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{5} Cavallucci

When I started doing my annual Christmas baking project all those years ago, I tended to focus on what I knew, and with the exception of panettone, pretty much everything was from Northern Europe. Over the years I’ve looked beyond the well-known bakes, which has led me to look more and more at Italian Christmas cookies.

We have all seen those rainbow cookies with a chocolate glaze, but what I find interesting are the traditional regional specialities. Every part of the country seems to have its own unique baked goods, often reflecting the traditions and ingredients of the area the recipe comes from, which makes it rewarding to explore, as well as to make and then eat. Yes, unlike looking at lots of churches and medieval villages, exploring the culinary landscape has the bonus of being delicious. And today’s Christmas treat takes us to the city of Siena. Meet my batch of cavallucci.

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The name cavallucci literally means “little horses”. They are said to date back to the time of Lorenzo de’ Medici (also known rather modestly as Lorenzo the Magnificent and who ruled Florence in the late 1400s). Their name comes either from the fact that the original cookies had an impression of a horse on top, or due to the fact they were eaten by stable hands who worked as part of whatever passed for the postal system of the gentry in those days.

Fortunately the flavour of cavallucci is very far removed from anything horse-like. They contain a lot of walnuts and candied orange peel, as well as traditional spices including coriander and aniseed.

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Luckily, this is a recipe that is fairly simple to make. Once you’re prepared the dry ingredients (flour, nuts, spices, candied and dried fruits), you add a sugar and honey syrup to forma dough. This is left to cool for a moment, then rolled out and sliced into individual cookies for baking. No fancy moulds, no intricate decoration, no gilding and no messing around with icing or tempered chocolate. What a relief! And if you’re looking for a vegan option, swap the honey for your favourite syrup. Or if you’re a honey fan, you can swap some of the sugar and water for more honey.

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These are very rustic-looking little morsels of festive cheer. They look like they have been dipped in sugar, but they’ve actually been rolled in flour before baking. I think it looks rather nice, as it goes them a slightly snowy appearance, and it means the cookies have a more balances level of sweetness.

As I was making these, I was reminded of that other Siena classic, panforte. You prepare the dry ingredients, add lots of spices, nuts and candied peel, then bind it all with a sugar syrup, although the ratios of ingredients are different, and cavallucci include some raising agent. I did wonder if a raising agent was traditional, and I think it probably is not, but most of the classic recipes that I found, including that of the Siena tourist board, suggest using baker’s ammonia. I used this too as I have some in my baking cupboard, and I’m always on the look out for a recipe that uses this most stinky of ingredients. It certainly makes the cavallucci puff up nicely in the oven and you get a lovely light texture, with a crisp outside and slightly soft centre. If you can’t get hold of baker’s ammonia, other recipes suggest using baking soda, so it should be alright to use that instead – if you do give it a go, let me know how you get on.

To make Cavallucci (makes 50)

• 200g shelled walnuts
• 100g candied peel (e.g. orange, lemon, citron)
• 30g icing sugar
• 2 teaspoons baker’s ammonia
• 2 teaspoons ground coriander
• 1 teaspoon mixed spices
• 1/4 teaspoon aniseeds, crushed
• pinch of black pepper
• 650g plain flour
• 300g white sugar
• 150ml water
• 25g honey

1. Preheat the oven to 150°C and line a baking sheet with greaseproof paper rubbed lightly with some neutral oil.

2. Roughly chop the walnuts and candied fruits. Put in a large bowl and add the icing sugar, spices, baker’s ammonia (or baking soda) and flour. Mix well.

3. Put the sugar, water and honey into a saucepan. Heat gently until the sugar has dissolved and there are no crystals left (you want the sugar to just dissolve, but do not let it boil). Remove from the heat, allow to cool for a few minutes, then pour the liquid over the dry ingredients. Mix well with a wooden spoon. It should be firm but sticky.

4. When the mixture is still warm but cool enough to handle, take teaspoons of the mixture and drop onto a plate dusted with flour.

5. Roll each piece into a ball (it should be coated lightly with flour), place on the baking sheet and flatten to around 1cm thickness.

6. Bake the cavallucci for around 15 minutes until they are puffed up, but they are still pale (they only get a very slight colour during baking).

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Romantic Seed Crackers

OK, so more hearts! Why? Because…love is crackers? But worth it? And love is a good base for other things, just like a good cracker?

Fine, fine, I’ll stop trying to use bad humour to justify another heart-shaped post. Truth be told, I was really just looking for another excuse to use the rather splendid copper biscuit cutter that I was given as a present back in November, and it does seem such a shame to use it only at Christmas. And so I’ve made my seed crackers, but this time with a bit of a romantic twist.

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Of course this is not a new recipe – I first posted this about five years ago (five years ago!), but I think it is worth featuring again as it really is great. These are really double seed crackers – the simple dough (wholemeal and buckwheat flour, plus salt, oil and a dash of honey) is livened up with ground seeds, and then there are more on top for crunch and to give them some visual appeal. You could use whatever you like and/or have to hand, but I’ve used pumpkin, sesame, sunflower and poppy seeds.

If you make these, be prepared for “the alarming bit”. The poppy seeds and buckwheat flour make the dough a rather unappealing grey colour, but when they bake, the crackers take on this gorgeous conker-brown colour, making a handsome addition to a cheeseboard or any selection of dips.

