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.

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.