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

Rewriting Tradition. Easter Cuisine Old and New. Part 1

I rang my 13-year-old grandson to ask if he had eaten any hot cross buns today. He sounded disinterested and replied ‘no’, in a polite but bemused way. I could almost hear his brain ticking over, perhaps with a ‘What the ..? Has Nanna finally lost the plot, ringing me about Hot Cross Buns?’ After all, the kids have been eating these buns since Boxing Day. That’s when they begin appearing in Australian supermarkets. By the time Good Friday comes around, the novelty has worn off. So much for tradition.

Ready for the oven

I then rang my eldest son, and asked him the same question. At least he is perfectly aware of the symbolic nature of these buns. No, he had also had his fill of the supermarket product along the way, and was whipping up some scrambled eggs and bacon for breakfast. Yes, another pagan in our midst. I am the first one to appreciate the secular nature of our society: I am not only a ‘collapsed’ Catholic but also don’t count myself as Christian. Having said that, I don’t see much point in throwing the baby out with the bathwater. After all, these buns are a seasonal and festive treat and it’s important to explain the meaning of the added crosses to the young folk. History and tradition form a part of who we are. At the same time, we happily appropriate any Buddhist and Hindu rituals that may suit us along the way.  Buddhist meditation becomes mindfulness ( and loses a lot in translation), Diwali is taking off in Australia and Chinese New year is popular too. Australia is a wonderful melting pot of cultures, but as we grab hold of the new, we should also at least understand the old, and adapt some of those traditions to our modern taste.

Just glazed. Who prefers the top half?

I now make hot Cross buns annually, just a dozen. The yeasted variety is light and perfect for our Autumnal weather. Next year I will increase the amount of spice in the recipe I used. They cost very little to make and are far more digestible than the common supermarket variety. If you are a beginner at yeasted baking, try Celia’s recipe here. It is foolproof and very straightforward.

To serve with butter, not margarine.

The other fond tradition I hang on to is my dedication to cooking smoked Cod on Good Friday. This is an old Irish Catholic Australian thing. Most Scottish descendants did not have this bright yellow dyed fish imposed on them as youngsters on Good Friday. If you feel slightly ambivalent about smoked cod, go to the fish market and buy the real thing  from the Shetland Islands which tastes peaty and less salty. I buy it at the Preston Market, from one fishmonger who has, by 9 am on Easter Thursday, queues 5 deep. I am told by Sandra that it is available all year round at the Prahran market.

Fish pie includes Shetland smoked cod, flathead and shrimp

One way to enjoy a piece of good quality smoked Cod is to forget your grandmother’s recipe, which consisted of an overcooked piece of fish, served with white parsley sauce, alongside boiled vegetables. Maintaining the tradition but stepping it up a notch or two makes the elements of this dish more appetising. Make an Easter fish pie, incorporating the poached smoked cod, along with poached white fish and a handful of shrimp, in a white sauce, and top with buttery mashed potato. The sides? A tossed green salad with lots of mustard in the dressing, another Irish note.

Three serves later….

This post was inspired by my friend Peter’s comment a few days ago. Peter lives in tropical Far North Queensland, where some of these culinary traditions would seem totally out-of-place.

“Enter the 60’s & 70’s: Traditional Good Friday cooking of smoked cod, which was smelt from miles away on the farm, still lingers in our psyche. We (all seven kids) all started to gag at the thought of having to consume his hideous boiled, vile muck served with over-cooked spuds and grey cabbage. Tradition beheld that we all sit at the kitchen table and dare not complain as the Compassion donation box was placed in the middle of the table with forlorn starving African children’s’ faces staring back at us which reflected those much worse off than ourselves. If only our parents knew that when we took those money boxes back to school they were much lighter by many pennies and the occasional thrupence than when they left their position placed strategically near where food or indulgent entertainment was involved. When visiting childless Aunts and Uncles visited our eyes bulged as they loudly dropped loose change into said box and we immediately tallied up how many kangaroo or umbrella toffees on a stick , yard-long licorice straps of triangular frozen Sunnyboys we could buy at the tuck-shop on the next school day. I’m sure tens of thousands of children in Africa died of starvation by we greedy Catholic kids but obligatory confession ultimately absolved us even if we had to lie to the priest to protect our guilt. So now we celebrate Easter by holding a “traditional” Bad Friday by sharing all the amazing regional and seasonal foods abundant in our region. Last week-end was the annual sugarcane and banana plantation pig shoot – sponsored by the local pubs. We bar-hogs waited for hours until the slaughtered swine were unceremoniously chucked off the blood-splatted Utes by the shooters whose faces were akin to orgasmic stimuli at the thought of winning the $25 stake. The weigh-in is a serious event all greased with gallons of booze and much humourous joshing . However, those of us on the peripheral could only see that these beasts can’t possibly go to waste and commence bartering for the whole hog. My point being is that this Bad Friday’s fare is a 57 kilo pig on a spit to be shared with all the local collapsed Catholics, a few bevvies and lots of stories about how we all ended up in the wonderful wet tropics of Far North Queensland – and not a hot-cross bun in sight. Ahh! Bliss!!”

