Category Archives: almonds

all the orange

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I get by, is probably the best way to describe my Italian. Occasionally I might think I get by very well, but then I trip over a word or tense and see the confusion in the other persons eyes, or someone flips the conversation into English, which always feels like defeat. ‘Da quanto tempo stai qua?‘ How long have you been here? came up in the middle of an awkward conversation the other day. It crossed my mind to lie, but I didn’t, and said nearly 10 years, to which the persons eyebrows seemed to reply oh dear. I responded to the eyebrows with a long, complicated sentence that gave me a headache, but meant I redeemed myself. ‘Dai, parli abbastanza bene italiano!’ I was told. Which means something like, go on you speak pretty good Italian.

Luca is not so convinced. When I asked for ‘Due kili di arance‘ at the market last week my three-year old half English, half Italian son, who I am watching juggle two languages with admiration and envy, looked up at me and pinched his fingers like an Italian. ‘No mum, arance’. ‘Arance‘ I repeated. ‘No, arance’ he said slowly opening his mouth so wide I could see he needs a filling. Shit I thought, but said arance, agitated about the dental neglect and having my pronunciation challenged by a three-year old. We bounced the word back and forth like a ball, half playful, half deadly serious until Luca held his little palm taut’. Mum, just say orange’.

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Oranges had been good this year, especially the tarocco from Sicily, heavy things for their size with shiny leaves and dusty-orange skins some of which are flushed slightly with ruddy pink. Not that this flush is a guarantee of the flesh inside. Even though they are blood oranges, they might not be bloody. Each orange is a surprise, anything from yellowy-orange to bleeding scarlet. I like the surprise. I also like the way the natural oil in the zest sprays as you tear the peel –  if you bring a flame close it crackles like a sparkler –  and the flesh, firm and sweet.

A good year and the steady steam of illness Luca has been bringing back from school along with drawings and other children’s toys, means we have been eating a lot of oranges. There is juice every morning, so a permanently sticky counter and floor. We’ve been eating orange and fennel salad, sliced oranges with mint and dates and the lentil and orange salad I wrote about the other week. On a roll, I opened Jane Grigson’s Fruit book in search of new ideas and recipes. Damn, her writing make me happy, the way she weaves together history, etymology, geography, poetry and humour is simply extraordinary. I particularly enjoyed reading her description of the migration of oranges from China through India to Persia before they were brought to europe along with spices, silk and sugar by Arab traders at the end of the Roman empire. The evolution of the name it just as engaging, from the Dravidian indian, narayam, which means perfume within, to the Persian narandj, Spanish naranja, Portuguese laranja, which the Italians softened to arancia and the French and English, orange. Luca slips effortlessly between orange and arancia depending on who he is talking too. To me he says orange.

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Jane Grigson not only makes me want to read-on and on (the chapters on pears, plums and quince are superb) she makes me want to cook. From the orange chapter I’ve made her Maltese mayonnaise, which is simply mayonnaise sharpened with orange instead of lemon, and her carrot and orange soup, both surprising and excellent. Although not her recipe, it was her description of cheerful marmalade eaten in France that sent me on my marmalade-making way last week and her description of orange in cakes that made me pull Claudia Roden’s Book of Middle Eastern food from the shelf.

Do you know the recipe? The one where you take two oranges, boil them whole, pulp them, mix the pulp with eggs, ground almonds, sugar and baking powder and then bake the batter until it sets into a cake. CR describes it as somewhere between a cake and a pudding, which is the perfect description. The use of the whole orange, meaning all of it: skin, zest,  pith, flesh, feels nothing short of brilliant. Once boiled (for a long time which makes the kitchen smell gorgeous) and pulped, you have an extraordinary mixture: sharp, sweet, bitter and deeply flavored. It is then tempered by the sugar, almonds and eggs but the opinionated flavor remains distinct – as do the flecks of bright orange – giving the cake a musky, almost spicy flavour. It is such a good cake/pud, especially when eaten with a dollop of thick cream. I also like it with espresso.

