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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.

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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…

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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.

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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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{11} Marquesas de Navidad

I’m all for including a bit of history around Christmas treat, and I assumed that marquesas de navidad had some long historical pedigree – with sugar, lemon and almonds, they share a lot in common with marzipan. Some sort of medieval delicacy? Something enjoyed during the heyday of the Spanish Empire by Queen Isabella? Their name means “marchioness of Christmas” which sounds very noble indeed. And they are made in these unusual square shapes – obviously special, as I had to hunt high and low to find them.

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Well…no. Apparently they were created as recently as 1924 by a confectioner in the town of Sonseca in the Spanish region of Toledo. They were a hit, their popularity spread, and the rest is history. Still, it is nice that new Christmas baking appears from time to time – and of course, everything was baked for the first time at some point in the past!

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While a comparatively new kid on the block, these marquesas are very straightforward to make – just whip eggs and sugar, then fold in the remaining dry ingredients. The result is a bit like a marzipan cake – they’ve got a fresh note from the lemon zest, and the lovely perfume of almonds, but they are also very light. Simple and delicious. Perfect!

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To make Marquesas de Navidad (makes 10)

• 2 large eggs
• zest of a lemon
• 1/2 teaspoon almond extract
• 60g caster sugar
• 60g icing sugar
• 125g ground almonds

• 20g plain flour
• 20g cornflour
• 1/2 teaspoon baking powder
• icing sugar, for dusting

1. Preheat the oven to 180°C (350°F). Line a muffin tray with 12 paper cases.

2. Put the eggs, caster sugar, lemon zest and almond extract into a large bowl. Beat with an electric whisk for at least 5 minutes until thick and foamy.

3. Mix the ground almonds, icing sugar, flour, cornflour and baking powder, then fold into the egg mixture in three portions. Try not to knock too much air out of the mixture – you should end up with a thick batter that still flows.

4. Fill the cake cases to three-quarters full. Bake for 12-15 minutes until puffed and golden.

5. Remove the baked marquesas from the oven and leave to cool – the tops will sink and create dimples in the top. Dust with icing sugar before serving.

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Just Jammin’

Yes, I’m finally back! Not quite 10 months since my last past, but that is still one looooong blogging hiatus. And it is all down to me trying to get to grips with parenthood. I’ve discovered that I’m better at this whole lark than I ever thought I would be. But what happened to my time? I somewhat naively imagined that I would have at least some time to indulge my hobbies in between trips to the playground, making wholesome baby food, and becoming an expert of the best children’s programming that Cbeebies has to offer. Well, that was just pie in the sky! In fact, I don’t think I’ve even managed to read a whole novel in the last six months. And no, reading That’s not my bunny/reindeer/cow/dinosaur twice each day doesn’t count.

That said, things are now finally getting back to something that looks a bit more like normal, even if I have had to completely accept that our lives have also changed completely and forever, and that we’re really adjusting to the “new normal”. This also means that I am sometimes able to get back into the kitchen and cook and bake for pleasure, rather than to meet the demands of a hungry little mouth who wants meatballs right now. Of course there is always the threat that a little someone will wake up, so I won’t be tackling projects that require a good four or five hours to complete, so that’s most of the Great British Bake-Off technical challenges off limits for the next couple of years. Hey ho…

Today I thought I would ease back in with something simple and delicious – some lovely raspberry jam that I recently made. It would be wonderful to tell you that the fruit was picked just moments before making the jam from a row of plants at the end of my garden, but I am not that fortunate. The garden revamp is on the cards for next year, and I will be putting in some fruit bushes and trees. In the meantime I did the next best thing for use city folk. We headed to a pick-our-own farm outside London (Crockford Bridge Farm if you’re keen to do the same). And yes, you’ve spotted that I combined fruit picking with a kid-friendly day out.

Luckily for us (if not the local children) most of the schools had gone back after the summer holiday when we got there, so we were able to enjoy bucolic scenes of fields and blue skies all to ourselves. We worked our way through plump blackberries, the last strawberries of summer, more courgettes than I’ve ever seen and rows of enticing ruby raspberries.

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All of this took me back to childhood summers spent picking raspberries in rural Perthshire. And the irony was not lost on me that I was now paying for the privilege of picking fruit, rather than being paid to pick it!

But it was still a glorious day out, and our two little helpers even managed to resist eating more than one or two berries before we got them weighed and coughed up the cash. And the fact that my lad and his little friend fell fast asleep almost instantly on the way home thanks to all that fresh air? Priceless!

