Discovering Gelato

IMG_4861

I candied a lemon.  A great, warty giant of a lemon that I grew on a tree in a pot.  It was given a gallon of water a day and a fed liquid seaweed almost as often.  And there, at 52 degrees north, ready for Christmas, was a tree bowed down with my incredible lemons, tucked away for the winter in their protective greenhouse.  It’s a big deal, growing lemons in Birmingham; huge!

The majority of these lemons got the gin and tonic treatment, but I snaffled a couple away for something a lot more special; a week long bath in warmed sugar syrup, that day by day, became more concentrated.  The end result was something of such overwhelming lemon intensity that there I was in danger of becoming transfixed, unable to resist the temptation to gorge myself on the whole thing in one slow-motion go.  Thankfully, and in a rare moment of delayed gratification, I resisted.

The candied lemon began as an experiment because I have a dream of making the perfect cassata, the celebratory Sicilian cake that out-camps pretty much any other cake.  Layers of ricotta, marzipan, sponge, and chocolate sport an elaborate headpiece of iced candied fruit. If you’re thinking Carmen Miranda, you’re not far off.  The drawback is that it’s very difficult to buy the requisite candied fruit here in the UK, there are some close approximations, but not the whole figs, clementines, pears and slabs of summer squash that should be used and can be bought by the kilo in the right shops in Palermo.

So I thought I’d have a go at making my own.  The perfect cassata will have to wait a while, because although I candied my lemons, they weren’t right.  The Sicilian variety are solid, and maintain their shape and colour (with a little help from some food dye).  My lemon, was slightly shrunken, hollow and, as I took my eye off the ball for a moment, it had tipped over the edge from candied to marmaladey, more burnt umber than Mediterranean zing.  Delicious, though, as I’ve already mentioned.  

Whilst I could happily have sliced it up thinly, and eaten the whole thing to myself, furtively, in a semi dark kitchen, I wanted to find a way to incorporate the concentrated flavour into something else, in spite of it being February, an unseasonable gelato wormed its way into mind.

IMG_4862

I’ve been trying to get to the bottom of the what separates gelato from Ice Cream.  

The ice creams that I’m used to making all start with a cooked custard of eggs, milk, cream and sugar – to which the flavours are added before the freezing and churning.  Depending on which recipe you’re reading, gelato may be exactly this.  Or something without cream.  Or without cream or eggs, thickened instead with cornflour.  I can sense a prolonged period of experimentation in the offing, but for now, I started with the recipe furthest from the custard base, and went for the cornflour version.

In many ways, it’s actually easier to make than a custard ice cream; you heat the milk, dissolve the sugar and then add cornflour, mixed with a little spare milk, and cook it through until it thickens.  Add in the lemon, stir, cool and freeze.

What comes out the other end is totally different from what I’m used to, and far more reminiscent of the gelato you get on the street in Catania or Noto.  For one, it doesn’t freeze solid, but retains a scoopable softness even at the freezer’s coldest setting.  So it’s instantly smoother and less prone to granularity – and yet, without the cream and eggs, it’s actually lower in fat, which makes it ‘better’ for you. There, who knew that gelato is actually the healthy option.  With its super concentrated lemon kick, I’d created what tasted like the best lemon curd/marmalade ice known to man.

I have friends who think that the time I spend in the kitchen, my willingness to even contemplate spending a week steeping a lemon in warm sugar syrup, marks me out in some way as a lunatic.

Perhaps they do.  But this lunatic now has a tub of the best, first-attempt gelato that home grown lemons can make.

 

 

 

Refrigerator cake, with bells on

IMG_4444

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.

IMG_4439

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.

Ever-so-slightly gothic Pasta.

IMG_4434

OK, so this is a slightly curveball dish, certainly for most of us who don’t have access to really good fish sellers.  On the whole, I’m pretty well served in Birmingham – we’re a big, diverse city, and our fish market accommodates that – we can even get cuttlefish.  The problem is they sell them precleaned – and they don’t keep the ink sac.  That will make a passable pasta senza nero di sepia, but the nero is really what this meal should be all about.

