Tag Archives: italian food

{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.

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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.

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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…

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Panettone

You see panettone in all the Italian shops at Christmas time…in huge boxes, or wrapped in brightly-coloured film. They are entirely impractical to carry, therefore immediately mark themselves out as a luxury. I love the soft, fluffy cake, the icing sugar on top and the fruit and citrus, which is so different from a dense, dark British Christmas cake. Thing is…for years, making them properly has eluded me, so they have always seemed like a “too hard to make yourself” cake.

I tried making panettone again last year, and while I had managed to get the taste spot on, the dough did not really rise, so I had a rather heavy fruit bread rather than the light fluffy panettone that you would buy. So did this mean I should give in and go to a shop? Well, determined to give it one final attempt, I took the lazy man’s option: I would be sure that the dough would get a good kneading by putting everything in a bread machine. I would then sit on the sofa while someone (something) else does all the hard work, while I hope for the best.

Dough made, I though I would get clever with this, and remarkably, it worked! I put six small balls of dough into a canelé mould, and hoped to get six mini-panettone to eat in the coming days for breakfast. The remaining two-thirds of the dough went towards making one large panettone. Happily, this all went swimmingly, and you can see my handywork below, complete with a liberal dusting of icing sugar, with a star shape on top to keep the festive theme going.

Finally, I am happy that I have nailed the panettone. It was clear that the bread machine had ensured that the dough had been properly worked, and the result was soft and stretchy, and when I put it into moulds, it puffed up brilliantly. Once in the oven, it kept going, forming lovely golden domes of bready goodness, studded with sultanas and cubes of citrus peel.

I have been enjoying slices of this bread with breakfast over the last few days, and am seriously thinking of making another one for this weekend’s Christmas drinks at my house. It is as light and fluffy as a nutmeg-infused citrus and sultana cloud. Was this like mama would make back in the village in Italy? Maybe not. But I think it’s pretty darn good, and everyone so far seems to like it. Plus, no awkward boxes to carry back home.

And if there is any left on Sunday, this is going into a panettone bread and butter pudding. Mmmmmmmh!

To make panettone (one medium plus six mini loaves, or one large loaf):

• 2 eggs
• 150ml milk
• 75g butter
• 50g sugar
• Large pinch freshly ground nutmeg
• Pinch of salt
• Zest of 1 lemon
• Zest of 1 orange
• 1 1/2 teaspoons dried yeast
• 400g strong white flour
• 150g dried fruit (raisins, sultanas)
• 75g candied peel, diced

Put the eggs and milk into a bowl, and mix well with a whisk.

Pour the milk/egg mixture into the bread machine tin, and add the butter, sugar, nutmeg, salt and zest. Add the flour, and sprinkle the yeast on top.

Put the tin into the bread machine, and switch on the dough cycle. Place the dried fruit and chopped citrus peel in the raisin dispenser, or add at the right moment in the cycle.

Once the dough is ready, prepare a deep cake tin (or saucepan) by greasing lightly with butter, and line with greaseproof paper(*). Take the dough out of the machine, form into a ball, and press into the tin. Leave in a warm place, covered with a damp teacloth or clingfilm, for about one hour until the dough has reached to top of the tin.

In the meantime, preheat the oven at 180°C (350°F). Once the panettone has risen, bake for 45 minutes until risen and golden, and sounds hollow when tapped (20-25 minutes for smaller loaves). If the top is browning too quickly, cover loosely with tin foil.

(*) If you are making mini-panettone, use a silicone mould, and grease well with butter or non-stick spray.

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Polenta and Ricotta Cake

We’ve just had a long weekend in London, so of course someone decided to organise a barbecue. Normally a cause for celebration, but there is this rather odd phenomenon in England, where by a long weekend seems to pretty much guarantee that the weather will be bad. In fairness, we’d had three days of solid rain, so at some point the skies were due to run out of water, but it seemed that Sunday was not the day that we would be lucky. I can assure you that it was pretty hard to coax me out from under the duvet, as a wet day in someone’s back garden is always far less appealing that reading the papers in bed with endless cups of tea.

I digress. Attending a barbecue, I had to take something, and I was on dessert duty. I could have gone for those staples such as fruit salad, chocolate cake or Eton Mess, but I just fancied something different. Then I remembered a recipe for (surprise, surprise) a polenta and ricotta cake that I had been meaning to try. My experience of such cakes to date has been good, and this one is jazzed up by adding a decent amount of apricots. I also liked the idea that this was vaguely  Italian, thus keeping alive the memory of my holiday, which seems so long ago when you look outside and see dozens of umbrellas and people battling the wind as they walk.