So once I was home with this fruit, I had to think about what I was going to do with it. Some got eaten straight away, but for most of the raspberries, they just had to go into some jam. I had been thinking about this all along, as I had made sure to include a few slightly under-ripe berries to get enough pectin in the jam to ensure a good set.

Raspberry jam is one of my absolute favourites. The flavour is sweet and tart, fruity and fragrant. It is also really so simple to make, so great for a preserving novice, and easy to get a good set without too much trouble. When you get into jams and marmalades, you will obsess about the setting point – is it ready? Do I need to boil it for longer? Did I make a mistake using normal sugar rather than jam sugar? But these are usually non-issues if you are using raspberries!

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Some recipes suggest mashing up the fruit and letting it sit overnight, but I find that you don’t need to wait that long. Throw the fruit and sugar in a pan, mash it up and let it sit for 20 minutes or so. The sugar will start to dissolve in the fruit and draw out the juice. Then it is a simple case of bringing the lot to a boil, adding some lemon juice at the right moment, and that’s more or less it. Then in no time you can be enjoying colourful, fragrant and deliciously tart raspberry jam on scones, toast or even swirled through natural yoghurt.

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To make raspberry jam (makes 3 x 450g jars)

• 750g raspberries
• 750g granulated white sugar
small knob of unsalted butter, size of a hazelnut (optional)
• juice of 1 lemon

1. Pick through the berries to make sure there is no spoiled fruit or insects lurking in there. Put the raspberries and sugar in a heavy saucepan. Roughly mash until the fruit and sugar are mixed, then cover and leave to sit for 20 minutes.

 2. Place the pan over a medium heat until it comes to a boil. Add the lemon juice and butter if using(*), and cook on a rolling boil for 5 minutes. After this, start to check for a set (**).

3. When you have a set, remove the jam from the heat and leave to sit for 10 minutes (it will thicken slightly – this helps to ensure the pips are evenly distributed in the jam and don’t sink). Decant the hot jam into sterilised jam jars(***), seal and leave to cool.

(*) Butter in jam? I find this helps to reduce the amount of scum that forms on top of the jam during cooking – and sometimes the scum will vanish completely when the jam is left to cool before being put into jars!

(**) How to check for a set? Use a thermometer and check the jam has reached 106°C (223°F). Or drop some jam on a chilled plate – allow to cool for a moment. Push with your finger – it should wrinkle. If you don’t get a wrinkle, boil the jam for 2 more minutes then test again. I actually do both tests – I use the electronic thermometer, then drop some jam on a plate, because this is what my mum did and I like doing it!

(***) How to sterilise jam jars? Wash in hot, soapy water, and then rinse very well – do not dry them. Now place up-side down on the shelf of a cold oven, and heat to 100°C / 210°F for 20 minutes. Remove from the oven using gloves, allow to cool slightly (they should still be warm) and fill with the hot jam. You can leave the jars in the oven with the heat turned off until you need them, as this keeps the glass warm, and warm glass is much less likely to crack when you add warm jam (science, eh?). Remember to sterilise the lids by washing in hot, soapy water, then rinsing well and then boiling them in a pot of hot water for a few minutes

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{2} Mailänderli

Today we’ve got a little bit of a festive mystery. Yes, Christmas means mysteries in our house, and I love to binge-watch episodes of Poirot and Miss Marple. But this one is of a culinary nature, and thankfully does not involve death by biscuits…

Mailänderli are little buttery cookies from Switzerland, rather like shortbread, with a delicate lemon flavour and a jaunty yellow colour, and none of the flavours you normally associate with the festive season (nuts, fruit, spice, chocolate…). Their name means “little Milanese” and they are one of the most popular Swiss Christmas biscuits. Rather fun little guys, aren’t they?

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So…what is this mystery? Well, you might be thinking that it’s very logical that the Swiss have a Christmas biscuit that comes from Milan, given that it’s only the other side of the Alps. In fact, the origin of Mailänderli is a complete blank. I haven’t been able to find out the origin of the name, and even the mighty Duden dictionary of all things German doesn’t attempt to offer an explanation. Maybe the recipe really did come from a citizen of Milan many, many years ago? Or maybe it is a mistake by a Swiss baker, confusing Milan with Sorrento (given, well, the lemon link)? I guess we’ll never know. Perhaps not one to trouble Miss Marple!

