Artisan Bread. Sourdough Cinnamon Raisin Swirl

I’m not sure about the title of this post. The word artisan, or artigianale in Italian, has become the word of the decade. Once indicating a handmade product to distinguish it from the quotidian factory or machine-made version, it now stands for something else, something more desirable and elite, carrying with it a certain snob appeal and a price tag to match. Kevin McCloud, of Grand Designs fame, sprinkled his series with the terms artisan, bespoke and atelier, giving rise to various Kevin McCloud drinking games at the time. And so while I’m loathe to sound like a braggadocio,¹ I accept that the term ‘artisan’ may not carry the same overtones of wank that it once did. And so the title remains.

Golden flax and spelt

I received a copy of a wonderful book for my birthday, Artisan Sourdough Made Simple, by Emilie Raffa. The book is a gem, a wonderful addition to my bread book library. I’ve known about this book for some time- many of the sourdough bread makers I’ve met through Celia’s blog, Fig Jam and Lime Cordial, have also bought this book. The opening bread recipe is identical to the one I use everyday- I think Celia and Emilie may have collaborated on this basic loaf. The other wonderful bond we share is our sourdough starter. Some years ago, Celia sent her starter around the globe, to Emilie in New York, to me in Melbourne, and to hundreds of others, and in doing so, created a bread making community, all using a clone of her bubbly starter, Priscilla. I’ve also shared this starter as, no doubt, many others have too. Perhaps there are now thousands of Priscilla clones out there. Emilie’s recipes are straight forward and accessible: the book is useful to the beginner and the experienced sourdough baker. Once the basic recipe is mastered, outlined in detail in the first chapter, the proceeding chapters explore sweet and savoury artisan loaves, pan loaves and sandwich breads, whole grains and specialty flours, foccaccia, rolls and flatbread, bread art, leftovers and a few extra recipes.

My plan is to work through each recipe and settle on my favourites. The two loaves I’ve made to date have both worked really well. Emilie’s Golden flax and spelt sourdough is a good everyday loaf, while her Cinnamon Raisin Swirl brings back childhood memories. It is a fitting loaf for Easter and an alternative to hot cross buns. And it’s fun to make. Don’t be put off by the longish recipe below. It really is rather easy. This is Emilie’s recipe, though I have Australianised the ingredient list.

Sourdough Cinnamon and Raisin Swirl.

Cinnamon Raisin Swirl

Before starting the recipe, feed your starter over a day or so till active and bubbly.

Dough

  • 50 g bubbly active starter
  • 365 g warm water
  • 480 g bakers flour ( bread flour)
  • 20 g wholemeal flour ( whole wheat flour)
  • 9 g fine sea salt ( not iodized)

Fillings

  • 65 g raisins
  • 65 g walnuts
  • 50 g  sugar ( I used caster sugar)
  • 6 g powdered cinnamon

Make the dough: In a large bowl, whisk the starter and water together with a fork. Add the flours and salt. Cover with a damp towel and let rest for 30- 60 minutes.

Meanwhile, while the dough is resting, soak the raisins and walnuts in just enough water to cover. Drain well before using.

Add the fillings: Add the raisins and nuts to the bowl. Gently knead the fillings into the dough to incorporate, about 1 minute. The dough will start to feel slightly sticky at this point; add a sprinkle of flour to adjust the consistency if needed.

Bulk rise: Cover the bowl and let rise at room temperature, 21°C, until double in size, about 8-10 hours.

Shape and rise: Remove the dough onto a lightly floured surface. Let it rest for 15 minutes. A longer rest at this stage will relax the dough, making it easier to stretch into a rectangle. Line a 25 cm oval proofing basket with a towel and dust with flour. Combine the sugar and cinnamon in a small bowl. Set aside.

With floured hands gently stretch the dough into a long rectangle, about 40 x 20 cm. Lightly brush the surface with water. Then evenly sprinkle the cinnamon mixture over the top, leaving a small border at the top, bottom and side edges. With the short end facing you, roll up the dough into a lob, pinching in the ends to seal. Place it into a basket, seam side up.

