Category Archives: lemons

the whole triangle

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Ciambellone al limone – lemon ring cake

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

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

Set the oven to 180°

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

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

a wink and a whorl

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I follow Jane Grigson’s advice I when I buy a cauliflower. ‘If the cauliflower looks back at you with a vigorous air, buy it; if it looks in need of a good nights sleep, leave it where it is.‘ Apart from the fact we could debate what vigorous looks like, it’s a good rule of thumb when choosing most fruit and vegetables. Except avocados that is, which taste better when they appear to have been on the razzle two nights in a row. It’s a rule of thumb that can also be applied to people, which in my case – sadly no razzle, just a wakeful toddler – means leaving me exactly where I am.

Rather confusingly Italians sometimes call winter cauliflower, broccolo. Not my fruttivendolo Gianluca though, he calls them cavolo, which usually means cabbage but is also an abbreviation of cavolfiore which literally means cabbage flower. To which we could reply ‘Che cavolo’ which beyond meaning ‘What cabbage’, is a response anything flummoxing or vexing, including cauliflower etymology. Rather than looking like flowers, I’ve always thought good cauliflowers with unblemished creamy-white whorls look like cumulus clouds, the ones that cluster in an otherwise blue sky.

If a cauliflower looks vigorous and its florets are tight and thick as thieves, then you need to be vigorous in your approach and armed with a sharp knife to cut away the outer leaves and thickest core before splitting the head into manageable florets. A good cauliflower should withstand a rolling boil. I am a big fan of boiled and braised vegetables and – with the exception of potatoes and parsnips – will take them over roasted almost every time, cauliflower, calm and creamy is no exception.

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Today’s recipe started life as another recipe, or part of one at least, the dressing for one of my favourite salads, puntarelle, the mere mention of which has me shooting off on a sentimental tangent that involves my friend Alice, a trattoria in an irritatingly pretty piazza, a paper tablecloth, Pyrex glasses, a litre of wine that was two steps away from battery acid, a grumpy waitress, braised rabbit and a bowl of pale-green curls of gently bitter salad with anchovy dressing.

I’d heard about an idiosyncratic salad practically unknown outside Rome (this is nine years ago,) a salad of catalonian chicory with dandelion-like leaves called punatelle that once trimmed, cut and immersed in cold water curled in much the same way as Shirley Temple’s hair. Pale green curls that are then dressed with a pungent and loudly delicious dressing of anchovies, garlic, olive oil and vinegar. Neither the wine or waitress could spoil our delight in the puntarelle salad we had – in the proprietorial manner of new arrivals in Rome – so happily discovered.

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Nine years later, less proprietorial, happily faded and pretty comfortable about still being in Rome, I prepare puntarelle a lot during it’s winter season. I say prepare, curl, pulse and assemble is a better description. Some people say the dressing should be made with a pestle and mortar, but I make mine with my immersion blender, and not just for speed, but because I like the more consistent, thicker dressing a few pulses creates. I also prefer lemon juice to vinegar, it gives the dressing a citrus-sharp but less aggressive edge.

Having made too much dressing last week, and with a dish of cauliflower, eggs and aioli dressing I ate at 40 Maltby street a few weeks back still a pertinent food memory, I made an improvised lunch of boiled cauliflower, black olives, hard-boiled eggs and punterelle dressing.

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This the third platter of this assembly, which is on the one hand innocent: pale, creamy cauliflower and just boiled eggs, and on the other full of experience: dark olives, garlic, richly fishy anchovy, peppery olive oil and citrus. It is important the water you are going to cook the cauliflower in is well salted, as this is what is needed to bring out the otherwise shy flavors in the cauliflower. I used taggiasca olives that are district, chewy and taste somewhere between dried plums and the leather wristband I used to chew throughout double chemistry with Mrs Toomer (not unpleasant, the wristband that is). Try and find good quality olive oil packed anchovies, cheap anchovies, like cheap olive oil and cheap mascara are best avoided.

Innocence and experience, and a brilliant combination of favours that compliment, tussle and then compliment again before giving you the culinary equivalent of a wink. I think it is delicious. Eat while the cauliflower and eggs are still warm.

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Cauliflower with hard-boiled egg, black olives and anchovy-lemon dressing

  • a head of cauliflower
  • 2 cloves of garlic
  • 6 anchovy fillets packed in olive oil
  • 8 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil
  • 2 teaspoons of freshly squeezed lemon juice
  • a handful of black olives (ideally taggiasca olives in extra virgin olive oil)
  • 4 eggs
  • black pepper

Pull away the tough outer leaves, cut away the hard central stem and then break the cauliflower into florets. Drop the florets into a large pan of well-salted boiling water and cook until tender to the point of a knife. Drain and set aside.

Make the dressing either in a pestle and mortar (in which case first pound the garlic, then add the anchovy fillets and grind into a rough paste before stirring in the olive oil and lemon) or with an immersion blender or small food processor (in which case add all the ingredients, pulse rather than blast into a consistent but slightly textured dressing.)

