Have you ever eaten something wonderful at a restaurant, determined to replicate the same dish at home? After enjoying the two course lunch special at Cecconi’s cellar bar earlier this week, I inquired about the dessert of the day, hoping that it would be something wintry and old-fashioned. Oh happy day, the dolce del giorno was a wedge of apple, walnut and cinnamon cake, comforting and grandmotherly, jazzed up with modern restaurant toppings, including cinnamon ice cream, tiny cubes of apple jelly and something crunchy, perhaps a disc of meringue. No photo was taken: greed intervened long before any thoughts of pics entered my mind. It was good.
My version is close enough to Cecconi’s torta, without the flash toppings. A little dusting of icing sugar is enough but a dollop of Frangelico infused mascarpone goes well too. The cake morphs into a simple dessert when warmed and served with custard or ice cream. Hideous winter begone with a little warm pudding.
Torta di Mele, Noce e Cannella. Apple, Walnut and Cinnamon cake.
200 gr butter
250 gr caster sugar
300 gr plain flour
2 teaspoons cinnamon
2 teaspoons baking powder
100 gr chopped walnuts
500 gr apples, peeled, cored, finely diced
Preheat the oven to 180°C. Butter a 20 cm square tin. Dust with flour or line with parchment if you prefer.
Cream butter and sugar well then add eggs, one at a time, and beat until creamy.
Mix together the flour, cinnamon and baking powder then add to the batter.
Fold in the walnuts and apples. Place in the prepared baking tin, ( it will be a stiff batter), smoothing the top, then bake for 60 minutes. Rest before turning onto a wire rack.
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.
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.
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
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.
Ever since the fresh fig supply stepped up at Casa Morgana, I’ve been imagining all sorts of fig dishes and recalling fig episodes in my semi sleep. I’m harvesting around 20 plump figs per day and many are beginning to rot on trays before my eyes. One of those memories involves making fig jam in Languedoc, France, in 1985. At one point, we had many ‘baguette with jam’ eating Australians staying with us and we were burning through the confiture at a rapid rate. We noticed a field of ripe figs going to waste and approached the farmer to ask him if we could pick them to make jam. Mais oui, he said dismissively, gesturing that the crop was nothing more than pig food. At some point mid jam making, Helen thought it would be nice to add some ginger to the mix, so we sent the 14-year-old girls off to the local supermarché to buy some. They returned empty handed. Sunshine demonstrated how many times she attempted her best pronunciation of the request. Je voudrais du ginger, s’il vous plaît, was met with blank stares, compelling the girls to adopt some very stereotyped French accents, repeating the word ginger over and over again. They were hysterical with laughter by the time they returned.
Another fig food memory was eating Saganaki served with a sweet fig sauce at Hellenic Republic, Brunswick, when it first opened. That sauce is based on dried figs with pepper and balsamic and can be served all year round with fried cheese.
Fig tree in the morning dew
Chinese bowl with Figs, by Giovanna Garzoni, 1600-1670
Figs in blue bowl after Garzoni
This little entrée draws on both experiences. It is warm, sweet and jammy on top, and cold and salty underneath, with the nuts providing a Baklava style crunch. It takes 5 minutes to prepare and makes a very elegant starter.
Fig and Fetta Fantasia.
Ingredients, for two serves.
150 gr (approx weight) quality Greek fetta cheese, sheep or goat, such as Dodoni (not Bulgarian as it has the wrong texture for this dish)
6 large ripe figs, halved
2 tablespoons honey
1 dessertspoon vincotto
2 tablespoons walnuts, chopped.
Cut the cold fetta into 4 thin batons.
Heat a small frying pan. Warm the honey and vincotto together until beginning to bubble. Turn down the heat and add the figs to the honey mixture. Cook gently on both sides for a few minutes so that the figs absorb some of the liquid.
Meanwhile, toast the walnut pieces in a small pan and watch that they don’t burn.
Assemble the dish by laying two fetta pieces on each serving plate. Top with hot figs and drizzle with the remaining liquid. Scatter the toasted walnuts on top.
