I've been very slow to get around to Christmas this year, partly because of moving house, and partly because it has been one hell of a weird year, and this Christmas feels no less weird. I won't be going to the UK at all, partly because of Omicron, and partly because my dad is (heart-breakingly) still in hospital so we couldn't celebrate with him anyway, so instead the remaining family members are all convening in France, where my older brother now lives, to meet his little baby girl, born last week. Colette has come into a strange old world, it's true, but we are going to celebrate her and Christmas together, hopefully with lots of cheese and baguette because of course it's France and I have a soft spot for soft cheeses and cliches, as you no doubt know by now.
I will be taking the best of Italian Christmas with me, as I always do; a Pandoro (bought - life is too short), a Panettone (also bought - again life is too short though I dream of making my own, if only for the canditi which are always so hard and dry, and which as I make myself I know would be tart and juicy) and a Panforte (home-made!! easy! see below) and maybe some chestnuts and marrons glace (coals to Newcastle?) a piece of Gorgonzola or two and some citrus fruits and pomegranates, perhaps. Some of Lorenzo's dad's aged Vernaccia too - a beautiful amber wine with notes of oak not unlike sherry which is particularly good with puddings (in them, aside them, under them, over them).
I'm taking the ferry purely so I can fill the car coming home with edible loot (salty butter! Dijon mustard! French cleaning products!) and take the various necessary sweet & golden breads over there from here too. I have always loved a ferry. There is something truly magical about sleeping in a hard, narrow bunk bed between bobbly nylon sheets in a small and windowless cabin, rocked by the waves, slightly drunk on overpriced ferry drinks, then waking up to a singsong alarm call, having a surprisingly strong shower in a plastic box designed purely to flood itself, the curtain clinging desperately to your damp body like some sort of large and amorous jellyfish. Then off you trot with your overnight bag (which of course is a plastic bag - realising last minute as you did when driving into the ferry undercarriage that you have nothing except your giant suitcase and will have to hastily unpack some pyjamas and a toothbrush for the night) to grab yourself a cup of horrible coffee in a polystyrene cup and a hollow croissant. Then up on deck for a blast of fresh sea air and the sight of the dock fast approaching. The giant ropes! Who knew they made such big ropes. The ships! The seagulls! The thrill of it all. Ah, I love a ferry. Then down, down the winding staircase with the hideous disco carpets, trotting in line behind dogs and dopy children, still half-asleep, then finally out into the car deck heavy with the smell of oil where men in orange boiler suits gesticulate wildly at you and everyone suddenly revs their engines as if this was the Formula 1. The banging and clanging of ramps and you're off: You have arrived. Breathing in the sea-salty air edged with oil fumes, I ask myself again and again: Why, why would anyone fly?
The day the ferries modernise themselves will be a very sad one. I hope the bad buffets and the bunk beds stay, the weird action hero/cartoon characters themes remain (the last ferry I took had a giant Tweetie on the side of it) and the boiler suits never change.
But anyway, ferry aside, school term finishes on the 23rd, an overnight ferry and then we arrive in Toulon, and from there a drive to Valbonne where my brother, his partner and their tiny baby are living in a little flat above an archway.
What we'll do on Christmas day is a mystery, but I'm arriving with some recipes ready anyway. What we'll gift has already been decided. After what has been a hard year we have decided we don't really want to buy gifts, so we'll make them instead (The boys will stick to socks). I will make some things from the lovely Advent book by Anja Dunk which has endless Christmas cookie recipes, and also from the River Cottage Christmas Book, which is full of good ideas (citrus and bay curd!) - not just edible but crafty and activity-wise too (have posted about both of these books on my instagram). Then I'll make some of the following recipes from Dolce too, and of course some new ones. There's a Mont Blanc to try (and probably fail), a Chestnut Chocolate Cake I've got my eye on, some Poire Belle Hélène I've been dreaming about, a layered Pandoro pudding doused in sherry and with creme patissiere and quince, some rosemary and pine nut brittle (a La Grotta recipe which I included in Dolce and which is unbelievably good) etc etc. I'll keep you posted.