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If you’re feeling creative and really want to work a heart theme, you can also cut out toppings using your cutters – slices of cheese, pieces of vegetable or whatever else you want. Otherwise, just throw them in a bowl, and use them to scoop up obscene amounts of hummus!

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For around 50 crackers (depends on size):

• 40g sesame seeds
• 30g pumpkin seeds
• 20g sunflower seeds
• 10g poppy seeds
• 120g wholewheat flour (spelt flour works too)
• 40g buckwheat flour
• 1/2 teaspoon sea salt, finely ground
• 2 teaspoons honey
• 2 tablespoons olive oil
• water, to bind
• egg white, to glaze
• seeds, to decorate

1. Preheat the oven to 150°C (300°F). Line a baking tray with baking parchment.

2. Mix all the seeds together, and blitz in a grinder until you have a fine powder. Don’t go too far, or they will become oily. The poppy seeds might stay whole, which is fine.

3. In a bowl, combine the ground seeds, flours, salt, honey and oil. Mix well.

4. Add enough water to make a dough (around 75-100ml, but it will vary depending on your flour). It should be smooth, but not sticky. Add more flour if needed.

5. Roll out the dough as thin as you can on a floured surface. Cut out the crackers (either use a cutter or cut with a knife or pizza cutter).

6. Brush each cracker with a little beaten egg white, and sprinkle over some seeds.

7. Bake for 15 minutes, or until the crackers become brown. Remove from the oven and transfer to a cooling rack. If you’re doing lots of different shapes and sizes, bake in batches of the same size to ensure they don’t burn.

Worth making? These are excellent! Quick to make, with delicious results.

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Les Couques de Dinant

Earlier this year, I agreed, in a moment of generous madness, that I would cater a family wedding for around 30 people over four nights deep in the Belgian countryside. I mean…how hard could it really be? Of course, I was not going to make all the mistakes that other cooks might make. Oh no, I was going to be organised, I was going to cook everything a couple of times to be sure the recipes were foolproof, I was going to have a detailed set of plans, I would run everything to schedule. A doddle. 120 covers? Ha, I laughed at the task. It’s all in the organisation, or so I thought.

Fast forward to the actual event in May, and I found myself in a hire care, winding along rural roads from Brussels to a small village in the Ardennes. If you don’t know the area, it is very pretty – forests, hills, charming towns and lots to explore. On the way to the venue, I was confident that driving out of Brussels was going to be the only bad thing about this whole trip. Even thought I lived in the Belgian capital for four years, I never got used to some of the worst driving in Western Europe. However, once we’d cleared Brussels, taken the motorway to Namur, and finally reached a small road along the river Meuse in the strawberry region around Wépion, I felt a bit of a sense of relief. A large strawberry ice cream on a patch of grass overlooking the river told me it was all going to be fine now. I had my day-by-day planner, everything would be straightforward. Time to sit back and enjoy the countryside.

Our trip took a took a bit of a detour down to Dinant. I’ve always had a bit of a soft spot for this place, and from the picture above, you can see why. The Meuse snakes its way along a valley, with long, thin towns lining its banks. And the results are stunning – traditional houses in front of large rock faces. Dinant is also famous as the birthplace of Adolphe Sax, the inventor of the saxophone, and today the evidence of this creation is still celebrated in the city.

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During this visit, I came across a traditional biscuit, the couques de dinant. The place where I discovered them was the wonderfully traditional Patisserie Jacobs, which had the various couques in just about every elaborate shape that you could think of – people, animals, baskets of flours and, of course, saxophones. It really was like stepping back in time, and after coffee and a strawberry tart, the helpful lady was happy to explain all about the ingredients, the history and the process of making couques de dinant.

These are traditionally made from very simple ingredients – flour and honey – and shaped into elaborate shapes using wooden moulds, and then baked at a high temperature so that the honey caramelises and they take on a deep, golden colour. There is also a variation, the couques de rins, which are made with added sugar. Apparently, there are rules about ensuring careful labelling so that customers can be sure they are getting exactly the right thing.

Now, these little couques are rather hard to describe…the best I can say is that they are like very hard biscuits, but you don’t actually bite into them. For goodness sake, don’t bite into them! Well, you could, but you would probably break your teeth, and that would be bad. No, the trick with the couques is to break them into pieces, and then pop a small piece into your mouth and let it soften, rather like a sweet. The flavour is very old-fashioned, and sort of reminds me of German Christmas biscuits, also often made with lots of honey.

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When I got back to London, I decided to have a go at making these myself. The good thing about making couques de dinant is that you really can make very small amounts of them, as you just need equal weights of honey and flour. Before making a big batch, I did a little test run with a spoon of honey and an equal weight of plain flour.

What became clear to me very quickly is that the type of honey you use here really does matter. I don’t think it is so much the quality of the honey as such, but you do want something with a strong flavour. My first attempt using a very mild acacia honey was a bit lacklustre. However, a second attempt using a strong wildflower honey was much better, with a much richer flavour.

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Actually making the couques was fairly straightforward. I don’t have an elaborate foot-high wooden stamp of the type they use in traditional Dinant bakeries, but I did have some biscuit presses  from when I made German Springerle a couple of years ago, and I thought using my little pine cone mould would look rather cute. Just roll out the dough, dust very lightly with flour, then press the mould on top. This helps to stop sticking, and in my experience works better than trying to apply the flour to the mould itself (think about it – if the mould is not actually sticky, the flour will just fall off…). Once you’ve got a nice sharp imprint, just use a soft brush to gently sweep away the excess before baking.

