Tag Archives: italian food

{9} Parrozzo

A couple of years ago, I made Marquesas de Navidad, some little Spanish Christmas cakes which at first I thought had some ancient pedigree, but which were actually created in the early part of the 20th century. Traditional recipes and classic bakes are great, but I also think it is nice that new things still appear from time to time.

And today is another fairly new kid on the block. This cake is called a Parrozzo. It was created in 1920 by an Italian gentlemen called Luigi d’Amico, who ran a pastry shop in Pescara in the Abruzzo region of Italy.

However Luigi’s idea was actually a modern take on a traditional local recipe called pane rozzo which means “rough bread”. This loaf had a domed shape and a dark colour due to being baked in a hot wood-fired oven. So his sweet Parrozzo kept the domed shape in homage to the source of his inspiration, and the chocolate glaze imitated the dark colour the bread would have gained during baking.


The Parrozzo is actually an almond sponge. It is traditionally flavoured by the judicious use of a few bitter almonds to provide the distinctive flavour. I’ve written already this year about how these can be risky if eaten in quantity, but I’ve taken the lazier route of using normal (sweet) almonds and added some almond extract. Some recipes also use lemon zest, which I’ve opted to use as I think it works very well with almonds, and lifts the flavour of the cake. You could miss out the lemon, or swap it for orange zest if you fancy something a little punchier.

The cake is finished with a simple chocolate glaze, but fret not – you don’t need to worry about tempering chocolate to get a nice sheet, you just melt chocolate with butter, and forget about the science of tempering and getting the right sort of chocolate crystals for a set. It’s Christmas and we’ve all got too many things to get done! You just melt, add butter, stir and pour. Job done!

This makes a fairly large cake, and it looks quite impressive as a centrepiece. I think it benefits from being made a couple of days in advance. The texture is light but not too fluffy, cuts well, and stays moist thanks to the butter, eggs and almonds in the batter. We really enjoyed this one – it tastes festive, but is very different to the fruit and spices of a British Christmas cake.

And as if a chocolate-covered dome cake that is impersonating a loaf of peasant bread is not exciting enough, this cake even has its own song: La Canzone del Parrozzo (the Song of the Parrozzo) written by poet and politician Gabriele D’Annunzio. It is a tango, and reminds me a little of the Italian socialist classic Ciao Bella.

To make a Parrozzo:

For the cake:

• 150g plain flour
• 150g ground almonds (skin on)
• 1 teaspoon baking powder
• 6 large eggs
• 50g butter, melted and cooled
• 250g caster sugar
• 2 teaspoons almond extract
• 1 teaspoon vanilla
• 1 tablespoon lemon juice
• zest of 1/2 lemon

For the glaze

• 200g dark chocolate
• 50g unsalted butter

1. Preheat the oven to 170°C (340°F). Prepare the cake mould (I used  20cm /8 inch hemispherical tin). Rub the inside really well with butter then dust liberally with flour. Shake out the excess.

2. Mix the flour, almonds and baking powder. Set aside.

3. Separate the eggs.

4. Beat the egg yolks, sugar, melted butter, almond extract, lemon zest and lemon juice for about 5 minutes until pale, thick and creamy.

5. In a separate bowl, whisk the egg whites to stiff peaks, around 4-5 minutes.

6. Folk the yolk mixture into the egg whites.

7. Fold in the flour mixture in 3 batches, as gently as you can until just combined.

8. Carefully pour the batter into a cake tin and bake for around an hour until an inserted skewer comes out clean. If the top looks like it is getting too dark cover it loosely with tin foil. When it is ready, remove from the oven and allow to rest for 10 minutes, then turn the cake onto a wire rack to cool completely.

9. Finish with the chocolate glaze. Melt the chocolate in a microwave (or use a bowl over a pan of barely-simmering water) then add the chocolate butter and stir until completely smooth. Pour the glaze over the cold cake, and either try to get it as smooth as possible, or make life easy and aim for generous swirls.

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{6} Canestrelli

No selection of festive baking is complete without at least one trip to Italy, so here goes!


These cookies are canstrelli. They originate from the northern province of Liguria and their name means “little baskets”. They might look like simple shortbread cookies flavoured with lemon and vanilla, but they do have one little twist.

They are enriched with cooked egg yolks, which are crumbled and then added to the mixture. I thought this seemed pretty weird, but from my online digging, this does indeed seem to be the correct way to make them. This technique even appeared in this year’s Great British Bake Off. While it caused a raised eyebrows among the judges, the resulting biscuits were praised when it came to tasting time. So I had to try it!


