Category Archives: Cakes

Melachrino cake for St George’s day, 23 April

Melachrino cake

George was born to a Greek family in Asia Minor or the Middle East in the 3rd century and, according to legend, became a soldier in the army of the Roman Emperor Diocletian. When he refused to reject his Christian faith and make sacrifices to the Roman gods he was tortured and beheaded, possibly in Nicomedia, an ancient Greek city now buried under the modern city of Izmit in western Turkey.

Through the marvellous convolutions of history he is now the patron saint of England. His reputation rose via the Crusaders in the 11th and 12th century. He was seen – honest ­– aiding Crusaders at the Battle of Antioch in 1098 and was made a patron saint of soldiers. It wasn’t until the reign of King Edward III in the 14th century that he became England’s patron.

Somewhere along the way he fought and killed a dragon. Dragons are so cool, it became a very popular subject among Medieval and Renaissance artists. In many versions, his shield is adorned with a red cross on a white field. Today, this flag – adopted as the English flag, again via the Crusaders – is mostly rolled out by desperate English football fans before desperate international football fixtures. Or for St George’s day, 23 April. (Or 6 May in the Gregorian calendar used by Eastern Orthodox Christians.)

Widespread patronage
Unsurprisingly, he’s also the patron saint of Georgia, as well as of cities as diverse as Beirut and Milan. He’s also an important figure in Greece, where he also gives his patronage to soldiers. Which is a long way to arrive at this recipe. It’s another one from Ernst Schuegraf’s Cooking with the Saints. He notes that it’s “an old Greek recipe traditionally associated with St George, and given to me by an employee of the Greek Embassy in London.”

Some of the supposedly traditional recipes in Schuegraf’s book have no other presence online beyond people making his, but looking up this one, various versions appear. Some are made with grape molasses instead of all the sugar used here, and oil instead of butter, but all feature a broadly similar combination of ground or chopped nuts (usually walnuts), citrus, spices, and a splash of booze in the syrup.

I’ve had a note in my diary to make this the past few years as I love cake batters featuring nuts, and semolina, and drenched in citrusy syrup. Like my favourite nutty cakes torta Caprese and Sachertorte, it’s made by separating eggs, then using the whisked egg whites to lighten the batter. In this case, there’s also a load of chemical raising agent too. I’ve tweaked the recipe a bit.

200g unsalted butter, softened
280g caster sugar
5 eggs, separated
1 egg
400g fine semolina
200g plain flour
8g baking powder
6g baking soda
8g cinnamon
2g ground cloves
250g walnuts, coarsely ground or chopped

Syrup
1 orange, zest and juice
1/2 lemon, zest and juice
500g granulated sugar
1kg water (ie, 1 litre)
30g brandy
1 cinnamon stick

1. Grease and line a 25cm cake tin, and preheat the oven to 180C.
2. Cream together the butter and caster sugar until soft and light.
3. Lightly beat the egg yolks, plus the 1 whole egg, then add gradually beat into the creamed mixture.
4. In a separate, clean bowl, beat the egg whites to stiff peaks.


5. Sieve together the semolina, flour, raising agents and spices and add to the mixture. Also beat in the nuts.
6. Beat in a little of the egg white to lighten the mixture slightly, as it’s quite stiff, then gently fold in the rest.
7. Put the mixture in the prepared tin and bake for about 50 minutes, until firm to the touch and a skewer comes out clean.
8. While it’s baking, make the syrup. Combine the sugar, water, zest and juice, and the cinnamon stick in saucepan and gradually heat up to the dissolve the sugar. I used a Sicilian blood orange, which was particularly pleasing.


9. When the sugar is dissolved, simmer the syrup, reducing the mixture by about a third.
10. When the cake it baked, remove from the oven and leave in the tin to cool slightly.
11. Take the cake out of the tin and transfer to a plate or platter with a rim, to contain the syrup.
12. Pour the syrup over the cake and let it soak in. Serve warm or at ambient temperature.

Enjoy, preferably on a sunny afternoon with a lot of friends – it’s a fairly substantial cake!

Melachrino cake

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Madeira cake

Madeira cake with clotted cream

A while back, I just had one of those urges – very specific, for something somewhat old-fashioned. Madeira cake. It’s one of those English cakes the Victorians, or possibly even the Georgians, would have tucked into, accompanied by a glass of Madeira. Madeira is a fortified wine from the Portuguese island archipelago of the same name, located in the Atlantic 880-odd km west of the Moroccan coast. The cake itself isn’t from Madeira.

Madeira cake is a basic concoction, not unlike pound cake: dense and satisfying. Checking my cookbooks, I found several different recipes. It’s amazing how something so simple can have so much variation. A unifying feature seems to be some lemon flavour in the form of zest in the batter and sometimes candied peel or zest added on top too, part-way through baking. Except that when I checked Mrs Beeton, she had none of this. No flavouring whatsoever – not even the inclusion of ground almonds, which several recipes use.

Mary Berry Madeira cakeJane Grigson Madeira cake

I tried several. Mary Berry’s, which has almonds, was good. I found it a bit dry, but possibly I over-baked a tad. The recipe in Jane Grigson English Food was basic and reliable. The recipe in Leith’s Book of Baking by Prue Leith and Caroline Waldegrave was pleasingly crumbly and unusually had a pinch of cinnamon. I’ve not seen this elsewhere, and Leith and Waldegrave give no preamble, so the rationale for the spice will remain a mystery. Perhaps it was just a whim on their part.