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Once you’ve got all the dough ready, just pop in the oven and bake until a rich golden colour. When you remove them from the oven, there is another trick – brush them straight away with some plain water. This makes any remaining patches of flour disappear, and gives the finished couques an attractive sheen. And there you go – you’ve made the couques! If you want to see an expert at work, here is a rather nifty video from a baker in Patisserie Jacobs. It’s in French, but you can still get an idea of the process.

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Now…the big question…what are they actually like? Well, as promised, they are pretty tough. The thinner the couque, the more likely it is to snap, but they don’t seem to end up as crisp and delicate morsels. Just as the lady in the bakery promised, you need to bread off a piece, and just let is melt in the mouth. Not as sensational as macarons or as delicate as florentines, but they’ve got a certain old-fashioned charm, and of course, a delicious strong honey flavour. They also last for absolutely ages, so if you’re looking to make decorative cookies, these are a great option.

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Oh, and that wedding…you might be interested to know how it went? Well, for all my naïve ideas that I could plan everything and have it run like clockwork, that didn’t happen. But you already guess that! I spent the best part of the four days of the wedding celebrations running around in the large kitchen, bossing people about, with about seven different pots on the go at any one time.  Of course, what was fantastic was that with our little kitchen gang, we were able to turn out a series of delicious dishes which the guest and the newlyweds seemed to really enjoy. We did everything from scratch, and the reason we did that rather than using shortcuts was that we all wanted to do something special for the event. We were ambitious, goodness knows we were ambitious, but it all worked, so I hope that we did succeed in helping to make their celebrations a little more special.

So while I spent most of the four days of the wedding celebrations over a hot stove, feeling stressed, tired, frustrated, impatient and probably nearly shouted at lots of people, it was also wonderful, crazy, fantastic fun. I’ve learned a lot about cooking for big groups, and I’ve also realised that I probably don’t plan to open a restaurant quite yes. however, that’s not to say that I don’t still have a little fantasy to open a café floating around in my head…

To make Couques de Dinant (makes around 12-15):

• 250g runny honey
• 250g plain flour, plus extra for dusting
• dot of oil to grease
• water

1. Preheat the oven the 220°C (430°F). Line a baking tray with greaseproof paper, and rub very lightly with vegetable oil.

2. Put the honey in a bowl, and add the flour, a little at a time, until you have a smooth dough. You want a texture that is firm but which can be shaped, so you might need a little more or a little less – go you your gut.

3. Turn the dough onto a well-floured surface and roll to around 1cm (1/3 inch) thickness. Dust with flour and press the mould into the dough, trim and place on the baking tray. Repeat until all the dough is used up.

4. Bake for around 10-15 minutes until golden, turning the tray half-way during baking if needed to get an even colour (watch them – the high honey content means they can easily burn). When done remove from the oven and brush each with a little water. Leave to cool.

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Oh Mon Amour! The Stolen Heart

Ah, ’tis once again Valentine’s Day! In previous years I have treated you to pink and romantic treats, but this year I felt that a little bit of a twist was in order. Everyone is all about hearts, so let’s take that idea and run with it.

I’ve drawn my inspiration from the cold and snowy weather we’ve had in olde London Town for the last few days (even if today has warmed up rather nicely). I was in the City earlier in the week, and was fascinated by those medieval buildings that are still clinging on in the face of advancing glass and steel monsters. In the icy mist, they give you brief glimpses of times long forgotten, but still not quite gone. I passed one church that looked like something from a fairy tale, but more like one of the darker true Grimm tales than anything more recent and sugar-coated. It was striking how the cool weather seems to be able to strip a scene of almost all colour, leaving it eerie and silent.

Against this atmospheric scene, this dish is a tribute to those old tales, where key characters encountered  unexpected things in the woods. There might be a happily-ever-after, but there could equally be a grisly end in the dark forest on the snowy ground at the teeth of the big, bad wolf. Yes, you guessed it, I’m going with the latter. And you can guess how that heart was stolen – basically, it’s a crime scene on a plate!

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In coming up with this, I had something rather like Snow White in mind. There had to be lots of red and white – which are, after all, the key elements that go into making the most romantic colour of all, pink – but they are presented in a way which I’ve called The Stolen Heart to suggest that some beast has just “stolen” someone’s heart in the most literal sense. Rather than lovely fluffy pink macarons or cupcakes with love hearts, this is intended to look shocking.

The idea is that this is a snowy scene, achieved with a mixture of yoghurt and mascarpone. Roasted figs are added (a fruit that is so often linked with romance and passion) to represent something that has been left behind by the miscreant. The scene is dusted with snow-like sugar, and then finally splattered with a red fruit sauce with a dash of pomegranate molasses, this latter ingredient bringing in the fertility associations of pomegranate as well as adding sharpness. The result is strange, in turns both pretty and unsettling, and perhaps the complete antithesis of all the chocolate hearts and sugared rose petals that seem to be everywhere else at the moment. That said, perhaps this is not the most suitable thing to serve your special someone on Valentine’s Day, but then, that wasn’t what I was going for.