Always feeling the need to improvise and tweak recipes, I swapped cognac for Japanese plum wine as the medium in which to soak the apricots, infusing them with a delicious plummy, port-like flavour. I also omitted the walnuts suggested in the original recipe. I like walnuts, but I didn’t think they would fit this cake. I also cut down the amount of sugar, added a little lemon zest, and swapped some of the polenta with fine maize meal (because, eh, I ran out of polenta and had fine maize meal in the cupboard. As I said, it has been raining and I didn’t want to go outside more than necessary!).

This cake was a breeze to make. No messing around with eggs. Just melt some butter, then throw everything into a bowl and use and electric beater to get everything nice and fluffy. With the orange of the apricots and the yellow of the lemon zest, polenta and the butter, it was quite a “sunny” baking experience. And just to force the point, the cake was then glazed with apricot jam, leaving it with a pleasant orange glow. And a good way to use that home-made apricot jam you happen to have lying in the fridge.

But given the eggless character of this cake, how was it? Compared to something like a Victoria sponge, the cake does have a slightly more solid, dense character to it. The addition of the alcohol-soaked apricots therefore makes a welcome addition to the texture. I really liked it – more of an old-fashioned teacake than a big, fluffy bit of sponge, with little notes of freshness from the lemon and the texture of the polenta coming through. When paired with a spoonful of smooth room-temperature mascarpone, this made for a superb afternoon treat.

For the polenta and ricotta cake:

• 250g dried apricots (the soft type)
• 4 tablespoons plum wine or cognac
• 200g plain flour
• 70g coarse polenta
• 130g fine maize meal
• 2 1/2 teaspoons baking powder
• 100g butter, melted and cooled
• 200g sugar
• 250g ricotta
• zest of 1 lemon
• 180ml water, lukewarm
• apricot jam, to glaze

Preheat the oven to 175°C (350°C). Line a 20 cm springform cake tray with baking parchment.

Slice the apricots into slivers (easiest with clean scissors) and mix with the plum wine or cognac. Leave to sit for at least 15 minutes, ideally until all the liquid has been absorbed.

In a bowl, combine the flour, polenta, maize meal and baking powder. Pour in the melted butter, sugar, ricotta, lemon zest and water. Mix with an electric beater until creamy and smooth (around 1 minute).

Finally, fold the apricots through the batter.

Pour into the prepared cake tin and smooth the top with the back of a spoon. Try to get a swirly pattern you are happy with, as the top will not become smooth during baking.

Loosely cover the top of the cake tray with tin foil, and put into the oven. After 30 minutes, remove the tin foil. Keep baking until the cake is risen, golden and springy to the touch. An inserted skewer should come out clean. Total cooking time will be between 1 and 1 1/2 hours.

Remove the cooked cake from the oven, and allow to cool in the tin. Before serving, glaze the top of the cake with apricot jam, and serve slices with a dollop of mascarpone or crème fraîche.

Worth making? This was a lovely cake which made a change from the usual sponge cake. The flavours work well together, and it looks rustic and pretty, so minimal fuss necessary in terms of decorating. Well worth trying.

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Granita di Mandorle (Almond Sorbet)

A few weeks ago at the Couleur Café festival in Brussels, as we were leaving at some silly hour of the morning, I spied an artisanal ice-cream stand by the exit. It was still very warm at that time (of the morning!), so we grabbed a cone for the walk home. My friend Heinrich got excited about the lait d’amandes flavour, so I took one too. It was a creamy ice-cream, but still, the almond flavour was superb. Aromatic, delicate and surprisingly refreshing.

Thinking about this, I reasoned that I should be able to make a successful almond-based sorbet. Indeed, making it into a sorbet rather than an ice-cream should enhance the almond taste. A little research via Google revealed that almond sorbet is a specialty of Sicily, where it is called granita di mandorle, and often served with a piece of fresh brioche bread.

Now, the proper way to make this would involve tracking down good-quality almonds, grinding them at home, then preparing some sort of sugar syrup to cook the chopped nuts in order to extract their delicate flavour and aroma. And one day, when I have the time, inclination and someone to clean up after me, I might try that, but I opted to take a shortcut. I happened to have a bottle of orgeat syrup in the house, so I decided that make a sorbet using that instead. The flavour is probably not as delicate or authentic, but it was much quicker and easier. Hey, we’re all busy people!

