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.

 

 

 

Sweet & Sour Pumpkin

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In a blog that is mainly about Italian food, this is going to sound very dumb, but this is a  recipe that is really very, very Italian.  And I mean that in a culturally alien, lost in translation way.  I don’t say this to discourage you, but I think it stems from the fact that we only really grow pumpkins to carve in the UK.  Other than that, and Covent Garden soups, we don’t really know what to do with them, they’ve just never quite caught on here.  Then there is the weather against us.  Winter squashes are, by definition, at their best, in the winter.  Their flavour deepens with storage and they store well after their autumn harvest  So the best time to be eating them is in the post Christmas lull, which is not perhaps the best time to be eating cold starchy salads in dingy Britain.  Also, who has fresh mint growing in the garden in February?  Finally, the mint, the vinegar, the sugar.  What the hell?  I just didn’t have enough life-experience to grasp what was happening the first time I tried this. 

Perhaps I should try selling this better.  For a start, there is deep frying involved and anything deep fried is, it goes without saying, good.

The first time I made this unsupervised, I made the stupid mistake of trying to shallow fry my squash, which just doesn’t cut the mustard.  They didn’t brown, they didn’t crisp up; they just soaked up the oil and turned to mush.  I gained new wisdom from the Sicilian: “basically, whenever I say ‘fry something’, I really mean ‘deep fry it’”

So assuming you have fried your squash in profligate depths of olive oil, you will have a plate of golden brown crescent moons of oily squash draining on kitchen paper.

Now, arrange them in a tray and douse with red wine vinegar, before adding chopped mint, salt, sugar and pepper.  It’s hard to give absolute quantities, as each squash, is different, absorbing more oil, needing less sugar, and the mintiness of mint can never be guaranteed if you’re buying it from a supermarket.  Keep tweeking, and don’t be concerned about sticking to hard and fast proportions.

Leave the sweet and sour and herbs to interact for a few hours, even 24 hours, and then eat as an antipasti, with bread (of course, as no Sicilian meal is complete without, at least, the option of bread) to soak up the juices.  It works well with other preserved or pickled vegetables.  I like it with artichoke hearts and cold, oily sweet peppers.

Maybe the first time you try this, you’ll be as perplexed as I was – a savoury dish that is sweet, but  tangy and minty.  But stick with it, work with the pairings, consider the bread to choose; have the patience to let it infuse for a day.  You’ll become extremely fond of this dish, it will become a thing you look forward to making in the dark depths of February,

And if, in February – this cold dish from a hot foreign island seems just too alien, warm it through in the oven – the heat makes it more northern, more acceptable to a Saxon taste.  There are versions that add chilli flakes for extra heat and another Sicilian version that is baked in the oven with onions. I have been known (when the Sicilian isn’t around) to add anchovies. All of these are good, and further justify the growing of rampant winter squashes if you have the inclination and the space.

Zucca in agradolce

One winter squash, peeled, deseeded and sliced into crescents 1-2cm thick.

2-3 cloves of bruised garlic.

Enough olive oil to cover your sliced squash in a deep frying pan.

Fresh mint*

Red wine vinegar (50-100ml)*

Salt and pepper.

*quantities will vary according to the size and absorbency of the squash, and your own tastes.

First put the cold oil and garlic in your big, heavy, deep frying pan.

Turn the heat on, and brown the garlic, then remove it from the oil (hang onto it though).

Fry the squash slices, in batches, in the oil, growing on both sides.   Don’t put too many in at once, as this cools the oil, which stops the squash from browning and they’ll start to disintegrate.

As they cook, drain them on kitchen paper, then arrange them in a serving dish.  Sprinkle over the saved browned garlic, chopped mint, vinegar, salt and pepper.  Cover and leave to steep in the fridge for as long as you can.

Serve at room temperature or warm through – as you prefer.

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!

 

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.

AlicudiMatt

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It seems that, if you’ve calves of steel, the lungs to match and a can-do attitude reminiscent of a minor Waugh novel, then paradise can still be found. Your best bet in getting there is to ignore any  timetable that assures you there is a ferry from Palermo and to head for one of the smaller ports, for whom such trivialities as passengers are important.  The ferry from Palermo has a tendency to be cancelled a few hours before departure, which is unhelpful, because they wait until it is too late to make alternative arrangements.  It is even more unhelpful when you discover that it wasn’t cancelled, but ran as normal, only, presumably, unburdened of troublesome luggage-laden yahoos.  But this is Sicily, it kind of goes with the territory. Head instead for Millazo, or Messina.  Less glamorous, yes, but at least you stand a chance of getting to paradise.