Leith Madeira cakeDuff Madeira cake

I also tried a few more recipes from Cakes Regional and Traditional by Julie Duff, which worked well, but was particularly nice as I had such good eggs with bright orange yolks, and The Sainsbury Book of Home Baking by Carole Handslip. This was no-nonsense and fine. Plus, it was a trip down memory lane as the book, published in 1980, was one of those I used in my mum’s kitchen in my childhood. I also used another book from my mum: Geraldine Holt’s Cake Store, published in 1983. The cake was also tasty but the mixture wasn’t enough for the 18cm tin she recommended. It’s important that this cake has some verticality, rather than being too flat. It’s a tall cake not a disc.

Books

Having done all that important research, here’s my version. I’m not claiming it’s the perfect Madeira cake but it suits my requirements for flavour, ingredients and shape.

210g butter, softened
180g caster sugar
Zest of 1 lemon
3 large eggs
225g plain flour
7g baking powder
110g ground almonds
90g milk
Pinch salt

1. Grease and line an 18cm tin.
2. Preheat the oven to 170C.
3. Beat together the butter and sugar until light.
4. Beat the eggs then add slowly to the creamed mix, combining all. If it starts to curdle, add a dash of flour.
5. Add the lemon zest.
6. Sieve the flour and baking powder into the mixture.
7. Add the ground almonds and pinch of salt and fold to combine.
8. Add the milk. If the mixture is too stiff, add a little more until it’s quite soft.
9. Put the mixture in the tin and bake for about an hour, until a skewer comes out clean. If the cake is starting to brown but the interior isn’t baked, cover with foil and leave in the oven a bit longer.
10. Cool on a wire rack.

Madeira cake in tin

I doubt many people drink it with Madeira wine these days. We certainly don’t. I’ve never even tasted the stuff, though we were just finishing off some pleasant Portuguese Vinho Verde when we had this one, eaten as dessert for Sunday lunch, accompanied by that ambrosial West Country delight, clotted cream. It’s also great, more modestly, with a cuppa.

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Buttermilk chocolate cake

Buttermilk chocolate cake

If I’m craving a cake, chances are I’m craving chocolate cake. Were someone, well Fran probably, to ask me what kind of birthday cake I want, I’ll say chocolate. Yes, I like chocolate. I like cake. I like chocolate cake.

But strangely, despite decades of baking and consuming chocolate cakes, I’ve never found a go-to recipe. A recipe so easy, reliable and rewarding that I don’t even have to think about it. Discussing this with my mum the other day, she asked if she’d ever given me an old Katie Stewart recipe called Quick-mix chocolate cake. Not that I recalled.

I like Stewart’s recipes. She died in 2013, and was somewhat out of fashion. But if you’ve ever seen or owned one of her recipe books, chances are it’ll be well-thumbed. She was one of those British writers food writers of a certain age, along with Prue Leith and Delia Smith1, born in or just before the Second World War, who produced practical, no-nonsense recipes.

Sometimes I like my recipes with a little more context and colourful images, but often I just want to reach for the recipe, forgo any preamble, grab the ingredients from store cupboard and fridge and get on with it. Stewart wrote for The Times from 1966, a year before my parents married and four years before I was born. She continued to do so until 1978, and my mum assiduously collected the cuttings in a yellow ring binder and used them a lot during my childhood. She still has it, still uses it. So yes, I had to try this recipe. Stewart was a big part of my upbringing and food education.

What is buttermilk?
Buttermilk is readily available from supermarkets these days – or at least the cultured version, as opposed to the liquid left from churning cream to make butter. This is what I first learned was buttermilk, when making butter while living at Newton Livery then Old Man Mountain farms in New Zealand in the early-mid 1990s. This is called “traditional buttermilk” and is unlikely to be available to you unless you’re churning cream.

If you really can’t find cultured buttermilk, I suspect (though I’ve yet to try. Watch this space*) you could make this using yogurt. A little Googling suggests a ratio of three parts yogurt thinned with one part milk. As you’re using alkaline baking soda as a raising agent, it needs an acid to react with, to produce the carbon dioxide that gives lift. Both cultured buttermilk and yogurt are acids, though they’re fermented with different bacteria giving rise to their different qualities2.

Here’s the recipe. I’ve converted it to new money and reduced the sugar.

225g plain flour
55g cocoa powder
5g bicarbonate of soda
2g fine salt
250g caster sugar
112g butter, softened
140g buttermilk
2 large eggs (about 120g beaten egg)

1. Grease and line two 18 or 20cm. (Smaller will be taller, larger will be flatter.)
2. Preheat the oven to 180C.
3. Sift the flour, cooca and bicarb into a bowl.
4. Beat together the sugar and softened butter.
5. Add the buttermilk and beaten egg.
6. Add the sieved powder and stir in.
7. Beat to combine thoroughly, for about a minute.
8. Divide between the tins.
9. Bake for 25-30 minutes, until firm to the touch.
10. Cool in tins for 10 mins then turn out and cool on racks.
11. “Sandwich the layers with buttercream or chocolate frosting.”