Thanks Peter for making the effort to add such entertaining recollections to my posts. I am sure many Australians of a certain age may have similar memories.

That’s me in the corner, that’s me in the spotlight, losing my religion…..

More Buns in the Oven

The moment I read Beck’s blog post on In Search of Golden Pudding, I knew I would have to try her Hot Cross Bun recipe for Easter. Based on an Elizabeth David recipe, they are easy to make, and include great tips for piping the crosses, though mine, like Beck’s, turned out rather fat and wonky. Next time I will cut a smaller hole in the piping bag.

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If you want to have a go at making your own Easter buns this season, keep aside around 3 hours for the two stages of dough rising, and follow Beck’s very straightforward directions. It is a very satisfying task, not to mention the aroma of yeast and spice permeating the kitchen. I added rum soaked sultanas into my mix as I had them on hand, but I believe the currants are more authentic.

Trad Hot Cross Buns
Trad Hot Cross Buns

For Tuscan style Easter Buns, see my previous post here.

Tuscan Easter Buns, Pan di Ramerino

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What happens on Boxing Day in Australia? Yes, you guessed it, the hot cross buns show up in the supermarkets, a good three or more months before Easter. I have not succumbed to a single premature Pasquale bun to date, despite the array of warm specimens offered to me by my extended family on camping weekends. Good humoured accusations fly, about being a born- again hypocrite, as I, a non- Christian, patiently wait for the traditional bun eating day. I am rather fond of tradition and religious rituals of many persuasions. Now is the time to make and eat hot cross buns.

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This year’s offering is a traditional Tuscan Easter bun recipe- Pan de Ramerino– a recipe that has been around since medieval times although adapted over the years. They were once eaten on Holy Thursday so I am eating mine tomorrow, though I may sneak one today as they cool on the rack. It is interesting to note that these buns are now popular all year round in Tuscany, not just at Easter. Just goes to show, it’s hard to keep a good bun down.

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The recipe comes from Carol Field’s The Italian Baker, who attributes the recipe to a Florentine baker, Giovanni Galli. It is very lightly sweetened: the combination of rosemary oil and raisins is a delightful and aromatic combination. The buns are not as cloying as the ones I know.

Pan di Ramerino, Rosemary and Raisin Buns

Makes 12 buns

The ingredients are listed in cups/spoons OR grams.

  • 3 ½ teaspoons/10 g active dry yeast
  • ¾ cup/180 g warm water
  • 2 large eggs
  • 1 large egg yolk
  • ¼ cup/55 g olive oil, plus more for brushing
  • 2/½ tablespoons/35 g sugar
  • 3¾ cups/500 g unbleached plain flour
  • 1 teaspoon/5 g salt
  • 3-4 sprigs rosemary
  • 2/3 cup/100 g golden raisins
  • 1/3 cup/75 g apricot glaze

In a large bowl of a stand mixer, stir the yeast into the warm water. Let stand until creamy. Add the eggs, the egg yolk, 2 tablespoons of the oil, and the sugar and mix thoroughly with the paddle. Add the flour and salt and mix until the dough pulls away from the sides of the bowl. Change to the dough hook and knead at low-speed for two minutes, then at medium speed for 2 minutes more. The dough should be elastic and supple.

First Rise. Place the dough in a lightly oiled bowl, cover tightly with plastic wrap or a plastic bowl cover and let rise until doubled.

Shaping and Second rise.

While the dough is rising, sauté 2 rosemary sprigs very briefly in the remaining 2 tablespoons of oil. Toss the rosemary out after it has flavoured the oil. Add the raisins and sauté very briefly in the oil. Remove from the heat and add 1 chopped fresh rosemary sprig to the mixture. Cool then add this mixture to the dough and knead, using the mixer, until well incorporated.

Cut the dough into 12 pieces and roll each piece into a ball. Place on a baking paper covered baking sheet and cover with a towel. Let the rolls rise until doubled, or about 1 hour.

Reshape the buns, which will have slumped a little, into definite balls. Brush the tops with oil. Slash a deep double cross or tic-tac-toe pattern in the top of each bun. Let the buns rise again for another 10-15 minutes.

Baking. Preheat the oven to 200º. Bake for 20 minutes. Remove the buns to a wire rack and brush the tops with an apricot glaze.

