Category Archives: Puddings & desserts

Fine apples, rotten consumerism

Pie with cream

When we got back from our travels just before Christmas, we travelled back and forth across the south of England on the train visting family. I’ve got a vivid memory of looking out of the window into gardens backing onto the train line, and seeing numerous apple trees, leafless in the winter cold, and surrounded by a carpet of rotting fruit.

When we finally moved back into our own house in Sussex, a similar sight met us with a tree in our garden. Clearly our tenants hadn’t been into apples. Or maybe they had – but like so many people, were inclined to buy plastic bags of New Zealand or South African or French (!!!!*) apples from the supermarket and ignore the free fruit growing just outside their own door.

Britain has been going this way for decades now. And it’s a great tragedy. Britain, especially the south of England, has an ancient history of apple growing. Cider is synonymous with Devon and Somerset, for starters. Yet I’ve got another strong memory of driving through Devon and stopping for a picnic – beside an orchard of mature apple trees, one of them vast like an oak, all of them dropping their fruit into a rotting carpet in the grass.

Rotten to the core
It’s not just the fruit that’s rotten though, it’s the supermarket-dominated system that somehow believes it makes more business sense – which is different to actual sense, common sense, or future-of-the-human-race sense – to waste or neglect or our produce that is.

Or, as Paul Waddington says in Seasonal Food, “… if a kilo of apples has made the flight from New Zealand in March, are they really going to taste as good as the stored British variety?  … are the New Zealand apples really worth the kilo of CO2 they will produce compared to the 50g if the same kilo were sourced locally. Despite the fact that we grow perhaps the best apples in the world, Britain has lost 60 per cent of its apple orchards since 1970,  thanks in part of the bureaucratic madness that paid growers to dig them up.”

The past few years we’ve at least been discussing the waste that goes into supermarkets only selling standardised fruit and veg (apples and tomatoes of ruthlessly controlled sizes and colours, carrots without protrusions and nobbles, bananas with very specific curves,  etc). But is it already too late? Most of us have already forgotten what it’s like to eat seasonally, never mind the brainwashing that arrises from only ever encountering these cosmetically “perfect” supermarket products. We’re so out of touch with food production. I mean, when was the last time Britons en masse grew their own fruit and veg? Probably during the Second World War’s Dig for Victory, with perhaps some efforts in the 1970s inspired by The Good Life.

Apples, Lewes Friday market

World leaders in apples
As with most things in life, all it needs is a little more education, and if people are better informed that can have a bearing on market forces. After all, as Waddington says, “We should be world leaders in apples. With judicious use of varieties and good storage, we can east our own produce almost all year round, with perhaps a brief gap in July.”

Now, it’s January, and the apple harvest here in England, usually August to October, is fading into a distant memory on the far side of Christmas. And yet, my local farmers’ market has one stall, Greenway Fruit Farm, that has a wonderful selection of apples. All are priced at £1.50 a kilo – which isn’t bad, as a quick scoot round mysupermarket.co.uk indicates all the UK supermarkets are selling apples at around £1.75 -£1.99 a kilo.

Last year, Britain had a “bumper apple harvest” after a dry summer, so there really is no excuse to not be eating home-grown apples his year. Not all of these apples will necessarily be cosmetically so shiny shiny, but then real apples, grown through traditional means without gallons of toxic sprays and without a wax-job, will never look like those silly massive red things you see in American movies.

Sheer variety
We have 2,300 varieties here (listed in The National Fruit Collection in Kent; there 2,500 grown in the US, for comparison, and 7,500 worldwide) and they vary remarkably in appearance, flavour and use. Some great for eating, some for juicing, some for cider, some for cooking.

Last week, I bought a good selection of Braeburns for eating. This variety is synonymous with NZ, where is was emerged in the 1950s near Motueka (a great place for fruit and hops), a Granny Smith-Lady Hamilton cross. It’s been grown here since the 1990s though, really coming into its own in the 2000s. Its popularity is understandable as it’s a medium-large, green and russet colour fruit with a crisp bite and taste that somehow blends sweet and tart, and can be a dessert apple and a cooking apple.

For cooking, however, I also stocked up Bramleys. This variety was, perhaps surprisingly, developed from a seed planted only in 1809 by a girl in Nottinghamshire. They were first sold commercially in 1862, soon becoming established as a significant crop. The original tree is still bearing fruit.