Claudia Roden, another favorite writer, explains how this cake has Sephardic Jewish origins, as it was one of the dishes brought to the middle east by the Spanish Jews who fled the inquisition in the 14th and 15th century. This and Jane Grigson’s enchanting orange introduction had me wishing I’d been told about the migration of citrus and cakes at school, it would have been much more helpful that the dreary things we were taught in geography and history lessons. The cake also had me wishing for another land of blazing oranges and almonds, Sicily, and the house of Vincenzo’s grandparents that is sitting empty, waiting to be visited, lived in for a while even. But we can’t think about that yet. For now we will make do with cake made with sicilian oranges or arance (depending on who you are talking too).

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Claudia Roden’s Orange and Almond cake

From Claudia Roden’s Book of Middle Eastern food.

A loose-bottomed cake tin make things a whole lot easier. I use one of those John Lewis Anodised satin tins I pinched from my mum, it is 18 cm across, deep and works really well.

  • 1 large orange weighing approximately 350 g (or 2 smaller ones)
  • 6 free range eggs
  • 250 g ground almonds
  • 250 g granulated sugar
  • 1 heaped tsp baking powder
  • butter and flour/breadcrumbs or matzo meal for the tin

Wash the orange(s), put it in a pan, cover with cold water, bring to the boil and then reduce to a simmer for an hour and a half or until it is extremely soft when picked with a fork. Remove the orange from the pan, let it cool, then cut it open and remove any pips. Turn the orange into a pulp by pressing it through a sieve, mouli or by using a blender – I use my faithful stick immersion blender.

Prepare a cake tin – ideally with a loose base – by rubbing it with butter and then dusting it with flour. Set the oven to 190° / 370F.

Beat the eggs in a large bowl, add the pulped orange, beat again, then add the almonds, sugar and baking powder and beat again until you have a thick, even batter. Pour the battle into the tin and bake for between 40 – 60 minutes. Have  a look at the cake after 40 minutes it should be golden and set firm, I find testing with a strand of spaghetti helps, it should come out almost clean (almost, this is a moist cake), as opposed to very sticky. If the cake does need another 10 mins I tend to drape some tin foil over to prevent it from getting too brown. Let it cool in the tin before turning it onto a plate.

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We might not be thinking of going to the family house in Sicily quite yet, but I will be in Sicily from the 15 – 20th June with Fabrizia Lanza and Luisa Weiss for a week of food writing and cooking at the Anna Tasca Lanza Cooking school and we would love you to come too. Now of course it is in my interests to convince you to come, and I know it is a big commitment (that said rates of exchange are in our favour and flights too) but it is going to be extraordinary, beautiful, delicious and perspective changing week, I promise. The details are on The Anna Tanza Lanza web site, you can read my post about Sicily, also Melissa’s and Bea’s with her stunning pictures. If you would like to e-mail to ask me anything about the week, pls do. – R

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Filed under almonds, bitter oranges, cakes and baking, Fabrizia Lanza, oranges, rachel eats Italy, Sicily

on red and white in Sicily

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There is a photograph in one of the rooms at Case Vecchie that I keep thinking about. It is of the late Anna Tasca Lanza making estratto di pomodoro, tomato extract, using her hands to spread the bright red sauce onto a door-sized wooden board that will then sit in the August sun until it dries and reduces into a concentrated paste. There are countless other pictures of Anna around the house, some with her family, others of her giving cooking demonstrations or lessons, always elegant and aristocratic, her hair swept into a flawless bun. It is the estratto picture however that lingers in my mind, the one in which she is captured wearing a yellow and orange dress, straw hat and deep easy smile, her hands stained with tomato.

Fabrizia, Anna’s only daughter, used some of last years estratto in the braised rabbit she cooked for supper on our second night at Regaleali. We tasted the dark-red concentrate straight from the jar, deeply flavored with an almost sunburnt sweetness it was truly the essence of tomatoes grown in fertile soil and then dried under the Sicilian sun, you could say the essence of Sicily itself. Then while the Rabbit simmered and with the taste of the estratto still discernible, I crossed the courtyard to look at the picture of Anna again.

