Biancomangiare, fit for a Norman

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British people find this a daunting thing.  It’s best not to tell them what’s in it, lest entrenched prejudices and fears are (justifiably) roused.  Just present it, a fait accompli, raising ‘oohs’ and ‘aahs’

However, people from the Mediterranean; Sicily, Sardinia, Cyprus, rhapsodise over this, tear up at the thought of their island’s version of it. It is memory of a dish. It is a pudding of almonds, pistachios and rosewater. A jelly with no gelatine. Virginal white, like the travertine of Ortigia.  There is wobble, sensuality, opera even.  Am I getting carried away?  Perhaps.  It is, after all just a blancmange.

And with that single word, I can hear the klaxons sounding on five continents.

Images of lurid, set-foam pink frightening the horses.

Stick with me.

Imagine the summer heat of Sicily, the almond harvest has hit the markets, and you are weighed down by their velvety abundance.  What to do?  What to make?

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One of the most refreshing things you can do is to make almond milk (as ever, this is a very, very distant cousin of the stuff you buy in cartons).  You can mix just a few bitter almonds into the mix to intensify the flavour from their added cyanide kick  (not essential, especially if you’re of a nervous disposition).  And then the sun of Sicily, sitting on the same latitude of North Africa, has already ripened those almonds to perfection, imbibing them with a depth of flavour you will seldom encounter anywhere else.

The milk is easy to make in the UK too, take at least 250g of dried almonds and blanche them in hot water.  The word makes it sound fancier than it is. The hot water loosens the brown papery skin around the almonds, so you can pop them out, all creamy white sweetness.  It is not a chore if you do it in front of the TV, or whilst chatting to friends with a cup of tea.  Then blitz the denuded nuts, and soak them in cold water for 24 hours with a teaspoon of almond extract to compensate for any flavour lost in transit.

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Strain the steeping wonderfulness through a clean cloth, muslin if you have it.  The nuts will have lost most of their flavour, but you can still use them in baking, once they’ve dried out. 

The bone china drink you get out is essence of almond.  It is perfumed, and when sweetened and chilled, can transport you to an imagined world of sultans, of Cleopatra, legendary cities and wild adventures.  It smells and tastes like decadence distilled.  And its ability to refresh and restore in the leaden heat of Palermo in August, only adds to its magic.

Can it be improved?  Well yes.  It can be made into a pudding, for sculpting and moulding.  For adding theatre and silliness to a meal.

Take your litre of fresh almond milk, and use a little of it to mix up 70g of cornflour.  To the rest, add 100-200g caster sugar.  This is a sliding scale of Sicilian.  The more Sicilian you are, the more sugar you’ll add.  Grate the zest of a lemon into the sugar and milk and gently warm through to dissolve the sugar.

As soon as this has happened, add the mixed flour and remaining almond milk.  Turn up the temperature, and stir continuously.

Very quickly, it will sputter and bubble, and the milk will thicken to a set custard consistency.

Before you started, you could have had a rummage around the back of the cupboard, pulling out any odd little cake tins or jelly moulds you may have inherited, or bought from Ikea on a whim.  You can lightly grease them with almond oil.  If you don’t own any frivolous cake tins, small glasses will do.

Turn the heat off, and with not a moment to lose, fill your chosen molds with the now scalding milk., which will rapidly become sullenly viscous as the temperature drops.

Once it’s cooled to room temeprature, chill until you’re ready to serve.

Turn it out and decorate as you see fit; chopped green pistachios work, I make a praline with the leftover ground almonds and sugar (then blitz it to a powder). There is a Cypriot version of this that uses rosewater – so the dried rose petals I can get in my local Iranian deli work really well for that.

As a pudding, it’s easy to make, (24 hours of soaking aside), and it’s even easier to make it look special, camp, grand.  But so delicate to taste, a one hit flavour and a smooth, becalming texture.  This is not the blancmange of post war Britain, sucking the joy off the table, but a Blancmange of William the Good and his legendary Norman court.  Something otherworldy.  Something mythical.

Ingredients

  • 250g whole almonds (if you want a stronger flavour, use more, up to 500g if youre especially decadent).  And if you can get fresh, you’re laughing.
  • 1 litre of water
  • 70g cornflour
  • 1 lemon
  • 100-200g caster sugar

Panna Cotta

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A year ago, I wrote about Gelo di Melone, and its worrying kinship with milk jelly. My antipathy towards milk jelly will never abate, never waver.  The worst of it was the way it separated out to leave the thinnest of layers of clear, actual jelly at the bottom, topped by a lactic morass of awfulness.  That sliver was the final insult, I’d have been perfectly happy with just jelly.  But, no, someone had to go and spoil it for everyone else.

