On a Broomstick with La Befana.

The Befana comes at night, With her shoes all tattered and torn, She comes dressed in the Roman way, Long Live the Befana.”

These lines sound so much better in Italian (see below) and it’s one poem that all children learn by rote and then recall as adults. La Befana is one of the most loved figures associated with Italian Christmas: the celebration is still popular throughout Italy. It’s nice to see photos of Italian women of a certain age getting into the spirit of Befana, dressing up as witches, while family groups attend the many winter feste and sagre dedicated to La Befana on the evening of January 5, 12 days after Christmas day.

Orion and the Seven Sisters. Photo by my brother Michael, whose celestial photos can be found at https://regionalcognisance.wordpress.com/.

For those who don’t know the story, the legend of La Befana is associated with the Epiphany which occurs 12 days after Christmas. Befana was an old woman who was asked to accompany the Three Wise Men on their journey to bring gifts to the new-born baby Jesus. She declined, stating she was too busy with her housework. Later, Befana had a change of heart, and went in search of the three astrologers and the new born Jesus. That night she wasn’t able to find them, so to this day, La Befana goes out searching for the little baby on the night of the Epiphany, on January 5-6. Befana is a corruption of the Italian word of epifania, and is derived from the Greek, επιφάνεια, meaning appearance or manifestation. She is depicted as a kindly old witch wearing ragged clothes and riding a broomstick. She enters the house via the chimney and brings a sack of gifts for the children, sweet things for the good children and a lump of carbon or garlic for the naughty ones. See my earlier posts about Befana, here, here and  here.

Image courtesy of my brother Michael at https://regionalcognisance.wordpress.com/.

But there’s still something odd about the Christian aspects of this legend. Why a witch and why is she flying on a broomstick above Italian villages and cities? As it turns out, there are many pagan and folkloric threads to the story, each one providing more clues. Like many Christian stories, this one has been appropriated from ancient times and tacked on to a Christian legend about the birth of Jesus.

Moon and Tree. Courtesy M Robinson at Mick’s Cogs

‘The origin of the Befana is probably connected to a set of pagan propitiatory rites, dating back to the X-VI century BC, and is linked to seasonal cycles, to agriculture, and is related to the harvest of the past year, now ready to be reborn as a the new year’.¹

In the Roman era, the twelfth night after winter solstice symbolised the death and rebirth of nature, and was celebrated. They believed that the twelve nights after solstice represented the twelve months of the Roman calendar: female figures flew over the cultivated fields to promote the fertility of future crops, hence the legend of a “flying” figure. According to some, this female figure was first identified as Diana, the lunar goddess linked to game and hunting as well as to vegetation and the moon. Befana is also linked to minor deities such as Satìa and Abundìa, symbols of satiety and abundance. There may also be an association with an ancient Roman winter festival in honor of Strenia ¹, the goddess of New Year, a time when gifts were exchanged. (the word strenna meaning gifts is derived from this).

Other precursors include Holda and Perchta, nocturnal witches of Nordic mythology, and in the Veneto region, Erodiade. It is customary in these areas to burn an effigy of La Befana. Good, evil, mother, witch, goddess, housewife, grandmother, hag, crone, the modern, often cartoonised character of Befana, has emerged from a rich store of pagan and Italian folklore. In a sense, the Christian element is just one minor thread.

Seen in Trastevere, Roma, November 2017. The real Befana?

As for La Befana who comes dressed as a witch in the Roman style, historians specialising in Italian witchcraft and folkloric traditions have more to say. A story perhaps for next year’s post on this topic?

La Befana nell’orto d’abbondanza. Madre, nonna, dea, strega, casalinga, vecchia, contadina, amica, cuoca.

There are at least 12 versions of this little Italian poem, but this is the one I learnt many years ago. See opening paragraph above for the English translation.

La Befana vien di notte
con le scarpe tutte rotte
col vestito alla romana:
Viva viva la Befana!  

¹https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Strenua

 

 

 

 

The Best Day of the Year. Some Random Thoughts.