These are the quintessential British cooking  variety, accounting for 95% of our cooking apples. Usually I get mine from my folks, who have a very handsome mid-sized tree in their garden that really cranks out bright green, occasionally pumpkin-sized fruit. The ones I bought on the market were a bit different though – the Greenway lady was excited about them as they had an unusual amount of red on their skins. They certainly worked wonderfully for an apple pie.

Pie with ice cream

As English as apple pie
The recipe I used this time was from Andy Bates and his Street Feasts TV shows, which we’ve been enjoying on Freesat since we got home, got settled and got a telly. It features a slightly unusual pastry that eschews the more typical necessity for cold, cubed butter. Instead, butter and sugar are creamed together, egg is added, then self-raising flour – as such it’s more like a cake batter, though drier. The final results are more cakey too, with a more spongy crumbliness than a traditional short crumbliness. It’s rather good.

His recipe also uses a filling that’s not too sweet. In the show, he explained that’s because he’s pairing it with an ice cream made with condensed milk and hokey pokey (aka honeycomb, you know, like the stuff inside a Crunchie bar). I did make the ice cream – it’s easy, with no custards, no churning, but it is insanely sweet, and his quantities are weird, there’s way too much honeycomb. You can find his original recipe here; if you do fancy making the ice cream, I’d recommend halving the quantities of honeycomb.

Here’s the pie recipe:

Pastry
200g butter
200g caster sugar
1 egg
1 yolk
325g self-raising flour

1. Cream together the sugar and butter. The latter can be at room temp, or even warmed a little to make it easier to cream. I tend to nuke cold butter for a  few seconds in the microwave, or if I’m using a metal mixing bowl, put in a low heat on the hob briefly.
2. Beat together the whole egg and egg yolk.
3. Cream the egg into the sugar-butter mixture.
4. Sieve the flour into the creamed mixture, combine and bring it together as a dough.
5. Wrap up the ball of dough in plastic and put it in the fridge to rest, for about an hour.
6. Make the filling.

Filling
1kg Bramley apples (about 5 or 6 medium-large ones)
50g butter
50g dark soft brown sugar
1 t ground cinnamon
Juice of 1 lemon

1. Peel, core and chop the apples into 2cm-ish cubes.
2. Warm the butter, sugar, cinnamon and juice together in a saucepan.
3. Add the apple pieces to the sugar mix and cook for about 10 minutes, stirring regularly to soften the chunks equally.
4. Cool the apple mixture.

Assembly
Water
Milk
Caster sugar

1. Preheat the oven 180C.
2. Cut a third of the pastry off the ball.
3. Roll the two-thirds chunk and use it to line a tin – in the show he used a 23cm loose-bottom cake tin, but Fran’s colleague in Rome lost mine (grrrr. Still annoyed about that, can’t find a non-non-stick replacement), so I used a 25cm loose-bottomed flan tin. You could use any sort of tin, around the same size (9-10 inches for you olde fashioned types).
4. This doesn’t need blind baking, so just add the cooled apple mixture.
5. Roll out the remaining pastry and cover, sealing the edge with water. It’s not the easiest pastry to roll, but don’t worry too much, it’s so cakey, it bakes fine even if you bodge the pastry case together in pieces.
6. Crimp the edge.
7. Brush the top with milk and sprinkle with caster sugar.
8. Bake for about 45 minutes, until nice and golden.
9. Leave to stand for about 10 minutes before serving.
10. Serve with his crazy sweet ice cream (seriously, I’ve got a sweet tooth, but that stuff was too much even for me), or some plain vanilla ice cream, or cream, or custard – whatever you fancy.

Most importantly, make it using local apples.

I urge you to track down local apples, support your local economy, support local producers, support your national economy, reduce the pollution of absurd food transportation.

If you don’t have an apple tree, family or friends may have one they don’t harvest. Or you could politely scrump some by asking a neighbour. Even if the fruit looks ugly, it could be very tasty – and great for cooking up. And it’s free.

Alternatively, stock up at a farmers’ market or farm shop. Failing that, ask for British apples in your supermarket. You should at least be able to find Bramleys as they store well and are available all year round.