So what have I just made?  What am I writing about?  Milk Jelly.

There has been an epiphany.  A road to Damascus moment in Moseley.

I made Panna Cotta.  Cream, milk, sugar, vanilla, turned into wobble by gelatine.  Panna Cotta that reveals the distance between classic, unchanging, delightful recipes, and the joyless reinterpretations churned out by malaevolent post war home economists.  I imagine that Panna Cotta and Elizabeth David got on famously; as she fought against the blandness of British food that had forgotten its history and lost its way, showing us the light of what Europe could offer.  I’m going to check this later!

Literally, it is cooked (cotta) cream (panna); but only just, heated enough only to dissolve the sugar and disperse decadent vanilla perfume.  Then sheet gelatine, that has been turned disturbingly sensual after a soak in water, is stirred through the mix and all is left to cool.

There is a a trick here; the vanilla seeds from the split pod you use will sink to the bottom if you pour your mix straight into its moulds.  The result, when you turn them out, looks like a garnish of fag ash.  I like the effect – it’s a visual in joke that reminds me of the Sicilian’s mum, whose fags and ash are a constant presence in Palermo.  However, should you wish to avoid the effect, let your mix cool, and begin to thicken,  then stir it to produce a more even and artful distribution of seeds.

On its own, a panna cotta is a delight; clean, sweet and milky, emboldened by the exoticism that vanilla always gifts.  Pair it with fruit – perhaps a compote of blackberries, or, even better, some of the boozy cherries from the previous post, and you have something seriously wonderful.  It is not a milk jelly, it is heaven.

Since making it, I’ve been reading up on Panna Cotta.  And I’m glad I did it that way round!  Many and strident are the opinions aired on how to make the perfect panna cotta – how sweet, how creamy, how much double entendre the wobble should convey.  It’s a mine-field of authenticity and cultural appropriation.  Luckily, I bumbled into the thing in my usual gung-ho, act first, think later way, armed only with Two Kitchens, and it was straightforward, easy, almost. I would urge everyone to give it a go.   I always do a milk/cream combo, for custards, ice creams and now, it seems Panna Cotta.  But other versions are out there.

Panna Cotta

(Makes four)

300ml double cream

200ml full fat milk (If you can get Gold Top, splurge, throw caution to the wind)

1 vanilla pod

100g caster sugar (use less if you’re planning to serve with a sweet compote)

3 sheets of gelatine

Mix the milk and cream in a saucepan and warm (don’t boil) on a low hob.  

Split your vanilla pod (try to get a plump and moist one – they’re far more generous with seeds and flavour than the abandoned, desiccated things some places sell)

Scrape out the seeds, and add them, with the pod, to the cream mix.

Add the sugar and stir until it’s all dissolved.

Remove from the heat, and add the gelatine sheets, which you’ve been soaking in cold water for ten minutes.  Give them a squeeze to get rid of any surplus water first.

Leave the mixture to cool for an hour, perhaps longer, until it begins to set, but before the wobble is fixed.

Stir it, to mix the settled seeds evenly back through the cream and then fill individual panna cotta pots (easy to find online).

Ideally, you then leave them to set over night, and when you’re ready to serve, dip the pots into very hot water, which will melt the cream enough to turn them out.

Serve with the fruit of your choice.

Discovering Gelato

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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.

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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.

 

 

 

Oranges ARE the only fruit….in January

If you go to Palermo and visit the Botanical Gardens in January, you will see groves of citrus trees bowed down with fruit – oranges, lemons, grapefruit, bergamots, kumquats.  They’ll be littering the floor beneath the trees, everywhere will smell of citrus.  It’s a wonderful, wonderful sensual inundation, that seems to be almost inconsequential and hum drum, judging by the amount of unloved, unpicked, ungathered fruit.  The closest UK parallel I could think of is the orchards around the Herefordshire village where my mum lives; they audibly groan under the weight of freeloading mistletoe – I’m still bowled over every time I see its superabundance, but it remains utterly ignored by almost everyone else. It is wallpaper.

The Palermo harvest reaffirms that winter is truly the season of the citrus, and means that some of the best fruits of the year make a far too brief appearance in the kitchen.  I know that there are year-round oranges, which sit unloved in so many fruit bowls, encased by invisible wax so that they never go off – lasting for weeks/months to admonish you over your lack of 5 a day.  But I’m championing the small group of citruses that resolutely remain as fixed points in the year.  They’re heralded just before Christmas but the arrival of proper satsumas and clementines (by proper, I mean, ripe, unabashedly orange, juicy and sweet).  Although the first time I saw them rebranded as ‘Easy Peelers’, I could have kicked something!  And then in January, in the year’s darkest days (in terms of both light and mood) along come the blood and Seville Oranges to lift the spirits.

