Mothers’s Day, La Festa Della Madre, always presents a few dilemmas. To celebrate or not, to give gifts or not. The commercialisation of the day is viewed with suspicion in my family, however for grandmothers and great -grandmothers, this day often has more significance. In the past, we’ve enjoyed small family gatherings with my mother, often in the dining room of the Lomond Hotel. A table for nine, set with white linen and fresh flowers, free bubbles for the ladies, followed by a simple three course meal, it was an easier way to get together than at Christmas. My mother always gave small gifts to her three daughters on this day, recognising that we are all mothers. This year, as my mother is in residential care, visits are not yet permitted. The facility management is adhering to very strict guidelines and has partially opened up: one designated family member may visit her once a week. To err on the side of caution makes sense, given that the elderly are so susceptible to the devastating effects of this plague. And as for my immediate family, none of us are planning to break the gathering rules. I’ll miss her today, but she does enjoy a long phone chat.
My biggest dilemma today is this- sweet versus savoury for Mother’s day? I’ve gone with both. For my daughter, a mother of three daughters and two leggy whippets, a crostata filled with apricot jam, Crostata di Albicocche, and for my caring son, a sourdough Panmarino bread filled with baked garlic and fresh rosemary.
When it comes to sweet versus savoury, I think I’d choose the garlic- laced bread. I may need to steal a slice or two of that loaf. How would you choose, dear reader?
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.
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- nonimportare 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.
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
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.
Serve cake with a syrup made of figs, or fresh yoghurt or marscapone.
Other highly recommended fig posts from bloggers this week.
They assure me that Spring has arrived. The nectarine tree is in full blossom, and there are signs of new energy in the vegetable garden. But I’m not so sure, it still feels quite wintery to me. The fires are going, a big pot of barley soup bubbles on the stove, made just for Noah.
This jam filled oat slice is a sweet winter warmer and made in memory of Selma. It was going to be a loaf of bread, in line with the many sourdough tributes baked in loving memory of Selma, but then I noticed this easy jammy slice, posted last May on her blog. If you didn’t make it back then, I can recommend this slice for ease of preparation, taste, and for the excellent and very clear instructions.
My adaptations included substituting blackberry jam for the sour cherry jam, and desiccated coconut for shredded. You could use any jam that needs using up. I can’t wait for the littlies to walk in the door and see how they go.
Another year ticks over, resolutions have been made, private reflections and observations about the things that are important. After those meditations on the first of January, the year brings on a mad rush of adrenalin as I attack the kitchen like some crazed Befana on a broom, sorting through the pantry, the larder, the fridges and cupboards, trying to restore some order after the Christmas mayhem. Out they go, all the old chutneys and jams, some of them smelling so delicious even though they are three or more years old. The chickens are in for a jammy feast, with old dried foods from the pantry thrown into the mix, hot water stirred through, fire burn and cauldron bubble. When the hurlyburly’s done, I’ll sit down to a chilled white wine and contemplate this summer post. There is no photo of me here -you, my reader, must imagine a wild unkempt hairdo and an unflattering old Bali Dress used for these jobs.
In the remaining clear space on the bench, there are some rather handsome Christmas gifts gracing my kitchen. The first is a heavy-duty blender from my eldest son. Its powerful motor works like a dream. So far we have had mango, ice, banana and orange juice smoothies, brain numbingly cold and healthy, reminding me of the fruity concoctions made in Chiang Rai, Thailand. This now lives in the industrial zone in my kitchen.
This gorgeous cake tin was a KK gift from my sister-in-law. Jo. It has a perfect seal. I seem to be making more cakes these days. How did she know?
Loads of zucchini are landing on the shelf and ending up in summer soups. My diet has turned basic and simple this month. You can’t clean like a mad witch and cook too!
I now make my own yoghurt weekly. It is another routine, along with the sourdough bread, that has slipped into my life. It is so simple, especially if you have a nice big thermos. Boiled milk, cooled to warm, with a tablespoon or two from your last batch of yoghurt is whisked through, then into the thermos it goes for six or more hours. Too easy. Using this large vintage Japanese thermos, I can now make two litres at a time, enough yoghurt to go with curries, to make tzaziki and other dips, Greek cakes and so on. There is nothing better than a breakfast of home-made yoghurt and a compote of fruit, especially poached cherries.
The things you find in the pantry!! I seem to have cornered the market in Indian dhal and bulgar. These, combined with fresh garden produce, will form the basis of my $1.00 meals. I’m on a mission to eat the contents of the pantry and to shop less – one of those New Year reflections about simplicity, waste and healthy eating.
Having finally mastered the pressure cooker, which has been hiding in a kitchen cupboard for a few months, the lentils, beans and chickpeas are having a work out.
Prior to Christmas, I found a monster 3 kilo bag full of Tagliatelle nests at Psarakos in Thornbury. Once opened, they are now stored in one of my big bread bins. These nidi only take 5 -6 minutes cooking and, with the tomato and basil glut on the horizon, will form the basis of more cheap eats.
My Mother’s apricot tree goes on and on, with five kilo picked daily. She poaches and stores them in little boxes in the freezer for winter desserts. Not bad at 92 years old, but I think it’s time I made her jam. Jars in the dishwasher, jars on the bench, nothing like making jam on a 40 degrees celsius (104 F) day. When the blackberries are ready and the temperature even higher, this jam making strega will be working at dawn, or possibly leaving home early to live elsewhere.