Happy making/baking, and hope to see you on the ferry some day.
(all photos by Charlotte Bland and all recipes from La Vita è Dolce)
Salted Caramel Truffles
I’m not a big chocolate truffle person, but I make the exception for the Capezzoli and for these, which are so easy to make there is really no excuse. A straightforward process: make a hot caramel sauce, pour onto chopped chocolate, blend, chill, shape and dust in cocoa. As simple as truffles can ever be. The interior is very luscious, exactly the texture of chocolate Vaseline.
I love to make these as gifts, or for ‘after dinner’ with coffee (decaf for me), they are always appreciated, especially as I have yet to meet someone who doesn’t like salted caramel, whether ‘faddy’ or not, it is undeniably delicious. Although the salted caramel hurricane has already swept through the UK, it has only just about reached Italy, and you see it as a flavour popping up in Gelaterias.
Keep these in the fridge or a cool place, the texture is at its best when they are cold.
200g dark chocolate (at least 70%)
1.5 tbsp water
Pinch of sea salt
Cocoa powder, for dusting
Blitz the chocolate in a food processor until it is in small pieces (or if you don’t have a mixer, chop it by hand and place in a bowl).
Heat the sugar in a heavy saucepan with 3 tablespoons of water and the salt. Heat over a medium heat (swirling, not stirring) until the sugar has dissolved.
Turn the heat up and allow the syrup to boil away until it begins to change colour. Just as the sugar begins to turn the colour of caramel (a coffee colour is good here – dark but beware if it starts smoking or smelling of burning) quickly turn down the heat to low and add the butter and cream. Stir well until they are incorporated. Remove from the heat.
Wait for the caramel to stop bubbling, 30 seconds or so, and then pour it over the chocolate in the processor. Wait a few seconds and then blitz the whole lot together until you have a smooth chocolate cream.
Pour into a dish and set in a deep dish or bowl in the fridge until firm.
Place some cocoa powder on a plate/dish.
Once thoroughly chilled and solid, scoop teaspoons of the truffle mixture and roll them in your hands to form rounds. Drop them into the cocoa powder and move them around to coat. Chill and serve.
Quince & Hazelnut Trifle
a kind of Zuppa Inglese
All things must end and so if they must, then let it be with trifle. Trifle is one of the most pleasurable of all puddings and the most sensual of spoon sweets (or dolce di cucchiao). Layers of soft creaminess sinking finally into the gentle mattress-bounce of dampened cake, the irresistible coupling of cream and custard and the light lilt of booze in the background; this is a pudding to rival Tiramisu (and for some, to surpass it too).
Zuppa Inglese, or the wonderfully named English Soup, which I have encountered here in Sardinia and seen all over Italy, is disputably an Italian interpretation of England’s infamous custard and cake combination, though its origins are (unsurprisingly) hotly debated. Some argue for Naples as its birthplace, sometime around the 19th century, others for Emilia Romagna or Tuscany. Either way this wonderfully named ‘English Soup’ pops up all over Italy, in all sorts of guises. The version I have eaten here in Sardinia was a fantastically retro creation, concocted by a culinary-curious friend Gianni, who soaks his sponge in scarlet Alchermes, flecks his canary yellow crema with dark chocolate chips, and tops the whole lot with waves of meringue crested with glace cherries. It’s quite a sight, and almost inedibly sweet, but so particularly perfect to him that we all request it for every special occasion, even if we regret it afterwards.
This version, which leans more towards a traditional English trifle (no meringue, chocolate or Alchermes) is a celebration of late autumn coming into winter, and the Mela Cotogna which are happily as at home in Italy as they are in England. A quince, or ‘cotton apple’ as they are known in Italy, is a magical fruit – soft, as downy as an owlet, covered with a fine matte fluff which disintegrates at a touch, its perfume half apple and half Arabian nights. It has a flavour both wonderfully crisp and lemony, like the best autumnal apples, and simultaneously as dusky and exotic as a damask rose-filled boudoir.
