More Figs Please and Another Lovely Cake

I am a late comer to the sweet, exotic taste of fresh figs. I put this down to the fact that I didn’t grow up with a fig tree in the backyard, and so I never tasted fresh figs as a child. If I mention figs to those of my mother’s generation, they always respond with the word ‘jam’, indicating that fresh figs didn’t feature in their cooking repertoire but knew them only in jam. Figs, until recently, were not sold in fruit shops and markets, being difficult to transport and keep. You either learnt to love them or hate them based on your ready access to the fresh fruit. Figs now appear in our markets, especially farmer’s markets, and often fetch a grand price.

The laughing fig

In Italy, figs have been associated with Cucina Povera, poor rural or peasant food based on seasonality. Many amusing idiomatic expressions centre around the humble fresh fig. If you say ‘mica pizza e fichi‘ you are indicating that something you have, such as a fine wine or a new purchase, was quite expensive, not like pizza and figs which are cheap and commonplace. Another expression- non importare un fico secco, ( doesn’t matter a dried fig) means something is of little importance, not unlike the English expression ‘not worth a fig’ or ‘couldn’t give a fig’, the latter phrase now modernised in Australia, a land not shy in embracing creative variations of the ‘F’ word, to ‘couldn’t give a fuck’, or ‘a flying fuck’. Given that fresh figs are now too expensive and fashionable, figgy expressions may become obsolete, unless you grow them yourself.

Before cooking. Lay the cut figs on top of the cake batter.

Ottolenghi’s Fig, Yoghurt and Almond Cake

200g unsalted butter
200g caster sugar, plus 1 tsp extra
3 large free-range eggs
180g ground almonds
100g plain flour
½ tsp salt
Scraped seeds of ½ vanilla pod or ½ tsp vanilla paste
1 tsp ground star anise
100g Greek yoghurt
12 figs

Heat the oven to 200C/400F/gas mark 6. Line the bottom and sides of a 24cm loose-based cake tin with baking parchment. Put the butter and sugar in an electric mixer bowl, and use a beater to work them well until they turn light and pale. Beat the eggs lightly, then, with the machine on medium speed, add them gradually to the bowl, just a dribble at a time, adding more only once the previous addition is fully incorporated. Once all the egg is in, mix together the almonds, flour, salt, vanilla and anise, and fold into the batter. Mix until the batter is smooth, then fold in the yogurt.
Pour the batter into the lined tin and level roughly with a palette knife or a spoon. Cut each fig vertically into four long wedges, and arrange in circles on top of the cake, just slightly immersed in the batter. Bake for 15 minutes, then reduce the temperature to 170C/340F/gas mark 3 and continue baking until it sets – about 40-45 minutes longer. Check this by inserting a skewer in the cake: it’s done if it comes out clean. Remove the cake from the oven and allow it to cool down before taking it out of the tin and sprinkling with a teaspoon of caster sugar.

Fig, Yoghurt and almond cake.

More Christmas Balls. Almond Flowers from Agrigento

A few days ago, I made a batch of Sicilian Cherry and Chocolate Amaretti, (Amaretti di Cioccolato e Cilegie ). They disappeared too quickly: some were wrapped up and given away, others popped into our own merry mouths. Sicilian sweets taste so evocative, medieval and ancient. All the flavours of the island seem to be rolled up in these little festive biscuits- dried fruits and figs, orange and lemon peel, Marsala wine, Arabic spices, honey, almonds, pine nuts and pistachio, to name a just a few ingredients favoured by the Siciliani.

Gid
Ready to go out the door. Fior di Mandorle.

This year’s festive cooking is beginning to look like a cook’s tour around Sicily. Last week Siracusa, now today’s festive balls, Fior di Mandorle, a specialty of Agrigento. Come to Sicily with me this month as I delve into my collected recipes from each major town. Map provided, in aid of travel fantasy.

I love a good map.
I love a good map.

