There are so many versions of Pasta e Fagioli in Italy and on the web, it almost seems superfluous to add my two bob’s worth on the topic. Anyone who has an Italian nonna makes a more traditional/better/regional/authentic version. During winter, Pasta e Fagioli, (pasta and beans) is one of the most useful dishes to know. Is it an entrée, a soup or a main dish? It can be all of these but given the heartiness and distinct lack of brothy elements, I tend to make this dish as a piatto unico, a stand alone dish, to be served with bread, a few drops of new oil, and perhaps some Parmigiano. Most versions are thick with beans and pasta and very little broth: some are made slowly with fresh borlotti beans, while less desirable versions are thrown together with canned beans, canned tomato and cheap industrial pasta. It is a timeless classic rustic dish, Cucina Povera Italiana, made in the past through necessity using simple ingredients stored for winter. Today, it satisfies that need in us all for comfort food on a cold winter’s day.
Like many other Italian dishes, this one also starts with a classic soffritto, that holy trio of flavour, emerging from the slow sauté of carrots, onion and celery. The soffrito vegetables must be chopped very finely so that they almost disappear once they are cooked. Another element often added at the soffrito stage is pancetta and lardo. I omit these ingredients given my dietary preferences but try to find other umani elements to flavour the dish, either through rich stock, herbs, garlic or even anchovy fillets, reduced to a salty mash. I also reserve a little deep vegetable stock to thin the mixture.
200 g borlotti beans, either fresh or dried
250 gr tomato passata or finely diced tomatoes
80 gr onion finely chopped
30 gr celery finely chopped
30 gr carrot finely chopped
1 garlic finely chopped
1 small branch fresh rosemary
3 Bay leaves
10 g EV olive oil
fine sea salt
100- 200g of pasta ditalini, depending on your preference for a thick or thinner version.
Cook the beans. If using dried borlotti, soak overnight then cook in water for around 80 minutes. Add the bay leaves to the water but no salt which may make the beans remain hard. If using fresh borlotti, there’s no need to soak them and they should cook in under 30 minutes, depending on their their freshness. Keep the cooking water.
When the beans are done, make a soffrito with the onion, celery and carrot. Add the oil to a large heavy based soup pot and gently saute these vegetables until soft and golden, adding the chopped garlic and finely chopped rosemary towards the end. (Traditionally, the garlic would be added to the cooking oil first, cooked until just golden then fished out before adding the soffrito ingredients. If you don’t love garlic as much as I do, consider that method. I like to keep the garlic for more flavour)
Add the beans and a little of the cooking water. Then add the tomato and heat through gently. Remove two ladles of the mixture and puree with a hand mixer. Return this back to the soup pot. If too thick, add a little bean cooking water or vegetable stock.
Add the pasta, and cook until al dente. Watch the pot at this stage as the pasta and beans have a tendency to stick when this thick. Adjust the seasoning with salt and pepper.
Serve in lovely wide and shallow bowls with a drizzle of fine oil and some good bread.
There’s rosemary, that’s for remembrance. Pray you, love, remember.
Ophelia, Act 4, Scene 5, Hamlet.
The most exquisite and evocative bread of my sourdough repertoire is Panmarino. Now that’s a big call I know but it might have something to do with the fragrant mixture of Rosemary and Salt, the soft comforting texture of the bread, or the dramatic diamond encrusted star on its baked dome. I have only recently converted this yeasted bread to sourdough, and must make sure that I don’t make it too often. I prefer to think of it as a festive bread, perhaps best associated with reminiscence and memory. It would be a lovely bread to make for the anniversary of a loved one. Pray you, love, remember me.
This bread was first popularised by Carol Field in her classic work, The ItalianBaker.¹ According to Field, it was invented by a baker named Luciano Pancalde, the baker with the perfect hot bread name, who created this bread as the encapsulation of one he had read about in a biography of the d’Este family of Ferrara. I really like this idea on many levels. That he read about a Renaissance bread, visualised it, then recreated it makes it rather special but that this bread was eaten at the courts of my favourite historic family makes it even better. I plan to come back in my next life as Beatrice d’Este. In the meantime, I’m enjoying a virtual memory. Rosemary does that. It’s the time traveling herb.