Phew, I’m glad that’s all over for another year. Without a doubt, the best day of the year is Boxing Day. It’s a significant turning point in the Australian calendar, marking the start of summer holidays in earnest, a time to indulge in guilt free relaxation, simple foods, barbecues, books and trips to the beach. As much as I tried to avoid the Christmas mayhem this year, the gift giving merry-go-round, and the over indulgence in rich food, I admit I did succumb. I guess I’m too well-trained: Christmas, with all its trappings, is ingrained in my DNA. It’s a romanticised and mythologised Christmas that bears no resemblance to the modern-day version. Next year, I might run away.

Peach time, always ready on Boxing Day.

In my retrospective analysis of that over- rated day, one bonus was that I avoided visiting large department stores. Most gifts were purchased online ( from some of those large stores) which were delivered to my front door. The extra shipping cost was far less than the return drive to the nearest bastion of commerce, not to mention the enormous saving to my sanity. No Christmas carols, no maddening queues, no parking angst. I also found a few gifts in a nearby village, two novels for my bookworm granddaughter, purchased in a newly established, tiny children’s bookshop. This shop needs supporting.  I also found a hand made shoulder and neck heatbead pack from the local osteopath. The same village has a Japanese gift shop with an array of tempting goods, jewellery and clothing, a little gold mine of inspiring gifts for the hard to please at any time of the year.  And my gift from Mr T were two young black Silky chickens from a livestock poultry cart at the local farmers’ market. I plan to support more small local stores in the new year. 

Although Boxing Day is a secular holiday, it most likely has roots in St Stephen’s day. It’s derivation is worth noting in this modern day of  online delivery service. In 19th century Britain, Christmas boxes ( gifts or money donations)  were left out for post- men, errand boys and servants on the 26th December.

“In Britain, it was a custom for tradesmen to collect “Christmas boxes” of money or presents on the first weekday after Christmas as thanks for good service throughout the year. This custom is linked to an older British tradition: since they would have to wait on  their masters on Christmas Day, the servants of the wealthy were allowed the next day to visit their families. The employers would give each servant a box to take home containing gifts, bonuses, and sometimes leftover food.”

During the Middle Ages, alms boxes were left at the door of churches to distribute to the poor. This, in turn, may have evolved from the late Roman/early Christian era, when metal boxes were placed outside churches and used to collect special offerings for the Feast of Saint Stephen, which falls December 26, or  Boxing day. 

Life’s peachy

I’m now wondering whether we should leave tips for those van drivers who bring our shopping to the front door. I remember a time when we would leave a gift of beer for our garbos, ( rubbish collectors). Recently a wine delivery courier arrived in a rental van, a charming and very chatty Sikh. His father came to assist in the weekend deliveries but didn’t speak English. The younger turbaned chap explained that his father had been visiting for a year, but the cost of an extension to his temporary visa amounted to well over $100,000. Our new  postal carriers work harder than ever in this day of online shopping.

And like those masters of yore, I too have a surfeit of food when it comes to Christmas leftovers. Yet in this age of plenty, my palate yearns for simpler delights- a freshly plucked peach from our laden tree, a simple zucchini and basil soup, or a spoonful of leftover creme caramel flan, a simple thing made from our fresh hens’ eggs, a little sugar and milk.

Some cheeky visitors retain their Christmas colours all year round. Very rude when they take a fancy to the mixed nuts on the table.

I’ve been thinking about Western over indulgence lately, all that plastic, the indulgent gift giving, the accumulation of junk, the groaning table of food. We need to return to simpler practices. Will a shift in the economic tide bring with it an appreciation of basic things- a hand-made gift or a longed for book? Has the internet era killed the joy of Christmas in the young? What happened to toys? In the age of electronic device, do children still run and play? Do I need my sleep measured by an app?

I hope your Christmas went well, dear friends and readers. Was it merry or quiet? Are you glad it’s over? Do you love Boxing day too?

 

Simple Chocolate Brownies for La Befana

As we lazed around the pool yesterday, I asked the girls if they were expecting a visit from La Befana. They looked at me blankly. I began explaining the legend of La Befana when suddenly the penny dropped- yes Daisy had heard about her from her Italian teacher last year and Charlotte simply said, “You mean that witch lady who does a Santa thing?”

