Category Archives: Recipes

Mannele or stutenkerl, little dough men for St Nicholas’s Eve, 5 December

This is my first attempt at making these. They’re quite crude, but it was a fun project to do with my eight-year-old. I first heard about these as “mannele brioche”, little enriched dough buns from the Alsace baked for St Nicholas’s Eve, 5 December. Turns out they’re more widespread than that, existing with various names and variations throughout a wide band of central Europe from Luxembourg to Switzerland.

The most common name is stutenkerl, a German word made from combining stuten, rich dough, with kerl, a word for “lad” or “guy”. Another name used in other parts of Germany is weckmänner, with weck a type of long bread role and männer meaning man, small man or young man. An alternative translation seems to be watchman, with weck related to the English word wake, as in awake. Or something. I don’t speak German at all, and although my dad does, he wasn’t too sure either, so I’m blundering around online looking at other recipes and dictionaries. Any native German speakers reading this please do comment! I get the impression German is as full of regional dialects and historical slang as Italy (a country I know a little, and the first home of this blog), which is unsurprising, given how both are relatively modern countries created from unification of various states with their own cultures and linguistic histories.*

The word mannele, meanwhile, I assume is related to the word “mannequin”, which is just a Frenchification of the Dutch manikin, meaning a little man or dwarf.

As well as being part of the St Nicholas’s Day tradition in some areas (and can be known as Klausenmänner), they’re also made as part of celebrations for St Martin’s Day, Martinmas, 11 November, in others (and known as Martinsmänner). Either way, they’re enriched dough figures and any resemblance to St Martin or St Nicholas – either the 4th century saint of Greek descent or the jolly fat man in red from modern times – takes a fair amount of imagination. Instead, just see them as fun little edible figures, like a gingerbread men, and as such perfect for kids. Traditionally these would be left out as a snack for St Nicholas on the night of 5 December, and he’d leave gifts. Today, for many of us, all of these other traditions have been subsumed into the Coca-Cola Santa, who’s given a yucky supermarket-bought mince pie or whatever, on 24 December.

You can make them by using a gingerbread cookie cutter, or you can cut and shape a sausage of dough into a figure, or you can cut a template and cut them out with a knife. If you look at some of the professionally, or more expertly, made ones online, some have lovely details like scarves and boots, along with a pipe. Me and the boy made ours with the first two techniques, and they’re pretty basic. But there’s something quite atavistic about them. It’s easy to imagine dough being shaped into basic figures and used as votive offerings in ancient times so while we scoffed them like breakfast brioche, there was a nice sense of continuity, eschewing all the barbarity of modern consumerist Christmas.

1. Warm the milk to about body temperature (37-ish C).
2. Stir in a tablespoon of the sugar then sprinkle over the yeast and leave to froth up.
3. Put all the other ingredients in a large bowl, or the bowl of a mixer.
4. Pour in the yeasty milk, then bring together. It’ll be quite a damp mix as, although there’s not much actual liquid (milk), there is all that melted butter and eggs.
5. Either form a shaggy dough then turn out and knead by hand until smooth, or use a mixer with a dough hook.
6. To give the fats a chance to firm up a bit, put the dough in the fridge for an hour or so.
7. Take out of the fridge, then leave to prove until doubled in size.
8. Turn out the dough and knead briefly to distribute the gases.
9. The total dough weight is about 1040g. Divide this equally and shape into balls. I did 12 balls at 86g each. Or go for 10 at 104g for larger little men.
10. Preheat the oven to 180C.
11. Now, you shape them. You can roll the dough and use a cookie cutter, or draw a template and freestyle, or you can roll the balls into sausage shapes, then using a dough cutter, knife or even kitchen scissors, snip like this:

12. Doing it in a bit of a rush on Saturday evening with my eight-year-old son, we did the cookie cutter and sausage technique, just to try, as it was our first time making these.

13. Tweak out the limbs, shape the head a bit, then brush with milk and decorate with currants or raisins as you would a gingerbread man.


14. Place your little dough men on baking sheets lined with parchment or silicon.
15. Glaze with egg, or milk, or a mix.
16. Bake for about 20 minutes or until nicely golden brown.
17. Cool on a rack.
18. Enjoy, but remember to leave one for St Nicholas. Or indeed St Martin, if you do them then, though I’m not sure if he visits houses and gives gifts.

Oh, and here are some other St Nicholas day food I’ve covered on here: a British steamed pudding; speculaas from the Netherlands; and Polish honey cookies. Ergo, it’s not all about mince bloody pies at this time of year!

 

* Italy was unified in 1861. The German Empire was only formed in 1871. Never mind East and West Germany only re-unifying in 1990.

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Buckwheat tahini chocolate chip cookies (vegan, gluten-free)

Years ago, when I had my short-lived cookie stall on the local food market, I was never entirely satisfied with the free-from options I came up with for vegan, allergic, intolerant and orthorexic customers.

Via my sister in Sydney I’ve recently discovered Lancey Morris, aka Sweet Lancey, a very accomplished vegan baker who does a box delivery scheme over there. Wish I could order one of her treats boxes here! As I already love baking with nut butters (such as in my fave go-to cookie recipe), and use tahini (a kind of seed butter, if you will) in other cooking, both sweet (eg these brownies) and savoury (in hummus of course), it wasn’t a big leap to embrace her tahini chocolate chip cookies.

Lancey’s original recipe uses wheat flour, and that version is great. But I love using buckwheat flour too. Buckwheat (Fagopyrum esculentum) flour is just so tasty, and handily gluten-free if you’re of that inclination. It’s not even related to wheat, it’s related to rhubarb, sorrel and, er, Japanese knotweed.

The result is one of those great free-from recipes where you don’t eat them and muse about what’s missing.

These days, I’m finding Naturli’ Block is a great vegan butter-alternative here in the UK, as it doesn’t even include problematic palm oil* like most of the previously available non-dairy fats. It’s made with shea, coconut, rapeseed and almond. The tahini, meanwhile, is a great binder and enricher, so does a lot of the work of egg in other cookie recipes.