Slices of buttermilk chocolate cake

I had some chocolate frosting in the freezer. I can’t remember what recipe I’d used to make it. I also had some cream cheese frosting left over from the Raver’s birthday. Both needed using up. I mixed them and added a dash more cocoa. Twas delicious, and probably fairly unrepeatable. I love those using-up-leftovers accidents. Any good frosting or buttercream will do.

I’m not entirely sure this will become my go-to chocolate cake recipe. As Stewart said in the cutting, it’s a “light-textured cake”, and sometimes I want rich and fudgy, sometimes I just want the ground nuts goodness of a Sachertorte or torta caprese. But I will be using this again, as it is indeed easy and reliable. Good old Stewart.

 

 

 

Notes
1. Obviously not everything. The earlier stuff by Smith, notably The Complete Cookery Course (c1980) is essential. How to Cheat at Cooking (2008) not so much.
2. Lactococcus lactis or Lactobacillus bulgaricus for buttermilk, Lactobacillus delbrueckii subspecies bulgaricus and Streptococcus thermophilus and others for yogurt.

* I tried it. 105g yogurt mixed with 35g milk. It worked fine. Can’t quite put my finger on how different it was.

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Citrus honey cake

Citrus polenta cake

Fran, my wife of these past eight years and partner of nine more before that, isn’t really much of a cake person. Or a pudding person. Or a chocolate person. We’re quite Jack and Mrs Sprat in our food inclinations. I was a vegetarian or pescetarian for 20 or so years, she’s pretty much always been a keen carnivore.

When we got together, our dietary habits met in the middle somewhere, but I still don’t have a great sense of what her favourite cake is. Personally, I’m all about the chocolate, so a rich chocolate cake is what I always hope for on my birthday. As her birthday approached last week, however, I wasn’t sure what do bake her. I hinted for some guidance, but it didn’t really manifest. So I looked through old recipes and took a punt.

This isn’t exactly what you’d call a celebration cake. It’s not slathered in icing or exactly suitable for candles. But it’s rich and yummy, and a bit different.

Special honey… or not
It’s originally from a recipe by Nigel Slater in The Observer. His piece was all about the honey, which is here used to make the citrusy syrup. I enjoy honey, and always like to have a jar of special honey in the house. A few years ago, some friends from New Zealand came for a visit, and brought a jar of Tutaki Manuka honey, produced by Trees and Bees, up the Mangles Valley, in the Buller Gorge, South Island. This was my stomping ground on and off in my youth, so a mere sniff of the jar is hugely evocative.

Just as that jar was reaching emptiness, my friend Alex “Kabak” Marcovitch gave me a jar of honey from the bees he’d kept on his allotment in the Coombe, just on the eastern side of Lewes, about half a mile from home.

The Coombe is a try chalk valley that cuts into Malling Down, which is a reserve managed by the Sussex Wildlife Trust. It’s farmed to preserve the ancient Downland ecology, an essential task as Britain has lost 97% of its wildflower meadows since the 1930s, when the Second World War food shortages meant vast amounts of grazing land was put under the plough for grain and potatoes.

It’s a special place, especially at this time of year when not only are the orchids (common spotted and pyramidal I believe) out, but the wild thyme and wild marjoram are starting to flower. Before moving to Lewes I didn’t even realise these herbs grew wild in Britain. I grew up on the Downs, but at the other end of this ridge of chalk hills, in Winchester, 80 miles to the west. I don’t remember seeing thyme and marjoram growing wild there. Perhaps Sussex is just that bit sunnier and dryer (it has some of the most sun and least precipitation in the UK).

Anyway, Alex’s Coombe honey evokes Malling Down with one sniff, the thyme, marjoram and innumerable other flowers the bees visited in their time there. Alex subsequently lost the allotment, so the Coombe honey is extra-special, as it was only produced for one year. The bees are now in his back garden, feeding off more domestic flower species, but apparently doing well.

I’ll admit I didn’t use special honey for Fran’s cake. Don’t tell her. I used cheap rubbish, which I buy for making granola. I know, I know, it’s probably made by bees who are fed sugar syrup, but… well, home economics. Plus, I just prefer to keep the good stuff to enjoy simply with a piece of bread or toast; I don’t want to lose its qualities in the melange of cooking.

So yes, I’d love to make this cake with special honey, but I defaulted to the cheap stuff. Don’t tell Fran.

220g butter
180g unrefined caster sugar
300g ground almonds
3 large eggs, beaten, approx 175g beaten egg
150g polenta
5g (1 tsp) baking powder
Finely grated zest and juice of a large orange
Zest of one lemon
12-20 green cardamom pods, to taste

For the syrup:
Juice of 2 lemons, juice of 2 oranges, approx 320g juice
100g honey

1. Grease and line the base of 20cm round, loose-bottomed cake tin.
2. Preheat oven 180C.
3. Beat the butter and sugar till light and fluffy.
4. Add the beaten eggs and combine.
5. Add the ground almonds.
6. Mix the polenta and baking powder, then fold into the mixture, together with the zest and juice.
7. Crush the cardamom pods and extract the black seeds. Grind them to a fine powder. Add the spice to the cake mixture and combine.
8. Put the cake mixture in the tin.
9. Bake for 30 minutes, turn down the heat to 160C for a further 25 -30 minutes or until the cake is firm.
10. To make the syrup, put the honey and juice sin a stainless steel saucepan, bring to the boil and dissolve in the honey. Keep the liquid simmering until it has formed a thin syrup, about 5-10 minutes.
11. Spike holes into the top of the cake (still warm and in its tin) with a skewer then spoon over the hot citrus syrup.
12. Leave to almost cool, then remove from the tin.