Italian grandmothers fondly relate stories of their childhood in Italy when they eagerly anticipated the evening of the Befana between the 5th and 6th of January, L’ Epifania, the epiphany, is the night when La Befana would deliver gifts. La Befana, personified as a benign old witch with broken shoes, riding on a broomstick, and dressed in gypsy clothes, brings gifts to all children. Legend has it that the three kings, the Magi, dropped by the home of La Befana on their way to see the new-born baby Jesus. They asked her for directions as they had seen his star in the sky, but she didn’t 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 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. She searched but never found them. And so to this day, La Befana flies around on her broomstick, searching for the little baby Jesus, visiting all children with gifts. She also brings a lump of coal for those times when they have been naughty, and a sweet gift too. In the past, gifts were simple. I remember my dear friend Olga, who grew up in Marechiaro, near Naples in the 1920s, was delighted to receive an orange and a few caramelle from La Befana.

Carbone Dolce?

The epiphany is the 12th day of Christmas and signifies the end of the seasonal festivities. I like to celebrate this day in a small way: it’s my perverse nature I suppose, but I relate to the simplicity of this legend and the grandmotherly figure of the kindly old witch. Fat Santa, shopping mall Santa, Americanised commercial Santa be gone, and down with that Christmas tree too. The new year has begun in earnest.

This year’s sweet offering will be a tin of old school brownies, the ones we used to make before expensive pure chocolate became the preferred ingredient. This recipe is gooey and rich and is made using cocoa powder, a pantry staple. You won’t believe it’s not chocolate. They last for three days or so and as they get older, I serve them with custard or icecream as a small pudding.

Old School Chocolate and Walnut Brownies 
140g unsalted butter
55 g natural cocoa powder
½ tsp salt
1 tbsp strong coffee, made from instant coffee or leftover espresso
2 large eggs at room temperature
250 g sugar
1 tsp pure vanilla extract
105 g  plain flour
¼ tsp baking powder
¾ cup chopped walnuts, plus extra chopped for topping
Method
  • Preheat oven to 180 C.  Line a 20 cm x 20 cm cake tin pan with baking paper. If you don’t have a square tin, an old slab tin 18 cm by 28 could be used, but the brownies might be slightly lower in height.
  • Melt butter in a small saucepan over low heat. Stir in cocoa and salt until smooth. Stir in coffee.
  • In a medium-sized bowl whisk together the eggs and the sugar vigorously until thickened and lightened by a shade. A stand mixer makes the job easy.  Add the vanilla extract. Whisk the cocoa and butter mixture into the sugar mixture.
  • Sift the flour and baking powder over the mixture and fold it in until combined. Fold in walnuts.
  • Spread batter into the prepared pan, sprinkle with extra walnuts.  Bake for 20 minutes.
  • Remove from the oven, cool and cut into small squares.

Recipe from Christina at Scientifically Sweet.

Cute, very Italian and kitsch, this cartoon caught my attention. It’s good to know that La Befana is still alive and well in Italy as a quick search will show.

 

A Lombardian Christmas Card

As Christmas Day moves closer, a stressful count down for some, I’m finding peace in doing simple domestic tasks. Ironing old linen, making bread, shaping and rolling more batches of Sicilian almond balls to share with others, moving furniture around to create dining space for the day, and draping silvery bling around the Christmas tree. Mindless tasks allow thoughts to wander: the devil makes work for busy hands too. I’m back in the towns and villages of Lombardy. I don’t feel that I’ve really left: I have unfinished business there. I miss the sound of village bells, the simple risotti on every menu, the low-lying rice fields of the Po valley dotted with 17th century cascine, enclosed farm buildings and villas set midst stubbled rice fields, river flats edged with pioppi, poplar trees, remnants of Visconti castles, red bricked medieval fortresses, the wine growing hills above Pavia, and the gentle Lombardi people, my new friends and old. I will return to these stories in January: there are many waiting to be aired.