The other complication with vegan baking is chocolate. A lot of dark chocolate doesn’t contain dairy in the ingredients, but comes with the caveat “May contain nuts and milk”, due to potential contamination in the factory it’s made in. In terms of big brands available in British supermarkets, I got some Green & Blacks dark chocolate that was marked as vegan but this seems inconsistent across their range.

If you’re not vegan, this recipe works fine with dairy butter and whatever chocolate you prefer.

1. Cream together butter and sugars.
2. Add the tahini and keep beating until smooth.
3. Sieve together the flour, baking powder and bicarbonate of soda and add to the mixture, along with the salt.
4. Combine to clear, ie no visible bits of flour.

5. Add the milk and chocolate.

6. Wrap the dough (total weight approx 700g) and rest in fridge for half an hour or so.
7. Heat the oven to 180C and prepare baking sheets with silicon or baking parchment.


8. Make balls of dough. If you scale them at 40g, the recipe will make 18-ish.
9. Put the balls of dough on the prepared trays and push down slightly. Leave space, as they will spread.
10. Bake for around 18 minutes until nicely browned.
11. Cool on a rack.

I’ve also done another version where I chocolated them up even more, using 135g buckwheat flour, 20g cocoa and added some cocoa nibs. I do love trying to get as many chocolate products as possible into the same cookie. See my quintuple chocolate chip cookie recipe.

 

* This is of course a big topic, but palm oil production is deeply problematic. It’s often grown on huge plantations that have been created where tropical rainforest has been cleared, notably in Indonesia and Malaysia (which between them produce 90% of the world’s palm oil). So a hugely diverse natural environment has been destroyed and replaced by monoculture agriculture, where very few wild animals can survive.

Yet again, humanity deprives our fellow residents of this planet of their home. Just so we can have a cheap ingredient in our cheap supermarket biscuits. And indeed most supermarket biscuits do contain palm oil. Its use is very widespread in artificially cheap industrial foods – artificially cheap in that the cost to the consumer doesn’t factor in the cost to the planet. Which is soomething that has very much come back to bite us on the arse the last few years. Destroying rainforest exposes us to zoonotic organisms – that is, pathogens that jump from animals to humans, eg with SARS-CoV-2, which scientists mostly agree now jumped from bats or other mammals to humans.

Some products say they contain “sustainable palm oil” but I’ve never seen a credible explanation of what that means.

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Filed under Biscuits, cookies, gluten free, Recipes, Vegan

Pear tarte tatin

For those not familiar, a tarte tatin is the pastry equivalent of an upside-down cake. Fruit is caramelised in butter and sugar, topped with pastry, baked, then inverted to serve. It’s a format that is forever associated with Stéphanie and Caroline Tatin, the Demoiselles Tatin. These sisters ran a hotel in France in the late 19th century and the story goes that Stéphanie accidentally invented the tart when she cocked-up making a traditional apple tart one day.

It’s probably hokum, and such a pastry format may have existed beforehand, but an inverted, caramelised apple tart became the signature dish of the Hôtel Tatin.

These days, there are numerous variations on the theme. I’ve done savoury versions using onion and beetroot. But my mainstay became a pear version, thanks to the fact that in our old house we had a prolific pear tree. I planted a pear tree in our garden when we moved here to Lewes about 10 years ago. I pruned it a few years ago, and it had a year off fruiting last year, but this year it had 30-plus healthy pears, despite only being an unsubstantial thing less than two metres call. A good height for my seven year old to help with the picking.

You can make a tarte tatin with shortcrust or puff pastry, but I prefer the former, especially when it’s made with the addition of ground almonds.

I think I could have packed more fruit into this version, and it’s not exactly elegant. But frankly, it’s delicious – butter, sugar, caramelised fruit. So good. My pastry skills are basic, but when you tuck the pastry in and it bakes, it creates possibly the best bit of the whole concoction – thick bits of pastry coated in caramel.

For the pastry
200g plain flour
30g ground almonds
30g caster sugar
Pinch of fine salt
100g unsalted butter, chilled and diced
1 egg, lightly beaten
A little cold water

For the fruit and filling
About 1 to 1.5kg pears, ideally slightly under-ripe. Comice, Williams, Conference are all good.
115g unsalted butter
200g caster sugar

You will also need an ovenproof pan or skillet. I use a cast iron skillet 26cm in diameter.

1. First, make the pastry. This is very easy in a food processor. Put the flour, ground almonds and sugar in the bowl the whiz briefly to combine. Add the butter and whiz until it looks like breadcrumbs. Add the beaten egg, then a little water. Not too much. Just enough to create a firm dough. If you don’t have a food processor, rub the butter into the flour until it resembles crumbs then stir in the sugar and ground almonds. Bring to a dough with the egg and a little water, if necessary.
2. Wrap the pastry and leave in the fridge until you’re ready to use it.
3. For the filling, slice the butter thinly and arrange on the bottom of the pan.


4. Sprinkle the caster sugar in a layer over the butter.
5. Peel, half and core the pears. I used a melon baller to core them, but you can use a teaspoon if you don’t have one.
6. Put the pear halves in the pan, core side down, rounded side up.
7. Put the pan on a medium heat and cook, melting together the butter and sugar, which will then start to caramelise.


8. Meanwhile, heat your oven to 220C.
9. When the butter/sugar mix is starting to caramelise, roll out the pastry to a rough circle a little larger than the diameter of the pan. Timing this is tricky, and I think I took mine off the heat a little early. You don’t want to burn the caramel, but you want your fruit nicely tinged.
10. Remove the pan from the heat and allow the bubbling to subside slightly before covering the fruit mix with the pastry.
11. Tuck the edges of the pastry into the pan and prick all over with a fork.


