Category Archives: Feasts

Plum shuttles or Valentine buns for Valentine’s Day, 14 February

Plum shuttles, Valentine buns

Me and my wife Fran have been a couple for, blimey, nearly 17 years now. Through the years, Valentine’s Day has always been a bit of an issue for us. I think it’s a load of old bollocks and try to ignore it, she buys into the notion that it should somehow be more romantic than other days and tries to make a thing of it. We usually meet in the middle – with a bit of teasing and bickering. Maybe she’ll give me a card and I’ll feign confusion.

It is a funny feast day, any genuine older traditions now lost into the spoon-fed, commercial morass. It’s the ultimate Hallmark holiday where sales of cards and bunches of red roses have a massive spike.

In Cattern Cakes and Lace (pub 1987), Julia Jones and Barbara Deer talk about the theory that it’s a modern incarnation of the Roman fertility celebrations of Lupercalia, transferred into an association with not one but two characters martyred in Rome in the 3rd century AD. The Catholic Encyclopaedia meanwhile says “At least three different Saint Valentines, all of them martyrs, are mentioned in the early martyrologies under the date of 14 February.” How confusing! “One is described as a priest at Rome, another as bishop of Interamna (modern Terni)”. It also says the Roman city gate now known as the Porta del Popolo was called the Gate of St Valentine in the 11th century. “Of the third Saint Valentine, who suffered in Africa with a number of companions, nothing further is known.”

The idea that St Valentine’s day was a Christianisation of Lupercalia was suggested in the 18th century and has been rejected by modern scholars. Instead, it’s suggested that the association of St Valentine’s day with romance arose in the 14th century, notably with Chaucer’s Parliament of Foules, which drew attention to the date as when birds partnered up:
“For this was sent on Seynt Valentyne’s day
Whan every foul cometh ther to choose his mate.”

Other medieval writers referred to the same avian motif. Clearly, modern society isn’t the only one to generate and perpetuate whimsical piffle. I’m not going to go on about it all here. If you’re really interested in such things, the Wikipedia page is, naturally, respectably comprehensive. Instead, here’s a recipe from Jones and Deer for some enriched dough buns.

Plums but not plums
The name “plum shuttles” might confuse – it doesn’t contain plums and what’s a shuttle? Well, Jones and Deer say “These buns are shaped like weavers’ shuttles”. It’s a nice idea, though if you look at a weaver’s shuttle, it’s longer and pointed at both ends. These are more bun-shaped. As for the “plums”, that’s just an older British English usage of the word used to cover not just fresh Prunus fruit, but also dried fruit such as prunes (dried plums) and raisins and currants (dried grapes).

There’s not that much sugar in this enriched dough but a high proportion of dried fruit makes for a notably sweet currant bun.

Currants

I found their dough a bit tight, so have increased the liquid. It also uses a lot of yeast, proportionately, and has a resulting short fermentation. I’ve reduced the yeast a bit, but if you prefer a really good, proper, healthy long fermentation time, knock it back even more.

450g plain flour (all-purpose, low protein)
5g fine sea salt
4g active dried yeast or 8g fresh yeast
5g caster sugar
60g warm water
50g unsalted butter
160g full-fat milk
1 egg, about 55g
225g currants

Extra egg to glaze

Makes 12 buns

1. Combine the sugar, yeast and water and leave to activate. The sugar really boosts the yeast so it should go seriously frothy.

Frothy yeast mix

2. Warm the milk with the butter until the latter is melted. Leave to cool a little.

Butter, milk, egg, frothy mix
3. Put the flour and salt in a large bowl.
4. Add the yeast mix, milk and butter and egg to the flour mix and bring together to form a dough.

Combine

5. Turn out and knead until smooth.
6. Stretch out and add the currants. Fold the dough over and knead again to combine and distribute.

Smooth dough, with currants

7. Clean and grease the bowl, return the dough, cover and leave to prove until doubled in size.

Doubled in size

8. The total dough weight should be about a kilo (with slightly variation depending on the size of your egg etc). Divide this into 12 pieces scaled at about 84g each.

