Figgy Christmasness – or, Jason’s Ring

fullsizeoutput_4a4Buccellato 

I was going to call this ‘Camp as Christmas’, but as this cake is positively restrained when compared to a cassata, it seemed unfair.  Besides, the campness comes at the last minute via a generous sprinkling of 100s & 1000s, and although this is utterly compulsory, it’s just a bit of Christmas silliness on an otherwise very serious cake.  That said, in at least two households in the UK, this will forever be known as Jason’s Ring – because, it turns out, that after a few mulled wines, and because it’s a sturdy thing, this cake makes a brilliant hat … if your name is Jason.

It should be a centrepiece, because it’s a very handsome thing, and whilst fiddly to make, it’s not that difficult, with time and patience.  The recipe I’m giving comes from Rachel Roddy’s Two Kitchens, because when I tested various recipes out on the Sicilian, her’s earned an emphatic “THAT is that taste of buccellato”.  Be warned though, this is a grown up thing; compared to most British cakes, there’s very little sugar in it – and that is mostly in the pastry.  In fact a grumpy pink man at a food market once pulled a face and shouted ‘bitter! It’s bitter!’, which it is, slightly, from the dark chocolate.  The best way to describe it is like a spiced, fruity, nutty, chocolatey, giant fig roll, except it’s a ring, as we know.  The pastry is crimped for added effect, and then the whole thing is glazed with honey, before those essential and abundant 100s & 1000s are added.

There are some similarities with British Christmas Cake – the dried fruit, the added booze, the spicing – so you can detect that somewhere way back, they may have a common ancestor.  But make this Sicilian descendent and you’ll be saved inch thick royal icing and death by marzipan.  It’s also an excellent keeper, so make it a few days before Christmas and it’ll keep going til 12th Night, assuming it survives resident foragers.

Rachel’s recipe makes an unapologetically big cake – it’s a beast.  But you can easily adapt the amounts to make something smaller, to match your home’s appetites.  Besides, I find that there is a strange effect once a buccellato has its first slice taken.  People can’t resist it when they pass by, or when it’s sitting on the sideboard.  They’ll cut themselves the thinnest of slices, promising that they’re full, and this will be their last.  But then ten minutes later they’re back, and then again.   Cumulatively – this seductive loveliness means that your huge, moreish centrepiece of a Christmas cake is unlikely to make it til New Years Eve.

Rachel Roddy’s Buccellato 

Pastry

400g plain flour

Pinch of salt

Grated zest of a lemon (unwaxed)

170g cold, butter, chopped up

150g sugar

2 large eggs

Rub the butter and flour together (with the salt and lemon), to get a breadcrumbs texture.

Then add the eggs and sugar and mix until it all comes together.

Form it into a rough cylinder, wrap in clingfilm and put it in the fridge.

Filling

500g dried figs

300g nuts – almonds, walnuts or hazelnuts (I tend to use hazelnuts, because they’re my favourite)

150g raisins

60g candied peel

Zest of an unwaxed orange and lemon

60g honey

100ml Marsala

100g chopped dark chocolate

a bloody generous Pinch of cinnamon and ground cloves

1 egg

Soak the figs for ten minutes in warm water, and then chop them (I pinch the tough stems out), the nuts and the raisins finely (it’s easiest if you have one of those mini food processors).

Mix in all the rest of the ingredients and you’ll get a thick, sticky, very tactile paste.

Now, retrieve your pastry and roll it into a rectangle – about 70 x 14 cm and lift it onto a piece of clingfilm.

Make a log with the filling – and lay it in the centre of your pastry, leaving a short gap at each end.

Now you need to fold the pastry over, using the clingfilm to support it as you lift it.  Wet and seal the edges, turning the whole thing so that the seal is hidden underneath., – you’ll now have a long pastry sausage.  Bring the two ends together, to make your ring, wetting them again and pinching them to seal them.  This bit requires bravery the first time you do it, but summon the courage and refuse to be cowed by the alchemy of fusing pastry to pastry.

I then chill it for two hours, before decorating, to let the pastry harden.  You can get a handy pincher thing from a cook shop – or just use a fork to stab and drag the pastry.  You want to be able to see the filling through the gabs, but not to shred the pastry completely.

Then bake it  until golden brown (30-40 minutes, depending on your oven) at 180 C/Gas 4.

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To decorate

100s & 1000s

Honey

Finally, let it cool, then warm some honey to make it runny and brush the entire ring,  then scatter your hundreds and thousands with gay abandon.

It’s ready.  Mangia! Mangia!

