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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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{5} Truchas de Navidad

One of my favourite Christmas songs is Feliz Navidad by José Feliciano (which you can listen to here, complete with a warming log fire video). I love a bit of Latin flair at this time of year, and Spain definitely has a fantastic selection of sweet treats, from nutty turrón and aniseed biscuits to marzipan cookies, but one of the most unusual that I have come across are truchas de navidad – or Christmas trouts – from the Canary Islands.

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The surprise here is the filling…these little pastries are filled with sweet potato! This is flavoured with cinnamon, lemon and aniseed, but you’re basically eating potato pasties. Mmmmm…

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I like sweet potatoes, but oddly I don’t tend to actually cook or bake with them that often. I was not sure exactly what to expect when I was making the filling, but the cooked sweet potato flesh is gloriously orange, and when you add sugar, ground almonds, aniseed, cinnamon and lemon zest, the flavour is rich and reminded me a little of marzipan. You might think that comes from the almonds, but ground almonds lack that characteristic “bitter almond” flavour, which leads me to think that it much be the combination of aniseed, cinnamon and lemon zest which is tricking the tastebuds. This might also be the point – a quick and easy local substitute on the Canary Islands back in the good old days. Maybe this is true, maybe I’m just making it up, so don’t quote me on that!

I made these truchas using a shortcrust pastry with a little bit of baking powder to provide some lift, and then baked them in the oven. This is certainly the easiest way to make them, but if you prefer, you can also cook them empanada-style by frying them in hot oil. And if puff pastry is your thing, then use that instead of shortcrust for even lighter pastries (and…you can just buy it and skip the whole “make your own pastry” business!). I suspect that these would be really rather tasty in their fried incarnation, and probably closer to the treats enjoyed in Spain.

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Finally, if you’re all tired out of those mega-recipes that make many, many more cakes, cookies or pastries than you realistically need, you can of course just skip the whole detailed recipe and make just a couple of these truchas “inspired” by it. If you’ve got some spare pastry, just mash a little sweet potato, add sugar and almond plus spices to taste, and make just a few of them. Quick, easy, and no-one needs to know that you didn’t make a huge batch! All the more time to enjoy the soothing lyrics of Feliz Navidad!

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To make Truchas de Navidad (makes 20-25)

For the pastry

• 500g plain flour
• 100g butter
• 50g icing sugar
• 1/2 teaspoon baking powder
• cold water

For the filling

• 400g sweet potatoes (the orange type)
• 100g ground almonds
• 1 egg yolk
• 1 teaspoon ground cinnamon
• 1/2 teaspoon aniseed extract
• 1/2 teaspoon ground aniseeds
• zest of a lemon
• 125g sugar

To finish

• 1 egg white, beaten

1. Make the pastry. Mix the flour and the baking powder. Add the butter and work with your hands until it looks like breadcrumbs. Add enough cold water to make a dough – it should be soft but not stick. Wrap in cling film and leave to chill in the fridge for an hour or overnight.

2. Make the filling. Either bake the potatoes whole until soft and then scoop out the flesh, or peel, chop and steam until tender. Leave to cool and weigh out 400g of sweet potato. Transfer to a bowl and mash manually (don’t use a food processor – it will become gloopy!). Add the rest of the filling ingredients and mix well.

3. Preheat the oven to 190°C (375°F). Line a baking tray with greaseproof paper.

4. Roll out the pastry to 1/4 cm thickness, then cut out 8cm diameter discs of pastry (the pastry is much easier to work with when cold, so try to keep it as cool as possible). Put a scant teaspoon of the potato mixture in the middle of each. Moisten the edges of the pastry disc, them fold in half. Press the edge lightly to seal, crimp the edges with a fork, and put on the baking tray.

5. Beat the reserved egg white with a teaspoon of water and use to glaze the top of each trucha.

6. Bake the truchas for around 10-15 minutes until lightly golden. When done, remove from the oven and dust liberally with icing sugar. Enjoy them warm – from the oven, or reheat quickly in the microwave before serving.

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Tortas de Aceite

If you enjoyed my last post on Spanish picos then chances are you’ll also like today’s treat – tortas de aciete, or olive oil cakes. I say cakes, but they are more like crackers. Or biscuits? Actually, it’s hard to work out quite what to call them – the best I can come up with is “sweet crispbread with aniseed” to give you a hint about what these are like.

Like picos this is another delight from the southern Spanish region of Andalusia. The most famous brand is Ines Rosales, which I’ve seen in Spanish stores in the past – they come in quite a retro blue and white wrapping promising that they are las legítimas y acreditadas. When we were in Seville recently, I finally got round to buying a packet, and when I finally tried them back home, I really was smitten.