Glassa di albicocca/ apricot glaze

  • 2/3 cup good quality apricot jam
  • 2- 3 teaspoons water or fresh lemon juice

Heat the jam and water in a small heavy saucepan over moderate heat until the mixture comes to a boil, then strain through a sieve. Use the glaze while still warm.

Buona Pasqua a Tutti.

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In My Camping Kitchen, April 2015

I’m back in my camp kitchen for the last time this season. After Easter, it’s time to pack up the van and tuck things away for another year. My camp kitchen is always on the go, along with my daughter’s neighbouring van kitchen, feeding a fluctuating family of four generations. There is always a big pot of vegetable soup or a minestrone,  simple casseroles for the kids who are always hungry, rice cookers and woks and jaffles for breakfast. This Easter weekend, there are hot cross buns, a Lentil shepherds pie for good Friday, and stashed chocolate eggs for Sunday.

Breakfast jaffles of fried egg, cheddar cheese, tomato and onion.
Breakfast jaffles of fried egg, cheddar cheese, tomato and onion and home made tomato chutney.

I love old Chinese enamel ware, most of which was produced during the Cultural Revolution, that difficult period in Chinese history. This set of bowls with lids is so handy in my camping kitchen. Just for you, Nancy!

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Last week we celebrated Mischa’s 18th birthday and these left over frozen pizza came to the beach to be reheated in the camp oven. Perfect for a cool day.OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

On Good Friday, hot cross buns in the fresh air, slathered in butter, is a tradition worth keeping.  Have you noticed that the big supermarkets begin churning these out on Boxing Day? I refuse to buy any before Good Friday. As well as explainng the significance of these buns to the children, we also sing this rather odd nursery rhyme,

Hot cross buns, hot cross buns, 

One a penny, two a penny

Hot cross buns.

If you have no daughters, 

give them to your sons,

One a penny, two a penny

Hot cross buns. 

I found this little pinch pot at one of the weekend markets in Mornington Peninsula. It now lives in the camper trailer kitchen.

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This little corner of the van is used for drawing, writing and dining. This year we went with the cocky cushion theme: there are matching cups somewhere in my camping kitchen. OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

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Mr T has collected some styling props for my camping kitchen. The bees are drunk on Banksia flower mead, and so far, four children have been stung. Despite that, they still refuse to wear shoes.

Banksia Flower and Pipi shell. Taking live shellfish from the bay is prohibited.
Banksia Flower and Pipi shell. Taking live shellfish from the bay is prohibited.

Cooking for a big mob can be demanding at times. Mr T and I like to sneak off to a winery on occasion and sample the wares from someone else’s kitchen.

The kitchen area at T'Gallant Winery
The kitchen area at T’Gallant Winery

Happy birthday Celia. May the next decade be even more wonderful than all the others. This post forms part of Celia’s monthly event, In My Kitchen, at Fig Jam and Lime Cordial.

Who Wants to be a Baccala`? Easter Cod Stories.

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As Easter approaches, my mind turns to Cod! It is a family tradition to eat this odd fish every Good Friday, and over the years I have experimented with different types of cod fish. We have Cod lovers and Cod haters in the family: some of the Cod lovers are recent converts and now place their orders every Easter.

Cod is widely available in the smoked form ( usually bright orange, chemically smoked Hake). It is also sold as Stoccafissa or Baccala`, the dried  and salted fish seen hanging in Continental delicatessens. In Italian, essere un baccala` is to be a stupid person while restare come un baccala` is to stand agape, speechless, immobilized. (picture the hard motionless salted fish ). To call someone a Baccala` is a handy insult when they have behaved stupidly.

Many eons ago, as a way of impressing my dear friend Olga  D’Albero Giuliani, I made a Venetian dish for Good Friday, using Baccala`and  green olives. It took me forty eight hours to soak the fish, with many changes of water. The resultant dish was still bony and well, fairly ordinary. Olga was not impressed and asked me why I didn’t simply use smoked cod,  a tastier fish  and easier to prepare. I felt like a real Baccala`!!

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Soon after, I discovered real smoked cod from the Shetland Islands. It arrives in Melbourne on the Wednesday before Easter and is sold by the same fishmonger at the Preston market every year. It is Scottish cod, smoked without the use of chemical dyes and tastes just like peat. ( akin to eating a fishy single malt Laphroaig whisky). This explains the new converts.

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It requires nothing more than gentle poaching, topping it with a simple bechamel parsley sauce, alongside mash or new potatoes, allowing the smoky peat taste to star! In the case of Cod, the Scottish /Irish version wins hands down. Unless you want to be a Baccala` too.

The fishy photos above were taken at the Preston Market, near Melbourne, Australia. It is a lively multicultural market with at least five fishmongers.