The recipe listed by Field is for a yeasted bread: it is easy to make, and it tastes good too. But to my mind, the bread made in the Renaissance courts of the d’Este family would have been made with something like a biga or lievito madre. Using my standard sourdough starter, a very fine traditional Panmarino can be made. Some of the recipes I have drawn on suggest a long gestation time of 4 days. I’m happy with a 24 hour time frame, given a ready starter, one that has been refreshed over a day or so. I also like to add a little wholemeal to mine, in keeping with a loaf of the past.
Sourdough Panmarino, un pane per la bella Beatrice d’Este.
I have simplified this bread for speed and ease of making. I’ve played with the proportions of starter and am happy with the results so far. If you would like to follow one source of this recipe, see here. Before making this recipe, refresh your starter three times over a day or so, then start the process in the morning.
150 g bubbly active sourdough starter
150 g water filtered or tank, at least not chlorinated
150 g whole milk
500g baker’s white flour or a mixture of baker’s white flour, ie 400g and wholemeal plain flour 100g
5 g diastatic malt 5g ( optional)
10 g sea salt
40 g olive oil
20 g or less chopped fresh rosemary
salt flakes such as Maldon for the shaped loaf
Weigh the the starter, water and milk then add to a large mixing bowl. Add the flour (s) and malt and mix roughly with your hands. It will look like a shaggy pile. Cover with a shower cap or plastic film and leave for 20 minutes or so.
Mix the chopped rosemary, olive oil and salt and work this through the dough with your hands. You will feel the gluten begin to develop. Cover with cap. Leave the covered dough at room temperature.
Do some stretch and folds every 20- 30 minutes, inside the bowl at least three times. You will feel the dough become smoother each time. Now leave the dough on the bench, covered, for 8 hours. It should be well risen by this time.
Place the covered bowl into the fridge for an overnight rest, coinciding with a rest of your own.
In the morning remove the dough from the fridge, have a peep at it, then let it come to room temperature, again still covered.
Using a bread scraper, place the dough onto a large silicon mat or good bench top, adding a small amount of fine semolina to the work surface. Stretch and fold the loaves a few times again, then shape the dough into a nice boule shape. Let this sit for 30 minutes or so, then place the boule into a round shaped and dusted banneton. Cover for 30 minutes to an hour. It will rise a little more.
Meanwhile preheat your oven to 225c FF. Turn the bread out onto a sheet of parchment paper, then lift the paper with the dough and place inside an enamel roaster/baking tin. Using a lame with a sharp blade, slash a star shape on top of the loaf and sprinkle generously with salt flakes. Cover with the lid of the roaster and place in the oven for 20 minutes. After 20 minutes, remove the lid and continue baking for a further 20 minutes.
Remove the bread to a wire rack and let it cool completely before slicing.
Thanks Maree for alerting me to the sourdough version of this bread.
‘Then, when a memory reappears in consciousness, it produces on us the effect of a ghost whose mysterious apparition must be explained by special causes.’ Henri Bergson. Of the Survival of Images. Memory and Mind.
Heaven and earth!/ Must I remember. Hamlet, Shakespeare
I’ve been procrastinating over this month’s In My Kitchen, concerned that my posts are becoming repetitive and barely newsworthy. I buy very few new products or gizmos: my tastes are simple. My pantry is full of staples that complement things from my garden. My freezer stores the fruit bounty from summer. I bake bread and a weekly cake or dessert. My home cooking is the antithesis of restaurant cooking: I no longer aspire to cook that way. It is informed by the simplicity of cucina povera, Italian country cooking of the past, along with that of Roman trattorie and is becoming more frugal as time passes. And as for things, lovely kitchen things, I’m in the process of de-cluttering and reducing, not gathering more.