The other day I noticed some of our peaches ripening on the bench too quickly. This is not normally a problem, given that I live with a fruit bat of a man who has an addiction to fruit, a dependence he has passed on to some of his grandchildren. The likelihood of finding fruit in prime condition, hanging about and ready to be eaten, is a rare event. He was being polite I am sure, knowing that I have a preference for summer stone fruits. Thank you kind sir, but I can’t eat 12 pieces of fruit in one day like the rest of you.
The slightly too ripe peaches were skinned, stoned, ( it’s beginning to sound like a medieval tale of torture- bring on the rack), then thrown into a blender, puréed and frozen into ice blocks. On Christmas Day, at around 11 am, they emerged once again and were shaved into the base of a crystal stemmed glass and covered with chilled Prosecco. Not quite a Bellini, more like a special breakfast beverage and one I can highly recommend.
The day started to improve dramatically. We began with a small pot of Manuka smoked mussel pâté on salted plain biscuits, a quickly imagined and executed festive treat, consumed only in the interests of sobriety. My simple Christmas vegetarian meal followed, Stilton and Walnut Double Baked Soufflé, the pre-planned part of our day. It was whipped up the night before, requiring minimal re-heating in the oven ‘on the day’, and accompanied by a few colourful trimmings, picked baby leaves from the garden and a psychedelic dollop of home-made Beetroot and Caramelised Onion Relish . These little puffy fellas were served with a Roaring Meg Pinot Gris from the Central Otago District of NZ. At this point, I was more than happy about losing my traditions, amongst other things.
And that dear friends, is how my quiet Christmas Day at home, senza famiglia, went. The dessert, a grown up trifle full of garden berries, followed much later on.
I’m posting my simple festive recipes here as they are most fitting for a light luncheon or entrée in any season. The soufflé recipe comes from Delicious Magazine.
The Smoked Mussell Pâté. Throw a handful of good quality smoked mussels into a blender. Add a couple of Tablespoons ( 1/4 cup) of cream cheese and a little sour cream. Blend until smooth. Add chopped chives if you have them nearby. Adapt the quantity to suit your numbers.
The Twice baked Stilton and Walnut Souffles ( makes 6)
300 ml milk
1 celery stick, roughly chopped
25 gr unsalted butter, plus extra for greasing
25 gr plain flour
2 tsp English mustard
4 medium-sized free range eggs, separated
175 gr Stilton cheese, crumbled
50 gr walnuts, roughly chopped
leaves, chutney to serve
Heat the milk in a saucepan with the celery to just below boiling point. Remove from the heat and leave to infuse for about 30 minutes. Preheat oven to 180C . Butter 6 X 150 ml ramekins/mini souffle dishes thoroughly and place in a deep baking tray.
Melt the butter in a small saucepan over a low heat, then stir in the flour to form a smooth paste. Remove from the heat and slowly strain in the celery infused milk, stirring constantly to make a smooth sauce. return to the heat and bring to a gentle simmer, stirring to thicken. Cook a further few minutes then transfer to a large bowl to cool.
Beat the mustard and egg yolks into the sauce and stir through 150 gr of the Stilton, the walnuts.Taste and adjust seasoning if necessary. Whisk the egg whites in a clean bowl till they form stiff peaks, then using a metal spoon, fold a little egg white through the souffle mix to loosen it. Fold the rest of the egg white gradually into the souffle.
Divide the mixture among the 6 buttered ramekins, then fill the baking tray with boiling water so that it reaches halfway up the outside of the ramekins Bake for 30 minutes or until the souffles have risen and are cooked through. Carefully remove them from the bainmarie, cool,then chill until needed.
When ready to serve, preheat the oven to 200C. Line a baking sheet with baking paper and using a palette knife, carefull loosen the souffles from their ramekins. Turn each one out onto the baking sheet. ( if at this point , some of the mixture has stuck to the bottom of the ramekins, don’t worry. Just lift it off with the knife and gently place it back onto the souffles. They may look a little ugly and shrunken at this point also. Don’t fret- they puff up agina with the second baking.) Scatter over the remaining 25 gr of Stilton.
Return to the oven for 10- 15 minutes until risen and golden on top. Serve with watercress, or baby leaves lightly dressed and some interesting chutney.
The best part of this recipe is that it can be made ahead up to step 4, then wrapped in cling foil. They can be frozen for up to 1 month and defrosted in the fridge overnight. Or they can be kept chilled for up to 24 hours. When ready to serve, continue from step 5.