Meanwhile hard-boil the eggs. Once the eggs are done plunge them into cold water until they are cool enough to handle, tap the shells , peel them and then slice each egg in two.

Arrange the florets in a shallow dish (cutting any large ones in two), scatter over the olives, arrange the hard-boiled egg halves, grind over some black pepper before spooning over the dressing. Serve while the cauliflower and eggs are still warm.

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Filed under anchovies, cauliflower, food, lemons, olive oil, rachel eats Rome, Rachel's Diary, recipes, supper dishes, Uncategorized, vegetables

A bit sheepish

And on the third day I ate ricotta di pecora. At least I think it was the third day! I can confirm this when I collect my diary and moleskin from Vincenzo’s flat. The accordian-like moleskin containing the unruly horde of tickets, receipts and other keepsakes from those first weeks in Naples and Sicily. I ate my soft, ephemeral slice of pure-white sheep’s milk ricotta with bread sitting on the grubby steps of a fountain near Quattro canti in Palermo. It was, like me, a messy affair. The ricotta, just hours young and wrapped in waxed-paper rather like the wedge of ricotta romana above, was extremely soft and sitting in a puddle of whey. Speed, slurping and strategic bread sopping were no match for the ricotta, a large proportion of which ended up down my t-shirt and on my Jeans. A not insignificant occurrence for a someone travelling with only the clothes they stood up in.

I’d eaten ricotta many times before, but it had always been made from cows milk, inevitably undergone UHT treatment and restrained neatly in a squat tub. The slice on the fountain steps was another thing entirely: a quivering mass of lactic loveliness with an unmistakably sheepish nature. Made that morning, it seemed the epitome of purity and freshness. And so began my affair with ricotta di pecora. As is so often the case, those first weeks were intense and slightly compulsive. I ate slice after slice, usually with bread, possibly a tomato or maybe a few dark salty olives. If I’d remembered to swipe a couple of sachets from the bar I had breakfast in, I ate my white slice dribbled with runny honey. I pointed to pasta con la ricotta (pasta with ricotta and a fearless quantity of black pepper) whenever I spied it on the menu. I ate cannolicassata and cuccia.

What began in Sicily continued in Rome. Ricotta genuina romana made from sheep’s milk (pecora) is highly prized and every bit as delicious as it’s slightly soupier Sicilian cousin. I buy it by weight from Volpetti, watching through the glass counter as one of the white coated assistants – usually Roberto – cuts me a Testaccio shaped wedge from the white dome crosshatched with the marks of the plastic basket it was turned out from. I eat it squashed on toast topped with salt, black pepper and olive oil. I’ll have a spoonful or six for breakfast with honey and nuts. Ricotta di pecora makes a good addition to tomato sauce, a perfect layer in lasagna and a fine (if rather unnecessary) companion for Pomodoro col riso. Stirred with chopped spinach it produces (with a little practice) stupendous gnocchi. Then lately, inspired by Lucio Sforza, I’ve been mixing ricotta di pecora with lemon zest and parmesan.

Lucio Sforza is the chef and owner of possibly my favorite place to eat lunch in Rome these days: L’Asino d’Oro in Monti. He makes an amazingly good value set lunch ‘il Pranzetto‘ for those lucky enough to secure a reservation. For 12 euro’s you are brought a bottle of mineral water, a glass of wine and good bread before being presented with a small but perfectly formed taster, starter, first and second course. His food is loyal to his Umbrian Roots and the way he ate as a boy. It’s traditional but at the same time truly innovative (he used the word transformative when we talked and Luca crawled manically around the empty restaurant) and youthful. He’s a stickler for excellent ingredients, a firm believer that you can eat very well without spending a fortune and has a masterful touch when it comes to pork, game, mushrooms, lentils, pulses, wild herbs (particularly sage) and ricotta di pecora.

A few weeks ago the taster or assagio –  the amuse bouche if you will – was a little mound of ricotta di pecora speckled with lemon zest, grated parmesan and what I assume was Umbrian olive oil (green, light, full of flavor and highly scented.) It was barely more than a mouthful, three if you shared it between three nubs of bread. But what a mouthful.

I’ve been making it at home, mashing and creaming the ricotta di pecora with a fork or –  if I have time – pressing it through a sieve. I’ve been topping my mound of white cream as Lucio does, with a shower of grated lemon zest, some coarsely grated parmesan and a little extra virgin olive oil. I’ve been eating this extremely tasty taster with good bread, smearing it liberally on hot toast, nudging it onto boiled potatoes and then the other day having been given some particularly nice thick ribbons of pappardelle, I decided to try this lemon scented, parmesan spiked ricotta cream with pasta.

While a large pan of well salted water lumbered to the boil, I mashed and then beat 250 g of ricotta di pecora with the zest and a little of the juice of a large unwaxed lemon, a hefty handful of grated parmesan, a good pinch of salt and a grind of black pepper. Once the water was rolling like a stormy ocean, I slid the pappardelle into the pan and pushed it down with a wooden spoon.