These cookies are easy to make – just mix the ingredients, let the dough chill properly, then roll out and cut whatever shapes you like. I would just urge you to take the chilling part seriously – I tried a test bake without chilling, and they don’t hold their shape nicely. I also tried doing one or several coats of the egg yolk glaze, but I did not think that this made any difference. One coat does the trick.

Mailänderli are also great cookies to make if you’ve got smaller hands helping you as the chilled dough is easy to cut and the cookies hold their shape nicely. You can also give your helper a paintbrush to coat the tops with the egg yolk to give them their colour (and go non-traditional with sprinkles or pearl sugar). And perhaps best of all…they take almost no time to bake, and these little buttery morsels of lemony goodness taste great while still warm.

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To make Mailänderli (makes around 60 bite-sized cookies):

For the dough

• 125g unsalted butter
• 125g sugar
• 250g plain flour
• 1 pinch salt
• 1 large egg
• 1 lemon, zest only

For the glaze

• 1 egg yolk
• 1 teaspoon cold water

1. Mix the butter and sugar together until light and fluffy. Beat in the salt, egg and lemon zest. Finally, sift in the flour and mix until combined.

2. Wrap the dough in cling film and chill for an hour or overnight.

3. Preheat the oven to 200°C and line a baking tray with greaseproof paper.

4. Take the dough out of the fridge and roll out to 1cm thickness. Cut out whatever shapes you like, but try to keep the biscuits on the tray roughly the same size so that they bake evenly.

5. Make the glaze by mixing the egg yolk and water. Brush the tops of the biscuits with the glaze, and bake for around 10-15 minutes (depending on size) until the Mailänderli start to turn golden at the edges.

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Scottish Food: Skirlie

Burns Night might have passed, but I’ve got one last Scottish recipe that I would like to share. This one is great, as it is both incredibly tasty, very simple to make and really rather healthy given that the main ingredients is the wonderfood that is oats.

This dish is called skirlie, and I’ve been making it rather a lot recently. You can more or less make it from cupboard and fridge staples, and the taste is definitely a lot more than the sum of its parts.

Skirlie is made from onions that have been browned in butter or olive oil, and then you add some pinhead oatmeal and leave the lot to cook until the oats are slightly toasted. Season to taste. Voila! If you’re trying to imagine the taste, it is something like an onion stuffing (or at least, how a vegetarian might imagine stuffing to taste…). If you’re wondering what pinhead oatmeal is, it is the stuff that looks like little grains of oats, rather than the big, fat flakes. I don’t think there is any reason you could not use rolled oats, but don’t try to use oatmeal or oat flour, as they are too fine.

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I’ve tried to find out more about skirlie, but this seems to be one of those traditional Scottish dishes that doesn’t really have a lot to say for itself. No links to the Jacobites, no links to Robert the Bruce, and not (as far as I’ve seen) a favourite of Queen Victoria during her visits to Balmoral. This just seems to be a good, honest, traditional recipe, and that’s that! If you’ve got any secret knowledge, please do share! What I was able to find out is that skirlie is traditionally made with beef dripping as the fat to brown the onions, so if that’s your thing, you might want to have a go for a more “authentic” flavour. I think butter works well instead, but of course you can go for a completely vegan option by using olive oil.

This really does have the flavour of a very traditional dish, but for its simplicity, it really packs a flavour punch. To make this well, I think there are a few secrets: first, get the onions really cook down slowly until they are nicely browned, which can mean taking the time to get them cook for as long as you can on a very gentle heat. Next, let the oatmeal cook for quite a while, so that you develop some “nuttiness” in there. Finally, get a little creative with the flavours. You’ll need to add some salt, but this also benefits from some black pepper and aromatic herbs. One version I’ve seen uses generous amounts of fresh thyme and lemon zest, which makes this into a very aromatic, fresh-tasting dish.

There is, however, one way in which my version of skirlie really veers away from more traditional recipes. All the versions I was able to find told me to add the oats to the onions, and cook the lot, job done. However, I tried this and found the resulting skirlie to be a bit too dry for my liking. This would be fine if you’re serving it alongside something with a lot of sauce, or plan to mix it into mashed potato for some added flavour and crunch, but on its own, I was not convinced. The answer was simple – just add some water at the end of the cooking time, then keep cooking. It will initially boil up and thicken, looking a bit like porridge (at which point you think “oh no, porridge for dinner!”), but keep cooking and it will dry out a bit, but it will turn fluffy and the oats will be slightly tender. The end result is something with a texture a bit like brown rice.