I expected them to be savoury, so was surprised to find they are actually sweet. They are thin and crisp, sprinkled with sugar that has lightly caramelised during baking, and flavoured lightly with aniseed. And they’re really quite annoyingly more-ish. They’re great smashed into shards and enjoyed with tea or a cup of coffee.

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Their exact origins are unknown, but they date back to the 16th century where they are referred to in literature. Seen in context, these must have been a luxurious treat – they don’t have much sugar in them, so these seem to me a clever way of making what would have been an expensive ingredient go a long way.

There are, inevitable, lots of recipes to make these tortas. There is, of course, the secret version belonging to Ines Rosales. However, their recipe is safe, as you can make a decent version yourself at home – you just need white bread dough made with olive oil, or just take some pizza dough and work in some oil and aniseed.

Actually, I write that and make it sound so simple. Well, when it came to making these delights, I had to admit that I really, really struggled with them. Really struggled. The dough was soft and a bit sticky, so they were a complete and utter pain to roll out. They stuck to my hands. They stuck to my rolling pin. They stuck to my worktop! All in all, very frustrating! I tried chilling the dough, I tried using flour to dust, I tried using no flour and a drop of oil, but it was all to no avail. I was left facing that most awful of situations…I might have to chuck everything in the bin and admit defeat.

Before giving up, I thought I would give it one more try to make my tortas. I normally put greaseproof paper on my baking tray, but I tried adding the dough directly to the tray. As the dough contained olive oil, I reckoned the baked tortas would not stick, and I would be able to drop the dough on there and just press it out thinly into a circle.

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And…as you can see from those pictures, this worked like a dream! The dough went into a hot oven, and the tortas cooked quickly, browning on the edges and puffing up in places, leaving the typical mottled appearance. Success!

Would I make these again? Absolutely! They are actually quite easy to make, and offer lots of scope to adapt them – you could add other aromatic seeds such as fennel, or spices such as cardamom or cinnamon. Citrus zest would also work well, or you could go completely different – don’t sprinkle any sugar on top before baking, and make them into savoury crackers instead.

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To make tortas de aciete (makes around 25-30):

• 80ml extra-virgin olive oil
• 1 heaped teaspoon aniseed
• 100 ml water
• 1 teaspoon instant yeast
• 50g white sugar
• 250g strong white flour
• pinch of salt
• 1 egg white, beaten
• caster sugar, for sprinkling
1a. If using a bread machine: put everything except the egg white into the mixing bowl. Run the “dough” cycle. Simples!

1b. If making by hand: put the flour, salt, sugar and yeast into a bowl. Add the water and mix well. Knead for around 5 minutes until elastic, and then work in the olive oil and aniseed. 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.

2. Once the dough is ready, turn it onto a floured surface. Divide into equal pieces.

3. Preheat the oven to 210°C (420°F).

4. Roll each piece of the dough into a ball. Put onto a lightly oiled baking tray and press flat into a large, thin circle (12-15cm). I managed to fit 3 tortas onto a large baking sheet. Brush each torta lightly with beaten egg white and sprinkle with some caster sugar.

5. Bake the tortas for around 5-8 minutes until they are golden and browned at the edges. You might want to go easy on the first few to make sure you’re getting the temperature and baking time correct – it will depend on the size and thickness of the tortas.

6. Keep going until all the dough is used up. Once the baked tortas are cooled, store in an airtight container to keep the crisp.

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Papas Arrugadas

I’ve had a bit of a blogging hiatus since Christmas, as things have been pretty hectic. Sure, it was a shock to they system to go back to work, but life also has a habit of throwing a few random shocks and surprises too, and the last thing I felt like was getting adventurous in the kitchen.

Anyway, time to change all that! While this is the time of the year that I normally like to feature some Scottish recipes in honour of the celebration of the national poet Robbie Burns, I’m going to break with tradition and have a bash at something I ate rather a lot of on holiday last year on Gran Canaria. This is called papas arrugadas which roughly translates as “small wrinkly potatoes”, of which more later.

Below is a little selection of my pictures giving you a bit of a flavour of what the island is like – mountainous, sunny and warm, even in the early days of winter. The capital, Las Palmas, has a fantastic stretch of beach with strange, black sand and fantastic sunsets, while the days brought trips to inland villages with ancient churches, botanical gardens and, by pure coincidence, a rum distillery in Arucas (selling superb rum and rum/honey liqueur). Yes, this is an island that seems to have pretty much everything. Inland, the terrain gets very hilly very quickly, and you pretty quickly realise that the description of Gran Canaria as a mid-continent is no exaggeration. While the Canary Islands are geographically party of Africa, culturally they are very Spanish, but they also reflect their position as a trade centre with various influences passing through over the years. Oh, and did I mention all that glorious sun in the middle of winter? It made the chilly streets of Britain seem so far away.