When the pasta was nearly ready – and this is important –  I ladled a little of the pasta cooking water – cloudy with starch – from the pasta pan into the ricotta cream in order to loosen it a little. I also set another cupful aside in case further loosening was necessary. I drained the pasta before tipping it on top of the ricotta cream and tossing the wide ribbons in the thick white paste. The egg pappardelle was surprisingly absorbent and so a little more pasta water was needed! After all this is a dish that should be moist! The ribbons of pasta should slip and slide not clump and stick. I served my pasta with ricotta, lemon and parmesan cream with a little extra virgin olive oil poured over the top.

We both agreed it was lovely and Luca smeared enthusiastically. The ricotta di pecora provides a seductive creamy coat. The mood lifting citrus lends freshness and cuts through even the slightest suggestion that lunch might be cloying.  The pepper adds heat and the parmesan its soft, granular, savory umami.

pasta with ricotta, lemon and parmesan cream

And for dessert – not the same day I hasten to add – a variation on our theme, a ricotta heavy, lemon scented, almond flecked, egg laced, rum spiked, oven baked Budino.

Now literally translated budino means pudding, so we could translate budino di ricotta as pudding of ricotta or, better still. ricotta pudding,  We could just as easily call it a ricotta cake, a baked cheese cake or a baked ricotta pudding.

The procedure is nice and straightforward. You sieve the ricotta and then beat it first with the egg yolks and then with the ground almonds or flour, sugar, lemon zest, salt and rum. Keep beating until you have a smooth, consistent cream that begs – for the raw egg fearless among us – to be tasted repeatedly. To finish you fold in the egg whites you’ve whisked so vigorously they’ve formed – giggle – stiff peaks and then scrape this thick batter into tin brushed with melted butter and dusted with fine breadcrumbs. You bake. The cake that is, until it’s firm, puffed with price and just a little golden on top.

Now if you are a fan of delicate puds and pretty cakes, this probably isn’t for you. If however you think you might like a dense (but not heavy), lemon scented, rum laced pudding that is all at once a rather sophisticated fat pancake, a fruitless bread and butter pudding, a baked custard and the inside of a Jewish baked cheesecake I suggest you try this recipe. I adore it.

I probably should have noted that ricotta (which literally translated mean re-cooked) is a milk product, usually described as cheese, made by re-cooking the whey left over from cheese making. Now I have been rambling on about ricotta di pecora which is sheep’s milk ricotta, a glorious, ephemeral product, that is almost impossible to find if you are not In Italy. Of course you can use cow milk ricotta! Just look for the best quality available. When you come to visit – which you should – we will go ricotta di pecora hunting together.

Budino di Ricotta

Adapted from Elizabeth David’s Budino di ricotta in Italian food and Roberto and Rosa D’Ancona’s Budino di ricotta in the superlative La Cucina Romana.

  • 5 eggs
  • 500 g ricotta
  • 150 g fine sugar
  • 3 heaped tablespoons ground almonds or plain flour
  • grated zest of two unwaxed lemons
  • 3 – 5 tbsp rum
  • a pinch of salt
  • a little melted butter and fine breadcrumbs for the tin

Set the oven to 180°. Brush a 25cm / 10 inch cake tin with melted butter and then dust it with fine breadcrumbs.

Separate the eggs putting the whites in one large bowl and the yolks in another. Sieve or mash the ricotta and beat it together with the eggs yolks. Add the sugar, almonds/ flour, lemon zest, rum and salt and beat again

Whisk the eggs white vigorously until they are mounted and form soft peaks. Using a metal spoon gently fold the eggs whites into the ricotta mixture. Pour the thick batter into the buttered and crumbed tin. Bake for 40 minutes or until the cake is firm, puffy and slightly golden  on top.

Serve just warm, at room temperature or cold. You can dust it with icing sugar if you like.

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Filed under food, fresh egg pasta, lemons, pasta and rice, rachel eats Italy, Rachel's Diary, recipes, ricotta, Roman food, sauces

Let us eat cake.

Before I talk about Almond and lemon cake, I need to tell you something. Actually that’s not true, I don’t need to tell you anything, I could just continue with the blog and not mention this detail, but considering the nature of both blog and detail, it would probably make things very lopsided and odd. Let me rephrase that, I’d like to tell you something.

I am, if all goes well, having a baby, very soon. Actually I thought the time had come this afternoon, and saw me, the most ill prepared mother- to-be in Europe, frantically consulting my 1972, soft focus, smock-heavy edition of the pregnancy bible Avremo un bambino. Once propped up on the sofa, book open at what I think was the relevant paragraph (it is, as the title suggests, an Italian book which means I don’t fully understand everything, not a bad thing when reading about potentially unpredictable and possibly painful experiences) I realized my cramps were more likely the result of the two oversized slices of aforementioned cake I’d washed down, inadvisably, with both iced lemonade and warm earl grey tea than any impending arrival. The official date is the 7th of september, but as my elderly neighbour keeps shouting from her kitchen window across the courtyard into my kitchen window, the baby will come when the baby is ready.

