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A Cook's Agenda

I was asked by Cook Corriere (the food insert of the Italian newspaper, Il Corriere Della Sera) to contribute to a food-themed agenda. It went on sale a few weeks ago, and I have picked up several copies from the Edicola under strict instructions from family and friends and finally had a good look at it myself and I can say it really is a lovely thing. Not just for the writing, which is brilliant and varied, with contributions from some of my favourite food writers, but also for the magical illustrations by Lavinia Fagiuli. Hot air balloons made out of pomegranates! Everyone is getting a copy for Christmas, whether they read Italian or not. And it is only €6.

Although the piece I wrote is unseasonal for now (it's about June) I am posting it here anyway along with the two recipes it included. You can hopefully come back to cook them next June, and meanwhile they can serve as seductive reminders of the summer and its sweetness.

It was also amazing to see my words translated into Italian. One day I hope I can write in Italian, but considering I still don't write as I would like in my own laguage.. well. Pazienza.

June: Or the Start of Sweetness

Born in May, I may be biased, but then June arrives and stops me singing my annual celebration of spring. It creeps up on me; my morning walks warmer, the hedges are full of wild carrot in bloom. At dusk there is the coconut-and-hot-grass smell of fig leaves. The pale greens of May melt into fiery oranges and pinks, as the sun bleeds its heat into the first summer produce. The roses are out, the fields turn gradually golden, the sunsets flamingo pink; the season of cold swims and cold Campari. The market is flooded with fruit.

Here there are punnets of strawberries basking in the sun; deep crimson and bleeding, so ripe they barely make the journey home. It is the month of the first tentative beach outings, picnics carefully packed, the first peaches, first plums. The month that heralds the arrival of all of the stone fruit in such quantities I can’t keep up. First pale, juicy and just-sour nespole, then precocious apricots, Fanta orange, delicious eaten torn in half and just as they are, but even better cooked.

Yes, June is a good month. Especially so for the cook, and those of us with a sweet tooth, because the beginning of summer means the beginning of sweetness. Gelato melting in the breeze; sticky fingers, sea-salty skin. It’s a good month to bake too, the fruit is begging you to, and the kitchen isn’t yet so hot that you can’t face cooking, and instead survive on tomato salad and slabs of icy watermelon…

Strawberry and Whole Lemon Sorbetto

This sorbet is delicious as it is and even better with some softly whipped cream. Blitzing the lemon, pith and all, gives it the most extraordinarily intense and fresh flavour.

Strawberry & Whole Lemon Sorbetto

Sadly, this life is full of disappointing strawberries - I have a Sardinian friend here who once said, with such solemnity it was almost comical, ‘there is nothing worse in life than a bad strawberry’. Nothing worse!

This sorbet, however, tastes how you always wish strawberries would taste. The lemon acts as an enhancer, bringing out the best in the fruit as it does in everything. It’s an unusual recipe in that the lemon is blitzed up – pith and all – so you get the truest lemon flavour – the pungent, aromatic oils from the skin and the fresh acidity from the juice and flesh. This makes the sorbet enormously refreshing and almost sherbert-like, thanks to the fizz of the citrus. Of course, it still makes a difference to use the very best strawberries you can find.

Makes around 1kg, or 10 scoops

700g strawberries

Half a large Lemon

200g Sugar

50ml water

Tiny pinch of sea salt

Hull the strawberries carefully, and rinse them briefly in cold water.

Cut the lemon in half and remove any pips. Chop it into rough chunks and mix it with the strawberries. Add the pinch of sea salt.

Make a simple sugar syrup by placing the water and sugar in a small pan over a low heat. Swirl gently to dissolve the sugar and allow to simmer for a minute or so, until you have a clear, gel-like syrup. Pour the syrup over the chopped lemons and strawberries and blitz the whole lot in a food processor until you have a puree.

Now sieve the mixture to remove any pieces of pith. Churn in an ice cream maker, or freeze as a granita.

Apricot, Almond and Orange Blossom Upside-down Cake

The cake is the sort thing you could serve as a pudding, with a scoop of mascarpone perhaps, or a blob of creamy gelato, but it works equally well with a dollop of yoghurt for breakfast, or a cup of tea/coffee for merenda. It is extremely versatile, its sweetness being perfectly off-set by the tart apricots.

This cake is one of my all-time favourites. Based loosely on a brilliant Diana Henry recipe it’s just chewy at the edges, tart and juicy on the top, moist, squidgy and buttery inside. The tartness of the apricots marries cuts through the richness of the sponge; the caramelised top adds an edge of fudgy-intrigue, and the exotic scent of orange blossom lifts the whole lot into the arena of the angels.

Upside down cakes are great for many reasons. Laying the fruit at the bottom of the tin takes far less time than decorating the top of a cake/tart with fruit, for some inexplicable reason, and looks just as (if not more) effective. In this arrangement, you have essentially captured both the shining, caramel-glory of a Tarte Tatin and the tart dampness of a good fruit sponge. It is the best of both worlds, almost like having your cake and eating it.

23 cm cake tin/ 9 inch

Oven at 180

For the apricots:

7-8 apricots

140g sugar

60g water

15g butter

1 tbsp lemon juice (use the same lemon as for the zest)

For the cake:

175g butter, softened, plus a little extra to grease 175g caster sugar

1 unwaxed lemon, zest a pinch of sea salt 3 eggs 100g plain flour 100g ground almonds 100ml yoghurt

2 tsp baking powder

3 tsp orange blossom water

Grease and line with baking parchment a 23cm cake tin. Preheat the oven to 180.

Halve the apricots and remove the stones.

Melt the sugar and water in a saucepan, swirling rather than stirring to dissolve the sugar. Heat gently, watching it, until the sugar begins to colour (this will take up to 8-10 minutes). Watch carefully until it turns a light coffee colour, swirling occasionally to make sure the caramelisation is even. When it is caramel coloured remove from the heat.

Add the butter and turn the heat down to low, stirring with a wooden spoon until it all comes together. Add the lemon juice and stir well. You should now have a smooth caramel.

Pour the liquid caramel into the lined baking tin and smooth it out to form an even layer. Add the apricots, placing them close to each other, cut side down.

Beat the butter and sugar with the salt and zest, until pale and fluffy. Beat in the eggs, one by one, until incorporated. Add the flour and the ground almonds and mix again. Finally add the yoghurt and the baking powder, and the orange blossom water. Stir until a smooth batter is formed, then ladle into the prepared tin.

Smooth the top then place in the oven, and bake for around 45-50 minutes, until golden and risen. Allow to cool for a few minutes before inverting onto a plate. Serve with some natural yoghurt.

Note: if you can’t find apricots or they aren’t in season, you can use tinned ones which work surprisingly well. I have a lot of time for tinned fruit (though it’s perhaps pure nostalgia).

My favourite illustration from the Agenda below:


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