Category Archives: fruit

supple ripple

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A very ripe kaki (persimmon) feels a bit like a little balloon filled with water. Cup one in your hands – they are often disconcertingly heavy – and then move it from side to side: you can almost feel the soft pulp sloshing inside the tawny skin, which has the sort of translucent glow that in many fruits would suggest the wrong side of ripe. The dry, crumpled calyx will tug away easily and then it takes almost nothing to break the skin. A knife would be excessive. A spoon is best. It isn’t quite the explosion of a water balloon, but almost: open the fruit over a plate so the flood of sweet, pulpy, almost jelly like flesh is contained.

Until I came to Italy, I had only ever eaten Sharon persimmons, called Sharon fruit in the UK, a variety developed in the Sharon valley in Israel to be less astringent when hard, meaning they can be eaten with pleasure and crunch like an apple. As a child I quite liked Sharon fruit, it was a fun fruit, as opposed to a boring fruit, both exotic, with its shiny, yellow-orange skin, and familiar to a 12-year-old who watched with dedication the soap opera Eastenders and England’s most famous landlord’s daughter, Sharon Watts. It was the equivalent, maybe, of a fruit today being developed in the Kim valley.

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Various less astringent varieties are cultivated in Italy, usually called kaki vaniglia, in Rome at least. Just to confuse things they are also called loti vanigliakaki mela and cachi fuya. Simply asking for kaki duri (hard) generally works. The hard vaniglia variety will eventually ripen too, the skin darkening from yellow to tawny red, the pulp softening into plummyness. However after extremely scientific research on my windowsill and in a paper bag, I can confirm they never quite reach the ripeness, nor the deep flavor, of varieties whose astringent tannins have been conquered by extraordinary sweetness. Hard varieties, I think, are best just so, out of hand, or sliced for a salad, where lemon and salt bring out best in them.

It is the kaki that begin life as a hard, mouth-furring ball, and then ripen into little balloons that really interest me at this time of year. The sort that make plenty of people shudder at the mere wobbly thought of them, The wild ancestors of Kaki grew in China and Japan, where full-fruiting trees have flourished, and had a deep symbolic significance, for over two thousand years. In her wonderful Fruit Book, Jane Grigson notes that in Japan the poet Issa uses Kaki to symbolize maternal self-sacrifice – Wild persimmons, the mother eating, the bitter part. I have seen pictures of trees in Japan, leafless, hung with deep red fruit that looks like glowing baubles on an avant garde Christmas tree. I have never been to Japan, but I have been to Abruzzo in November, a particularly damp and grey one to research a piece on olive oil. We had to stop the car several time to look at the strange Autumn beauty through the mist, trees with skeleton branches arching under the weight of the fruit, the ground below a ripe carnage. The owner of one tree almost begged us to take some off her hands, which we did, the fruits supple and extremely soft, spilling all over our greed in the car. Back home I thought about jam, and until I realized that ripe kaki are in fact already jam, the pulp so sticky and sweet that you need only nick a corner and a jam tumbles onto your toast. Or into your cake batter.

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As you may remember, I only really make one cake, of infinite variations. It is Ruth’s olive oil and yogurt pot cake – the one in which you use a pot of yogurt, and then the pot to measure the rest of the ingredients – which has now evolved into a ricotta and olive oil cake you can add anything to, the recipe of which is in my book. It will probably be in my next book too. I make a version of this cake most weeks, enjoying the fact I can fling it all together in about two minutes. This week, after dislodging the mixing bowl from the infernal pile rammed under the butcher block and thinking bollocks, I noticed a kaki and thought aha. So ripe was the fruit, pureeing it would have been superfluous, I simply squeezed and it slipped, like a jellyfish, into the bowl. I then fished out bits of skin, which wasn’t really necessary. The batter streaked with tawny ripples looked gorgeous. In the oven it went.

I have made the cake again since, weighing the kaki, which was just short of 300g. The weight and consistency of the ripe fruit means the cake doesn’t rise as it normally does, in fact when I first pulled the first one from the oven my heart sank like cake before me. It was heavy. The next morning I cut a slice, the crust deep golden brown, the crumb ruddy-yellow with tawny flecks. It was dense, damp and plainly delicious. This cake reminds me a little of Claudia Roden’s wonderfully moist whole orange cake in that it is better after a nights rest and keeps a good few days, that it happily moonlights as a pudding if given enough cold cream. I think this cake might be our Christmas dessert. That, or simply a ripe kaki, with cream poured in the top, and nothing else.

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Persimmon (kaki), olive oil, lemon and ricotta ring cake

There are a rather confusing number of varieties of kaki/persimmon grown all over the world. As you can imagine, the varieties that need to be matured until very soft are ripened in various ways, some more preferable than others, and transport can be difficult. It might be worth doing a bit of research. I have reduced the sugar slightly from my book recipe as the kaki provides plenty.