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So back to the food…what are these papas arrugadas things? Well, they are about one of the simplest things you could every want to make as a snack with drinks. Take some small potatoes and boil them in very salty water – as a rule of thumb, it should be so salty that the potatoes float! That said, I chickened out and added just one tablespoon of salt to the cooking water for my bowl of spuds – I like savoury, but I’m not a salt fiend. Once cooked, you drain them, pop them back in the pan on a very low heat, and as the remaining water evaporates, you are left with a salty crust on the surface of the potatoes, giving them a frosty and wrinkled appearance. They are then served with a sauce, traditionally mojo rojo, made with peppers and olive oil. That’s it. Really, it’s that simple!

In the interests of full disclosure, it’s probably worth pointing out that you really need to enjoy salt if you’re going to make this – it packs quite a punch, so I think it’s best served with other dishes that are much fresher, like tomatoes, salads or mild cheese. Incidentally, there is also a fantastic local cheese on Gran Canaria calles queso de flor which is made with goat’s milk and milk from the cardoon flower, a thistle-like plant related to the artichoke. This cheese has an unusual smokey flavour which makes a nice partner to the papas. Yes, we’re all about healthy eating at the moment!

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Traditionally this dish was apparently made with sea water, so it was quite easy to get a very salty finish on these spuds. This also makes sense when you understand the geography of the Canary Islands. These are not places where fresh water is in over-abundance. Instead, they rely on rain or passing clouds (in the case of the latter, water collects on trees inland and drips slowly down into the ground). Gran Canaria is not exactly a desert, but it did strike me as the sort of place that you’d prefer not to waste water if you had the choice. I did see my fair share of passing showers during my visit, but they never lasted for more than a few minutes, and being out in the middle of the ocean, the weather changed incredibly quickly.

Now, I have to fess up that I didn’t actually make the sauce to go with these papas, preferring instead to stock up with some in a local deli during my holiday. There were actually loads of foody treats that I was able to pick up, and in addition to the mojo and the cheese (and the quince paste, and the fig paste, and the sugared pine nuts, and the pastels de gloria, and the palm sugar treacle…)  there is a tasty spread called bienmesabe made from egg yolks, sugar, ground almonds, lemon zest and cinnamon. This is originally an Arabic dessert, but if offered all over Gran Canaria as a dessert. Delicious on ice cream or spread thickly on bread at breakfast. Yup, yet more tips for healthy living today!

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If you’re keen to make your own mojo rojo then aim for a spicy, but fairly thick and smooth sauce. I would suggest a few cloves of garlic, a couple of hot chilis, a spoon of paprika, a couple of spoons of vinegar, plus olive oil and salt to taste. If you’re feeling adventurous, you might also want to throw in some other spices like fennel or cumin. Make sure everything is blended to a smooth paste so that it coats to the potatoes when you dip them in. As long as you use plenty of oil, you could make this sort of sauce and store it in the fridge for quite some time, so perfect as a quick snack to impress guests when you’re knocking back some Spanish wine on a warm evening. Now all I need is…a warm evening to enjoy my back garden! The first snowdrops are starting to peek out of the soil, so hopefully we’ll be enjoying warmer days soon.

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And there you have it – a quick little recipe that can be pulled together in less than 20 minutes to impress hungry dinner guests!

To make papas arrugadas (makes one bowl):

• 225g / 8oz very small potatoes
• boiling water
• salt

1. Put the potatoes into a saucepan. Cover with boiling water and add either (1) add enough salt until then potatoes float, or (2) add one tablespoon of salt.

2. Boil the potatoes until soft – around 15 minutes, until you can insert a knife easily.

3. Drain the potatoes, then return to the pan. Place on a low heat, shaking frequently, until all the water has evaporated and the potatoes have a salty crust.

4. Transfer to a bowl and serve hot with dipping sauce.

Worth making? Of course! Who doesn’t love potatoes with sauce?

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{4} Panellets de Membrillo

You may (or, more likely, may not) wonder how I come up with my ideas for festive baking. In some cases, I’ve featured recipes from my travels. In other cases, it’s a simply case of typing something into Google, and seeing what comes up. I took the latter route to find today’s little treats. I’m just kicking myself it took me so long to find these little gems!