Serve with Greek or other thick yogurt, crème fraîche, or even thick cream. It’s up to you. It doesn’t really need the dairy blob though. With its dense, ground-almond texture and dowsing in syrup, it’s not unlike the Greek cake Greek revani or Claudia Roden’s Orange and almond cake, which Rachel Roddy talks about here, or is also available here (scroll down a bit).

Yum. T-Rex, three and a half, rejected it on the first bite. The Raver, almost two, went mad for it. Fran seemed content with it too.

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Chocolate beetroot muffins

Beetroot chocolate muffin

If you try to eat local and seasonal produce in England, you will have had a lot of brassicas and root vegetables recently. It might be have been dry, warm and sunny the past few weeks, but we’re only just in Spring really. Spring produce – sprouting broccoli, fennel, spring onions, green garlic – has been arriving the past month, but it’s still the tail end of the root veg season, notably that of finger and chopping-board staining, love-hate relationship beetroot.

As much as my tastes were in part shaped by old skool school dinners in the 1970s and 80s – oh, the stodgy puddings! – I never really clicked with beetroot. I eat it now and can enjoy it, especially braise-roasted with thyme, bay and citrus zest but frankly, as a cake man and a chocolate lover, I like these. The recipe was originally from Jill Dupleix but is now tweaked somewhat.

250g beetroot
3 eggs
5g vanilla essence
200g cooking oil – corn or sunflower
75g cocoa powder
180g plain flour
10g baking powder
200g caster sugar
Pinch salt

Preheat the oven 180C
Put 12 cases in a muffin tin

1. Boil 250g beetroot until tender. (You can do this in advance.)
2. Peel the beetroot then purée. You can do this in a food processor, though I’ve found the best way to achieve a smooth result is in a liquidiser with some of the oil.

Colour4

3. Pour the purée into a bowl, then add the eggs, vanilla essence and the rest of the oil.
4. Stir in the sugar and a pinch of salt.
5. Sieve the cocoa, flour and baking powder into a larger mixing bowl.
6. Pour the beetroot mix into the dry mix.
7. Mix until smooth and combined.

Chocolate beetroot muffins before baking

8. Divide the mix equally between the muffin cases.

Chocolate beetroot muffins after baking

9. Bake for about 25-30 minutes and nicely risen and firm to the touch.
10. Cool on a rack.

Enjoy. Ah, the benign deceit of sneaking vegetables into fussy children! We had some sitting on a fine outcrop of Malling Down, looking over the Weald towards the North Downs, with my friends Russ and Saira and their eight-year-old daughter, Selvi. Selvi said they had beetroot brownies at school, then reeled off several other cakes with vegetables. Each one of their ten a day.*

Enjoying on the South Downs

 

* I’ve got an issue with this whole three a day, five a day, ten a day rhetoric. I try to scratch make as much food at home as possible, or at least do things like make fresh pasta sauces. But most Britons don’t, apparently; most of us, and indeed most in western Europe and North American, rely on packaged food, ready meals etc, something I consider almost synonymous with junk food.

This article talks about how the “UK eats almost four times as much packaged food as it does fresh produce”. This is quite depressing. You can make excuses about busy modern lifestyles and time poverty, but to me it just represents a massive disconnect between people and real food. Not to mention inconceivably vast, vast amounts of packaging that ends up in landfills, where it’ll lie for thousands of years, a record for alien archaeologists who arrive long after our civilisation has driven itself into unsustainable oblivion.

As we’re a family that doesn’t rely on packaged food, I don’t buy into the ten-a-day line. If you live on packaged junk, then maybe the ten a day is aimed at you, to offset the damage done by an estrangement from real food. But if you live on real food, with nutritious wholegrains in real bread for example, I don’t believe you need to sit and assiduously eat ten apples or whatever.

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Sabbiosa, a cake from Lombarby

Sabbiosa cake

It’s taken me a long time to make this cake from Lombardy in northern Italy, whose name roughly means “sandy” – perhaps a reference to both its colour and its texture. I first saved a page out of the Independent newspaper back in 1999, with a recipe from Simon Hopkinson. He explained how he’d first eaten sabbiosa in 1984 but when he’d first tried to make it there had been some confusion about the type of flour used.

Via an erroneous translation, he laboured under the impression that the flour was corn starch, or what we know in British English as cornflour. Instead, however, it’s a potato flour. In Italian this is fecola di patate, which is translated on Wordreference as both “potato starch” and “cornstarch”. Given that patate is potato, it’s clearly not corn (ie maize) starch – which in Italian is amido di mais.

Adding to the confusion, Hopkinson gives his ingredient as “potato flour” – which some sources, such as this site, say is an entirely different ingredient to potato starch. There’s some logic to this, but Italian sources tend to just refer use fecola as a synonym for farina di patate, potato flour. Italian Wikipedia saysLa fecola di patate is a flour obtained from the dehydration and subsequent grinding of potato.”