Cooked long and slow as in this recipe, the colours of the quince change miraculously from pale gold to garnet and the fruit becomes intensely floral and fudgy. The combination with the cream, custard and cake topped with the toasted crunch of the nuts and the smoky, marsala-soaked sponge is a hard one to beat. It takes time to make, but it is worth it. It is no trifling matter.
Makes 1 large trifle, feeds 10 modest trifle-eaters, 8 trifle fiends
For the sponge layer:
150ml Marsala (or sherry)
1 x pan di spagna (see below) (or use one shop-bought pandoro/boudoir biscuits or trifle sponges)
For the quinces:
3 large quinces (around 650g)
Few strips of Lemon peel
2 Bay leaves
For the custard:
600ml double cream
100ml whole milk
6 egg yolks
1 vanilla pod, split
40g hazelnuts, lightly toasted
350ml double Cream
2 tbsp icing sugar
Dark chocolate, grated (optional)
First make the custard. Bring the milk, cream and vanilla pod to a scald in a deep saucepan. In a large mixing bowl, whisk the yolks with the sugar. Once at a scald, pour the milk mix into the yolk mixture in a steady stream, whisking all the time. Return the mixture to the pan and place over a medium heat. Stir constantly, cooking the custard until it is thick enough to coat the back of a wooden spoon. Once thick, strain through a sieve into a container and cover the surface with clingfilm. Allow to cool completely. Leave in the fridge until ready to use.
Cook the quinces: peel and core them, cutting them into quarters and then 8ths. (Reserve the peel to add a handful of strips to them as they poach, which will enhance their ruby colour. You can remove it at the end). Place the water, sugar, lemon zest and bay leaves in a deep pan and add the quinces (and bits of peel). Bring to a simmer and cover with a cartouche and a lid. Poach over a low heat, checking occasionally, for up to 2 hours or more, until they have turned a deep ruby red.
Set aside and leave to cool.
Whip the cream with the icing sugar to soft peaks, toast the hazelnuts (see p. ) and leave aside to cool. Chop them roughly.
Now assemble the trifle:
Cut the sponge into thick lengths or fingers (large enough to be interesting, small enough to allow space in the bowl for plentiful custard) and place in the centre of your trifle bowl/dish. Sprinkle over the marsala or sherry, and some of the quince juice too, if you like, but don’t soak the sponge too much, it’s nicer with some cakey body left in it rather than sadly sodden.
Lay over the quinces, then the custard, and finally the cream. Top with the roasted hazelnuts, and a grating of dark chocolate, as a nod to the Zuppa Inglese, if you wish.
Serve, with aplomb.
Note: if you can’t find quinces, then use pears instead, and cut down the poaching time to about 40 minutes, with half the quantity of water.
If you make extra quinces, or don’t use them all, they are delicious with yoghurt or ricotta. In fact it is worth cooking these quinces just to have them for other things, even if you don’t make the trifle.
You can also use a bought Pandoro instead of homemade sponge which makes the whole assembly that much more decadent and perfectly appropriate for Christmas.
Super Simple and Spicy Panforte
Originally from Siena the strongest (and least bready) sweet in the sweet Italian canon is the wonderful Panforte. Reinforced with a hefty weight of roasted nuts and candied fruit; denser and chewier than a fruitcake, more like nougat’s spicier, festive sister, it is one of those things that I never thought of making, as it was so easily bought (even in England) and wrapped in such pretty packaging, too.
However, and this is a fairly big however, the ones you buy in shops are built to last. And by the time you buy them they may well have already lasted on shelves for a good few months – years, perhaps. They tend to be rock solid and a little cardboard-y in flavour. The joy of making your own Panforte is that you get to control the texture, which should be marvellously giving and chewy, you can choose what you like to put inside it, and you can enjoy its Medieval spicy, citrus scented flavour in all its fresh and festive glory.
This recipe makes one big (9inch) panforte, but if you make two small ones they are wonderful to give as gifts (as is the big one too, but perhaps for whole families rather than individuals). You can also create your own festive packaging for it.