In the meantime, I’m sending out these Lombardi Christmas Cards. They depict a different kind of Christmas bell, the orange kaki or persimmons that caught my eye as we wandered about a small village in the Oltrepò, near Pavia. Nearby, an old shed housing some antique building materials attracted Mr T. This Christmas card is for shed lovers. Another renovation? A little house in the Lombardian hills? Wishing you, dear readers, many fine things this Christmas: good food, friends and family and a warm embrace. Who could want for more.

Sicilian Christmas Sweet Balls.

Last year I pulled the plug on Christmas as I felt that some traditions had run their course, that our traditions needed to be rewritten. Now, as I look back on my 2016 December posts, my outlook didn’t deter me from baking some interesting Christmas sweets. Last year’s Sicilian biscotti were winners for me and mine: I gave away many little parcels of these treats. A few of my readers made these last year, with variations on the theme too, using different fruits and methods.

The first recipe includes dried sour cherries. By all means, use whatever dried fruit you have on hand, remembering to chop or cut it first. This year, I reduced the size of the balls a little, although my photos still show them looking rather large! The recipe produces around 30.

Ready to cook.

Amaretti di Cioccolato e Ciliegia/  Chocolate, cherry and almond biscuits

  • 250 g finely ground almonds
  • 120 g caster sugar
  • 50 g dark ( 70%) chocolate, grated
  • 60 g dried sour cherries, chopped
  • finely grated zest of 1 lemon
  • 2 extra-large egg whites, ( 700) or three medium
  • a pinch of salt
  • 30 g icing/confectioners’ sugar

Preheat the oven to 160 c.

Mix the almonds, sugar, chocolate, cherries and lemon zest together. Whisk the egg whites until firm and fold it into the almond mixture with the salt. Mix well. The mixture should be damp. If you have used two egg whites and feel that the mixture needs a bit more moisture, beat another until stiff and add it to the mixture.

Place the icing sugar in a bowl. Roll the mixture into small 3cm balls, then toss them into the icing sugar to coat well. Place them on paper lined baking sheets.

Bake until they have a golden tinge, about 15 minutes. Cool on a wire rack. Makes around 30 balls. 

The other Sicilian Christmas sweets made were almond balls from Agrigento. They fill the room with the heady aroma of spice and honey as they cook. Like the almond and cherry balls, they are dusted in icing sugar before they are cooked. This removes the annoying dusting of sugar snow on your face and clothing when popping these straight into your mouth.

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 orange liquor such as Cointreau, or vanilla`
  • icing/confectioners sugar for coating

Preheat the oven to 150c.OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

Mix all the ingredients together and mix well till the dough is moist. Your hands are the best tools for this task.

Shape into smooth little cakes around 3 cm in diameter.  Roll in icing sugar then place onto a baking paper lined baking sheet and bake for 20 minutes.

Cool on a wire rack. Makes around 20.

Dear friends and readers, did you make these sweets last December? What lovely dried fruits did you substitute? I am thinking that chopped fig might go well in the first recipe.

Twice- Baked Stilton and Walnut Soufflé. When Less is More.

The other day I noticed some of our peaches ripening on the bench too quickly. This is not normally a problem, given that I live with a fruit bat of a man who has an addiction to fruit, a dependence  he has passed on to some of his grandchildren. The likelihood of finding fruit in prime condition, hanging about and ready to be eaten, is a rare event. He was being polite I am sure, knowing that I have a preference for summer stone fruits. Thank you kind sir, but I can’t eat 12 pieces of fruit in one day like the rest of you.

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Home grown peaches.

The slightly too ripe peaches were skinned, stoned, ( it’s beginning to sound like a medieval tale of torture-  bring on the rack), then thrown into a blender, puréed and frozen into ice blocks. On Christmas Day, at around 11 am, they emerged once again and were shaved into the base of a crystal stemmed glass and covered with chilled Prosecco. Not quite a Bellini, more like a special breakfast beverage and one I can highly recommend.