Panellets are almond confections that originate from Catalonia in Spain, the name meaning “little breads” in Catalan. They are incredibly easy to make – you just mix sugar, ground almonds and egg to make a simple marzipan, and then you can pretty much let your imagination run wild. They can be made with a range of flavours – rolled in nuts, made with chocolate or coffee, or filled with some sort of jam. One very popular and attractive version involves rolling balls of marzipan in egg white, rolling in pine nuts, and then brushing with egg white. The result looks superb, very much like Italian pignoli.

In the spirit of keeping this recipe very Spanish, I’ve flavoured these biscuits with membrillo, the classic quince paste eaten with Manchego cheese. It has a good, aromatic, fruity flavour, which is strong enough to balance the almond flavour of the biscuit. From what I have been able to work out, the traditional way to make these panellets de membrillo is to encase strips of membrillo in marzipan, then cut into slices. I just, well, didn’t bother, and went with a much simpler idea. This is the same technique for making thumbprint cookies, except you fill the dips with jam and bake it.

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These biscuits are absolutely delicious, and I’m only sorry that I never saw them when I was in Barcelona last year! The next time I’m in that part of the world, I will definitely look out for a shop selling the full range!

The flavour is good, and the membrillo in the middle looks great and balances the nuttiness beautifully. If you’re not a quince fan, then go with something else equally bold – tangy marmalade, damson jam or candied cherries on top. Oh, but one little word of warning – paneletts have legal protection about how they are made and the ingredients they use. So if you’re making these for a bring-and-buy or flogging them in a cafe, be careful what you call them – imagine the shame of being arrested over a Christmas biscuit!

To make Panellets de Membrillo (makes 12):

• 170g ground almonds
• 130g icing sugar, plus extra to bind
• 1 medium egg, beaten
• 1/4 teaspoon almond extract, to taste
• caster sugar, to roll
• membrillo (quince paste)

1. Make the almond paste. Mix the almonds and icing sugar. Grind in a food processor to get the mixture as fine as possible. Mix with the beaten egg and almond extract, working to a smooth dough (you might need to add a few more tablespoons of icing sugar). Cover and leave to rest overnight.

2. Preheat the oven to 220°C (420°F) and line a baking tray with greaseproof paper.

3. Roll out the almond mixture into a long sausage. Cut into twelve equal pieces. Form each one into a ball, then roll in the caster sugar.  Arrange on the baking tray and flatten slightly. Use the end of a wooden spoon to make a dip in the centre of each biscuits.

4. Mash the membrillo into a paste, then fill the dips in each biscuits. Bake the panellets for 8-10 minutes until they are golden around the edges but not dark. Remove from the oven and leave to cool.

Worth making? These biscuits are super-easy to make and the results are delicious! You can also adapt them really easily with different fillings on top, so a nice way to provide lots of flavours for minimal effort. The perfect cookie for the harassed Christmas cook!

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Ajo Blanco

Do you remember the first time? By which I mean the first time you tried certain foods. There are a lot of things (Cake! Chips! Pasta!) that have just always been there, but then there are foods that I very firmly do remember trying for the first time. I can point to a family holiday to Port de Pollença on the north side of Mallorca as the first time I tried gazpacho. Sachertorte was at the Hotel Sacher in Vienna. Kanelbullar firs experienced in Stockholm’s Old Town. These are all pleasant memories as I liked the thing I was trying. You can probably guess where I am going with this…

Anyway, my first experience of ajo blanco was all rather different. It’s a cold Spanish soup, made with almonds and garlic, served with green grapes and olive oil. Sounds nice and refreshing, yes? Perfect in hot weather perhaps?

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Well, the first time I tried ajo blanco is still seared into my memory in vivid detail. I was at a Spanish restaurant somewhere on the fringes of Shoreditch, the distinctly non-latin sounding Eyre Brothers. Looked great, friendly service, and then we came to order. Bread, olive oil, olives all consumed with glee, and then it came to choosing what to eat. While Spanish food has a reputation as being very meaty (and thus not very veggie-friendly), I don’t find this to be the case. There is usually enough in terms of vegetables, bread and cheese to keep me happy.

Anyway, on this occasion, they were serving ajo blanco which I remember being described as an almond soup with garlic. As I’d never seen it before, I thought I should take the plunge. I mean – it’s cold soup, how bad could it ever be?

