Rewriting Tradition, Part 2. Easter in Naples

If we were in Naples today, I would take you to lunch in a family trattoria, set in an un-touristed part of the city. I would lead you through the dark lanes around Spaccanapoli, passing the eternally grieving Madonna statues sitting snugly in niches along white washed walls, each with their own red or pink glowing light and plastic flower bouquet. We would pass beautiful desanctified churches, graffitied, bombed and derelict beyond repair. Turning down the busy Vin San Gregorio Armeno where craftsmen carve and paint wooden presepi, a street dedicated exclusively to the Nativity, we would later exit onto the main thoroughfare at Via Duomo. On the opposite side of the road, we would gaze up at the ornate Cathedral of Naples, Cattedrale di San Gennaro, and then notice the 20 foot high advertising poster of a young woman in skimpy lace underwear right next to it. As we walk to lunch, we might speculate about a country that in recent times enjoyed the depraved antics of a corrupt Prime Minister, Berlusconi, and a society that feasts upon evening game shows hosted by middle age men in suits alongside young women sporting bikinis and stilettos.

After much banter, we’d find our lunch venue down an unattractive street still bearing the scars of the second world war. There’s no written menu here so we order a lunch of three courses, senza carne, without meat, a lunch of the house. First comes a little antipasto of acciughe, anchovies lightly dressed in oil, a generous ball of mozzarella di bufala, with a pile of Pane Duro, sliced from the ringed shaped loaves on the counter. Next follows a simple Pasta Napoli, then some contorni or sides, a cooked tangle of spinach slicked with good oil, some roasted potatoes which emerge from the focolare set in the wall, and a mixed salad. Finally, and because it’s the week following Easter, we are served a large slice of Pastiera, the famous wheat studded ricotta tart of Naples. The vino di casa, a light red wine, is included in the 10 euro per head price. We remark on our good fortune to have found such a place.

Di’s Beurre Bosc pears poached in Vincotto and Vanilla

Pastiera Napolitana is a pastry lined tart filled with citrus flavoured ricotta, lightened with eggs, containing softened wheat berries, then covered with latticed pastry on top. It has pagan and mythical origins, but the modern version of pastiera was probably invented in a Neapolitan convent.

“An unknown nun wanted that cake, symbol of the resurrection, to have the perfume of the flowers of the orange trees which grew in the convent’s gardens. She mixed a handful of wheat to the white ricotta cheese, then she added some eggs, symbol of the new life, some water which had the fragrance of the flowers of the spring time, candied citron and aromatic Asian spices. We know for certain that the nuns of the ancient convent of San Gregorio Armeno were considered to be geniuses in the complex preparation of the Pastiera. They used to prepare a great quantity for the rich families during Easter time.”¹

Torta di ricotta con brulee

I have made Pastiera in the past. It needs to be made some days in advance, and no later than Good Friday, to allow the fragrances to mix properly. This Easter, I have decided to break with tradition and make a lighter version. No resurrection wheat, and no top layer of pastry which I now find too heavy. My Sunday’s ricotta tart is lightened by cream, retains the aromatic orange elements, and steals a little trick from the French, a brûlée topping. It is served alongside some autumn pears cooked in vincotto. It is a dessert worth indulging in at any time of the year and the fruit can be varied to suit the season. Slow baked quinces would also go nicely.

An inside look at the filling

Torta di ricotta con pere, vincotto e vaniglia- Ricotta tart with brûlée topping and pear, vincotto and vanilla.

The Pastry Case

First make some sweet shortcrust pastry or pasta frolla, rested for one hour then baked blind, enough to cover a 25 cm tart or flan tin with a removable base. I have not included a recipe for this, since most cooks will have their favourite. Make it very short ( with 250 gr of butter)  and dust the tin with almond meal before baking.

The Ricotta Filling

  • 1 large egg
  • 1 large egg yolk
  • 375 g firm ricotta, drained
  • 60 gr icing sugar
  • 2 tsp or more of fine orange zest
  • 1 tablespoon of Grand Marnier or orange blossom water
  • 50 – 100 gr candied citron, finely chopped – optional
  • 25 ml full cream

Set the oven temperature to 180 c before commencing.