So what do you think? Taste-wise, it’s actually delicious – rich roasted figs, heady with the perfume of spice and lemon in red wine, chilled mascarpone with just a light hint of sweetness – so it does make a lovely late winter pudding. But it might just freak you out too…

Finally, just one little tip – it’s wonderfully great fun to splatter the red sauce in a dramatic fashion, but either do it over a sink or in the garden – otherwise you will find your Jackson Pollock frenzy makes the kitchen look like a crime scene. And serve it straight away – the sauce will start to bleed (ha ha!) and dissolve the sugar snow. You want it to look like the crime has just been committed, and someone’s heart really has just been stolen. Perhaps too literal an interpretation of Valentine’s Day?

To make The Stolen Heart (serves 2):

For the figs:

• 4 large ripe fresh figs
• dash of lemon zest
• 3 tablespoons red wine
• 1 tablespoon honey
• 1 tablespoon brown sugar
• pinch of allspice

For the snow:

• 100g natural yoghurt
• 100g mascarpone cheese
• icing sugar

For the blood:

• 100g raspberries (frozen work best)
• sugar (to taste)

1. First, roast the figs. Cut the figs into quarters, then mix with the zest, wine, honey, brown sugar and allspice. Put into an over dish, cut side up, cover with tin foil, and cook at 200°C (400°F) for 20 minutes (you might need to check from time to time and spoon the wine sauce onto the cut figs). Remove the tin foil, spoon the sauce into the figs again, and cook for another 10 minutes. Put the tin foil back, turn off the heat, and leave until cold.

2. Make the “blood”. Heat the frozen raspberries in a saucepan until quite liquid. Mash, then pass through a sieve to remove the seeds. Sweeten to taste with sugar. If you want, you can add any left-over wine syrup from the figs to add flavour and deepen the colour.

3. The prepare the dish, mix the yoghurt and mascapone cheese until smooth. Spread onto two large plates.

4. Chop the figs into large chunks. Drop onto the plate in a rough manner.

5. Dust everything liberally with icing sugar for a snow-like effect, and immediately “splatter” the plate with the red fruit sauce (you might not need all of it – just enough to create the dramatic effect). Serve straight away.

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Oh Mon Amour! Bitter and Sweet

It’s that time of year when it is simply de rigueur to think pink. Heart-shaped chocolates, cupcakes, biscuits and desserts about. Heck, even emails at work are festooned with cherubs, hearts and flowers to persuade us that getting on top of our administration is somehow wonderfully romantic (is isn’t).

However, I’ve decided to depart from the usual Valentine treats (i.e. sweet and sugary) and instead to try something a little different. As an antidote to all those chocolates, this is just a simple salad to make us feel healthy during these cold, wintery days. And yes, obviously, it is in part hot pink.

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To make this salad, I’ve used ingredients for both colour as well as flavour. It would be easy just to walk around and throw everything that is red into a bowl and suggest it conveys the essence of romance, but I wanted to be more subtle than that.

Most obviously, I’ve used red endive, which add a rich pink colour, but also have a little bitterness to them. What’s love if not occasionally bitter? Then there are pomegranate seeds and segments of blood oranges. Don’t read too much into the “blood” part, but I wanted some fruit that would add sweetness, the oranges providing some citrussy tang and the pomegranate seeds some crunch. In all honestly, I must say  that I was a little disappointed that these oranges were not, well, more “bloody” when I cut them open, but they did turn out to have very pretty orange and red mottling, which actually looked great on the plate. I also put in some aromatic fennel (I’ve been eating a lot of this recently) as well as some crumbled cheddar. I could say the cheese somehow symbolises strength and smoothness, but the reality is – strong cheddar is just brilliant with fennel, and there’s not too much more to it than that!

I finished this off with a simple dressing of olive oil, honey and red wine vinegar, which again balance sweetness, sharpness and smoothness. Finally, the sauce gets a little kick in terms of flavour and colour by adding some oil from a jar of harissa paste. It ended up more orange than pink or red, but the effect was still great.

So that’s really it! This salad is by turns sweet, bitter and sharp, so it has interesting tastes and textures as well as looking quite stunning. You can, of course, tweak the ingredients depending on what you have to hand and your own preferences, but I think the red quality from the endive and fruit is pretty much essential.

Whatever you have planned for tomorrow – dinner à deux or a fun-filled evening with friends – have fun!

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To make a Bitter and Sweet salad (serves 2, of course)

For the salad:

• 2 red endives
• 2 blood oranges
• 1 small fennel bulb
• 50g cheddar
• 2 handfuls pomegranate seeds

For the dressing:

• 1 tablespoon honey
• 1 tablespoon olive oil
• 1 tablespoon red wine vinegar
• 1 teaspoon oil from harissa paste or sun-dried tomato paste (optional)

1. Break the endive into leaves, and cut each one into two lengthways. Peel the orange and cut into segments. Slice the fennel into very thin pieces. Slice the cheese and crumble.

2. Build up the salad on two plates – start with the endives, then the fennel, then the oranges, then cheddar and then scatter over the pomegranate seeds.

3. Make the dressing – whisk everything until smooth, then drizzle over the salad.

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Winter Slaw Salad

If you’re anything like me, you’ve been trying to empty the fridge and cupboards after the excesses of Christmas. This often prompts a strange array of dishes with a random festive ingredient, or what can seem like an endless supply of Clementine juice…and there is that stray jar of mincemeat that needs to be used up…somehow!

