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
  • 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.


In My Kitchen, January 2018. Summertime

Boxing day, December 26th, is the most casual and relaxed day of the year: grazing on Christmas leftovers then lolling about on couches or deck chairs under a shady tree, what could be more pleasing? Summer is still benign. The following five days of sloth are Boxing Day extensions before pushy New Year budges in with its commitments, resolutions and calendar reminders. Those fireworks at midnight look and sound like a whole lot of fun to the uninitiated but what they really signify is the end of lazy days. Time to get cracking again folks, says that last fizzer. As it turns out, although I’m technically ‘retired’, January is my busiest month, as the summer vegetable and fruit crops mature and the kitchen turns into a preserving factory. In this small window of opportunity before this onslaught, I’m enjoying pottering about. Sometimes things happen in my kitchen and sometimes they don’t. Can someone kindly pass me a peach and a glass of Prosecco?

While all the peaches came and went, barefoot servants too.

The peach season came and went. There is nothing in the world like the taste of a perfectly ripe peach, plucked from the tree, slightly soft and sun-kissed, whispering I’m ready. Miss Daisy tested the peaches in the days leading up to Christmas, her hand gently pressing the furry blushed spheres, as she reached up high inside the bird netting. She has learnt that when a peach is ready, it will drop into your cupped hand without any tugging. Many were eaten somewhere between the tree and our back door but a few made it into the kitchen. Daisy sat by the pool one day, eating her splendid peach, reminding me that some moments in time are unblemished and glorious. A few peachy shots followed.

Girl with Peach.

Daisy is my cooking muse and I am hers. She has appeared occasionally in my posts over the last four years, mainly because she is almost a kitchen fixture when she visits. We feed off each other. She inspires me with her love of food, perfect sense of smell and curiosity and I inspire her with my creations. She knows the contents of my pantry like the back of her own hand. We make huge messes together which Mr Tranquillo cleans up.

Licking the spoon, licking the bowl, kids in the kitchen, good for your soul.

Chickpeas are making their presence felt in my kitchen since I mastered the use of my pressure cooker. I bought a combination slow/pressure cooker around four years ago but all my attempts at using the pressure cooker function ended in disaster. As it turns out, it had a faulty rubber gasket: I discovered this only when Breville contacted all the owners of this defective product three years after its purchase. It had been sitting in the larder, swanky word for converted laundry space, gathering dust: it couldn’t even be recycled given its dodgy performance and was probably destined for the hard rubbish. Once Breville sent out the new rubber seal, the big black pot has spent more time chugging away on the kitchen bench and all is forgiven. I can now cook a pile of chickpeas, ready to use, within 45 minutes without pre-soaking. Chick peas end up in Middle Eastern Buddha bowls, Indian curries with tamarind and fresh coriander, Italian pasta and ceci soup and of course, hummus.

Cooked in the pressure cooker- from woe to go, 45 minutes.

Just before Christmas, friends gave us a big bag full of perfect mangoes, part of the annual charity mango drive run by the local pre-school. A few left over mangoes went into this mango chutney. It’s tropical, spicy and jammy, but perhaps needs a bit more fresh chilli.

Mango Chutney for Indian days. Grazie Helen e Chris.

Bread making took a festive turn when I made a batch of Celia’s sourdough fruit bread. I used walnuts, sultanas, apricots and dates, and upped the spice a bit. I’m keen to use up the excess dried fruit I bought before Christmas. More of these fruit and nut studded loaves will be made during the early morning hours of January.

Fruit and spice sourdough, randomly slashed! Summer breakfast covered.

Before leaving Pavia in Lombardy last November, Alberto gave me a sack of his own freshly harvested rice, nicely packaged in festive fabric. Grown in the classic rice-growing zone of the Po Valley, the rice was milled in October in Novara, Lombardia. I can’t wait to try it and team it with something from the summer garden.

Il riso d’ Alberto, San Martino Siccomario, Pavia. Ottobre 2017. Grazie Albe`.

When I’m trying to escape the siren song of the kitchen, a fish and chip night is called for. As it’s a 12 kilometer return trip for a take- away, we don’t consider this option often. He drives, I cut up the lemons. On a lucky night, I might even throw a green salad together. Thanks Sherry for hosting the monthly In My Kitchen series. Go to Sherry’s Pickings for an inside view of other world kitchens.