12. Put in the oven to bake for around 20 minutes or until the pastry is nicely browned.
13. Take out of the oven and allow to cool a little.
14. This is the tricky bit. Run a knife around the edges of the tart then invert it onto a large plate. Some of the fruit may well stick, so just carefully ease it out of the pan and put it back in its slot in the pastry.
15. Serve warm or at room temperature, with a blob of thick cream or vanilla ice cream. Try not to agonise about the calories or cholesterol.

Oh, and although this was delicious, I think I could have packed more pears in. You can also put the fruit the other way up, so you have the rounded bits upwards when you turn it out. The Roux Brothers do it that way with apples in their classic Roux Brothers on Patisserie. Prue Leith and Caroline Waldegrave, meanwhile, in Leith’s Book of Baking, do thick slices of apple. An image search online shows many variables. Frankly, such arrangements are up to you. All delicious and indulgent.

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Zucchini or courgette chocolate cake

Chocolate courgette zucchini cake

This one came highly recommended by my sister, who lives in Sydney, Australia, and is currently languishing in a Coronavirus lockdown. Such things as chocolate cake have been essential in getting us through lockdowns and the pandemic in general. Chocolate and cake are two such reliable morale boosters.

I’ve been meaning to post this for a while, but as anyone with small or particularly demanding children will know, it’s hard to get much done in the school summer holidays. In England, they last about six weeks, but it might as well be sixty-six, or six months.

We’ve had another weird climate crisis summer here. We had a drought in southern England earlier in the year and summer was skewed into May and June. Then when it was the actual summer holidays in July and August, it was mostly mild and purgatorially grey with occasional downpours. Now the kids are actually back at school, the sun is out again. Our crop of courgettes, aka zucchini, has been a bit weird as a result. Small courgettes would arrive, then be ravaged by slugs and snails. A few would suddenly swell into more marrow-like beasts, which are less tasty, more watery, and not so good for this recipe.

Water content
Indeed, working with vegetables in cake recipes can be tricky due to the variations in water content. I found the bigger courgette-marrows still worked OK if you put the grated veg in a tea towel and squeezed out as much water as possible. I also tweaked and standardised the recipe my sister sent me into grams. She discovered the cake via a local bakery but it may have originated with this US blog, so thanks Sally.

Anyway, overall this is a delicious, rich chocolate cake, and like a good carrot cake, you’re not distracted by any particularly vegetably flavours.

Decoration freedom
I’ve made a few versions, one covered with a butter cream, then another just sandwiched with some butter cream. The latter was a more practical option as I took it on the first step of Coat of Hopes, a climate action pilgrimage. Our friend Barbara Keal and collaborators are walking from Newhaven on the south coast of England to Glasgow in Scotland for COP26. Their goal is to try and raise awareness and put pressure on world leaders to do more about the climate crisis.

Our summer might have been choppy, but a lot of people round the world have had unprecedented temperatures, wild fires and floods. I was chatting to a friend in Rome and they’d been to Puglia, the heel of Italy, where it tipped towards 49C (120F). These are highest temperatures ever recorded in Europe. Humans simply cannot function with these extremes, let alone grow food for ourselves. Something comprehensive, assertive and right now desperately needs to be agreed at COP26, but I’m preparing myself to be deeply disappointed.

Coat of Hopes walk, Newhaven

For the cake
250g plain flour
62g cocoa powder
6g baking soda
3g baking powder
3g fine salt
200g vegetable oil
175g granulated sugar
130g soft brown sugar
4 eggs, at room temperature
80g sour cream or plain yogurt, at room temperature
6g vanilla extract
350g courgette, coarsely grated
180g dark chocolate, chopped into chips, or chocolate chips

For the icing. Halve these quantities if you just plan to use a filling:
280g unsalted butter, softened
400g icing sugar
65g cocoa powder
3g vanilla extract

1. Preheat the oven to 180C.
2. Grease two 22cm round tins. Ideally deep tins but basic sandwich tins seem to work OK.
3. Sieve together the flour, cocoa powder, baking soda and baking powder into a large bowl. Add the salt.
4. In another large bowl using a handheld or stand mixer, beat the oil, granulated sugar, brown sugar, eggs, sour cream or yoghurt and vanilla until combined. Add the courgette.
5. Pour into dry ingredients and beat until completely combined. Stir in the chocolate chips.
6. Pour batter evenly into cake tins. Bake for around 35-40 minutes or until the cakes are baked through. Test with a skewer. If it comes out clean, it is done.


7. Allow cakes to cool completely in the tins on a cooling rack.
8. Make the icing by beating the butter until soft. Sieve together the icing sugar and cocoa then add to the butter along with the vanilla. Beat until smooth.
9. Ice the top of one, make a sandwich, then ice the top and sides. You can level the tops if you like a perfectly flat cake, but, really, why waste the goodness? Or if you’ve just made half the butter cream, just fill and sandwich. You can then dust the top with icing sugar. It’s not as indulgent this way, but certainly less messy taken on the first five miles of a 400 mile-plus (700km-plus) pilgrimage.*

 

 

* I do see the irony of talking about making an indulgent chocolate cake, featuring politically and environmentally problematic ingredients like chocolate, while mentioning involvement with a climate action. But being part of the movement to prevent total environmental and climatic meltdown isn’t synonymous with being entirely ascetic. The way I see it, breaking away from fossil fuels and generally improving our footprint on the planet is a profound moment for economic recovery and social health. The opportunities for growth and employment are huge in the green energy industry, education, sustainable housing (retro and new build), improved travel and transit infrastructure, better agricultural practices etc etc.

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Chocolate chip yogurt ring cake, ciambellone

This is my take on Rachel Roddy’s chocolate chip and yogurt ring cake, which is her take on another recipe found on Nigella Lawson’s website, which is itself a version of a teatime cake made in many an Italian household, a ciambellone (big ring shape). Or indeed similar to a cake make in the Ukraine, and probably other places. All recipes have heritage, they ebb and flow between cooks and countries.