I like a fairly classic panforte, because I love to taste the almonds, candied peel, honey and spices all distinctly, but you can add anything you like really (within reason!); chocolate, pistachios, cherries, walnuts etc.
Makes 1 x 9 inch cake, serves 8-10
200g almonds (half blanched half skin-on is nice)
100g candied peel (see p.)
Zest of 1 lemon
Zest of 1 orange
100g 00 flour
A pinch of salt
1 tsp cinnamon
½ tsp ground nutmeg
¼ tsp ground cloves
¼ tsp ground pepper (white is traditional, but black is fine)
Add 2 tsp bitter cocoa powder to the mix and/or a handful of dried figs for a delicious variation known as ‘panforte scuro’ or dark panforte.
Grease and line a 9 inch cake tin with baking paper. Butter the paper too, as this is an exceptionally sticky cake.
Preheat the oven to 170. Place all the nuts on a roasting tray and roast for 10 minutes, until golden. Roughly chop them (very roughly, they can be almost whole, and lots can remain whole).
Chop the candied peel into small pieces (no larger than hazelnut size) and measure all of the remaining ingredients into a bowl. Add the chopped nuts and the peel.
Place the honey, sugar, butter and salt in a saucepan and bring to a simmer. Stir until the sugar has melted and allow the syrup to just come to a rolling boil.
Pour the syrup into the bowl with the other ingredients and stir well to combine. Pour the batter into the prepared baking tin and place in the oven. Cook for 20-25 minutes, until just golden, then allow to cool completely before dusting with icing sugar and serving in strong slices with a strong coffee, or wrapping in lots of wax paper and tying with a ribbon to give as a gift.
This keeps well for a week or so.
Citrus Curd Tart (incl. recipe for perfectly tart citrus curd)
This is a lovely tart. The base is buttery, biscuity and crisp, and the curd is sharp and sassy. No faffing with cream or milk: just pure, unadulterated citrus tartness lubricated by the silkiness of butter. A filling that wobbles just as much as your upper thigh.
Grilling it may sound odd, but it ensures the filling stays that almost-impossible, just-set silkiness, like lemony Vaseline, and still has the delicious flavour of caramelisation. Those patches of brown where the citrus and sugar have caught, those are corner-of-the-lasagne, sticky-bit-at-the-bottom-of-the-pan gold.
This filling can easily be made into jars of citrus curd that work well as gifts (to yourself or otherwise). This is my perfect citrus curd mix, but you can choose to make it pure lemon or otherwise. Add bergamot if you’re lucky enough to find it, or Seville orange in January (substitute 50ml of lemon juice for bergamot or Seville – this is equivalent to about 1 fruit so use the zest of that fruit also) or blood orange when in season (this will also add a lovely pinky hue to it)
NOTE: the grilling method will only work properly if you use a wide tart shell with a low (2cm) rim, otherwise the top of the pastry case will catch under the grill. The case should be almost flush with the filling. If your tart tin is deeper and thus so is your pastry shell, ignore the grilling method and bake the tart instead in a preheated 170 oven for 8-10minutes, until the filling is just set. Allow to cool to room temperature before refrigerating and serving cold.
Makes 1 x 30cm tart, serves 10-12
For the Pastry
300g 00 flour
100g icing sugar
Pinch of salt
1 whole egg and 1 egg yolk
1 tsp vanilla extract
1 tsp lemon juice and zest from 1 lemon
For the Filling
3 whole eggs
5 egg yolks
200g butter, cut into pieces and at room temperature.
1 small orange (all of the citrus juice should come to 300ml in total)
Zest of all of the above, finely grated
Pulse the butter with the icing sugar, salt and flour in a mixer until you have fine breadcrumbs (or rub in by hand). Add the vanilla extract, egg and egg yolk, the lemon zest and juice and mix again until you have a smooth, golden, uniform dough. Wrap and chill for at least 30 minutes before using. Roll out and line a shallow, large ridged tart case with a removable base. Chill the whole tart shell in the fridge for another 30 minutes. Line with baking beans and bake for 15 minutes in a 170 oven until golden all over. Remove and allow to cool.