The day started to improve dramatically. We began with a small pot of Manuka smoked mussel pâté  on salted plain biscuits, a quickly imagined and executed festive treat, consumed only in the interests of sobriety. My simple Christmas vegetarian meal followed, Stilton and Walnut Double Baked Soufflé, the pre-planned part of our day. It was whipped up the night before, requiring minimal re-heating in the oven ‘on the day’, and accompanied by a few colourful trimmings, picked baby leaves from the garden and a psychedelic dollop of home-made Beetroot and Caramelised Onion Relish . These little puffy fellas were served with a Roaring Meg Pinot Gris from the Central Otago District of NZ. At this point, I was more than happy about losing my traditions, amongst other things.

And that dear friends, is how my quiet Christmas Day at home, senza famiglia, went. The dessert, a grown up trifle full of garden berries, followed much later on.

I’m posting my simple festive recipes here as they are most fitting for a light luncheon or entrée in any season. The soufflé recipe comes from Delicious Magazine.

The Smoked Mussell Pâté. Throw a  handful of good quality smoked mussels into a blender. Add a couple of Tablespoons ( 1/4 cup)  of cream cheese and a little sour cream. Blend until smooth. Add chopped chives if you have them nearby. Adapt the quantity to suit your numbers.

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Twice- Baked Stilton and Walnut Souffle, Leaves and Beetroot  Relish.

The Twice baked Stilton and Walnut Souffles ( makes 6)

Ingredients.

  • 300 ml milk
  • 1 celery stick, roughly chopped
  • 25 gr unsalted butter, plus extra for greasing
  • 25 gr plain flour
  • 2 tsp English mustard
  • 4 medium-sized free range eggs, separated
  • 175 gr Stilton cheese, crumbled
  • 50 gr walnuts, roughly chopped
  • leaves, chutney to serve

Method.

  1. Heat the milk in a saucepan with the celery to just below boiling point. Remove from the  heat and leave to infuse for about 30 minutes. Preheat oven to 180C . Butter 6 X 150 ml ramekins/mini souffle dishes thoroughly and place in a deep baking tray.
  2. Melt the butter in a small saucepan over a low heat, then stir in the flour to form a smooth paste. Remove from the heat and slowly strain in the celery infused milk, stirring constantly to make a smooth sauce. return to the heat and bring to a gentle simmer, stirring to thicken. Cook a further few minutes then transfer to a large bowl to cool.
  3. Beat the mustard and egg yolks into the sauce and stir through 150 gr of the Stilton, the walnuts.Taste and adjust seasoning if necessary. Whisk the egg whites in a clean bowl till they form stiff peaks, then using a metal spoon, fold a little egg white through the souffle mix to loosen it. Fold the rest of the egg white gradually into the souffle.
  4. Divide the mixture among the 6 buttered ramekins, then fill the baking tray with boiling water so that it reaches halfway up the outside of the ramekins Bake for 30 minutes or until the souffles have risen and are cooked through. Carefully remove them from the bainmarie, cool,then chill until needed.
  5. When ready to serve, preheat the oven to 200C. Line a baking sheet with baking paper and using a palette knife, carefull loosen the souffles from their ramekins. Turn each one out onto the baking sheet.  ( if at this point , some of the mixture has stuck to the bottom of the ramekins, don’t worry. Just lift it off with the knife and gently place it back onto the souffles. They may look a little ugly and shrunken at this  point also. Don’t fret- they puff up agina with the second baking.) Scatter over the remaining 25 gr of Stilton.
  6. Return to the oven for 10- 15 minutes until risen and golden on top. Serve with watercress, or baby leaves lightly dressed and some interesting chutney.

The best part of this recipe is that it can be made ahead up to step 4, then wrapped in cling foil. They can be frozen for up to 1 month and defrosted in the fridge overnight. Or they can be kept chilled for up to 24 hours. When ready to serve, continue from step 5.

Tomorrow’s recipe – that beetroot and caramelised  onion chutney.

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The Trifle. Lemon custard, home grown sliced peaches, four egg sponge cake with added grog, mixed berry jelly, whipped cream, strawberries, chopped baked almonds, shortbread sand.
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Grown up Trifle

Tradition and Change. Rewriting Christmas.