Potato or wheat?
Furthermore, a lot of the Italian recipes I’ve seen for sabbiosa are simply made with wheat flour. I’ve had Hopkinson’s version filed for 17 years, so I wanted to stick with potato. I’m not going gluten-free or anything, heaven forefend, gluten is such a marvellous, useful protein* when treated right. But during a visit to Roma last week, I saw some fecola di patate in the shop at the Città dell’Altra Economia, which forms part of the Ex-Mattatoio, the handsome, sadly neglected 19th century former slaughterhouse, so I had to get it. In UK health food shops, the equivalent does seem to be called simply potato starch.

The other distinctive Italian ingredient I’ve used here is Lievito Pane degli Angeli (“Bread of the Angels leaven”!). This is just a brand of baking powder – a chemical blend of difosfato disodico (disodium diphosphate) and carbonato acido di sodio (sodium bicarbonate), much the same as my UK baking powder. Though the degli Angeli brand has a punch of aromi – flavourings. Rachel, who we saw last week, loves this stuff, and was enthusing about its miraculous qualities, but I find the aromi a bit pungently vanilla, and I’m suspicious whether it’s even real vanilla or some synthetic flavouring. Either way, if you’re using non-flavoured raising agent, you can add say a teaspoon or two (to taste) of real vanilla extract if you like.

The cake recipe also contains booze, which is similarly optional. Also optional is a mascarpone crema, made with raw eggs, much like that used in many tiramisu recipes. If you’re scared of raw egg, serve with cream, custard or even crème fraîche. Or nothing, for a weary nod towards tedious New Year dietary abstention.

The recipe

Ingredients for sabbiosa

400g unsalted butter, softened
400g caster sugar
400g potato starch, aka potato flour, aka fecola di patate
10g baking powder
Pinch salt
4 large eggs, beaten, about 225g
35g brandy (optional)

Ingredients for sabbiosa

1. Preheat the oven to 180C.
2. Grease and line the base of a 25cm tin.
3. Beat together the butter and sugar until light and very fluffy.
4. Combine the beaten egg with the brandy (if using).
5. Beat the egg into the creamed mixture, adding a little of the potato starch if it starts to curdle.
6. When the egg is all combined with the creamed mixture, sieve in the potato starch and baking powder, and add the pinch of salt.

Making sabbiosa with potato starch
7. Fold the fecola through the batter until well combined.
8. Pour the mixture into the prepared tin.
9. Put in the oven and bake for about 45 minutes then, carefully, check the cake to see if the top is browning. If it is, cover with foil, then return to the oven.
10. Continue baking for until a skewer comes out clean, for another half hour or thereabouts.

Sabbiosa - leave to cool in the tin
11. Leave to cool in the tin then turn out onto a rack and cool completely.
12. Prepare the accompanying cream.

Mascarpone cream (crema di mascarpone):

2 eggs
250g mascarpone
70g caster sugar
20g rum or brandy, to taste (optional. Either leave our use some other booze. I used some bourbon as it smelled like it’d be nice… and it was!)

1. Separate the eggs.
2. Beat the yolks with the sugar until pale and creamy.
3. Beat in the mascarpone and booze (if using)
4. In another bowl, whisk the egg whites to stiff peaks.
5. Fold in the egg whites until you have a smooth mixture.

Dust the cake with icing sugar and serve slices with a good pour of the crema. Muse about the potatoes. Ignore new year diets.Sabbiosa with mascarpone crema

 

* Or more accurately, combination of proteins: gliadin and glutenin.

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Pangiallo, primitive cakes and winter festivals

Pangiallo

Pangiallo is a cake I encountered in Rome, and indeed one of the last posts I wrote before leaving there in October 2013 mentioned it. But I’ve only recently started to make it, and discovered a quite a lot variation in recipes. Which might seem quite surprising, until you consider it’s a cake that purportedly has roots in Ancient Rome.

Pangiallo, or pancialle, is a Roman, or Lazio, cousin to panforte, “hard bread”, the better-known dense fruit and nut cake of Sienna, and panpepato (“pepper bread”). All three can be arguably be classified as “primitive cakes”. It’s easy to imagine the first cakes were compressed discs of nuts, seeds and dried fruit bound and sweetened with honey.  although food historians suggest pangiallo’s origins are ancient Roman, and panforte is comparatively recent, possibly from the 13th century, people have probably been making these kinds of things for millennia.

Spice trails
There’s debate about what spices the ancient Romans had, but they almost certainly used cardamom, cloves, coriander, black pepper, ginger and nutmeg, and possibly cinnamon too. Such spices, many of which arrived in Europe via the Silk Road, maintained a role as important for feast day foods through the “Dark” and Middle Ages. As they had travelled so far they were expensive, so were used only for special foods on special days.

Britain, of course, has a very similar tradition of rich, spiced fruit cakes for midwinter celebrations in the form of our Christmas cake and Christmas pudding. Their characteristics have similarly ancient origins, though spices were even more scarce and valuable in northern Europe, compared to Italy. Ports such as Genoa and notably Venice were the western extremes of the maritime Silk Route, the dropping-off points for such valuable cargo; spices still had a long way to go before they reached Britain.

Pangiallo spice mix

Festival of light
Today, Pangiallo is eaten to celebrate the feast day of Santa Lucia, St Lucy, and also for Christmas. Both of these Christian feasts are associated with older winter solstice celebrations. The ancient Romans had Saturnalia, when the ancestor of pangiallo may well have been eaten. When Rome took Christianity as its official religion, many of the pagan festivals were Christianised too, and the consumption of special spiced cakes continued.