I happened to make these after agreeing to make a bunch of macarons for a party, so I was left with egg yolks that had already been separated. I thought about trying to make them with uncooked egg yolks, but that would have resulted in a different consistency and we’d possibly be missing out on making authentic canstrelli. I then wondered if I could cook the yolks separately, and then I found some sites that suggested that you can cook the yolks on their own by poaching gently in simmering water. I did this, and it was a complete doddle. Just bring the water to a simmer, gently add the yolks, and simmer for about 5 minutes. When cooked, I transferred them to cold water, and then used them in the recipe.

When it comes to shaping these cookies, you can go with whatever shape you like, but the traditional one is a flower with the centre cut out so they look like a daisy. Normally I just roll dough out using flour, but this time I did it between two sheets of greaseproof paper to avoid adding more flour to the dough. Since it was cold and contained a lot of butter, there was no sticking and it worked easily. I’ll admit it is a little more of a faff than using flour, but it does mean you can roll up all the scraps and make more cookies, and the first ones will be the same as the last ones. If you’ve wondered by the end of a batch seem to look different to the first ones, it’s the extra flour you’re incorporating as you roll and re-roll those offcuts.


The resulting canstrelli were delicious – they have a very short texture and buttery flavour, enhanced with the vanilla and lemon. They are rich, but not in any way though, as you’re not really adding any liquid (which would have been the case if I had used uncooked egg yolks in the dough). So there we have it – two new baking techniques (well, new for me) that I look forward to trying elsewhere in the New Year!

To make Canestrelli (makes around 30-35)

• 150g flour
• 100g cornflour
• 75g icing sugar
• 1/2 teaspoon salt
• zest of 1 lemon
• 150g butter
• 1 vanilla pod, seeds only
• 3 egg yolks, hard boiled

1. Mix the flour, cornflour, icing sugar and salt. Sieve to ensure if is well-combined and there are no lumps.

2. Add the lemon zest, vanilla seeds and extracts (or vanilla bean paste) and cold butter. Mix with your hands until just combined (or whizz in a food processor).

3. Now take those egg yolks. Press these through a very fine sieve. Add to the mixing bowl, then knead the lot until it comes together as a pliable dough. Flatten to a disc, wrap in cling film and leave to rest in the fridge for an hour.

4. Preheat the oven to 170°C (340°F). Line a baking sheet with greaseproof paper.

5. Remove the dough from the fridge. Roll out on a floured worktop or between two sheets of greaseproof paper to around 1cm thickness. Cut out flower or scalloped shapes and then cut a circle from the middle (a round piping nozzle is good for this). Transfer each to the baking sheet. Chill the cookies in the fridge for 2 minutes.

6. Put the cookies in the oven and bake for around 15 minutes until pale golden – I recommend turning the tray half-way, and keep a close eye on them. Go by colour rather than time.

7. Remove from the oven and allow to cool for a moment – the cookies will be fragile. Transfer to a cooling rack.

8. Store in an airtight tin, and dredge with icing sugar before serving.

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{6} Panpepato

It’s the sixth post in this year’s Twelve Bakes of Christmas, and the kitchen is still standing! I know I’ve still got six more recipes to go, but where would the fun be if I wasn’t surrounded by sugar, spice and all things nice at this time of year? Well, that plus a whole lot of mess, a sugar thermometer and more than a few burns due to my tendency to use tea towels rather than proper oven gloves…

Today’s recipe is a delicious Italian sweet treat called panpepato, which means “peppered bread”. It is associated with the Province of Ferrera on the Adriatic coast. It has more than a passing resemblance to panforte, but panpepato is dark in colour, flavoured with cocoa, chocolate and pepper, and sometimes even coated in yet more chocolate.


This is a cake with a long history, with some sources suggesting it can be traced back to the 11th century. Panforte and panpepato would originally have been consumed by the aristocracy – with sweet candied fruit and spices, these were firmly luxury confectionery. And as with many traditional recipes, there are various origin myths about which came first.

Some suggest it started with panforte, and panpepato was later created during a siege with candied fruit to address the lack of fresh fruit or less choice in terms of ingredients for the panforte. Others suggest panpepato is where it was at originally, and panforte was a later creation with lighter ingredients in honour of Queen Margherita of Savoy’s visit to Siena in 1879. Of course, just where cocoa and chocolate came from in medieval Italy is left unclear! Whichever version is true, they’re both delicious. And finally…those spices? They were thought to have aphrodisiac properties, bringing troubled couples together. Perhaps a slice of panpepato promises not just delicious flavours but a night of romance when it is chilly outside?


I was really pleased with how easy this was to make and how this turned out. Sometimes a recipe can feel like a slog, especially where you have lots of steps to follow, but it was really pleasant to prepare the almonds, hazelnuts and candied peel, and then measure out the various spices.

Beyond the measuring, you don’t need to more than pour all the dry ingredients into a large bowl, make a syrup from honey, butter, sugar and a few pieces of dark chocolate, them mix the lot and bake it. Once it came out of the oven and had cooled down, I dusted it with cocoa and rubbed it with a pastry brush. Some recipes suggested icing sugar, but I thought this would look a little more sophisticated. Other recipes suggested a coating of chocolate, but I think that would have been too rich even for me!