Well, I expected some garlic, but this stuff took your breath away, almost literally. Pleasantly creamy to begin with, it broke down in the mouth within seconds into pure, pungent garlic, complete with an unpleasant burning sensation on the tongue and throat. Now, I like garlic, but lots of the raw stuff can be just horrible, which tends to lead to garlic oil seeping from every pore. I made it half-way through before giving up, but by this point, the meal was spoiled. The garlic had overpowered everything else. For the rest of the meal, all I could taste was garlic. Patatas bravas? No, garlic. Green salad? No, garlic. Frozen turrón dessert? Nope, still the all-pervading taste of garlic. Yes, I did mention to the staff that the soup was too strong, and one of the serving ladies was very sympathetic, but this little episode did put me off ajo blanco for years.

That is, until yesterday. I thought I would try making it myself as part of my attempts to make refreshing summer meals.

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So I got my little mixer ready, and had a little think. Would I use garlic this time? Or more…dare I use garlic?

Well, I reasoned that the use of garlic was traditional, so it just had to go in there, somehow. Then I remembered a Pho soup I had made where garlic was added to the stock, and at the end of cooking, it was soft, mild and not pungent at all. This seemed like the perfect solution to my garlic issue, and so I blanched some cloves for a few minutes. Job done – garlic flavour, not garlic nightmare. However, you might find this approach to be a little mild. It you’re still after a little more “zing” you might want to rub the bowl with a cut clove of raw garlic before adding the other ingredients. That should still ensure your guests take notice, without gasping throughout dinner.

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The rest was a complete breeze – throw stale white bread, water, almonds, seasoning, garlic and olive oil into a blender and liquidise until everything is smooth and white. One little tweak that I did make was to add a handful of pine nuts. They give a little extra flavour, but also help to emulsify the soup and get a great texture.

Once made, all that remains to be done is to make sure the soup is completely chilled, then serve. The traditional way is with a drizzle of olive oil and some sliced green grapes. This might sound strange, but the combination of fresh, juicy grapes and the chilled, creamy ajo blanco is fantastic. It’s also not that common, so makes a nice change from gazpacho when you’re looking for a chilled soup as a starter when it’s pushing 33°C outside (yes, that’s how hot it got today in London!).

And with that – my fear of ajo blanco has been overcome!

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To make Ajo Blanco (serves 4):

For the soup:

• 3 cloves garlic
• 150g whole almonds
• Handful of pine nuts
• 80g stale white rustic bread (crusts removed)
• 4 tablespoons olive oil
• 1 tablespoon salt
• 1 teaspoon white wine vinegar
• 200ml water

To serve:

• olive oil
• 12 green grapes

1. Put the bread and water in a bowl. Leave to soak for 15 minutes.

2. Peel the garlic, slice in half and remove any green bits. Blanch for 3 minutes in a small pot of boiling water. Drain and leave to cool.

3. Skin the almonds – bring another pan of water to the boil, add the almonds and simmer for two minutes. Drain, and squeeze the almonds out of the skins (you can discard them – we only need the nuts!).

4. Put the garlic, bread, almonds, pine nuts, olive oil, salt and vinegar into a blender and blitz until very smooth. You may need to add more water to get the right consistency (think single cream). Pour into a large bowl and adjust the seasoning as needed – more oil, salt or vinegar according to taste. Cover the bowl and chill for at least two hours or overnight.

5. To serve, divide between four bowls. Slice the grapes in half and divide between the bowls, finishing with a drizzle of olive oil.

Worth making? Definitely! This is a really easy recipe to make, while the almonds and bread mean that it is light and fresh but still substantial.

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Horchata de Chufa

Valencia, in my dreams it always seems,
I hear you softly call to me!
Valencia, where the orange trees forever,
Send the breeze beside the sea
!

Yes, that it the theme song of the Spanish coastal city of Valencia. I visited it a couple of years ago, in the middle of a local festival (The Feast of the Left Arm of St Vincent, or similar), and you could hear that tune for hours on end. It’s quite infectious and lends itself to getting into the party mood. It’s a great place – a beautiful old town with traditional architecture, stunning modern architecture, and a unique park planted along the former riverbed that snakes through the city.

When travelling, I am always one for trying local specialties, and in Valencia two things stood out. The first was the agua de valencia, a rather lethal combination of cava, gin, sugar and fresh Valencia orange juice. Very drinkable, but the next morning, you are feeling, well….shall we say, less than alert.

The second was more suited to daytime activities such as museums, churches and all that Valencian art. And believe me, you will need a little pick-me-up after all that agua de valencia the night before. I’m talking about a drink called horchata de chufa (in Spanish) or orxata de xufes (in Valencian), which you can find for sale on many street corners.