Divide into 12 pieces

9. Form the pieces into balls, leave to rest, covered, for about 10 minutes.

Form balls

10. Stretch and roll these to form long ovals with pointed ends. Like weavers’ shuttles.

Shaped
11. Place the ovals on lined or greased baking sheets, with plenty of room for expansion.
12. Cover with damp cloths and leave to prove again, doubling in size, or until a finger pushed in forms a slight dent.

After final prove
13. Heat the oven to 200C.
14. Brush the buns with beaten egg.
15. Bake for about 15-20 minutes, until nicely browned.

Freshly baked
16. Cool on a wire rack.

Eat how you like – plain, with butter, with butter and jam or, if you really want to go crazy, add a load of whipped cream and pretend they’re maritozzi con la panna*. And of course, enjoy with your special someone… while arguing about what a lot of old nonsense Valentine’s Day is.

Plum shuttled Valentine bun, split

 

 

* Similar shaped Roman buns. Boy I miss Rome, especially at this time of year when it’s been grey and cold for weeks, and it’s apparently already 20C there. Bloody British winter. If we have a bad October and April, the British winter can last six months. Half the flippin’ year! We had sun today (see pic above) but it’s not due to last. Boo hoo.

Advertisements

4 Comments

Filed under Baking, Feasts, Recipes

Mince pies for Christmas

Mince pies

Clearly, I’m interested in traditional feast day foods on this blog. Many, if not most, of our traditional feast day activities have been lost here in Britain. This is due to various factors, notably the 19th century industrial revolution that shifted the population from rural labour to urban industry; then the privations of two world wars and dependence on imported food; then the ensuing embracing of industrialised food production.

Christmassy flavours
When I made the Cattern cakes in November, a friend mentioned that they tasted “Christmassy”. This is interesting, as it demonstrates how the only strong legacy of our traditional feast day foods is at Christmas. It might be grotesquely commercialised, and shifted forward from the Twelve Days (25 December to Epiphany Eve, 5 January) into late November and Advent, but for many it still involves the consumption of traditional foods: mince pies, a heavy fruit cake and plum pudding. All of which feature dried fruits and spices.

We take them for granted now, as jars of dozens of types of spices are readily available from any supermarket, but in antiquity and the Middle Ages they were enormously expensive. L ater, in the age of European empires, their trade fuelled many  economies, notably imperial Dutch and British*. They really were only ingredients for special days, or for the wealthy, until fairly recently.

While spiced (cinnamon, nutmeg, clove, ginger etc), fruity flavours were once more associated with various celebrations through the year, now we just think of them as “Christmassy”.

Mince pies

Anyway, that’s a thought for this post. Mostly, I realised that while I have various multinational feast food recipes here, I don’t have any basic British Christmas ones. That’s partly because I don’t like Christmas cake and plum pudding. I didn’t like mince pies growing up either, but then I discovered a simple recipe for mincemeat and gave them a whirl. They were good. Making your own is so much better. I know Christmas can be stressful for many but this recipe involves just a fruity preserve and some pastry – nothing too complex, and both can be made ahead of time. The mincemeat will sit in a jar, the pastry can be frozen.

Sweet meat
Oh, and many wonder why the filling – sweet, fruity – is called “mincemeat”. Well, in the Middle Ages, puddings and pies would often involve fillings that mixed what we’d considering today as sweet and savoury, notably meat, spices and sugar. I’ve written previously about the term “pudding” – which can still refer to sweet or savoury items in British English. The precursor of Christmas pudding (aka plum pudding), plum pottage, featured meat along with the dried fruit and spices. The legacy of this in mince pie fillings is suet – traditionally a fat from around the kidneys of beef cattle, or mutton (sheep older than two years).

