Monday, 27 July 2009

Amalfi in a new light

Amalfi, its picture-perfect port backed by 300-meter-high cliffs, its narrow, uphill main street bordered by crumbling, pastel-coloured buildings, its water so clear the anchors of the boats bobbing on the marina can be seen glinting several meters below.

But Amalfi also has a darker side, the one not flaunted on the brochures: its steady stream of screeching scooters, its swarming tourist shops, shelves caving under the weight of a hundred cat-shaped bottles of overpriced limoncello (a sweet lemon liquor), its long lines of buses clogging the main piazza, disgorging fazed, exhausted passengers aching for a gelato.

It’s one of the first places in southern Italy where the Neapolitan took me. On our most memorable visit we trekked all the way up the main road, along a small brook, to reach an antique printing shop where we had heard they still hand made paper we used for our wedding invitations. At the time I grudgingly agreed to it, observing only that it didn’t look very different from regular quality paper but cost three times as much. But when I stumbled upon the leftover invitations during our recent move, I was struck by the softness of the paper, its irregular edges, small details I didn’t appreciate four years ago, when despairing to finally do away with the party planning .

We were back in Amalfi on Monday, by chance. A missed flight to Sardinia and a day to kill on the coast brought us there. And am I glad we went back because, finally, I got it. I fell in love with it. Not in the head-over-heels way in which I succumbed to Sardinia after one look at its long stretches of beaches, one breath of its centuries-old pines, but in the way a previously dismissed suitor suddenly catches your attention and holds it.

In season, get there before noon and park on the pier (3 euros an hour), then head for the port and get on a boat to Santa Croce. It’s a 5-minute boat ride but it makes a world of difference. Once you arrive on this rocky beach inaccessible by car you can rent a parasol and two sun beds (15 euros for the day during the week). Call in advance if you would like to reserve one by the water and while you’re at it, make your lunch reservation at the shaded bar ristorante Santa Teresa.

Once your decollete has reached an appropriately pink shade and you have tired of slathering on the sun cream as you flop around your sun bed, go up the rickety wooden stairs to the open-air terrace of the restaurant. Order vino bianco con percoche. Trust me. You can’t go wrong with fizzy white wine in which a particular kind of bright orange peaches (percoche) have been left to marinate for a few hours.

Then it’s your call, of course, but before you make up your mind, take a stroll to the little carriages on which the fish and the vegetable appetizers of the day are laid out. On our visit, ensalata di polipo (octopus salad), cozze (mussels), little fried balls of dough speckled with sea weed and salt were all on offer.

We then polished off a steaming plate of spaghetti alle vongole (cooked very al dente,with clams, cherry tomatoes and a drizzling of olive oil), followed by a large sea bass on the grill and for dessert, a black forest cake and a ricotta and pear tart.

Thursday, 16 July 2009

Off to Sardinia

The beauty of the British summer is that you can ignore it entirely. While the rest of Europe is busy debating the merits of air conditioning versus ventilation at the coffee machine, you’re happily traipsing the sales in search of a cashmere hoodie to wear at your neighbor’s bbq on Sunday.

In other words, summer has sneaked up on me once again.

In less than 24 hours we will be leaving-- via Naples where we will be making a brief stop to attend a wedding-- for my little spot of heaven, a rustic B&B on the Northern Coast of Sardinia. Marcello, its kite-surfing owner, his three gigantic dogs --more like ponies really--and a vagrant one-eared orange tabby nicknamed Farouk await us.

So do the many specialties of an island whose culinary traditions are rooted away from the sea --long a symbol of invasions-- and firmly into the earth. Cheese, meat, fruit and honey are the stars of the show really. For the first time we have opted to trade our simple room of washed-out wood and seashells for a small apartment in an adjacent building with a kitchen, so our friends and their little boy (the Puppone), could stay with us.

This means that while we will be touring our favorite restaurants, gorging on pane carasau (also called carta da musica), porchedu (roasted suckling pig), fregola (a sort of Sardinian couscous often eaten with seafood) and sebadas (a round pastry of unleavened dough filled with ricotta or fresh sour cheese and doused in warm honey), we will also be cooking at home.

The utensils will likely be few and should force me to embrace the key precept of Italian cuisine: buy fresh, fiddle little

Wednesday, 15 July 2009

Berry tarts

I don't like to admit it but I have been secretly petrified of summer-fruit tarts for my entire baking life. This fear, like many of my culinary blocks, is not rooted into a specific incident but was born instead, surreptitiously, from repeated encounters with soggy, insipid specimens. You know the ones. They come in different guises but share one overarching characteristic: insufferable blandness. Sometimes their sandy crust is smothered with thick, mustard-yellow custard, occasionally a gloss of jelly gives it an unnatural shine. Always, they're topped with unripe, aggressively sharp fruit.