China already produces 40% of the world’s apples. Britons, I ask you: in ten years, wouldn’t you rather the apples available to you in your local shop or market were actually from our own once great apple-growing nation than from the country whose incredible industrial drive and growth is rapidly taking over pretty much everything?**

* I’m using the !!!! to indicate a “For flipping flip’s sake” moment as this country is not only just across a thin stretch of water from us, it’s in the same hemisphere with the same flipping seasons.

** Don’t get me started on pine nuts – I can’t find any pine nuts in Britain that are grow in Europe. Or even the US. They’re all from China. It’s boggles me, yet most people don’t even seem to notice.

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Pudding, boudin, budino and complex historical relationship between desserts and sausages

In my last post, I mentioned my attempt to make a boudin di ricotta (below). It either went wrong, or this retro cheesecake just wasn’t to my taste. Either way, one thing the dish got me thinking about was the word budino, which can be translated as “pudding”.

Budino di ricotta, baked

As anyone who’s interested in food, or eating, or sausages, or dessert, knows, the meaning of the word pudding can be little complicated. Likewise budino.

English has the word pudding, French boudin, and Italian budino. Surely these are all related? It’s agreed that the latter words come from the Latin for gut or intestine, botellus, which relates to the modern Italian word budella. English etymological dictionaries, on the other hand, suggest that the word pudding may comes from old English and German words for swellings and lumps (puducpuddek etc). Thankfully, other sources posit1 botellus as an alternative source too. The relationship seems too strong for the English word to not have the Latin root, surely?

Originally, pudding, budino and boudin all referred to much the same kind of product: sausages made with blood, meal, fat and animal bits (including ambergris, a sperm whale digestive byproduct), all stuffed into intestinal membrane and steamed or boiled.

Sanguinnacio

This sense of the word still exists in the things like the Scottish haggis, or the British black pudding, its French cousin boudin noir, and even an Italian cousin called sanguinaccio 2 (from the Latin sanguis, blood). Interestingly, though, the latter straddles both the older sense of the savoury pudding, and the modern usage, which more commonly refers to desserts. Italy has various versions of sanguinaccio, running the spectrum from full savoury sausage, to a chocolate pudding traditionally thickened and flavoured with fresh pigs’ blood at the time of slaughter to a basic chocolate pudding like a mousse, with nary a pig byproduct.

Pudding cloth boiled pudding

Although in British English, the word pudding has become almost synonymous with dessert, for me (I’m English), it more specifically refers to dishes that have been steamed or boiled.

Again, in the Middle Ages, food, specifically the food of the rich, would blend what we now consider very different flavours: the savoury with the sweet, meat with spices, salt and sugar. British mincemeat (as in Christmas mince pies) originally took this form, for example.

When one strain of the pudding evolved into savoury sausages, other strains evolved into desserts. The meat in the dish would have been reduced to fat in the form of suet or lard, while the grain, fruit, sugar and spices might have stayed. The animal membrane was replaced with a cloth, then latter a ceramic bowl, though the pudding was still cooked by boiling or steaming.

mason cash pudding basin

This path of evolution gives us things like British Christmas pudding, schoolboys’ favourite spotted dick, bread-and-fruit summer pudding and other dishes where even the fruit and spice has evolved out, such as one personal fave, treacle sponge pudding. Strangely, the word’s usage narrowed down even further in North American English, where, as I understand it, pudding just refers to mousse or custard-like deserts.

The abovementioned treacle sponge pudding is basically just a steamed cake mixture made with golden syrup (a gingery version of mine can be found here). If an equivalent type of mix is instead baked, then served as a dessert, it’s still a called a pudding (in BE). It may be long way from stuffed intestine but it’s still a descendant. We also still have savoury puddings in Britain, where a pastry crust is filled with meat and/or vegetables and steamed or boiled in a ceramic pudding basin (eg this one made with venison).

So any time Anglophones from North America and the British Isles find themselves arguing about the meaning of the word pudding – something we’ve done with a Canadian friend – bear this wonderful, convoluted history in mind!

Footnotes
1 From Etymonline: pudding (n.) c.1300, “a kind of sausage: the stomach or one of the entrails of a pig, sheep, etc., stuffed with minced meat, suet, seasoning, boiled and kept till needed,” perhaps from a West Germanic stem *pud– “to swell” (cf. Old English puduc “a wen,” Westphalian dialect puddek “lump, pudding,” Low German pudde-wurst “black pudding,” English dialectal pod “belly;” also cf. pudgy).