How they have resisted being co-opted into the twelve months of the year cornucopias that are supermarkets today, I don’t know.  Perhaps because there’s only so much marmalade you can consume in a life time, maybe that particular market is saturated; by mid February everyone’s yelling ‘enough with the marmalade’  I do fear that one day, some bright spark will twig that there’s a bigger, brighter market to tap into, and another chunk of nature will be felled to ensure we get what we want, when we want it.  I hope not, seasonal food is exciting, and appreciated all the more because it is so time limited. 

And so to oranges.

Seville Oranges are a national institution, even if we have to import them.  In the depths of winter, they seem almost magical.  Marmalade making offsets all the motivational guff written about January being the most depressing month.  I use a recipe ripped from an old Sunday supplement,  It lives in the same cookbook, along with a recipe for orange flower water biscuits.  It is a worn and sticky piece of paper now, but an old friend.  My marmalade is always very dark and very bitter.  I don’t know if it’s a reflection of my soul, but I never end the day with jars of stained glass window marmalade.  I always make too much, and have recently learnt a handy tip that an old friend’s mum uses.  Eileen, a stalwart of the WI and famous for her preserves, avoids being crushed under a mountain of her own jams by taking a jar of her marmalade whenever she’s invited out, ensuring a liberal distribution across rural Northamptonshire as a result.  I shan’t give a recipe here, as a great many have already been written, and written by better cooks than me.  I use Nigel Slater’s and it never fails.

The recipe that I will give is a simple one to put under the stairs for next Christmas.

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Seville Orange Gin

Take the peel of half a dozen seville oranges.

Place it in a sealable jar with 75cl of gin

Add 50g sugar (vary this according to your tastes)

Leave it for a year, or longer if you can.  

This is a fantastic home made liquer.  It is absolutely perfect for winter and firesides, it reeks of getting in from a blustery, muddy dog walk and shutting the door on the world.  Try to forget you made it, as it gets better and better with age.

And then the blood oranges.

I love blood oranges.  I really, really love blood oranges.  I have a visceral memory of the first time child me encountered one – the ghoulish, Hammer horror wonderment that such a thing existed.  Their novelty, and transience made them my favourite fruit.  I doubt I saw more than half a dozen in all those years – and I still don’t know what they were doing in North Warwickshire – the closest we got to exotic was Larry Grayson driving around town in his pink Rolls Royce.  And then they vanished,  for years it seems.  I don’t know where they went, but I have no blood orange memories until very recently, just a lingering feeling of loss.  Perhaps because of this, I tend to bulk buy them when theydo appear – and then have to convert them into favourite recipes.

The ‘blood’ is a chemical initiated by cold nights – (yes, even in Sicily, they get cold nights), the same process turns lemons yellow and oranges orange.  And they have a different flavour to normal oranges – fruitier, sweeter – it’s been described as being raspberry-like.

And they have their own rituals in my house – a sorbet and a curd.

The sorbet is easy – and allows me to keep the memory of blood oranges alive into the summer.

The curd is equally simple, but only keeps for a few weeks – so it is almost as ephemeral as the oranges themselves.  However, it makes one of the best pudding marriages I’ve ever stumbled across – a generous spoonful with rice pudding creates a thing of utter joy.

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Blood Orange Sorbet

8 Blood oranges (the bloodier, the better)

350 ml water

220 g caster sugar.

2 egg whites

Make a syrup by dissolving the sugar in the water on the hob.

Juice the oranges and then sieve this into the syrup.

Leave to cool.

Once it’s cool, put it into the freezer (or an ice cream maker if you have one)

If it’s in the freezer, check it every hour or so, and break up any ice that’s forming – keep doing this until it has the consistency of a slush puppy.

Then whisk the egg whites until the stiff, and then mix these through the nearly frozen sorbet.

(if you’re using a machine, watch for the same consistency and then add the egg whites).

Refreeze the whole mixture, giving it a final stir before it freezes solid.

Blood Orange Curd

3 blood oranges

4 egg yolks

150g caster sugar

40g unsalted butter.

Put the yolks and sugar in a pan and whisk together.

Add the sieved juice of the oranges and then, on a gentle heat, cook for about 10 minutes, stirring all the time.  It’ll become thicker as the egg cooks.

Remove from the heat, and add in the butter 10g at a time, stirring it through until it is all melted.

Transfer to a jar and keep in the fridge until your ready to use it.

You can use this technique with any citrus – but it should be tart, as well as sweet – so works best with oranges, lemons, or bergamots (if you can find them)