Tomorrow’s recipe – that beetroot and caramelised onion chutney.
It’s in the news again. A new study has just revealed that substituting artificial sweetener for sugar and fruit leads to increased weight gain, cravings for carbohydrate and insomnia as well as a possible link to diabetes.
In this latest study, fruit flies were fed artificial sweetener and afterwards, the flies consumed one-third more calories and one-third more food. They also found that artificial sweeteners promoted hyperactivity and insomnia. They concluded that if people eat sweeteners but do not actually get the equivalent amount of calories, they eat more food to make up for it. The increase in consumption of artificial sweeteners also coincided with the dramatic increase in the obesity and diabetes epidemic.
I have never used artificial sweeteners and I don’t intend to soon. Fake foods worry me but then so does the the idea of eliminating sugar altogether from my diet. I’m wondering whether those who go ‘sugar free’ also behave like the fruit flies of the Sydney University study.
Once a week I make a cake. I get a couple of slices over a few days and the rest gets distributed to the hungry fruit fly visitors and family members. This cake covers any sugar cravings I might have for the week and contains a few healthy elements as well. The other bonus is that it only contains five ingredients and, once the ingredients are chopped, it can be thrown together in minutes. The dark chocolate adds rich notes, the nuts and dates add a healthy density and the lack of flour keeps it light.
200g dates, chopped
200g dark chocolate, chopped
200g walnuts, chopped
200g castor sugar
6 egg whites
Preheat oven to 180C. Butter a 23 cm springform cake tin then line with baking paper on the bottom and sides. Beat the egg whites until they are stiff then gradually add the sugar until they become glossy and meringue-like. Gently fold in the nuts, dates and chocolate. Bake for about an hour. Cool and serve.
Tip: The nuts and chocolate can be roughly chopped ( separately) in the food processor. Pulse and stop the machine as you go. The dates need to be chopped by hand.
When I first made these un- sausage rolls a few years ago, my died- in- the-wool vegetarian daughter didn’t enjoy them because they tasted too much like the real thing, that is, sausage meat. Like that old advertisement, ‘I can’t believe it’s not butter’, one might exclaim, ‘I can’t believe it’s not a sausage roll.’ They’re a lot healthier than the real thing and great to have stashed in the freezer for the silly season. Sausage roll connoisseurs and those with a hangover may feel a little cheated of the fat and unctuous smell. Most will not even notice. Pass the tomato sauce please.
This recipe is for mini bite- sized rolls. If you prefer a larger lunchtime shape, cut the puff pastry squares into halves and fill more generously .
Before you gather your ingredients, remove the four sheets of puff pastry from the freezer and defrost.
1 cup well-drained ricotta cheese
½ cup crushed walnuts
2½ Tablespoons soy sauce
1 medium onion, finely chopped
1 ½ cups breadcrumbs made from stale bread
1 ½ cups rolled oats
1 teaspoon dried mixed herbs
salt and pepper
2 tablespoons grated parmesan cheese
3 sheets frozen puff pastry
Heat oven to 18oc fan forced and line biscuit trays with baking paper, or grease if you prefer.
Mix walnuts, eggs, ricotta cheese, onion and soy sauce together in a large bowl.
Add rolled oats, breadcrumbs, herbs, parmesan and salt and pepper and mix well.
Cut pastry sheets into thirds and lay a thin strip of mixture down the middle of each sheet.
Roll up and seal edges with milk.
Flatten the backs of the rolls gently with the back of a knife then cut into 5 or 6 pieces.
Brush each roll with eggwash and place on the baking trays.
Bake for 20 minutes or until golden and cool on a wire rack.
Any scraps of leftover puff pastry can be twisted into shapes and dusted with parmesan then baked until golden.
This recipe is adapted from veggiemama’s version. I have added dried mixed herbs for that old-fashioned sausage roll taste. As I tend to have ricotta on hand, I use this. Mixing by hand is preferable when using ricotta. Other recipes ‘out there’ use fetta or cottage cheese. I have avoided the addition of lentils, as much as I love them, as meat eaters tend to detect them a mile off. And no grated carrots!