The flavour is reminiscent of British fruit cake, but without all the dried vine fruits – you’ve got nuts and candied citrus, plus spices and a bit of depth from the cocoa and chocolate. There isn’t really a chocolate flavour as such, but I think the cocoa helps provide a balance to the sweetness of the honey and sugar. And of course the cocoa also provides a dramatic contrast to the pale cream colour of the almonds and hazelnuts. Some recipes suggest coarsely chopping the nuts, but I love the pattern of the whole nuts when you slice into the panpepato.


From what I have found, there is no single “correct” recipe that you have to follow. You can play around with the types of nuts you use – just almonds, just hazelnuts, or add some pine nuts or pistachios – and there are various different dried fruits you could use. Some recipes have figs or sultanas, and even more exotic items like candied papaya or melon could be interesting. Finally, you can also try different spices in this recipe, but I do think you need to have that black pepper as a nod to this recipe’s origins.

I’d look at this as a sweet, rather than a cake or a bread. It is absolutely delicious, but it is also incredibly rich, so you might be surprised just how little of it you want to eat in one go. It is also a treat that will last for a while, so a good one to have prepared for surprise guests. I think it is great with tea or coffee, cut into very thin slices and then into nibble-sized morsels.

To make Panpepato (makes 1 slab)

• 150g skinned hazelnuts
• 150g blanched almonds
• 100g candied orange peel
• 100g candied lemon peel
• 50g plain flour
• 30g cocoa powder
• 1 teaspoon ground cinnamon
• 1/2 teaspoon ground black pepper
• 1/2 teaspoon ground nutmeg
• 1/2 teaspoon ground coriander
• 1/4 teaspoon ground cloves
• 100g caster sugar
• 225g orange blossom honey
• 3 tablespoons water

• 50g dark chocolate
• 25g unsalted butter
• Cocoa powder, for dredging

1. Preheat the oven to 180°C. Put the nuts on two separate trays, and toast in the oven for 10-15 minutes until fragrant and just golden. Watch them closely – the hazelnuts will be done before the almonds. When ready, remove from the oven and leave to cool.

2. Rub some greaseproof paper with a little vegetable oil, and use it to line a 20cm square tin. If you prefer, you can also use rice paper but this will stick to the finished panpepato – it’s a question of personal preference.

3. Reduce the oven heat to 150°C.

4. Chop the peel into fairly small chunks. Place in a bowl with the nuts, flour, cocoa powder and ground spices. Mix well.

5. Put the sugar, honey, water, butter and chocolate into a saucepan. Heat gently until the sugar dissolves, and boil until the mixture reaches the “soft ball” stage (or 113°C/235°F on a thermometer).

6. Pour the syrup onto the dry ingredients and mix well. Transfer to the tin. Use a metal spoon or spatula rubbed with a little butter or oil to flatten the mixture.

7. Bake the panpepato for 35-40 minutes. The surface will look “set” when the panpepato is done. Remove from the oven and leave to cool completely. If you have an uneven panpepato, take a piece of greaseproof paper rubbed with a little oil – lay on top of the still-warm panpepato and press to even it out.

8. Remove the panpepato from the tin, peel off the greaseproof paper and trim off the edges (they will be a bit hard). If using rice paper, leave it on the panpepato. Dust the top lightly with cocoa and rub lightly with your fingers or a pastry brush so a bit of the fruit and nut detail shows up.

9. Store in an airtight container. Cut into thin slices to serve.

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{12} Nadalin de Verona

And here we are! The final installment of 2016’s edition of the Twelve Bakes of Christmas!

Today I’ve turned my hand to a very traditional Italian cake, the Nadalin de Verona. This is a rich dough raised with yeast, which should hint that it has a long history, pre-dating our modern raising agents. It is flavoured with butter, vanilla and lemon zest, and topped with pine nuts, chopped almonds and sugar.

nadalin2

It is fair to say that the big name of the Italian festive cake world is the panettone, closely followed by the pandoro. I make panettone fairly often, as it is easy with a bread machine and it always proves popular. However, I’ve never had a go at pandoro. The name means “golden bread” and it gets this colour from many, many, many egg yolks in the dough. I’m sometimes a very lazy baker and don’t like ending up with lots of spare egg whites. I guess I’ll get round to making a pandoro the next time I have to make a pavlova…

nadalin1

But back to the star of today. The nadalin (also called the “natalino”) dates back as far as the 13th century, and is suggested as the ancestor of the modern pandoro. It is said to have been created to mark the investiture of the Della Scala family as the Lords of Verona. It is often linked to the most famous tragic romance of all time – the nadalin appears first in 1303, the same time that the events of Romeo and Juliet as said to have taken place. I’m not clear quite what the link is, but this cake may have featured on a medieval banquet table where either of the star-crossed lovers were present.

nadalin3

Now, in the interests of Christmas, I’ve actually made the nadalin not just once, but twice!