I am probably sounding very flippant. I don’t feel it. Well not usually. Despite this complicated goulash of a situation. Despite the fact the past nine months have been accompanied by painful sadness about the end of my relationship with the other stomach of Racheleats:Vincenzo, the man I thought I’d have children with, the man I thought I’d be with forever. Despite the fact a new relationship – and I say this with great affection – started at a time when I really should have been alone, I am very happy to be having a baby.

There, said it, and I haven’t forgotten that catching up and outbursts of (possibly too much) information should always be accompanied by good suggestions for lunch, dinner or in today’s case: cake.

Thoughts of this cake have been quietly bubbling away for some time now, for years if I think about it. Well, not this cake exactly, it’s more abstract than that. For years I’ve had it in mind that I’d like, at some point, no rush, to find a good recipe for a dense, moist but not gooey, fragrant but not fussy almond and lemon cake. My quest started nonchalantly with a piece of lemon scented almond cake from Lisboa the Portuguese cafe on Goldhawk Road. It gathered speed in 2001 when I worked at the Pelican organic pub in Ladbroke Grove and the formidable but fantastic chef Karen baked a deceptively plain-looking but glorious golden round, her take on an everyday cake and the various almond and lemon cakes she had eaten in Spain.

I was already well aware of what good dancing partners almond and lemon make. I’m the daughter of a Lancastrian, so I learned young that the neglected cousin of the Bakewell tart, the Lancaster lemon tart – which forgets jam in favor of a thick smear of lemon curd cooked under the almond and egg mixture – is by far the nicer of the two relatives. I’d experienced the joys of lemon syllabub and crisp almond biscuits. I’d gobbled up Maids of honor, those seductive little puff pastry tarts filled with cheese-cake-like almond and lemon cream.

But Karen’s cake was something else, a slice of lemon and almond alchemy, simple – something Florence White writing in 1932 in Good Things in England might have called a ‘cut-and-come-again-cake you never tire of’ – but aromatic and fragrant at the same time, a cake that reminds you almonds and lemons might well be English kitchen staples, but they originate from warmer more exotic climes. It was dense but not heavy, fragrant but not fussy. Karen was in an even more fearsome mood than usual when I walked into the kitchen (still brushing incriminating crumbs from my apron). I didn’t even manage a compliment, never mind a request for the recipe.

The search continued quietly, a recipe ripped from a newspaper, a note to myself to find a spanish recipe for torta de almendros di santiago because this – according to a friend – was the cake I was looking for, an attempt at torta de almendros di santiago and the discovery it wasn’t. Then I discovered Nigella Lawson’s clementine cake, which is in turn inspired by Claudia Roden’s Sephardic orange and almond cake, a recipe which spread faster than juicy gossip a few years ago. It’s the one made by simmering whole oranges or clementines until they are soft as my upper arms and then blending them – zest, skin, pith, fruit – into a thick orange pulp which you mix with eggs, almonds, sugar and a teaspoon of baking powder. Small kitchen epiphany, I’d replace the oranges with lemons, I’d found my cake.

I hadn’t. It was an interesting experiment, but on this occasion whole lemons are rather like sour-faced librarians, however long you simmer them, however much you flatter and try to sweeten them up with sugar, however hard you try, they refuse be won over, it’s the pith you see, it’s all just too pithy and the overall effect is decidedly mouth drying. My search continued, very lazily. Then about 2 weeks ago, an idea that had been baking for years was given a mighty shove by an uncompromising craving and next thing I know I’m cranking up the oven on one of the hottest days of the year to make myself an almond and lemon cake. Frantic book consultation, some risky mixing and matching of several recipes, a dash of improvisation and fifteen minutes of overheating in my new kitchen and I had not only a bun but a cake in the oven.

For me, impulsive baking usually ends in disaster or soggy disappointment! But not this time, I’d stumbled (or waddled) onto my cake, the lemon and almond round I’d been looking for, dense and moist but not heavy, fragrant and just a bit exotic but not fussy, the ‘cut and come again cake one you never tire of’‘. Well, the ‘never tire of’ remains to be seen, but I’ve consumed the greater part of three cakes now and I’m showing no signs of exhaustion. I already knew that one way to guarantee a moist crumb to your cake is to  add ground almonds – the oil in the nuts lends dampness to cakes and, even better, means they get even moister after a day or two – this cake is a lovely example of this. It’s a fitting recipe for a great couple: his milky, nutty kindness soothing (but not smothering) her zesty sharpness.

It’s all pretty straightforward, butter and sugar, eggs, ground almonds, a flick of flour, the zest and juice of a lemon and some orange flower water if you fancy (I do) a list of ingredients sure to invite thoughts like ‘That’s it? What on earth was all her fuss and searching about‘. I thought the very same thing. It really is worth wrapping the cake up for a day or two before eating, the flavors deepen and the cake gets even more wonderfully damp and aromatic. Don’t worry if you can’t wait though, it is still damn delicious.