Place the egg, egg yolk, ricotta, sugar, orange zest, liquor and citron in a bowl of a an electric mixer and mix on low until very smooth. In a separate bowl, whip the cream until thick then fold through the ricotta mixture. Spoon the mixture into the prepared tart case and smooth over the top. Bake for 20- 30 minutes or until golden on top. Set aside until the topping sets and cools before removing from the flan tin.

The Pears

  • 4 large firm pears, such as Beurre Bosc
  • 500 ml water
  • 150 gr caster sugar
  • 1 vanilla bean, slit open and seeds scraped
  • juice and rind ( without pith) of 1 lemon
  • 2 strips orange rind
  • 1/3 cup vincotto

Peel and core the pears and cut each pear into four. Place the water, sugar, vanilla, lemon and orange rinds, juice and vincotto into a medium-sized saucepan. Bring to the boil then add the pears. Cook on a low poaching heat, for around 30 minutes or until you are satisfied that the pears are soft enough. Remove the pears from the liquid and reduce the poaching liquid to thicken. The pears can be kept for days covered in their liquid.

The brûlée on top.

Sprinkle 1/3 of a cup of Demerara sugar evenly over the cake. Holding a kitchen blowtorch, caramelise the top by moving the flame backwards and forwards, until the sugar is melted.

Serve the tart with Vincotto poached pears on the side.

Buona Pasqua a Tutti.

Although this dessert has many steps, it really is easy to put together once you’ve made a sweet pastry shell.

All recipes are derivative and I have based this one on a recipe I found here, a site dedicated to the use of Vincotto. I also added some of the extra orange elements found in the traditional Pastiera Napolitana.

¹ https://it.wikipedia.org/wiki/Pastiera_napoletana

Sourdough Buccellato. Fruit Bread from Lucca

There is a local saying in Lucca about its famous Buccellato sweet bread: who ever comes to Lucca and doesn’t eat Buccellato might as well never have come. (“Chi viene a Lucca e non mangia il buccellato è come non ci fosse mai stato”).

Piazza dell’Anfiteatro, Lucca

The last time we stayed in Lucca, we were fortunate to try this bread, thanks to our host Guido, who brought us a warm fresh loaf one Sunday morning. I’ve dreamed about making it ever since, especially now that Easter is around the corner. It seems like a good substitute for Hot Cross Buns and is great toasted. The Lucchese eat this loaf at any time of the year: it is not a festive Easter bread, but it does seem to suit the season. It is said to go well dunked into a licorice based spirit such as Anisette or Sambucca, as there is a hint of anise in the bread.

Buccellato. Dunk in an Anise flavoured liquor or toast and spread with butter.

I have used a ripe sourdough starter in this recipe, which I’m sure they used in days of old.  It is fairly plain, as many Italian cakes and festive breads seem to be. If you wish to make it using yeast, see the notes below.

Makes 2 small loaves, or 1 large

  • 150 gr golden raisins or sultanas
  • 450 gr baker’s flour
  • 50 gr wholemeal flour
  • 1 teaspoon sea salt
  • 150 gr ripe liquid sourdough starter
  • 200 gr milk
  • 1 large free range egg
  • 80 gr granulated sugar
  • 50 gr unsalted butter at room temperature, in pieces
  • 1.5 teaspoons aniseeds
  • egg wash, made from an egg yolk and a little water.

Place the raisins in a bowl, cover with warm water and leave to plump up until needed. In the meantime mix the two flours and salt in a large bowl. a separate bowl, crack the egg, add the warm milk and sugar and mix well. Finally add the sourdough and mix through.

Add the liquid ingredients to the flours and mix until a dough begins to form. ( I used a stand mixer for this process). Put on a work surface and knead until smooth and elastic, or knead on low with a dough hook for 3-5 minutes. The dough will be a little hard.  Begin adding the butter in small pieces until it is well incorporated and the dough is smooth. Add the aniseed and leave to rest covered in a warm place under a bowl to rise. I found that the dough needed around 4 hours to rise. This will depend on the temperature of your room. It may take longer.