Other possibility is the traditional one that it is from Old French boudin “sausage,” from Vulgar Latin botellinus, from Latin botellus “sausage” (change of French b– to English p– presents difficulties, but cf. purse). The modern sense had emerged by 1670, from extension to other foods boiled or steamed in a bag or sack (16c.). German pudding, French pouding, Swedish pudding, Irish putog are from English.

2 You can find recipes for various versions of sanguinnaccio online. There’s a more savoury one here (and pictured above). And while this one is made using sausage casings, it’s more a dessert. While this one (in Italian) is decidedly a dessert, made with neither sausages casings or even blood: so basically a chocolate mousse.

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Pine nut cheesecake, or cheesecake della nonna

Pine nut cheesecake, cheesecake della nonna

If you’re in a Roman restaurant and they offer you desert, it’s quite likely you’ll encounter torta della Nonna – that is “Grandma’s tart” or “Grandma’s cake”. I’m not sure about the labour laws, but all this pudding-making must keep granny pretty busy.

Sources vary, but torta della nonna is either a Florentine or a Ligurian dish. Though surely any nonna has her own torta? There are variations, but most commonly in Rome it’s a tart made with a sweet pastry crust and a filling based on custard and/or ricotta. Its defining feature is pine nuts, pinoli.

This post isn’t, however, about torta della nonna. As I had some leftover cookies that had been smashed on their journey to and from the park for a picnic on Sunday, I thought I’d make a cheesecake with a della nonna twist: ie, with the addition of pine nuts.

A note on the cookies
I made some cornmeal cookies – they were basically like a digestive, but with a slightly different crunch, and a few spices (cinnamon, ginger). They worked well, but you can use whatever biscuits you like: digestives are most typical for UK cheesecakes, US recipes use graham crackers. My friend Juli-from-Jersey said the cornmeal cookies reminded her of snickerdoodles, though they’re cookies with a name so ridiculous I can’t quite bring myself to discuss them.

I won’t include the cornmeal cookies recipe, but will say digestives are so easy to make you don’t need to reach for some plastic-wrapped stuff from a factory. I’ve included a simple recipe at the bottom of this post. If you do use this recipe, I’d add some cinnamon and ginger to the crumb base mix.

A note on the candied peel
Only use your own candied peel, or other hand-made stuff. Don’t use that yucky sticky stuff you get in tubs from the supermarket. Peel is easy to make. Honest. Just Google it, if you’ve not tried before. I’m still using some of my candied-vodka-infused-kumquats-from-the-garden-peel.

A note on cheeses
Often, cheesecake recipes will just say “cream cheese” in the ingredient list. It’s a bit vague. Though perhaps it doesn’t matter what cream cheese, as a baked cheesecake mixture seems pretty forgiving. Here I used mascarpone and robiola. The latter could be replaced with something like Philadelphia, if you really had to. You could also do, say, half-half mascarpone and ricotta. I might try that next time as you can get stupendous fresh ricotta here in Roma.

Pine nut cheesecake slice, cheesecake della nonna

Ingredients
Base:
40g hazelnuts
120g cookies/biscuits like digestives
60g butter

Cheesy bit:
250g mascarpone
200g robiola
2 eggs
Zest of 1 lemon
100g caster sugar
30g candied peel
60g pine nuts

To serve:
30g pine nuts
Icing sugar

Method
1. Pre-heat the oven to 180C.
2. Toast the hazelnuts until starting to brown.
3. Grind the hazelnuts in a food processor until fairly fine, then add the cookies and grind to a medium crumb.
4. Melt the butter in a pan, then combine with the hazelnuts and cookie crumbs.
5. Push the crumb mix into the bottom of a 20cm loose-bottomed cake tin.
6. Combine the cheeses, eggs, sugar, and zest, blending well by hand or with a handheld zizzer.
7. Finely chop the candied peel and add to the cheese mix, along with the pine nuts.
8. Pour the cheese mix onto the crumb base.
9. Bake for around 50-60 mins until the top is browning and even cracking slightly, and firm to the touch.
10. Remove the sides of the tin, and leave to cool completely.
11. When the cake is cool, toast the extra pine nuts and sprinkle on top, dusting the whole lot with icing sugar.
12. You could serve it with some whipped cream, for added deliciousness. We didn’t as it’s hard to get nice cream here in Roma, despite the cornucopia of other wonderful dairy products.