                                                          Buon Anno a Tutti

Flounder and chips, c/o Hurstbridge Fish and Chip shop.  Bring it on.

In My Kitchen, January 2016, the No Cooking Edition.

My Kitchen and I are not on speaking terms at the moment. This morning I mentioned in passing to Mr Tranquillo that perhaps I should start cooking again soon, and, true to form, he replied, “why bother?” The post-Christmas lethargy has set in and I notice that many of my friends have also turned into sloths, talking fondly about their bed or books, sea breezes drifting through open windows, or bird song at dawn.

Breakfast. Home grown tomatoes and basil, torn bocconcini, olive oil, salt.
Breakfast Caprese. Home grown tomatoes and basil, torn bocconcini, olive oil, salt.

The weather in Melbourne has been hideously hot, requiring simple meals, left overs or take aways. Fish and chips around the pool, a pasta dressed with zucchini, basil and left over smoked salmon, an omelette and a glass of wine, a peach and a cuddureddi biscuit for breakfast, a cup of tea and chocolate in bed with more books. Life in the slow lane.

Bed, books and Chocolate
Bed, books and chocolate

The first important improvement to our kitchen is a self-closing fly screen door, installed three days before Christmas. Not only does it keep insects out, but I love the old-fashioned sound of a flywire door closing.  A soft wooden clunk. It’s a summery sound, inviting one outside and into the evening air of the verandah, or back inside, away from the hot north wind.

A softly banging flywire door.
A softly banging flywire door, installed by my son Jack, a very practical man, assisted by Mr T.

My garlic crop has finally been cleaned and stored: it hung about on the kitchen verandah for 6 weeks and begged to be safely housed in a darker, cooler space with circulating air. I didn’t plait this year’s lot – but bundled and tied them with string, such is my aversion to anything requiring thought or energy. We harvested over 200 bulbs so no Vampire visitors for us. Early garlic is delicious rubbed on grilled bread with EV olive oil, or whole bulbs baked in olive oil in the oven, then squeezed out of their papery skins, sprinkled with smoked sea salt, and popped into the mouth. The taste of organically grown Australian garlic is superb.

garlic 2015
garlic 2015
garlic 2015
garlic cleaning and sorting, 2015
Loose bulbs to use now.
Loose bulbs to use now.

This beautiful swarovski crystal bookmark made by Celia dangled from a vase on the mantlepiece on Christmas day. Now it hangs from the armoire key where I keep my  precious things, spirits that we never drink, and other collectables. The armoire is my Black Swan. I found it in an op shop in Coburg shortly after the bushfire of 2009, when I was on the hunt for new furniture. There it stood, at half price, looking for a new home. Another customer egged me on, a Frenchman who wanted me to buy it because he didn’t have room in his house but could vouch for its authenticity. Then followed the saga of moving it, storing it and moving it again. Made of solid oak, with wire fronted windows ( to deter theft by the maids?), the armoire weighs a tonne, is beautiful crafted, with finely engineered brass springs on the doors, little screws to remove the glass panels, and hand carved panels. Bespoke you might say. My kids hate it.

Celia's Crystal drop on Armoire door
Celia’s Crystal drop on Armoire door
In My Armadio
Armoire, Armadio, crystal cabinet, grog cupboard.

Whenever I see these long, hot Turkish peppers for sale in Brunswick, I always buy them. I will cook them soon, I’m getting there. I leave them whole and braise them with middle eastern flavours and serve them with couscous or a bulgar pilaf and yoghurt.

Turkish Hot Peppers, grown in Mildura,bought in Brunswick.
Turkish Hot Peppers, grown in Mildura, bought in Brunswick.

In the build up to Christmas, we unearthed a few tables and chairs from the shed to seat thirty guests. This lovely oval oak table didn’t return: we found room for it and hope it can stay.  Now we have a table for two with a view.

A table for two
A table for two, with a view.

Happy New Year friends, I hope you are also enjoying a lazy spell and that 2016, when it begins in earnest, will be joyous and productive.

This year, Maureen from The Orgasmic Chef has taken over the post of host for In My Kitchen. It’s a monthly international event where like-minded folk share their kitchen stories. I’m afraid my post deviated a little from the kitchen this month.

Francesca xx