Drain the raisins and dry with kitchen paper. Lightly dust with flour and add to the dough, kneading through by hand, until the fruit is well-distributed. If making two small loaves, divide the dough into two equal pieces. Shape into two logs with pointy ends, place onto a lightly dusted work surface and leave to prove again until about doubled in size. Or, shape into one large batard shape. Leave in a warm spot to rise again.

Preheat the oven to 200°C FF.  When the dough has risen, slash the loaves/loaf in the centre with a straight cut about 1cm deep and brush with egg wash. Bake in the oven for about 30 minutes. If making a large loaf, count on around 45 minutes.  Remove and leave to cool before eating,

Straight from the oven. Buccellato Lucchese

You can make this bread without a sourdough starter by using 20 gr of dry active yeast, adding it to the flour at the beginning of this recipe. The bread dough will rise more quickly with yeast.

My name is Lucca.

Un post interessante del Buccellato qui.

Weekend Pasta. Pappardelle with Creamy Gorgonzala, Spinach and Walnut.

As I was devouring today’s lunch of Pappardelle, I began to ponder the derivation of this word. Italian pasta shape names are often fanciful and descriptive, some shapes based on historical events, or conjuring images from nature, such as shells or hailstones. As it turns out, the word Pappardelle is derived from the verb Pappare– to wolf down or tuck into. This is spot on, given the way I love to slurp down these broad egg noodles, carriers of comforting sauces, hiding further treasures beneath their soft folds.

pappardelle con crema di gorgonzola, spinaci e noci

The word can also be used metaphorically to describe a bore who writes or talks at length, like pappardella, never finishing. ( Stava scrivendo una pappardella che non finiva più – She was writing a pappardella that was never-ending ). So without further ado, and in case I am accused of the latter, may I present my current all time favourite pasta dish, Pappardelle with Gorganzola cream sauce, spinach and walnuts. The key to the success of this dish is the quality of the pasta used. Either make home-made pasta, cutting it wider than tagliatelle, 13 mm to be precise, using this recipe, or use a good brand such de Cecco Pappardelle, which tastes soft and comforting, and as good as home made egg pasta.

pasta con gorgonzola, spinaci e noce.

Pappardelle con crema di Gorgonzola, spinaci e noce.

Recipe for 4 large serves.

  • 350 gr good quality pappardelle
  • 50 gr of unsalted butter
  • 225 g gorgonzola Dolce Latte or other creamy blue cheese.
  • 300 ml single cream
  • 225 g walnuts, chopped small
  • two or more handfuls of baby spinach leaves
  • freshly ground black pepper

Method

Bring the water to the boil for the pasta. Use a large saucepan; you need at least 4 litres of water for this quantity of pasta, with 1 level tablespoon salt added to it. Add the pasta and cook for the required time as suggested on the packet.

Meanwhile, place the walnuts in a non stick frying pan to toast. Watch that they don’t burn.

Over a low heat, melt the butter in a deep non stick frying pan. ( I tend to use a non stick wok for this type of cooking as the pasta will be added and tossed through the sauce later.) Then add the gorgonzola cheese, followed by the cream and leave to simmer very gently to reduce and become creamy and thick.

When the pasta is ready, drain it in a colander, holding back half a cup of cooking liquid. Return the pasta to the wok or pan containing the gorgonzola sauce. Add the baby spinach leaves and freshly ground black pepper, toss everything over medium heat.  You may need to add a little cooking water if your sauce has become too thick. Add most of the nuts, reserving a few for garnishing.

Parmigiano cheese is optional and can be added to the sauce as it cooks. I prefer this dish without it.

Time to make pasta. ( Urbino, centro storico, Le Marche)

In My Kitchen, March 2017

In my kitchen, I am surrounded by summer’s bounty, despite the seasonal peculiarities. The tomato crop has been ordinary: most people who live in, or near, Melbourne are complaining. There will be no passata making day for us in 2017. The zucchini and cucumbers have also been slow, but are now getting a new life with a dry, warm autumn. I am quite happy with the trade-off, with abundant plum, blackberry and fig crops this year, the seasonal surprises in my kitchen.