There is a perfectly good reason that they don’t keep the ink sacs, it’s because they are an armed and volatile liability to have lying around – especially in a domestic setting.  The ink is part of the cuttlefish’s defence mechanism – if danger threatens, then a small release of this into the water creates an instant pea-souper, giving our hero the cover to make a fast exit.  

Take the fish out of water, and the ink out of the fish (it’s in a hard to miss silvery, iridescent pouch), and you’ll find a small ball of black paste.  So far, so innocuous.  However, a little of this ink can go a long, long way. One slip, and you’ll be scrubbing for weeks.  There are more 21st century ways of sourcing your ink – you can sometimes find it presealed into little plastic pouches (like the ones attached to cut flowers), allowing for some containment of the pigmentary danger.  But the real thing will be fresher, stronger and certainly give you a better dish at the end.

So, if you can find intact cuttlefish, ask the fishmonger to clean them for you by all means – but ask them to keep the squid sac for you.  Be brave!  And keep a scrubbing brush close to hand, just in case.

This is one of those ‘scare the horses’ dishes that people will either love, hate, or be too terrified to try.  There’s no doubt that different food cultures are often mutually appalled and repelled by each other’s idiosyncrasies.  British tastes have gone soft of late, so that many of us are challenged by meals based on offal, or when asked to suck the brains from a prawn (but, please, try it – it’s the best bit).  And, well, jet black ink from a creepily intelligent chameleon of the sea…it’s just a bit left field of roast beef and apple crumble.  To be fair, I think the Sicilian responded in much the same way when I first introduced him to Heinz tinned spaghetti.

Assuming you’re feeling adventurous though, and that you can find your cuttlefish, give this dish a go.  It’s such a rich, sweet, BLACK meal.  You can play around with the seasoning to make it hotter or more herby – but at the heart of this dish is the unique ink depth of flavour.  It’s like nothing else – the only comparable depth of I can think of is sea urchins, but this lacks that divisive, love it/hate it iodine whack.  

Pasta col nero di seppia (serves 4)

3 or 4 small, cleaned Cuttlefish, cut into small chunks (size of a 20p piece).

A medium onion, finely chopped

2-3 cloves of crushed or chopped garlic

3-4 tablespoons of tomato puree 

OR

1 tablespoon estratto di pomodoro ( super concentrated sun-dried tomato paste ).  It’s hard to find, but well worth it for added intensity and umami.  If you know anyone going to Sicily – ask them to bring you some back – you can buy it at any supermarket by the tub.  And I’m sure there will be somewhere in London that has it, but I’m still searching.

Water

White wine

Parsley, pepper, salt and tabaso (optional)

Pasta – it should be a ‘long pasta’ – usually linguine.  But we found that jumbo penne is just as good.  The chunks of meat slip inside the penne – like mini cannelloni.

In a wide, deep frying pan (a small wok is ideal) fry off your onion in some olive oil, and when it’s starting to brown, add your garlic.

Add the cuttlefish and after a couple of minutes add a slug of white wine, and the tomato puree or paste – varying the amounts accordingly.

Take the ink pellet from the sac and mix it up in a small glass of water to a liquid.  Don’t wear anything you want to keep for Sunday best.  If you get any of this sauce on you, it’s never coming out!

Add the ink mixture to your onions and cuttlefish and simmer gently for about 20 minutes.

Get the pasta water boiling and salted, and about 8 minutes before you’re ready to serve, part cooking the pasta,  when it’s just under al dente, take a cup of the pasta water and keep; drain and then stir in the pasta to the cuttlefish sauce.

Loosen it with some of the pasta water, the starch will combine everything and make for a smoother, better coating sauce.

Finally, season with parsley, pepper and tabasco for heat. And serve.

It’s black as pitch and shines like a dark pool in an unlit cave. It is both unsettling and hypnotising.  And, it’s totally delicious.  

A ‘what’s in the freezer tea’: Linguine with prawns and pistachio pesto or Linguine con gamberi e pesto di pistacchio

IMG_4364

This is a not-quite-thrown-together dinner – for a Sunday – when, in spite of everyone’s best intentions, the timing of your day goes to pot.  It’s a thing to make together – a deux, if you’re kitchen is big enough!