The calendar change of 1582 has confused things somewhat as St Lucy’s Day is now celebrated on 13 December in the Gregorian calendar, with Christmas Day closer to the solstice of 21-22 December. In the earlier, Julian calendar, however, St Lucy’s Day would have been closer to the solstice, the day when the night is at its longest. To dispel the darkness, it’s a festival of light, and indeed the very names Lucy and Lucia derive from lux, lucis, the Latin for light.

One Roman blogger suggests the yellow, saffron-tinted glaze of pangiallo is symbolic, looking forward to the new light of spring. The only problem with this theory is that pangiallo doesn’t always feature a yellow glaze. Many versions don’t seem yellow at all, but instead more brown from the dried fruits, caramelised sugar and honey, and even cocoa and chocolate.

Testing times
At the weekend I made the version in Rachel’s book Five Quarter’s: Recipes and Notes from a Kitchen in Rome. It’s closer to the version by the blogger mentioned above and does feature a rich glaze, coloured with saffron and egg yolks. Although they all contain flour, Rachel’s version is not leavened, with yeast or chemicals. So I was intrigued when I read the recipe in Oretta Zanini de Vita’s The Food of Rome and Lazio. Hers features a yeasted bread dough. That said, the dough only forms about 20 per cent of the total mass: which is predominantly raisins. Her original recipe is huge, with “1.8kg (about 4lb) zibibbo (seed raisins)”, with the whole formed into a loaf and proved for 12 hours.

For my testing process, I can’t really do such enormous bakes, so I halved the recipe and tweaked it. Hers included pine nuts too, for example; I love them, but they’re so expensive and the ones in the shops here have all travelled from China, which seems crazy. I’ve also favoured the disc-shaped form. Half quantities still produced four cakes, each scaled with 400g of dough. So I’ve halved it again here.

Pangiallo ingredients

5g fresh yeast, or 4g active dry yeast
50g plain flour
50g strong white flour
35g caster sugar
100g water, warm
20g olive oil
2g fine sea salt
250g seedless raisins
100g dried figs, quartered
120g whole or blanched almonds
20g candied peel
Spices: a mixture of ground cinnamon, coriander, black pepper, nutmeg, cardamom to total about 8g, to taste

1. Dissolve the sugar in the water.
2. Make a preferment with some of this sugar-water, the yeast and about 25g of the flour.
3. Leave to get bubbly.
4. Put the rest of the flour in a roomy bowl.
5. Add the preferment, the rest of the sugar water, the olive oil and salt.

Pangiallo mixture
6. Form a dough, adding more water if necessary, then turn out onto a lightly oiled surface and knead until smooth.
7. Rest 10 minutes, then add the spices, nuts, raisins and peel.
8. Combine. I can’t really say “knead” as it’s all fruit and nuts. It’s more a case of getting your hands in there and squishing it all together.
9. Cover and rest again, for about 6 hours.
10. Form the desire shapes. I recommend a couple of equal balls.
11. Put the balls onto baking sheets lined with parchment or silicone, and squash them down into discs, about 25mm high. If it’s too sticky, flour your hands a bit as you form the discs.
12. Cover and leave again, for about 4-6 hours. Less if it’s warm, more if it’s cold.
13. Heat the oven to 180C .

Unbaked pangiallo
14. Make a batter with 15g flour, 15g water, 15g oil and 15g sugar. De Vita’s glaze wasn’t coloured yellow, but if you want to, you can add some saffron to the (warm) water and leave it to infuse for half an hour or so. Or cheat and sprinkle in a little turmeric, a spice that’s only mildly flavoured and is more used for colouring.

Unbaked pangiallo, with saffron glaze
15. Brush the glaze onto the loaves.
16. Bake for about 30 minutes, until coloured, but without burning too many raisins.

Pangiallo, baked
17. Allow to firm up on the trays for 20 minutes or so, then transfer to wire racks to cool completely.

Two pangialli

Comparisons
Considering pangiallo is defined by spices, raisins, figs and nuts, the two recipes I tried this week are remarkably different. De Vita sweetens hers only with the fruit and some sugar. Rachel’s uses honey.

I’m struggling a bit at the moment as I keep wondering about vegan stuff for my stall, and honey is a ahem sticking point. Many vegans are staunchly anti-honey. I love the stuff, and beekeeping friends have explained to me it’s a more symbiotic relationship with the bees, not the wholly exploitative one Donald Watson suggested in his 1944 edicts on the founding of the Vegan Society.

Anyway, Rachel’s (on the left in pic above), which uses mixed nuts and more candied peel alongside the honey, has a more pleasing texture. She describes it as like a “soft, chewy, heavily spiced nougat with a whisper of cake”. Which is spot on. De Vita’s, on the other hand, is surprisingly bready, considering the yeasted dough forms such a small proportion of the whole. It’s like a dense, more traditional, fruit cake, even one we’d recognise here in Britain. It’s good, but not as good. So I’m going with honey, more peel, more varied nuts. No yeast. And possibly even egg yolks in the glaze. Though whether it really needs to be quite so yellow is something I’m still undecided about. I need another research trip to Rome!