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Like many before me, I fell in love with Sicily the first time I visited nearly ten years ago. In Rome I fell in love with a Sicilian called Vincenzo who laughed at my romanticism and idealism about the Island much of his family had left 25 years before, but at the same time understood and promised we would return one day. In the meantime we visit, usually because Vincenzo and his band are playing a concert or for a family celebration. Or on this occasion because of serendipity, a conversation struck up at an airport with a young woman called Lena who was working with Fabrizia who in turn invited me to spend four days at her house and cooking school at Regaleali near Vallelunga about 90 minutes from Palermo.

Once you leave the autostrada, the uneven road that leads to Regaleali curves through landscape that grabs your breath – golden fields of wheat, hillsides of gnarled vines, olive trees and pasture dotted with sheep, all fringed with a tangle of wild flowers, herbs and fennel. At times the landscape seems soft and tamed, at others impenetrable and utterly wild; it is clear even to naive eyes like mine this beautiful, fertile land is not easy land. The house and cooking school are in Case Vecchie one of the most handsome stone buildings on the estate that sits on a hill. The blue gates were open when we arrived allowing us the first glimpse of the cobbled courtyard the cracks of which are filled with matted camomile and wild herbs. Over the next few days we would spend hours in the courtyard  choosing our spot according to the position of the sun, our morning coffee finished at the table in the right hand corner, aperitivi at the table in the cove, dinner at a table in another corner. My Luca, the youngest and noisiest member of our group, ran tirelessly across the cobbles shouting then tangling himself in the aprons Giovanna had hung on the corner washing line. Wherever you sat the smell of camomile curled from the ground and the scent of mint lingered in the air.

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When we weren’t in the courtyard we were mostly in the kitchen, either around the stove watching or helping Fabrizia cook or sitting at the square table that dominated the end of the room. When not in the courtyard or kitchen, I was in the garden started by Anna and now continued with all-consuming passion by Fabrizia. It is an enchanting place, a scented maze of flowers, particularly roses, clouds of white blossom, great deep clumps of lavender, mint and sage, fruit trees and an extensive vegetable patch. The garden, like the surrounding land, is both soft and hard, tender flowers growing in formidable soil which Fabrizia uses to her advantage cultivating particular plants and most notably a variety of tomatoes that are never watered forcing their roots to work hard at getting water from the deep. Enormous cactus-like fico d’india with their prickles and orange-red fruit juxtapose roses grown from English seeds the packets of which are pinned to a notice board in the shed. Butterflies flutter from plant to herb. One morning Luca and I went onto the garden at 6 30 and lay in the hammock listening to the cockerel and eating strawberries while reading the same story book about a lazy ant 12 times.

I live with a Sicilian and have spent enough time in Sicily to understand a little about its food, this however was scant preparation for the ingredients we were to touch, smell and eat, most of them grown on the estate, others sourced from all over the island. It began in the morning with the 8 or so jams made with fruit from the garden, lemon, Tarocco orange, grapefruit – each one more delicious and opinionated than the last. There was also fig and lip staining mulberry jam that we stirred into fresh yogurt. Around the kitchen were bowls of just picked lemons, cherries and apricots, bottles of olive oil, jars of estratto, the fattest anchovies I have ever seen, onions, garlic, capers and caper berries, bunches of mint and oregano, each thing seemingly more intensely flavored than the next, ingredients that tasted so brashly and boldly as they should it was unnerving. One afternoon Fabrizia, Lauren, Lou, David and Gabriella stood chopping onion, garlic and mint and grating orange zest while I,  too stupidly shy to join such confident hands, just let the scent rush at me in the same way Luca does, pure and uninhibited. On another occasion the same group were rolling pastry, slicing peaches and crumbling purple tinged pistachio nuts for tarts, words and movements moving across the work surface.

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As intense as the flavors were the colours: burnt red, fleshy pink, sunflower yellow, inky purple, every conceivable shade of green and the purest white in the form of ricotta di pecora. Ricotta which meant I finally understood what Vincenzo is imagining when he talks about the ricotta or cavagna they would collect from the local shepherd when he was a boy in southern Sicily, curds so soft and gentle they could almost be drunk.