To serve this, I think it really is best as a side dish, to provide a bit of variety from rice or mashed potato (or as I say – mix it into the potato!). You can also add other vegetables, such as mashed carrot or swede, or even some pan-fried spinach or kale for a properly healthy dish. Yes, it contains butter, but all those oats have to be doing you some good!

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To make Skirlie (serves 4 as a side disk):

• 2 large onions or 6 shallots
• 40g butter
• 3 tablespoons olive oil
• 150g pinhead oatmeal
• 1 lemon, zest only
• aromatic herbs (thyme works well here)
• salt
• freshly ground black pepper
• water

1. Peel the onions/shallots, and roughly chop. As the oats are fairly fine, you want the onions to add some texture.

2. Put the butter and olive oil in a frying pan. Heat until the butter melts, then add the onions/shallots and fry over a medium heat until they have a good brown colour.

3. Add the pinhead oatmeal and lemon zest, plus herbs, salt and pepper to taste. Cook for around 5 minutes, stirring frequently – the oats should start to brown, but should not burn!

4. Optional. Add some water to the mixture – it will thicken initially, but keep cooking until it starts to look try. Try the oatmeal – if you prefer it to be softer, add more water and keep cooking until you get the desired consistency.

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Scottish Food: Dundee Cake

We might be in the New Year, with all manner of good resolutions, but this is a recipe that I really could not resist posting. We’re about to hit Burns Night, when there are celebrations of Scotland’s most famous poet up and down the land. And yes, that’s him on my header, along with a few lines from one of his most famous poems Tam O’Shanter, a cautionary tale about drinking too much and the ghouls and spirits that a man might see in the wee hours.

As part of this celebration of Scottishness, I thought I would have a go at making something that comes from near to where I grew up, the Dundee Cake. This is a rich fruit cake that is most notable for how it is decorated – concentric circles of whole almonds are arranged on top of the cake before baking, which will toast gently as the cake bakes.

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As with all good cakes, there are various stories about who created it and the right way to make it.

Some stories say that Mary, Queen of Scots did not care for cherries, and Dundee Cake was created as a version of fruitcake that did not contain them. This may or may not be true, but I think this is a bit boring, and besides, I quite like cherries in cakes, so I’m not convinced.

The version of the story that I subscribe to is that this was created by the Keiller family in Dundee in the late 1700s. They are famous as the founders of the first commercial brand of marmalade, said to have been the result of a flash of inspiration when a boatload of Seville oranges arrived in the port and they were perhaps a little past their best. In a flash of inspiration, Janet Keiller turned the lot into marmalade, and a legend was born. The Keillers are also famous as bakers of the Dundee Cake, and in this version, I’ve added orange zest as well as a generous amount of marmalade as a nod to their orange endeavours, so I think this story could well be true (or perhaps have some elements of truth to it). Indeed, so much is marmalade tied up in the history of Dundee that it is famous as the home of the three “Js” – jam (marmalade), jute (from textile mills, weaving hessian from the East) and journalism.

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Now, I have to admit that I am no expert in making Dundee Cake (even if I grew up not that far from the city itself), so if you’re sitting there quietly fuming, thinking we dinnae make it like that, laddie! then I suggest you calm down!

I’ve made the sort of cake that I prefer – I’m not a massive fan of cake which is too dark and heavy, so I’ve made a fairly light version. There is also no spice in here, but if you want to play around and add things like treacle or dark muscovado sugar, or even mixed spice or crystallised ginger, then be my guest. The only thing you cannot miss out on are those rings of almonds on top of the cake!

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A couple of little tips to finish – this is not a cake that needs to be fired for hours and hours and hours. In fact, when you bake it, you really only want it to be just done. When you test with a skewer towards the end of the baking time, it is fine to turn off the oven if you only have a few little crumbs sticking to the skewer, as this will help make sure the cake remains soft and moist. This is also a cake that keeps well, so it’s probably best to make it a few days before you need it, so that it can rest for a while.

How you finish this cake off is up to you, but I used a glaze made from sieved apricot jam mixed with marmalade. I brushed this over the warm cake, then covered the lot loosely with tin foil and left the cake in the (switched off!) oven until it was cool. The glaze will dry a bit, and the cake will have a glorious rich brown colour. Nae bad as they might say in Dundee!