But I’m not quite ready to throw in the IMK towel yet. In My Kitchen has been a part of my blog repertoire for more than four years, providing at least one platform of discipline in my untidy life. When I look back at my old posts, I see some recurring themes and plenty of growth. My first IMK, written in December 2013, concerned decor and green kitchen ware. Back then, I had a two-year old to cook with, (not for- Daisy has always participated in the kitchen) and during those earlier years, a tribe of young grandchildren spent hours in my kitchen, licking spoons and making concoctions, cranking fresh pasta, asking for their favourite barley soup or begging for flathead fish. They’ve featured in some of my old posts, especially Daisy, my little cheffa whose sense of taste and smell developed in my kitchen and herb garden. How I miss those years: required school attendance has a lot to answer for!
The fine art of sourdough bread making came along when Celia, of Fig Jam and Lime Cordial, sent me my first packet of dehydrated starter in June 2014. Most of you are familiar with Celia’s generous spirit: she is responsible for perhaps thousands of sourdough home bakers around the world today. Now she’s leading the way in campaigning against waste and plastic in a gentle, non proselytising way. Teaching not preaching.
When I look back on posts featuring my early sourdough loaves, I have to laugh-they looked so odd and yet they tasted OK. These days, with better technique and the understanding of how dough behaves in my kitchen and overnight in my fridge, my loaves look much better and taste really good: it is a passionate pastime that takes commitment. Somewhere along the way, I met Maree, first through this forum on her occasional blog and more recently through her facebook site, Simply Sourdough Trafalgar which includes regular updates of her latest loaves. Maree’s sourdough bread is wonderfully enticing, she is a sourdough artist. Talk about bread porn! Her experimentation with hand- milled grains is inspiring, as is her energy, running a small bakery and teaching sourdough bread classes. My entry into the sourdough baking community began right here in this very forum, for which I am eternally grateful. These days, I also enjoy passing on this skill to others. I recently spent a week at Peter’s place in Far North Queensland. We spent a few days playing with sourdough, adapting it to his humid climate, and making home-made yoghurt and cheese together. Now he is totally obsessed, baking bread like a banshee and churning out fabulous labneh. His first herby labneh came about from one of his stuffed up yoghurt attempts. It’s the best labneh I’ve ever tasted. Peter, like me, wastes nothing. We are kindred souls in the kitchen. Now he makes all these goodies for his B&B. How good is that? Thanks Peter and Steve for your amazing hospitality and enthusiasm for life.
And so back to my kitchen this month. What’s happening? Red and pink things are pouring into the kitchen from my garden, begging to be cooked into simple dishes and not wasted. Crunchy and bitter radicchio leaves, my favourite salad ingredient of all time, are picked daily, washed and popped into ziplock bags. ( yes, heavy-duty plastic bags that get washed over and over and seem perfect for maintaining crunchy salad leaves ). Pink scribbled borlotti beans ripened all at once this week, some to cook now, some to store, and some to pop aside for next year’s planting, dark red frilly mizuna leaves, tasting a lot like wasabi, tomatoes galore still in early May, chillis to dry for the year, to crush and make into hot chilli oil, the first new red radishes, and plenty of green things too.
For those of you who love Radicchio and have a vegetable garden, may I just mention that once radicchio acclimatises to your environment, you will have it for life. Let the bee attracting blue flowers go to seed after summer. The hard bullet like seeds will fly about and become little radicchio at just the right time. Mine pop up everywhere and some of the best ones grow between cracks in the paths. Look underneath the large green leaves for pups. Elongated Treviso leaves like to hide in the dark, producing delicate white and pink crunchy leaves. Pull out a small cluster and another one will appear in its place. So colourful, bitter and bounteous, they make me want to sing like Michael Hutchence. They only need a grind of salt, a drizzle of new oil and a drop or two of balsamic.
Routines and rituals are precious in my morning kitchen. While the bread bakes, I roughly chop up a pile of vegetables and herbs to add to the bottom rack of the oven. It’s a shame to waste all that stored heat. My stock mix includes carrots, onions, garlic, small tomatoes, dark fleshed mushrooms that need using up, mushroom stems, torn bay leaves, a sage leaf and a branch of thyme. These are all glossed with a little EV olive oil and baked for 20 minutes or so. Once caramelised, they come out of the oven and into a stove top pot, along with a little chopped celery, parsley stalks, and two litres of water. After cooking steadily for 25 minutes or so, the stock is strained off and popped into a jar for later use. This is a super rich stock with a deep colour, the smell permeating the kitchen.