Extra! Free! Digestive biscuits recipe
90g butter
120g wholemeal flour
120g oatmeal
40g caster sugar
Pinch salt
Pinch baking soda
1 egg, beaten

1. Preheat oven to 200C.
2. Rub butter into flour, stir in the rest and bind with beaten egg.
3. Roll and cut out rounds.
4. Prick with a fork.
5. Put on baking sheet, sprinkle with oatmeal and bake in a hot oven till browned.

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Chocolate fudge pudding. Aka self-saucing chocolate fudge pudding

My current city of residence Rome might reach temperatures of around 40C in August, but that doesn’t mean it’s entirely lacking in the winter department. This time last year we had a dump of snow, and this year we’ve had several weeks of cool, wet weather, with some mornings starting just above freezing. Sure, it’s not winter like Moscow or Owen Sound, ON., but that’s still quite a notable temperature differential. Never mind the fact that our flat is all stone floors, white walls and seriously draughty shutters. Ergo, I feel perfectly justified in indulging in some classic, hot, stodgy British winter puddings.

This is one of my life-long favourites. It’s one of those things I simply have to eat when it’s cold and gloomy and damp.

There are several recipes knocking around, which all use the basic variant of a sponge batter with some cocoa, and a unprepossessing looking liquid made using sugar, more cocoa and hot water that is poured onto the batter before baking. It’s one of those processes where it’s hard to believe it’ll work. But work it does. The batter bakes into a lovely sponge, enriched by the sauce that, if you don’t over-bake it, pools in the bottom of the dish as you scoop the pud out to serve.

The recipe we use in our family is from The Times Cookbook (published 1972) by Katie Stewart, a cookery writer whose reputation is undergoing a well-deserved resurgence since her recent death. That cookbook was an important part of my cookery education as a kid, alongside the more successfully branded Delia Smith’s Complete Cookery Course (1978-80). Both were very reliable. Indeed, this chocolate fudge pudding recipe seems to be one of the most reliable. I’ve tried or read a few more, and some of them just seem a bit strange. For example, this one from Lisa Faulkner, says “Cover with cling film and put in the fridge overnight to set.” Why would that be necessary? And the overnight delay really just doesn’t cut it when you’ve got the specific craving and need the hot chocolaty hit in less than an hour.

So. For the batter you need:
85g self-raising four (or 82g plain and 3/4 a teaspoon of baking powder), sieved
25g cocoa
112g butter
112g caster sugar
2 eggs
1/2 t vanilla essence
50g chopped walnuts (or pecans, or whatever nut you like)
50g chopped chocolate (optional. Dark is classiest, white can be a nice surprise, milk is dandy)
1-2 T milk

For the sauce
112g soft brown sugar
25g cocoa
285g hot water

Heat the oven to 180C.

1. Cream together the butter and sugar until light and fluffy.
2. Beat together the eggs, add the vanilla, then gradually beat this into the creamed mixture.
3. Sieve together the flour (or flour and baking powder) and cocoa.
4. Beat in a little of the flour. (This helps it stop curdling.)
5. Add the rest of the flour/cocoa mix and fold it in.
6. Fold in the nuts and chopped chocolate.
7. You want a “medium soft” batter. Add some milk if it’s too thick.
8. Put the batter in a greased baking dish (volume around 1 litre/2 pints).
9. Make the sauce by combining the sugar and cocoa, then adding the hot water and stirring well. Don’t worry if it’s a bit gloopy.
10. Pour the sauce over the batter.
11. Bake for around 40 minutes.
12. Serve hot with vanilla ice cream, or whipped cream, or even clotted cream. Something that’s denied to me living in Rome. *Sob*
13. Feel warm and contented.

BTW, these photos are of two different puds made over the last few weeks. Most of them are from a pud that contained some white chocolate and is served with ice cream. The last pic is of a version that contains hazelnuts, and is served with whipped cream. If I’ve was forced to decide, I’d say my favourite variant is walnuts-dark choc chunks-served with vanilla ice cream.

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Genoise, génoise, genoese. And trifle

Much as we don’t like traditional British Christmas cake in our household and always try alternatives, we don’t like traditional Christmas pudding either. I’m fascinated by its history, its origins in Medieval cuisine, the relationship of such puddings to, say, sausages (discussed here). I just don’t like eating it.