  • 250 g plain flour
  • a bag of Italian leivito or two teaspoons of baking powder
  • 150 g sugar
  • 250 g ricotta or whole milk yogurt
  • 200 ml extra virgin olive oil
  • 3 eggs
  • the zest of a large unwaxed lemon
  • a very ripe, very soft (Hachiya) kaki/ persimmon, approx 300 g.

Pre-heat the oven to 180°

In a large bowl, mix together the dry ingredients – flour, baking power and sugar. Add the ricotta/yogurt, olive oil and eggs one by one and mix vigorously until you have a smooth batter.  Grate the lemon zest directly over the mixture and then scoop the persimmon flesh from the skin and mix again.

Pour the mixture into an oiled and floured ring tin and bake on a rack in the middle of the oven for 40 – 50 minutes or until the cake is golden brown and a skewer or piece of spaghetti comes out clean. Let the cake cool in the tin and then invert onto a plate.

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Filed under cakes and baking, Five Quarters: recipes and notes from a kitchen in Rome, fruit, kaki /persimmons, Uncategorized

an inch of purple

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‘There is always a chance it will explode’  Gabriella said almost smiling, suggesting that this was all part of the process, that the possibility of cherries, wine and sugar seeping between the terra-cotta tiles and dripping from her roof was a risk she was prepared to take. We were in Abruzzo, sitting at Gabriella and Mario’s table after a very long, very good dinner at their agriturismo in the hills near Loreto Aprutino, the kind of dinner that renews your faith in food, before us a small glass of inky-purple liquid. ‘Sour cherries, Montepulciano d’Abruzzo wine and sugar are macerated in a large, teardrop shaped glass bottle that sits on the roof in high summer for 40 days and 40 nights’ Gabriella explained. As we tried not to slide under the table, she talked about the science or magic of the process, how the heat of high summer halts fermentation but precipitates maceration. Or at least it should, hence the possible, if extremely rare, explosion. It crossed my mind I should be concentrating more, taking notes even, but that thought slipped away as easily as the lip staining elixir slipped down my throat. The taste lingered, I wondered what Gabriella did with the cherries seeped in wine, how they got the bottle on the roof, how they got the cherries out of the bottle, if we could have another glass?

Nine months later in Rome the first of the cherries, some crimson, others deep purple, are splattering the market with colour. We have been eating them by the kilo, greedily, spitting stones into our fists and grabbing another handful in a sort of cherry race. Then on Sunday at the small but great farmers market in the old slaughterhouse I found the first of the sour cherries, paler than usual, sweet as much as sour, reminiscent of almonds and almost the wrong side of perfect ripeness. They spent the night in the colander while I changed my mind about what to do with them which meant by the following morning there was no time to think or waste. I put them in a pan along with a few sweet cherries too, bay leaves, big lazy curls of lemon peel, some sugar and then let it all bubble into a fragrant, syrupy, shirt staining stew.

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I like cherries cooked in this way with plain yogurt or creme fraiche, something so sweet and aromatic needs a sharp and plain partner, otherwise it is all too cloying. Both Luca and Vincenzo turned their nose up at the offer of fruit for breakfast, which was a relief, more for me. Then last night, I spooned a few cherries and their syrup into my last inch of red wine, which happened to be Montepulciano D’Abruzzo and convinced Vincenzo to do the same. Then rather than continuing our argument disguised as a discussion we talked about Abruzzo and that small glass of inky elixir. Granted ours was hardly Gabriella’s cherry and wine alchemy, but it was reminiscent of it, the poached cherries and syrup mingling with the bold wine into some thing between a pudding and a liquer. It was a dark, sweet, boozy and fragrant finish a meal, the sort of finish I like best.

I am going to make these cherries the next time we have friends over for supper and then get people to put them in their wine‘ I said, at which Vincenzo rolled his eyes so intently they almost disappeared into his head. So we both had another inch of wine, another spoonful of cherries, decided to go back to Abruzzo this autumn, forget about the argument and any plans for supper guests until Luca isn’t a terrible toddler and I have finished the book, cleared up and went to fall asleep in front of the telly.

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Poached cherries with lemon and bay leaves (which you can put in wine if you like)

When I first wrote this post there was no recipe as it had all been so flippant and the nature of the recipe is one of tasting and judging by eye. However I have now added this, which is still imprecise, which I hope you will forgive me for. The amount of sugar here depends on the cherries and your taste. For a mixture of sweet and sour cherries I use about 150 – 200g of sugar. I suggest adding 100 g for every kg but then tasting and adding more if you feel it needs it. Cooking times depends: you want to fruit to be soft and the syrup full-bodied. You do not need to add more liquid as the cherries have enough of their own.

