Category Archives: cream

soak, score and slump

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There comes a point when, having asked for more advice than you know what to do with, and having followed more recipes than is necessary (some so brief that cooking feels like an abstract painting, all sweeps and suggestion, and others so detailed you feel as if you are caught up in advanced painting by numbers that requires a calculator) you need to stop making pasta e fagioli 

The irony is, that of all the recipes I could have chosen to get lost in for the book, I chose one I was suposedley confident about. Pasta e fagioli, pasta and beans, is something I know how to make, something I like to make, one (almost) instinctive movement following another, a dish that pleases not just me but others. Or do I, does it? Doubt crept in as I began to write, and then before I know it I’m freewheeling ingredients one minute, then measuring them meticulously the next, feeling upright and English (an Italian woman, one with passion, probable curves and an innate sense of q.b, would surely have no such doubts) listening to everyone but myself.

Neat endings are a bit boring, but so it was. Having walked and shaken off the doubt about more than just pasta e fagioli (leaving them flapping in a tree by the river just past Ponte Testaccio) and taking a pinch of advice from both the reckless and the meticulous recipes, I returned to the recipe taught to me by Carmela and then – in her words – made it my own. Borlotti beans soaked for 12 hours then cooked with a couple of bay leaves, celery and onion cooked in lots of olive oil, a little tomato, bean cooking water…….. I could have added a bit more salt, but otherwise I am pretty sure we are there.

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If not quite reckless, then slaphappy is probably the best way to describe the way I approached baked apples. No recipe, a vague recollection of my mum stuffing bramley apples from the tree in the garden with butter, sugar and raisins, flimsy ideas about temperature and timing.

In the absence of raisins I used dates, one per apple, although Luca must have eaten at least one while I mashed. The slice of butter looked about 60 g (but I have never been very good at judging butter, even in my most puritanical phases I had a buttercup yellow patch under my chin) I measured the sugar with a scoop I once established held 70 g. I used rennete apples, their russeted, mottled skin and slightly dry flesh with good, sharp flavor ideal for baking.

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I don’t remember my mum scoring round the circumference of the apples to stop them splitting, but I think she must have done. All six of my non-scored apples split, two so dramatically so that they looked like they were inside out. It didn’t stop them being delicious though, slumped, split, spilling and wrinkled as they were in a puddle of sweet melted butter. Dates work brilliantly, the tip exposed at the top of the apple darkening into a chewy tap, the rest surrounded by the ever softening apple providing a sweet, thick core. The apples themselves bake into a soft, grainy almost-puree and the skins (with the help of heat, sugar and butter) shrivel into full-flavored jackets . That said, I am sure some people will leave the skin, the same people who leave jacket potato skins maybe?

The key is to wait about ten minutes so some of the copious buttery juices are absorbed back into the fruit. We ate them with very cold, quite-thick unsweetened cream. Soaked and slumped, good things both. Talking of slumped – not that I have ever been slumped – I bet a dose of calvados over the apples before they go into the oven would work well. As is so often the case, the last apple, eaten for breakfast the next day, was the one I enjoyed most. Happy New Year again.

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Baked apples with butter and dates

  • 6 medium-sized baking apples (bramley or rennet ideally)
  • 6 medjool dates
  • about 60 g butter plus extra for buttering the dish
  • about 70 g soft brown sugar

Set the oven to 180°

Core the apples and score them around the circumference so they don’t split (I forgot to do this obviously and they didn’t just split but explode)  Remove the stones from the dates and then mash them with the butter and sugar. Lightly butter a ovenproof dish and then arrange the apples in the dish. Fill the hollow cavities with the date, butter and sugar mixture. Bake the apples for 30 – 40 minutes, until they are very soft and surrounded by sticky buttery juices. Allow the apples to sit for at least 10 minutes before serving so some of the juices are absorbed back into the soft fruit. Serve warm with cold cream.

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Filed under apples, cream, food, fruit, Puddings, Rachel's Diary, recipes, winter recipes

How do you like it

On observing my weary disposition and puffy eyes, a perky Northern-European neo-mother at my Wednesday morning mum-in suggested I had a shot of wheatgrass. I was poised to tell her I was allergic to chlorophyll and perkiness but she’d already moved on and was busy informing the Mamma of the baby that looks like a mini Billy Joel, that she should give up sugar and take up Bikram yoga. Later that same week I met my Venetian friend Francesca. After commiserating each other on our continuing sleep deprivation and being extremely uncharitable about perky Mothers, green juice and sweaty yoga, Francesca suggested I had a shot of Tiramisù. 