Second rise. Cover the dough and let rest until puffy. ( 30- 60 minutes)  Preheat the oven to 230 C. Cut a piece of parchment paper to fit the size of your pot. Place the paper on the bench, gently invert the dough onto the paper. rub the surface with flour and slash diagonally, making two or three cuts, keeping the depth shallow to preserve the filling.  Use the parchment to lift the dough into the baking pot.

Bake the dough on the center rack for 20 minutes with the lid on. Remove the lid and continue baking for 40 minutes. When finished, remove the loaf to a wire rack and cool before slicing.

( Note, I found the loaf required less time with the lid off)

Cinnamon raisin swirl

¹Braggadocio- empty swagger. Originating from Spenser’s Faerie Queene, 1596, the name given to his personification of vainglory.  English writers at the time were taken with sprinkling Italian words throughout their works. From the Italian, braggadocio, meaning bravado, haughtiness, boaster, braggart. “I wrote the Art of the Deal. I say that not in a braggadocious way,”Donald Trump 2016.  Now who would ever want to accuse Trump of braggadocio?

Emilie Raffa, Artisan Sourdough Made Simple. A beginner’s guide to delicious handcrafted bread with minimal kneading. 2017. I highly recommend this book to all my sourdough making friends and readers.

Gnocchetti Sardi. Pasta of the week number 2.

The pasta variety, Gnocchetti Sardi, or little Sardinian gnocchi, is a small ridged pasta around two centimetres long. It’s a great shape to use when you want an amalgam of pasta, vegetables and protein, blending nicely into one comforting bowl.

Close up of Gnocchetti Sardi or Malloreddus

Malloreddus, the Sardinian name for these little gnocchi shapes, means small calves. They have been prepared since ancient times, often for festivals and weddings and are usually combined with sausage, or meat and saffron. Traditionally they were made from semolina flour and water and hand rolled into long strips of dough, then shaped into cubes and crushed against a straw basket (a ciuliri or straw sieve) to make the textured stripes. They were meant to resemble vitellini, ( the Italian translation of Malloreddus ) meaning small calves. As you can see in the photo above, they do look a lot like gnocchi, the striped pattern designed to hold a good sauce

This vegetarian dish combines shredded silverbeet (chard) with a little gorgonzola dolce, thin cream and toasted walnuts to create a wholesome dish. The recipe is deliberately imprecise. Combine the ingredients listed to suit your taste, keeping a fine balance as you go. This dish is an Almost Italian original and one inspired by the return of chard to my garden.

Gnocchetti Sardi con Bietola, Gorgonzola e Noci/ Sardinian gnocchi with Silverbeet, Gorgonzola and Walnuts

Ingredients in sequence of use.

  • 100 gr pasta Gnocchetti Sardi per person
  • salt
  • EV olive oil
  • one garlic clove
  • some small silverbeet leaves, finely shredded
  • a small chunk of gorgonzola dolce, {DOP is you can find it/flash but so good}
  • some fresh walnuts, toasted in oven, then chopped into small pieces.
  • pouring cream
  • ground black pepper
  • Parmigiano cheese shavings for serving, optional.

Cook the pasta in a large pot of boiling salted water until al dente. Meanwhile in a wide and deep frying pan, heat the olive oil and gently saute the garlic clove. Remove the clove after it has flavoured the oil. Add the shredded silverbeet and toss around for a minute or so until wilted. Tear the gorgonzola into small clumps and add to the pan. As it begins to melt, add some pouring cream to the pan and a few grinds of black pepper. Don’t swamp the dish with cream. Reduce the cream and cheese mixture a little. When the pasta is ready, drain it then add to the pan, tossing through the sauce. Add the nuts, toss once more. Serve with shaved parmigiano.

About draining pasta. I rarely drain pasta in a colander over a sink, preferring to keep a small amount of residual pasta water to add to the secondary cooking which happens in a deep wide frying pan. With long pasta shapes, I lift them from the boiling pot to the pan with tongs or a claw pasta lifter: with short shapes I scoop them out with a wire sieve and shake a little. In this way, a small amount of the starchy, salty water helps to loosen the sauce.

Last weeks pasta of the week: Ditalini con Cacio e Uova

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.