I once owned many histories of Renaissance and Medieval Europe. Most of them mentioned the words Tradition and Change somewhere within the text, if not in the title itself. That period, perhaps more than any other in history, encapsulates this historical concept so well. Things don’t change suddenly. Old ways continue side by side with the new, traditions and beliefs endure, long past their relevance to the society practising them. A clashing of paradigms might take a century to resolve, only to be followed by a reactionary movement, another turn of the wheel, bringing about upheaval and further revisions to practice and belief, whilst simultaneously drawing legitimacy and cultural validity from older traditions. History is usually written and re- written from the perspective of the current paradigm: facts alone stand for very little.

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Daisy adding nutmeg to the pudding.

Now what’s all this got to do with Christmas in Australia, I hear you ask? Some traditions keep dragging on, despite their increasing irrelevance to a largely non- Christian society. Most Australians recognise, and are comfortable with this basic fact, embracing Christmas as a secular holiday. Or many see it as marking the beginning of summer and a long holiday for families. But before being let off the hook, before descending on beaches and rivers to play in the sun, certain archaic traditions must be followed. Shopping takes precedence over all others, with a slowish start in early December, building up to an insane frenzy as the weeks march by, as glossy supermarket magazines extol the virtues of catering for a family, with visions of excess, not unlike those Renaissance feasts of old. Catering for large numbers is not something that comes naturally to most, so Curtis or Jamie or Nigella can show the fashionable way. They make it look so easy.

I’ve observed mothers going slowly mad with stress, bent on purchasing more and more each year for their children. Bucket loads of plastic crap, or designer labelled clothing, or the latest gizmo, or a better version of something that they already own, helps to create yet more landfill for future generations to deal with. The consumer obsessed are still shopping at 11pm on Christmas Eve, still hunting for the unattainable. It’s the season of sadomasochism, as those indulging in these pastimes gloat about their pain, yet are unable to disengage.

Stores ship in mountains of wooden tasting prawns from the frozen bowels of somewhere, grown especially large for the holy day/holiday occasion, costing twice as much and tasting unlike a prawn should. Prawns on steroids, no brine from the sea or sweetness of flesh. Decapitated legs sawn from Alaskan crabs now grace the window displays of our supermarkets. What happened to their bodies? Slabs of smoked salmon unfreeze before greedy shoppers’ eyes, cheap manufactured mince tarts and puddings appear two months before Christmas, only to be replaced by Hot Cross Buns in the New Year. Easter is similarly meaningless and just around the corner. Here are the large bright cherries, gassed up to artificial ripeness, yet more cheeses, more Pavlova, more hams and prosciutto, pigs, baby goats, lambs, chickens and ducks, and especially that Imposter, the Turkey, followed by more and more mountains of food, in search of new tastes and more waste.

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Lisa’s Cardamom Shortbread, Tradition and Change in one spicy mouthful.

I  pulled the plug on excess this year. Gifts were still purchased, and a few lists were made. Simple little biscotti studded our pre- Christmas gatherings, as well as Lisa’s cardamom shortbread.  A large Christmas cake, made early in December, was given to my mother, the keeper of our old English/Irish traditions: she has more use for it than I do . A last-minute pudding was made for my daughter, who catered for her in-laws this year. I tasted some of the left over pudding: it wasn’t like my mother’s, it didn’t have the taste of tradition, that secret ingredient, nor the advantage of slow aging in a cloth. The children rejected it: it didn’t contain any silver coins. My mother keeps old sterling coins and generously studs hers at the last-minute before serving, a tradition she has kept but one that I am happy to see die with the next generation.

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A large Christmas Cake can last for 6 months. Foolproof recipe in link above.

The leftover coin-less pudding has been returned to my house, like a Christmas boomerang, reminding me that some traditions can’t change that quickly. Now it’s time to convert that fruity brandied reminder of times past into something that might be pulled out once again, renewed and reinterpreted, into something that is more suitable to our summer climate.

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Under a shady tree on a hot December day. Freshly picked peaches, furry and sweet, the juice running all over my clothes, and a glass of chilled Prosecco.

The following  recipe is the traditional Australian way to deal with that left over Christmas pudding.