First bowl of blackberries. They are flushing every week.
First bowl of blackberries. A flush every week.
Today's garden pick
Today’s garden pick . Some will go on top of a pizza.
Pizza 5 Tesori
Pizza Cinque Tesori

Today’s ‘Five Treasure Pizza’ includes yellow pear tomatoes, cherry tomatoes, grilled baby zucchini, finely sliced red onion, and a handful of shrimp, scattered with tiny Greek basil leaves. This week’s dough was based on a mix of doppio zero white flour ( tipo ’00’) and a small proportion ( 50 g) of wholemeal spelt to give the dough a little more body. I like yeasted pizza more than sourdough, with long rises in the fridge, ( up to three days) making it even better.

bread-lot

I am trying to vary my bread flavours and methods, and have been inspired by Maree’s new facebook group, dedicated to Sourdough making. The sourdough loaves above were loosely based on a recipe from the Bourke Street Bakery Cookbook, and includes 60% wholemeal spelt. I like these nutty loaves, especially with soft blue cheese or zucchini pickle. The loaves below are my “Stand By Your Fam” high hydration loaves courtesy of Celia. I can now make these everyday loaves on autopilot, made in the evening, put to sleep for 8 hours or more, then shaped into loaves in the morning. These are favoured by the man and the extended family, with 75% baker’s white and 25% wholemeal.

Stand by your fam sourdough loaves.
Stand by your fam sourdough loaves.

A quick summer dish, spaghetti al nero di seppia, (squid ink spaghetti), is topped with a good commercial mix of seafood marinara, cherry tomatoes, garlic, olive oil and torn basil. The black pasta by Molisana is surprisingly good. Thanks Signorina at Napoli Restaurant Alert for reminding me about this pasta last month.

A quick Spagetti marinara
A quick Spaghetti marinara

I made these preserved lemons back in December. They have provided a lemon boost to many a dish this summer, especially given that lemons have been scarce, in contrast to limes which are now common place.

Preserved lemons, bridging the lemon gap.
Preserved lemons, bridging the lemon gap.

Oh no, there’s a chook in my kitchen, again! Mischa has been carting a red chook into my kitchen since she was 5 years old. At the old house, she used to sit on a garden swing with Hermione and put the chook to sleep. The red chook is always called Hermione, even though we don’t usually name our hens, and there have been at least six generations of ‘Hermiones’ since that first one. The conversation usually goes like this.

“Please take that chook out of the kitchen, Mischa.”

“But it’s Hermione”, said in a child- like voice, even though Mischa is now almost 20!

That’s what I like about my kitchen, the mad stuff. The other rooms of the house are dull and lifeless, sedentary rooms dedicated to kitchen recovery.

Mischa and Hermione.
Mischa and Hermione no. 7

Thanks Liz at Good Things, for hosting this monthly roundup. If you have ever thought about blogging, the monthly IMK is a good place to start. Most of my bread inspiration and support has come from friends found in this forum.

Mafaldine Pasta with Zucchini, Cream and Saffron

My Zucchini Festival continues today with another good zucchini pasta recipe ( see below) and a look at the seeds which produce this fecund vegetable. This year I planted two varieties of zucchini in my orto. The first to go in were the Black Jack variety, purchased as seedlings from a country market. They are the most common variety of zucchini grown in Australia, with vigorous, fast growing plants, high yields, and smooth dark green skin. Unfortunately for seed savers, they are also hybrids. The other variety, the Zucchino Striato d’Italia, or Italian striped zucchini, is easily grown from seed, and whilst not so prolific, which could be a good thing, they are definitely superior in taste and texture. An heirloom variety, this means you can save the seed for future plantings, a routine worth following when growing your own vegetables. The flavour is reminiscent of the zucchini grigliati we ate in the small trattorie in Trastevere, Roma. The other variety I’ve planted in the past is the yellow zucchini- a poor performer both in taste, yield and keeping quality, despite the lovely colour.

Mr Tranquillo in a trattoria in Trastevere. The side dish inclused some simply cooked and dressed zucchini striati. Once tasted, nevere forgotton.
Mr Tranquillo in a trattoria in Trastevere. The side dish included some simply cooked and dressed zucchini striati. Once tasted, never forgotten.