I do tend to use vegetarian suet substitute, partly from force of habit as an ex-veggie, but also because it’s easier at parties when many guests may be too. But it is still a conundrum, as vegetarian suet used to be hydrogenated fat, since deemed a nutritional nightmare, and is now mostly palm oil, an environmental nightmare. So your call on the lesser of two evils.

The mincemeat recipe here was originally from Delia Smith, the pastry originally from Linda Collister.

First make the mincemeat, ideally in October or November – when you can get some fresh homegrown cooking apples. You will need a couple of medium sized jars, washed and rinsed thoroughly. I then tend to put them in a low oven when I’m ready to bottle, to dry them and sterilise.

Fill the pies and top with stars

225g Bramley apples, cored and chopped small (no need to peel them)
110g shredded suet
175g raisins
110g sultanas
110g currants
[total 385g of these]
110g whole mixed candied peel, finely chopped
175g soft dark brown sugar
grated zest and juice 1 orange
grated zest and juice 1 lemon
25g whole almonds, cut into slivers, or flaked almonds
1 tsp ground cinnamon
1 tsp ground allspice
1 tsp ground cloves
1 tsp ground ginger
1/2 tsp ground coriander
1/2 tsp freshly grated nutmeg
3 tbsp brandy

1. Combine all the ingredients, except for the brandy, in a large mixing bowl.
2. Mix thoroughly.
3. Cover the bowl with a clean cloth and leave in a cool place overnight or for 12 hours, so the flavours have a chance to mingle and develop.
4. Preheat oven 120°C.
5. Cover the bowl loosely with foil and place it in the oven for 3 hours. It’ll look fatty. Don’t worry, this is right. As it cools, stir it from time to time.
6. When the mincemeat is cold, stir well again, adding the brandy.
7. Bottle in sterilised jars.

It’ll keep for months, even years. I had a jar for two years once and it was fine, indeed it was probably better as it gives time for the flavours to mature.

Pinning out for mince pies

Now, the pastry.

Readers of this blog will know I love ground almonds as an ingredient for cakes. They’re a great addition to sweet shortcrusts too. My mother has just been reminiscing about the mince pies made by her mother, my Granny Buckley, and how “Ground almonds in the pastry was her trick.” So such tastes must run in the family.

This recipe calls for one egg yolk but I’ve also done it with whole egg, and then just used less water to bind. Both are fine.

200g plain flour
30g ground almonds
30g caster sugar
Pinch salt
100g butter
1 egg yolk
2-5 tbsp cold water

1. Sieve flour into bowl.
2. Dice butter and rub in. Alternatively, combine in a food processor.
3. Add ground almonds, pinch salt and sugar.
4. Lightly beat the egg then add to the dry mix.
5. Bring together dough adding enough water to create a soft but not too wet dough.
6. Form ball and wrap in plastic. Rest in fridge for half an hour or freeze.
7. Roll out to about 4mm and cut discs to line the dips in a pie tray.
8. Fill each with some mincemeat.
9. Add lids – either whole discs or star shapes. The latter is easier (no crimping required), and cute to boot.
10. Bake for about 15-20 minutes at 200C, until nicely browned.
11. Dust with icing sugar before serving.

Freshly baked mince pies

If mince pies are a big part of your Christmas, I’d heartily encourage you to make your own. I don’t claim mine are the best mince pies, and they’re certainly not the neatest or most aesthetically pleasing – like everything I make these days, they’re slightly rushed as I’m either waiting for kids to wake from their afternoon naps or I’m knackered at the end of the day. But they’re easy to make and really, honestly, so much better than any of the industrial crap from the supermarkets.

 

* See this blog post by botanist Stephen Forbes for more about the origins and history of spices.

5 Comments

Filed under Baking, Feasts, Pastry, Recipes

Cattern cakes for St Catherine’s day

Cattern cakes

November 25 is the feast day of St Catherine of Alexander. Chances are, St Catherine isn’t someone you’ve heard of, beyond having a firework named after her, or more accurately after her mode of martyrdom – on a wheel. In my childhood, St Catherine was quite a well known figure. Well, not the saint herself exactly, but a hill named after her.