Fior di Mandorle.  Almond pastries with honey and spice

  • 200 g freshly ground almonds or almond meal
  • 50 g/3 tablespoons of fragrant clear honey
  • 100 g caster sugar
  • grated zest of  1 small organic orange
  • 1 teaspoon ground cinnamon
  • 1/4 teaspoon ground nutmeg
  • 1/4 teaspoon allspice
  • 1  large, or two very small beaten egg whites
  • 1 teaspoon vanilla extract
  • icing/confectioners sugar for dusting

Preheat the oven to 150c.

Mix all the ingredients together, then knead until the oils from the almonds are released into the pastry.

Shape into smooth little cakes around 3 cm in diameter. Place onto a baking paper lined baking sheet and bake for 20 minutes.

Cool on a wire rack, then dust generously with icing sugar. Makes around 20.

Adapted from Flavours of Sicily, Ursula Ferrigno 2016.

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Fior di Mandorle. A taste of honey and spice. Very Arabic.

My next Sicilian instalment will be Nucatoli, from Modica, which are similar to last year’s Cuddureddi, but come in an amazing shape.

Fave Dei Morti, Biscuits for The Dead

If you’re not Siciliani or Greek, you’re probably wondering what fave or broadbeans have to do with biscuits and the dead. Fave beans are the emblematic dish of death,

“The ancient Greeks saw the black spot on the petals of the broad bean plant as the stain of death and used the beans in funeral ceremonies but refused to eat them. Pythagoras thought that their hollow stems reached down into the earth to connect the living with the dead, and that therefore fave contain the souls of those who have died. The Romans honoured their connection with death but cooked and served the beans as the most sacred dish at funeral banquets.” ¹

Fava( broadbeans) flowering late in my garden.
Fava( broadbean) flowering late in my garden. They look beautiful and a little spooky too.

The day of the dead, I Morti, is celebrated in Sicily on November 2 with Fave dei Morti, little sweet biscuits formed to look like broadbeans,  as well as other sweets such as ossi da morto, bones of the dead, and sweets shaped like human figures. For many Siciliani, a tablecloth is laid out on the family tomb, complete with chrysanthemums, the flowers of the dead, and the family gathers for a picnic. This may sound rather morbid until you consider that on the day of the dead, I Morti, ancestors and relatives sneak back into the living world, back through that fissure in time, to be with the living again.

Fave dei Morti
Fave dei Morti

Given this fine Italian tradition ( not to mention its connection with similar Celtic practices), I went in search of a few customary and very simple recipes, from Siena to Sicily, to leave a few sweet things on the table or the grave, come November 1 and 2.

Fave  Dei Morti

These tiny, crunchy biscuits are easy to whip up and are wonderful dunked in something strong. Despite their simplicity, they taste festive and are very moreish. I need to make another batch for the otherworldly ‘visitors’ on November 1.

  • 100 gr almond meal ( or almonds finely ground to a powder)
  • 100 gr sugar
  • grated zest of 1/2 lemon
  • 1 egg
  • 1 Tbls rum
  • 1/2 teaspoon cinnamon
  • 1/4 teaspoon ground cloves
  • 70 gr unbleached plain flour ( AP flour)

Place the ground almonds in a bowl with the sugar, lemon zest, egg and rum. Mix until well blended. Add the spices and flour and stir until the dough is well blended.

Divide the dough into four pieces. Flour a work surface very lightly and roll each piece into a log the width of a finger. Cut into 4 cm ( 1/12 inch) pieces and place them on a baking paper lined tray. Flatten each piece slightly.

Heat oven to 175ºC and bake until barely browned, around 16 minutes. Makes around 40 pieces. Dust with icing sugar and store well in a tin.

Fave dei Morti on the mantlepiece for the dead.
Fave dei Morti on the mantlepiece for the dead.