Have ready a sieve and a deep container.
Preheat the grill to maximum heat.
In a bowl mix the eggs and yolks with the sugar and the citrus zest and juice, then place in a heavy bottomed saucepan over a low flame. Whisk gently until all the sugar melts. Add half the butter and turn the heat up to medium, whisking constantly. The mixture should begin to thicken after a few minutes, at which point add the rest of the butter a piece at a time, whisking continuously. If things are catching and the mixture looks like it might curdle, turn the heat down to low again. Once the mixture has reached the consistency of a loose custard (after about 10 minutes of cooking and stirring) and small bubbles are just beginning to appear at the edges, quickly pour it through the sieve into a clean container.
Pour the mixture into the prepared pastry case and place the tart delicately under the grill. Leave the door open and watch as the top of the tart bubbles, burnishes and browns. This should take from 10-15 minutes, depending on the strength of your grill. Remove the tart when you are happy with the colour (check it still has a nice wobble in the centre too – see ‘Baveuse’)
The filling may look loose, but will firm up after chilling. Allow to cool completely before serving. This tart can be kept in the fridge for a few days.
Nipples of Venus
I first heard about these ‘Nipples of Venus’ after watching the film Amadeus, when they are offered by the devious Salieri to a voluptuous and unsuspecting Mrs Mozart, and their salacious beauty makes a second cinematic appearance in Chocolat. A white chocolate exterior is traditional to mimic the snow-white beauty of Venus’ breast, but I choose to coat these in dark chocolate as I prefer the flavour, and they look even more striking with their pink nipples.*
These make a beautiful gift, perfect for Valentine’s Day, Christmas, Mother’s Day, Weddings, any occasion really. I always make them for my mum, who has a great love of chestnuts. She also has a print of the infamous painting Gabrielle d’Estrees et une de ses Soeurs in her loo, which always makes me think of these sweets. The extraordinary painting depicts two sisters bearing inscrutable expressions in the bath, one pinching the other’s nipple.
The chestnuts give these a delicious smoky, woody edge, which is enhanced by the brandy. If you wanted to gild the lily even further, you could use Marron Glace. As these are generally considered the chocolates of love, named after the Goddess of love herself, it seems fitting to make and give them to any and every one you love, including yourself.
150g dark chocolate
40g cooked chestnuts, chopped into small pieces
40g light brown sugar
A pinch of salt
10ml brandy (optional)
A few drops of Vanilla extract
200g dark chocolate, melted
For the nipples:
50g White chocolate
Red food colouring, a drop or two
Chop the chocolate into small pieces (or blitz in a blender).
Place the butter, sugar and cream in a small saucepan and bring to a simmer.
Once simmering, pour the hot cream mixture over the chocolate and stir until the chocolate has melted. Add the salt, the chopped chestnuts, the vanilla and the brandy. Stir to combine.
Chill in the fridge until solid (at least a few hours). Take teaspoons of the mixture and roll them into balls in your hands. Chill again until solid. (you can put them in the freezer at this point).
Melt the dark chocolate in a small bowl over a bain-marie until liquid. In a separate bowl melt the white chocolate. Mix in a drop or two of the food colouring to create a light pink colour. Make a little piping bag out of a square of greaseproof paper and spoon the pink chocolate into it. (it will need to be kept warm so it doesn’t solidify)
Using a fork, skewer the chilled truffles and dip them in the melted dark chocolate, making sure they are fully covered.
Place them on a baking tray. Pipe the pink nipples on top and then allow to set. Keep chilled.
Note: If you wish to use white chocolate to coat the truffles you can, just be aware that it never melts very well so it will be harder to coat the truffles evenly.
