Learning to love the wobble

BONET

I’m going to need a bigger plate

So many food likes and dislikes can be traced back to childhood encounters, experiences that fix an immoveable opinion. The lottery of school dinners in the 70s was the arena where I learnt to be faddy about what I ate, approaching meal times with suspicion and trepidation. I can remember a particularly vivid nightmare, where I was served up a stew of slugs – even today I can viscerally recall the muscular sliminess that I tasted, jolting me awake.

Puddings were where the high stakes games were played – there was so much that could go right, or go awry.  A glorious day would be chocolate cracknel (I think just cornflakes and chocolate balled up by a ice cream scoop), with mint custard; conversely the mood could sink to untold lows if it was creme caramel, anaemic wobbling rubber in a pool of brown tears.  Its sweetness could not hide its mediocrity. It was the taste of disappointment.

As an adult, as a cook, I have never overcome my childish impressions of creme caramel – never been tempted to revisit, retaste and potentially unlearn my prejudice.  However, today, in a surprising development, I have segued in its general direction, almost by mistake.  But first you have to put everything I’ve said so far, out of your head.  Instead think of almonds; amaretti and amaretto, think fresh caramel and chocolate.  Think patience and sensuality.

This is Bonet, a pudding of the Piemonte, in the north of Italy.  It’s easy to make, although requires precision (not one of my main attributes, but with guidance, I pulled it off).

How I discovered this wonderful, silken thing is in itself a result of new experiences and changes to life brought about by the lockdown across the world. Exactly a year ago today – 16 November 2019, I was in Rome to learn about artichokes with Rachel Roddy and Carla Tomesi at the Latteria studio. It was a wonderful weekend of food, storms and art – which I wrote about here. I’d never met Carla before and was bowled over by her knowledge, humour and the way she made everything look so effortless, but was so keen to pass on everything she knew.

Come the new year, the lockdowns that rolled across the world and the explosion of Zoom, Carla came up with idea of having an occasional catch up, anyone was welcome – to talk about food, what we were cooking, which ingredients we couldn’t get hold of. And over the months, Carla’s chit chats have grown, people dropping in and out from across the world and across timezones. On these Sunday afternoons (or mornings for some of us), strangers from Italy, France, the UK, Canada, America, Mexico and more, sit for an hour, often longer, and become friends. There are regular faces, reunions, people ‘meeting’ for the first time after months of Instagram messaging – it is one of the positive things in the year that I have valued the most.

Often, Carla will send out a recipe beforehand, so those who want to, can cook along with her – learning new techniques and flavours. There is a lovely companionship to be had, knowing that we are simultaneously preparing the same dish in numerous countries and across thousands of miles.

And this then is how I came to discover and make Bonet, overturning my dread of wobble on the anniversary of the day that I met and began learning from Carla.

Bonet

For the caramel 

200g caster sugar

6 tablespoons of water

For the custard

1 litre full fat mill

25 amaretti biscuits crushed.

5 medium eggs

5 tablespoons unsweetened cocoa powder

4 tablespoons caster sugar

Ameretto liqueur

You can either make individual puddings in ramekins, or one large one a 20cm pie dish.

Set the oven at 160 C or Gas mark 3

The caramel

Make your caramel by putting the water and sugar in a pan on a low heat. Without stirring, until it starts to colour, allow it to simmer and then melt. It can easily burn, so watch carefully, you’re aiming for something the colour of a ginger nut.

When it’s ready, use the caramel to line your pie dish, or ramekins.

It’s very hot, but will set quickly, so work fast but carefully – wearing gloves if you’re nervous.

Roll the dish around (like you’re sieving for gold), and the caramel will coat the sides as you tip it, setting into a solid, glassy finish.

You can do this bit in advance, which has the added advantage that, as the caramel cools – it starts to crack like breaking ice, which is both exciting, and strangely beautiful.

The custard

I assembled everything in bowls beforehand, which made everything very simple, and meant I could work quickly.

Start by heating the milk and sugar, and whilst this is happening, beat your eggs.

While whisking, pour the boiling milk over the eggs, and keep whisking til they’re well mixed.

Now sieve this mixture (which will remove any bits of egg white that didn’t get beaten in).

Pour the sieved mixture over the crushed amaretti (I blitzed them in the blender to get a fine powder) and leave to soak for five minutes.

Resieve the mixture, to remove any larger bits of biscuit.

Now into the sieved cocoa powder add a couple of tablespoons of the mixture, stirring together to form a paste, and getting rid of any lumps.  Then add the rest of the mixture and stir thoroughly.  One final sieve will remove any stubborn lumps of cocoa powder.