I grew up in Winchester, Hampshire. It was the city that was the capital of the great Saxon kingdom of Wessex, and arguably the capital of England before London. Earlier than this, however, it was a Roman city. And even earlier than this, there was an Iron Age settlement (around 500BC), on a hilltop just outside the city. This hill is known as St Catherine’s and there was a 12th century chapel on the top of the same name, until it was demolished in 1537, I believe at the behest of that great money-grubbing vandal Henry VIII during the Dissolution of the Monasteries,  in his massive pope-won’t-let-me-divorce royal hissy fit.

Mazes and wheels
When I was young and fitter and my knees worked properly I used to love running up there. It’s a wonderful place, and very much worth a visit. The views are good, there are orchids and other wild flowers, and there’s even a mizmaze, carved into the turf, with the winding path in exposed chalk. The form of such mazes is to an ancient, mysterious pattern, but this one is most likely from the second half of the 17th century. A local legend involves its creation being punishment for a pupil of the nearby privileged seat of learning and abject arrogance, Winchester College.

St Catherine’s martyrdom in 310AD in Egypt on a wheel may also be the reason the hill is named after her, with the Iron Age ramparts forming a circular shape. Or it may just be because she is, among other things – wheels, obviously, librarians, knife sharpeners, hat makers, lacemakers, spinsters, etc etc – patron saint of hilltops. Or something. Such hagiography is a right shambles.

Another Catherine
Anyway, her feast day is 24 or 25 November. The date was also used to honour Catherine of Aragon, first wife of the abovementioned Henry, and the first victim of his desperation for a male heir. After 24 years of marriage, he blamed her for the lack of a living son, and changed the course of history to get shot of her. He had her imprisoned in Ampthill, Bedfordshire, 1531-1533. She became a patron of local lacemakers, and they began to celebrate her support on, naturally enough, St Catherine’s day.

One feast day treat for St Catherine’s day is Cattern cakes. These are closer to what we’d consider a cookie or biscuit today, and are flavoured with cinnamon and dried fruit. I’ve got recipes in a couple of books: Cattern Cakes and Lace by Julia Jones and Barbara Deer and Cakes Regional and Traditional by Julie Duff. Only one includes the peel, while the other includes caraway seeds. I like the idea of both, so here’s my version.

I’m only using self-raising flour here as I’ve got a lot in the cupboard. You could use plain instead, but use around 340g and 10g of baking powder.

350g self-raising flour
2g mixed spice
4g cinnamon powder
2g fine sea salt
50g ground almonds
350g caster sugar
50g currants
50g candied peel
4g caraway seeds
280g butter
1 egg, beaten
Extra sugar and cinnamon
1 more egg and 25g milk, beaten together, for a glaze

1. Preheat the oven to 180C.
2. Sift the flour, spices and salt into a mixing bowl.
3. Add the sugar, ground almonds, dried fruit and caraway seeds.
4. Add the melted butter and beaten egg.
5. Bring together to form a dough.
6. Bring the dough together, form a ball then cover with plastic and allow to rest in the fridge for about half an hour. This will firm the butter content up again.
7. Roll the dough out into a rectangle, about 12mm thick.
8. Brush the top with a little water, then sprinkle with extra sugar and cinnamon.
9. Roll the dough up like a Swiss roll to form a cylinder. It’s a pretty crumbly paste, but don’t worry: just squish it back together.

Space out well on baking sheets

10. Cut into slices about 10mm thick. As above squish back together as necessary. Place the slices on a baking sheet, lined with parchment or silicone.
11. Brush the tops with the glaze.
12. Bake for about 10-15 minutes, until lightly browned.

Cattern cakes

Despite the slightly fiddly dough, I like the results. They’re slightly unusual. One friend says “Christmassy” – but really, most feast day baked sweet treats involve similar spices and ingredients, such as peel, it’s just that we’ve lost so many of the other traditions, with most people’s only relationship with feast day foods being Christmas cake and plum pudding.