But last week an innocuous stroll down Marylebone high street miraculously cured my fruit-tart phobia. Here's what happened, I was browsing the chunky, hand-painted ceramics at Emma Bridgewater, when I spotted a cake stand on the sale. I took one look at it and decided it was the cake stand that had been eluding me for years, neither too frilly nor too stark. I brought it home.

What comes next won't surprise you, I decided to bake something to show if off. The only problem was, I quickly concluded, any full-blown cake would dissimulate its best feature, the delicate leaf pattern on its plate. I concluded only individual tarts would exalt its beauty. And so one decade of fruit-tart phobia came to an end.

The secret of sweet pastry is to handle it as little as possible and let it rest in the fridge before you roll it out. Once you've spread it in your pie cases, flash freeze it to avoid it losing its shape upon baking.

To make 10 small tarts:

For the sweet pastry (known as pate sablee in French) 
250g (9 ounces) plain flour
125g (4 1/2 ounces) unsalted butter
150g (5 ounces) icing sugar
1 egg

For the filling
200ml (7 fluid ounces) double cream
125g (4 1/2 ounces, or half a standard container of the Galbani brand) mascarpone
50g (2 ounces) icing sugar
250g (9 ounces) raspberries
250g blueberries

Make your sweet pastry. You do not need a food processor, although I have heard it helps. I get on perfectly well without one. Put the flour in a mixing bowl and add the cold butter, cut in small chunks. Rub it with the flour between your hands until it's reached the texture of wet sand. Add the confectioner sugar and then the egg. Be careful not to overwork the dough, make two discs, wrap in cling film and let them rest in the fridge for at least an hour.

Roll out the dough, but not all at once. It's much easier to work with about a quarter of a disc at a time. Just roll it out a bit wider than your individual tart cases. You should get enough for 10 small cases with the quantities here but do not worry if you get less, it just means your cases were wider than mine or you like your pastry a bit thicker. Using a fork, puncture the bottom of each case a few times, it will help prevent it puffing up too much. Pre-heat your oven to 180 degrees, put the cases in the freezer for 30 minutes, then bake for 10-15 minutes.

While the tarts are baking, whip the double cream, mascarpone and later on the sugar in a mixing bowl until the mixture forms soft peaks. Once the tarts have cooled, spread the filling in them and top with your fruit. Keep in the fridge if you're not serving it immediately.

Sunday, 12 July 2009

Cream-cheese brownies

There are days, we all know it, when only chocolate will do.

Surprinsingly, given how much I like baking, the cocoa craving rarely strikes me. No, when I long for something sweet, it is buttery, homely desserts I am irrepressibly drawn to: a pound cake, a tray of financiers or perhaps just-made madeleines, their warm hearts deliquescing as I dunk them into a glass of cold milk.

So it was a bit of a shock last week when I felt a sudden urge to make brownies. I tend not to bother with brownies because you can buy perfectly good ones from specialty shops (my favorites are from The Natural Kitchen, in Marylebone, although Leon makes a Middle Eastern version rich in orange peel and exotic nuts that is sometimes just the ticket). The other reason why brownies aren't a regular guest at my table is that, while I enjoy the first few bites, I often find them too cloyingly sweet to eat a full portion.

If you share that particular feeling, let me introduce to THE brownie recipe you have been waiting for. It comes, as is often the case, from my baking bible, How To Be A Domestic Goddess, by Nigella Lawson. Presentable, these brownies are not, but the heart of cream cheese introduces a fresh, sour note that is the perfect counterpoint to their sweetness. You can eat these beauties at room temperature, or fridge cold, although I must warn you that the latter option somehow made my brain totally impervious to the satiety signals supposedly preventing us humans from eating ourselves into a sugar coma.

125g (4 1/2 ounces) dark chocolate
125g (4 1/2 ounces) unsalted butter
200g (7 ounces) full-fat Philadelphia cream cheese in aluminium wrapper rather than plastic container (I used just and found it enough)
75g (3 ounces)plain flour
200g (7 ounces) caster sugar
2 eggs
1 teaspoon vanilla extract or vanilla-bean paste
A pinch of salt

Preheat the oven at 180 degrees. Melt the chocolate, previously broken into pieces, in the microwave at full power (in mine it took roughly 1 minute). When the squares starts to lose their consistency, add the butter, also cut in chunks, and heat for a further 30 seconds. Mix well.