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Parkin for Bonfire Night 2015

Parkin

Parkin is one of those quintessential historic British cakes. Specifically northern English, as it’s most associated with Yorkshire and Lancashire. It’s related to ginger cake, in that it usually contains some ground ginger and cinnamon, popular but expensive spices for much of British history, often reserved for Autumn and winter cakes made for feast days. Parkin is also associated with Bonfire Night, Guy Fawkes, 5 November.

Yes, I realise Halloween has come and gone and I didn’t post anything, but on that count I would say that firstly, when I was a kid, Bonfire was always a much bigger event in England, and it still is here in Lewes, “Bonfire Capital of the World”, and, secondly, I did make a lot of stuff over Halloween weekend, but none of it was exactly suitable for publication. I had my first go an Mexican pan de muerto (“bread of the dead”) and while it all looked relatively OK going into the oven, when it came out the skull and crossbones decorations had slipped and it looked more like pan de tortuga, er, tortoise bread. So I’ll be practising that more for next Halloween.

Anyway, back to parkin and Bonfire Night. Unlike classic ginger cakes, parkin is made with oatmeal, or a mix of oatmeal and wheat flour. For centuries in Britain, oats and barley were staples of the poor, over the more expensive wheat, and this cake is a record of that legacy.

This is another one of those recipes where I can’t remember the source, beyond it being something I wrote down in a notepad while living at Old Man Mountain in New Zealand, this time during a 1997 visit. It’s pretty similar to other recipes you may encounter, such as this one from Dan Lepard in the Guardian, which he reports dates from 1907, this one on the BBC site, and this one at Deliaonline. I’d ignore this one on the Beeb though, as there’s no sign of oats – very inauthentic!

Talking of authenticity, older recipes would also have been made with lard instead of butter, though lard isn’t that popular these days, so it’s up to you really. Reading the moaning and trolling on the BBC site, some find eggs contentious too, but hey, there’s only so far you’ll want to go to recreate that 18th century peasant experience right? Oh, and if you’re in a part of the world where you can’t get golden syrup or treacle, you could try substituting honey for the former and the latter is just a type of molasses.

Black treacle and golden syrup

Ideally, this is made at least a day in advance. Parkin has a pretty dry crumb but becomes moister over time.

Happy Bonfire! I’ll be enjoying this with some Harveys Bonfire Boy ale.

225g plain flour
1/2 tsp bicarb soda
1/2 tsp salt
1 tsp cinnnamon
1 tsp mixed spice
1 tsp ground ginger
200g medium oatmeal
140g lard or butter
110g soft brown sugar
110g golden syrup
110g black treacle
1 egg
140g milk

1. Grease and line a square tin, 20 or 23cm square (8-9 inch) or similar.
2. Heat oven to 160C.

Parkin, sieve flour and spices

3. Sift together the flour and spices into a bowl and toss in the oatmeal.

Combine dry and wet

4. Melt together the fat, sugar, syrup and treacle.
5. Add buttery mix to dry mix then beat in egg and milk.

Pour into tinBaked
6. Pour the batter into the tin and bake for about an hour or more, until firm and a skewer comes out clean. Cover with foil if top browning too much.
7. Leave to cool.
8. Store in an airtight container for 1 day before cutting and serving.

 

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Pear, ginger and dark chocolate cake

Pear, ginger and chocolate cake

Last year, while we were making a lot of changes to our house and garden, I planted some fruit trees. One was a pear, a skinny little thing barely and metre and a half tall. Remarkably, this year it bore a good couple of dozen fruit. So many, in fact, a few branches broke from the weight. I probably should have shaken some off in June. Those from the broken branch, small and unripe, were poached in a red wine concoction back in August. Now, the rest have ripened and been picked.

The variety is Concorde, which the RHS describes as a “fine, compact dessert pear” and they’re very pleasant eaten straight. But browsing the Honey & Co Baking Book by Sarit Packer and Itamar Srulovich, I came across a pear cake so it seemed a perfect opportunity to bake with some of my harvest.

I’ve tweaked the recipe a bit, and added some chocolate chips, as I had some dark chocolate in a jar that I’d already cut into rough chunks. Pear and ginger is a great pairing. So is pear and dark chocolate. So is dark chocolate and ginger. So why not all three?

2 pears
Juice of half a lemon
Zest of 1 lemon
180g caster sugar
150g olive oil
2 eggs (that is, about 115g, excluding shells)
60g crystallised ginger, roughly chopped
100g dark chocolate, roughly chopped
350g plain flour
2 tsp ground ginger
1 tsp baking soda
1 tsp baking powder
Pinch salt

Plus
1 more pear
Demerara sugar

1. Preheat the oven to 170C.
2. Grease and line a 1kg loaf tin with baking paper.

Peel the pears
3. Peel, core and dice (about 8mm pieces) the two pears. Ideally they should be firm, but ripe.
4. Put the pieces in a bowl and add the lemon juice and zest, stirring it about to coat – this helps to stop the fruit browning while you make the batter.
5. In a large mixing bowl, whisk together the sugar and oil.

Whisk in the eggs
6. Add the egg and whisk until you have a thick mixture.
7. Add the diced pear and lemon, crystallised ginger and dark chocolate chunks. Stir to combine.
7. Sieve together the flour, ginger and raising agents then add this to the mixture, along with the pinch of salt.
8. Fold in until reasonably well combined. The Honeys say “try not to overwork the mixture – it is OK to have a couple of lumps.”
9. Pour the batter into the prepared tin and, with a damp knuckled, smooth the top.

