Category Archives: Puddings

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

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

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

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

The case of the pudding

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Almond cream, Almond pudding or Tartarà dolce

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

serves 4

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

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

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

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Filed under almonds, Eggs, food, Puddings, recipes

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