Almond and lemon cake

  • 200g soft unsalted butter
  • 200g caster sugar
  • 4 medium eggs
  • 50g plain flour, ideally Italian 00
  • 200g ground almonds
  • zest and juice of one medium-sized unwaxed lemon
  • 2 tbsp orange flower water (optional)
Preheat the oven to 180°. Line a 21 cm spring release or loose base cake tin with greaseproof paper.

Cream together the butter and sugar until pale and fluffy. Beat the eggs in a separate bowl. Add the beaten egg a little at a time to the butter and sugar, with each addition sprinkle on some of the flour, keep beating continuously.

Once all the eggs and flour are incorporated, gently fold in the ground almonds, then the lemon zest, juice and orange flower water if you are adding it.

Pour the mixture into the lined cake tin and bake for 50 – 55 minutes. After about 35 minutes you may well find you have to cover the cake loosely with foil, otherwise it may burn.

The cake is ready when it is firm and a skewer, or better still a strand of raw spaghetti inserted in the center come out clean. Let the cake stand for 15 minutes before turning it onto a wire rack. Once the cake is completely cool, wrap it is greaseproof paper and then foil and leave it for a day or two.

Let us all eat cake.

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

They call it bright yellow (quite rightly)

lemon Curd

A smooth, translucent semi solid preserve. Colour:  bright yellow. Flavour: aromatic, sharp-sweet. Composition: lemons, sugar, eggs, butter. My sister Rosie’s favourite.

This is where my love of all things sweet and lemony started.

When we were growing up either my mum would make lemon curd, or jars of it with jam pot hats – that circle of fabric secured by an elastic band covering the lid – would be brought back from visits to National Trust houses in Oxfordshire, English holidays or purchased from fragrant ladies wearing flowery skirts, white cardigans and pearl earings at garden fetes. The quivering canary- yellow curd, the unctuous elixir of lemon, butter, sugar and eggs, was one of our favourites, especially at teatime. We’d spread it greedily and extremely thickly on white bread, a combination designed to please, placate and muffle boistrous and noisy (occasionally horrid) kids. Spoon it on toast, dollop it on hot crumpets or eat it straight from the jar with a spoon, sweet and sharp, thick and luscious.

Somewhere along the way I must have heard that making lemon curd was rather tricky, that it’s a temperamental preserve. There were whispers about mishaps, pesky double boilers, stories of curdling and splitting, words like coagulation, emulsification, scrambling and I wasn’t about to have one of my favourites muddled up in any of that nonsense. My Mum wasn’t much help either because she’s always had a beautiful Aga cooker – which I vainly covet – and that’s a whole-different-lemon-curd-story. The long and short of it is, I avoided making lemon curd for many years. Not eating it I hasten to add, I never avoid that.

I should know better than to listen to whispers and stories. It turns out that even Nigel Slater was hoodwinked into believing the scare stories and that making two and a bit pots of lemon curd isn’t tricky at all, even for me, and I’m a master of making things complicated.

You take 4 lemons, unwaxed ones otherwise your lemon curd will be, well, waxy. Leave the lemons at room temperature so they are soft and juicy, then roll them around on the work surface a bit so they are even juicier. You zest them and then juice them. I suppose one of those fancy micro-thing-plane-hi-tec-graters would be perfect for the zesting, far superior to my faithful dinosaur grater which produces a rather chunky, coarse little pile (fortunately I like chunky zest, but I’m not sure Nigel would approve, ‘tut tut, this is not marmalade’ he might say). Whatever your grater and the consistency of your zest, cue glorious, vital, citrus smells around kitchen.

You also need 225g of sugar, 100g of butter, 3 eggs and an extra yolk, oh and a double boiler, which if you are anything like me is rather less intimidating when described as a heatproof bowl set over a pan of gently simmering water. You do need to make sure that the water never boils and the bowl doesn’t touch the water.

But once you’ve made sure all that is in order, it’s all very straightforward. You warm and occasionally whisk the lemon zest, juice, sugar and butter in the bowl suspended over the simmering water until the butter has melted. Then you stir the beaten eggs into the lemon mixture. Now you let the curd cook, tasting, whisking regularly, for about 15 minutes, until it is thick and custard-like, feels heavy on the whisk and coats the back of a spoon. Taste.

Now you remove the pan from the heat and stir occasionally as the curd cools, then you pour it into very clean, warm, sterilized jars (I put mine in a hot oven for a few minutes) and seal. Once the jars are even cooler, refrigerate them for a few hours so the lemon curd is beautifully set, thick and luscious. Spread thickly on white or brown bread, hot toast with more butter, heap a spoonful on a hot crumpet. You can use the lemon curd to fill little tart cases or (thinking of my sister Rosie ) eat it straight from the pot.

Or very best of all, my favourite pudding of late, you can stir several large spoonfuls of lemon curd into a mixture of 200g of thick greek yogurt and 200g of  double cream. You then divide this thick, very pale yellow cream between little glasses and serve it chilled with shortbread biscuits or, even better, amaretti………. just delicious. I am going to make this tomorrow so maybe I will add another photo. Meanwhile lemon curd on bread for breakfast.

lemon Curd

Makes 2 and a half jars by my reckoning. Recipe adapted from Nigel Slater and Jill Norman and inspired by my friend Kath.