Tiramisù, well made, is a fiendishly good pudding. A sort of extra-boozy, fruitless, caffeinated trifle dredged with cocoa. It’s prepared – constructed really – by alternating layers of Savoiardi or sponge biscuits soaked in espresso and dark rum with a soft, pale cream made from mascarpone cheese, eggs, sugar and more booze and finished with an extremely liberal dusting of unsweetened cocoa powder. Literally translated Tiramisù means pull-me-up or pick-me-up. It is a pick-me-up of considerable force, but one that shouldn’t impose or sit heavily. Rather it should delight and leave you wanting more more more.

After gelato – which isn’t really a pudding, more a way of life – Tiramisù is (probablyItaly’s most popular and ubiquitous dolce! You’ d be hard pressed to find a restaurant or trattoria that doesn’t have a vast cocoa dredged tray (to be served in much the same way as lasagna) or a cluster of individual Tiramisù in their fridge. It is however a relatively recent invention. Apparently – and who I am to doubt it – the original was created in the 1970’s at the restaurant Le Beccherie in Treviso. The idea caught on, and today there are as many recipes, tips and Tiramisù secrets as there are Tiramisù cooks.

I’m no native, but I’ve eaten my fair share of good, indifferent and downright bad slices, pots and glasses of Tiramisù.  Two of the good ones were in fact eaten in my neighbourhood: Testaccio. One, a properly boozy, well dusted, neat, squat bowlful, at Perilli. The other, an altogether more chaotic, tumbling affair served al bicchiere at the osteria built into a hill of broken pots: Flaviovalevodetto. Purists may need to look away, my recipe is a muddle of both these fine pick-me-ups along with a healthy splash of advice from Francesca, Russell Norman, a sweet guy called Josh I met on a tour and a woman I bumped into on the 30 bus.

Begin as you do your day, by making coffee: a strong, dark espresso. You need 150 ml for the Tiramisù, so make 200 ml and inhale a double. While the coffee is cooling, make your cream by gently whisking together the egg yolks with some of the sugar and a good glug of Marsala wine before adding the mascarpone and the mounted egg whites. Set the cream aside. Now stir the rest of the sugar and the rum to the warm coffee. From here on it’s all about assembly. I work one glass at a time.

Now I’m going to be long-winded – which is nothing new I know – because it matters. For each glass you will use two biscuits. Submerge a biscuit in the coffee mixture until it is sodden but not collapsing. Gently break the biscuit in two and tuck half in the base of the glass. Spoon over a tablespoon of your cream before placing the other half of the biscuit gently on top and covering it with another spoonful of cream. Using a fine sieve dust the surface with cocoa powder. Take another biscuit, dunk it in the cream and eat it. Take another biscuit and soak it, again break it in half and then place both halves side by side on top of the coaca dusted cream. Cover the surface with more cream. Repeat this process with the other 5 glasses. Store the glasses in the fridge for at least 8 hours, at least, so they are absolutely set. Before serving dust the surface of each pot very liberally with more cocoa powder. Eat.

I’m not sure why, but Tiramisù tastes better when eaten from a glass! Ideally a stout tumbler. The modest depth and sloping sides provide a perfect vessel for the six graduating layers (sponge, cream, sponge, cream, sponge, cream.) Actually nine layers if you include the cocoa, which can be sprinkled on top of each of the three layers of cream. A glass tumbler is also the perfect way to both display your imperfect layers and contain the inevitable chaos as you plunge your teaspoon down to the bottom of the glass in order to get a perfect spoonful. The perfect spoonful being: a soft clot of coffee and rum soaked sponge, a nice blob of pale, quivering cream, a good dusting of cocoa and just a little of the coffee and rum pond at the bottom of the glass.  Are you still with me? No! Maybe you need a shot of Tiramisù?

Notes. The espresso should be strong and freshly brewed. The Rum and Marsala needn’t be particularly fine, but obviously not rough-as-hell. That said, better quality booze makes for a finer pick-me-up. If you can’t find Marsala then you can replace it with a tablespoon of Rum. Mascarpone is a soft, rich cream cheese made by curdling thick cream with citric acid. It is lactic loveliness itself. If you have never used it before, I suggest you start now, with this recipe.