In a separate mixing bowl, beat the eggs with the sugar until the mixture is pale yellow and creamy. Add the vanilla extract/paste and a pinch of salt. Now pour in the chocolate/butter batter. Finally energetically beat in the flour.

Pour HALF the mixture in a 23cm square tin (easier for cutting the brownie into squares but obviously a round tin would work fine too). Then cover that layer of batter with thin slices of cream cheese. If you got the one wrapped in aluminium --unlike me-- the process will be much easier and you will get slices rather than great big lumps spooned out of the plastic container.

Cover with the rest of the batter. Put in the oven and bake for 20 minutes. The top should look and feel dry but a knife inserted in the heart of the cake should still come out sticky. Wait for roughly 10 minutes before cutting into squares. Don't worry about messing up the first slice. It's inevitable.

Friday, 10 July 2009

Mango Mousse

I love mangoes. They're, along with bananas, the only fruit I buy throughout the year, although I tend to favor U.K.-grown ones for environmental reasons. But apart from greedily devouring their sweet yellow flesh, standing at the kitchen counter, bags of unpacked groceries at my feet, juice dripping down my forearm, I never quite know what to do with them.

This state of affairs looked unlikely to change until I stumbled, in the course of the past few days, upon an avalanche of recipes for raspberry mousse. Now, I like raspberries. In fact, I like them so much --and they're so darn expensive--that I didn't immediately take to the idea of blitzing them into a puree. So I thought, why not try it with mangoes?

When an idea for a recipe strikes me, I usually need to execute it immediately. So I rushed down to the Indian corner shop and took a look at their mangoes. They were yellower, thinner and longer than the kind I usually buy, but the shopkeeper assured me I would be pleasantly surprised. And indeed I was.

This recipe makes about five individual mousses of the size of a largish espresso cup (as seen in the photo).The mousse is not very sweet and the mango taste, while delicate, is very noticeable so this pud is not a good way of making little people who dislike mangoes eat them, just in case you were thinking you might get away with it.

Two mangoes
300ml double cream
2 egg whites

5g gelatine
2 tablespoons honey, agave syrup or sugar

15 minutes before you start, place a large bowl in the fridge to chill it.

Slice each mango in two. With a sharp knife, criss-cross the flesh. Peel off the cubes thus formed by sliding your knife as close as possible to the skin, as you would when preparing melon. Put the flesh into a food processor and reduce to a pulp.

Whisk the egg whites with a pinch of salt until they form soft white peaks. Then, in your chilled bowl, whip your double cream. Be careful not to overdo it or it will turn into butter.

Dissolve your gelatine according to the instructions on the packet, usually in a few tablespoons of warm water. Once the gelatine has dissolved, blitz it in the microwave at full power for 15 seconds, just to be sure. Incorporate it with your mango puree. If you're adding sugar or agave syrup, now's the time.

Carefully fold in the cream, making figures of eight with a wooden spatula. Repeat with the egg whites. Place in the fridge until set, at least a couple of hours. Serve chilled.

Monday, 6 July 2009

Penne with broad beans and pancetta

What do you do when your parents are in town and you want to wile away the morning hunting down turn-of-the-century, hand-painted Italian terracotta vases in Notting Hill's antiques market rather than slave away in the kitchen to resentfully slam a roast on the table at 1 p.m.? You cook pasta.

Now, dear French readers, please look away now, for I must say this once and for all. We know zilch about pasta and understand none of its delights back home. Growing up, I ate pasta, on average, twice a year. I'm not kidding. And it was always exactly the same pasta dish: coquillettes with a knob of butter and a sprinkle of grated gruyere cheese. My mom's thoughts, summarized by her body language, were: 'Tonight, I gave up trying to feed my girls a healthy dinner. Honestly, I would rather serve them nutella on toast than pasta, but we've run out of that too.' Dinner would have been served with an apologetic smile if my mom were the type to act guilty.

Many years later, on my first independent trip to London, I roomed with an Italian girl named Anna for a few weeks. We shared a kitchen. She cooked pasta. Every. Single. Day. Eventually, I felt we had enough of a bond for me to tease her gently about her lack of skills in the kitchen, convinced there could be no other explanation for the monotony of her meals. She stared back at me, clearly bewildered. Then she explained, without a smirk, for she was too kind to mock my provincialism, that she had actually been cooking the same dishes her mother would have made back home: pasta with cherry tomatoes, pasta with tuna, pasta with chickpeas, pasta with zucchini and shrimp.....