The brand of orgeat syrup I used, Monin, was quite sweet, so I just added a mixture of semi-skimmed milk and water until I was happy with the flavour, erring on the slightly-too-sweet side (given that sweetness is dulled by freezing). I also went through the process of heating and briefly boiling the mixture to sterilise the milk. I don’t know if this was necessary, but it didn’t seem to affect the end result. However, if you are making this to eat quite soon afterwards, you could just mix everything up, skip the cooking, and put straight into the machine (*).

The flavour? It was amazing! It was like snow married with sweet almonds. Feather-light, translucent, and amazing. It is a complete contrast to lemon sorbet, as the almond version is sweet, silky and aromatic. Lemon would wake you up, whereas this would send you off into a gentle slumber on a warm afternoon. I think I am even inspired to pick up some decent almonds when I’m on holiday in Italy and try making the real deal. In the meantime, this version is more than sufficient.

(*) I’ve made it again since, and I can confirm you can skip the cooking stage if you want, and still have great results.

For 1 litre of almond sorbet:

• 300ml orgeat syrup
• 400ml semi-skimmed milk
• 300ml water (use more or less according to taste)
• 1 tablespoon almond liqueur (Amaretto)

Place the orgeat syrup, milk and water in a pan. Bring to the boil, cook for 30 seconds, then allow to cool completely.

Add the almond liqueur, mix well, and freeze the mixture. Serve with crisp biscuits or a slice of fresh brioche.

Worth making? I am really happy with the recipe. The use of the syrup makes it super-easy to prepare, and the result is light and fresh with a pronounced almond flavour. I will happily make this again, as it results is quite a sophisticated-tasting sorbet. One for the adults rather than the kids – not that youngsters won’t enjoy it, but adults will just be able to appreciate it a little bit more.

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Mushroom Risotto

On last weekend’s Saturday Kitchen on the BBC, Heston Blumenthal made his “perfect risotto”. This involved different varieties of rice (aged, of course), with a home-made stock, acidulated butter blah blah blah. All well and good, but I usually want a dinner to be cooked in an hour, and I am an unashamed user of stock cubes and just of the one variety of rice, and I happen to think my risotto is pretty darn good.

In response to his quest for perfection, I made my mushroom risotto. For me, getting great results is just a matter of time, as the ingredients are pretty ordinary. Allow the onions to cook gently in butter and olive oil until translucent, fry the rice, then add the stock a little at a time.

I know there is a bit of disagreement as to whether the little-by-little approach to adding the stock really matters (Heston says no), but I find it is a useful way of controlling the liquid in the risotto. I like it to be creamy, with cooked but firm grains of rice, but not wet or soupy. If I am making just a mushroom risotto, then I like to use fungi that have a little more flavour, and usually go for brown chestnut mushrooms. This makes the resulting risotto a rich, warm purple-grey with flecks of brown. I know “grey” is not something that usually seems appealing in a food, but trust me, it works here. If you fancy something a little more decedent, then add one spoon of truffle-infused olive oil. Serve with a sprinkle of parmesan cheese, and you can see how a dish as simple as risotto is truly wonderful.

But did any of Heston’s magic rub off on me? While I find his programmes entertaining, I don’t see myself making many of his dishes. I might pick up a tip here or there, but no more than that. Which is exactly what happened. Rather than serve risotto in a heap, aim for an elegant appearance by placing said heap on a plate, then tapping the bottom with your hand. The risotto will settle down to an even layer. Imagine if you made saffron risotto like this? Serving up a giant disc of gold. Now that would be presentation to be proud of.

To serve 4:

• 250g arborio rice
• 25g butter
• 2 tablespoon olive oil
• 1 onion, finely chopped
• 1 clove garlic, finely chopped
• 1 glass dry white wine
• 1 litre vegetable stock
• 50g Parmesan cheese
• 300g mushrooms, finely sliced (I used chestnut mushrooms for better flavour)
• 2 tablespoons cream
• 1 tablespoon truffle-infused olive oil (optional)

Warm the butter and olive oil in a pan. Add the onion and fry gently over a low heat until translucent. Add the garlic and cook for another minute.

Add the rice and fry for 2 minutes, stirring all the time. Add the wine, and cook until most of the liquid has evaporated. Start to add the stock, a little at a time, stirring well after each addition. Add more when the previous addition has almost evaporated.

With the last of the stock, add the mushrooms. Allow this to cook, again until most of the liquid has evaporated. Add the Parmesan cheese, stir well, and remove form the heat. Stir in the cream and truffle oil, and allow to sit for two minutes with the pot covered.

Serve with a generous sprinkling of grated Parmesan.

Worth making? Love mushrooms? You will love this. Warming, comforting, elegant and sophisticated. It also adapts easily for a starter or a main. So simple and easy, this is one of my favourite suppers!

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