Whipped Ricotta, Coffee and Marsala Mousse
Based on a much-loved and oft-imitated recipe from Elizabeth David’s Italian Food, which was the only cookbook I had with me when I arrived in Sardinia, and which my Grandmother had given to me when I graduated from cooking school, this is one of those dishes that, possibly like David herself, has stood the test of time. It feels both nicely retro and ultra-modern, and is incredibly simple to produce and utterly delicious to eat. The combination of ricotta and coffee is one of my favourites – the bitter, burnt edge of coffee pairs so well with the unapologetically sweet-cheesiness of ricotta. I add a dash of Marsala because I use it in my Tiramisu, so I always have it hanging about, and it’s woodiness works brilliantly with coffee. You can add rum (David’s suggestion) or brandy or amaretto as you see fit.
I like to serve it in little glass bowls with a light dusting of toasted hazelnut and dark chocolate on the top.
If you want to make this into a more substantial and fancy pudding you can layer it up in glasses with some crushed biscuits or soaked trifle sponges in between.
2 tsp Marsala
2 tbsp strong espresso coffee
3 tbsp Icing Sugar
150 ml double cream
10g Dark chocolate
A handful of toasted hazelnuts
Crushed biscuits (optional)
Whisk the cream to form soft peaks. Whisk the ricotta in a separate bowl with the sugar until smooth, adding the coffee and marsala and whisking until incorporated. Fold the cream into the ricotta mix.
Decant into your chosen serving vessels (layering with biscuits if you wish) and chill in the fridge for at least a couple of hours before serving.
To serve, grate the chocolate and hazelnuts over the top.
Pine Nut Brittle
Nut brittle is a popular sweet in Sardinia and more widely in Italy too, known as croccante di mandorle. Usually made with nibbed almonds and served in diamond-shaped pieces with the coffee, after dinner, it is often served on waxy, perfumed lemon leaves.
Although almonds are the classic nut to use, you can use any nut you wish to make brittle. Pine nuts and almonds are my favourite, and some of the easiest to get hold of here in Italy. Pine nuts give an extra creamy, fatty brittle, almonds a more toasty, milky one.
This brittle is slightly salted and makes a wonderful addition to gelatos, broken into a ragged shard and wedged into a soft scoop, or even as a sweet square on its own (extra chic when served on lemon leaves, though you can substitute them for bay leaves if you prefer). Spreading the brittle out with a cut lemon half is a rather romantic (and oddly practical) idea I read about in an old Sardinian book of dolci, the caramel does not stick to the wet surface and the juice in turn adds a lift of lemony freshness to the finished brittle.
This recipe is adapted from one of my favourite English gelato makers, Kitty Travers.
Makes 6-8 portions
1 tsp honey
70g pine nuts or other nuts of your choice
1 tsp fresh rosemary needles, finely chopped
Half a lemon, for spreading
Line a flat baking tray with greaseproof paper (or a silco mat).
Preheat the oven to 170 and toast the pine nuts on a baking sheet for around 7 minutes, until just golden (keep an eye on them! Nuts are notoriously awkward and burn fast).
Bring the sugar, honey and water to a boil and keep an eye on it as it starts to bubble and colour. Swirl the pan to help distribute the heat evenly and melt the sugar completely. After a few minutes of bubbling, the liquid should turn an even caramel colour. Quickly add the butter and continue to boil (swirling the pan every now and then) for 30 seconds to a minute, until small bubbles appear and the butter has been totally absorbed and homogenised into the mix.
Remove from the heat, stir through the nuts, the rosemary and the salt.
Quickly pour the caramel out over the baking sheet and spread flat with the back of the spoon.
Allow to cool completely before breaking into shards and using as you see fit.
Once made, you can blitz the brittle to a golden dust and sprinkle it on many things. Or simply keep it in shards in an airtight container – it will keep for up to 10 days this way. The best thing to do is to serve it with the Rosemary Fior di Latte, or the Chocolate Fudge Gelato, or to give it as Christmas gifts.
Chocolate, Hazelnut and Sour Cherry Salami
As a devout lover of salami and anything edibly eccentric, this recipe needed little selling to me. I’d heard about it long before I lived in Italy, and always wanted to make it. A sort of solid chocolate log dotted with pale chunks of biscuit to mirror the fat in a good salami, it is also – strangely - an echo of my past.
