I’ve just spent a great long weekend with Rachel Roddy, helping out with the food for the party celebrating the launch of her book, Five Quarters, catching up with Rome friends and meeting lots of interesting new people.
Given the theme of Rachel’s book and the fact that we met there, inevitably Rome was a big topic of conversation at the party. There’s a lot I’m missing about Rome. We know why we moved back in December 2013 – to try and adopt. But that doesn’t mean I’m not pining for certain things, especially food-related things: a six-days-a-week food (etc) market on the next block; a great gelateria two blocks away on our street; restaurants and cafés where you can get good food and drink for a sensible price (a fairly elusive concept in much of England); checking out the latest birra artigianale; going to the Città dell altra Economia in Testaccio to meet friends and buy huge, affordable chunks of local cheese on a Sunday. I could go on, but I won’t.
As I said in my post about Rachel’s book, I have to avoid the rose-coloured specs. But it’s hard, especially now while we’re at a difficult stage in the adoption process. We’ve been approved, but there don’t seem to be any children that are a suitable match for us. It’s a form of limbo – and as such all too conducive to drifting memories, reminiscing.
So much in our life now re-connects us to Rome. Even all the recipes I’m currently trying from The Art of French Baking by Ginette Mathiot. My sister – another Rachel – gave me this book just as we moved to Rome in August 2011 and in my mind’s eye I can still see it sitting on the shelf in our kitchen there, alongside a few I’d brought with me – Lepard’s The Handmade Loaf, Bertinet’s Dough – and some we acquired there – The Food of Rome and Lazio by Oretta Zanini de Vita, La Cucina di Roma e del Lazio (ie the same title) by di Marco and Ferré, Cucina Romana by Sara Manuelli, er, Cooking Apicius by Sally Grainger etc.
The Mathiot was a newly published Phaidon edition of the 1938 book Je sais faire la pâtisserie (“I know how to make patisserie”), translated and adapted by Clotilde Dusoulier. The book provides, in Dusoulier’s words, “the elemental components of French baking”: pastries, biscuits, cakes and puddings.
I used it a bit, but in all honestly I didn’t embrace it at the time. Why? Well – because Rome was all around us and I was somewhat distracted by all the pasticcerie (patisseries), biscotterie (biscuit bakeries), forni and panifici (bread or general bakeries) had to offer. I ate, I found favourites, I learned to make them at home. I got a bit obsessed with Italian baked goods. We have French-style patisseries in England, but Italian ones are considerably less common, so there was a lot to learn. (And still is1.)
I’m enjoying the Mathiot a lot now. I used it during my puff pastry experiments back in January, and I’ve been trying a lot of the biscuit and galette2; recipes, and musing over the brioche recipes. All eight of them. Eight. Rachel’s been talking about brioche too – they’re a common product in Sicily and Naples – so I plan to test them all, as well as the others in my cookbook collection. In the meantime, however, some biscuits.
Twice the fat, twice the pleasure
If Italian food is synonymous with olive oil3, French food is synonymous with butter. Petits beurres4 – for those who don’t have spectacular school French like mine – simply means “little butters”, or little butter biscuits. But not only do they have a good proportion of butter, they have the same proportion of double cream too. The result is a rich, light, crumbly biscuit. I make mine with a small, rectangular cutter that’s 40x75mm, so each one is a perfect size for a couple of bites.
I love this cutter. The result is not unlike the famous French industrial biscuit the “Petit Beurre LU” or “Véritable Petit Beurre” from Lefèvre-Utile. There isn’t much about it online in English, but French Wikipedia gives the story. It says the 1886 recipe by Louis Lefèvre-Utile was originally inspirant des productions anglaises de l’époque. “It was inspired by English products of the era”. That’s not something you hear the French admit very often. It’s also officially 65x54mm so slightly different proportions to mine.
These petits beurre are – unsurprisingly – considerably richer than the LU factory version, which doesn’t have half as much butter and no cream, instead being made with milk powder. Bugger that. Butter + cream = pleasure. As many chefs will tell you: “fat is flavour”. It’s something I heard often from Chris Behr, chef at the American Academy in Rome, when I did an internship there.
100g unsalted butter, chilled and diced
250g plain (all-purpose) flour
50g caster sugar
100g double cream
1. Put the flour in a bowl and rub in the butter until the mixture resembles breadcrumbs.
2. Add the sugar and salt and combine.
4. Pour in the cream then combine to form a dough, working it by hand. Work it enough to clear and form a smooth dough. Don’t overwork it. It’s basically a rich, sweet pastry paste, without raising agents, and overworking it can toughen it up.
5. Form a ball, squash it into a disk, wrap it in plastic and put it in the fridge to rest for least half an hour.
6. Preheat the oven to 180C and grease your baking sheets.
7. Dust the work surface with flour then roll out the dough to about 5mm.
8. Cut out rectangles. If you don’t have a rectangular cutter you’ll have to do it by hand.
9. Place the biscuits on the sheets and prick them in diagonal pattern with a fork.
10. Bake for 15-20 minutes until starting to turn golden.
11. Transfer to a wire rack and allow to cool. I got 24 from this batch, but it depends on how big you cut them.
Enjoy. With a cup of tea or even alongside a nice strawberry dessert – as they’re in season here in England now. You should always seize British produce seasons as they’re not half so long as those in Italy. Damn it, there’s me reminiscing again!
1 Italy, as you probably know, is a country of regions with strong local, cultural and culinary identities. Each region has dozens of food specialities, even when it comes to baked goods, breads and pastries etc. My two years in Italy were just a start really. It would be a lifelong project to learn them all.
2 Galette is a French word that doesn’t have an immediate equivalent in English. Sometimes it refers to something we’d translate as a pancake (eg Breton buckwheat pancakes), other times things we’d call a pastry, and others it’s more like a cookie. I looked at the etymology over in my post about galette des rois.
3 Despite that being a more historically southern Italian thing, with strutto – lard – arguably a more common fat in the mountains and the north.
4 Should they be called petits beurres or petits-beurre? They can’t seem to agree on the agreement. The English is just petit beurre biscuits.