Today’s simple pasta dish marries Mafaldine pasta with small cubes of zucchini, saffron and cream. Mafaldine pasta is ribbon shaped pasta with curly edges and is also known as Reginette. The photos don’t do justice to the creaminess of this dish.

xx
Mafaldine con Zucchini Striati, Panna e Zafferano

Mafaldine con Zucchini, Panna e Zafferano . Mafaldine Pasta with Zucchini, Cream and Saffron  (for 2 medium serves)

  • 180g mafaldine or other long ribbon egg pasta
  • 2 small zucchini, cut into small cubes
  • 1/2 small white onion, finely chopped
  • 2 cloves garlic, finely chopped
  • 2 Tablespoons olive oil
  • salt
  • pinch dried chilli
  • generous pinch of saffron threads
  • 1 cup cream
  1. Bring ample salted water to the boil in a large pot.
  2. Heat a large wide frying pan or non stick wok for the sauce. Add 2 tablespoons olive oil then the chopped onion and garlic. When softened, add the cubes of zucchini, some salt, and a pinch of dried chilli. Stir about and cook on low heat for around 20 minutes.
  3. Add the Mafaldine ( or chosen pasta) to the boiling water and cook for the required time.
  4. Use a little of the cooking water and add to the saffron to soften, then add this to the zucchini mixture. Add a cup of cream and raise the heat so that the cream thickens. Add more cream if necessary.
  5. When the pasta is ready, drain and add to the zucchini cream sauce in the pan. Toss about. Save a little pasta cooking liquid to loosen the sauce, if necessary.
  6. Serve with ample grated parmigiano cheese.

I enjoyed this dish on this cooler summer day. It will be included in my annual Zucchini Festival repertoire. It cost tuppence to make, allowing the splurge on a pinch or two of precious saffron pistils and a nice chunk of Reggiano Parmigiano cheese to serve.

vv

seed packet- Zucchino striato d'Italia
seed packet- Zucchino striato d’Italia

Seed saving tips for non- hybrid zucchini:

http://blog.seedsavers.org/blog/zucchini-tips?rq=zucchini

The Annual Zucchini Festival.

Throughout Italy, various villages and towns hold an annual sagra or festival, very often dedicated to a specific locally grown or produced food, such as frogs, chestnuts or onions, or a local dish such as frico, polenta or risotto. A quick search of the various sagre in Italy will reveal many festivals devoted to pumpkin but not to zucchini. If you think about it, the pumpkin or Zucca is the Zucchino‘s much bigger sister. Orange versus green. Female versus male, fat and rounded versus thin and elongated. Anything you can do with a pumpkin can be adapted to the zucchino; stuff, fry, bake, layer, grate and soup them. Oh and pickle them too.

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Spaghetti con Zucchini, Gamberi e Menta

It’s high time to announce my own Zucchini Sagra. Come along and try my new zucchini recipes this month, or better still, suggest some more unusual ways of using this prolific garden beast.

My first recipe marries some young zucchini with prawns, spaghetti and mint in a rich sauce. The links at the bottom of this post will take you to some of my previous posts on this wonderful annual vegetable.

Spaghetti con Zucchini, Gamberi e Menta  Serves four people.

  • Extra virgin olive oil
  • 3-4 garlic cloves, finely chopped
  • 2 small zucchini, halved lengthways then sliced in half moon rounds
  • pinch of crumbled dried chilli
  • 2 anchovy fillets
  • 100 ml dry white wine
  • 40 gr butter
  • 24 large uncooked green prawns
  • 200 gr spaghetti ( see notes below)
  • 16 or so mint leaves, torn
  • handful of flat parsley finely chopped
  • sea salt and black pepper
  1. Bring a large pot of salted water to the boil.
  2. Meanwhile add 2 tablespoons olive oil to a large non stick pan over medium heat. Add the garlic and saute for a couple of minutes. Add the zucchini and cook for 2- 3 minutes until coloured. Add the chilli and anchovies, squash them into the oil, then add the wine. Allow the wine to evaporate a little then add the butter. Bring to the boil for a minute or so, then add the prawns, stir about then remove from the heat.
  3. Cook the spaghetti in the boiling salted water until al dente. Drain, then add to the prawns. Pop the pan over high heat, tossing and stirring to combine all the ingredients. Add the parsley and mint. As soon as the prawns are opaque, remove from the heat.
  4. Season with salt and pepper and add a tablespoon of olive oil. Serve.