I love the ring shape, but must admit I hesitate before using my aluminium ring tin, which Rachel gave us when were living in Rome in 2013. I can be a bit slapdash greasing and flouring it, and fail to create a satisfactory non-stick. Then my cake sticks. Then I get cross. Luckily, it worked well this time – I brushed the tin with melted butter and oil, then floured it liberally.

Anyway, when eating this cake, we’ll think of Rachel, who is poised to publish her third recipe book, An A-Z of Pasta: Stories, Shapes, Sauces, Recipes. Hopefully I’ll get a copy soon, and try some of the recipes. We’re a pasta family, and I have made fresh pasta with the kids, but Rachel’s books should give us some great ideas for getting it right, and matching sauces well.

Rachel does her recipe using a 125ml yogurt pot, using it like American recipes use cups. I like grams. I grew up in the weird British 70s and 80s when we used grams and ounces and feet and metres…. in fact, we’ve still not made any firm decisions about metrication nationally. But I have. My parents’ factory, where I worked as a youth, did everything in millimetres, and I did a lot of hitchhiking in New Zealand, where how far I plodded down highways, how far I had to go, was in kilometres. Then we lived in Italy, which, despite being a country possibly even more tied to tradition that Britain, seemed to be able to cope with properly metricating.

This is a great recipe. Many cake recipes are prissy and can be a bit unreliable. But this is one of those ones that’s forgiving and easy – basically chuck everything in a mix, though I sieve the powdered ingredients together first to homogenise them. It also lends itself to changes – use vegetable oil or olive oil (Rachel does the latter, as, you know, olives grow in Italy, whilst here we grow a lot of rapeseed); use 100% plain flour, don’t bother with the cornflour; leave out the lemon zest or change it to orange; add cocoa; add nuts or fruit or whatever you like.

You may of course prefer doing it with a pot, in so, go back to Rachel’s version on The Guardian site. Go for it! But if, like me, you prefer baking when everything is in grams, you’ve come to the right place.

150g plain full-fat yogurt
130g vegetable oil (plus some for greasing)
3 eggs (about 175g of egg)
220g caster sugar
6g vanilla extract
zest of ½ unwaxed lemon (I’m a grams purist, but this much zest won’t even weight 1g)
100g chocolate chips (you can of course add more if you’re that way inclined)
175g plain flour
75g cornflour
8g baking powder
Icing sugar (to serve)

1. Prepare a tin – either a 22cm springform greased and lined, or a well greased and floured ring tin.


2. Preheat the oven to 180C.
3. Sieve together the flours and baking powder.
4. Beat together the wet stuff, zest and sugar, then add the chocolate chips.


5. Beat in the sieved flour until it’s all mixed into a loose batter.


6. Pour into the prepared tin.
7. Bake for 30-35 minutes until a skewer comes out clean. Note, if you’re using a round tin instead of a ring tin, it will take longer to bake, as the heat will take longer to penetrate the centre. So more like 45-50 minutes.


8. Cool in tin for 10 minutes then turn out to cool completely. Good luck with this bit if you struggle with aluminium ring tins like me.


9. Serve dusted with icing sugar, while browsing Rachel Roddy’s A-Z of Pasta.

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Wild garlic focaccia

Wild garlic focaccia

When I was a little kid in the 1970s, I was intrigued by the copy of Richard Mabey’s 1972 classic Food for Free on my parents’ bookshelves. But I also loved actual shopping with my mum. I remember walking down the high street of my home city, Winchester, her carrying a wicker basket and us visiting actual grocers, bakers, fishmongers and butchers. But Sainsbury’s had also arrived, and they were soon gone. Put out of business. Times changed.

I loved the supermarket too, fascinated by the variety and such things as hazelnut flavoured Mr Men yogurt. So we weren’t exactly food foragers, but my mum is knowledgeable about plants so could often identify things in hedgerows and woods on family walks. Like most people, we foraged blackberries, but while I did learn that rosehips had been used to make a vitamin-rich syrup during the privations of World War 2, for us at primary school they were more important for crushing up and sticking down the back of other kids’ shirts as itching powder.

Foraging, like baking, is of even more popular these days. And spring is when, among other things, the wild garlic appears. Wild garlic, like blackberries later in the year, is an entry level foraging plant, it’s easy to identify and can be plentiful. We met up with some old friends the other day, for our first pub garden get-together in who knows how long, then took the long way home afterwards. Dom took us to a favoured wild garlic patch, importantly away from the main dog toileting route. A strong garlic flavour is good. A dog wee flavour, not so much.

Wild garlic tends to grow in cool, shady places in deciduous woods and close to streams. Your nose may well help you find it. It’s so pungent, in principle it’s hard to confuse. Though it does grow alongside lords and ladies1 (Arum maculatum), whose young leaves can look similar at a glance but are a very different shape when inspected. And don’t smell of garlic. But they are also toxic, so take care.

Fresh wild garlic - washed

Food for bears
Wild garlic is a wonder. Even its Latin name is great – Allium ursinum, bear garlic. Do bears like it? They’re smart omnivores, so it wouldn’t surprise me. We hunted them to extinction in Britain though, so it’s not something I’ll ever see here. The common name I grew up with for wild garlic is ramsons, which apparently derives from the old English hramsa, and may be related to the Greek krómmyon, meaning onion.

Anyway. We got a lot on that jaunt with Dom and family. I say a lot, but it was actually only two small nappy disposal bags, which were buried at the bottom of our backpack (unused), a legacy of the kids’ younger days.

If you have a lot of wild garlic, you may well need to process it. Years ago, when we still had an airing cupboard, I dried it, but found it lost its flavour. Fresh, it makes a good pesto, whizzed up with nuts, oil, grated parmigiana and seasoning. It’s also good for a simple pasta, just roughly chopped, softened in olive oil and combined, perhaps with a squish of lemon juice. You can also use it to make the Middle Eastern coriander condiment zhoug (thanks to my friend Alex, owner of Middle Easten food business Kabak for that one). Another way to process it was suggested by Dom: wild garlic butter. Just chop the garlic leaves fine, then combine it with softened butter, form into a roll, then freeze in greaseproof paper. You can then cut slices off to cook with, using it in lieu of normal garlic in recipes.