I am indebted to Russell Norman for his Tiramisù making technique in his super-stupendous book Polpo! By dipping each biscuit individually in the coffee and rum mixture you ensure each one is well soaked but not too sodden. His instructions for how to break and layer the biscuits  – again purists may need to look away – are great so I have included them almost word-for-word. Now if you’ll excuse me I’m feeling a little jaded! I think I might just need a little something to pick-me-up. Wheatgrass, I mean really!

Tiramisù

Inspired by Tiramisù at Perilli and Flaviovalevodetto in Testaccio. Adapted from Polpo with advice from Francesca, Josh and a nice woman at the bus stop.

Makes 6 glasses (Ideally 150 ml Duralex tumblers)

  • 150 ml strong, warm espresso coffee
  • 2 tbsp dark rum or brandy
  • 130g caster sugar
  • 12 Savoiardi biscuits /sponge fingers
  • 3 eggs
  • 250 ml mascarpone
  • 80ml Marsala
  • excellent cocoa powder for dusting liberally

Mix the warm espresso coffee with the rum and 50 g of sugar and stir until the sugar has dissolved.

Separate the eggs – yolks in one bowl, whites in another.  Add the Marsala and the remaining 80 g of sugar to the egg yolks and whisk until the mixture is light and fluffy before adding the mascarpone and stirring it in carefully. Whisk the egg whites until they form stiff peaks. Gently but firmly fold the egg whites into the yolk mixture with a metal spoon.

For each glass you will use two biscuits. Submerge a biscuit in the coffee mixture until it is sodden but not collapsing. Gently break the biscuit in two and tuck half in the base of the glass. Spoon over a tablespoon of your cream before placing the other half of the biscuit gently on top and covering it with another spoonful of cream. Using a fine sieve dust the surface with cocoa powder. Take another biscuit, soak it, again break it in half and then place both halves side by side on top of the coaca dusted cream. Cover the surface with more cream.

Repeat this process with the other 5 glasses. Store the glasses in the fridge for at least 8 hours, so they are absolutely set. Before serving dust the surface of each pot very liberally with more cocoa powder. Eat.

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Filed under cream, Eating In Testaccio, food, In praise of, Puddings, rachel eats Italy, Rachel's Diary, recipes

A good combination.

 

It seemed pretty exotic that first tin of Amaretti biscuitsGranted, not as darkly exotic as the turkish delight studded with pistachios or the bag of curious smelling, ochre-coloured powder in the top drawer of the dresser. But back then, 1982 I suppose, in the days when you couldn’t buy everything everywhere, in our very English kitchen, a large red tin of Italian Amaretti seemed exotic. Thrilling too! Not only because if its size and nature: an extremely large tin of sugary biscuits to be prised open after ‘special‘ dinners during which adults would undoubtedly consume far too much alcohol to give a fig about exercising any kind of portion control, but because of the wrappers.

You see, we soon agreed that the best thing about Amaretti biscuits were the wrappers. Not that the Amaretti themselves –  delicate, crisp domes that shattered and then melted in your mouth – weren’t good! They were. But it was the thin paper wrapping twisted around each pair, that made us, the 1o-year-old, 8-year-old and 5-year-old Roddy children especially giddy. For this paper meant matches and playing with fire. Playing with fire at the table, under the unwatchful eye of inebriated adults. For this paper, if rolled up neatly but not too tight, placed on a plate and then set alight at the top, would burn and then the delicate paper skeleton would waft towards the ceiling before the charred fragments fluttered back down on our upturned faces.

Riding on a wave of nostalgia, I considered buying the largest tin of Lazzaroni Amaretti di Saronno from Castroni, investing in an equally large box of matches and passing the rest of the afternoon flirting with type 2 diabetes and a domestic fire. The small child clamped to my chest and the contents of my purse jolted me back to my senses and I compromised with the rather more modest box containing more than enough Amaretti to keep my post lunch espresso company for the week and my peach and Amaretti plans.