Filippo Privitera milks his 400 sheep by hand twice a day in order to make pecorino cheese. The by-product of his cheese making is cloudy white whey which is then re-heated with rennet until it curdles and coagulates into ricotta. We stood in a white tiled room for about an hour, the steam rising from the pot heated by burning olive stones, Filippo stirring with such ordinary calm it was hypnotic. It was of course part show for us, but a genuine one that takes place every single day. Filippo’s five-year old son insisted on staying and as the soft, ethereal ricotta wobbled on the plate he opened his mouth like a cheeky little bird and his mother spooned some in. In that moment I saw Vincenzo aged 5 on his grandparents farm, then as I tasted the milky curds, ambrosial yet ordinary goodness I understood what he imagined when he spoke about the ricotta of his childhood.

We brought ricotta back for lunch along with beans with anchovies and breadcrumbs, pecorino cheese, salami, and warm potato salad with mint. That night we sat in the courtyard and ate another sicilian specialty panelle, fritters make from chickpea flour thickened into a paste, smeared onto a plate to set into a pliable disc, sliced into wedges and deep-fried. After there was rabbit braised with wine, estratto and finished with grape must syrup, beside it hand rolled cuscus scented with mint. We finished with caramel and pine nut ice-cream made by David, a ricotta and lemon cake by Pille and sweet wine.

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Something was up though. Amongst all the cooking and the talking there was a rumble. A rumble of activity and a calm rush as members of the family and locals who work on the estate crisscrossed the courtyard with sacks, piles, poles and great rolls of thick fabric. occasionally we would catch a sound from the fields behind the house dig, thud, grind?  Soon the kitchen joined in too and huge pans of rice, lentils and chickpeas steamed the windows, chicken was roasted and rolled, ricotta whipped, all preparations for the lunch.

On saturday at 1 after panelle and wine in the courtyard we walked through the farm to a single table with a white cloth laid for 160 that cut through a field of vines and vegetables. At about 1:30 we ate a lunch to celebrate 25 years of the cooking school, the work sourcing ingredients Anna began and Fabrizia continues and the collaboration between the different parts of the Tasca family. The heat broke at one point and it rained for a few minutes, puttering on the fabric canopy above our heads. At the same time the light faded sharpening colours, textures and the edges of the hills surrounding us making them darkly beautiful until the sun reappeared as bright as ever. On such big occasions you focus on the detail: the handmade plate we could take home, the fact the table was flanked by a row of fantastic cabbages, the hum and clink made by 160 people, the hair of the man across the table, Fabrizia’s green dress, the fact the wine tasted like wild asparagus, the sweetest tomatoes, chestnut like lentils, plump rice and almond pudding, the fact Luca managed to eat three cannoli.

Back in Rome I have been telling Vincenzo about the red and the white, about the swordfish baked with mint and garlic, pasta with sage, the baked pasta with aubergine, the majestic cassata Fabrizia made that I know he would have liked so much. In turn he talked about his grandfather’s farm in southern Sicily, a very different world, harder and poorer but a world that shares the same riches: fertile earth, sun, flavors, essence, traditions, rot, cracks, sweat and the bleeding red estratto and pure white ricotta I had tasted over the four days. I told him we were going to live in Sicily, ‘Which Sicily’ he asked, then laughed and agreed.

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And so back to the picture of Anna making the estratto, the picture of a woman from an aristocratic family who was only expected to be beautiful, marry well, have children and certainly not work. A picture of a woman who in her fifties surprised her family by creating a cooking school that celebrated traditional Sicilian cooking, traveled the world, planted a garden, wrote books about wild flowers and herbs and joyfully smeared estratto on a wooden table.

Now to a picture of Fabrizia in her garden checking her plants or better still in her garden shed amongst the seedings, the daughter who single-mindedly built a life far from Sicily as an art historian, but then realized she needed to return home 25 years later to work alongside her mother and eventually take over the school. An extraordinary woman who is embodying the values of her mother while bringing her own to a unique cooking school: her resourceful determination to protect and share Sicily’s reservoir of taste and traditions, a belief in deep edible education and to reinvest in the land and people, an ability to make cooking feel both poetic and practical and the above all the desire to bring people together at the table to eat, drink and talk.