Fill your pie dish or ramekins and place them in a water bath in the oven. (A deep roasting tin is ideal), fill the water to just over half way up the side of the pudding dish.

Check after 20 mins for individual puddings, 40 mins if you’re making a large one. It is ready when you have a set wobble – my oven is always cooler than it says it is, so mine took over an hour to set.

Ideally, you make this the day before, so once it’s done, allow it to cool, and then refrigerate.

Serve by placing your plate over the dish and flipping them over quickly – revealing your triumphantly glazed, milky decadent Bonet, luxuriating in its own bath of delicious caramel.

As you can see from the photo – I need a bigger plate!

Parmigiana, and official birthdays.

This was a year of a BIG birthday, with all the accompanying pressures to throw a party. But, I’m not a party kind of persona.  Posh frocks and loud music aren’t my style.  Plus the birthday was back in April, around Easter, with a strong likelihood of bluster and downpours.  So despite demurring and equivocating,  I was eventually pursuaded that I could hold a summer party, an official, Queen’s birthday, if you like.

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My allotment site is tucked away on a hillside in Birmingham.  The entrances are out of the way and hidden.  You have to find your way down unadopted roads, or have a key for a gate in the woodland known only to dog walkers and spliff smoking kids.  These semi-concealed gateways conceal the size and beauty of the space.  They lead you to unexpected views over rolling valleys of trees; an incongruously bucolic setting, in the middle of a sprawling conurbation.  There are plots of enviable order and control, where pristine sheds are equipped with wood burners and bunting flutters on verandas.  There are plots given over entirely to callaloo and spuds.  And there is mine, given over mostly to weeds and dahlias.  Most importantly though, aside from all this controlled and shambolic verdancy, there is a clubhouse, complete with bar, pool tables and a glitterball. It seemed the natural place to throw a party; remote and low key, when the idea of throwing a party induces waves of social anxiety. 

I decided to do the food.  I was on a budget, and thought it better to stick money behind the bar than throw it the way of sagged microwaved samosas.  I thought it a no brainer.  Just because the oven was still on the fritz, the freezer was full up with beans and raspberries, and there was the small matter of a full time job, none of these needed to be an obstacle to cooking for 60.  

But for the main, I needed something that could be made in advance and reheated on the day.  Something vegetarian, but with enough umph to fool the carnivores.  Also, something allotment appropriate – allowing me to show off, and say ‘of course, I grew the ingredients’ (well, some of them).

It seemed, therefore, a parmigiana appropriate event.  I cleared out the freezer, co-opted a friend’s cooker and raided Poundland for their entire stock of foil roasting trays.

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If you’re new to this dish, it is a staple of the south (disregard the name, it’s not from Parma)  If there’s such a thing as a Sicilian pot luck supper, this is what you take.  You see it for sale in cafes to take away with you, but equally, it’s a surefire way of wrestling the aubergines and tomatoes under control, as they start to overwhelm you in August. At the end, you get a rib sticker of a dish, that can be frozen for darker days.

It’s a laborious process – involving a fry-a-thon, with all the accompanying smoke and splatters and grease spots.  It’s an extractor full on, windows flung wide and back door open type of recipe, but I promise you, it’s worth it.

Sliced aubergine is plunged into hot, deep olive oil and cooked to a roast chicken skin brown on both sides.  Drain the slices on kitchen roll and then layer, in a deep oven dish, with passata, basil and mozzarella  When you’ve filled the house with haze, and the dish with aubergine, grate namesake Parmesan over the top and bake until bubbling and brown.

Now, you can eat it straight away, or you can let it cool, then refrigerate and have it cold (or reheated) the next day.  When it will be better by miles! It is best with hunks of crunchy bread that  you use to wipe up the carnelian-red sauce and wrap with strings of elastic mozzarella.

Parmigiana di melanzane. (4 greedy people, 6 at a push).

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There are some very complicated versions of this recipe around, with added herbs, red wine, nuts.  Feel free to try them, but I think that the success of this dish is its simplicity.  It is typical of much of the food of Sicily, in that it is home cooking, making use of the best of whatever is available,.  The more flavours and textures you add, ironically, the more you lose.  Like so many Italian recipes, especially in the south, you are actually only relying on three or four main ingredients to get the end effect.

  • 6 big, purple aubergines. Sliced lengthways, just over 0.5 cm thick.
  • Olive oil (be generous)
  • 300g mozarella (ideally buffalo)
  • Fresh basil
  • 100g Parmesan, grated
  • Black pepper
  • 2 cloves of garlic
  • 1 litre passata
  • Salt the sliced aubergines, leaving them to drip for an hour, then rinse and pat dry (this is not to remove bitterness, but moisture, so that they are firmer when fried).