 

In My Kitchen, November 2017

Although I’m now in Italy and have a handsome little kitchen in my apartment in Pavia, there has been little time to use it, except for a quick breakfast. One of the oddities of the Italian kitchen is the lack of toaster: the typical home breakfast consists of coffee and sweet biscuits. No wonder lunch is so important to the Italians. So this month, I’m stepping back into my last kitchen of two weeks ago in France. Located in Pézenas, in Languedoc- Rousillon in the south, the house was built in the 15th century and was located right inside the doors of the old city. Old buildings are initially very charming and romantic to the Australian eye but after a week or so, the lack of light became noticeable and I imagine this would be quite disheartening in winter. Despite this, I always got a thrill opening the large wooden door on the street and entering the cold stone courtyard to climb this ancient spiral staircase.

Stairway to  apartment in Pezenas, South of France.
Inside the cold courtyard, leading to my French kitchen.

The kitchen, although tiny, was very functional. I wouldn’t mind slipping this antique copper soup ladle into my handbag!

Antique copper soup ladle, Pezenas kitchen.

Pézenas is close to the sea. Every day, the market square oyster sheds opened for business. We managed to consume a few dozen while staying there. Freshly shucked by the man in the shed, served with a squeeze of lemon and some pan complet, – another speedy meal made(!) in my French kitchen.

More oysters, the best from Pézenas. An acquired taste for some.
First floor window onto little medieval lane, and oysters. Pézenas. The bells are ringing all over the town. Lunchtime.

Plenty of wine found its way into our kitchen. We developed a taste for rosé wine: so much drier than the Australian rosé and so pleasant for lunch.

Another day, another rosé

Occasionally a nice white was discovered, especially on the day I made a tray of crumbed Coquilles Saint Jacques. Scallops are also plentiful here and are always sold on the shell.

White wine and scallops

I’ve been following the trail of the Camino of Santiago ( St Jacques) as we travelled across France. A pilgrim village is easily recognised by the sign of the scallop shells on the walls of cheap hostels or embedded in brass along the footpaths. When I’m at home, I keep the shells and reuse them as fresh scallop meat is more readily available off the shell. The shells always remind me of Santiago de Compostela.

The sign of the pilgrim.

One of the other quick dishes I’ve made in all my French kitchens is so simple it’s worth noting here. Grab some perfectly ripe figs, put them in an ovenproof dish with a good amount of honey, and bake for 10 minutes or so in a hot oven. While they’re cooking, shell some fresh walnuts and toss in a pan to toast, then add them to the baked figs. Serve with crème fraîche. The success of this instant sweet depends on the quality of the honey. Jean Pierre gave us a pot of his own honey back in Monpazier. It is aromatic and floral, similar to Tasmanian Leatherwood.

Baked figs, honey, walnuts. Voila.

The local market at Pézenas was full of treasure from the South. More Mediterranean goods were on offer than the markets in Dordogne.

Olives and capers, Pezenas market.

Thanks Sherry, once again, for hosting this series. You can find other kitchen posts at Sherry’s Pickings.

French Country Markets

Village markets in France roll around once or twice a week, and if you happen to miss your local marché, there’s always another one the following day in a village nearby. I can sense pre- market excitement when I’m staying in a village but maybe it’s just my own eagerness to get there. I must confess, I’m a French market junkie, having been to around a dozen or so over the last four weeks, and I put this down to my greed and lust for good food. I’m in the right country. French markets are integral to life here. Supplies come to your village from the local district: some from the farmers, cheese makers, apiarists, some from local artisans, and of course, manufacturers of cheap clothing. Heading out the front door, with strong bags in hand, and strolling through narrow lanes and medieval arcades, with no car traffic to deal with enroute, is far more pleasurable than heading off to a supermarket by car. If only my local market back at home near Melbourne was as easy to visit, without fear of being run down by speeding tourists keen to park as close to the market as possible. In French country markets, cars are banned: they are parked on the outskirts of the village, allowing easy access for vendors’ vehicles. All shoppers must walk to the market.

Market day, Pezenas.

What treasures will turn up this week? What new seasonal vegetables will be on offer and will I show some restraint for a change? The church bells are chiming 8 am and I can hardly wait. Today’s market in Pezenas, Occitanie, will be interesting. It takes place in a nearby square, a stone’s throw from our 16th century apartment. As I write, I can hear the trolleys being wheeled in through the port below the window.