¹ Celebrating Italy, The Tastes and Traditions of Italy as Revealed through its Feasts, Festivals, and Sumptuous Foods. Carol Field. 1990

Lemon, Ricotta and Almond Cake

There are so many versions of Lemon and Ricotta cake out there that I was reticent about adding another. This one, I can assure you, will go straight into the hand written sepia toned exercise book that I reserve for very good cakes. The recipe includes 4 lemons, and the batter is lightened by 6 eggs, the whites whipped and folded through at the end. It is an expensive cake but then it serves around 10 people, or two greedy people who eat it every day for dessert and afternoon tea. When served hot, it resembles a lemon delicious pudding. When served cold, it becomes more like a lemon cheesecake. It also keeps well. In summer, store the cake in a container in the fridge. Buonissimo e Molto Siciliano.                                         l

Torta di Limone, Ricotta e Mandorle,  Lemon, Ricotta and Almond Cake

Ingredients

  • 250 g unsalted butter, at room temperature
  • 250 g caster sugar
  • 6 free range eggs, separated
  • 250 g almonds, ground
  • 75 g self-raising flour
  • 1 pinch of salt
  • zest of 5 organic lemons and juice of 4 organic lemons
  • 400 g fresh ricotta

    Lemon, Ricotta and Almond Cake
    Lemon, Ricotta and Almond Cake

Preheat the oven to 180°C (Gas Mark 4).

Butter and paper a 25 cm round springform cake tin. Beat the butter and sugar in an electric mixer until very light and fluffy. With the motor running, add the egg yolks, one at a time, until all are incorporated.

Combine the ground almonds with the flour, salt and lemon zest. Fold into the batter.

Whisk the lemon juice with the ricotta until light and airy.

Fold into the cake batter.

Beat the egg whites until they form soft peaks. Fold them carefully into the batter.

Pour the batter into the prepared cake tin and bake for 50 minutes. Test by inserting a skewer into the cake. It should come out clean when cooked through.

Remove the cake from the oven and turn it out onto a cake rack to cool. It will remain moist for a few days. Store in the fridge in warm weather.

From Four Seasons, Manuela Darling-Gansser, Hardie Grant Books.

And Manuela’s great food and travel blog can be found here.

Reine de Saba Chocolate Cake for Julie

It is with a great deal of trepidation that we meet new friends in person for the first time. When I say ‘friends’, I mean those relationships forged through blogging or other social media. I refuse to call these friendships ‘virtual’ as they feel quite real along the way, and yet there is a certain level of anxiety about finally meeting in the flesh.

Where's the cream, Mr Tranquillo?
Where’s the cream Mr Tranquillo?

Yesterday my friend Julie from New Zealand visited for lunch. I have got to know Julie quite well through her blog, Frogpondfarm, and pursuant comments. She started out posting about her organic garden but as time ticked by and her passion for photography developed, her posts began to reveal so much more, with forays into the starkly beautiful central Otago countryside of the south island, and her fascination with weathered wooden posts and barbed wire, or dried grasses and flowers, and raising chooks. Her photos of early morning walks with her dog along the thundering West Coast beach in the North Island of New Zealand take my breath away. Her vineyards in the south island produce the ambrosial grapes that go into Toi Toi Pinot Noir wine, a year or two before they loll and sway about in my mouth. Toi Toi Pinot Noir is a most pleasing drop, not only for the taste of that dry, cool terroir of the South Island, but reminiscent of the wines of the Beaune area of France too. It is also well pleasing to my wallet. I knew we would get on well- we have too much in common. The four hours went in a flash.

My favourite Pinot Noir, Toi Toi fron New Zealand.
A favourite Pinot Noir, Toi Toi fron New Zealand.

As we strolled through my desiccated summer garden on the way back to the car, she silently gathered a handful of dried seed from a Marguerite daisy bush. Some to spread about and some for her pocket? It was a precious moment, now frozen in my mind, one that no photo could capture, nor words seize. Seeds are the great mementos in life. It is something that I like to do too.

This well-known and timeless cake goes well with Julie, such a beautiful and warm-hearted woman. The recipe comes from Stephanie Alexander but as Stephanie says in her introduction, it was made famous in the 1960s by Elizabeth David. It is rich and moist, yet so simple to make.

Reine de Saba Chocolate Cake, with Berries in Season

Reine de saba - Chocolate and almond cake.
Reine de saba – Chocolate and almond cake with strawberries from the Orto
  • Butter for greasing
  • 125g dark couverture chocolate, (or 70% chocolate ) chopped roughly
  • 1 tbsp strong espresso coffee
  • 1 tbsp brandy
  • 100g softened unsalted butter
  • 100g cup caster sugar
  • 100g of ground almonds
  • 3 large eggs, separated
  • Icing sugar, for dusting

Method

Preheat oven to 160C. Butter an 18cm- 20 cm tin and line it with paper. Use a springform tin if you are sure it doesn’t leak, as this cake is fragile and often cracks when turned out.

