Tag Archives: italian food

{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.

3 Comments

Filed under Christmas, Recipe, Sweet Things

{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).

Leave a comment

Filed under Uncategorized

{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.

3 Comments

Filed under Christmas, Recipe, Sweet Things

{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.

italiananiseedcookies2

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.

2 Comments

Filed under Christmas, Recipe, Sweet Things

{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).

pizzelle2

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.

pizzelle1

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.

15 Comments

Filed under Christmas, Recipe, Sweet Things

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.

almondcookies

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!

20 Comments

Filed under Recipe, Sweet Things

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!

Biscotti4

Biscotti2

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.

Biscotti3

Biscotti1

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.

7 Comments

Filed under Recipe, Sweet Things

{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!

panforte_2

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!

panforte_1

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.

6 Comments

Filed under Christmas, Recipe, Sweet Things

Pan di Ramerino

All my weekdays seem to be a rush of work, email, meetings and dashing around London in the tube. By and large, I don’t have much free time during the week. However, I do find myself with a little free time now and again, and I’ve actually gotten very comfortable with the idea that I can use that time for not very much at all. Just hanging in the neighbourhood. And one of my favourite places to hang out is in The Spence on Stoke Newington Church Street. It’s small, cosy and friendly.

When I go there, I am a creature of habit. Generally, it’s a coffee and a pan di ramerino, a sweet-ish bread with sultanas and rosemary. It’s one of those things that is nice to pick at while you’re reading a book or leafing through the papers.

I’ve often sat there, thinking that I should try making them myself. And this weekend, finally, finally, I got round to it.

What I don’t have is an authentic recipe (these buns are Italian, and I have not a drop of Latin blood in my, and no access to a secret family recipe), and I wasn’t really sure where to look for one. So I did what I often do when checking out something new, and tried to find out a little bit about the story behind the bun.

Pan di Ramerino is a traditional baked good from Florence, and is associated with Easter. So I put my thinking cap on, and looked at my recipe for hot cross buns. I decided to wing it – out with the spices and citrus peel, and in with the sultanas and rosemary, as well as a dash of olive oil. As simple as that.

I took the easy route and got my bread machine to do all the hard work for me. I know that there are purists out there who get a bit sniffy about the idea of using a machine when you could lovingly knead the dough by hand, but I’m busy and it’s rather nice to set everything going, then potter around until you hear the “peep”. Then you get to the fun bit – the shaping of the dough.

It is traditional to make a cross on top of the buns before baking – recalling the link back to the Easter story, and making me think that using my hot cross bun recipe wasn’t so crazy after all.

So…how did they turn out? There was scope for this to go wrong, but I was delighted with the results. Soft, lightly sweet buns with a hint of rosemary and lots of plump sultanas. Delicious! But I’ll still be buying them from The Spence from time to time – those occasions when I want just one, and don’t want to wait.

To make Pan di Ramerino (makes 12):

• 400g bread flour(*)
• 1/2 teaspoon salt
• 150ml milk, scalded and cooled
• 1 egg, beaten
• 30g butter
• 2 tablespoons olive oil
• 75g caster sugar
• 2 teaspoons instant yeast
• 150g sultanas
• Chopped leaves from 2 sprigs fresh rosemary

(*) Make sure you are using proper bread flour – plain flour just won’t work.

For the glaze:

• 2 tablespoons caster sugar
• 2 tablespoons water

If using a bread machine: place all the dough ingredients except the sultanas and rosemary into the mixing bowl. Add the sultanas and rosemary to the raisin dispenser, and run the “dough” cycle. Simples!

If making by hand: put the flour, butter and olive oil into a bowl, and rub with your fingers until the mixture has the texture of fine breadcrumbs. Fold in the salt, sugar and yeast. In a separate bowl, combine the milk and the egg, then pour into the dry ingredients. Stir with a spoon, then work with your hands until you have a smooth, stretchy, silky dough (at least 5 minutes). Work in the sultanas and rosemary. Leave the dough a warm place for an hour until the dough has doubled in size. Knock back and knead again for 2-3 minutes.

Once the dough is ready, divide it into twelve round buns. Place on a well-greased baking sheet, leaving 4-5 cm between buns, and cover with oiled cling film or a damp teacloth. Leave somewhere warm until doubled in size. Bigger is better!

Preheat the oven to 200°C (400°F). Brush the buns with milk, and bake them for 15 minutes, until the buns are lightly browned. You may need to tun the tray during baking to an even colour.

While the buns are cooking, make the glaze: heat the water and sugar in a saucepan until the sugar has dissolved. Once the buns are ready, remove from the oven, and brush right away with the warm syrup.

Worth making? Yes! This is a very easy and simple recipe, and the buns are great for breakfast or later in the day with a cup of tea or coffee. They also make an interesting change from the normal Easter hot cross buns.

3 Comments

Filed under Recipe, Sweet Things

Creamy Baked Fennel

Fennel is a funny old vegetable. I like its aromatic, aniseed-like qualities, but this also means that I’m often at a bit of a loose end about what to do with it. My normal fall-back position with vegetables is to throw them in a mixed salad with lots of green leaves, but with fennel, it just doesn’t seem quite right. The flavour needs to be appreciated.

One delicious idea that I do make from time to time is use it as a starter. Slice it wafer-thin, then serve it with slivers of strong cheddar and drizzle with a sherry/honey reduction. The sharp, tangy cheddar makes the perfect foil for the crisp, cool shards of fennel. But…that’s been about the limits of my adventures with fennel (a phrase that I really never thought I would write. Not that I ever worried about when I would write that, but you know what I mean).

Now, this is where the new recipe comes in. It’s one that I picked up from the saveur.com website, which is always good for a new idea to do with just about any ingredient you can imagine. This way of cooking fennel is an absolute doddle to make – lots of pepper, cream, Parmesan cheese and slabs of fennel, all mixed up in a bowl, thrown in a dish, then baked for about an hour and a half until the whole lot has become soft, creamy and delicious. I did make a bit of a tweak to the recipe, adding less cream than recommended, and it was great.

For all that time in the oven, the fennel becomes nice and soft, but it doesn’t turn mushy. Then towards the end, whip off the foil, and the cheese on top becomes crisp and tasty. You’ve still got the distinctive fennel flavour, but it’s milder and partners well with the Parmesan.

I admit that my version of this dish did not look particularly pretty. I could have taken the time to lay out the pieces of fennel in some intricate pattern, but I adopted the “mix-it-and-put-in-a-dish” approach to preparing it. It still tasted great, and frankly, that is much more important.

To make creamy baked fennel:

• 2 fennel bulbs
• 300ml cream
• salt
• pepper
• 2 handfuls grated Parmesan
• large knob of butter, cut into small pieces

Pre-heat the oven to 220°C (420°F).

Clean the fennel and remove the green stalks. Cut the bulbs in half, then quarters, and slice into wedges about 1cm (1/3 inch) thickness.

Put everything except the butter into a bowl and mix well. Transfer to an ovenproof dish, dot with the butter, cover with tin foil, and bake.

After one hour, remove the tin foil, and bake for another 30 minutes until the fennel is golden on top.

Serve warm as a side dish for four people, or as a main with salad and a little pasta as a main for two.

Worth making? I love this way of cooking fennel. I’ve never tried it before, but it’s incredibly simple and yet incredibly tasty. It’s also very tasty at room temperature the next day as part of lunch. Just in case you feel like erring on the generous side when making this…

6 Comments

Filed under Recipe, Savoury