Local oysters, Pezenas. There are also two daily oyster stalls in the town. These sell at around 6 euro a kilo. ( around 15 to a kilo)
Walnut season necessitating the purchase of a walnut cracker.

The markets in the Dordogne region varied in size and style. The large and colourful Sunday market at Issigeac was a favourite. It snaked its way around the narrow and winding village streets in an unpredictable way, given that Issigeac doesn’t have a large market square. All sorts of vendors turned up: the mushroom man, selling girelles, trompe du mort and Cèpes (porcini): a rugged looking duo selling oysters of every size, boxed up for buyers on beds of seaweed, a curly red headed lady with honey and bees wax for sale, who played the squeeze box and sang French folk songs when not engaged in selling, and the usual array of vegetable, cheese and saucisson stalls.

The most delicious mushrooms, Cèpes. Ne Pas Toucher, Mischa Belle.
Miel. Local honey in the Dordogne. Our honey pot, tasting of woods and flowers, was a gift from our landlord,  Jean Pierre, from his own bees.

The Thursday market at Monpazier ( it has always been held on Thursdays since the 13th century ) was much smaller, though on one occasion, a mattress seller took pride of place in the square and I did rather fancy the knife sharpening man, a skill that is slowly dying. The big town market at Bergerac encircled the town’s cathedral, then radiated uphill along adjacent streets. A huge christening ceremony took place one Saturday while the market was in full swing, the shoppers and vendors forming a row of honour as the family and baby arrived.

There were little stalls selling sweet canelè in every flavour, lots of walnut stalls, chestnuts, and a substantial flower market. The Saturday market at Le Bugue, right on the Dordogne, sold the best Paella, cakess and quiches and the huge poissomiere truck did a roaring trade. I purchased a small tub of brandade to spread on croutons: this is one dish I never bother to make at home given the tedious soaking of salted cod required.

Not for sale, otherwise they would now be in my suitcase!

In each market you’ll usually find a separate area where cheap clothing, linen, shoes and handbags are sold. These stalls are appealing at first, then after a while, you recognise the same garments at every market- this season it’s oversized knitted sloppy joes, women’s tops with large stars on the back, and retro looking cotton tops with a lot of glitter and sequins.

Radish and parsnip. Bergerac market

One of the other features of the village market, and one I’m too shy and too foreign to join, is the footpath café scene. Coffee and wine are sipped slowly,  double or triple kiss greetings take place as locals gather to catch up, though you can always spot a French poseur or two, and a few expats trying very hard to appear local. I’ll head to the Café des Arts in the late afternoon for a Pastis. I’ve acquired a taste for this old Provençal drink. I’ll wave about an imaginary Gauloises and if chilly, I may even don my new fingerless gloves or perhaps a beret. Bonne journée.

Take away seafood paella. One metre wide paella dish.
Market day cafe scene, Pezenas

This is my list for Languedoc/ now Occitanie.

Apple, Walnut and Cinnamon Cake or Pudding

Have you ever eaten something wonderful at a restaurant, determined to replicate the same dish at home? After enjoying the two course lunch special at Cecconi’s cellar bar earlier this week, I inquired about the dessert of the day, hoping that it would be something wintry and old-fashioned. Oh happy day, the dolce del giorno was a wedge of apple, walnut and cinnamon cake, comforting and grandmotherly, jazzed up with modern restaurant toppings, including cinnamon ice cream, tiny cubes of apple jelly and something crunchy, perhaps a disc of meringue. No photo was taken: greed intervened long before any thoughts of pics entered my mind. It was good.

My version is close enough to Cecconi’s torta, without the flash toppings. A little dusting of icing sugar is enough but a dollop of Frangelico infused mascarpone goes well too. The cake morphs into a simple dessert when warmed and served with custard or ice cream. Hideous winter begone with a little warm pudding.

Torta di Mele, Noce e Cannella.  Apple, Walnut and Cinnamon cake.