Focaccia variations
This year, I had another thought – wild garlic focaccia. As with every idea, it’s already out there on the internet, but I just used my basic focaccia recipe and added some wild garlic whizzed up in a food processor.

What we know as focaccia in Britain is more specifically Genoese focaccia, a white, somewhat soft tray baked bread containing a decent amount of olive oil. They bake it with salt, olives or herbs like rosemary. I’ve asked one Italian friend if they eat Allium ursinum over there, and he says yes, but not often. Which surprises me, as they have a strong foraging culture there. Even our local market in Rome would sell a misticanza2 of mixed foraged greens – foraged weeds – including dandelion leaves and whatnot. In the 1960 film Two Women / La ciociara, starring Sophia Loren as a shopkeeper who flees WW2 Rome to her native village in the mountains with her daughter, there’s a scene where the villagers are foraging the fields for any misticanza, any greens they can eat to keep starvation at bay.

Anyway, here’s the recipe. Use the basic recipe – with whatever editions you like – at other times of the year when wild garlic isn’t available.

Makes one large, 1kg, loaf

Ingredients
360g water, tepid
6g active dried yeast or 12g fresh yeast
585g strong white bread flour
9g fine sea salt
60g extra virgin olive oil

For the wild garlic paste. (I’m not going to be my usual precise self for this bit, as it’s flexible.)
About 80g wild garlic, a nice big handful
A few glugs of extra virgin olive oil
Good pinch of coarse sea salt
Add some chili flakes if you like some heat

Plus some more extra virgin olive oil

Method
1. Put the water in a mixing bowl (or indeed the bowl of a mixer, if you prefer) and add the yeast. Leave it to froth up.
2. Add the flour, salt and olive oil and bring to a dough.
3. Knead until smooth, by hand or in a mixer.
4. Leave 10 minutes or so and give it another quick knead.
5. Leave half an hour, then stretch into a rectangle and fold into thirds.
6. Leave the dough to prove until doubled in size.
7. Stretch the dough out and put in an oiled baking tray. I use a rectangular enamel one that is 25x35cm, 5cm deep.
8. Leave the dough to rest and prove a bit more, for about 15 minutes.
9. Make the wild garlic paste in a food processor – just squash the leaves in, with a few glugs of extra virgin olive oil and a good pinch coarse sea salt. Whizz it up to a coarse paste.
10. Smear the paste all over the dough, pushing in your fingertips to give the bread its distinctive cratered surface and disperse the garlic.
11. Cover and leave to prove one last time, until doubled in size.


12. Preheat your oven to 220C.
13. Give the bread another drizzle of olive oil then bake for around 20 minutes, until golden.
14. Remove from the oven and drizzle with a bit more olive oil, so the bread is nice and moist.
15. Cool in the tin for 10-20 minutes then remove. Eat warm or later on. All that oil means it stays soft well for a few days.

Like many parents, I struggle to get anything green into my kids’ diets. I’m somewhat baffled by the seemingly innate resistance to any brassicas for example. It’s purple sprouting broccoli season in England now, and that veg is such a delight – sweet, and you’d think child-friendly with its small, tender heads. But no. The kids did, however, love this bread. The big one (increasingly big this year) absolutely scovered3 the stuff.

Wild garlic focaccia

1 Just look at the Wikipedia page for all the wonderful common names for this lily. I grew up calling it lords-and-ladies or cuckoo pint, but there are numerous other names.
2 In Oretta Zanini de Vita’s book The Food of Rome and Lazio, she lists “Arugula [rocket], wild chicory, rampion, salad burnet, wood sorrel, borage, wild endive, poppy greens and other bitter greens” for Misticanza Romana.
3 Our family portmanteau word that derives from “scoffed” and “hoovered”.

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Pizza to feed the family

pizza

This is the pizza I make for family and friends. It’s rolled out, thin and crispy, and baked in my puny electric oven on baking sheets. I find this approach more convenient to make over the course of a family Saturday, starting with a sponge (aka preferment) in the morning before swimming lessons, making a dough around midday, then bulk fermenting for about four hours.

Much as I’ve enjoyed the certified Vera Pizza Napoletana – “real Neapolitan pizza”– in Naples, I don’t really feel the need to try and emulate the Neapolitan style pizza, with its wide crust (cornicione). And if I’m honest, I always preferred the thinner crust, no-nonsense Roman-style ones we used to eat in places like Ai Marmi on Viale Trastevere and da Remo in Testaccio anyway. This dough does work opened by hand, slid off a peel onto a baking stone, if you favour the round, pseudo-Neapolitan style, but I prefer to roll, bake four at a time, then sit and eat with my family.

Variation on a theme
Pizza is ubiquitous. It’s Italy’s most successful export. And as anyone who’s eaten pizza in various corners of the world will know, it’s changed a lot in its travels*. Even within Italy, and within the diverse regions, and the provinces within those regions, pizza has enormous variety, not just familiar Neapolitan and Roman. It’s fat, thin, doughy, crunchy, round, square, long (alla pala), stuffed (farcita, or scaccia from Sicilian) or sandwiched (pizzòlo, also Sicilian) or pasty-like (calzone) or pie-like (rustica etc), tray-baked (like Palermo’s sfincione), fried (fritta; they loved fried in Naples). Flatbreads have infinite variety. Populations move, cultures hybridise, and the human experience is constantly in flux. The weather changes (now more than ever), ingredients change, processes change. Food, like language, is always changing.

During our time in Rome we also encountered the great Gabriele Bonci, star Roman pizzaiolo. His original hole in the wall pizza place, Pizzarium, located behind the Vatican, doesn’t have a fixed menu, it varies constantly with what’s available. Our very last visit there before moving back to England from Rome, Fran had a pizza with mortadella and Brussels sprouts. Who’d have thought Italians even had sprouts, let alone put them on their pizza? It was inspiring and a long way from the sort of thing that would achieve certification from the Associazione Verace Pizza Napoletana – and all the more exciting for it.