  • zest and juice of 4 medium-sized, unwaxed lemons
  • 225g fine sugar
  • 100g butter, diced
  • 3 medium-sized eggs plus one yolk

Put the lemon zest and juice, sugar and butter, into a heatproof bowl set over a pan of simmering water – make sure that the bottom of the basin doesn’t touch the water. Stir with a whisk from time to time until the butter has melted.

In another bowl beat the eggs and egg yolk lightly with a fork.

Stir the eggs into the lemon mixture. Let the curd cook stirring regularly, for about 15 -18 minutes, until it is thick and custard-like, it should feel heavy on the whisk and coat the back of a spoon. Make sure the water never boils.

Remove from the heat and stir occasionally as the curd cools. Pour into very clean, warm, sterilized jars (I put mine in a hot oven for a few minutes) and seal.

It will keep for a couple of weeks in the refrigerator.

Wishing you all a happy weekend, Easter, Pasqua, holiday, break……

It should of course be Mellow yellow (quite rightly)

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Filed under jams and preserves, lemons, preserves and conserves

Oranges and a lemon lunch

We have been buying, eating and squeezing citrus fruit rather compulsively of late, gloriously good and beautiful oranges, lemons, mandarins, grapefruits and clementines, lots and lots of clementines. Orange and yellow alternatives to one of those lamps for seasonal affective disorder, a citrus antidote to the dreary, damp and frankly miserable weather we are enduring.

I have also become rather obsessive about a certain lemon tree, the one with bright yellow fruit that sits in the neglected garden of a block of flats I pass at least once a day. Lately it always seems to be raining and very grey when I walk past this particular block and then blink, there it is! through the drizzle, startling and seemingly unfeasible, a tree heavy with sunny yellow lemons at this dark, damp time. For the last three years I have watched this tree, first the blossom; the delicate, pale, fragrant flowers and then after, later, the glowing fruit. Then for three years I’ve looked on in despair and frustration, through gaps in the flimsy but high fence, as the fruit shrivels, or falls and then lies abandoned on the ground. Last year I tried to enlist Vincenzo in a commandoesque plan to scale the fence late one night. But a reconnaissance mission and an assessment of the fence one afternoon confirmed his suspicions that we would bring the whole rickety thing down if we tried to go over.

Fence aside, I suspect Vincenzo was still reluctant to participate in any clandestine fruit collecting after a misguided afternoon of fig and blackberry foraging ended rather badly – insane dog, a weird rash and mild concussion – the year before,

A year on and the tree is full of yellow fruit again. Knowing I was going to write some sort of citrus post this week helped end my procrastination. On Tuesday I left a note (and a nice tip) with the porter of the building addressed to the owner of the lemon tree – who I am informed is rarely in Rome and is therefore partly forgiven for lemon neglect –  offering a home for the lemons and some lemon marmalade in return. We will see.

But now back to the plentiful citrus we already have, the ones sitting in the vast basket at the top of this post and the lemons sitting below, on the usual chair.

I bought these handsome Sicilian lemons at Testaccio market today, it was impossible not to, three vast crates of them sat at the front of the stall, big and heavily scented with bright shiny leaves and knobbly, lively, unwaxed skins. They are incredibly thick-skinned with powerful but slighty sweet juice which makes them seem much less aggressive than other lemons I’ve known. These are the kind of lemons that Vincenzo’s grandfather used to eat in Sicily, one each day, sometimes two, whole, as you would an apple, skin, pith, fruit, the whole lemon lot. These are lemons to make this one day.

Such nice lemons deserved some undivided attention so I made the lemon jelly I have been promsising myself – I am, as you may remember, extraordinarily fond of jelly –  then we decided on a lemon scented lunch, something we haven’t had for ages, tagliatelle with lemon and parmesan.

This is inspired by Nigel Slater’s recipe for linguine with basil and lemon and a lovely dish of pappardelle ( thick ribbons of fresh pasta) with lemon sauce we once ate in Sorrento. Both recipes are based on the premise that if you whisk lemon juice with plenty of olive oil and lots of freshly grated parmesan you create a thick, grainy, deeply flavoured lemon and cheese ‘sauce’ which you toss with hot pasta.

The flavours work beautifully together, the sharp, lip pucking acidity of the lemon is tempered by the parmesan and the olive oil lends it a silky glossy texture. All the ingredients come together into a surprising sauce which clings to each strand of pasta, creamy and delicious, a sauce which manages to be both soothing and vital in the same moment.

It is important you whisk the ingredients together in a warm bowl. especially on these cold days, the modest heat helps the ingredients come together and the flavours emerge.

The hot pasta continues what the warm bowl started and brings out the heady scent of the lemon juice, zest and the salty sweetness of the parmesan.

A lemon scented lunch, simple and deicious, just the thing for jaded spirits comforting but bright and vital food for grey days.