Combine chocolate, coffee and brandy in a bowl over water or in a double-boiler. Stir when melted and add butter and sugar and mix well. Add almonds and stir in well. Remove bowl from the heat.

Lightly beat the yolks and stir into the bowl. Beat egg whites to soft peaks. Lighten chocolate mixture with a spoonful of whites, then fold in the remaining whites carefully and lightly.

Bake for 40-45 minutes. The cake will test a bit gooey in the centre. Cool completely in the tin before slipping onto a serving plate. Dust with icing sugar.

Reine de Saba, or Queen of Sheba cake.

And a big thanks to lovely Paula for accompanying Julie and driving her out into the wilds here. It was a delight to meet you. You made it all happen

Julie in background, Paula in foreground.
Julie in background, Paula in foreground.

Almond and Honey Spice Cake for La Befana

The Epiphany, January 6th, is celebrated in many places throughout the world in various ways. It signifies the Three Wise Mens’ visit to the infant Jesus. In Italy, the focus is on La Befana, a benevolent old witch, who delivers gifts to children. Traditionally, the gifts consisted of toys, caramelle and fruit or carbone, a lump of coal and some garlic if they had been naughty.

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Legend has it that Befana was approached by the Three Wise Men a few days before the birth of the Jesus. ( I only own two!)  They asked her for directions as they had seen his star in the sky, but she did not know the way. She provided them with shelter for a night, as she was considered the best housekeeper in the village. The magi invited her to join them on the journey to find the baby Jesus, but she declined, stating she was too busy with her housework and sweeping.  Later, La Befana had a change of heart, and tried to find the three wise men and Jesus. That night she was unable to find them, so to this day, La Befana flies around on her broom, searching for the little baby and visits children with gifts on the evening of January 5th.

Australians don’t celebrate the Epiphany but there is something very appealing about the idea of a crazy witch riding around on her broomstick looking for Jesus. I can relate to this figure. Tonight we will eat an Almond and Honey Spice Cake because we have been good, and something very garlicky because we have been naughty too. The recipe lives in my tried and true handwritten recipe book.

The cake

  • 125g butter, softened
  • 75g castor sugar
  • 2 tablespoons honey
  • 1 teaspoon ground ginger
  • 1 teaspoon ground allspice
  • 2 eggs
  • 180g almond meal
  • 1/2 cup fine semolina
  • 1 teaspoon baking powder
  • 1/4 cup milk.

The Spiced Syrup

  • 1 cup castor sugar
  • 1 cup water
  • 8 cardamom pods, bruised
  • 2 cinnamon sticks

The Orange Honey Cream

  • 3/4 cup thickened whipped cream
  • 1 Tablespoon honey
  • 2 Tablespoons finely grated orange peel

Preheat oven to 180c ( 160c fan forced). Grease a 20 centimetre deep round cake tin, line base and sides. Beat the butter, sugar, honey and spices in an electric mixer until light and fluffy. Add eggs, one at a time, beating between each. Transfer the mixture to a medium bowl. Fold in the almond meal, semolina, baking powder, and milk. Spread mixture into the pan and bake for around 40 minutes. Stand cake for 5 minutes, leaving in pan.

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To Make the syrup. Stir ingredients in a small saucepan until sugar dissolves. Boil uncovered for 5 minutes to thicken syrup. Pour over hot cake. Cool cake to room temperature.Image

Place the cake onto a serving plate. Decorate with the remaining spice ingredients. Refrigerate for 3 hours or overnight. Serve with orange cream (Beat the ingredients together and serve at room temperature.)

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The cute little poem is known by all Italians.

La Befana vien di notte                   The Befana comes at night
Con le scarpe tutte rotte                  With her shoes all tattered and torn
Col vestito alla romana                    She comes dressed in the Roman way
Viva, Viva La Befana!                       Long Life to the Befana

Per Alberto, Quest’anno, soltanto carbone.