Today’s recipe addresses this, as it allows you to use up a few winter vegetables to make a colourful and healthy coleslaw salad, full of raw vegetables with lots of fibre, which makes for a comforting side dish. The sort of thing that works very well alongside baked potatoes with butter. It is, after all, snowing outside, and that’s not the sort of weather that you want to eat only cold raw veggies, is it?

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I have to fess up to the fact that I’ve seen a few versions of winter slaw around recently, so this is something of an amalgam of those ideas. However, I’ve made this recipe based on what I had in the cupboard (I’ve tended to buy very little since Christmas other than milk and bread!), and lends itself to endless tweaking based on what you have to hand. I’ve just used some red cabbage, Brussel sprouts, fennel, carrot and apple, and the sauce is made from mayo and sour cream that has been enlivened with some spicy harissa paste and allspice. Sometimes just going with what you have to hand is a great way to come up with exciting flavour combinations. But you might just want to stop short of crumbling some left-over Christmas pudding on top, eh? The only thing I would suggest you make sure you do is to shred the veg as finely as you can – it means all the sauce will get mopped up, and of course it looks all the more dramatic on the table. If you want to go even further, top with some chopped fresh herbs (dill being a bit of a seasonal favourite at the moment) or some chopped toasted almonds or pistachios.

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To make winter slaw:

For the slaw:

• 1/2 small red cabbage
• 1 small fennel bulb
• 2 large carrots
• handful of Brussel sprouts
• 1 tablespoon olive oil
• 1/2 lemon, juice only

For the sauce:

• 2 large tablespoons mayonnaise
2 large tablespoons sour cream
• 1/4 teaspoon harissa or chilli paste

• squeeze runny honey
• 1/2 teaspoons mustard
• 2 teaspoons cider vinegar
• 1/8 teaspoon allspice
• pinch ground mace
• salt and pepper, to taste

1. Start with the sauce – put everything into a small bowl and whisk until smooth. Adjust salt and pepper if needed.

2. Prepare the slaw – put the olive oil and lemon in a large bowl (you’ll add the vegetables as you go, and tossing in the lemon juice will stop them from getting brown). Peel the carrots, then use the peeler to slice the carrots into thin pieces. Trim the fennel and cut lengthways into very thin pieces. Peel and core the apple and finely slice. Peel the sprouts and shred. Last of all, finely shred the cabbage as thinly as you can. Put everything into a large bowl with the olive oil and lemon juice, and toss gently to ensure the vegetables are coated.

3. Just before serving, pour the sauce over the slaw and toss gently to make sure all the vegetables are coated.

Worth making? Nice and easy, and a great way to use up a glut of veg. The sauce is the place where you can get very creative – allowing you to make sure the slaw sits well with other dishes.

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{10} Panforte

As we get close and close to the big day, the Christmas baking gets grander and grander. I’m not going the whole hog and making a Christmas cake, but the Italian panforte gets pretty close. This is a real step up from small biscuits, and looks, smells and tastes amazing!

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Panforte, Italian for “strong bread”, is not much more than lots of toasted almonds and hazelnuts paired with candied citrus peel and fruit, flavoured with spices and then bound together by a sugar and honey syrup. The result is rich, incredibly rich, but it really does have a flavour that can be described as the essence of Christmas. It’s also the sort of thing that you can have sitting somewhere, so you or guests can cut off the occasional sliver to enjoy with coffee or as an evening treat with a glass of liqueur.

This cake is a tradition from the Italian city of Siena. There are two versions, essentially white (as I’ve made here) and black, which is made with more dried fruits (such as figs and sultanas) and cocoa. It’s just a matter of personal choice which you prefer, but I like the former.

I’ve seen some recipes that say panforte should contain seventeen ingredients. This is said to link back to the number of districts within the city walls of Siena, and I quite liked the idea of trying to do this. It means you’re forced to add a bit of variety in terms of the ingredients. In my recipe, if you ignore the water in the syrup, but count the mixed peel (orange, lemon and citron) as three different ingredients, I did indeed get to the magic number. What does matter, however, is that if you’re going to make one of these, you need to go with the right ingredients, and try to use good nuts and candied peel. Almonds and hazelnuts are traditional, but I’m sure good pecans or walnuts would do the trick, but I’d  perhaps draw the line at putting peanuts in there! The candied peel is a must though – I used part candied peel and part papaya for the fruit, and while you could skip the papaya and instead use pineapple, apricots or even preserved pear, you should not miss out the citrus entirely. It’s such a fundamental part of the flavour.

You’ll see a lot of versions of panforte, from thick and even cakes in stores to my more “rustic” version. The rougher look is due to using whole nuts, rather than chopping then. You can chop the almonds and hazelnuts, but if you do, you don’t get the amazing look when you cut the slices. In addition, as the cake is so rich, I’ve kept it thin. When you taste how rich it is, you won’t feel the need to make a deeper panforte, as a little really does go a long way!

So there you have it – an Italian option in place of Christmas cake, and it’s not too late to make this – 20 minutes to prepare, and 30 minutes to bake. You’ve still got time!