As usual I am very cautious about giving you exact quantities here and suggest some tentative experimentation, especially with the lemon juice. I say this from experience, the first time I ever made this I used (as Nigel suggests) the juice of a large lemon and even though we both liked it, there was quite alot of lemon shuddering. We now use the juice of a medium lemon (and our lemons are mild-mannered and sweet compared to the really aggressive ones I used to buy in London) slightly more parmesan and a pinch of the zest. Even though Vincenzo nods approvingly I know he would use even less lemon juice and more zest if he was as bossy as I am.

In summer a handful of torn basil leaves makes a lovely addition to this sauce.

Tagliatelle with lemon and parmesan

Serves 2

  • A pinch of zest and roughly the juice of a medium lemon
  • 80g freshly grated parmesan plus more for sprinkling
  • 75ml extra virgin olive oil
  • 220g dried or 350g fresh tagliatelle or linguine

Bring a large pan of well salted water to a fast boil.

If you are using dried pasta which takes about 8 minutes to cook then add that to the water now, If however, you are using fresh pasta which only takes 2 or 3 minutes then start making the sauce first.

Grate the cheese.

Warm a large bowl (warmed under a running hot water tap, then dried) and add the olive oil, some of the lemon juice, the zest and beat briefly with a little whisk until it emulsifies, Now add the parmesan, beat again, taste, add more lemon, taste and whisk again until you have a thick, grainy cream. Taste again, you probably won’t need salt with all the parmesan but if you feel the need add some

Once the pasta is ready (still al dente which means to the tooth and suggests the pasta still has bite and isn’t soggy) drain it and quickly toss it with the lemon and parmesan sauce.

Divide the pasta between two warm bowls, sprinkle with more (unnecessary but nice) parmesan and a grind of black pepper.

Update

We made this again the night after posting this adding a big healthy tablespoon of crème fraîche to the lemon, parmesan and oil cream. Vincenzo really liked it, saying the cream tempered the acidity, I did too but I liked the simplicity of the sauce before. It was certainly more indulgent and a bit more special….anyway just thought I would let you know.

Have a good weekend wherever you are

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Filed under food, fruit, lemons, pasta and rice, Rachel's Diary, recipes

At last, lemon tart.

You might remember a couple of months ago I wrote about little pots of lemon cream, rather seductive little puddings made from mascarpone (the extremely nice triple cream cheese from Italy), eggs, sugar and lemon. The ones that taste  somewhere in-between the soft quivering center of a classic tarte au citron and a very good, very creamy, baked lemon cheesecake.

I’m extremely fond of these little pots just as they are, but I have to admit that for years now I’ve fancied this luscious lemon cream in a tart, a thick, fat layer of it on thin base of delicate and buttery pastry.

Just one problem! Tarts, as we all know, involve pastry and I don’t, if at all possible, involve myself or get involved with pastry (the making of it that is, eating it is another matter entirely and one in which I’m very involved.) I suffer from pastry making anxiety you see, the conseqence of various pastry traumas; dry, cracked, shruken, heavy and leaden, heartburn inducing ones;  wet, damp, soggy, cloggy indigestion inducing ones . Despite lots of wonderful advice, I still practice heavy avoidance techniques where pastry is concerned. The mere sight of the words… pate…brisee…sucrèe…rich or shortcrust will still see me hastily turning the page.

Well they did, it did, I did, until 3 weeks ago, when I decided enough was enough. I gathered together the ingredients for the lemon cream and called upon my clever friend for moral support, a sweet pastry recipe and triple advice. Then rather like a certain afternoon about 25 years ago, after months of trepidation, hovering, perched on the edge and the inevitable sheepish, shivering retreats back down the ladder, I scrambled up to the second highest diving board, marched to the end and flung myself with abandon into the deep end of St Alban’s swimming pool.

The recipe my friend suggested turned out to be from a book I had on my shelf, Made in Italy, a book I like very much but whose entire dessert chapter I’d dismissed as too restauranty and fussy. A recipe chapter which includes, of all things -my clever clever friend – a rather delicious sounding lemon and mascarpone tart, the filling of which was pretty much identical to my (oops, Nigella’s) lemon cream.

A little bit of recipe serendipity.

So, first the pastry, which Giorgio reassures us is  ‘a very good, very easy sweet pastry that isn’t difficult to work with and won’t break if you roll it‘. He is right you know, even in my doomed pastry hands, I’d say it’s a bloody marvelous pastry. I was anxious to start, knowing another failure could nudge my pastry anxiety into pastry phobia, but once I got going; beating the butter and sugar adding the eggs and flour; bringing everything into a ball with cold hands and it feeling as reassuring as play dough, not too sticky not too dry; rolling it out without the dreaded cracks; lifting it into the tin without a shaggy tear, baking it blind and watching it turn golden brown, it was as nearly as exciting as flinging myself into the deep end! Ok, not quite as exhilarating but certainly as satisfying in a ‘what on earth have I been waiting for, just look what I did’ kind of way.