Sauce and toppings
This post is principally about my pizza dough. For tomato sauce, I often use a very simple one made with a tin of tomatoes, with a dash of dried oregano, black pepper and salt. Sometimes I add a bit of garlic or pinch of chilli. Then I use a stick blender to puree it. Other times, I’ll make a sauce with garlic, basil, a pinch of chilli, salt and pepper in a pan with lots of olive oil, warm that up then add a tin of tomatoes, cook that down, then put the whole lot through a mouli (food mill) to get out any fibrous bits. This is my son’s preferred pasta sauce.

As for toppings – just go for it. Whatever you prefer. This time round I had some local leeks from market for one, roasted first. For another, I bought some taleggio, which I used on a pizza bianca (white – no tomato sauce) with some boiled potato, a good drizzle of olive oil and some sprigs of rosemary from the garden. For my bacon-loving wife, we had some quality pancetta from Beals, renowned charcuterie (or salumi, in Italian) made locally from mangalitza pigs.

My favourite is usually aubergine, sliced longways about 5mm thick, roasted with olive oil and salt and pepper, then add to a pizza rossa (red – tomato sauce), with salty black olives and pecorino – it’s an offshoot of what the Italians would call “alla Norma”, a pasta sauce from Catania in Sicily. We didn’t do that this time. Another one I like is broccoli – cooked to tender, then gently fried in olive oil with garlic and chilli.

My pizza dough recipe
Anyway, this is my pizza dough recipe. Not a whiff of “authenticity”!

It is a 66% hydration dough – ie the weight of water is 66% of the weight of the flour (400g/600g). That means it’s pretty easy to handle, not too sticky.

I use a blend of flours. I find this gives the best extensibility and doesn’t shrink back in on itself. For the light spelt flour, I either use Sharpham Park or Stoates, British, stoneground. You may have a local variation.

Makes 4 pizzas

400g water
4g active dried yeast (or 8g fresh yeast)
600g flour – 200g strong white, 200g plain (all-purpose), 200g light spelt
6g fine sea salt
20g extra virgin olive oil (approximately)
Extra oil for oiling worktop and drizzling

1. Warm the water, add the yeast. Allow to froth.
2. Add about half the flour, mix well to combine, then cover. Allow this sponge or preferment to get nice and bubbly. Depending on the temperature in your kitchen, this can take anything from half an hour to a few hours. Leaving it gives us enough time to swimming lessons and back.

Pizza sponge

3. Pour in a few good glugs of olive oil, around 20g, and combine.

Pizza sponge with olive oil

4. Add the salt and the rest of the flour and mix well. You can do this with a mixer with a dough hook if you have one.
5. If you don’t have a mixer, turn out the shaggy mass** onto a lightly oiled work surface and knead to bring together.

6. Form into a rough ball then put in a lightly oiled bowl, cover (shower caps are great for this) and rest for about 10 minutes.

2020-03-07 12.40.09

7. Turn out and knead briefly. It should be smoother now, and easier to form into a neat ball.
8. Turn out and give it another brief knead. Rest for another 10 minutes.
9. Give it another knead then return to the bowl, cover and rest.
10. Give it a nice long fermentation. You can give it a stretch and fold if you like. This is a good process for helping the dough structure. Simply turn out the dough onto the lightly oiled work surface, stretch out a rough rectangle, fold one third in, then the other third. (Check out my old post on pizza bianca for more details or this technique.) If it’s rising too fast and you want to delay things, you can also put it, covered, in the fridge.
11. When the dough has doubled in size, turn it out. It should weight just over 1kg.
12. Divide up the dough into four pieces, scaled at just over 250g each.

Shaping pizza dough into balls. Bottom two cut off the main lump, top left is tucked, top right is shaped.

13. Tuck any rough pieces underneath then shape into a ball, ideally by cupping in your hand and making circular motions.
14. On a liberally floured area, leave the balls to rest, covered. Alternatively, you can put the balls in a container, cover it with a lid and leave somewhere cool if you need some more time.
15. I give my pizzas a final prove for about half an hour once I’ve stretched then out, but this is optional. Again, it’s about what fits in with your household routine.
16. On a floured worktop, squash a ball of dough down with the heel of your hand, then flatten out. Roll out to a size that fits your baking sheets – mine are 30cm square. (If you prefer round, go for it. If you prefer using a peel and sliding your pizzas onto a pizza stone, go for it. This dough works well for that too.)

Shaping pizza dough

Rolled out pizza dough

17. Preheat your oven. Mine says it’s 220C on the dial, but it doesn’t really muster much more than 210C.

Pizza dough on baking sheet

18. Top your pizzas, helped and/or hindered by children.

2020-03-07 17.28.53

19. Put in the oven for about 8 minutes, then swap around on the shelves and bake for another 8 minutes or so. Your oven will be different to mine, but you obviously want nice bubbly cheese and some colour on the crust.

2020-03-07 17.46.52

20. Turn out onto boards, slice and dig in.

If we’ve got any leftovers, I’ll happily blast them in the oven again for a few minutes then eat them Sunday evening – the one evening when the kids are allowed food in front of the telly in our house. I love a slice cold too.

* What are your most memorable, weird and wonderful pizza experiences? Whitebait pizza in Hokitika, South Island, New Zealand is one of mine. And the abovementioned sprouts.
** This is a Dan Lepard turn of phrase.

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Filed under Breads, Discussion, Flour & grain, Pizza, Recipes

Ricciarelli – Siennese almond biscuits

When I had my short-lived biscuit stall on a market a few years ago, ricciarelli were my most popular item. Ricciarelli are in the macaron family, kinds of meringue made with beaten egg whites and sugar, and in this case ground almonds. As such, they fit in with the inclinations of those with an aversion to wheat and gluten, of which there are many round here. I also gave this recipe to The Hearth pizzeria in Lewes, and they sold well there for a few years too before it closed down.