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To make Panforte:

• 100g almonds, skinned
• 100g hazelnuts, skinned
• 100g candied citrus peel (I used orange, lemon and citron)
• 135g candied fruit (such as papaya or melon)
• 50g plain flour
• 1/2 teaspoon ground cinnamon
• 1/4 teaspoon ground nutmeg
• 1/4 teaspoon ground allspice
• 1/4 teaspoon ground cloves
• 1/4 teaspoon ground mace
• 1/4 teaspoon ground coriander
• pinch black pepper
• 50g honey (I used orange blossom)
• 150g white sugar
• 25g butter
• cold water

1. Preheat the oven to 160°C. Grease a 20cm (8 inch) loose-bottomed tin with butter. Line with rice paper (if using).

2. Put the hazelnuts and almonds onto another baking tray and toast in the oven until just starting to colour. Remove from the oven and put into a large bowl.

3. As the nuts are cooling, cut the peel and papaya/mango into chunks (aim for pea-sized pieces). Add to the nuts.

4. Mix the flour and spices in a bowl. Sieve into the nut/fruit mixture, then stir briefly.

5. Make the syrup – put the honey, sugar and butter into a saucepan with some water. Warm on a medium heat until the mixture reaches the soft ball stage (113°C/235°F). If you don’t have a candy thermometer, then drop a little of the syrup into a bowl of very cold water – it should form a soft ball!

6. Pour the hot syrup onto the other ingredients and stir with a spoon until combined. Transfer to the prepared tin. Flatten the mixture with a buttered spoon (or if you have asbestos hands, but butter on your palms and pat the mixture into shape).

7. Bake the panforte for around 30 minutes until the syrup is bubbling. The mixture will firm up when the cake cools. Remove from the oven, allow to cool, then transfer to a plate to cool completely(*).

8. When the panforte is cool, dust with icing sugar, and rub lightly with your fingers so a bit of the fruit and nut details are clear. Serve in small slices with coffee or liquer after dinner. Or any time!

(*) If the panforte is difficult to remove from the tin, put it in a warm oven to soften slightly.

Worth making? This is a superb cake, and unbelievably easy compared to just how good the final result tastes.

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{2} Queen’s Gingerbread

Earlier this year, we enjoyed the damp festivities of the Queen’s Diamond Jubilee. At the time, I saw this recipe by Dan Lepard for gingerbread that I wanted to have a go at there and then, but I felt that it really ought to be saved for Christmas. I’ve gone back and looked at it several times since, but finally, finally, it’s time to dust it off and give it a try.

Even before making this recipe, I thought it looked delicious – rather than the light, soft, cake-like gingerbread we’re used to, this looked light something dense and rich, more like Italian panforte. However, as always, I could not resist the urge to make a little tweak, and dropped the dried apricots in place of dates. I though they would add a touch of the exotic to go with the spices.

I was also keen to give this recipe a try early in December to see how the flavours developed when stored. There is certainly a heroic amount of spice in the recipe, and I opted for a robust heather honey that would not be overpowered by the ginger, nutmeg, mace and cinnamon. As of today, it’s a very rich treat, and it does have a very “traditional” flavour that is very welcome on these chilly days. It’s also a nice alternative to very sweet, chocolatey treats that are ubiquitous at this time of the year!

One tip – if you use a pan as per Dan’s recipe, the pieces are around an inch high. If you want smaller pieces, I suggest using a larger pan and adjusting the cooking time accordingly. However, I quite like my diamonds, cut small, yet somehow towering on a plate.

Dan’s recipe refers to this as something the Elizabethans would have called a sweetmeat. This certainly strikes me as something that would, in another time, have seemed like the utter height of luxury. There is a decadent, almost obscene, amount of spice in this recipe, as well as treacle and honey and dried fruit. In the era of Gloriana, this would have been something that only those with rather a lot of money would have been able to afford. The access we have to ingredients these days – we are very blessed indeed!

To make Queen’s Gingerbread (original recipe here):

• 450g plain flour
• 5 teaspoons ground ginger
• 1 teaspoon ground nutmeg
• 1 teaspoon ground mace
• 2 teaspoons ground cinnamon
• 1 teaspoon bicarbonate of soda
• 150g unsalted butter
• 250g caster sugar
• 150g honey
• 150g black treacle
• 75g candied citrus peel, chopped
• 75g dates, chopped
• 75g preserved ginger, chopped
• 100g unskinned almonds

1. Preheat the oven to 160°C (320°F). Line the based of a 20cm square tin with greaseproof paper.

2. Put the flour, spices and bicarbonate of soda into a bowl. Stir well, then sieve to make sure everything is properly mixed.

3. Put the butter, honey, treacle and sugar into a large saucepan. Heat gently until combined and the sugar has melted. Stir in the citrus peel, dates and ginger. Allow to cool until only slightly warm (if too warm, the baking soda will start to react).

4. Add the flour mixture to the saucepan and stir to a thick dough. Press the dough into the tin (you’ll find this is easiest with damp hands).

5. Cut the almonds in half, and sprinkle evenly over the top (some with the white side showing, some with the skin showing). Press lightly into the dough.

6. Bake for around 25 minutes – the dough will be puffed up. Remove from the oven, leave to cool, then cut into diamonds. Store in an airtight container.

Worth making? I love this recipe! In spite of all that sugar and honey, the result is not too sweet, and lends itself to a rich snack with a cup of tea. So far, it seems to keep well, and the flavour is actually nicer after a few days (but also very tasty right away too).