They spread as they bake, and come out somewhat wrinkly, like cooled lava. You can see a swirl or spiral from the rolling up, especially underneath. The caraway, or Persian cumin (Carum carvi) is a bit of a divisive flavour though, faintly medicinal and almost medieval. It’s perhaps most commonly found in rye breads these days, but for a long time a great British classic was seed cake – a sweet, teatime cake flavoured with caraway. It’s one of those flavours that’s arguably gone out of fashion somewhat for the British palette. If you don’t like it, just leave it out.

I’ll be in Winchester just after St Catherine’s day, so maybe we can go for a walk up the hill and take some of these for sustenance. Even if number one child, T-rex, has already rejected them, probably because of the caraway (unfamiliar flavour trumps sugary treat). Number two child, Stingray, is rather partial at least.

3 Comments

Filed under Baking, Biscuits, cookies, Feasts, Recipes

Pizza di San Martino for Martinmas

Pizza di San Martino

November 11 is Martinmas, the feast day of St Martin, or San Martino as he’s known in Italian. I talked about St Martin and his feast day here, and one of the related food products I mentioned was pizza di San Martino. This is a kind of enriched bread – as in Italy, “pizza” doesn’t necessarily imply a thing topped with tomato sauce and cheese. There are many variations on the theme.

Do a Google image search, and pizza di San Martino comes in several forms but they’re all basically yeasted cakes. It probably originates from the small Italian region of Molise, which reaches from the east coast into the Apennines, or possibly from the region to its north, Abruzzo. This area of central Italy, along with Umbria, has suffered recently from a series of earthquakes and aftershocks this year, so making this is one way of saying I’m thinking of friends living there, and anyone who’s lost their homes and livelihoods.

The patron saint of protection against earthquakes is actually Emygdius or Emidio, but he’s pretty obscure and I’m not aware of any baked goods associated with his feast day (5 and 18 August). I’ve adapted this pizza recipe from one found in Cooking with the Saints by Ernst Schuegraf; he doesn’t mention St Emygdius.

As I wrote in my previous piece about St Martin, a traditional pizza di San Martino would contain trinkets, favours, much like the inclusion of a silver coin in traditional British Christmas pudding or ceramic baby Jesus in galette de rois. This recipe doesn’t include any. There’s nothing to stop you adding trinkets though, for luck to whoever receives them.

1. Dissolve the yeast in the warm water.

Make the sponge, preferment

2. Add about 150g of the strong flour, and blend to form a sponge or pre-ferment.

Bubbly sponge

3. Allow the sponge to develop until it’s nice and bubbly – an hour or two, depending on warmth.

Combine the ingredients
4. Put the rest of the flour and the salt in a large bowl, then pour in the sponge, milk, beaten egg and melted butter and add the sugar, raisins and zest. I used orange and lemon zest.

Bring together - almost more a batter than a dough.

5. Mix to combine. It’ll be a fairly sticky dough. With just the water and milk, it’s about 67% hydration, but factor in the eggs and melted better too and that’s a fairly high proportion of liquid to flour.

Sticky dough

6. Turn out onto an oiled worktop and bring to a dough. For tips on how to handle sticky doughs, read my notes here.
7. Return to the bowl, cleaned and oiled, then cover and leave to prove until doubled in size.
8. Butter a round cake cake tin, ideally 26cm,  or even larger. (If you don’t have one, you could bake the pizza freeform, shaped like a disc, on a baking sheet.)
9. Turn out the dough and form into a ball. Push the ball down into the cake tin, then cover and leave to prove again.
10. Preheat the oven to 200C.

Put in round cake tin

11. When the dough is nicely risen, put it in the oven.
12. Bake for about 40 minutes. If it’s browning too much, cover with foil or turn down the oven.