I looked at a few recipes before making the nadalin, and settled on the “authentic” version on the website of the City of Verona tourist office. However I am sorry to say it didn’t quite work for me. It is made from eggs, a lot of butter and quite a bit of sugar. My baking instincts said this would be a very rich dough and the yeast might struggle to get a good rise, and it turned out to be so. It was of course perfectly tasty, but it didn’t have the lightness I prefer from sweet breads. This is all personal preference, but what to do?

Well I mentioned that I make panettone quite often, so I looked at my own recipe and adjusted to reflect the flavours of the nadalin – out with the dried fruit, and in with the vanilla and lemon zest. I also added a small handful of crushed sugar cubes to add some additional sweetness to the dough. Entirely optional, but this seemed like a sensible way to get a bit more sugar in the dough without making it too rich to rise well. I’m pleased to say this all worked very well, and the result is a light, sweet and fragrant festive bread.

To finish the nadalin, it is brushed with melted butter and topped with pine nuts and chopped almonds. They were a delicious addition, as they toast during baking to provide some crunch and flavour contrast.

Traditionally the nadalin is baked in a star shape. However I’ve bought so many pieces of baking equipment recently that I had to make do with the round cake tin I already had.  To make up for my cake being the “wrong shape” I made a simple star template and placed it on top of that nadalin before dusting with icing.

The nadalin is traditionally enjoyed with cocoa or a special wine after Christmas Eve mass. I would also quite happily much on a piece of this on a chilly winter evening too!

And with that, my 12 Days of Christmas Baking is over for 2016. I hope you’ve enjoyed it – I’ve enjoyed finding new inspiration, trying new baking techniques and eating the results! See you for the 2017 edition – if you have any suggestions of local specialities that I should try, leave a comment below.

To make a Nadalin de Verona (nom-traditional)

For the dough:

• 2 eggs
• 150ml milk, boiled and cooled
• 75g butter
• 50g sugar
• Zest of 1 lemon
• 1 teaspoon vanilla extract
• 1 1/2 teaspoons dried yeast

• 400g strong white flour
• small handful of sugar cubes, crushed

To decorate:

• melted butter, to brush
• 50g pine nuts
• 50g chopped almonds
• 20g pearl sugar

To finish:

• 100g icing sugar
• water
• icing sugar, to dust

1. Make the dough – I used a bread machine for all the hard work. Put everything apart from the sugar cubes into the bread machine. Run the dough cycle.

2. Crush the sugar cubes. Work into the finished dough.

3. Line a cake tin (or wide saucepan) with greaseproof paper. Take the dough out of the machine, form into a ball, and press into the tin. Leave in a warm place, loosely covered with clingfilm, until the dough has doubled in size. Traditionally this is for 3 hours, but as my recipe is lighter, this could happen more quickly.

4. Just before you’re ready to bake, preheat the oven at 180°C (350°F).

5. Now prepare the topping. Melt some butter, and mix the pine nuts, flaked almonds and pearl sugar in a bowl.

6. Brush the nadalin generously with the melted butter. Sprinkle over the nut mixture and press down very gently.

7. Bake the nadalin for around 45 minutes to an hour until risen and golden, and it sounds hollow when tapped. If the nuts are browning too quickly, cover loosely with tin foil.

8. When baked, remove the nadalin from the oven. Make a simple icing with 100g icing sugar and 3 tablespoons of boiling water, and drizzle on top of the nadalin – this will form a glaze, and help keep the nuts in place.

9. Leave to cool completely, then dust with icing sugar before serving. I used a star template as a nod to the traditional shape.

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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.

cavallucci1
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.

cavallucci2
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.

cavallucci3
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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{3} Biscotti di Regina

Biscotti di Regina originate from Sicily, and the name means “queen’s cookies”. I’m not sure if they are named for or after a particular queen, but with a name like that, they are promising a lot!

These delightful little morsels are sweet and buttery, with a coating of sesame seeds the pop slightly when you bite into them. They also look very pretty, as the seeds form a neat pattern on the outside of the dough. I think they are a nice addition to the festive table, providing a contrast to all that chocolate, ginger, citrus and dried fruit. Yes, I know, shocking to believe that those flavours can all get a bit much, but sometimes you want something simple to enjoy with a cup of tea.

biscottiregina4
I think these cookies have something of a Middle Eastern flavour, what with the sesame seeds and orange blossom water. Hardly surprising when you think about the history of trade across the Mediterranean.