Now start frying the slices, a few at a time, in enough oil to almost submerge the slices.  They will absorb a lot of the oil, which is part of the end flavour, and texture.  You can, for economy or health, grill or oven bake, but it will be an entirely different dish at the end.

Into a little cold olive oil, add crushed garlic, and gently heat it up until the garlic is on the edge of golden brown.  Add the passata and bring to a simmer for up to 30 minutes, reducing it down by about a third.

Next is the easy bit, Blue Peter cooking. 

Put a layer of aubergine slices on the bottom of your oven dish, then add torn blobs of mozarella, basil leaves, about a fifth of the parmesan,  black pepper and enough tomato sauce to smooth over and cover everything.  Add another layer of aubergines, and repeat the cheese sauce process.

Keep doing this until you have filled you dish (probably 4-5 layers), and finish with a generous helping of parmesan and black pepper.

Bake at 200 degrees C/ Gas mark 6 for 30-45 minutes (you want a browned top and bubbling edges)

Leave for at least ten minutes before serving – longer if you can; overnight ideally.  And before you serve, throw some more fresh basil over the top.

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Meatballs with lemon and fennel

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Meatballs are another of those things I came late to (it’s a long list, I was a fussy child).  Their tinned version created a strong and stubborn aversion.  I assumed that they all came with that vaguely gristly sensation and slightly odd (perhaps offaly?) taste.  I also could never get my head around the pairing with spaghetti.  It seemed, indeed was, so impractical.   Guaranteed to make the maximum amount of mess, use all the cutlery and be in no possible way as romantic as they made out in Lady and the Tramp.

So of course, when I first tried the real thing, made at home, with good meat, herbs and cheese; bound together by breadcrumbs and egg rather than a patented scientific process and browned before being coated in rich velveteen tomato sauce, my prejudices and aversions were overturned.  Not least because, actually, just eat them with bread, forget the pasta, it’s a fiction that got turned into a fact by mistake.

This is a new version, I’ve mashed up a couple of recipes by Georgio Locatelli in his Made in Sicily book.  The cooking on the barbecue is also a technique that the resident Sicilian has not heard of, so perhaps the method may not be strictly kosher, but the flavours are.  I combined the fennel and the lemon because 1) the wild fennel is still frondy enough to use with abandon and 2) the lemon tree needed a prune, so I had leaves to burn.

The amount of fennel you need will vary according to taste, but also according to how strongly it’s flavoured.  Hotter summers make for stronger flavours.  To really up the aniseed, use fennel seeds instead.  If you can’t get hold of lemon leaves (although ask around, given that you can buy the trees in Homebase these days, an obliging and green fingered friend may be able to help out), Georgio (not that he knows me from Adam) suggests bay instead.

Pork being such a mild meat, these polpette soak up the flavours; smokey from the charcoal, citrus and aniseed from lemon and fennel, saltiness from the cheese.

Polpette con limone e finocchio (Meatballs with Lemon and Fennel)

Makes 18 balls,

For the meatballs

500g pork mince

1 onion

150g parmesan or pecorino

100g  breadcrumbs

Bunch of fennel fronds, finely chopped (1-2 tsps when chopped)

Clove of garlic

2 eggs

Black Pepper

20 fresh lemon leaves

Olive oil

Wooden skewers

For the tomato sauce

500ml passata

Pepper

Clove of garlic

2-3 unchopped fennel fronds

Chop the onion very finely and then mix it into the pork, breadcrumbs and cheese.

Add the crushed garlic clove and the chopped fennel, season with the black pepper.

Now beat in the egg and mix (with your hands if you’re not squeamish) everything together until it’s completely homogenised.

Squidge golf ball sized portions of the mix together into little spheres

Now thread a lemon leaf onto a skewer, followed by the first ball, then another leaf, and another ball.  I put three balls (and four leaves) per skewer.  

Chill for an hour.

Put your passata into a saucepan with one crushed clove of garlic, the fennel fronds and 200ml of water.

Bring to the boil, and then reduce to a simmer for about 20 minutes – according to what your lowest level of gas considers a simmer.  It should be thick, like a ketchup, no thinner.  Take out the fennel.

When you’re ready to cook the meatballs, drizzle over some olive oil and place them on the oiled barbecue, turning them as they brown.  It needs to be hot enough to cook them slowly.  Too hot and they will sear themselves the the grill and then disintegrate when you try to turn them.  (you can also just fry them, which removes the smokey element of the flavour, but makes them less liable to split).

Give two skewers to each person, with sauce poured over, and accompanied by chunks of fragrant yeasty bread to mop everything up.

There.  No spattered clothes, minimal cutlery to wash up and deliciously simple.

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