Cherries Forever!

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The cherries of July were tantalisingly slow to ripen.  This is the tree’s second year of cropping, after being rescued from the ‘dead and dying’ section of the garden centre.  It was neither, and now thrives in its new home, looking out over the leafy Rea Valley in the middle of Birmingham.  It thanks me for rescuing it with an annually increasing abundance of luxury.

The netting went on way back in April (as the local pigeons do not have the willpower to delay their gratification) and I’ve watched and worried as those small, green blobs, swamped by leaves, gradually swelled, and then suddenly reddened at the end of June; blushing, embarrassed by their weight gain.  Even then, I had to summon up more patience; lipstick scarlet deepened into a more luscious, 50s starlet crimson.  The wait was torture, I fretted in the small hours about determined birds and squirrels going on the rampage and stealing the lot.

But the day came.  I could wait no more.  In the middle of July, off came the nets, and out came the bowls as kilo after kilo of (I believe) the best cherries this side of Kent were stripped in one go to deliver the finest finger staining glut of the year.  We ate and ate cherries.  Warm and sweet from the tree they were without compare. I gave cherries to the neighbours.  I made jam. I made a quivering jelly. Still there were kilos of cherries.  This is where having a larder comes in handy, along with a network of Italians used to the joys and challenges of such abundance.  There is booze involved, and time, forgetfulness and, sometime in the future, the joy of rediscovered treasures.

This comes via a suggestion from Stefano of Italian Home Cooking, Carla Tomasi’s original adapted in Thane Prince’s Perfect Preserves.

700ml 40% vodka (that’s the stronger, more expensive stuff, but you’ll be left 50ml over for a couple of Vodka and tonics)

350g Perfectly ripe cherries

125g dried morello cherries

200g granulated sugar

Sterilise the container you’ll be using (kilner jars work, or any container that you can seal with an airtight lid).

Add all the ingredients to your container.

Shake it.

Put it somewhere dark and out of the way.

Forget about it for at least six weeks.

Now, add two generous tablespoons of maple syrup.

Shake it.

Your cherry vodka is now ready, but it will get better and better with age (although the cherries may bleed all their colour and begin to look like ghoulish pickled eyeballs straight out of Hammer Horror).  I recently found a two year old jar of figs that had had a similar treatment.  Two years ago, they were ‘ok’, but now, they induce rapture.  Sometimes, there is value and virtue in shoving things to the back of the shelf.

Drink the vodka as a liqueur, eat the cherries with ice cream, or in a grown ups’ trifle, but maybe, not til next year, or maybe even the next.

Posh bread & butter pudding for January

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Some things are meant to be, it’s as though they were preordained by a greater power.

Bread, Marmalade and Butter pudding, is such a thing.  But, and this is a very big but, only when you substitute bread for panettone.   It has absolutely no finesse.  This is something to make for you alone, or close family, or friends – your nearest and dearest.  It is too good for dinner parties meant to impress, they don’t deserve it. 

So here we go.

Bread and butter pudding is such a childhood, nursery pudding  – it’s sort of woven into the fabric and culture of British food.  Yet it’s also  something so easy to make spectacularly unappetising.  Bad bread, cut thinly will go soggy, too long in too high an oven and you end up with bitter, burnt rabbit droppings instead of swollen, juicy sultanas.  In the very recent past, it was suggested that margarine was an acceptable substitute for butter (clue, it isn’t).

That said, it’s also very easy to get spectacularly right – with a little tweaking of the kids’ stable, you can have a sexy, if chaotic looking winter pudding, that is bowl-scrapingly good.

This most often appears at mine in January and February, due to the predictable rhythms of the kitchen year:

1) at least one person will, kindly, have given me a panettone for Christmas.  However, I’ll probably have bought one, the Sicilian may also have bought one.  There will be a surfeit of pannetone taking up a lot of shelf space.

2) Seville oranges will be appearing in the shops.  And it is impossible to resist the urge to make marmalade.  Therefore old marmalade must be used up to justify the making of new marmalade.  (more on marmalade in the next week or so)

3) It is dark, the twinkle of Christmas is over, and spring is a long, long way off.  I’ve never understood the school of thought that suggests we deprive, and deny during January.  Save all that for better days, when the sun and growth and the prospect of trips to the seaside are around to make up for our loss.  Hearty puddings are a necessary pyschological defence at this time of year.

The tweak then is just two ingredients; panettone instead of bread, and the addition of good, bitter marmalade (your own, someone else’s or from the shop – go for the one which pleases you most and is easiest).  The butter-rich panettone  is both lighter and richer than ordinary bread, making the whole pudding more grown up somehow, whilst simultaneously furring up your arteries.  The marmalade and dark sugar give a punch of citrus and bitterness that further elevate it above nursery food status.

For 4-6 people you’ll need:

1 classic panettone, cut the crusts off.

50g sultanas

Butter (at room temperature)

Bitter marmalade

2 eggs

100ml Double cream

300 ml Whole milk

25g Dark brown sugar 

A large pie dish.

