ten-year aversion to Martini  – the consequence of having sunk a bottle through a straw in Rothamstead park with naughty Pippa Williams at the age of 14 – my carbonara hangover persevered.

It finally passed sometime in March 2009, at the trattoria Il Bucatino, the one that occupies the bottom right hand corner of our building and provides a rowdy kitchen soundtrack to our life – I particularly like the bouts of heavy blaspheming that erupt every now and then. In retrospect it was hardly the greatest carbonara, but at the time it seemed the most delicious thing I’d ever eaten, divine after all the previous horror. It was a surprisingly understated dinner but a rather pleasing one; a bowl of al dente spaghetti dotted with guanciale and bound by a creamy coat – we are talking spring jacket here not heavy winter beast  – of eggs, pecorino romano and plenty of black pepper. I was hooked.

For the following 6 months I struggled to order little else but pasta alla carbonara and thus – as is often the case in Italy – my choice of pasta, along with that of my dining companions dictated the culinary conversation that accompanied dinner. While I ate plate after plate, we invariably discussed the best way to make a carbonara. Spaghetti or short pasta (which some people prefer – saying it holds the creamy sauce better) ? Guanciale or pancetta? (cue fist shaking) How many eggs? Whole eggs or just the yolk? Pecorino romano, parmesan or (cue outraged face and sarcastic laughter from across the table) a mixture of both? And then of course there was lenghy discussion about the moment, the crucial moment, the moment you pull the pan from the flame and add the egg and cheese to the pasta and guanciale. Then there were endless discussions about the stir, the fold, the flick of the wrist needed to combine the eggs and cheese with the pasta, the moment you add the slug of the pasta cooking water  –  the pasta water you have judiciously set aside – to the pan, the slug that will loosen the straw coloured sauce into a soft creamy coat.

I listened attentively to the endless discussions. As time went on I even ventured to join in, contributing the occasional opinion and gasp. But rather like pastry, meringue and custard, all the carbonara talk, the discussions about crucial moments, flicks of wrists and coagulating brought on acutemaking pasta alla carbonara anxiety and a kind of making carbonara paralysis.

Until a month ago that is.

It was a Tuesday I think, in early November, an extremely grey day, one of the many when it felt as though the rain would never stop and I was in the mood for a plate of spaghetti alla carbonara. Having asked a carbonara devoted friend of mine where she thought we could find the best carbonara in Rome, I found myself sitting in the back room of a bowling club – ‘Bocciofila‘ – in San Paolo.It was all very surreal. The club, it’s kitchen and slightly bizarre but extremely comfortable and strangely familiar dining room are run by Italia and Augusto, the nicest couple you could hope to meet, who, as well as looking after the club, prepare an excellent lunch and occasional dinner for club members and anyone else lucky enough to be introduced or invited into this small trophy lined dining room. We rolled up, introductions and orders were made, then Italia disappeared into the kitchen. She reappeared 20 minutes later (the time it took for the pasta water to come back to the boil and the pasta to cook) with two dishes of rigatoni alla carbonara:  steaming bowls of al dente pasta studded with glistening chunks of guanciale and bound by a creamy seductive coat of eggs, piquant pecorino romano and a courageous quantity of black pepper. Fantastic.

For such a simple dish with just four ingredients, pasta alla carbonara varies impressively from cook to cook, plate to plate. The plate Italia produced was particularly robust, there was generous quantity of guanciale, fried until translucent and crisp at the edges. There was masses of pecorino and an extremely bold quantity of black pepper. The pasta was short – Rigatoni, and it worked beautifully, the sauce clinging to fluted tubes which in turn provided a perfect hiding place for the cubes of guanciale. As we mopped up the end of the sauce with bread, Italia sat at our table and our clean plates and content faces made compliments. Then she started talking – Italia likes talking – and before long I made my confession. Then in the backroom of a Boules club somewhere round the back of San Paolo, on a wet Tuesday afternoon, excellent pasta, rough wine, Italia’s gentle (slightly cheeky) smile, her simple instructions, her advice (practice, practice, practice) and her demonstrative gesticulating meant my making pasta alla carbonara anxiety melted away.

A couple of days later I laid out my ingredients. I diced and then fried the guanciale, and then while the pasta was rolling around I beat the eggs and cheese and I was bold with the pepper grinder. Once the pasta was ready, I scooped out the crucial cupful of pasta cooking water and set it aside before adding the pasta to the guanciale – sizzle. Then, remembering Italia and her gesticulating, I pulled the hot frying pan from the heat, added the egg and cheese mixture and stirred. I watched as the eggs mixture thickened, a slug of water, a moment of panic –  it all looked rather wet, a sigh of relief as the mixture thickened again. More black pepper, taste, more cheese, taste.  Divide between plates. Eat.  It was good. Improvements would be made , flicks perfected, but for a first attempt I was content.

Being a slightly obsessive sort and with a post long overdue, I’ve been making pasta alla carbonara two or three times a week for the last month. I’ve experimented, trying both pancetta and guanciale. I’ve dabbled with both pecorino and parmesan, and dare I say it, a mixture of both. I’ve tried different combinations of eggs ; 2 eggs, 1 yolk; 1 egg, 2 yolks;  just yolks. But most importantly I’ve practiced the crucial moment – paying particular attention to how hot the frying pan is when I pull it from the heat, how I stir the egg and cheese into the pasta, how much pasta water I need to add.  I’ve made notes. I’ve wondered what an earth my fuss and anxiety was all about. I’m getting better.

This recipe is the sum of all the above; all the plates I’ve eaten over the last 2 years, Italia’s recipe, my friend Flavio’s advice  – the addition of the extra egg yolk, lots of experimenting and my particular taste I suppose. I should note that I’m a real fan of gunaciale in carbonara, I love its deeply flavoured fat, but many of my friends prefer pancetta. I like a mix of parmesan and pecorino (gasp) but I’m just as happy with all pecorino. I did enjoy a carbonara made with just egg yolks, but found it a little rich. 2 whole eggs and 1 extra yolk in a carbonara for 2 people is my preference. And I reckon my slug of pasta water is about 50ml.

I suggest you use this recipe as a guide, a template if you like, with which you can begin your own pasta alla carbonara adventures.

Pasta alla carbonara

Serves 4

  • 500g spaghetti or rigatoni
  • 150g guanciale or pancetta
  • 4 eggs plus 2 egg yolks
  • 50g grated pecorino romano
  • 50g grated parmesan
  • salt
  • freshly coarsely ground black pepper

Bring a large pan of water to a fast boil – salt the water modestly as the cheese makes this a relatively salty pasta. Add the pasta.

Cut the guanciale or pancetta into small dice. Warm the oil in a deep 12-inch heavy based frying pan (skillet) and then cook the diced guanciale or pancetta over moderate heat, stirring, until first the fat begins to render and then it is just starting to turn slightly golden and crisp at the edges.

While pasta is cooking, whisk together eggs, parmigiano-reggiano, pecorino romano, plenty of coarsely ground black pepper, and 1/4 teaspoon salt in a small bowl.

Scoop of a large cup of water cooking water and set it aside and the drain the pasta then toss with tongs over moderate heat until coated. Remove from heat and add egg mixture, tossing to combine, add a slug of the cooking water to loosen the sauce and stir again . Serve immediately with more cheese, either pecorino or parmesan.

I am sorry to have been away for so long, I’ve missed you and thank you for all your nice messages. I think my absence deserves a post – with a recipe of course. That post is coming.

Last thing,  Apple with parmesan and frutta mostarda. I am obsessed.

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Filed under Eggs, food, pasta and rice, rachel eats Italy, recipes