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Which brings us to the recipe, my interpretation of the one of the puddings we ate on Saturday sitting at a long table cutting through a field; an apricot and pistachio nut tart made with apricots in light syrup from Leonforte and pistachio nuts from Bronte. The simplest sort of tart, sweet short crust, brushed generously with jam or marmalade, topped with apricots in syrup and chopped nuts. You could also use peaches and make small tarts in individual tins as Fabrizia did.

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Apricot or peach and pistachio tart 

  • 120 g plain flour
  • 60 g butter
  • 30 g fine sugar
  • a small egg
  • some peach or apricot jam or orange marmalade
  • 120 g tinned or jarred apricots or peaches in light syrup
  • a handful of pistachio nuts

Butter and flour a small tart tin. Set the oven to 180°

Make the pastry by rubbing together the flour and diced butter until they resemble fine bead crumbs. Add the sugar and the egg and then use your hands to bring the ingredients together into a consistent ball. Wrap the dough in cling film and put it in the fridge to chill for half an hour or so.

On a floured surface roll the dough into a circle a little larger than your tin. Lift the dough into the tin, press gently into the corners and then prick the base with a fork. Spread a little jam on the pastry, cut the apricots into quarters and arrange them on the jam, sprinkle with chopped pistachio and  put the tart on a baking tray and into the oven for about 25 minutes. Let the tart cool and the jam set firm again before serving.

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Thank you Fabrizia, Gianni, Costanza and the Tasca Family, Giovanna, Pompeo, Salvatores, Guiseppe, Lauren, Lou, Peggy and the women in the kitchen and men and women who work on the land. Thanks too to David, Pille, Johanna, Elizabeth and Domenico, Marrick and my mum who came to look after Luca so I could concentrate and he too could eat cannoli. The project archiving Sicilian food traditions is called The sacred flavors of sicily. The cooking school is called Anna Tasca Lanza and this is a magnolia.

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Filed under almonds, apricots, chickpea flour, In praise of, pies and tarts, Puddings, Rachel's Diary, recipes, ricotta, Sicily, supper dishes

what’s in a jar

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Apple and Quince mincemeat

Adapted from Gloria Nicols recipe in the Guardian.

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

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

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

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

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

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Mincemeat tart

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

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

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

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

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

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

what remains

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One morning at about 9 it crossed my mind that I might actually live at the noisiest point on one of the noisiest streets in Rome. A queue of morning traffic, engines low but persistent, crawled along via Galvani, horns sounding indignantly at roadworks, traffic lights and i motorini who seemed to taunt the crawl with their cheeky weaving. A fire engine, siren waling, burst from the station on the corner, split traffic and sped past our window, while a pair of road-sweeping-rubbish-crunching vehicles went about their daily business slowly and loudly. Inside, my son, incensed that he wasn’t allowed smarties for breakfast, lay on the floor howling.

Dressed hurriedly and still shuddering with the last gasping sobs, we joined the fray on Via Galvani, which now included some argy-bargy over double parking, blasphemous insults being thrown back and forth like a ball. We bought two squares of hot pizza bianca from Guerrini and then walked past the fire station, down via Marmorata and into the cemetery to visit a poet and count cats.

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In a crook of the ancient city wall, The Protestant or Non-Catholic Cemetery is an easy place to overlook. Which you might consider a good thing. But then you would miss the epitome of a secret garden just minutes from the chaos, a serene sanctuary of grass, gravel paths and graves, some of which rest under marbled-feathered angel wings. It’s a place that manages to be both bright and shady, overhung with umbrella pines and cypresses and heavy with the tangled scent of jasmine, oleander and plumbago.