Sunday evenings can be the worst – the back-to-work itchiness of something not done, something lurking around the corner. So Sundays have strategies – an occupy yourself, don’t have idle hands, state of mind.  Chop wood, walk dogs, dig allotment, clean the house, go out – to the cinema – and in between all that – cook.

But this week, the dogs took longer than usual, the cleaning took forever and we decided to do some art (the Barber Institute – it’s great, go)  and, go see Susperia (also great, unless you don’t like over the top gory horror, in which case, don’t go).  This left an ever smaller window for a dinner, which, as we’d not been shopping, had to be entirely based on what was in the cupboards/freezer.  Not quite Ready Steady Cook, but a long way down that rabbit hole!

What’s in the freezer dinner:

Frozen shell-on raw prawns

Wrinkled tomatoes (last of the allotment’s)

Garlic

Linguine (we’re running low on pasta stores, which could spark an incident if not rectified soon)

Half a bottle of white wine

a lime (because we had no lemons)

Olive oil 

A bag of unsalted pistachios

Starting with the defrosted prawns – shell them, and squeeze the heads into the bowl (don’t be squeamish, the heads have all the flavour) with the meat, keep the shells and heads in another bowl.  Put your shelled prawns aside and transfer the shells/heads into a small saucepan with a just enough water to cover them.  Now bring this to boil and leave to simmer for 30 mins – giving everything a bash and a stir occasionally.  You’re trying to get as much flavour out of these as possible, concentrated down into as little liquid as possible – so watch that they don’t catch and burn.

Meanwhile – make your pesto.  Bought pesto is often just too damn basilly for me, .  But a simple, not so herby pesto can be just as good.  Especially if made with pistachios.  Pesto just means Bash!  So it doesn’t have to be basil and pine nuts, there are other options available.  Stick the pistachios into a pestle and mortar with some sea salt and get bashing.  You’re not looking for a paste, rather, something coarser and with some variations in texture.

Now back to the prawns. Olive oil and a crushed garlic go into your pan, warming gently from cold. If I haven’t explained this before, you start with cold oil as it gives more time for the garlic flavour to infuse the oil.  If you throw the garlic straight into hot oil, it just fries it, without allowing it to share the love.  

Throw in the chopped up wrinkly tomato, and then the prawns.  Cook through quickly, throw in a big glug of white wine, some lime zest, and then strain in the concentrated stock you made earlier from the shells.  Whack up the heat to reduce it by about half.

While you’re doing all of this, get the water for the pasta on.  As ever – the biggest pan you have and a stupid amount of salt.  As soon as it’s properly boiling, start cooking the pasta, and cook it for less time than the packet says.

Once, it’s done, save a mug of pasta water, then drain the linguine, and add your prawns, plus a splash of the water – which will work its starchy magic and bring the whole thing together.  All this in a saucepan with some heat under it.

Now eat it very quickly, because Suspiria starts in 45 minutes, and this is Birmingham. The traffic will be horrendous.

An over-abundance of tomatoes

IMG_1299.JPG

It’s mid October, one of the tipping points of the year, when the final haul of tomatoes has taken up residence in the spare room and is under the strictest of instructions to ‘ripen, damn it!’  This is one of those peculiar compromises that you make when growing things in the UK.  In the mediterranean, you can use the heat of the sun to bake your tomatoes into a cuttable iron-red paste that’ll keep pretty much indefinitely.  The flavour is so concentrated that just a dab of this paste gives any dish a kick up the backside. Meanwhile, in the UK,  you have to pre empt the September rot, that is inevitable once dewy mornings start up, and resort to artificial molly-coddling, persuasion  and (God forbid)  an early burst of central heating to get your over abundance of late summer to ripen. Or you could make green tomato chutney, which will sit, unopened and unwanted on the shelf, waiting to be replaced in three years time, by a younger, fresher, doomed to be forgotten jar of next generation green tomato chutney.