  • 200 gr butter
  • 250 gr caster sugar
  • 4 eggs
  • 300 gr plain flour
  • 2 teaspoons cinnamon
  • 2 teaspoons baking powder
  • 100 gr chopped walnuts
  • 500 gr apples, peeled, cored, finely diced

Preheat the oven to 180°C. Butter a 20 cm square tin. Dust with flour or line with parchment if you prefer.

Cream butter and sugar well then add eggs, one at a time, and beat until creamy.

Mix together the flour, cinnamon and baking powder then add to the batter.

Fold in the walnuts and apples. Place in the prepared baking tin, ( it will be a stiff batter), smoothing the top, then bake for 60 minutes. Rest before turning onto a wire rack.

Weekend Pasta. Pappardelle with Creamy Gorgonzala, Spinach and Walnut.

As I was devouring today’s lunch of Pappardelle, I began to ponder the derivation of this word. Italian pasta shape names are often fanciful and descriptive, some shapes based on historical events, or conjuring images from nature, such as shells or hailstones. As it turns out, the word Pappardelle is derived from the verb Pappare– to wolf down or tuck into. This is spot on, given the way I love to slurp down these broad egg noodles, carriers of comforting sauces, hiding further treasures beneath their soft folds.

pappardelle con crema di gorgonzola, spinaci e noci

The word can also be used metaphorically to describe a bore who writes or talks at length, like pappardella, never finishing. ( Stava scrivendo una pappardella che non finiva più – She was writing a pappardella that was never-ending ). So without further ado, and in case I am accused of the latter, may I present my current all time favourite pasta dish, Pappardelle with Gorganzola cream sauce, spinach and walnuts. The key to the success of this dish is the quality of the pasta used. Either make home-made pasta, cutting it wider than tagliatelle, 13 mm to be precise, using this recipe, or use a good brand such de Cecco Pappardelle, which tastes soft and comforting, and as good as home made egg pasta.

pasta con gorgonzola, spinaci e noce.

Pappardelle con crema di Gorgonzola, spinaci e noce.

Recipe for 4 large serves.

  • 350 gr good quality pappardelle
  • 50 gr of unsalted butter
  • 225 g gorgonzola Dolce Latte or other creamy blue cheese.
  • 300 ml single cream
  • 225 g walnuts, chopped small
  • two or more handfuls of baby spinach leaves
  • freshly ground black pepper

Method

Bring the water to the boil for the pasta. Use a large saucepan; you need at least 4 litres of water for this quantity of pasta, with 1 level tablespoon salt added to it. Add the pasta and cook for the required time as suggested on the packet.

Meanwhile, place the walnuts in a non stick frying pan to toast. Watch that they don’t burn.

Over a low heat, melt the butter in a deep non stick frying pan. ( I tend to use a non stick wok for this type of cooking as the pasta will be added and tossed through the sauce later.) Then add the gorgonzola cheese, followed by the cream and leave to simmer very gently to reduce and become creamy and thick.

When the pasta is ready, drain it in a colander, holding back half a cup of cooking liquid. Return the pasta to the wok or pan containing the gorgonzola sauce. Add the baby spinach leaves and freshly ground black pepper, toss everything over medium heat.  You may need to add a little cooking water if your sauce has become too thick. Add most of the nuts, reserving a few for garnishing.

Parmigiano cheese is optional and can be added to the sauce as it cooks. I prefer this dish without it.

Time to make pasta. ( Urbino, centro storico, Le Marche)

Fig and Fetta Fantasia

Ever since the fresh fig supply stepped up at Casa Morgana, I’ve been imagining all sorts of fig dishes and recalling fig episodes in my semi sleep. I’m harvesting around 20 plump figs per day and many are beginning to rot on trays before my eyes. One of those memories involves making fig jam in Languedoc, France, in 1985. At one point, we had many ‘baguette with jam’ eating Australians staying with us and we were burning through the confiture at a rapid rate. We noticed a field of ripe figs going to waste and approached the farmer to ask him if we could pick them to make jam. Mais oui, he said dismissively, gesturing that the crop was nothing more than pig food. At some point mid jam making, Helen thought it would be nice to add some ginger to the mix, so we sent the 14-year-old girls off to the local supermarché to buy some. They returned empty handed. Sunshine demonstrated how many times she attempted her best pronunciation of the request. Je voudrais du ginger, s’il vous plaît, was met with blank stares, compelling the girls to adopt some very stereotyped French accents, repeating the word ginger over and over again. They were hysterical with laughter by the time they returned.