Horchata refers to a range of drinks often made from nuts, seeds or rice, which are ground and mixed with water and a little sugar to make a “milky” beverage. This version is one that is common in Spain, where it is often made from tiger nuts, and which is lightly flavoured with a touch of spices and citrus peel.

Yes, tiger nuts. Chances are that you’re probably not familiar with these little fellows as they are pretty uncommon outside of Spain. However, they are to be found pretty much everywhere in Valencia and you can usually hunt it down in other Spanish cities if you look hard enough. I’ve certainly never seen them in London, but that’s not to say you would not be able to track them down if you were willing to commit some serious shoe leather to the task.

Chufas (to give them their Spanish name) are not actually nuts, but small tubers of a member of the sedge family of grasses. They are the size of hazelnuts, but look like small, shriveled potatoes or dried-out root ginger. So they’re nothing more fancy that little bulbs! However, if you soak them, the tiger nuts turn back the years, absorb water and become plump.

The actual horchata you make from chufas is not pure white (as it would be if made from rice), but has a very light tan colour. It has a certain richness in terms of texture, and the flavour is fresh but not heavy. The cinnamon and lemon zest add a certain aromatic quality to it, but the flavour is nutty – think fresh almonds or hazelnuts with a hint of vanilla. It is very much a drink for a hot day – either served over ice, or even served like a frozen milkshake – an Iberian snow cone!

So why all this background? Because when I was in Barcelona in early springtime, I went to Casa Gispert, a specialist shop offering a vast selection of nuts and dried fruits, as well as seeds, oils, wines and chocolate. A good place for a bit of a rummage. Way, way at the back of the shop I found bags of chufas. I knew immediately what I should buy them. It was finally going to be horchata time.

Now that was a little easier said than done, for I was really making something completely outside my comfort zone. No idea whatsoever. Flattering myself that I can sort of guess whether a recipe would work out or not, I perused a few websites to come up with something that seemed sensible (see here and here). However, I’ve come up with my own version (below), which is a bit of a make-it-up-and-hope-for-the-best sort of recipe, but it seems pretty darn good to me.

The locals actually take their horchata de chufa so seriously that they have gone so far as to set up a council to regulate local tiger nut production, with some interesting-looking recipes. However, I must draw the line at this one. To understand the joke, I should explain that many cafés in Valencia serve horchata with a sweet iced bun. All very nice, but these buns are lumbered with the unintentionally hilarious name of farton. Hilarious to the ears of an English-speaker, but I am sure the poor waitresses were rather over the schoolboy humour.

Naughty jokes to one side, although making horchata takes a bit of time, most of that time is spent letting things soak or infuse. It’s actually a doddle to make and makes a really pleasant, refreshing and different drink for a warm day. Salut!

To make horchata de chufa  (makes 500ml / 1 pint):

• 125g tiger nuts(*)
• 600ml water
• 1/2 stick of cinnamon
• 1 small strip of lemon peel
• 100g white sugar

• pinch of salt(**)

1. Thoroughly rinse the tiger nuts. Cover with cold water and soak overnight.

2. The next day, rinse the tiger nuts, cover again with fresh water and soak for a second night. The tiger nuts will change from small and wrinkly to smooth-ish and plump-ish, but should still feel very firm.

3. Rinse the tiger nuts thoroughly, remove any bad nuts, and put them into a food processor with about 200ml water. Grind as finely as you can. You might want to do this in smaller batches.

4. Pour the tiger nut/water mixture into a pot. Add the remaining 400ml water, the cinnamon and lemon peel. Stir and leave to sit in the fridge overnight.

5. Stir the horchata mixutre, then strain through a piece of muslin cloth to remove the bits of tiger nuts, cinnamon and peel. Squeeze the cloth to get as much liquid from the nuts as you can.

6. Add the salt to the milky liquid, and sugar to taste. Stir well to dissolve the sugar, and serve ice-cold(***).

(*) If you don’t have tiger nuts, you could use almonds or other nuts instead. If you do this, just soak the nuts overnight once as they soften more easily than tiger nuts.

(**) Salt is optional – I like it as it enhances flavours, but entirely up to you. Most likely not authentic…

(**) Horchata keeps for a day in a cold fridge, but won’t keep much longer than that.

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Almendras Fritas – Olé!

What stinking weather today! And after such an arduous week at the office. A big project, all of us locked away in a project room with no windows, only seeing last week’s wonderful sunshine when we went outside at lunchtime. Never mind, I thought. I’ll enjoy the sun at the weekend. Maybe a nice long bike run…

Fast forward to Saturday, and the weather is foul. Sheet rain, heavy showers. Open the window, and you get soaked. Clearly not going out.