And then you arrive.  An unprepossessing dock, part building site, part dock.  Sicily again – they’re enlarging the dock, however they’re at an impasse – to finish the work, more materials are needed, particular materials that need a bigger boat to deliver them.  But the boat cannot come because the dock is too small.   But it will be sorted, somehow, one day.

Now, get ready for the calves of steel.  Your house will be an idyll, with astonishing views from your terrace across to mainland Sicily, with Etna in the distance; turn your head just a few degrees, and the other Aeolian islands are strung out before you – Filicudi, Lipari, Salina, Vulcano, and Stromboli (if you squint), smouldering in the distance. It is a landscape of mythology.  This house will also be several hundred vertiginous steps up the side of the extinct volcano.  Yes, a donkey will take your luggage (ignore the time they give you though, remember, you’re in Sicily now), but you do have to do the climb, too. There is a shop in the harbour run by Carlo, a rare blue-eyed Italian in this part of the world.  He’s not going to beat Aldi or Lidl in the value for money stakes, but let’s face it, any man that stocks Cynar on an island of fifty inhabitants gets my vote.  There is a reason that he stocks water by the crate and prominently sells wine by the box.  Buy your groceries in bulk and let the donkey do the heavy work – believe me, once you’re in for the evening, set for a G&T – you will not be ‘nipping out to the shops’ if you’ve forgotten anything.  Even if it’s the T.

But once you’re ‘home’ get ready to unpack that can-do spirit.  With a two ring hob hidden away in an old bread oven, the game is on to turn the courgette that you were given by Simone on the way up into dinner, with some pasta perhaps, some parmesan, garlic and oil (olive of course).  You’ve never met Simone before, but it seems that courgette growers are the same the world over – always desperate to off load their courgettes onto total strangers.

Begin by frying a crushed, whole garlic clove.  Put it into the pan with cold oil and bring them up to heat.  Once it browns, take the clove out and put it aside.  Now fry your sliced courgette until both sides are the colour of the forearms of the guy who owns the donkey that brought your luggage up.  This will take a lot longer than you expect.  But that’s fine.  An orange full moon will be rising into the sky behind Etna, your amour will point out all the stars that form Scorpio, and you will have resorted to G&. Because you didn’t believe the bit about not wanting to nip to the shop for some more T.  As the household gecko emerges to snack on the moths drawn to the light above the dinner table on the terrace, it will all start to feel a bit Gerald Durrell, childhood dreams can come true.

Cook the pasta – the usual way, for less time than it says on the packet and with enough salt in the water to make your blood pressure rocket to the heights of Scorpio (it’s ok, all those steps have already made you fitter than when you arrived).  Drain, keep some of the cooking water back and throw the pasta and two or three of the courgette slices (mashed up) into the frying pan you cooked the courgette in.  Toss, to get the oil all the way through, add parmesan and dress with the courgette slices.  Eat, under aforementioned full moon, and be glad that you’ve moved on from the G& to the wine box you wisely invested in.

Tomorrow, you can bathe in the bluest waters you’ve seen, or climb to the summit of the extinct volcano, gathering wild capers and fennel along the way (should you be feeling particularly Saturday Guardian) and see more butterflies in two hours than you’ve seen in a decade in the UK, fat emerald lizards, furtive jet-black snakes that vanish as soon as you see them, moths like hummingbirds and perhaps a praying mantis skulking amongst the artemisia.  My 21st century phone told me that it was 118 storeys, my calves of less -than-steel, had a hissy fit, but my inner Famous 5, 12 years old alter ego was having the time of his life. 

For dinner,  you can eat seafood by the sea (raw prawns full of electric blue eggs, octopus, swordfish).  Or you can let the amour rustle something up with aubergines and pasta in the converted bread oven cum kitchen  Or pop down the hill to visit Simone (on Alicudi, people open up their homes as restaurants, and not in a pop-up kind of a way).  By now you’re waiting for the catch – surely there’s a catch?

And of course, there it is, niggling away somewhere, that upon your return, you’ll be hauled over the coals for something at work, the dogs will expect you to segue seamlessly back into their usual early morning walking routine, and the hedge you didn’t cut before you left will have grown rampantly.

So, have a return plan, and maybe next time, you’ll come back for longer – you’ll get up earlier so that you can buy fresh fish from the dock, be a bit fitter, so that you can climb the volcano without worrying that you might be the prime age for a heart attack, stock up on aperol, campari and cynar, as rewards for the climb, persuade a few more friends to join you, and for two or three weeks next year, you’ll relive the dream.