Amaretti, are small, domed Italian macaroons made from sweet and bitter almonds or apricot kernels mixed with fine sugar and egg whites. The name Amaretti means ‘Little bitter ones‘ as the bitter almonds or apricot kernels lend these exquisite little biscuits a flick of bitterness and an intensely almondy flavor which enhances and tempers the sweet almonds and sugar. Italians are immensely fond of their Amaretti, dipping them into their espresso, their sweet wine or liquore and crumbling them into both sweet and savory dishes.

Almost every region of Italy has their own particular kind of Amaretti which – depending on the proportions of the ingredients and the baking time – has its own characteristics. It’s quite extraordinary to see how varying the ratio of sweet and bitter almonds, the sugar and the eggs can produce such distinctly different Amaretti. Some are pale, soft and fudgy. Others are darker, speckled really and properly chewy. I bought a packet of Amaretti in Sardegna which were light as-a-feather and reminiscent of meringues. They can be dry and crumbly or – like the most famous Amaretti from Saronno in northern Italy – crisp, brittle domes the colour of toffee that shatter and then melt in your mouth.

And it’s these brittle domes – and of course their wrappers – I wanted. The sweet but deliciously bitter Amaretti di Saronno, made – as they have been since 1718 – from fine sugar, beaten egg whites and ground apricot kernels. The Amaretti which – unsurprisingly given the apricot kernels – have a lovely affinity and pleasing symmetry with another stone fruit, one that is pretty luscious right now: the peach.

You could of course eat your Amaretti or six with a perfectly ripe peach just so. Better still, you could dip your Amaretti and slices of peach in a glass of desert wine, ideally sitting at a long table in the dappled shade of a chestnut tree in Piemonte, alternatively at a long red table in a very hot and claustrophobic flat in central Rome. But best of all, you could do as the Piedmontese do and crush some of your Amaretti and use them to make Pesche Ripiene (stuffed peaches.)

And so, having washed and dried your peaches, you cut them in half, wriggle the stones out and scoop away any bits of stone or hard flesh from the hollows with a teaspoon before setting the halves, cut side up, in well buttered dish. Well buttered, well buttered, I’d like to be well buttered. Then in a small bowl, you mash together the butter – you have remembered to leave out in the kitchen so it’s soft – sugar, 6 crushed Amaretti, an egg yolk and a hefty pinch of lemon zest. Finally you divide this sandy coloured cream between the hollows of the peaches.

Your peaches need about 40 minutes in the oven. You on the other hand need to put your feet up for 40 minutes with a cup of tea or glass of prosecco depending on the hour (I think 5 o clock is about the right time for the-change-of-beverage-guard at this time of year! Unless of course you are making lunch, in which case 11 o clock is a perfectly acceptable time to pop a cork.) You could baste the peaches a couple of times, but it’s not essential. The peaches are ready when they are soft, tender and starting to collapse slightly, the flesh should be golden and slightly wrinkled and the stuffing blistering and crisp on top. Allow the peaches to sit – as always this is vital – for at least half an hour after coming out of the oven so the flavors can settle and  fruit wallow in the buttery, sugary juices.

When the time comes, serve each person two halves, making sure to spoon some of the sticky, buttery juices from the bottom of the dish over the peaches. As you hand each person their plate ask them to wait. Then, lead by example and spoon a large dollop of mascarpone on top of each half and then carefully unwrap your Amaretti – remember there is playing with fire to come! – and crumble the crisp domes over the white loveliness. Encourage guests to follow suit.

Eat and note how the tender, baked peach flesh, the butter laden/slightly almondy/distinctly lemony stuffing, the thick and dastardly good marcarpone and the brittle topping come together into a pretty glorious whole and then mumble (full mouth is forgivable) ‘What a good combination.’

I think these peaches are best about 45 minutes after coming out of the oven, so they are just still a little warm and the sticky juices are thick but spoonable. Having said that, I made a tray for a supper last week and they sat for about 5 hours before we ate them! They were room temperature and superb. If you do keep them overnight, keep them in the fridge, but remember to pull them out about half-an-hour before eating. I also like a two halves for breakfast with greek yogurt.

Pesche Ripiene. Stuffed peaches.