Start by slicing your panettone into thick (not quite doorstop) slices and then cutting these into triangles that will fit into your pie dish, pointy side up.

Butter them on both sides and spread marmalade generously on one side.  

Arrange them as artfully in the pie dish as you can, with a spoonful of sultanas between each slice.

Beat the eggs, milk and cream together and pout over the bread. 

Leave it for 10 minutes to soak in, then sprinkle the brown sugar over the top and bake for 25 minutes.

It’ll be tongue-scalding hot when it comes out of the oven, so be prepared for vigorous blowing if you’re serving it straightaway.

New traditions

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December 2nd and the darkness continues to deepen.  In this light and (or absence of it) nothern European flavours and traditions are edging out the Sicilian.  When 4 o’clock feels like 10 o’clock, and the skies are relentlessly lead grey, you see the reason why we try to light our way out of the gloom, with the explosions of Bonfire Night rolling into the increasingly riotous gaudiness of the Christmas build up.

First though, there’s advent, which is supposed to be like Lent, all penance, contemplation and guilt.  I think it’s safe to say that that version of advent has been ditched by most people.  But I do get a real buzz out of a measured preparation for Christmas – annual rituals such as making sloe gin in October, allowing a restrained advent calendar as the only decoration until 13th, when the bling emerges from the Christmas Chest.

Mincemeat is an essential part of that preparation,  Everyone likes a mince pie, (well everyone I know).  But not everyone likes (or has the stomach capacity for) Christmas cake and pudding.  The pies have been around for at least 800 years, in one form or another, so, as you’d expect, there are more recipes floating around than you can begin to imagine.  There are various vague explanations of its origins, none of them definitive.  ‘Mince’ in French means ‘thin’ so perhaps we have the Normans to thank for their invention – perhaps there is a parallel version in France that has taken a different culinary pathway? You can go back to the ‘original’ and include actual meat (Hannah Glasse suggests beef tongue), use vegetarian suet instead of kidney fat, go light on the fat and sugar altogether, and go for more of a boozy compote type affair.  There are no rules, just traditions, and as every family and every home creates and evolves its own Christmas traditions – your mincemeat should be yours alone.

I decided to create a new tradition this afternoon, tweaking my recipe by adding quince and crystallised ginger, and in the gloom, I wanted the house to smell of spices and treacle sugar and hot rum. 

Everyone agrees that the foundations of your mincemeat are dried fruit and spices.  That’s where I started – and then started improvising.

250g sultanas

250g raisins

150g candied orange peel 

150g flaked almonds (crushed up)

150g crystallised ginger

2 eating apples (chopped)

1 quince (peeled and chopped)

A mix of cinnamon, allspice, cloves, mace and coriander – (around half a teaspoon of each but to fit your own taste) all ground together

200g vegetarian lard

Juice and rind of an unwaxed lemon

350g dark brown sugar.

2 tablespoons of brandy

2 tablespoons of dark rum ( I keep a flavoured bottle with a cinnamon stick, allspice and mace steeping) 

This recipe is unusual in that you then cook all the ingredients (bar the alcohol) on the lowest of heats for 1 – 2 hours.  This is mainly to cook the quince and apple (especially the quince), but it also melts the suet through the mixture and ensures that any dusty dryness is eased out of the spices.  Once cooked, stir through the booze and jar up the mincemeat.

It now needs time to age – 2 weeks at least – but you can leave it sealed in the fridge for next year if you want some really fine mincemeat (all that sugar and alcohol make excellent preservatives).  Like sloe gin, the longer it’s left, the better it’ll be.

And there you are – all set to get baking your famous mince pies, the ones that everyone talks about, the ones people look forward to as the nights draw ever in and it becomes acceptable to mention the C word.

Or, if you like, you can make a tart. My own particular kitchen weakness  .  My mum would make an open tart, filled with a jar of humble Robinson’s mincemeat and topped with a lattice of pastry.  Served piping hot with custard, it was a special, rare treat.  It has no finesse or sophistication and its existence could probably tip a cardiologist into insanity, so keep it to yourself, as your own guilty pleasure.

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.

Raspberries! Raspberries! Raspberries!

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November has been unseasonably mild so far. I was walking the dogs in a T-shirt on Wednesday, and was still too hot.  There are still wasps about (I’m allergic to their stings, so I have a paranoid eye for them).  And best of all, the autumn raspberries are showing no signs of quitting.  At this rate we’ll be having them on Christmas Day.