Making the filling, mixing the mascarpone, cream, milk, sugar, lemon and then whisking in the eggs yolks felt familiar and comfortable after all my lemon cream practice. Pouring this disconcertingly liquid mixture into the tart case is a little nerve-wracking as is the instruction ‘cook till the center is set but still the slightest bit wobbly’ suggesting a crucial moment you need to catch, rather like a ball. I needn’t have worried about either, my pouring hand was surprisingly steady and the tart was set but still wobbly (a nudge of the tin ascertained this) after the suggested 30 minutes.

So, the tart, which I have made three times now – I thought I should before I started enthusing and prothlesizing about it here – is as lovely as I hoped it would be. The pastry is delicate and buttery, the pale yellow filling soft and creamy, sharpened and lifted by a lip puckering tartness of the lemon. I like the intense satiny lemoniness of it all, the way it trembles and wobbles ever so slightly as you cut a slice

I’m sorry I didn’t get a picture of the whole tart, but in the rush and tumble of an afternoons cooking and a messy rabble of friends for supper photo’s were forgotten. It was pretty – a little bit wonky but most things I make are a little bit wonky – and it was a good end to a supper of spinach and ricotta lasagna followed by thin slices of rare roast beef with potatoes.

The pictures here are the morning after the night before, Sunday at about midday when we had a sweet second breakfast of the last three slices with more coffee. I know the tart looks rumpled (rather like us, we’d all had a big night) the icing sugar has dissolved away, cracks have appeared like they do, but you get the idea I hope. I think it was actually more delicious the morning after.

Last things, these instructions look quite complicated and long-winded, they’re not really, just heavy on the pastry and blind baking advice which I for one really appreciated. Once you have made and blind baked the pastry it’s all very straightforward, probably a breeze for you seasoned tart makers.

Lemon and mascarpone tart

From Giorgio Locatelli’s Made in Italy

For the pastry.

This will make a double quantity, enough for 2 tarts but apparently a larger volume mixes better and you can freeze the other half.

  • 220g grams butter
  • 150g icing sugar
  • 2 medium-sized eggs
  • 450g plain flour (Italian 00 is perfect but not necessary any plain flour will do)
  • another 2 egg yolks to glaze tart

For the filling

  • 300g mascarpone cheese
  • 50ml whipping cream
  • 50ml whole milk
  • zest of two large unwaxed lemons
  • 100ml lemon juice
  • 100g caster sugar
  • 120g egg yolks
  • icing sugar, to finish

You need a 28″ non stick tart tin, loose based is really best.

First make the pastry;

Food prosessor method; Put the butter in the food mixer with a paddle and whiz until soft. Add the sugar and keep mixing until the mixture is pale and very creamy. Add the eggs and then whiz again until they are incorporated. then add the flour. Continue to mix until the flour is incorporated and you have a neat ball of dough. Divide into 2 balls and put one in the fridge or freezer for another day

Or

By hand method;  Leave the butter out of the fridge for a few hours so it is nice and soft. Beat the soft butter with a wooden spoon in a large bowl until it is creamy and then add the sugar. Keep beating and stirring with the wooden spoon until you have a soft fluffy, mixture. Add the eggs and beat until they are incorporated. Gradually add the flour and first using the spoon and then your (cold) hands bring the mixture into a ball. Divide into 2 balls and put one in the fridge or freezer for another day.

Preheat the oven to 170°Roll out one of the balls of the pastry into a large circle on a well floured surface – use the tart tin in as rough template, the circle should be large enough that the pastry will hang over the edges of the tin by about 1 cm and can be easily lifted out

If it is non stick, butter and flour the inside of the tin. Carefully lower the pastry into the ring, press it down gently, making sure it fits into the corners. Line the pastry case with circle of greaseproof paper and weight it down with dried or baking beans.

Bake the case for 5 minutes then take it out of the oven, remove the beans and the paper and put it back in the oven for 10-12 minutes until golden.

Take the tart out of the oven and while it is still hot brush it with the beaten egg yolk. Put the case back the oven for another 2 minutes. This forms a skin so even if there are tiny holes the filling won’t seep through and burn.

Allow the tart to cool a little then very gently cut off the overhang with a serrated knife. Set the tart case aside, lower the oven to 150°C while you…

Make the filling

Mix together the mascarpone, cream, milk, lemon juice and sugar in a bowl. Whisk the egg yolks separately then add to the mascarpone mixture and incorporate quickly with a hand blender.

Very carefully pour the mixture into the tart case and then carefully slide it onto the middle shelf of the oven for 30 minutes until the center is set but still the slightest bit wobbly. Leave to cool by which time the topping will have firmed up.

Dust with icing sugar

Note

A day after posting this Wonderful Jordan noticed that I had omitted the rather key word Flour from the ingredients list and I then realised I had also written the wrong measure of flour – unforgivable really. I’ve now amended the recipe so it is proper and correct, 450g plain flour (Italian 00 is perfect but not necessary.) I do hope nobody tried this with the old measurements beacause I will have given you serious pastry trauma. Sorry, I will be more attentive in future.

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Filed under cakes and baking, food, lemons, Puddings, recipes