If we don’t have soup for lunch, we’re bound to have pasta. This one, Maccheroni Rigati, is coated with a rich tasting creamy red capsicum pesto. Recipe here. The sauce is also wonderful spooned under a nice wedge of grilled fish.
Thanks Sherry, at Sherry’s Pickings, for inviting participation in this series. If you wish to join in, follow the link and add your own kitchen story.
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.
I have a backlog of good recipes to share with you, dear reader, as I’ve been rather quiet on that front for a while. Thanks to a flurry of small luncheons and dinner parties, I was compelled to lift my game and search out dishes that might even excite my own jaded appetite. In sharing them with you, I also benefit by adding them to a safe place for the future, my recipe file. Most of these new recipes involve seasonal fruits, especially figs.
The fig season has given us one month of sweet eating. Every day I take an old hand-woven basket down to the orchard and carefully select a few ripe specimens. They continue to ripen on the bench for another day, but the window of opportunity passes quickly. Other than scoffing them down with some soft gorgonzola dolce and toasted walnuts, I’ve been hunting and collecting the best fig recipes for desserts, jams and sweet/savoury salads.
We have two varieties in our garden- the commonly grown Brown Turkey fig and the green-skinned White Adriatic fig, sometimes called the strawberry jam fig, in reference to its sweet jelly like red flesh, excellent flavour and flesh quality. Both have their place, although I have a preference for the Adriatics. The leaves make great serving platters, or are useful for covering up various body parts or embarrassments. They are easy to grow, don’t need pollinating or pruning, but prefer a non windy site and plenty of water in late Spring and Summer. If you have room, I recommend that you plant one, if only for the thrill of making figgy desserts.
I’ve only recently discovered the joys of making semifreddo since the demise of my ancient ice cream maker. I might just stick with this faster and easier concoction in the future. The following recipe is a beauty, especially for those who are blessed with a productive fig tree as well as lots of home laid eggs.
Semifreddo di Fichi /Fig Semifreddo
350 g fresh figs
125 g brown sugar
7 egg yolks
100 g caster sugar
350 ml whipping cream
3 tsp fresh lemon juice
Wash the figs, remove the stems (keep the skin on) and finely dice. Place them in a non-stick pan on a high heat, stirring constantly. After a few minutes add the brown sugar. Reduce the heat to a low simmer and allow the figs and brown sugar to caramelise for around 20 minutes until you have a jam-like consistency.
Stir in the lemon juice and remove the pan from the heat to cool to room temperature. Once cooled, add the 50 ml of cream and gently work it into the jam.
In a stand mixer with whisk attachment, whip the egg yolks on high for 10-15 minutes until they triple in volume. Add the caster sugar slowly, ensuring it is well mixed with the eggs. The mixture should be quite thick.
In a clean bowl, whip the rest of the cream to soft peaks. Then slowly fold the cream into the egg mixture, being careful not to lose the volume.
Gently fold the fig jam into the cream.
Place a large sheet of cling wrap over a plastic or metal container. I used a bread loaf tin, measuring 24cm L by 11 cm W and 10 cm D. Pour the cream into the container, filling to the top, leaving the cling wrap to hang outside each side. Cover well with tin foil and place in the freezer for at least 12 hours. You can make this dessert a day or so ahead.
About 10-15 minutes before serving, take the tin out of the freezer and flip it upside down onto a long tray before slicing it.
Every time I wander through the vegetable garden, cucumbers virtually trip me up. They are self-sown, growing wild between other more ordered plantings, scrambling over paths and up reo metal structures. Not having the heart to pull them all out when they were petite little specimens with delicate yellow flowers, I am now paying for that weakness. These cucumbers make the zucchini look polite. On average, I pick 10 a day and although I try to nab them while they are dainty and seedless, many reach adulthood. At the beginning of summer, when they’re cool and welcome, I grate them into garlicky tzaziki or serve them in various brines and vinegars, just like my grandmother Maggie used to do. I’ve also pickled a few jars with dill and am now wondering what comes next. Last night the cucs got the hot Sichuan treatment with this spicy dish by Fuchsia Dunlop. The best part of this dish is smacking the cucumber with a rolling pin- very therapeutic. It’s a wonderful side dish served alongside other dishes as part of a Chinese banquet. I attempted to eat this dish on its own as a little Chinese entrée, chopsticks in one hand, chilled rosé in the other. The dish needs friends, both culinary and human.