And all I had noticed was that she was cooking pasta, oblivious, in my ignorance, to the incredible versatility of that miracle ingredient. You know the rest of the story, I eventually married a Neapolitan and, over the years (yes, it took years), overcame my prejudice against pasta. Today, I can hardly imagine what my cooking repertoire, robbed of it, would look like.

My parents, though, have undergone no such conversion, which is why I tend to make pasta when they're around, in an effort, perhaps, to awaken them to the refinement of many Italian pasta dishes. This recipe of broad beans and pancetta I like to cook on a weekend lunch, mostly because a nap feels wonderful afterwards. Serves four.

500g (just over one pound) i unshelled broad beans (also known in the U.S. as fava beans)
150g (three generous handfuls) bacon bits from the butcher or Italian pancetta
100ml (2/3 of a cup) single cream
A good grating of fresh parmesan cheese
400g (1 pound) wholewheat penne

Put a large pot of water on the hob. Add salt. Don't be shy. You want the cooking water to be as salty as the ocean last time you accidentally swallowed a cup of it. That's so you don't need to salt the pasta later on, which Italians disapprove of.

Put another, smaller pot of water to boil.  Meanwhile, shell the broad beans. It will take a little while at first but you will quickly get the hang of it. Pinch the tip of the pod and pull it down along the seam that ties the two sides of the shell together. Slice it open with a sharp fingernail and take out the beans. Throw the beans in the smaller pot of boiling water and let them cook for 3-4 minutes. 

Throw the penne into the other pot. The wholeweat ones usually need 12 minutes. Give them one less as they will go in the pan with the bacon, cream and beans at the end and cook a bit further then.

Put a knob of butter in a small saucepan on medium heat on add the bacon bits. Once they're dark and crispy, after roughly 5 minutes, lower the heat and pour in the cream. Add a pinch of salt and a grind of pepper. Let it bubble for a few minutes, then add the broad beans.

Your pasta should be cooked right about now. Add to your saucepan and mix well. You're ready.

The Oxford carrot cake

Recipes often remind me of the first person I made them for. 

Years ago, I baked a carrot cake --which I think of as an iconic Anglo-Saxon dessert-- for Clemence, my sister's best friend. She had stopped to visit us in London on her way to Oxford, where she was planning to occasionally study and primarily perfect her knowledge of British ales for a few months. Before I sent her off to a shared student house where I had no doubt she would be eating beans on toast for weeks on end, I wanted to show her some good, old-fashioned baking love. She said she felt like something sweet and comforting but I thought a French dessert might strike an inappropriately nostalgic note. What I wanted, you see, was to send her off full of bold, American-style optimism that she would have a smashing time in Oxford. So I settled on a carrot cake.

I remember it requiring more effort than I expected, mostly because of the grating of the carrots (and my knuckles in the process) and the length of the ingredient list. Eager to use up the various spices I had bought specifically for that recipe, I baked the cake a few times in the following months. And then I forgot all about it

That is until my sister, on her recent visit to London, spotted a slice of carrot cake at one of the omnipresent sandwich high-street chains. She examined the packaging carefully, mulling the purchase, and then she absentmindedly mentioned that Clemence still talks about the carrot cake I baked for her years ago.

I cannot exaggerate the thrill her statement provoked. My humble carrot cake, years down the line, still living in the memory of a good friend. What more could a cook ask for? I don’t care about surpassing anyone’s recipe. I cook out of an overwhelming desire to make loved ones feel special. And there was proof, undeniable proof that, sometimes, it works. 

When my sister asked what the carrot cake fuss was all about anyway, I gently pried the cellophane-wrapped slice from her hand and put it back on the shelf. You watch, I said.

For 12 mini carrot cakes or 1 very fat loaf (Use a round pan if you feel like the batter won't fit in the loaf pan)

From Jamie Oliver's Cook with Jamie 

285g (2 1/2 sticks) unsalted butter, at room temperature
285g (10 ounces) soft brown sugar
5 large eggs
170g (6 ounces) self-raising flour
1 generous teaspoon baking powder
115g (4 ounces) almond powder (any other kind of nut powder would work well, in particular hazelnut)
115g (4 ounces) shelled walnuts
1 generous teaspoon cinnamon
a pinch of ground nutmeg
1/2 a teaspoon ground ginger
285g (10 ounces) pealed and then coarsely grated carrots
Zest and juice of one orange

115g (4 ounces) mascarpone
225g (8 ounces) full-fat cream cheese
Zest and juice of one organic lemon (better go organic there since you're using the zest)

Preheat the oven at 180 degrees. Beat the butter and the sugar together until the mixture turns pale yellow and fluffy. You can do this by hand or in a food processor, but I have also been known to use my Kitchen Aid mixer although it's not one of its standard uses. Separate your eggs and beat the egg yolks in, one by one, then add the orange zest and the juice. Stir in the flour, baking powder, almond powder and all the spices. Finally add the carrots and the walnuts.