Far better to bite the bullet, and accept that the desk in the spare room will be repurposed for the forseeable, and proceed to carefully lay out your unripe tomatoes, washed and dried, placed on a clean absorbent cloth, bathed with as much light and air as you can muster.  Now, take a photo and walk away, closing the door behind you. And there they will sit.  Try to ignore them.  Try to forget them.  Because if you pay them too much attention, you will only convince yourself that nothing is happening.  That they are no riper two weeks on than when you first created your harvest festival display. Despair may set in if you are too attentive.  But, perhaps allow yourself to just check them once a week, in case you’ve accidentally included a bad apple in the mix. After a month take another photo.  Compare and contrast; with luck and fair wind, the majority will now be a lovely, even, deep red; feel smugness at your horticultural know-how. Now you can panic about how on earth you’re going to use up all these perfectly ripe tomatoes.

Passata

I read somewhere (I think it was a Hugh F-W article or book) that when growing vegetables and fruit, you should avoid those which are cheap and easily available and go instead for those that are tricky to track down or eye-wateringly dear.  Tomatoes, I think, should be the exception to this rule.  Even in the height of the season, your average shop-bought tomato is just a balloon of vapidity, probably not ripe and rarely tasting even of tomato.   So, yes, you can buy them, and yes, you can buy passata for 59p a carton.  But home grown and made will take everything to a new level.

Passata is just a cooked, oomphed-up tomato puree – sealed and pasteurised it keeps for months and means that when it’s grim, wet and iron grey outside – you have the base for a plethora of life-affirming, summer-will-return sauces, stews, soups, posh Blood Marys (I’m working on a recipe for this – watch this space).

Ingredients

All of your spare tomatoes 

Enough water to cover the bottom of the pan (about 2 cm) 

One small onion (per kilo of tomatoes)

One clove of garlic (per kilo of tomatoes)

A pinch of Bicarbonate of Soda

Put the water into the largest saucepan you have (this stops the tomatoes that touch the otherwise dry base of the pan from burning before they start to break down)

Add the tomatoes, onions and garlic, roughly chopped.  You can also add basil, but I prefer to add my herbs to the dish – leaving it out at this stage makes for a more versatile base.

Bring up to the boil, cover and simmer for 30 minutes.  By this time, the tomatoes will have broken down into a soft lumpen mush of seeds, skin and pulp, and the onions and garlic will be soft and malleable.

IMG_4141.JPG

Now you have two choices.  If you like kitchen gadgets, get yourself a hand-cranked food mill and pass the whole lot through it.  They’re very satisfying to use – but a wholly unnecessary, and cupboard space-occupying thing.  Or, you can use a sieve and a wooden spoon, bashing the said mixture through in batches.  This, admittedly, takes longer, but the passata you end up with is more velvety than that from the mill – which is a bit too rustica for me.

Now discard seeds and skins  onto the compost heap, where next year you will inevitably find a tiny forest of tomato seedlings, just after the ones you started on the windowsill have germinated.

Return the tomato mix to the saucepan and simmer again until it’s reduced down to an unctuous double cream thickness.  Stir occasionally to prevent it from catching at the bottom.  When you’re done – turn off the heat and add a pinch of bicarbonate of soda.  This is supposed to cut through the acidity within the sauce.  I’ve seen people use a teaspoon of sugar for the same effect – but I prefer the fizz of this trick.

Meanwhile, have some sterilised jars/bottles available (they’ll need an airtight lid) and then pour/ladle/funnel in your hot passata.  Seal the lids on and pasteurise your work in a water bath (which is a grand way of saying; ‘a big saucepan full of boiling water’), on the cooker, or stick them through a hot wash in the  dishwasher (if you have one) – which is by far the easiest way.  As a guide for how many jars you’ll need – I’ve just done a batch of 4 kilos of tomatoes, which filled six 370ml jars.

Store and use at will.

If you start to hear a fizzing sound when you pass, it means the jars are not airtight and the passata has started to ferment.  All is lost! You may also notice that it has separated out into a thick layer and a more watery top layer.  All is not lost.  It just means that you didn’t cook enough water off before bottling.  When you come to use it, you may want to cook it down a little before adding it to whatever dish you’re creating