However, if you want to play around with the flavours, you could swap the vanilla and orange blossom water for something else – aniseed is a typically Italian choice, and orange or lemon zest would add a stronger citrus note than the orange blossom water. If you’re feeling particularly creative, you could really depart from Italian flavours, and add things  like cardamom or even rose water. There are even versions that use saffron, if you want cookies with a spectacular golden glow.

biscottiregina1
These biscotti are very straightforward to make – just rub the butter into the dry ingredients, then add egg and flavourings to get a soft dough that is just very slightly sticky. You’re rolling these guys in seeds, so you want it to be a bit sticky. If it is clinging to your fingers in great lumps, you’ve probably got too much liquid, so just add a bit more flour.

I shaped the biscotti by rolling into balls, then flattening into a squat sausage shape, so when they baked they formed an oval shape. If you prefer, roll them into very long, thin fingers for a more elegant shape to dip in coffee or vin santo, and adjust the baking time accordingly. For finishing, I used hulled white sesame seeds, which I think makes them look quite festive, almost like they’re coated in snowflakes. If you’re feeling adventurous, add a few black sesame seeds for some contrast, or go the whole hog and roll them in only black sesame seeds for a dramatic look.

biscottiregina2

To make Biscotti di Regina (makes 30)

For the dough:

• 375g plain flour
• 225g butter
• 150g caster sugar
• 1 1/2 teaspoons of baking powder
• 1/2 teaspoon of salt
• 1 egg
• 1 teaspoon vanilla extract
• 1 teaspoon orange blossom water
• cold milk, to bind

To decorate:

• 100g sesame seeds

1. Preheat the oven to 175°C (350°F) and line a baking sheet with greaseproof paper.

2. In a bowl, combine the flour, sugar, baking powder and salt. Add the butter and work until it resembles breadcrumbs.

3. Beat the egg with the vanilla and orange blossom water. Add to the main bowl, and work to a smooth dough. If necessary, add cold milk, a tablespoon at a time, to bring the mixture together. It should be firm, but slightly sticky.

4. Divide the dough into three batches. Roll each piece into a long sausage about 30cm long, and cut into 10 pieces (3cm each).

5. Roll each piece into a ball, then form into a sausage shape between your hands. Roll in the sesame seeds to coat completely, then transfer to a baking sheet (leave enough space between each piece to expand).

6. Bake for around 25 minutes until golden, turning after 15 minutes to get an even bake.

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{9} Italian Anise Cookies

I realised that I’ve been doing a lot of baking that uses very rich, heavy flavours. While I love spices, fruit, nut and chocolate, something a bit lighter can be very welcome. In Italy, they seem to recognise this, with aniseed being a very popular flavour. It’s a little bit invigorating and had a very fresh taste that is very appealing. Very different from all those mince pies!

I saw literally dozens and dozens of recipes for these small, round, glazed aniseed biscuits. Probably every Italian grandmother has passed on her own recipe for these things! They seem to go by the name of both angelonies as well as genetti. From my non-scientific research, it seems angelonies are the round cookies with the brightly-coloured sprinkles, whereas genetti are similar but twisted into more elaborate shaped before being baked and glazed. If there are any Italians out there who would like to enlighten me, please do!

This is a very simple recipe, and indeed the biscuits are best enjoyed while they are still very fresh, which makes it a good choice for last-minute unexpected visitors. Well, I say that it is simple, but it took me a bit of time to get a recipe that I was happy with. Yes, I perhaps try to convey an air of perfection in the kitchen, but it’s all a veneer! I have to confess that in developing this recipe, I made a complete beginners error in working out the quantities. I had seen a few recipes using milk, and for some reason added about a quarter of a cup to the mixture. Enough to send everything haywire. I first noticed something was up when I added the flour, and the mixture looked more like batter than a biscuit dough. I started adding a bit more flour, convinced that everything would come together, but no – everything stayed rather wet, then became a sticky mess. No choice for me other than to try again!

The second attempt was perfect – I skipped the milk completely, reasoning that if I needed to add some, it was best to add this at the end only if needed, and in fact, I didn’t need to use any. The dough was soft without being too sticky, and it was very easy to handle. Again, a little sticky to roll into balls before baking, but nothing that I could not handle. Worth also saying that you really should add the lemon zest here – lemon and aniseed really do work very well together, I think it is the fresh and aromatic characteristics that they share. Definitely a case of the two being greater than the sum of their parts in terms of flavours!

italiananiseedcookies1
These were really easy to make, just a case of mixing up the sugar, olive oil and egg, then adding the flour and rolling into balls. The mixture was fairly sticky, so with my first failure in my mind, I did have a little doubt in my mind as to whether this second attempt was going to work. I had images of everything melting into a hard, dry cake. However, my fretting was needless – they kept their shape, then puffed up obligingly in the oven, and the kitchen was filled with the rich aroma of aniseed. Probably worth mentioning that you really do need to like aniseed if you’re going to have a go at these!