  • 1 litre tub vanilla ice cream, slightly softened.
  • 200 g left over Christmas pudding.
  •  Amaretto to serve

    Whizz the ice cream in a food processor until smooth, fold in the  crumbled Christmas pudding and scrape into a freezer-proof container. Freeze for at least 2 hrs, or stash for longer. Scoop into bowls and top with amaretto.

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    Kids, fresh picked berries, and swimming during the weeks leading up to Christmas.

    My favourite Christmas read this year comes from Roger at Food Photography and France.

  •  https://stowell.wordpress.com/2016/12/02/what-i-really-really-want/

Postscript. After microwaving my plum pudding and serving with some brandy cream, I have to say it tasted dam good, so it will not be put into ice-cream after all, but stashed well in the freezer for a winter treat.

The Annual Window Display

Every year, as the days draw closer to Christmas, I anticipate a visit to the magnificent Queen Victoria Market, a food market situated close to the heart of Melbourne. And before stepping inside to join the busy throng, I usually stop at Ambiance, a little giftware shop near the market’s front entrance.  Ambiance adds glittery Christmas themes to their December display, but I am more interested in the arrangement of ostentatious Venetian masks. masksmask-1

Ambiance, 509 Elizabeth Street, Melbourne, Australia

 

Waiting for Cherries. A different Clafoutis

One of the joys of Christmas, as far as our seasonal food calendar goes, is the arrival of fresh cherries in abundance. The season usually peaks in mid to late December but this year they are appearing more slowly, thanks to a very cold Spring. The plump, expensive boxes have hit the shelves, but I am still waiting for the big flush, when cherries appear in luscious piles on fruiterers’ tables, dark, plump and cheap, the Tinker Tailor Soldier Sailer cherries, to hang over ears or slurp out of the bag before reaching home, as well as a few kilos to preserve in Brandy, or to stud a Clafoutis.

A comforting little pudding.
A comforting little pudding.

In the meantime, this unusual recipe for Cherry Clafoutis caught my eye. It utilises dried sour cherries, reconstituted in Cognac. Or perhaps the Cognac caught my eye first, a Christmas life saver of a drink for those who feel a little stressed.

Preserved Cherry Clafoutis.

  • 150 ml pouring cream
  • 1/2 vanilla bean, split and seeds scraped
  • 2 eggs
  • 85 gr caster sugar
  • 1 egg white
  • 25 gr ( 1/3 cup) plain flour, sifter
  • icing sugar to serve
  • clotted cream, or mascarpone whipped with cream, or just cream, to serve

Preserved Cherries

  • 60 gr dried cherries
  • 100 gr white sugar
  • 3 ml Cognac

For preserved cherries, combine dried cherries in a saucepan with sugar, Cognac and 150 ml water and cool on low heat for 7-8 minutes until liquid is syrupy. Watch that the liquid doesn’t turn to toffee.

Preheat oven to 180C. Heat cream and vanilla bean in a saucepan over medium heat, bring to boil, remove from heat and cool. Remove vanilla bean. Using an electric mixer, beat eggs and sugar until light and creamy. In a separate bowl, whisk egg white until soft peaks form, then add the cream mixture and fold to combine. add the flour and fold in, then slowly beat in the egg mixture.

Spoon cherries into a lightly buttered and sugared 6 cup ovenproof baking dish. Pour batter over cherries and bake for 10-15 minutes or until golden and cooked through. Serve immediately, dusted liberally with icing sugar and with cream.

The cherries are in hiding.
The cherries are in hiding.

This version of clafoutis is very light and more like a souffle in texture, so it is best to eat it straight from the oven, though I must mention that it is rather nice at 6.30 am, eaten straight from the fridge, which is the quiet hour when I like to write and eat leftovers. The recipe is also handy for all other seasons, and may suit the cherry- deprived in the Northern Hemisphere. Of course you can use fresh cherries or ones you preserved from last year.

close up of clafoutis
The heart of a clafoutis

**The recipe is from a Gourmet Traveller Annual Cookbook and is attributed to Peter Gilmour.

And now for a song plant/ear worm for the day. Just change the chorus from Sherry Baby to Cherry Baby when you make a classic cherry Clafoutis.

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.

xx
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.