 

Refrigerator cake, with bells on

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This is a short one – a stocking filler.

When I first heard of this, I thought ‘refrigerator cake’.  Which is exactly what it is.  But with Italian style.

It’s as easy as falling off a (yule) log – there is no cooking involved, and the simpler you keep the ingredients, the better.  It’s a visual joke, a thing for kids’ parties and Christmas, that will still impress and delight the grown ups.  Have it in the afternoon with a cup of strong coffee, or after dinner with a coffee killer to slice through its richness.

As you can see, this ‘cake’ looks suspiciously like a salami – it even has the white mould on the outside, and has been tied up with string.  But then you cut a slice of your salame, and wonder of wonders – it’s made of chocolate and nuts and biscuits and the ‘mould’ is icing sugar.  The ultimate vegetarian salame!  

I like this cake.  When we make a refrigerator cake in the UK, it’s a blocky, in the tray kind of thing.  It is symptomatic of Italy, that the ordinary is made extraordinary, that you can be funny and classy at the same time, and that you don’t compromise on flavour.

Here’s the Sicilian’s recipe – there are plenty of other versions, some with figs, some with almonds, some with amaretto.  But this is his.

2 egg yolks

100 g caster sugar

150g butter 

200g cocoa powder (unsweetened)

60g hazelnuts

200g digestive or rich tea biscuits

A slug of rum (although not if your making it for a kids’ party)

Icing sugar

String

Toast your hazelnuts in the oven for ten minutes, then put them into a clean tea towel.  Fold this over and rub the nuts vigorously.  This will get most of the skins off the nuts, which makes them sweeter.  Leave to cool.

Mix the yolks and butter (leave it out of the fridge to soften) and then add the sugar, mixing until you have a smooth cream. If you skimp on this timing here, the sugar won’t dissolve properly and your salami will end up gritty.

Add in the cocoa powder and mix very slowly (if you’re using an electric mixer, put it on the slowest speed, otherwise you’ll end up with a brown cloud that’ll coat everything nearby with chocolate.

Break up the biscuits into small pieces and add them and the nuts to the chocolate mixture.  Fold them in gently (best with a wooden spoon or your hands, as you don’t want to break the biscuits up any more).

Then, place the mixture on a rectangle of greaseproof paper, and form into a rough cylinder about 5cm in diameter. 

Wrap the paper around the cylinder and roll it to get a smooth sausage.  Don’t let it get much thinner though – a real salami is a thick and hefty thing.

Finally twist the paper tightly at both ends (like a boiled sweet) and refrigerate your sausage for 24 hours.

To serve, work quickly, and roll the chilled sausage in sieved icing sugar, and then tie it up with string, you can watch charcuterie videos on YouTube and do it like a professional butcher, or just wing it, as I did.

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Then, with the sharpest of knives, cut your sausage into slices and enjoy the joke.  The nuts and biscuits look like the globules of fat in a real sausage, with the chocolate/butter cream acting as the meat.  

It’s very rich, so you’ll not want much, unless you’re a seven year old, and then you’ll want a whole one to yourself.  It freezes well.

Possibly the most ridiculous cake in the world

Why would anyone in their right mind choose to make a Cassata? 

This is a long post, because there is nothing simple about a cassata.  And there is no actual recipe – because there are so many out there, mine will not add anything new to the sum of cassata knowledge (but start with Mary Taylor Simeti)

This cake, of sponge, ricotta, chocolate, marzipan, icing, candied fruits, more icing, takes days to assemble.  At every stage of that assembly, it is an unrelenting faff.  Plus, you can never, and I mean, NEVER, get two Sicilians to agree as to how you should actually make it.  To top it all off, the whole thing ends up looking like the campest Panto dame in Christendom.

And that, I guess is reason enough to make the damn thing.

Cassata is an antidote to all those stuffy, frugal, puritanical recipes that (thankfully) are largely a thing of the past.  For every seed cake, or sponge cake iced with margarine “butter’ cream, this is a giddy rebuke. But the care that goes into making a cassata means it’s got more class in one of its candied fruits than your average overly-calorific shop-bought confection of too much cream and syrup and salted caramel.  If I had to liken cassata to a person, it would be Barbara Windsor, collecting a damehood (in itself, not a bad idea).  Get the idea?

It’s also a bit of a cliche – the airport at Palermo has a shop that sells obscenely overpriced ‘authentic’ Sicilian gifts, and has a chiller cabinet full of cloned cassatas.  Surely the most impractical thing you could ever taken on board as hand luggage?  The only person I have ever seen anyone buy one was a small, angry businessman.  He sat two rows behind me on a flight back to the UK, and became so enraged by the usual RyanAir awfulness that I thought he was going to have an embolism.  Perhaps he was worried that the ricotta would go off?  Perhaps he’d never flown RyanAir?