Actually, if you’re not an aniseed fan, then you can swap it out for just lemon zest (or add some orange too), or go for some other spice in place of the aniseed or flavour them with rose water or vanilla. They will have a very different taste, but they should still work, but I would suggest trying to match the decoration to the flavour (slivers of candied lemon peel if you have just used the zest).

Most traditional recipes seem to use coloured sprinkles to finish these cookies, and is that’s your thing, go for it. I prefer something more muted – you could go with simply white sprinkles, but I happened to have a large jar of whole aniseeds in the cupboard, so I added a few of them to the top of each cookie just after icing, which I think looked rather nice, and added an extra hit of aniseed flavour as you bite into them.

I should sound one word of warning – aniseed extract can be very strong, so use it with caution. You might think you’re not adding enough, but after baking, the flavour will be quite noticeable. If you feed you have not got enough flavour in the actual dough itself, you can always add a bit to the icing to enhance it.

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To make Italian Anise Cookies (makes 16):

For the dough

• 160g plain white flour
• 1/4 teaspoon salt
• 1 1/2 teaspoons baking powder
• 1 large egg
• 2 tablespoons plus 1 teaspoon olive oil
• 50g white caster sugar
• 1 teaspoon aniseed extract
1 lemon, zest only

For the glaze

• 100g icing sugar
• 1/4 teaspoon aniseed extract
• whole milk
• whole aniseeds, coloured sprinkles or white sprinkles (to decorate)

1. Preheat the oven to 175°C (345°F). Line a baking tray with greaseproof paper and rub lightly with a dot of olive oil.

2. In a bowl, mix the flour, salt and baking powder. Set aside.

3. In another bowl, beat the egg, olive oil and caster sugar for around 5 minutes until pale and slightly thickened. Add the aniseed extract and lemon zest, and fold in the dry ingredients. Mix well, adding more flour if needed – the dough should be soft, but you should be able to form the dough into balls with dampened hands.

4. Take teaspoons of the mixture and roll into balls. Place on the baking sheet, leaving a little space for them to expand.

5. Bake the cookies for around 12 minutes until puffed and the surface is slightly cracked, but they should not start to colour. Remove from the oven when done, and transfer to a wire tray to cool completely.

6. Finally, make the glaze – mix the icing sugar, aniseed extract and enough milk (a tablespoon at a time) to make a smooth, runny icing. Use to coat the cookies, and finish with a sprinkling of whatever takes your fancy.

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{7} Pizzelle

Oooh, that’s a big one!

This is the rather innuendo-laden comment that someone at work made when a large package (snigger) arrived at my office a month ago. Clearly the various items that I order online and then have delivered to work are an endless source of fascination to colleagues, and I think the fact I had bought a pizzelle iron pretty much took the biscuit (yes, a bad, bad pun).

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Pizzelle are Italian cookies, made for both Easter and Christmas. They are similar to wafters or thin, crisp waffels. Their most striking feature is the elaborate pattern on them, which is obtained by cooking the batter on a hot two-sided iron contraption. These are variously described as snowflakes or flowers, and I think mine was certainly more botanical in nature.

While my iron was clearly Italian in origin, I was not initially committed to pizzelle. For a while, it it was a bit of a toss-up whether I was going to make pizzelle or go for Norwegian krumkaker. The latter are more like wafers, often flavoured with that Scandi favourite, cardamom, but I felt that the first outing of this new gadget had to be for its original purpose – the Italian pizzelle biscuits.

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Now, I was wondering what flavour to give these biscuits. At this time of the year, flavours like cinnamon, cloves and nutmeg are pretty much ubiquitous, so I thought it would be nice to try something different. A little research suggested that aniseed might be worth trying. I know it is one of those love-it-or-hate-it flavours, but in moderation it is lovely. It’s like enjoying a glass of raki after a meal. One glass is fine, but you might not want to drink most of a bottle. That said, I have a frankly awesome recipe for a tomato and fennel soup that includes a huge amount of raki, but that will be for another day.

But yes, aniseed it was going to be. In the end, I opted for a milder approach, adding some lemon zest and vanilla as well as aniseed extract. The result was great – it had a touch of aniseed, but did no have that overpowering flavour that you get it you’re in the habit of necking neat Pernod, and I think the three flavours actually complemented each other nicely.

In the interests of full disclosure, I do have to share a little on my experiences in actually using my pizzelle iron. I know you can get those fancy electric non-stick things, but mine was a more traditional version, made from metal, and with two wooden handles.