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To make a Dundee Cake:

For the cake

• 100g whole almonds
• 160g butter

• 160g light muscovado sugar
• zest 1 orange
• zest 1 lemon
• 3 tablespoons marmalade (approx 100g)
• 225g plain flour
• 1 teaspoon baking powder
• 3 large eggs, beaten
• 75g ground almonds
• 2 tablespoons milk
• 100g glacé cherries, rinsed, dried and halved
• 250g sultanas
• 100g raisins
• 50g currants
• 50g candied peel, finely chopped

For the glaze

• 2 tablespoons apricot jam
• 1 tablespoon marmalade
• 2 tablespoons water

1. Start by skinning the almonds – put them in a pan of boiling water. Simmer for 5 minutes. Drain, allow to cool for a moment, then remove the skins (they should slip off). Leave the blanched almonds to dry.

2. Preheat the oven to 150°C (300°F). Grease a loose-bottomed 20-23cm cake tin and line the bottom and sides with greaseproof paper.

3. In a large bowl, cream the butter and sugar until light and fluffy. Add the orange zest, lemon zest and marmalade and mix well.

4. In a separate bowl, sieve the flour and the baking powder and fold in the ground almonds.

5. Add one of the eggs plus a tablespoon of flour to the butter/sugar mixture. Beat well. Repeat with the other two eggs, adding a spoonful of flour with each, until you have a light, fluffy mixture.

6. Add the rest of the flour, mix well and then fold in the milk. The mixture should be soft and drop slowly from a spoon, but definitely not runny.

7. Add the cherries, dried fruit and candied peel and fold gently to distribute the fruit.

8. Carefully spoon the mixture into the tin and level with the back of a spoon.

9. Arrange the blanched almonds in concentric circles on top of the cake, pressing lightly into the cake mixture. Put in the oven and bake for 45 minutes at 150°C (300°F). In the meantime, make the glaze – heat the apricot jam and marmalade in a saucepan with two tablespoons of water, and sieve to make a smooth glaze.

10. After 45 minutes, lower the oven temperature to 130°C (265°F) and bake for another 40-60 minutes, checking the cake after 40 minutes using a skewer – it should be just clean, or even come out with a few crumbs (so the centre remains slightly soft). If the cake looks like it is browning too quickly during baking, cover loosely with tin foil.

11. When the cake is done, remove from the oven, and brush generously with the apricot-marmalade glaze. Cover loosely with tin foil and pop back into the (switched off) oven to cool completely. When cold, wrap in foil and store for a few days before cutting.

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Shredded Sprout Salad

Ooof, still feeling the effects of Christmas and New Year? Even if you’re not into celebrating in a big way, January often comes as a relief when there is just generally less food, drink and sweets on offer. I kind of feel that I don’t really want to go near a spiced cookie for quite some time! At home we’re not doing anything too radical, other than an “eat less rubbish” drive. Everything in moderation and such like.

Well, this salad is a bit of an antidote to all that rich food. It’s actually my preferred way of serving Brussels sprouts, and is really very simple. Rather than trying to boil them, then cooking them too long and ending up with grey mush, you just leave them raw. Then it’s simply a case of shredding them finely, adding some nuts and soft cheese or thick yoghurt, dressing the lot and you’re done.

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If you’re thinking that raw sprouts aren’t really your thing, try one – they’ve actually slightly sweet, with a mild flavour. Not a hint of cabbage!  I’ve matched them with some tangy goat’s cheese, and then a selection of nuts and seeds. I use whatever nuts I have to hand, usually hazelnuts, but here I’ve used sunflower seeds, pumpkin seeds and almonds, all of them toasted to bring out their flavour. And finally, the dressing is a simply mixture of extra-virgin olive oil, lemon zest and lemon juice, which makes the whole dish taste really fresh.

There really is not much mystery to making this salad, other than making sure you shred the sprouts finely. This means that you can sort of fluff the greens up, so that everything mixes well. If the sprouts are too large, the nuts, cheese and dressing will stay separate. Other than that, it’s a case of having as much or as little of each part as you see fit. Personally, I would major on the toasted nuts and goat’s cheese, but that’s just my preference.

To serve this, I think it looks best on a flat plate piled up high rather than in a bowl. Given that you’ve got that wonderful green-yellow colour of the sprouts, a dark plate is best for dramatic effect (even it I’ve used a white one for my pictures!).