  • 1 kg cherries ideally a mixture of sour and sweet cherries but just sweet will do
  • 4 or 5 strips of lemon peel with as little white pith as possible
  • sugar to taste
  • 3 bay leaves

Pit the cherries and then put them in a pan with the rest of the ingredients and sit over a low flame, stir until the sugar has dissolved and the cherries released plentiful juice and then simmer for 5 – 8 minutes or so or until the cherries are soft and the syrup richly flavored – Taste after about 3 minutes and add more sugar if necessary. Some people then remove the cherries with a slotted spoon and then reduce the syrup until it is thick before uniting the two again in a jar. I don’t do this. Serve with plain thick yogurt, mascarpone, quark, over chocolate cake or into the end of your wine. Keep in a jar in the fridge.

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Filed under cherries, fruit, In praise of, jams and preserves, wine

the whole triangle

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Ciambellone al limone – lemon ring cake

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

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

Set the oven to 180°

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

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

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

round and round

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It is, I can confirm, possible to eat too many antipasti. The trip to Saturnia was a welcome break full of sources and other courses, but otherwise, while I work – slowly – on the first part of the book, we have been mostly eating antipasti. These last couple of weeks have been filled with round ways to start a meal: olives marinated with citrus, sweet and sour onions, rounds of ciauscolo, fried slices of courgette scented with mint and two experiments involving batter and balls that ended in disappointment and disproportionate mess. Round and round. Then on wednesday a quiet rebellion took place. No more antipasti was the principle message, followed by calls for pasta, pasta and more pasta.

So on thursday morning, I set the first part aside – for now at least – and started work on the second. A second part all about Roman minestre, pasta, rice and dumplings. Well sort of started, for procrastinations sake and a practice run for a supper next week, I poached some pears in sweet wine first.

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On this occasion the pears were the small, straw-yellow, occasionally blushing coscia; their vinous and compact flesh poaching well, particularly in sweet wine. I used the dubious bottle of dessert wine that has been loitering like a ticket tout along with the 100 % chocolate and unmarked mustard at the bottom of the fridge. The dubious dessert wine that turned out to be anything but dubious. ‘It’s a Moscato D’asti’ said the person loitering in the kitchen hoping to wrangle lunch. ‘But a good one. Too good for poaching don’t you think?’  I continued prodding my pears.

A good moscato makes for good poached pears, sweetening the flesh just enough (which is important as pears poached in scantily sweetened liquid taste a bit like boiled turnips) and then reducing into a sweet without cloying, suitably clinging syrup.

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Generally I like poached pears just so: naked in a pool of syrup. It turns out I also like them with a spoonful of ricotta di pecora whipped into a smoothish cream with a dash of milk and some warm, espresso-spiked, dark-chocolate sauce. I don’t suppose I need to tell you what a good-looking and tasteful couple pear and chocolate are. Be cautious with the sauce though, too much and stops heightening the pears sweetness and swamps it. The spoonful of soft, lactic ricotta is a perfect foil for the dark sauce and poached fruit, it also steals some of the attention from the good-looking couple, making sure they don’t get smug.

Obviously poached pears are brilliant with hard cheese too: slice a poached pear and serve it as quivering partner for sharp, salty pecorino. Procrastination and practice complete, I can now move on to part two.

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Pears poached in sweet wine (with ricotta and chocolate sauce)

Moscato D’Asti is sweet, but not that sweet. I didn’t add extra sugar though, as the pears were especially dolce and the Moscato reduced down into an almost honeyed syrup. However different pears might have needed extra sugar. I suggest tasting, both the syrup and the pears and then keep a beady eye on the reducing syrup.

  • 10 – 14 small, firm pears
  • a lemon
  • a bottle of Moscato D’Asti or other sweet dessert wine
  • sugar (optional)
  • ricotta
  • 100 g dark chocolate, a little heavy cream, a dash of espresso and a little sugar

Using a sharp knife pare away the skin from the pears (leaving the stalk intact) and cut a half a cm from the curved bottom of the pear so it sits upright. As you work rub the pear with the cut side of a lemon to stop it discolouring.

Stand the pears in a heavy-based pan. Ideally you should have enough pears to fill the pan neatly and snugly (but not so they are squashed). Cover the pears with enough wine to reach the base of the stalk.

Bring the wine to a gentle boil then reduce the heat so the wine bubbles gently and the pears bob slightly for about 25 minutes (depending on the ripeness pears) or until they are easily pierced by a fork.

Remove the pears from the pan with a slotted spoon and then raise the heat and boil the remaining liquid energetically until it has reduced by roughly half into a syrup that clings lightly (but not viciously) to the back of a spoon. Put the pears back in the liquid, encouraging them to loll over and roll them in the syrup as best as possible. Leave to cool for a few hours.

Move the pears into a serving plate and pour over the syrup. Serve just so, spooning over some of the syrup. Alternatively you can cut the pears into a fan and serve them with a spoonful of ricotta and some simple chocolate sauce made by melting dark chocolate with a little espresso and a tablespoon of fine sugar and once it is smooth and silky stirring-in a little heavy cream.

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Filed under Chocolate, food, fruit, pears, Puddings, rachel eats Rome, recipes, White Wine

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.

DSC_1843

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

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