Freshly baked pizza di San Martino

13. Take out, turn out and cool on a rack.

It’s not unlike a kind of brioche, so eat for breakfast, or morning coffee, or with tea. If I’m honest, I’ve no idea how an Italian family would eat it. During my time in Italy I never really managed to inveigle myself into households to watch people eating Easter Colomba or Christmas panettone or other enriched feast day breads like this. So any central Italians reading, please do let me know.

4 Comments

Filed under Baking, Feasts, Recipes

Papassini biscuits – and lard

Papassini biscuits

Let’s be honest: lard isn’t a popular ingredient. It’s not fashionable, even in this era of nose-to-tail eating. Even when the media, from Britain’s Daily Bile Mail to the US Huffington Post, is running articles on lard’s virtues. It’s still got an image problem.

And yet, it’s a fat we cooked with for centuries, especially here in northern Europe, where we can’t grow olive groves and peasants may have had a pig but were less likely to have had dairy. Look at any collection of older – say pre-WW2 – British recipes and lard is ubiquitous. Not just as a fat for frying, but also as the main fat for making pastries and baked goods. The only legacy of this tradition most Brits are aware of these days is lardy cake. I talked about this subject back in April 2014, when making lardy johns, an ostensibly old Sussex recipe that’s a cousin to the scone.

Back then, I couldn’t get my hands on any decent lard. As Marwood Yeatman says in The Last Food of England, “A modern porker has little fat and therefore little lard, so most of it is imported”. The only stuff I could get hold of was from Ireland. Last week on a Sunday market here in Lewes, I was pleased to see Beal’s Farm, our favourite supplier of locally produced charcuterie and salumi, whose pancetta was a joyful discovery when we moved home from Rome, has started selling their own lard. Indeed, I wasn’t just pleased, I was excited! Quality lard! I’d been making a lot of game pies with a hot water crust, and this pastry is best made with lard.

Yes, even in the Mediterranean diet
It’s not just northern European foods that are traditionally made with lard though. The past month or so I’ve been researching and developing products for my Italian-oriented biscuit stall. I wanted to focus on Christmas and festive products last week, and one product I made was papassini.

Also called pabassini, pabassinas, pabassinos and papassinos in various Sardinian dialects, these are biscuits made for not just Christmas but also Ognissanti (All Saints, 1 November) and that other principal Christian festival, Easter. Pretty much all the Italian (nay Sardinian) recipes I read used strutto – lard. Only a few used butter.

I made my first batch with Beal’s lard, and they were great. The mix is pretty much a pastry, enriched with fat, sugar, spices and some fruit – sultanas or raisins. The name papassino, according to Italian Wikipedia, comes from papassa or pabassa, Sardinian for uva sultanina, a type of grape, that is dried to become sultanas1 . The lard gave them a nice fairly delicate crumb. I also made them using Trex, hardened vegetable oil. Where vegetable means palm.

This is the sort of ethical conundrum we face in modern life – eat a meat byproduct from local, well-husbanded pigs or eat a veggie alternative made from an ingredient that’s most likely grown in a corporate plantation that required the destruction of rainforest. The results weren’t as good either.

So I experimented with butter versions too, notably for the market, where I didn’t want to have to worry about repeatedly explaining why certain products weren’t vegetarian. Which seems faintly daft, but we live in complex times for food. In many ways, industrialisation and intensification have thoroughly messed up our relationship with food, resulting in innumerable dietary inclinations, phobias, rampant orthorexia nervosa, intolerances, allergies and imagined allergies. A whole slew of first world worries.

Papassini on my market stall, along with riciarelli, pangiallo and others

Anyway, butter was pretty good too. I mean, I love butter. I would say the result was similarly crumbly, slightly sweeter. But then all the biscuits were sweet once I’d iced them. I just iced them with a basic water or glacé icing – that is, icing sugar2 and water, or lemon juice. More “authentic” recipes would be topped with an Italian meringue glaze, but that wasn’t entirely practical for me.