The full recipe is long, complicated, open to personal interpretation, subject to judgement.  Many, many variations exist, although, that said, Fanny Craddock’s is not one of them (whatever she calls it), I’m not even sure it’s a cake.

If you’re dead set on having a go at your own cassata, then you will face some obstacles.  Firstly, to get the proper effect, you need whole, candied fruit.  Now these are relatively easy to buy in Sicily (I can’t speak for the rest of Italy), you go to a specialist patisserie shop and come away with a plastic container of sugar soaked pears, clemetines, figs and slabs of squash.  They are dyed impossible colours with Lord knows what chemicals.  But I have yet to find anywhere in the UK that supplies them – although there must be somewhere??  In London? Anyone?  The closest I’ve found, are those posh boxes of candied fruit that elderly relatives heave out at Christmas, but I’m not convinced.  I also had a stab at making my own in the slow cooker and ended up with marmalade.

Next you have to make a decision – are you going to go for almond or pistachio marzipan?  This is a decision that is a source of strife chez nous.  Almost every damn recipe for Cassata written in the English language (barring Fanny Craddock’s fevered imaginings) states that you use a pistachio or dyed green almond marzipan – at the very least, alternated with a white almond one.  And this is important  not just flavourwise, but because it fundamentally alters the appearance.  Almond reins in the campness, makes it a little more refined.  Pistachio brings bright green zing to the party and tips the whole thing over into full blown Hello Dolly territory.

The Sicilian though, is adamant that pistachio is a variation on the original.  An affectation.  Now, having grown up in Palermo, I’m guessing that his opinion on this carries a lot more weight than most, certainly more than that of this 2nd generation Irish lad from North Warwickshire.  But, but, but…. lads from north Warwickshire aren’t noted for being refined…you can guess where I’m going.

So, to the cake.  If you want, if you have the time and the inclination, you can make every fussy part of this cake from scratch – or, should sanity prevail, you can buy a sponge cake, and marzipan – thereby saving yourself at least a day.

You’ll need a cake tin with sloping sides – the nearest standard thing in the UK would be a pie dish,  or you can get actual cassata tins, to create the exact shape – I’m guessing though that’ll require some stealthy internet searching (or a trip to Sicily).

Line the tin with clingfilm, leaving enough overhang to fold back in later,  and line the sloping sides of the tin with marzipan (you can add pistachio paste to your bought almond marzipan if you don’t have the will to start grinding nuts to a powder) – and you may need a spot of green food colouring.  Don’t over do it though – the first time I tried this, it turned the colour of arsenic.

Then, place a thin disk of sponge cake in the base of the tin and brush it with marsala, or sugar syrup and marsala, or sugar syrup and orange flower water.  

Mix dark chocolate chips into ricotta with icing sugar and spoon this onto the sponge, until it almost fills the tin.  Then place another pre cut disk of sponge on the top and fold in the clingfilm to seal the whole thing together.  Put a plate onto the embryonic cassata and weigh down with a sturdy mug or a big dense block of cheddar.

Make room in the fridge, and chill the whole thing overnight.

Tomorrow – turn the cake out onto its serving plate.

Mix up a thick fondant icing.  This is a pain, and almost impossible to work with, but you’re committed now I’m afraid.

The aim is to get a layer of icing on the top of the cake that is a solid, opaque ‘lid’ to your cassata (some people cover the whole thing – it’s your choice), leaving the green of the marzipan to shine.  

Then take your candied fruit, and arrange on the top of the icing in a suitably flamboyant way.  

If you really want to gild your lily, you can then pipe more icing into swirls and dabs onto the fruit and the sides of your cassata.  I’m totally cack handed at icing, so mine usually ends up looking like a six year old was set loose on it.

It’s unlikely that you’ll make this many times in your life.  Unless you work in a patisserie in Sicily or New York.  But, if you’re looking for home cooking bucket list items, this should probably be on there.  It’s a traditional cake for Easter in Sicily, but makes a pretty fancy celebration cake any time of the year.  

God knows how many calories it contains, although, despite all the sugar involved, the ricotta has a sharpness that stops it tipping over the edge into Type 2 Diabetes territory.  But, it’s definitely improved by a ‘coffee-killer’ – one of those bitter or super strength digestifs you have at the end of your Italian meal – grappa, limencello or Cynar (my favourite).

Go on.  I dare you.