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    Spaghetti with Zucchini, Prawns and Mint

Notes.

  • The amount of spaghetti specified in this recipe would be suitable for an entrée or light luncheon.
  • I would suggest adding more pasta to the pot, say, around 80 g per person, for a main meal, with a green salad on the side.
  • I also used a large non stick wok, which is a better utensil to hold the volume of ingredients for the final tossing.
  • The sauce, made up of oil, garlic, anchovy, wine and butter, is an excellent base for any marinara you might make.

From Cook Like an Italian, Tobie Puttock 2010.

More zucchini recipes on Almost Italian:

Zucchini Lasagne

Zucchini with calamari and Radicchio

Briami Me Fetta

Zucchini Pickle

Next Post, The Zucchini Fritter With Masses of Herbs

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A Beet in Time. Beetroot and Caramelised Onion Relish.

Once upon a time, here in Australia, there was the beetroot. It was boiled, sliced, then pickled, and added to a salad sandwich, placed on top of a hamburger ‘with the lot’ or served in a salad alongside its summer friends, the tomato and Iceberg lettuce. This was the era when Olive Oil came in a small jar from the chemist and was used as a skin moisturiser!  Salad dressings were rare, except for a sharp home- made mayonnaise which was based on condensed milk, vinegar, and mustard.

Many older Australians still favour their beets cooked in this way: after the initial long boiling, the beets are skinned, drained then sliced into a container, while alternately sprinkling each layer with sugar and white vinegar. Not a summer goes by without my mother ( at 94 ) calling for a bunch of beetroot to make this light preserve. This method can be applied to any vegetable for a quick pickle.

New Beetroot relish
Beetroot and onion relish

Like most modern cooks, I enjoy the more earthy taste of the beet without the added sugar and vinegar. Around  8 years ago, fresh-baked beetroot and fetta or goat cheese salad topped with walnuts became the dish to change our view of beetroot. My young visitors devour versions of this salad yet avoid the retro pickled version. The composed beetroot salad has put this old-fashioned tuber back on the culinary map.

beet
Beetroot and onion relish. Easy and fast.

The recipe below for beetroot relish takes the humble root back to the middle ground. The ruby brine of retro sliced beets is absent but some of the agrodolce elements remain. This is now a new favourite for summer sandwiches and rolls or as part of a classic Ploughman’s lunch or as a counterbalance to a rich cheese dish, such as a double baked Stilton Souffle

  • 2 tablespoons olive oil
  • 4 large brown onions ( 800g) sliced thinly
  • 1 1/2 cups ( 330 g) firmly packed light brown sugar
  • 1 1/2 cups (375ml) cider vinegar
  • 3 large fresh beetroot ( 600g) grated coarsely
  • 1 teaspoon coarse cooking salt
  • 1/2 teaspoon cracked black pepper

Method

Heat the oil in a large saucepan; cook onion, stirring about 15 minutes or until the onion is softened and caramelised.

Add remaining ingredients; stir over high heat until sugar dissolves. Bring to the boil. Reduce heat; simmer, uncovered, stirring occasionally for about 30 minutes or until the beetroot is tender and the relish is thick.

Spoon hot relish into hot sterilised jars. Seal immediately. Label and date jars when  cold. Makes four cups,

Store relish in a cool, dark place for at least 3 weeks before opening. Refrigerate the relish after opening.

recipe from The Australian Women’s Weekly Preserves. 2011.

Sweet relish
Sweet relish

Beetroots and Italy. The Italian word for beetroot, Barbabietola, is so expressive, visually conveying the trailing beard, or barba, from the end of the bietola (beet/silver beet/chard) and its root. Try saying barbabietola, placing an equal stress on each vowel- it’s a little tongue twister for many, like the start of the old Beach Boys song, Ba-Ba-Ba, Ba-Barbara-Ann. Beets were favoured in the Roman era and used for food and medicine. These days, Europe grows 120 million tons of sugar beets and produces 16 million tonnes of white sugar, extracting a sufficient quantity to meet 90% of demand. This is a different crop to the red variety. While the edible barbabietola may occasionally turn up in a risotto, it’s use as a relish is not part of Italian culinary history. It is occasionally used in recipes, however most of these are modern and derivative, appearing in magazines such as Donna Moderna or Sale e Pepe and not in traditional collections.

barbabietola dal orto.
Barbabietola dal orto.