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So there we have it – a bit of a healthy start to 2015!

To make Shredded Sprout Salad:

For the salad

• Brussels sprouts
• nuts and seeds (I used almonds, pumpkin seeds and sunflower seeds)
• soft goat’s cheese

For the dressing

• 1 lemon, zest and juice
• 6 tablespoons olive oil
• salt, to taste
• freshly ground black pepper, to taste

1. Toast the nuts in the oven. Allow to cool and chop roughly.

2. Trim the sprouts and remove any bad leaves from the outside. Finely shred them.

3. Make the dressing – add the lemon zest, lemon juice, olive oil, black pepper and salt to a jam jar and shake vigorously.

4. Make the salad – sprinkle half the sprouts on a plate, then half the chopped nuts and seeds. Drizzle over a little of the dressing. Add the rest of the sprouts, the rest of the nuts and seeds, then scatter chunks of the goat’s cheese on top with half an eye on coming up with something that looks a bit artistic. Finish with the rest of the dressing.

 

 

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{2} Sparkling Quince Candy

In all the years that I’ve been tackling various Christmas delights, what has struck me is how few of them are actually suitable for vegans. Sure, a lot of them could be adjusted to make them suitable, but few of them are, from the out, completely plant-based. Perhaps the nearest traditional recipe I’ve tried has been sugarplums, albeit it you would need to swap out the honey for some other syrup. My festive sweet chestnut wagashi from 2012 were indeed completely vegan, but as they were more the sort of thing you might expect in Japan than from a German Christmas market, I’m not entirely sure that they would really count.

Well, it’s time to change that. The hero of the hour is that most frustrating of fruits, the quince, which appears in various countries as part of their festive fare. They always look so enticing, large, smooth and golden. Indeed, they are reputed to be the real “golden apples” that Hercules was challenged to steal from the Garden of the Hesperides (although others suggest they were actually oranges), and quinces were also thought to be sacred to the goddess Venus, making them a symbol of love and fertility.

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All well and good, but if you’ve every tried to cook with quince (at least the ones that grow in chillier Northern climes), you’ll appreciate that they don’t ripen into sweet, juicy fruit, but remain hard and rather astringent while raw. They might look tempting, but bite into one and you’ll soon wish you hadn’t!

This was very clear to me during autumn – two streets from my house, someone has a large quince tree in front of their house. Every few days, a quince would appear on the ground with some teeth marks. One by one, each of the quinces met the same fate. Clearly several passing opportunists had tried their luck, each being disappointed in turn. No, in this country, we need to cook quinces to change them into something fragrant and delicious.

Indeed, it is the cooking that makes the magic happen. This is not like cooking apples or pears (to which quinces bear similar appearance). Cooking quince down with some sugar and lemon juice transforms the hard pale yellow flesh into something completely different. Rich in colour, ranging from soft pink to deep garnet red, a delicious sweet with a rich pear-and-honey flavour!

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In reality, today’s post is really just a jazzed-up version of simple quince paste, with the sparkling element coming from being rolled in granulated sugar. All in all, it’s similar to Spanish membrillo served alongside manchego cheese. Of course, quince paste is not something that is limited to Spain. Similar things pop up all over the place, such as British quince cheese, France’s pâte de coing (which features as one of the Thirteen Desserts of Christmas (Les Treize Desserts de Noël) traditionally enjoyed after a festive meal in Provence) or Croatian kotonjata that is enjoyed at this time of year.

They all follow a similar recipe, but vary the amount of sugar, which results in different levels of sweetness and textures that range from firm and chewy to soft and melting. They are also suitable as a vegan treat, as they contain nothing more than quince, sugar and lemon juice, plus a little water to get things going, relying on the naturally high pectin levels in quince to get a good set (no gelatine here). The only thing you are asked to give to make quince candy is time, time and more time!

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I would describe this sweet as similar to Turkish Delight, so if you love that, then you’ll enjoy this. It has that same sweet, slightly chewy texture, albeit it has the graininess of quince rather than the smoothness of Turkish Delight. It’s worth noting that as you puree the quince, rather than just using the juice, you don’t get a completely smooth jelly. However, the main difference from Turkish Delight is that it is a lot, lot easier to make. There is no messing around with cornflour mixtures until everything turns to gloopy goo…just cook the quince until soft, puree it, then add sugar and cook the lot until done. Basta!