Smacked cucumber in garlicky sauce (Su an ni pai huang gua)
1-2 cucumbers ( 300 gr )
1/2 tsp salt
1 tbsp garlic, finely chopped
2 tsp caster sugar
2 tsp Chinkiang vinegar ( black vinegar- no substitutes)
1 tsp light soy sauce
2 tbsp chilli oil – optional
A pinch or two of ground, roasted Sichuan pepper
Put the cucumber on a chopping board and smack it a few times with a rolling pin or the flat side of a cleaver, until some cracks appear on the surface. Then, holding your knife at an angle to the chopping board, slice the cucumber on the diagonal into small chunks.
In a bowl, mix the cucumber with the salt and leave to sit for 10 minutes to draw some of the water out of the cucumber. Stir together all the remaining ingredients in a small bowl. Drain the cucumber, then pour over the sauce and serve right away while still crunchy.
Do you have any memorable and unusual cucumber recipes? Leave a cucumber recipe comment below. Francesca xx
Pizza night is a weekly event here and, depending on the mood of the creator and the time given to the task, some pizzas turn out better than others. I never fiddle with my dough recipe: as the old saying goes, ‘if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it’, but I have revised and simplified the method. Summer pizzas tend to be more reliable given the warm atmosphere, conducive to a faster rise, and the abundant treasure from my vegetable garden. Eating pizza in the great outdoors may also enhance the taste.
My current favourite is Pizza Cinque Tesori or five treasures. Although my name for this pizza sounds exotic, the topping is quite restrained: it’s the taste of mid- summer. The pizza base is painted with a rustic tomato passata and a little grated mozzarella, then come the five treasures- zucchini ribbons, flash grilled and dressed in garlic oil, a hand full of cooked shrimp, a finely sliced red onion, some capers and basil leaves.
These days I tend to hand stretch my pizza dough. After flattening the dough ball a little, I gently lift and stretch the sides, then let it rest for a few minutes. As the dough relaxes, stretching becomes easier. The dough then gets a long rest on the bench, fully dressed, before cooking. Laying it on kitchen parchment before stretching makes it easy to lift it onto a long rectangular baking tray.
My Most Reliable Pizza Dough Recipe, updated and simplified.
5 g active dry yeast ( 1¾ teaspoons)
½ teaspoon sugar
320 ml tepid water (1 1/3 cups)
55 g olive oil ( ¼ cup)
500 g baker’s flour or unbleached plain flour (3¾ cups )
7.5 g sea salt (1 ½ teaspoons)
Stir the yeast and sugar into the water in the mixer bowl of a stand mixer and leave for a couple of minutes. Stir in the oil. Add the flour and salt to the yeast mixture. Mix, using the dough hook at very low speed at first, then increase to medium speed until soft and satiny but firm, about 5 minutes. Finish kneading briefly by hand on a lightly floured surface and form into a ball.
Place the dough in a lightly oiled bowl, turn to coat with the oil, cover tightly with plastic wrap or a shower cap and let rise until doubled. Depending on the room temperature this could take one to two hours. If your dough doesn’t rise, your yeast may be stale so always check the use by date.
Knead the dough briefly and gently on a lightly floured surface, for 1-2 minutes. Divide the dough into two. Leave the dough to rest another 15 minutes or so, under a cloth or tea towel, before shaping. Hand shape by stretching, resting and stretching again or use a rolling-pin if you prefer neat rounds. If hand stretching, I find it easier to place baking/parchment paper underneath beforehand.
Lift the stretched dough on large trays dusted with semolina or polenta or onto baking paper/parchment and let it rise for another 30 minutes, covered with a towel. Dress the pizza with your favourite toppings.