More Christmas Balls. Almond Flowers from Agrigento

A few days ago, I made a batch of Sicilian Cherry and Chocolate Amaretti, (Amaretti di Cioccolato e Cilegie ). They disappeared too quickly: some were wrapped up and given away, others popped into our own merry mouths. Sicilian sweets taste so evocative, medieval and ancient. All the flavours of the island seem to be rolled up in these little festive biscuits- dried fruits and figs, orange and lemon peel, Marsala wine, Arabic spices, honey, almonds, pine nuts and pistachio, to name a just a few ingredients favoured by the Siciliani.

Gid
Ready to go out the door. Fior di Mandorle.

This year’s festive cooking is beginning to look like a cook’s tour around Sicily. Last week Siracusa, now today’s festive balls, Fior di Mandorle, a specialty of Agrigento. Come to Sicily with me this month as I delve into my collected recipes from each major town. Map provided, in aid of travel fantasy.

I love a good map.
I love a good map.

Fior di Mandorle.  Almond pastries with honey and spice

  • 200 g freshly ground almonds or almond meal
  • 50 g/3 tablespoons of fragrant clear honey
  • 100 g caster sugar
  • grated zest of  1 small organic orange
  • 1 teaspoon ground cinnamon
  • 1/4 teaspoon ground nutmeg
  • 1/4 teaspoon allspice
  • 1  large, or two very small beaten egg whites
  • 1 teaspoon vanilla extract
  • icing/confectioners sugar for dusting

Preheat the oven to 150c.

Mix all the ingredients together, then knead until the oils from the almonds are released into the pastry.

Shape into smooth little cakes around 3 cm in diameter. Place onto a baking paper lined baking sheet and bake for 20 minutes.

Cool on a wire rack, then dust generously with icing sugar. Makes around 20.

Adapted from Flavours of Sicily, Ursula Ferrigno 2016.

xx
Fior di Mandorle. A taste of honey and spice. Very Arabic.

My next Sicilian instalment will be Nucatoli, from Modica, which are similar to last year’s Cuddureddi, but come in an amazing shape.

Christmas Biscotti from Siracusa

I’m looking forward to a quiet, relaxing Christmas this year. During the weeks leading up to that day, I won’t be counting plates, cutlery, wine glasses, napkins, gutting rooms and borrowing chairs, moving furniture to make more room, ironing table cloths, emptying fridges, making lists and more lists, and anticipating an event for 29 or so guests. On the day, I may be sitting under a shady tree, eating some simply cooked fresh fish, followed by a few light biscotti, enjoying a conversation, good music, and a bottle of wine.

biscotti da Siracusa, Sicilia
Biscotti da Siracusa, Sicilia

Despite this once in a lifetime opportunity, or escapist retreat, the making of festive delicacies is, for me, very much part of December and still continues. Last year I enjoyed making Cuddureddi, a spicy little Sicilian tart. They were eaten in the weeks leading up to Christmas day or were given away to friends. This year, I am looking to Sicily once again for inspiration. What could be more tempting than chocolate, almond and cherry biscotti, usually found in the pasticcerie in Siracusa, Sicily?

Anaretti di Ciocccolato e Ciliege
Anaretti di Ciocccolato e Ciliegia

These little almond, cherry and chocolate bites can be thrown together very quickly and only take around 12 – 15 minutes to cook. They are soft centred, with the texture of a truffle more than a biscotto. They are gluten-free, dairy free and very moreish. Wrap a few in cellophane to give to your child’s favourite teacher, or give little gifts to loved ones during Advent. Dicembre e` un mese bellissimo, mentre il giorno di Natale puo` essere stressante!

Amaretti di Cioccolato e Ciliegia/  Chocolate cherry amaretti biscuits

  • 250 g finely ground almonds
  • 120 g caster sugar
  • 50 g dark ( 70%) chocolate, grated
  • 60 g dried sour cherries, chopped
  • finely grated zest of 1 lemon
  • 2 extra-large egg whites, ( or three medium )
  • a pinch of salt
  • 30 gr icing/confectioners’ sugar

    bisoctti ready for oven
    biscotti ready for oven

Preheat the oven to 160 c.