Figs and fetta, a marriage made in heaven, or Greece.

Another fig food memory was eating Saganaki served with a sweet fig sauce at Hellenic Republic, Brunswick, when it first opened. That sauce is based on dried figs with pepper and balsamic and can be served all year round with fried cheese.

This little entrée draws on both experiences. It is warm, sweet and jammy on top, and cold and salty underneath, with the nuts providing a Baklava style crunch. It takes 5 minutes to prepare and makes a very elegant starter.

Fig and Fetta Fantasia.

Ingredients, for two serves.

  • 150 gr (approx weight) quality Greek fetta cheese, sheep or goat, such as Dodoni (not Bulgarian as it has the wrong texture for this dish)
  • 6 large ripe figs, halved
  • 2 tablespoons honey
  • 1 dessertspoon vincotto
  • 2 tablespoons walnuts, chopped.

Cut the cold fetta into 4 thin batons.

Heat a small frying pan. Warm the honey and vincotto together until beginning to bubble. Turn down the heat and add the figs to the honey mixture. Cook gently on both sides for a few minutes so that the figs absorb some of the liquid.

Meanwhile, toast the walnut pieces in a small pan and watch that they don’t burn.

Assemble the dish by laying two fetta pieces on each serving plate. Top with hot figs and drizzle with the remaining liquid. Scatter the toasted walnuts on top.

Sweet and salty, cold and hot, smooth, sticky and crunchy.

For Lorraine at Not Quite Nigella, a fig fancier.

Smyrna Fig Tree after the rain.  Now in full production after 6 years. Will be rewarded with deep mulch.

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

Easy Chocolate, Walnut and Date Meringue Cake

It’s in the news again. A new study has just revealed that substituting artificial sweetener for sugar and fruit leads to increased weight gain, cravings for carbohydrate and insomnia as well as a possible link to diabetes.

Torta di noce, cioccolata e dati.
Torta di noce, cioccolato e datteri.

In this latest study, fruit flies were fed artificial sweetener and afterwards, the flies consumed one-third more calories and one-third more food. They also found that artificial sweeteners promoted hyperactivity and insomnia. They concluded that if people eat sweeteners but do not actually get the equivalent amount of calories, they eat more food to make up for it. The increase in consumption of artificial sweeteners also coincided with the dramatic increase in the obesity and diabetes epidemic.

Meringue cake with chocolate, dates and walnut
Meringue cake with chocolate, dates and walnut

I have never used artificial sweeteners and I don’t intend to soon. Fake foods worry me but then so does the the idea of eliminating sugar altogether from my diet. I’m wondering whether those who go ‘sugar free’ also behave like the fruit flies of the Sydney University study.

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The cake in profile. Dense but light, not lite.

Once a week I make a cake. I get a couple of slices over a few days and the rest gets distributed to the hungry fruit fly visitors and family members. This cake covers any sugar cravings I might have for the week and contains a few healthy elements as well. The other bonus is that it only contains five ingredients and, once the ingredients are chopped, it can be thrown together in minutes. The dark chocolate adds rich notes, the nuts and dates add a healthy density and the lack of flour keeps it light.

The meringue cake just out of the oven.
The meringue cake just out of the oven.

Ingredients

  • 200g dates, chopped
  • 200g dark chocolate, chopped
  • 200g walnuts, chopped
  • 200g castor sugar
  • 6 egg whites

Preheat oven to 180C. Butter a 23 cm springform cake tin then line with baking paper on the bottom and sides. Beat the egg whites until they are stiff then gradually add the sugar until they become glossy and meringue-like. Gently fold in the nuts, dates and chocolate. Bake for about an hour. Cool and serve.

No fruit flies on me. The cake with cream.

Tip: The nuts and chocolate can be roughly chopped ( separately) in the food processor. Pulse and stop the machine as you go. The dates need to be chopped by hand.

http://www.abc.net.au/news/2016-07-13/research-shows-artificial-sweeteners-encourage-a-sweet-tooth/7622720