Ricciarelli are originally from Siena. Despite me spending two years living in Italy, and indeed doing an art history degree many years ago, Sienna is not a city I know. It’s a place I’d love to visit on a food pilgrimage due to its association with such wonderful baked goodies. Ditto its rhyming cousin Vienna, home to another of my favourite ground almond and egg white concoctions: the Sachertorte. One of these years…

Ricciarelli for Christmas
In Siena, ricciarelli are traditionally made for Christmas. My friend Karin likes me to make her bags every year to give away to her family as presents. I must admit I couldn’t muster the energy to do that this year. December is intense enough with our modern early Christmas hype, never mind the effects of all the pressure on our children. So anyway, I’m sharing this recipe for you Karin! She’s from a Czech family and this Christmas just gone I was lucky enough to experience her lovely plate of traditional cookies. We’re talking about doing a Christmas cookies masterclass next year, so watch this space.

Ricciarelli are distinguished from other almond paste treats by their soft centres, crisp outside and lozenge shape. I’m sure professional bakers in Siena churn them out swiftly but I like to take my time over the shaping, cutting the paste into sausages, lopping this into chunks, weighing these, then using two plastic dough scrapers to form the lozenge. If you do a big batch, this can take a little while, but I find it quite meditative and like the results.

I developed this recipe based on various others I researched. Some call for resting the paste for a day or even longer, but I think it’s fine to rest for a minimum of four hours in the fridge, or overnight.

Some notes
1. You can use whole blanched almonds and grind them, but frankly I think the results are great with ground almonds.
2. This recipe can easily be scaled up and down as it’s a basic ratio of 1 egg white to 100g almonds, 100g icing sugar.
2. Egg whites keep well in the fridge, but it’s best to make the ricciarelli with them at room temperature. So remember to get them out the day you’re baking.

Makes 24

2 egg whites, about 66g
5g lemon juice
200g icing sugar, sieved
200g ground almonds
4g almond essence
2g vanilla essence
Zest of 1 orange (or lemon if you ain’t got orange. Or indeed both is you like the citrus.)

Extra icing sugar for shaping and dusting

1. Line some baking sheets with parchment or silicone sheets.
2. Beat the egg whites to stiff peaks.
3. Add the essences to the egg whites at the end and combine. (Use more or less essences, to taste.)
4. Combine the almonds and sugar (sieved).
5. Add dry ingredients and zest to the egg white, combining to form a sticky paste.
6. Cover or bag and rest in the fridge for at least four hours, or overnight.
7. On a work surface well dusted with more icing sugar, form a rope the cut off pieces, each weighing about 20g.
8. Shape each into a into a lozenge or diamond shape. Using a pastry scraper – or indeed two – is ideal. The ricciarelli should be about 10mm thick.

9. Dust with even more icing sugar, to coat well. Really, don’t skimp.

10. Heat oven to 160C.

11. Place the ricciarelli on baking sheets lined with parchment or silicon.
12. Bake for about 15 minutes until only just starting to crisp up and but not colour too much. You want them soft inside, with a slight crunch to the crust.
13. Cool on a wire rack.

3 Comments

January 16, 2020 · 12:27 pm

Ginger snap biscuits for Saint Lucy’s Day, 13 December

The secular, consumerist frenzy version of Christmas may start in November or even earlier these days but in the traditional, ie Christianity based, calendar we’re only half-way through Advent. This was the lead-up to the Christmas, from the Latin adventus, meaning arrival, approach, coming – as in the coming of Christ. It was a period of fasting, but some cultures had traditional milestones during Advent – the festival of Saint Nicholas (yes, him) on 5/6 December, and the festival of Saint Lucia, or Lucy, on 13 December – when they could have a blow-out.

St Lucy’s name comes from the Latin lux, meaning light and her feast day is a festival of light in some cultures, but it’s also a festival of treats, breaking the fast – notably in Scandinavia and Hungary. The former, Sweden specifically, gives us saffron buns, the Saint Lucia crown (maybe*) I made a few years ago, and those classic feast day treats ginger biscuits, gingerbread, or a variation thereon. This recipe is for Luciapepparkaka, “Lucia pepper cookies” and is from European Festival Food by Elisabeth Luard (published 1990).

I get all these books, but not knowing the country, I can never, in all honesty, be entirely sure about their authenticity. But frankly, gingerbreads like this exist throughout northern Europe. And, well, authenticity is elusive and a concept I think it’s pointless getting hung up on. From my experiences in Italy, people will make slightly different recipes not only from town to town and village to village but also family to family and all argue theirs are the real deal.

Luard’s recipe – origins unknown – includes whipped double cream and “treacle”. I assume she means black treacle, but you could use golden syrup if you prefer a lighter result. Similarly vaguely, she also says, “brown sugar” – I used light soft brown, but similarly you could go dark or even muscovado if you prefer a less processed sugar. The recipe also called for a teaspoon – a few grams – of ground ginger. This seemed a bit meagre given you’re using half a kilo of flour so I’ve upped it to 5g, a couple of teaspoons.

Luard writes, “This delicately spiced cream-rich mixtures gives a fine-textured crisp biscuit”. I’d say it was a biscuit that’s all about the great snap and crunch.

Note, the dough needs a long rest – overnight, or for at least four hours.

The recipe makes a lot – depending on your cookie cutters. I made about 80 snowflake cookies.

Ingredients
150g black treacle
150g double cream, whipped to stiff peaks
225g light brown soft sugar
500g plain flour
5g ground ginger
Zest of one lemon
Lemon juice

Icing sugar, for rolling and dusting

Method
1. Weigh the black treacle into a pan, then put on the hob on a low heat to soften until runny.
2. Sieve together the flour and ginger into a bowl with the whipped cream, sugar, zest and the treacle.