My response to this is to open a bottle of white wine and make something Spanish to give the impression that it’s somewhere sunny. Almendras fritas or fried almonds. No, really. Bear with me.

If you normally just serve a bowl of peanuts with drinks on the basis that anything else smacks of too much work, then you’ll be happy to know that this is simplicity itself. If you have almonds in the house, it takes about 1 minute to make.

I rummaged around in the store cupboard, and found the packet of Mallorcan almonds I bought on holiday. Just throw a couple of handfuls of nuts into a saucepan with a little olive oil, fry, sprinkle with salt and that’s it – a little tapa to go with your well-earned glass of wine. OK, maybe it doesn’t transform London in the rain into the sun-drenched main square of Valencia, but they do taste great. The texture is crisp and they have rich, toasted flavour that plays very well with the sprinkling of sea salt

Now just one question…¿Dónde está el sol?

To make almendras fritas:

• skinned whole almonds(*) – allow one handful per person
• olive oil (1 tablespoon per 2 handfuls of nuts)
• sea salt (flaky fleur de sel type)

Put the almonds and oil into a saucepan. Put over a medium heat.

As the oil gets warm, start to shake the pan or stir with a wooden spoon until the nuts are golden. When ready, drain the nuts (use a sieve or transfer to kitchen paper), then put the nuts in a dish and sprinkle with a little sea salt.

Serve warm.

(*) If you need to skin the almonds, bring a pan of water to the boil. Throw in the almonds, boil for one minute, then drain and cool. The nuts should slip out of their skins.

Worth making? Super-easy and very, very delicious. Makes a nice change from peanuts too!

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Tumbet

There has been a distinct Spanish flavour to a lot of my posts recently…and today, we’re keeping that going.

I’ve been making a dish called tumbet rather a lot recently. It’s traditionally from Mallorca, and it’s really just about the simplest thing you can make. Chances are, you’ve got just about everything in the kitchen right now. Look at this lot – nothing too fancy here, eh?

But what is this dish? Well, it’s clearly a lot of potato, peppers and aubergine. It’s all sliced up, fried in a little olive oil, then topped off with a thick tomato sauce that’s rammed with lots of garlic. There seem to be quite a lot of variations out there (which is only to b expected with such a traditional dish), but I’ve made a tweak and added a few slices of Spanish Manchego cheese before pouring over the tomato sauce to add a bit more substance so that this makes a tasty and filling main dish.

Now, a lot of blogs feature recipes that are “simple” or “easy” or “a breeze”. I’m not going to lie – this is one that’s easy, but its not quick. I think this tastes best when you can leave the vegetables to fry gently on a very low heat, rather than cremating them over a hot flame. If you’re able to multi-task and do something else at the same time (which coudl involve, perhaps, glasses of wine in the sunshine) then it is indeed simply. It’s just that some thing cannot be rushed.

This a really nice dish that works either as a cold tapas-style nibble with drinks (serve it up with bowls of olives, almonds and patatas bravas with garlic mayo with a few glasses of chilled white wine), or have it as a main dish with a large green salad. Either way – delicious, and you get the feeling of just a little summer sunshine as you eat it.

To make tumbet (as a side dish for four, main for two):

For the sauce:

• 2 tablespoons olive oil
• 2 cloves garlic, peeled and chopped
• pepper, to taste

• salt, to taste
• 1/2 teaspoon dried oregano
• 1 tin chopped tomatoes (400g)

Heat the oil over a low heat. Add the garlic and fry very gently for about a minute (it shouldn’t brown). Add the salt, pepper, oregano and chopped tomatoes. Cover the sauce, and leave to simmer for 30 minutes. If the sauce is too dry, just add a little more water.

For the layers:

• 300g potatoes, peeled and thinly sliced
• 1 aubergine, sliced
• 2 peppers (I used one red, one yellow), cut into sticks
• 75g Manchego cheese, sliced
• olive oil, for frying

Fry the potatoes in a little olive oil until they are starting to turn golden brown. Put in the bottom of an ovenproof dish.

Brush the aubergine slides with a little olive oil, and fry gently until soft and browned on both sides. Place on top of the potatoes.

Finally, fry the peppers until soft. Put on top of the aubergine, then arrange the slices of cheese on top.

Pour over the sauce and spread evenly on top of the vegetables.

Worth making? This is a tasty dish with lots of flavours and textures, and in my view, makes a nice change from lasagna, moussaka or the dreaded mushroom risotto(*) if you have to serve something to a veggie guest.

(*) Acutally, I love mushrooms risotto – it’s just that it tends to be the only thing on the menu is so many place in London these days!