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Scottish food: Cranachan

You know that Scotland is famous for whisky (spelled without the “e”), tablet, shortbread and smoked salmon. What you might not know is that it is also a very prolific producer of soft fruit. And in my view, the jewel in the crown among them is the raspberry. Let’s just pause for a moment to admire one of the little fellows:

If you are from certain parts of Scotland and of a certain age, there is a pretty good chance that you spent many a summer “at the berries” (i.e. being given little choice in the matter of going to a farm to pick raspberries). There is perhaps a certain romanticism attached to spending long, warm summer days in fields of fruit….

That’s more or less how I remember it, but that’s probably the rose-tinted view. I suspect the reality was more like standing at the muddy farm gates at 7am, and then spending most of the day rummaging around in bushes that are covered in lots and lots of little spikes, encountering lots of creepy-crawlies. At the end of the day, your hands would be stained red and, thanks to those tiny barbs, could be really quite itchy. But when you’re young, it seems that you have hit on a way of earning more money than you could possibly ever imagine. And that’s how I earned my first £100! I can still remember the sense of achievement that I had earned a three-figure sum! To this day, it serves as a reference point for the value of money – it was hours of physical work to earn it, and it made me a little more selective about how I spent it.

Anyway, moving past the misty-eyed recollections of summers past, with this abundance of lovely raspberries in Scotland, there are two tasty things you could make. Most obviously, you could make raspberry jam, which is peerless when enjoyed on fresh scones. If you want to make it, just put equal weights of raspberries and white sugar in a pot with a squeeze of lemon juice – bring to the boil, then simmer until set.

The less obvious thing to make is….to make a classic Scottish dessert called cranachan (complete with that harsh “ch” sound in the middle). If you’re looking for a reference point, you could call this a Scottish trifle, made with cream, oats and raspberries. Yes, oats. Trust me on this.

I’ve actually been hoping to post a cranachan recipe for a while, but I felt I should wait until I actually got my hands on some Scottish rasps. Not that there is anything wrong with the berries that come from Kent or Hampshire, but I just prefer the Scottish ones! However, my timing is less than perfect. I missed the main season what with moving house and the 2012 Games, and we’ve now slipped out of raspberry season here in the UK. However, I realise that there are parts of the world where these little fellows are just coming into season, so I reasoned that there would always be a good time to do this recipe. That, and by pure chance, I finally managed to get my hands on what must be the last punnets of fruit that came out of Scotland this year. It was a sign, clearly, that I had to feature cranachan!

This dessert is very simple – a combination of crushed raspberries, toasted oats, lightly whipped cream, heather honey and a dash of whisky. If you’ve made sure that the cream comes from happy cows that have been enjoying the lush green pastures of Aberdeenshire (or similar) then you’ve got a 100% Scottish dessert. It combines the sweet tartness of raspberries, nutty toasted oats that have a little bit of crunch to them, and lightly whipped cream that is flavoured with whisky and honey. Even with the oats, it’s a very luxurious dessert.

There are many different ways to make cranachan, and as I am not really in a position to say which is the authentic version, I’ll give you a few options and you can pick which you prefer. Some people throw everything in a bowl and mix,  others like to have distinct layers of cream, fruit, honey and oats. I prefer the “layers” approach and like to put it together at the last minute – the different textures make this a more interesting dessert. Also think about how long you will let the dessert sit – the longer you leave it to sit, the softer the oats will get and the stiffer the cream gets. I would assemble the dessert just before serving, so you can still appreciate the different textures.

And finally, I will deal with the obvious question – can you use yoghurt in place of the cream? I think you could, and while it won’t be the same, it will still be tasty. Just don’t try to play too fast and loose with the recipe by getting rid of the oats. Now that would be sacrilege!

To make Cranachan (serves 4):

• 60g oats (pinhead or jumbo rolled)(*)
• 300g fresh raspberries, plus more to decorate

• 300ml double cream
• 6 tablespoons honey, melted and cooled
• 6 tablespoons whisky

1. Dry-toast the oats in a frying pan over a medium heat. They are ready when the flakes are just browned and smell toasted, but should not be dark. Leave to cool.

2. In a bowl, lightly crush half the raspberries. Fold in the remaining whole raspberries and crush lightly – there should still be large whole pieces.

3. In another bowl, mix 3 tablespoons of honey with 3 tablespoons of whisky.

4. In another bowl, mix the cream and the rest of the honey and whisky. Whip until the cream thickens but is still soft. It should still be floppy, not stiff.

5. To assemble the dessert(**), add some of the raspberry mixture, then a sprinkling of oats and then some of the cream mixture. Add two more layers in the same order (raspberries, oats, cream, raspberries, oats, cream). Top with a few whole raspberries, and drizzle with the honey-whisky mixture. Serve immediately.

(*) Use as little or as much of the toasted oats as you prefer – you might want to go easy on the oats unless you’re a hardcore porridge fan.

(**) If you’re making this for a dinner, I recommend toasting the oats, making the whisky/honey mixture and toasting the oats ahead of time, but assemble everything at the very last moment. It’s also best not to keep the raspberries in the fridge, as they have a better flavour at room temperature.

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Pistachio Kadayıfı Baklava

You’ll know what I’m about to talk about. We all have one of those purchases lurking in the larder. Something that looked such a smart buy when you were on holiday or in that posh deli, and for which you had such grand, grand plans. It was going to be amazing. A taste sensation. Guests would be in awe, impressed with your skills. Then you got it home…and it went into a cupboard to be forgotten about, save for the occasional pangs of guilt you feel when you see it, then quickly close the cupboard door so you can forget about it again.

