If I knew you were coming I’d ‘ve baked a cake. Sometimes the strangest songs jump into my head for no particular reason. I like to think of them as song pop- ups. This cute but slightly annoying song, recorded by Eileen Barton in January 1950, must have been played often by my parents along the way, an earworm plant from childhood. There’s fat chance of any one coming here for at least another month if not longer. Despite isolation, or in spite of it perhaps, the cake baking continues once a week.
Most of my cakes are flour free. After all those Hot Cross buns this Easter, I’m enjoying this subtle flavoured flourless cheese cake, with its evocative notes of orange, reminding me of Sicily. If you live in a two or three person household, small cakes of 18-20 cm in circumference are the best size to bake when no one is knocking at your door or dining at your table. This cake keeps well for a few days under a cake dome or lidded container in the cooler months, or in the fridge during summer.
Torta Siciliana di Ricotta, Arancia e Mandorle.
250 gr ricotta cheese, firm
4 large eggs, separated
1 tsp + Cointreau or other orange liqueur
175 gr caster sugar
220 gr almond meal
finely zested rind of 1 orange
1 Tbles orange juice
flaked almonds for the top
icing sugar to dust.
Preheat oven to 160ºc. Grease and line a 20 cm springform cake tin.
Beat together the ricotta, egg yolks, and sugar in a stand mixer, making sure the mixture is completely smooth. Add the liqueur and orange juice, stir through, then add the almond meal, mixing well by hand to incorporate.
Beat the egg whites in a clean bowl till soft peaks form. Fold in a few tablespoons into the almond mixture to loosen it. Then gently fold in the remaining eggs whites.
Spread into the prepared pan. Sprinkle the top with almond flakes. Bake for 35-40 minutes or until a skewer comes out clean.
Cool then release onto a wire rack to cool completely. Dust with icing sugar.
Well, well, well, look who’s here. I haven’t seen you in many a year. If I knew you were comin’ I’d ‘ve baked a cake, baked a cake, baked a cake. If I knew you were comin’ I’d ‘ve baked a cake. How-ja do. How-ja do, How-ja do.
Had you dropped me a letter I’d ‘ve hired a band, grandest band in the land. Had you dropped me a letter I’d ‘ve hired a band and spread the welcome mat for you.
Limes are often associated with hot weather and all things tropical- Mojitos by the pool, spicy Thai food, Indian lime chutney, and Mexican guacamole, just to name a few treats where limes play a key role. Because of these culinary associations, I tend to feel like indulging in lime laced dishes in summer. And yet my own lime trees prefer to crop in the cooler months. One week before winter and the Tahitian limes are in their prime. This calls for a week of lime recipes.
Soon after arriving at our new place, we planted three limes, three lemons, one orange, one mandarin and a kaffir lime. The limes are the happiest of all the citrus family. Given the glut, I have been exploring new ways of using them. Dried lime peel gives an interesting note to a spicy salt when mixed with dried chilli, another plant that grows so well in the garden, some Himalayan pink salt and a little smoked pimenton.
Before juicing your limes for other recipes, peel them and place the zest or rinds in a heatproof container near a heat source. Mine dried in a terracotta container on top of a wood stove within minutes, perhaps too quickly. To maintain that green colour, leave them on a dish on a mantelpiece when the fire or gas is going. The peels, once hardened, are ready to use.
First gather your ingredients. Use organic limes and chillies if you have them on hand. Grind some whole dried chilli, then grind some dried lime peel and then measure the salt and pimenton. I prefer to mix the components after grinding them separately so that I can tweak the flavour if needed, but you can throw the whole lot in the grinder at once if you prefer.
Lime and Chilli Salt.
1/2 cup sea salt flakes or Himalayan pink salt rocks
2 tsp dried chilli flakes
2 tsp dried lime peel
1/2 tsp smoked paprika (pimenton)
Whizz the ingredients in an electric spice grinder. Store in a jar.
This salt gives a great flavour boost to plain foods such as fish, grilled chicken, breakfast eggs, or, as shown below, sprinkled on red rice and tuna fritters.
P.S. While on the subject of drying peels, I save all the mandarin and orange peels to dry in the same way. They provide a beautiful orange oil aroma to the atmosphere and work like magic as fire lighters. If you have an open fire or wood stove heater, I urge you to dry your citrus peels.
If we were in Naples today, I would take you to lunch in a family trattoria, set in an un-touristed part of the city. I would lead you through the dark lanes around Spaccanapoli, passing the eternally grieving Madonna statues sitting snugly in niches along white washed walls, each with their own red or pink glowing light and plastic flower bouquet. We would pass beautiful desanctified churches, graffitied, bombed and derelict beyond repair. Turning down the busy Vin San Gregorio Armeno where craftsmen carve and paint wooden presepi, a street dedicated exclusively to the Nativity, we would later exit onto the main thoroughfare at Via Duomo. On the opposite side of the road, we would gaze up at the ornate Cathedral of Naples, Cattedrale di San Gennaro, and then notice the 20 foot high advertising poster of a young woman in skimpy lace underwear right next to it. As we walk to lunch, we might speculate about a country that in recent times enjoyed the depraved antics of a corrupt Prime Minister, Berlusconi, and a society that feasts upon evening game shows hosted by middle age men in suits alongside young women sporting bikinis and stilettos.
After much banter, we’d find our lunch venue down an unattractive street still bearing the scars of the second world war. There’s no written menu here so we order a lunch of three courses, senza carne, without meat, a lunch of the house. First comes a little antipasto of acciughe, anchovies lightly dressed in oil, a generous ball of mozzarella di bufala, with a pile of Pane Duro, sliced from the ringed shaped loaves on the counter. Next follows a simple Pasta Napoli, then some contorni or sides, acooked tangle of spinach slicked with good oil, some roasted potatoes which emerge from the focolare set in the wall, and a mixed salad. Finally, and because it’s the week following Easter, we are served a large slice of Pastiera, the famous wheat studded ricotta tart of Naples. The vino di casa, a light red wine, is included in the 10 euro per head price. We remark on our good fortune to have found such a place.