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Holiday Pastries! Mallorcan Ensaïmades

As you might now be aware, I had a really great holiday on Mallorca…but there is just one little niggle…

…you see, they have a rather amazing-looking pastry over there – the ensaïmada – which is a sweet, enriched bread, formed into a coil and dusted with icing sugar. The problem? Well, they are made with a good lump of…lard.

Indeed, the clue is in the name – “saïm” is the local name for a type of reduced lard, so they translate roughly as “lard things”. So a case of “look, but don’t touch”.

For better or for worse, I found this out before I went, so of course, once I was out and about, the things were everywhere. Ensaïmades beckoning from every bakery, every café, every shop. Kids wandering the streets munching on the things. I was even handed one in the airport wine store as a souvenir. So it’s very, very lucky I have a will of iron.

Now firmly back in the UK, and with all the excitement of the Royal Wedding behind us, I decided that I would give these a try myself, but make a vegetarian version of them. So I’ve replaced the lard with butter and a bit of olive oil. So maybe not exactly healthy, but heck – I resisted for a week!

The process for making them is pretty easy and quite good fun, but it just takes a while. You start off making a dough, which I did by hand (and ended up with very sore arm muscles in the process). Once the dough has risen once, you knock it back, then roll out portions as thin as you can, brush with soft butter, then roll them up and form into spirals. I’ve done a little research, and I have concluded that lard probably works best, so if that’s your thing, then go for it. However, my butter version is still pretty darned nice, if not quite as flaky as the authentic Mallorcan version.

And the shaping process is also important – the dough needs to be as thin as possible, so when they bake, you get maximum puffiness and volume. And you need to let the rolled up dough rise first, then carefully coil it loosely afterwards – you really want the breads to be big but quite flat, rather than a round dome shape. Make sense?

Once they were kneaded, brushed, shaped and risen, they went into the oven, and emerged puffy and golden. I gave them a quick brush with more melted butter (yay!) and a dredging of icing sugar later, and they looked absolutely perfect.

But looks are not everything – finally I was going to get to taste an ensaïmada.

Happily, I can report that mine were delicious. Rich, slightly sweet and very, very buttery. The process for making them means that they are a delight to pull apart as you are eating them too, so perfect for people who are partial to playing with their food. I like to do that.

To make 12 ensaïmadas:

For the dough:

• 4 teaspoons dried yeast
• 240ml milk, boiled and cooled
• 100g white sugar
• 450g flour
• 1 teaspoon salt

• 2 large eggs, beaten
• 40ml olive oil
• 170g butter, softened

To finish the ensaïmades:

• 25g butter
• 50g icing sugar

To make the dough:

By hand: Combine the yeast, 2 tablespoons of white sugar and warm milk and allow to sit for 15 minutes until frothy. In a separate bowl, combine the flour, salt and remaining sugar. Pour the yeast mixture into the flour and mix as much as you can (it will be very dry). Add the eggs and olive oil, and work until you have a smooth, soft, elastic dough (about 10 minutes). Once the dough is made, cover the dough with a damp cloth and leave somewhere warm until doubled in size (around 1 hour).

By machine: Combine the yeast, 2 tablespoons of white sugar and warm milk and allow to sit for 15 minutes until frothy. Put the yeast, flour, salt, remaining sugar, eggs and olive oil into the bread machine and run the dough cycle.

To form the ensaïmades:

Knock back the dough and knead again for a minute. Divide the dough into 12 portions. Roll each portion as thin as possible (as in – really, really thin). Brush each generously with softened butter. Roll up the dough (Swiss-roll style) and put on a baking sheet. Cover with a damp cloth and leave until doubled in size (around 1 hour).

Next, take each piece of rolled-up dough, and form into a loose coil (gaps will be filled when they rise again). Transfer each coil to a well-greased baking sheet. Cover with a damp cloth or a piece of oiled cling film and leave until – you guessed – doubled in size.

To bake the ensaïmades:

Preheat the oven to 190°C (375°F). Put hot water in an ovenproof dish and put in the oven to create steam.

Bake the ensaïmades until they are golden brown (about 15 minutes). Once cooked, remove from the oven, allow to cool for a few minutes, then brush lightly while still warm with melted butter and dredge with icing sugar.

Worth making? They might be a lot of work, but they are fun and taste really good. I will be making these again, more likely for a special occasion than for an everyday breakfast, but a nice way to bring a little Mallorcan sunshine to the early mornings. If you’re so minded, you can also change them with a dusting of cocoa powder in the filling, or add cinnamon or raisins.

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Filed under Recipe, Sweet Things