Oven temperatures and functions vary with from oven to oven. I use the pizza function on my Ilve, which heats the lower half of the oven higher than the top, at 250 c FF. I also use the lower rack for faster browning of the crust. This takes 8- 10 minutes. Using a regular fan forced oven, pre- heat to 250c and place on the centre shelf, drop the temperature to 220 c and bake for around 15 minutes, then check on the base.
About flour for Pizza. Information for Melbourne, Australia
I tend to use Baker’s flour, which is stronger than plain white flour, for my pizze because I have a ready stash. Plain unbleached flour works well enough.
Wallaby Baker’s flour by Lowan comes in 5 kilo lots and is readily available at Coles.
I tend to use Manildra Baker’s flour, which comes in larger 12.5 kilo bags and buy this at Bas foods, Brunswick or Costco.
Preston Market stocks 12.5 kilo bags of Lowan white and wholemeal Spelt flour.
Cervasi supermarket, Brunswick, stocks a fluctuating array of Italian flours as does Psarakos in Thornbury and Bundoora.
Always check the milling date as well as the use by date of any flour you buy, and support retailers who stock the freshest flour. Retailers with low turnover often unwittingly sell flour that is close to the use by date.
If you wish to try Italian flour Tipo oo, which is a highly processed, refined white flour, the liquid needs to be reduced significantly. I haven’t had much success using that soft flour for pizza, but it’s great for hand-made pasta. Carol Field’s description below is useful for those mystified by the zeros used to describe Italian flour:
‘The Italian baker has five grades of grano tenero to choose from, although they are classified not by strength and protein content like ours but by how much of the husk and whole grain have been sifted away. The whitest flour has the least fibre. The lower the number, the more refined and whiter the flour, so that of the five categories, “00” is the whitest and silkiest flour, “0” is a bit darker and less fine, since it contains about 70% of the grain, and “1” is even darker. Darker and courser is “2”. For all the talk of the prevalence of whole grain in the healthy Mediterranean diet, only a fairly small percentage of Italian breads are made with whole wheat (Pane Integrale)…Millers simply take refined white flour, stir in a quantity of bran, and pronounce it whole wheat. The Italian Baker, Revised. Carol Field. p 18.
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. LaBefana, 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.
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.
Mother’s day is something we reserve for the matriarch of our family, and so we will be celebrating the day with my 94-year-old mother. She doesn’t expect gifts but certainly looks forward to a visit and a good lunch. She recognises that her daughters and granddaughters are also mothers and so we toast each other on the day. The younger mothers in our tribe don’t give the day much thought, although sometimes random tokens of remembrance turn up. Gifts are not expected and never have been. I fondly recall the very peculiar little presents my children proudly gave me, after their father provided them with a few coins to buy something at the school mother’s day stall. The more memorable gifts were handcrafted items and cards, made under the guidance of a creative grade teacher.
Mother’s Day began in Australia in 1924, following the American institutionalising of the day in 1908. The commercialisation of the day sped up during the 1950s, and today it is a billion dollar industry in Australia. With a barrage of advertising brochures and catalogues infiltrating our household as the day draws near, an amusing pastime is to find the most annoying or stereotypical item proffered as a desirable gift for mother’s day. What about a new iron? And why aren’t irons offered as desirable gifts for men on the great iron- man day, Father’s Day? If someone turned up here with a gift wrapped iron, I might show them the door, or more kindly, send them into the spare room to deal with the despised and forlorn ironing pile.
If, however, someone asked me around for lunch and made this pasta dish, I would be more than pleased, especially if they opened a bottle of King Valley Sangiovese to go with it. I made it for myself and Mr T this week. Mother’s and Father’s Day is everyday here. The pasta, Reginette, means ‘little queens’, a most suitable choice for Mother’s Day. Reginette also goes by the name Mafaldine, named after the Princess Mafalda of Savoy, Italy. If you are entertaining a queen for the day, I can recommend this rich and economical option.
Reginette con Zucca, Cipolle, Gorgonzola e Salvia. Reginette with pumpkin, caramelised onions, Gorgonzola and sage.
Ingredients. For two big serves. Multiply as required.