Everything was also complicated by the fact that, to the extent the iron came with any sort of explanation, it was only in Italian, and even then, it clearly assumed some sort of pre-knowledge on the part of the pizzelle iron buying public. Usually a quick search online would answer any and all questions, but it seems that pizzelle irons and makers are as unique as their owners, and there seemed to be nothing online other than people saying to cook them “following the manufacturer’s instructions”…so here I was, flying blind. I just started to heat it up, turning it over to get something that I hoped might be an even heat. Then I brushed the iron with a little melted butter, and tried my first pizzelle. The iron hissed a little, there was a puff of anise-infused steam, the batter expanded a little, and I waited for about a minute. Then I pulled the iron apart…and the pizzelle divided itself, clinging to every part of the metal pattern. A disaster! I had to cool the thing down, then scrub of the trapped biscuit, and start again. Second time round? Same problem! All my excitement about making pizzelle morphed into upset, blame and anger. Now I didn’t even want to make them! Then, drying the iron for a second time, I managed to break off one of the handles on a tea towel. I have absolutely no idea how a simple cotton cloth managed to inflict this damage, but it did. My frustration kept building, and building, and building…

At this point, I decided it was time to go back to basics. The iron was clean, but it was not non-stick. So what do we do with new pans? We need to season them, so I figured that I had to the same here. I covered both slides of the iron in vegetable oil, then heated it until it was just smoking. Then I turned off the heat, allowed it to cool, and wiped off the excess oil. After this, and once the not very pleasant smell of burning oil had passed, I tried it again. I heated the iron, added a spoonful of batter, closed the iron, put it back on the heat, and then, a minute later, I gingerly opened the iron. The pizzelle was perfect! Perhaps a little too golden, but it looked perfect! My non-stick efforts seemed to have been rewarded. For the next pizzelle, I heated the iron over a flame, but actually took it off the heat while the pizzelle was cooking. This seemed to result in beautifully cooked pizzelle which were golden but not too dark. I was on a roll, and a short while later, had a pile of 20 delicate biscuits in a towering pile.

On balance, I am now back in love with the idea of the pizzelle, as well as the flavour. The better is incredibly easy to make, and the flavour is superb. While these are lovely as biscuits, either on their own or dusted with a little icing sugar to enhance their patterns, you can also shape the warm pizzelle around a cone, or into a tube like cannoli. If you’re not a big Christmas pudding fan, I think you could make a rather tasty dessert by filling one of these with sweet ricotta with some candied orange peel and boozy, spiced sultanas.

So after all that work, a successful result! Viva Italia!

To make pizzelle (makes around 20)

• 3 eggs
• 170g caster sugar
• 115g unsalted butter, melted and cooled
• ½ teaspoon aniseeed extract
• 1 teaspoon vanilla extract
• zest of one lemon
• 220g plain flour
• 1 tsp baking powder

1. In a large bowl, beat the eggs and sugar until thick (around 5 minutes). Beat in the anise, vanilla and lemon zest.

2. Whisk in the cooled melted butter.

3. Whisk in the flour mixture until just combined, but be careful not to over-beat. The mixture should be soft, and have a consistency of thick double cream.

4. Make the pizzelles by following the manufacturer’s instructions (yes, I’m whimping out, but you can read about my experience above!).

5. When cooked, remove the pizzelle from the iron and allow to cool. Lay flat on a wire try for flat pizzelles, or wrap around bowls or tubes for fancy shapes. They will be hard after around a minutes.

Worth making? If you don’t have the necessary iron, then you’ll have to forget about making pizzelle. However, if you can get hold of one, they are a quick, easy and very delicious holiday treat. The light flavours will also make them popular with those who prefer less rich biscuits and baking.

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Almond Biscuits

If you’re the kind of person that enjoys making things that use a lot of egg yolks (custard! ice-cream! mayonnaise!) then you’ll know the problem you can face with a bowl of egg whites. I faced just this predicament after making some raspberry tarts with a vanilla custard filling. I always think it’s incredibly wasteful to throw them away, so it’s useful to have a few recipes up your sleeve that you can whip us with things you have in the cupboard, and these tasty little almond biscuits tick that box.

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These biscuits are essentially like simple Italian amaretti, round little domes with a nice crisp/chewy shell on the outside, with a little crunch and sparkle from caster sugar, but a soft marzipan-like filling. The name actually translates as “small bitter things” but I assume that refers more to the almond flavour than their temperament. They would be similar to what Italians call amaretti morbidi, a name that I always find rather sinister. I know it means soft amaretti, but I always translate morbido in my head as morbid (a false friend). I mean…a morbid biscuit…really? I think the results are about as far from that as possible – a lovely light golden colour and those jaunty, random cracks on the surface. They might not look perfect, but I think that adds to their charm.

If you’re lucky enough to have access to almonds with a pronounced flavour, they use those, but to make sure you get a proper almond flavour, it’s fair to cheat a little and add a dash of almond extract. I know some people get a little sniffy about this, but I think it really makes a difference, and takes them from just being sweet and chewy to proper little almond bites.