The seed for baked peaches planted by Jess. This recipe adapted from Claudia Roden’s Recipe (which in turn was taken from Sergio Torelli’s recipe) in one of my very favorite cook books’ The Food of Italy.’

serves 4

  • 4 ripe peaches
  • 50 g soft butter plus more for buttering the dish
  • 50 g soft brown sugar
  • 1 egg yolk
  • Amaretti biscuits
  • a hefty pinch of the zest of a unwaxed lemon

To serve

  • Mascarpone
  • More Amaretti biscuits for crumbling

Set your oven to 180° / 350F

Wash the peaches and rub them dry. Cut peaches in half, remove the stone and then use a teaspoon to scoop away any hard flesh or fragments of stone that might be left in the hollow. Arrange the peach halves cut-side-up in a buttered oven dish.

Wrap the Amaretti in some paper or put them in a small plastic bag and then crush them using a rolling-pin. In a small bowl mash together the butter, sugar, crushed Amaretti, egg yolk and lemon zest. Spoon a walnut sized blob of this mixture into the hollows of each peach half.

Bake for 40 minutes – basting a couple of times – or until the fruit is tender, golden and a little wrinkled at the edges. Allow the peaches for sit for at least 30 minutes before serving.  Serve with mascarpone and more Amaretti for crumbling.

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Filed under almonds, biscuits and biscotti, cream, food, fruit, peaches, Puddings, rachel eats Rome, Rachel's Diary, recipes, summer food

The Other Half.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Spinach and courgette cake

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

Serves 4 as lunch, 8 as a starter.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Just One

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Quiche Lorraine

From Elizabeth David’s French Country Cooking

For six people

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

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

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

Let it cool a little before cutting and serving.

My Notes.

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

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

More cream

My little niece Beattie tasted cream for the first time this christmas. Her eyes widened as she spooned the lactic loveliness into her little mouth. ‘It’s called Cream‘ my sister explained to her daughter. Bea looked down at her bowl, then up at her Mum, ‘Cream‘ she repeated – relishing the new word almost as much as her pudding – before turning her attention back to the task in hand. She carefully scraped her bowl clean, her spoon skills and healthy appetite inciting a rumble of approval from the gaggle of relatives, before returning her gaze to her Mum. Then, while nudging her bowl towards the cream jug, her face full of expectation and her brow furrowed with the concentration required to link two words together, she said earnestly ‘More cream‘.

Quite right too I thought, ‘More cream’ and not just on our jelly!  ‘More cream generally’, preferably double-double, extra thick, luscious, glorious cream.

Cream is one of the things I miss.! Not that you can’t find cream in Rome! Of course you can and I’ll come to that in a moment, it’s just not the same. I miss English cream. I miss shops that dedicate a large portion of their chilled section to tubs, cartons and pots of cream: single cream for my porridge, pouring cream for my pie, whipping cream for my sundae, double cream for my fool, extra-thick double cream for my crumble  clotted cream for my scones, clot-your-arteries cream for my trifle, custard-yellow Jersey cream straight from the pot, cream scream cream

I’m sure if I lived further up Italy’s boot, where olive groves are replaced by green pastures, I’d find it easier to get my hands on more cream. But here in Rome – unless of course I’m missing a cream emporium hidden up some backstreet – the choice is pretty limited. There are little cartons of good panna fresca (fresh cream) from Rome central dairy, cartons of panna da montare (whipping cream, which to be honest can be rather lusterless) and tubs of the luxuriously thick Mascarpone. 

Not that this limited selection stops Romans making one of Italy’s most famous (you could say ubiquitous) simplest and I think – when made properly – nicest puddings: panna cotta. Panna cotta, which literally translated means cooked cream, is not, as its name implies, cooked. Cream, with maybe a little added milk, is gently warmed with sugar and often a vanilla pod, then mixed with softened gelatin, moulded and chilled. The resulting pudding, a delicate set cream to be turned out onto a plate, looks rather like a smooth, squat, milky-white sandcastle, which – and this is the key apparently – quivers and ‘wobbles like a woman’s breast’. Any complaints about the use of the word sandcastle should be forwarded to my personal assistant.

The wobble, the quiver, means the panna cotta is softly set. It should tremble as you bring it to the table, your spoon should sink easily into the milky-white mound. The texture should be soft, smooth, silky and untroubled. The taste simple and clean, delicate and dairy,   of cream sweetened with sugar and flavoured with real vanilla.