200 gr Reginette ( or Mafaldine, a wide ruffled edged egg pasta )
One chunk of Kent Pumpkin, around 400 gr
4 -5 brown onions, finely sliced
a small piece of Gorgonzola Dolce
sage leaves, a generous handful
EV olive oil
Heat the oven to 180c FF. Cut the pumpkin into 3 cm chunks and bake for 20 minutes or so until just done but not mushy. Set aside.
Meanwhile, finely slice the onions, and caramelise them in a large deep-frying pan with olive oil and a little salt, until nicely coloured and reduced. This takes at least 20 minutes. Adjust the temperature as you go and stir about from time to time. Remove and set aside.
Fry the sage leaves in a little butter so they turn brown and crisp. Set aside.
Heat a large pot of salted water. When boiling, add the pasta and cook for 5 minutes or according to the information on the packet.
Drain the pasta, retaining a little of the cooking water in a cup. Add the cooked pasta to the frying pan ( the onion frying pan will have some luscious bits left at the base). Add some pumpkin pieces and onions. Decide how much you need to add here. Less onions perhaps. Stir about over high heat, adding a little pasta water to sauce the dish, and try to keep the pumpkin pieces intact. Finally crumble in some gorgonzola and add the crunchy sage leaves. Add black pepper to taste and serve the lot in a large preheated serving bowl.
As this dish is rich and sweet, serve it with bitter greens salad, simply dressed.
“Come on Friday night when we’ll have Spaghetti Puttanesca with added Pesce Spada,” cajoled Aldo, the waiter, host, and sometime cook of the old Abruzzo Club. Aldo ran that vast dining room floor like a master of ceremonies. He conned all the kids with tricks and riddles, charmed the coiffed Nonne with flirtatious compliments that only Italian men do so well, and had a ready risqué joke for the tables of older men. For us non Abbruzzese, he tantalised us with the promise of authentic Italian cuisine, future dishes, specials from the kitchen that weren’t yet listed on the menu. When Aldo and his son left the Abruzzo club, we never returned. The soul and life of that place left with them. Nothing would ever taste the same again. Good food is more than the sum of its ingredients.
When I came across a small slab of Swordfish at my favourite little market recently, I thought of Aldo and how he might make this dish. It’s a substantial pasta dish and requires a little more preparation than that required by a busy Puttana.
Aldo’s Spaghetti Puttanesca with Swordfish. For 2 greedy serves, 3 regular.
200 gr swordfish or pesce spada
200-220 gr spaghetti
a small bunch of oregano
a pinch of sea salt flakes
3 cloves garlic
EV olive oil, a goodly amount
1 can of tomatoes, drained of juice, large pieces roughly chopped.
a small handful of pitted black olives, halved
2 teaspoons of salted capers, soaked in water
finely chopped parsley
Make the marinade for the fish. Using a small mortar and pestle, add the garlic and salt and begin pounding, then add the oregano leaves, around 2 tablespoons, and continue pounding till a green paste is formed, then add around three tablespoons of olive oil.
Cut the swordfish through the centre, ie horizontally, to make two thinner pieces. ( most swordfish is usually sold in very thick slabs- by slicing horizontally, you should have two equal portions of around 1 cm in thickness). Chop these into small chunks of around 2 cm. Place in a small bowl and mix in half of the marinade. Leave for around 1/2 hour on bench.
Bring a large pot of water to the boil, salt well. Add the pasta and cook according to packet directions.
Meanwhile, heat a large frying pan to medium-high and add the remaining marinade to the pan. When hot, add the cubes of swordfish and toss around until just cooked. Don’t let the fish overcook as it tends to become quite tough.
Remove the fish and set aside. Add the chopped tomato pieces to the same pan, add a little juice to get the sauce moving but don’t flood it with juice as this dilutes the flavour of the other ingredients. Add the chopped olives and drained capers. Sir about until hot, then add the cooked fish. Add a little pasta water to loosen the sauce if necessary.
When the pasta is cooked just al dente, drain, then add to the sauce, tossing about to amalgamate the ingredients. This second cooking in the pan makes the spaghetti really hot and brings the all the elements together. Add the chopped parsley and serve in a preheated pasta serving dish.
The Abruzzo club, Lygon Street East, Brunswick is now called 377 On Lygon. The restaurant has had a makeover. If you’ve been there recently, let me know how it went.