Mix the almonds, sugar, chocolate, cherries and lemon zest together. Whisk the egg whites until firm and add to the almond mixture with the salt. Mix well. The mixture should be damp. ( Note- if you have used two egg whites and feel that the mixture needs a bit more moisture, beat another until stiff and add it to the mixture.)

Place the icing sugar in a bowl. Form balls with the almond mixture then roll them in the icing sugar. Place them on paper lined baking sheets.

Bake until they have a golden tinge, approximately 12- 15 minutes. Cool on a wire rack. Makes around 20 balls. Note, my edited pics make the balls look rather large but they only measure around 4 cm.

biscotti di Siracusa
Biscotti di Siracusa. Amaretti con ciliegie e cioccolato

Adapted from Flavours of Sicily, Ursula Ferrigno, 2016

For my dear friend Diane. Let’s spend next Christmas in Sicilia, cara mia.

White Polenta, Fave Beans and Salmon

After my broad bean shelling festival last week, some readers inquired about my culinary intentions for the little shelled gems. A few Spring broadbean treats have emerged from my kitchen of late, though some of the photos leave a lot to be desired. Today’s recipe is based on a dish I had in a restaurant in Oamaru, New Zealand, where they served creamy white polenta with a buttery sauce of local clams and crunchy fried capers. Ever since, I have been very partial to white polenta. I’m not a purist when it comes to polenta instantanea versus 20-40 minutes of aching arm action. Sometimes you have to cheat. Instant polenta is convenient and a versatile neutral tasting base on which to layer intense flavours. This recipe is meant to be flexible: you can use any fish or seafood that comes your way, or, leave it out entirely. Once the beans are shelled, and slipped out of their rubbery casings, the hard work is done.

bags of prepared fave beans, ready for the freezer.
Bags of prepared fave beans, ready for the freezer. The hard work is done.

Polenta Bianca con Fave e Salmone. White Polenta with fresh Broadbeans and Salmon. Ingredients listed for two people.

  • 1 cup instant white polenta
  • stock or water to cook the polenta as per packet directions
  • butter and grated parmigiano to enrich the polenta, to taste
  • 200 gr Atlantic salmon
  • I cup of double shelled broadbeans. ( if you are buying fresh broadbeans, you will need around 1 kilo)
  • 1 large garlic clove, crushed and finely chopped
  • butter
  • black pepper
  • fresh marjoram leaves, a few stalks.

    Comfort food. Polenta, fave and salmon.
    Comfort food. Polenta, fave and salmon.
  1. Cut the skinless salmon fillets into chunks of around 6 cm. Season and lightly oil the pieces and heat a solid frying pan.
  2. Make the polenta according to packet instructions. This will come together within two or so minutes. Stir vigorously, then add butter and parmesan cheese. Stir until very smooth, then keep warm on a heat diffuser.
  3. Cook the salmon chunks to your liking. I like mine well coloured on the outside and just cooked through.
  4. Meanwhile, heat a small saucepan and add some butter. Add the garlic, stir for a few seconds, then add the shelled broadbeans. Stir till hot, then add the marjoram leaves and black pepper.
  5. Assemble the dishes in wide low bowls. First lay a bed of the hot polenta, then add the salmon chunks,  then the broadbeans. Add a lemon wedge and a drizzle of your best oil.
    Poelnta Bianca, Fave fresche e Salmone. Buonissimo.
    Polenta Bianca, Fave fresche e Salmone. Buonissimo.

    This is a gluten-free meal that is easy to prepare, though does involve three simultaneous maneuvers. To make the dish vegetarian, leave out the fish, add more butter to the broadbean sauce, and add some shaved parmesan at the end. To veganise the dish, leave out the fish and butter and use very good olive oil and more herbs for flavour.

Older posts on broadbeans can be found in these links below. https://almostitalian.wordpress.com/2013/11/20/tagliatelle-with-broad-beans-and-smoked-salmon/  and  https://almostitalian.wordpress.com/2013/12/12/italian-product-trial-farro-rice-and-barley-pilaf/