Pear, giner and dark chocolate cake ready for baking
10. Cut the final pear into wedges, arrange these on top, and sprinkle with Demerara sugar.
11. Put in the oven and bake for about 45 minutes. It’s a moist, fruity cake, and will take a long time to cook, but so you don’t burn the top, take it out, cover with foil, then return to the oven for about half an hour.
12. Insert a skewer to check if it’s done: does it still have damp batter on it? If so, return to the oven for a bit longer.
13. When fully baked, cool in the tin.

Pear, crystallised ginger and dark chocolate cake

You can have it as a dessert, while still warm, with a blob of some indulgent dairy product (vanilla ice cream, clotted cream, double cream). Or cool fully and enjoy for breakfast or afternoon tea.

[Apologies for the photography in this post, which is even shoddier than normal. The days getting so short has caught me almost by surprise, and I was making this as night fell, resulting in some dubious non-natural lighting.]

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Torta de Santiago for St James’s Day

Torta de Santiago, Tarta de Santiago

In Christianity, St James, son of Zebedee, was one of Jesus’ Twelve Apostles. Western Christianity celebrates his feast day on 25 July.

Although it’s spread across the globe now, in part thanks to tourists and pilgrims walking the Camino de Santiago, the chief dish for celebrating the Feast of St James is the torta de Santiago, from Galicia, northwest Spain.

Legend has it that St James’s remains are at the cathedral of Santiago de Campostela in Galicia. Iago is one of many Iberian variations on the name James, which is itself the English version of the Hebrew Jacob, Yaʿqob. In ancient Greek it became Iakobos, which was Latinised as Iacomus, which came Iacobu in Vulgar Latin, which in turn evolved into the Galician Iago – hence Santo Iago, Santiago.

Cake or tart?
Although torta (Galician, also the same in Italian), tarta (Spanish), tarte (French), torte (German) are related to the English word “tart”, in the sense of open-top fruit pies, they all derive from the Late Latin torta, possibly meaning a small bread. By Medieval Latin the word had come to mean a cake or a pie/tart. The full etymology isn’t certain, lost in the mists of time and the convolutions of Latin evolving into various different European languages. It’s salient in the case of torta de Santiago though, as it’s a product that breaks down those pie/tart/cake distinctions: it can be made with or without a pastry case.

The defining characteristic of the torta is a slightly citrusy mix of ground almond, egg and sugar. And, if you’re going for a bit of decorative iconography, a cross of St James on the top in icing sugar.

Jewish or Christian?
Claudia Roden posits the torta may have its origins in Jewish food, writing: “The Galician city of A Coruña is on the Jewish tourist route. There is a synagogue and an old Jewish quarter there. Jews from Andalusia, fleeing the Berber Almohads’ attempts to convert them, came to Galicia in the 12th and 13th centuries.”

Something related to the modern torta de Santiago may have emerged in Christian 16th century Galicia with the torta real (“royal tart”) or bizcocho de almendras (“almond cake”). A more recognisable modern incarnation is generally traced to an 1838 book by one Luis Bartolomé de Leybar, as a tarta de almendra.

The bottom line, as ever, is to take the notion of ancient traditions with a pinch of salt – so many things we like to imagine were practised fully-formed in the middle ages were instead more likely invented or at least consolidated in the 19th century.

Some versions include grape marc, aka grape pomace – ie the leftovers from pressing – which is interesting and makes sense if you have a vineyard. I don’t. The version in the Moro cookbook, meanwhile, adds membrillo (quince paste); I don’t have a quince tree either. Almonds and citrus is enough for me.

6 eggs, separated
250g caster sugar
1 lemon, zested
1 tsp orange blossom water
Almond extract, a few drops
250g ground almonds (either pre-ground or grind blanched almonds in a food processor)

Plus
Butter, for greasing
Icing sugar, for dusting cake

Torta de Santiago ingredientsZest of one lemon1. Preheat oven to 180C.
2. Grease a 25cm loose-bottom tin with butter and line with baking parchment.

Beat the egg yok and sugar until pale and creamyAdd the ground almonds

3. Beat the egg yolks with the sugar to a thick pale cream, ideally in a mixer or with handheld beaters.
4. Beat in the zest, orange blossom water and almond extract.
5. Beat in the ground almonds.
6. Whisk the egg whites to stiff peaks. Note – if you’re using the same beater attachments them spotlessly, as any fat will stop the whites beating properly!
7. Add a blob of the egg whites to the almond batter and beat it in. It’s a thick mixture so this is to lighten it up slightly to make it easier to add the rest of the egg whites.

Add the egg whitesTorta de Santiago batter

8. Add the rest of the egg whites and fold in. Don’t beat! You want to retain the airiness.
9. Pour the mixture into the prepared tin.

Ready to bakeBaked
10. Bake for about 35-45 minutes, until the cake feels firm.
11. Let it cool in the tin then turn out.
12. Before serving, dust with icing sugar. You can cut out a cross of St James/Santiago to decorate the top. Have a look online for a shape to give you a template.

Torta de Santiago template, dusted with icing sugar

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