In my case, the “object of guilt” it was a packet of Turkish kadayıfı pastry (the “angel hair” stuff). I picked it up when  was in Brussels, and it was going to form the basis of an amazing tray of fragrant, sweet baklava. Last weekend, finally, finally, I got round to using it, and as intended, it was to make baklava – using pistachios, flavoured with orange blossom water and cardamom.

To use kadayıfı , you rip off as much as you need, fluff it up, let it sit outside for a few minutes (to get rid of whatever preservative gas is used to keep the pastry from spoiling…I prefer not to think about it!) and then pour on some melted butter. Next, there is not much you can do other than roll up your sleeves and mix the butter into the pastry until it is well-coated. This is the messier and more fun version of brushing sheets of filo pastry with butter, and means the strands on top become crisp during baking.

I had planned to use pistachio nuts to fill this baklava, and I got hold of a bag of good-quality unsalted nuts. What did not go through my brain until it was too late was the realisation that I would have to stand for the best part of half an hour shelling them, by hand, then picking off the papery inner skin. It you fancy testing your patience, then shelling pistachios is one of the best ways to do it. However, you can save yourself a heck of  lot of work by getting hold of some pre-shelled nuts. Just a suggestion!

Rather than the brown sugar I’ve used in baklava before (which works well with hazelnut baklava), I stuck to white with the hope that the colour of the nuts would still be apparent after baking. The filling was finished off with a little cinnamon and a dash of orange blossom water, again not too much as I wanted the pistachio flavour to stand a sporting chance of being apparent after baking. However, the real magic of the East came from the syrup – made with acacia honey, orange blossom water, rose water and crushed cardamom pods. The cardamom on particular was a great addition, adding the lightly peppery, citrus-and-aniseeed flavour to the syrup. Just enough to be add a little something, but not too much that it was overpowering.

When the baklava comes out of the oven, you’ll think it is very fragile and wonder how you’ll cut it without everything collapsing. And you’re right, the kadayıfı wants to break apart. But once you’ve drizzled the hot baklava with the cold syrup and left the whole lot to cool, it slices like a dream.

This is a very different type of baklava compared to when making it with filo pastry. The strands on top stay crisp (and you get lots of little “snaps” as you bite into it), while the syrup soaks into the bottom layer and the nut filling. This makes for a nice contrast in textures. And it shows that sometimes, it can be worth revisiting that abandoned ingredient – it might just surprise you!

I ended up presenting this at a dinner as dessert. I’d merrily raided various Ottolenghi recipes for inspiration, so there had been a number of rich, aromatic and filling dishes, and I was sure that heavy chocolate cake wasn’t the way to go. So it was baklava with a few pomegranate seeds (colour contrast and a sharp tang to balance the sweet syrup) and the offer of whipped cream for those that wanted it. In the end, the cream went untouched, but all the baklava went. I just wish it wasn’t one of those things that is so addictively easy to pick at. Every time you pass it in the kitchen…just one piece…just one more piece…well, just one more…

To make pistachio baklava:

This looks complex – it isn’t. I’ve just tried to make the recipe as easy to follow as I can.

For the sugar syrup:

• 150ml water
• 200g white sugar
• 50g soft brown sugar
• 100g light honey (such as acacia)
• 2 teaspoons lemon juice
• 2 cardamom pods, lightly crushed
• 1 tablespoons of orange blossom water
• 1 tablespoon of rose water(*)

In a saucepan, heat the water, sugar, honey, lemon juice and cardamom pods until it comes to the boil and cook for a minute. Now add the orange blossom and rose waters, boil for a few seconds, and remove from the heat. Allow to cool. Remove the cardamom pods and any seeds before using on the baklava.

For the filling:

• 200g pistachios (or pistachios and almonds)
• 100g white caster sugar
• 1/2 teaspoon ground cinnamon
• 2 tablespoons orange blossom water

For the pastry:

• 300g kadayıfı (angel hair) pastry
• 150g butter

Preheat the oven to 200°C.

Grind the nuts. You want them medium-fine, but with a few larger pieces. Don’t turn them to powder otherwise the filling will be too dense. Combine with the sugar and cinnamon, then add the orange blossom water and mix well – it should be damp and sand-like, not wet and sticky. Set aside.

Prepare the pastry according to directions on the packet. This will most likely involve “fluffing up” the pastry and mixing it with melted butter and mixing well.

In a dish (I used one 21 x 28cm), add half the buttered pastry, and pat down until even but not too compact. Add the filling, and spread out. Be gentle so you don’t mess up the base. Now add the rest of the pastry, spread out, then pat down with the back of a spoon – you can be quite firm here.

Bake the baklava for 20-25 minutes the top is crisp and lightly golden. When done, remove from the oven, allow it to sit for a minute, then drizzle with the cooled syrup . Do it slowly – a spoonful at a time – so that all the baklava gets a soaking. If you see syrup forming pools in some areas, don’t worry – it will all be absorbed.

Allow the baklava to cool fully before cutting into pieces.

(*) By this, I mean the lightly aromatic rose water. If you have the much more intense rose extract, then use just a few drops and not a whole tablespoon!

 

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