Forbidden by catholic laws, protestants and other non-catholics have been buried on this site for hundreds of years. However the cemetery was only formally defined by the Holy See in 1821. It was also in 1821 that the young English poet John Keats, after three months in Rome seeking a better climate for his worsening tuberculosis, died and was buried in the cemetery. Two years later the reckless Percy Bysshe Shelley, having drowned at sea, was also buried in the cemetery, as was the son of Goethe;  the Russian painter Karl Brullov and Antonio Gramsci, the founder of the Italian Communist Party. Here are the graves of protestants, orthodox christians, jews, muslims, atheists and agnostics, the graves of writers, painters, sculptors, historians, archaeologists, diplomats, scientists, architects and poets whose tomb inscriptions are engraved in more than fifteen languages.

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Sitting on a bench, counting cats in the sweet calm and unlikely November sun, I realised it was the 2nd of November, All Souls’ Day, The Day of the Dead and I was in a cemetery. An egalitarian cemetery in which the most eclectic and creative, often young, sometimes reckless, occasionally revolutionary group of people are buried, many of them non-Italian’s (and often English) who made their home in Italy. We went to visit Keats where I managed four lines of Ode to Autumn, then Shelly, where I managed three of Ozymandias, before realising my son was attempting to climb on top of a tomb. We said goodbye to as many souls as we could, crunched through the gravel – which is hilarious if you are two – and left the calm for the noise – which had subsided – once more.

Later the same day baking fave dolci or sweet beans, felt appropriate too, after all, the ritual of offering fave (broad beans) as solace for visiting souls on the 2nd of November dates back to pre-christian times. Over time the fave offered evolved into sweet biscuits called fave dolci or fave dei morti. Which aren’t actually fave at all, but crisp almond biscuits, aromatised with citrus or cinnamon and dusted with icing sugar to look like fave, or little bones, hence the other name ossi di morti. A sweet treat for visiting souls and a reminder of family joy and sorrow.

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They are simple to make. Having pound almonds and fine sugar into dusty crumbs, you add butter, an egg, the zest of a lemon and just enough flour to bring everything together into a sticky dough. Very sticky, don’t worry! Then with well-floured hands you temper a spoonful of the dough first into a ball and then – on a well-floured board – a log. You then cut the log into short lengths, move them onto a lined baking tray and then press each piece gently in the center, ostensibly making it look like a fave. Once the fave dolci are baked, you dust them with icing sugar.

Fave dolci are crisp but with the soft, round flavour of toasted almond and the distinct note of citrus, from the, um, citrus zest. They are a little heavier than amaretti – which is the small quantity of flour – but are still light, brittle enough to shatter between your teeth and then melt in your mouth. They are good with an espresso and please – if not all – most souls on most days.

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Fave dolci (almond beans)

Adapted from The Brilliant Food of Rome and Lazio by Oretta Zanini De Vita

  • 100 g almonds
  • 100g fine sugar
  • 80 g plain flour plus more for dusting
  • the zest of a large unwaxed lemon
  • 25 g butter (at room temperature)
  • 1 medium egg

Using a pestle and mortar or blender, crush or pulse the sugar and almond into a fine flour. Transfer to a bowl and then add the flour, butter, zest and eggs and using a spoon bring the mixture together into a sticky dough. Do not be tempted to add more flour at this point, the mixture should be sticky.

With well-floured hands break the dough into 6 pieces and then on a well floured board roll each piece into a 2 cm thick cylinder and then cut each cylinder into 2 cm long sections. Press each piece with the tip of your index finger so they look like fave and then arrange them on a baking tray lined with greaseproof paper.

Bake in a preheated oven at 180° / 350F for 20 minutes or until the biscuits are just pale golden. Allow to cool and dust with icing sugar.

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If you are coming to Rome, I highly recommend a visit to the Non-Catholic Cemetery. Try and get there as early as possible (it opens at nine) and you could well have the place all to yourself. Also if you understand Italian, Alesandro Rubinetti and Teatro Reale organise excellent and evocative walking tours of the cemetery.

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Filed under almonds, biscuits and biscotti, cucina romana, rachel eats Rome, Rachel's Diary, recipes, Roman food, Testaccio

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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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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Glazed over

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

* range is of course orange.

This is a picture of Dan’s cake.

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