3. Combine, then add “enough lemon juice to form a soft dough”. I used the juice of one and a bit small-ish lemons.
4. Squidge together into two discs (it makes it easier to roll subsequently), wrap in a plastic bag and rest in the fridge for at least five hours or overnight.
5. Take out the dough discs. They’ll be pretty firm now from their time in the fridge. She recommends another knead, but I found it too firm so went straight to the rolling.
6. Dusting the work surface and rolling pin with icing sugar, roll out the dough – “as thin as a coin”. What coin? What was the optimal coin thickness in the UK in 1990? I’m guessing go for about 3mm.


7. Heat the oven to 180C and prepare baking sheets with parchment or silicon sheets (which I highly recommend as they’re washable and reusable).
8. Stamp out cookies in decorative, seasonal shapes. My mum’s just given Fran some snowflake cookie cutters so they seemed perfect** albeit fiddly.
9. Put the cut out cookies on the sheets and bake for about 12-15 minutes until nicely browned.
10. Transfer to a rack to cool.
11. Serve dusted with icing sugar and accompanied by coffee, hot chocolate or mulled wine. Good for St Lucy’s Day, Christmas itself or any time in the season (that is, until Epiphany, 6 January – the end of the Twelve Days of Christmas).

 

* I’m not suggesting these authors make stuff up, but that tradition, like authenticity, is an elusive idea. Tradition is mutable. Changes to society markedly change tradition. The move from an agrarian to an industrial society in Britain, for example, changed our folk culture as people didn’t live with the seasons of farming any more, didn’t get together to celebrate and sing in the same way any more. Cecil Sharp, let’s not forget, was driving the folk-song revival in his lifetime – and he died in 1924. The intensification of agriculture after the Second World War further changed things, and the ensuing rise of the supermarkets. Our culture became more generic. So these days, for example, our festivals and feast days, especially Halloween and Christmas are taking on the more US-influenced form, or are forgotten entirely.
* I live in Sussex, grew up in Hampshire, and for a decade or so lived in London, all in the south of England. It rarely, if ever, snows in December or at Christmas in this part of the world, at least not in my nearly-half-century lifetime. We occasionally get a bit of snow in March when we’re all desperate for Spring. A south of England white Christmas is even less likely as the world heats up. Yet, we still give Christmas cards with snow scenes, and are determined to perpetuate the myth of a crisp Christmas. Heck, any movie set at Christmas sprays the fake snow around even if the scene is set in the south of England – think Paddington, Love Actually, Bridget Jones etc. And I dread to think of the carbon footprint of all the ice rinks in the south of England at this time of year, their refrigeration systems fighting the generally mild weather.

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Filed under Biscuits, cookies, Recipes

I really want the chocolate cake

We love books and reading. We love chocolate cake. So the past few years, a couple of children’s books have been particularly popular in our house: Chocolate Cake by Michael Rosen with illustrations by Kevin Waldron, and I Really Want the Cake by Simon Philip with illustrations by Lucia Gaggiotti.

Both are wonderfully illustrated, lyrical tales of children’s uncontrollable desire to eat chocolate cake. I say “children’s” as the protagonists in both books are kids, but I can relate. In fact, in our household it’s the boys who are particularly ardent about all things chocolate. I Really Want the Cake includes a recipe on its final page and T asked to make it. So we did.

Baking with kids
Now, as any parent of young children knows, there’s a fine balance to be had in teaching kids to cook and bake. I love to encourage it, but conversely it can make for a lot of mess, and realistically, the kids’ role is often more about stirring – often with a separate bowl to keep them occupied. T is now old enough to read the recipes though, so we’ve reached a new stage – where he can weigh things out, reading the figures on the scales. That’s not to say the main preoccupation isn’t still rushing to get to the point where he can lick the spoons and bowl, but we’re making progress.

The recipe is for a chocolate cake made with cooking oil instead of butter. This arguably makes it slightly more child friendly as it’s a big mix-up job, not a cream together one. Though you do have to melt some chocolate over a double boiler, which is a job for the parent, or at least one that involves close supervision. It’s iced with a simple buttercream icing. This part was tricky as the cake is quite crumbly, and the icing quite firm so the results here aren’t exactly professional – but hey, sprinkles!

I’ve tweaked this a tad. Reduced the sugar etc.

Cake batter
230g plain flour
1 1/2 tsp baking powder
1 1/2 tsp baking soda
80g cocoa powder
300g caster sugar
1 tsp vanilla essence
2 eggs
250g full-fat milk
125g vegetable oil
50g chocolate, melted

Icing
150g unsalted butter, softened
20g cocoa powder
300g icing sugar

Method
1. Grease and line two 20cm round sandwich cake tins.
2. Preheat the oven to 180C.
3. Sieve together the flour, raising agents and cocoa into a mixing bowl. Stir in the caster sugar.
4. Melt the chocolate in a bowl over simmering water.
5. Add the eggs, oil, vanilla essence and milk to the dry mix and stir to combine.
6. Add the melted chocolate, and stir till all nicely combined, with no dry lumps.


7. Divide the batter equally into the tins. Allow your child to lick the bowl and spatula.


8. Bake for around 30 minutes, until a skewer or knife tip comes out clean.
9. Turn out and cool on a wire rack.
10. While the cakes are cooling, make the icing. Soften the butter (in a warm place or with a quick nuke in a microwave), then sieve in the icing sugar and cocoa. Mix well. Icing sugar is such a fine powder it can spray everywhere, so use a large bowl and a careful child!
11. Spread the icing between and on top of the cakes. If you’re feeling ambitious and can hold your children at bay, you could even smear it all over the sides but we didn’t get that far as T was poised with pots of sprinkles.

You really got the cake!

If, like us, you like reading and cakes, I highly recommend both these books. Gaggiotti’s illustration especially capture the energy of lively children, something we are gifted with, likewise Rosen’s verse captures the singlemindedness of children, something we see a lot of in our house. Support your local library, or support your local bookshop!

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Filed under Cakes, Recipes