For such a simple pudding, there is rather a lot of panna cotta advice to be found. I’ve done my fair share of experimenting over the years, most recently inspired by the terrific Felicity Cloake. But a few weeks ago I reminded myself that I lived in Rome and should, if you’ll pardon the cliché, do as the Romans do. Which is, according to Octavio who makes the panna cotta I eat almost every week at Volpetti più, very straightforward. You warm panna fresca with a vanilla pod. Then you add sugar – according to your taste – and some softened gelatin. Finally, Octavio’s secret, you stir in a little whipped cream before diving the mixture between your pots, ramekins or glasses and chilling. To serve, you dip the bottom of each pot briefly in boiling water and then invert the panna cotta onto a plate.

Almost all the culinary advice I receive from Italians, even for the simplest of recipes, comes with the requisite suggestion: practice. And so it was with the panna cotta advice Octavio gave me while we leaned up against the bar in Barberini one particularly grizzly Wednesday afternoon a few weeks ago. Also when Italians share a recipe with you  – and Octavio was no exception –  it’s likely to be dotted with variables and gestures that suggest ‘Some‘ or ‘To taste’ or rather confusingly ‘Enough’. This is because they know and understand that ingredients, whether they be tomatoes, potatoes, butter, flour, cream, vanilla vary dramatically from kitchen to kitchen, place to place, season to season. That what may seem sweet to one person, is not to another. That gelatin can be unpredictable. That wobbles are personal.

With the spirit of Italian cooking advice in mind, I suggest you treat the recipe below as a template. I use panna fresca which is technically single cream but seems a little richer, so you might like to experiment with both single and double cream or even a mix – again see Felicity. Octavio was vague about sugar, he made a tipping gesture which was charming but not very helpful. A bit of trail and error ensued.  I err on the not-so-sweet side so find 80g of sugar (I prefer icing sugar) is about right. Vanilla, I love it, you might not. If I didn’t have the real thing I wouldn’t bother with vanilla essence though. Gelatin is pesky stuff. You need enough to set your cream with the requisite wobble, but not too much as to seize it into the consistency of a car tyre. I do hope you can find gelatin sheets – the powder is a pest and agar agar just odd – you need 3 in my book. If you really can’t find sheets and have hunted tirelessly to no avail, I’ll send you some ! Seriously, I’m that committed to set puddings, E-mail me your address.

Even though panna cotta looks very pretty served in a glass with layer of fruit sauce or syrup poured on top, I like my mine turned out – in all its milky-white and wobbly glory – on a plate. I am happy to eat it just so, but really like panna cotta with some fruit or even better, a spoonful of fruit sauce. The idea of caramel or chocolate sauce might seem appealing, but I think it all ends up being too much, cloying and sickly. Panna cotta pairs well with sharp, edgy, acidic fruit. Sour cherries, blackberries, cranberries, black currants or red currants cooked with a tiny bit of sugar all make good panna cotta companions, offsetting and accentuating the creaminess and looking wonderfully dramatic, like red lips and pale skin, next to your innocent white pudding.

Wobble.

Panna cotta

Adapted from Octavio at Volpetti più’s recipe

Makes 4 pots (at a stretch 6, but who wants to stretch?)

  • 400ml fresh single cream
  • 1 vanilla pod
  • 3 leaves/sheets of gelatin
  • 100ml whipped cream
  • 80g – 100g caster or icing sugar
  • You need 4 panna cotta pots or ramekins (the ramekins need to be lightly greased with vegetable oil). If you don’t want to turn the panna cotta out use 4 glasses .
  • Pour the single cream into a pan. Use a small sharp knife to split the vanilla bean lengthways, then scrape the seeds from inside the bean. Add the seeds and beans to the saucepan. Warm the cream gently over a low flame but do not boil. Remove from the heat and set aside for 10 minutes for the vanilla to infuse the milk
  • Soak the gelatin leaves in a bowl of cold water for 5 minutes or until they are very soft and floppy.
  • Remove the vanilla pod from the pan. Put the pan back on a low flame, add the sugar and stir until it has dissolved. Squeeze the water from the gelatin leaves and add to the pan. Stir until the gelatine has dissolved. Remove the pan from the heat and stir in the whipped cream.
  • Divide the mixture between your pots or glasses and chill in the fridge for at least three hours. To turn out, dip the base of the pots briefly in boiling water and then invert onto a plates.
  •  Serve just so or with a spoonful of sharp fruit sauce or coulis.
  • .

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Filed under cream, food, Puddings, Rachel's Diary, recipes