You’ll see that this recipe uses a little flour – I find this helps to bind the mixture, but I’ve made them using both normal plain flour as well as a gluten-free flour mixture. Both were equally successful, so these treats can easily be made gluten-free. It’s also the use of flour that means I haven’t called these amaretti. Don’t want to offend Italian grannies and all that.

How to enjoy them? They can be kept for a few days, but I think they are perfect with coffee, and you’ll probably struggle to stop at one.

To make almond biscuits (makes 24):

• 2 large egg whites
• 230g ground almonds
• 230g caster sugar
• 1/2 teaspoon almond extract
• 3 tablespoons plain flour
• extra caster sugar to sprinkle

1. Preheat the oven to 180°C (350°F). Line a baking tray with greaseproof paper, and rub lightly with oil.

2. In a bowl, whip the egg whites until you have soft peaks. Add 200g of each of the almonds and sugar, plus the almond extract and the flour. Mix well. Add the rest of the sugar and almonds only if needed – the mixture should be firm and not be wet, but still soft enough to shape using teaspoons.

3. Take teaspoons of the mixture and form into rough balls. Using damp hands, roll into smooth spheres (you’ll probably have to rinse your hands after four cookies), place on the baking tray a few centimetres apart, and flatten slightly. Sprinkle with caster sugar.

4. Bake the biscuits for around 15 minutes until lightly golden (they will be paler in the centre). Turn the tray around half-way during baking to get an even colour.

Worth making? Definitely. The mixture is quick and easy to make, so easy to whip up when you’ve got a spare half an hour. And delicious too!

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Chocolate & Nut Biscotti

By now you will have noticed that I get my ideas for my posts from a wide variety of places, events and travels. It’s great to come up with my own ideas, or my take on some of the classics, but it’s also nice to get a recipe challenge to test. And so I got a request from the good people at Titan Supper Club to have a bash at Italian biscotti. The challenge was a rich chocolate and nut version, which sounded excellent and here we are!

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First off, full disclosure. I’ve never made biscotti before. Saffron-flavoured biscotti are on my radar for (whisper it) Christmas baking, but the technique is new to me. I was vaguely aware of the need to form the dough into large sausage, part bake it, then cut into thin slices and bake further until they are dry. So were these cookies as easy as the theory would suggest?

The good news is that this is an absolute dream to make. You just mix up all the dry ingredients, add eggs, then fold in melted chocolate and nuts. Bake, cool, slice and bake again. Their slightly rustic appearance also makes them ideal for smaller kitchen hands who have lots of enthusiasm but who might lack a steady hand to make neat edges.

The original recipe suggested making these biscotti with hazelnuts, and I think this would be delicious (it’s the combination that makes Nutella great). However, I fancied trying something a little different, and went with a mixture of pistachios and pine nuts, to add different colours and flavours. The result looks great, with flashes of green and creamy white against the rich chocolate biscuit.

This is also a great recipe for chocolate lovers. The dough already contains cocoa, and is enriched with melted dark chocolate. This is rounded out with a dash of vanilla and some fresh orange zest. The aroma from these little treats during baking was sensational, and the flavour is fantastic.

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So what do you think? I’m thrilled with how they turned out. Perfect with a cup of tea or strong coffee on a warm day in the shade, with dreams of la bella Italia!

To make Chocolate & Nut Biscotti (makes around 25-30 cookies):

• 140g nuts
• 100g dark chocolate
• 300g plain flour
• 75g cocoa powder
• 1/2 teaspoon baking powder
• 1/2 teaspoon bicarbonate of soda
• 1/4 teaspoon salt
• 200g caster sugar
• 1 teaspoon vanilla essence
• zest of 1 orange
• 3 large eggs

1. Preheat the oven to 180°C (350°F). Line two baking trays with greaseproof paper and grease lightly.

2. Melt the chocolate in a bowl over a pan of boiling water. Put to one side.

3. In a large bowl, mix the flour, cocoa, baking powder, bicarbonate of soda, salt and sugar.

4. In a separate bowl, whisk the eggs with the vanilla and orange zest. Add to the flour mixture and mix until the dough just comes together. Add a drop of water if needed. Add the chocolate and mix well. Fold in the nuts.

5. On a lightly-floured worktop, shape half the dough into a long rectangular sausage (aim for about 22cm long, 8cm wide). Transfer to a baking tray. Repeat with the rest of the dough.

6. Bake the dough for 25 minutes (it should be puffed up). Remove and cool for 20 minutes. In the meantime, reduce the oven temperature to 160°C (320°F).

7. Using a sharp serrated knife, cut on the diagonal into 1cm slices. Lay flat on the baking trays and bake for 20 minutes (10 minutes each side, turning over half-way). Remove from the oven and leave to cool on a wire tray.

Worth making? Definitely. If you’re a fan of chocolate and nuts, you’ll love these.

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