Every year I would request chocolate biscuit cake (also known as fridge cake) as my birthday cake, which was a blow to my mum because she had a special talent for inventive cake decoration, and chocolate biscuit cake is almost impossible to decorate. Nevertheless, this combination of broken biscuits, chocolate and butter was my favourite cake as a child; strange on many counts, as generally I’ve never been a lover of chocolate, and it isn’t really a cake. My mum’s one also contained large chewy raisins, and – as with all her puddings/cakes – a healthy amount of golden syrup which made it extremely sticky and more like Tiffin, a lovely Scottish invention from the 1900’s, and a very nice word to say, too.
Anyway, I loved it, and I still love it, and I also love its Italian cousin which has the added bonus of being shaped like a salami. This salami can be wrapped and presented as a gift (perfect for Christmas/Easter/birthdays) or served in slices as a surprisingly sophisticated and simple pudding, with a coffee.
This recipe is infinitely adaptable. The version I have given here is my favourite one, as I have a weakness for hazelnuts with chocolate (Nutella nostalgia) and also for cherries and chocolate (Black Forest Gateau nostalgia). Dried cherries have an irresistible chewiness and slight sourness which works very well here. For the most simple salami you can omit all nuts and dried fruit, keeping only the biscuits chunks, and it is still delicious. You can swap the cherries for dried figs (nice, crunchy seediness), cranberries, dates, prunes, apricots or even raisins. You can also add a splash of rum, Amaretto or any booze you choose. Pistachios can be added instead for a pop of lime-green colour, or almonds, or a mix of any nuts you fancy.
Note: I use Oro biscuits – which are the Italian equivalent of rich teas. If you want to make this fancy, you can use Amaretti. Digestives, Hob Nobs, any kind of basic biscuit will work, really. Maybe just steer clear of pink wafers.
Makes 1 (almost obscenely) large salami, or two modest ones
250g dark chocolate (at least 70% cocoa solids)
150g butter (at room temperature)
120g caster sugar
Pinch of salt
200g broken biscuits (rich tea or another simple, dry, not-too-sweet biscuit)
80g toasted hazelnuts, roughly chopped
1 tbsp of cocoa powder
80g dried cherries (you can substitute cranberries or any other fruit you wish)
Icing sugar, for dusting
Preheat the oven to 170 and lay your hazelnuts on a baking tray. Toast them for ten minutes or so, until lightly golden. Remove and set aside to cool. Roughly chop them, or bash them briefly with the bottom of a rolling pin.
Break your biscuits however you choose to do so – whether by putting them in a bag and bashing them with a rolling pin or blitzing them quickly in a food processor. It is important they stay in fairly large pieces, you’re not aiming for crumbs.
Melt the chocolate over a bain-marie or in a microwave. Allow it to cool for a few minutes.
Beat the butter, salt and sugar until creamy and then whisk in the eggs, a little at a time, until a smooth batter is formed. Add the cocoa powder and the cooled, melted chocolate. Add the broken biscuits and the sour cherries and stir well to combine. Add the hazelnuts and stir again.
Scoop the mixture out (it will look quite sticky at this stage) onto a rectangle of cling film, aiming for a sort of long oblong shape. Place another piece of clingfilm the same size of the top and wrap the sausage completely. Roll it in your hands to smooth out the shape and then twist the ends. Place it in the fridge to chill.
Once solid and nicely firm, dust your sausage in icing sugar and either wrap it in baking paper if giving it as a gift, or if you want to go the whole hog tie it up as you would a proper salami. There are some very instructive videos on Youtube about how to tie salami properly, if you are so inclined.
Frutta di Martorana
It’s extraordinary the way culinary traditions travel around the world and end up, who-knows-how, on our doorsteps and in our kitchens. Every Christmas of my childhood my mum and I made my grandpa a selection of marzipan fruits – little balls of marzipan shaped and painted with food colouring to look like fruit. How these assimilated themselves into our culinary repertoire, I have no idea, and I never thought to ask. It was only when I read about the tradition of Frutta di Martorana in Sicily that I realised at some point in our family history, someone must have visited the island, seen them in situ and stolen the idea.