Instead, our traditional Christmas pudding is trifle. My wife introduced me to this tradition years ago; apparently it comes from her mum’s mum, “a great trifle maker”.

Trifling things

British trifle is not unlike a variety of other international deserts. Indeed, in the mists of time, it has common roots with both zuppa inglese (“English soup”, or more broadly “English dunked stuff” – a type of [northern] Italian desert that is, basically, trifle) and its cousin tiramisu (tirami sù – literally “pick me up”, though if you really need waking up surely a ristretto would do the job better?). The bottom line is that all these deserts use custards and/or whipped dairy products and sponges. But not just any sponges: specifically genoise sponge, or the closely related pan di spagna. (Which was, probably apocryphally, developed by the Genoese ambassador to Spain in the middle of the 17th century. More on the distinction between these two later).

Genoise – okay, look I’m going to call it genoese, as that’s the spelling I grew up with – originates from Genoa, the capital of Liguria in northern Italy. Today, it forms the basis of many sweets, in not just Italy and France, but Britain and elsewhere. But, you may say, tiramisu uses sponge fingers! (Aka ladyfingers, or boudoirs in French, or Savoiardi in Italy) But what are sponge fingers? Well, they’re just small cakes made of crisply baked piped fingers of genoese mixture.

So for our Christmas trifle, I generally make a genoese, while the missus makes custard.

Genoese sponge recipe

60g unsalted butter
125g plain flour
Pinch of fine salt
4 medium eggs
125g caster sugar

Folding in the flour

Preheat the oven to 180C.

1 Melt the butter, then leave it to cool slightly.
2 Use a little of the butter to grease your cake tin(s), sprinkle it with flour, shake the flour around to coat, then remove the excess. Line with baking parchment. This recipe will make two fairly thin cakes in 18cm round tins. If you want it square and deeper, use say just one 20cm square tin.
3 Sift the flour and salt together.
4 Put a pan of water on and bring to a simmer.
5 Combine the eggs and sugar in a heatproof bowl, and set this over the simmering water.
6 Using (ideally) an electric hand blender or a whisk, whisk the egg and sugar mix for about 5 to 10 minutes. It should triple in volume and achieve slight peaking.
7 Take the bowl off the heat.
8 Sift half the flour into the egg/sugar mixture and gently fold it in with a large metal spoon. You want to do this as gently as possible so you don’t knock the air out of the mixture
9 Sift in the other half of the flour and fold carefully again.
10 Gently pour in the melted butter, and carefully fold this in too to just combine.
11 Pour the mixture into the prepare tin(s). Gently does it!
12 Bake until firm to the touch, around 25 minutes depending on the depth of your mixture.
13 Cool in the tin for a few minutes, then turn out and cool completely on a wire rack.

Pouring in the butter

Trifle

Now, if you want to make a trifle, cut half of this cake into chunks, spread them with jam, and put them in a medium bowl. Pour on some sherry if you like such things. Add some fruit of choice. We used (not very seasonal or local) raspberries and banana. Cover the lot with homemade custard (go on – it’s not hard, and it tastes sooo good). Then cover all that with whipped cream.

I like to sprinkle some lightly toasted flaked almonds on top. Most of all though, I just like the extraordinary indulgence of genoise, custard and cream. It’s always a sad moment on 26 or 27 December when we finish the trifle.

Trifle

The difference between genoese sponge and pan di spagna

Genoese is made with the above technique involving cooking the eggs and sugar together, and whisking them, over a bain marie, with some melted butter subsequently added to the mix. Pan di spagna is made cold, with the eggs separated and lightness achieved by whipping the whites to stiff peaks. We’d call pan di spagna a “whisked fatless sponge cake” in English.

If you can read Italian, or trust translator software, there’s a good description of the difference here.

The results are quite similar. One of these days I’ll have to arrange a blind tasting, as TBH I’m not sure I could tell the difference. Some people don’t even seem to recognise the difference: after all, Italian Wikipedia has a photo of pan di spagna that is reused to illustrate genoese on English Wikipedia. Outrageous.

Anyway. Here’s a final pic of mine. Slight sag in the middle, but otherwise lovely.

Cross section

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