Whisk the egg whites with a pinch of salt until they form glossy white peaks (that is definitely better done with an electric whisk unless you enjoy wrist cramps). Then carefully fold the egg whites into your batter, making figures of eight with a wooden spoon. When the mixture is homogenous, scoop the mixture into your previously buttered tin and cook for roughly 50 minutes for the loaf (more like 30 minutes for mini cakes). turn it out and let it cool for at least 15 minutes on a rack. (otherwise your icing will melt as you spread it)

Get on with the icing. Beat the mascarpone and the cream cheese together until there are no lumps. Add the lemon zest and juice. Spread the icing on your cake (s) using a round knife or a flat wooden spoon. Decorate with walnut halves.

Wednesday, 1 July 2009

The Neapolitan's seafood risotto

Let's tackle the bad news first. A succulent risotto requires a home-made broth. You might, with lots of practice and a few tricks, achieve a decent risotto using the cubes tauted by various food companies as perfectly acceptable, time-saving alternatives to home-made broth. But friends, don't be fooled. That's just good marketing.

In each cuisine, there are dishes that, for a reason or another, require just a bit more commitment. Sadly for those of us who love it, risotto is one of them. And yes, I agree, all that careful ladling and stirring in of the broth is painstainking. But risotto is like that rare breed of teacher that demands nothing less than your unwavering attention. Blink, yawn, scribble on your desk and you're on the black list, you've just screwed up your risotto.

This recipe comes from my husband. No big surprise there considering I hardly ever ate fish until I met him, and then only under duress. A word of caution: I would recommend finding a reasonably-priced fishmonger before you attempt this risotto. I don't want any of you going into cardiac arrest when they see the bill. We spent about 10 pounds on the ingredients at our local market, but at a fancy fishmonger, it could easily be triple that. In Northwest London we have found the two stalls at the Saturday-morning market on Church Street to be a good source. Don't be put off by appearances. You won't find pretty parsley and lemon slices on display there. But the fish is fresh.

And if you don't trust us, trust the Neapolitan's mother. She accompanied us two weeks ago and after careful examination of the goods on display --you would think she was buying diamonds, checking clarity of the eye, shine of the scales, color of the flesh--she nodded imperceptibly and proclaimed it edible. There is no stricter test I know of. No respectable Italian mamma, after all, would risk her first born's intestinal health in pursuit of a bargain.

You can use frozen seafood for this recipe, obviously, but remember that squid and shrimps can get a bit chewy when they stay on the heat for too long so add them towards the end. My shrimps weren't very large, as you can see from the photo, but tiger ones would work well too.

Home-made fish broth
Bones of a whole fish
Celery stalk

Any time you cook a whole fish, plop everything that's left after eating it, including head, tail and bits of skin into a large pan of water with some garlic cloves and a stalk of celery if you have it. Bring to a boil and simmer for an hour.

Seafood risotto
500g (just
over one pound) shrimp
3 squids

Home-made fish broth
325g (11 ounces) risotto rice (I use Arborio from the Riso Gallo brand)
2 onions
Dry white wine
Olive oil

First, clean the seafood. I bet it's not your favorite task, rest assured it isn't mine either. But it needs to be done. Take the head and tail off your shrimps, get rid of the eggs under their bellies, if any, and peel off the shell. Rinse the squids and slice relatively thinly, about the thickness of a large wedding band.

Heat about three tablespoons of olive oil in your pan, stir in two cloves or garlic and the two onions chopped thin. Sweat on a low heat until the onions are translucent. Take out the garlic clove. Throw in the squid and the shrimps and let them flavor the oil for a few minutes. Pour in a glass of white wine and turn up the heat. Add salt and pepper.

Put the rice in and gradually add your fish broth with a ladle, waiting for the liquid to be absorbed between each ladle. Continue until the rice is cooked but al dente (you want the rice to retain a slight bite) and the texture is very creamy. It should take around 20 minutes. When the rice is ready, transfer to a serving plate and sprinkle with fresh parsley.