These miniature marzipan fruits originated in the Convent of Martorana in Palermo. Legend has it that the Mother Superior ordered her nuns to prepare something special with the almond paste they produced to honour the Archbishop during his visit. The nuns created the marzipan fruits, and hung them from the trees around the cloisters. Subsequently, they became a traditional gift for children the night before All Saints Day. Youngsters would awake to find baskets of marzipan fruits at the foot of their beds, supposedly left for them by their ancestors. Pastry shops all over Sicily began to produce the fruits commercially, and one of the most spectacular Sicilian sights is a pastry display-case filled with these extraordinarily life-like fruits. Arrays of shining brown chestnuts bursting at the seams to expose a pale wrinkled nut within, the vivid scarlet and lime green of a prickly pear fruit, the woolly white pith and individual dimple of each clementine all rendered in such exquisite detail that they seem almost hyper-real.
Whilst not everybody loves marzipan, everybody loves these (see notes about marzipan on p.. Making your own marzipan also allows you to flavour it how you wish, which means that those who hate the ‘bitter almonds’ flavour can leave out the almond extract). They are joyful to look at, and they make the most perfect gift. You will need some edible food dye and some paint brushes, but it’s the perfect opportunity to get creative – you needn’t have much artistic skill - any and every one can paint a banana, a peach or a pear. Once made, if you don’t want to eat them these dry and can keep for months, years even. When we made them every year for my marzipan-loving Grandpa, he could only bear to eat about half of them, and the rest he kept in a glass cabinet for years and years, to admire and show off to guests.
When we made these at home we always used cloves as the stalks of the fruit, which makes the whole thing seem much more Christmassy, but if you’ like to invest in some miniature plastic stalks and leaves I’m sure they can be found online (almost anything can).
Makes 12-14 walnut-sized fruits of various shapes
150g icing sugar
150g ground almonds
10g lemon juice
Selected Food colouring & paintbrushes
A few cloves, or plastic/paper leaves and stalks
Mix the ingredients together and knead until you have a smooth dough. Wrap and leave to rest for 30 minutes before using. Alternatively you can buy ready made marzipan as I often do. Shape the fruits according to your wishes.
Using small paintbrushes, paint the fruits. Brown spots on yellow bananas, the tip of a sharp knife for dimpled orange skin. Scarlet strawberries, purple plums. Place them, once painted and dried, in paper cases. Give away to people you love, or keep them for yourself, if you prefer.
Pan di Spagna
A simple golden sponge for soaking and a perfect base for trifles etc.
Literally translated as Spanish bread, this is a basic form of sponge cake made without fat. An inheritance from the Spanish rule of Sicily, it forms the base of many sweet cakes and desserts all over Italy. It is a simple, light, buttercup yellow and fluffy sponge cake, very delicately flavoured and textured, and made without any additional raising agent, its height derives entirely from the air incorporated into the eggs by whisking. It is an extremely useful recipe to have up your sleeve, and freezes well, so you can defrost it any time you want to make a Cassata, a trifle, or even just to serve as a simple sponge square alongside some poached fruit and cream.
The method is unbelievably easy, you simply let the mixer do all the work for you. The whole assembly takes about ten minutes.
Makes 1 x 24cm round cake
Pinch of salt
75g potato flour
75g 00 flour
Grease and lightly dust with flour a 24cm springform cake tin.
Preheat the oven to 170. Beat the eggs with the sugar (either in a stand-up mixer or with a handheld electric whisk) for about 3-5 minutes, until pale, very fluffy and almost mousse-like. When you lift the whisk there should be obvious ribbons of the mixture which keep their shape for a few seconds.
Add the flours and the salt, and fold gently to incorporate, being careful not to knock out too much air from the mixture but simultaneously being careful to stir through the flours evenly.
Pour the mixture gently into the prepared tin, smoothing the top.
Bake for around 40-45 minutes, until golden and risen.
Remove and allow to cool in the tin for at least 10 minutes before turning out and using as required.