I already have enough jam to last me a decade and the new-fangled freezer is flashing me alarming displays that something is wrong – but not what is wrong.  It seems the only way to find out is to pay for an expensive engineer to come and tut at it, and probably tell me that ‘this is a known problem with this model’.  So I don’t want to risk freezing them, in case of sudden freezer death

The upshot is, I’m eating and cooking with fresh raspberries like they’re going out of fashion, which is hardly onerous, but does require a bit of variation to prevent the onset of raspberry ennui.  It’s also allowed me to resort to one of may all time favourite puddings – both stupidly simple and inherently British.  It’s from Elizabeth David, like so many good things, you can find the original in her Summer Cooking.  It’s just a raspberry crumble, although for some strange reason, she insists it’s a shortbread.  Are you allowed to disagree with Elizabeth David?  I’ve got a feeling it could be against the rules?  But whatever it’s called, it’s fantastic.  I’ve metricated her recipe for 21st century purposes.  Raspberries are definitely a northern thing, which is why the best raspberries are grown in Scotland.  And hot fruit puddings are an undeniably British speciality.  So the first time I made this for the Sicilian, it was an eye opener.  He slowly declared it ‘de-li-cious’ (insert Italian accent).  So, thank you Elizabeth David for your shortbread not crumble.

450g fresh raspberries

170g plain flour

100g soft brown sugar*

50g butter, cut into small pieces

1/2 teaspoon ginger

1 teaspoon baking powder

She ‘strews’ her raspberries with “a little white sugar,” in their pie dish.  I like this, it implies the need for a flourish, even on a humble crumble

To  make the ‘shortbread’, mix the butter and flour together til it’s a slightly chunky, breadcrumby texture

Add the sugar, ginger and baking powder and mix everything up thoroughly.

Cover your raspberries, but don’t firm it down.  

Bake at Gas mark 4/180 C for 20-25 mins.

 

The raspberries intensify in flavour, they become quite heavenly.  Eat it with cream, or ice cream, to top off its rib-sticking joy.  I’ve also used chopped up stein ginger in the crumble – but I really, really like ginger – so don’t feel obliged to follow my whim.

*She calls is moist brown sugar, but I know people who are physically repelled by that word, so for their sake, I’m playing fast and loose with language

Fruit cheeses – a peculiarly British amnesia

This is a short one,  mainly because I wrote about quince cheese last year, (the very first post) so there’s not a lot more to say.  Fruit cheeses are a super thick jam – so thick, that you can cut them, just like cheese.  Although packed with sugar, they should also retain a puckering tartness. 

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Quick recipe

Equal weights of jam sugar to cooked fruit pulp and lemon juice.  

Simmer until it’s a roiling, suppurating , molten, burn-inflicting mass and when you pull a wooden spoon through it, the pulp momentarily remains parted, like the Red Sea, just before it engulfed the pharaoh’s army.

Decant into chosen containers (saucers, cake tins, old molds from Sicily) and leave to set.

It keeps for ever, if kept somewhere dry and airtight.

Eat with real cheese and pickles

Last year, when I made the cotognata (Italian quince cheese) with mended moulds, saved from the bin, despite the best, foot-stamping efforts of TNT, I was talking with J about the long and broad tradition of British fruit cheeses, and we both started collecting recipes.  Whilst Sicily has it’s cotognata, and mustarda (not the spicy mustard version, but the heady, sweet, sweet grape juice one that Mary Taylor Simeti writes about), in Britain we quietly made the setting of fruit into hard jellies an under-the-radar national treasure.  

Perhaps it’s our tougher climate, but we do have a lot of pectin-rich fruit in our trees and hedgerows.  And pectin is what turns fruit and sugar into something stiff, set and jewel-like.  I’ve also just read that it can slightly reduce your cholesterol levels.  What’s not to like?

So with this trove of recipes, gleaned from pre and post war women, foraging their way out of poverty and rationing, I decided to assemble my own array of forgotten cheeses.  Quince cheese is still probably the one more people have heard of – although they’ll probably call it membrillo if they have heard of it, perhaps thinking that only the Spanish ever thought to make it.  But I wanted to celebrate the diversity of Britain’s own food heritage, whilst appropriating the charm and twee religiosity of the Sicilian moulds.

Over three months, around Birmingham, I squirrelled out rosehips, medlars, crabapples, damsons and quinces.  And bought some greengages.  Then applying the magic formula above, made my jewels.  The only variation is with the medlar cheese, which frankly, just tastes like earthy sweetness.  So, added cinnamon and allspice were used to jazz up its sturdy brownity.

To finish though – I’ve been set a task – a 17th century recipe for Queen Henrietta Maria’s Marmalade of Cherries – dug from the inestimably excellent ‘Good Things of England’, Florence White’s treasure trove of English food. We’ll see if it’s a recipe that was good enough to console her in her unfortunate widowhood.  J has dropped a big hint that there’s plenty of time to make it before Christmas, and I have a freezer drawer stuffed with the necessaries.  

Also, next year, I plan to make some suitably British moulds, to sit alongside the culturally appropriated Sicilian ones.  Fruit cheeses with images of medieval popes on them are all well and good, but they tend to upset the CofE contingent amongst my friends and relations.  I’ll see if I can fashion a passable St George or perhaps the head of Charles 1, although I doubt Henrietta would approve of the later.