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I actually made this over two evenings, which is probably the easiest way to do it given how busy we all are at this time of year. The first evening, let the prepared quince cook down. This is the easy bit, and you can leave it on the hob to simmer while you’re doing something else (making cookies or watching a film…). This is the point where you’re also delighted that the quince flesh has turned to a soft pink colour, and you imagine that this will be the colour of the finished candy.

The second evening is a bit more involved. Once the sugar and lemon juice are in the mixture, the lot needs to reduce. Initially this is fine, and you don’t need to stir it very often at all, but as it cooks down, you’ve got a much higher sugar ratio in there, and towards the end, you have the sheer delight of stirring the boiling, bubbling mixture over a very hot stove. Lucky that it is so chilly outside! At this stage, I was amazed by the colour change – gone was the soft, gentle pink, and instead I had an intensely deep, dark red colour. Really quite amazing – this was just the result of the cooking process, where the heat of cooking causes a red pigment called anthocyanin to appear (or maybe it was there all along – I’m no scientist!). The final shade and its intensity is a result of the quince variety and where it was grown. If you make this, you could get the same garnet colour, or it might look quite different. So I guess what I’m saying is that there are no guarantees, so live a little and see what colour you end up with.

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A few final little tips – once you’ve made the giant block of quince candy and you have cut it up, you are advised to leave it uncovered in a warm and dry place. This will help the candy dry out slightly. What you want is a surface that is sticky but not wet, so you can coat it in sugar, but the sugar won’t then dissolve and form a syrup that ends up clinging to everything (your worktop, your hair, your Rudolph jumper…).

It is also worth making sure you use the lowest heat possible for this recipe. It is very easy to burn, and the flavour of caramel might be delightful with salt, but it can ruin the fruity flavour of quince. Taking the slow approach will also allow you to control the final texture. My candy had a very firm but chewy texture, which I like, but you may prefer something softer.

So…after all that work…how was it? Frankly, I was terribly impressed with myself. This looked really great – each piece was very regular – and the flavour was  fantastic. It has that familiar honey-pear flavour and aromatic quality that you associate with quince, but as the mixture has been cooked for a long, long time, it is much more intense than membrillo you might have with cheese. I think getting a few of these after dinner or as a gift would be very much in keeping with the festive season. If you’re feeling creative, you could try to put the hot quince paste into small silicone moulds, or even just use a cutter to get different shapes before rolling in sugar.

Finally, I should just add that this recipe does make a lot of pieces of candy. I had about 80, all around the size of a walnut, so you might want to try a smaller batch unless you’re a real quince lover!

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 To make Quince Candy (around 80 pieces, depending on size)

• 4 large quinces
• juice of one lemon
• 300ml water
• granulated white sugar (plus extra for rolling)

Step 1: Prepare the quince pulp

1. Peel and de-core the quinces. Cut the flesh into chunks (I ended up with about 1.145kg of quince flesh from my four large quinces), discarding the peel and pips. Add the water and lemon juice, cover the pot and simmer until the quince is very tender and has a pink colour (at least 1 hour).

2. Mash the quince mixture so it looks like pulp and then pass through a sieve to remove any “stringy bits”. This might take a while, but keep at it and almost everything should go through the sieve. Discard anything that remains in the sieve, and you’ve got your quince puree!

Step 2: Make the Quince Candy

3. Measure the quince pulp by volume and put into a saucepan. For every 500ml of pulp, add 400ml of granulated sugar (i.e. 4:5 ratio of sugar to quince).

4. Prepare a non-stick baking tray ( at least 20 x 20cm/8 x 8 inches). Rub very lightly with a few dots of a neutral oil to prevent sticking.

5. Heat the mixture until the sugar dissolves. Cook over a gentle heat until the mixture darkens in colour and you can scrape the bottom of the pan – it should leave a trail for a few moments and not fall off a spoon. You can also test a few drops of the mixture on a cold plate – if it sets firmly, it’s ready. Initially, you can stir the mixture only every 15-20 minutes, but as the mixture reduces, you will need to stand over the pot and stir continuously (i.e. non-stop, otherwise it will burn!).

6. Once the quince mixture is ready, pour into the prepared tray and shake lightly to even the surface. Cover loosely with greaseproof paper and leave overnight to set and cool.

7. The next day, turn the quince candy slab out of the tin. Cut into pieces, and spread on a sheet of greaseproof paper and leave in a warm, dry place to dry out slightly. After a couple of days, roll each piece in more granulated sugar to finish.