Grapes and Pears and a snail. Giovanna Garzoni, 1600-1670
pear tree turns to Autumn
Di’s Beurrre Bosc pears
Pastiera Napolitana is a pastry lined tart filled with citrus flavoured ricotta, lightened with eggs, containing softened wheat berries, then covered with latticed pastry on top. It has pagan and mythical origins, but the modern version of pastiera was probably invented in a Neapolitan convent.
“An unknown nun wanted that cake, symbol of the resurrection, to have the perfume of the flowers of the orange trees which grew in the convent’s gardens. She mixed a handful of wheat to the white ricotta cheese, then she added some eggs, symbol of the new life, some water which had the fragrance of the flowers of the spring time, candied citron and aromatic Asian spices. We know for certain that the nuns of the ancient convent of San Gregorio Armeno were considered to be geniuses in the complex preparation of the Pastiera. They used to prepare a great quantity for the rich families during Easter time.”¹
I have made Pastiera in the past. It needs to be made some days in advance, and no later than Good Friday, to allow the fragrances to mix properly. This Easter, I have decided to break with tradition and make a lighter version. No resurrection wheat, and no top layer of pastry which I now find too heavy. My Sunday’s ricotta tart is lightened by cream, retains the aromatic orange elements, and steals a little trick from the French, a brûlée topping. It is served alongside some autumn pears cooked in vincotto. It is a dessert worth indulging in at any time of the year and the fruit can be varied to suit the season. Slow baked quinces would also go nicely.
Torta di ricotta con pere, vincotto e vaniglia- Ricotta tart with brûlée topping and pear, vincotto and vanilla.
The Pastry Case
First make some sweet shortcrust pastry or pasta frolla, rested for one hour then baked blind, enough to cover a 25 cm tart or flan tin with a removable base. I have not included a recipe for this, since most cooks will have their favourite. Make it very short ( with 250 gr of butter) and dust the tin with almond meal before baking.
The Ricotta Filling
1 large egg
1 large egg yolk
375 g firm ricotta, drained
60 gr icing sugar
2 tsp or more of fine orange zest
1 tablespoon of Grand Marnier or orange blossom water
50 – 100 gr candied citron, finely chopped – optional
25 ml full cream
Set the oven temperature to 180 c before commencing.
Place the egg, egg yolk, ricotta, sugar, orange zest, liquor and citron in a bowl of a an electric mixer and mix on low until very smooth. In a separate bowl, whip the cream until thick then fold through the ricotta mixture. Spoon the mixture into the prepared tart case and smooth over the top. Bake for 20- 30 minutes or until golden on top. Set aside until the topping sets and cools before removing from the flan tin.
4 large firm pears, such as Beurre Bosc
500 ml water
150 gr caster sugar
1 vanilla bean, slit open and seeds scraped
juice and rind ( without pith) of 1 lemon
2 strips orange rind
1/3 cup vincotto
Peel and core the pears and cut each pear into four. Place the water, sugar, vanilla, lemon and orange rinds, juice and vincotto into a medium-sized saucepan. Bring to the boil then add the pears. Cook on a low poaching heat, for around 30 minutes or until you are satisfied that the pears are soft enough. Remove the pears from the liquid and reduce the poaching liquid to thicken. The pears can be kept for days covered in their liquid.
The brûlée on top.
Sprinkle 1/3 of a cup of Demerara sugar evenly over the cake. Holding a kitchen blowtorch, caramelise the top by moving the flame backwards and forwards, until the sugar is melted.
Serve the tart with Vincotto poached pears on the side.
Although this dessert has many steps, it really is easy to put together once you’ve made a sweet pastry shell.
All recipes are derivative and I have based this one on a recipe I found here, a site dedicated to the use of Vincotto. I also added some of the extra orange elements found in the traditional Pastiera Napolitana.
This month my garden news is not good. I am recording a few disasters.
Heavy frosts have continued to damage the citrus trees, especially the limes. The top leaves are badly burnt. It is too soon to prune these back as more frosts could be on the way.
The next cause of damage is the white cockatoo. This bird is the most annoying visitor to my garden. Cockies are vandals, hoodlums from the sky, descending on the garden in mobs, swooping down and causing havoc.
They don’t eat the vegetables, they cut them in half- just for fun! This particularly applies to tall-growing vegetables such as garlic, cavolo nero, and silverbeet. In the front garden, they took a particular dislike to the succulents this year, pulling them all out, leaf by leaf, as if to say ‘ we don’t like you, wrong colour, odd shape’.
The next annoyance- the rabbits. Its seems we have a few gaps in our fencing and so these little devils have heavily pruned my parsley and radicchio. They breed in the nearby gullies and are a continual problem.
Harvest. Cavolo nero ( black kale) is now picked from one side of the plant (cockies stripped the other side) to make my favourite pasta dish. Silverbeet, coriander, and herbs are abundant. The broad beans are coming along nicely.
On the bright side, these two calves, Dougie and O’Dannyboy were born in the last fortnight, adding a touch of Spring joy to our paddocks. They, and their mothers, provide our garden with manure.
To do list:
I think the time has come to build a netted cage over the whole veggie patch. Out damn cockies, out.
Build some shelters or breaks to protect citrus before next winter.
Sow plots of lettuce, spring onion, rugola.
Prepare and enrich other beds for the big planting which will take place in early October.