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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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Fattoush for a final summer hurrah

I’m finding it hard to decide if summer is over. Is that it? Are we going to ease into chillier days via a bright, sunny but fairly fresh period of weather. Is it time to get out the lentils, pasta and various potato bakes? Well, not quite. I’ve still found that there is a warmth in the air in the early evening, so at the moment, I’m still quite happy to enjoy fresh salads before succumbing to cheese pasta bakes that will be on the menu come late September. Indeed, this weekend, it seems we are due to get another blast of heat from Continental Europe, so I’m sure we’ll get one last hurrah out in the park with a picnic before the chilly embrace of autumn comes upon us.

I’ve done posted a few salads recently, so today it’s more of the same I’m afraid. One of my favourites is the Middle Eastern fattoush, which is a lovely collection of fairly chunky vegetables, finished off with lots of crisp bread and flavoured with a sharp, lively dressing made with lemon and ground sumac.

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Fattoush can be made with pretty much whatever you have to hand – I’ve used a fairly traditional recipe with cos lettuce, tomato, red peppers, radishes, carrot, parsley, mint, spring onions and cucumber – and finished it with toasted flatbread and a dressing made with lemon juice and sumac (ground red berries that impart a fruity, sour flavour to the dish). This dressing is key – it needs to be fresh and it needs to be sour. However, you can of course add whatever other vegetables you fancy – like shredded red cabbage, mushrooms or onions – there are no hard or fast rules. In fact, onion is fairly traditional, but it can be a little overwhelming in a fresh salad, so I tend to omit it (and anyway, the milder spring onions seem to do the trick here).

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Now, the bread. This is so fundamental to fattoush that it is often called a toasted bread salad. I’ve seen various versions of fattoush that suggest using any sort of bread that you can lay your hands on. I’m going to stick my neck out and suggest that this isn’t really the case. When made with things like cubes of sourdough bread, the effect is something more like large croutons than a salad that suggests the warm evening air of the Levant. No, I prefer to use flatbreads (the ones that look like a cross between a tortilla and a pitta), tear them up and toss in olive oil. Popping the bread into a hot oven allows you to keep a close eye on it, so you get pieces that are golden, toasted and crisp, but with none of the burnt bits that you can get it you shallow-fry the bread in a pan.

My three top tips for making excellent fattoush are fairly simple. First, the ingredients should be fresh but at room temperature. Carrots, tomato and radishes taste so much better if they are not icy-cold and straight from the fridge. Second, make sure the dressing is properly sour, made with lemon juice and sumac. This is the proper flavour of this salad. And third, keep the toasted bread apart from the rest of the salad, and only combine the vegetables, bread and dressing just before serving. This will keep the green leaves perky and the bread crisp. The salad tastes so much better if you have all the contrasting textures as you eat it. Colourful, tasty and healthy – you can you resist?

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To make Fattoush:

For the salad:

• 1 large flatbread
• 2 tablespoons olive oil
• 1/2 cucumber, halved and sliced
• 1 cos lettuce, chopped
• 2 carrots, peeled and sliced
• 6 cherry tomatoes, quartered
• 6 radishes, trimmed and sliced
• 1/2 red pepper, de-seeded and chopped
• small handful fresh mint leaves, finely shredded
• small handful flat parley
• 1 spring onion, finely sliced
• zest of a lemon

For the dressing:

• 2 teaspoons ground sumac
• 1 tablespoon boiling water
• 1 tablespoon lemon juice
• 3 tablespoons olive oil
• salt, to taste

1. Tear the bread into pieces. Add the olive oil, tossing the bread to coat it, and place on a tray and bake in the oven at 180°C (350°F) until golden brown (watch it like a hawk – it goes from golden to burn quite rapidly). Remove and allow to cool.

2. Put the rest of the ingredients into a large bowl and toss to mix.

3. Make the dressing: put the sumac in a jam jar and add the boiling water. Allow to sit for a few minutes. Add the lemon juice, olive oil and salt. Seal the jar and shake vigorously until you have a smooth dressing. Add more lemon juice or olive oil as needed.

4. Serve the salad – add the bread to the salad, add the dressing and toss to ensure everythign is coated. Serve immediately.

Worth making? This is a great salad with lots of tastes and textures, and very fresh thanks to the use of lemon, parsley and mint. Good for a summer’s day as part of a picnic!

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