Another note on “authenticity” – the grapiness of these biscuits would also have been enhanced with sapa/saba. This is a kind of grape syrup, also known as vino cotto (“cooked wine”) and mosto cotto (“cooked grape must“). It’s an ingredient that has been made for millennia. Imagine a grape cordial, or a kind of sweet cousin to balsamic vinegar. You can produce a semblance by simmering grape juice to thicken it, but frankly almost none of the papassini recipes I researched used it so I didn’t bother.

So yes, these are in no way authentic, but I’m not Sardinian. That said, as with any Italian recipe, every family or baker or pasticcere would have differences of opinion and ingredients, so I would like to think mine are just another variation on a theme. Ideally made with quality Sussex lard.

250g plain flour
6g baking powder
80g ground almonds
100g caster sugar
120g lard or butter
50g walnuts, chopped fairly finely
80g sultanas or raisins
Zest of half a lemon
Zest of half an orange
2 eggs, lightly beaten, QB3 (about 120g)
4g cinnamon
4g fennel seeds

Icing
Icing sugar, sieved
Water or lemon juice
Hundreds-and-thousands, sprinkles

1. Soak the sultanas or raisins in hot water for about 10 minutes then drain and squeeze out any excess water.
2. Sieve together the flour and BP.
3. Dice the fat and rub it into the flour, or blitz in a food processor, until the mixture is crumb-like.

Papassini mixture
4. Add the ground almonds, sugar, walnuts, sultanas and zest.
5. Add the egg and bring the mixture a dough. If it’s too dry, add a little more egg or some milk.
6. Form into a disc or slab then wrap in plastic and leave to rest for at least half an hour.
7. Preheat the oven to 180C.

Cutting papassini dough into diamonds
8. Roll out the dough to about 10mm thick.
9. Cut diamond shapes.
10. Reform the offcuts and keep cutting more diamonds.
11. Bake for about 10-12 minutes.
12. Cool on a rack, then ice. If you’re doing the easy option like me, just sieve icing sugar and add a little water or icing sugar to form a smooth mixture, not too runny. Dip each biscuit in the icing, then sprinkle with hundreds and thousands.

 

 

Notes
1. I think; I never really got my head around English-Italian translations for sultana, raisin, etc. I believe a raisin is uva passa – literally “past” or “spent” grape. I’m more confused by uva sultanina, which may be both the grape and the sultana. I’m not sure, and I can’t go to an Italian dry goods store or supermarket or market to check very easily from here in Lewes. Hope to get back to Roma after Christmas, so I’ll have to try and remember to see if I can work it out then. Heck, all this confuses me, even in English. Until embarrassingly recently, I though currants were dried black- or red-currants, when they’re actually also dried grapes too. I suspect the Italian words are often fairly generic – so uvetta (literally “little grape”) can be used for currant or raisin, or people use different words in different regions.
2. Powdered sugar, confectioner’s sugar, zucchero a velo.
3. Quanto basta, “how much is enough”. Ie you may not need all of it, just enough to achieve the desired consistency.

8 Comments

Filed under Baking, Biscuits, cookies, Feasts, Recipes

St Nicholas pudding

St Nicholas' pudding

Christmas is looming. Father Christmas, or Santa Claus, is waiting to do the impossible and deliver gifts to millions of kids on Christmas Eve. Santa is a slightly baffling modern evolution of St Nicholas, who was in fact born to a Greek family, in what is now part of Turkey but was then part of the Roman Empire, in the late 3rd century.

St Nicholas’ feast day is actually 6 December (in Western Christianity; 19 December in Eastern Christianity) and in many cultures that date is still a big deal, with celebrations and special baked products: speculoos biscuits in the Netherlands; ciastka miodowe, honey cakes, in Poland; and vanilkove rohlicky, vanilla crescent biscuits, in the Czech Republic, among others. Even here in England there was apparently1 a traditional pudding – though I can’t imagine many people still make it for 6 December. Which is a shame, as it’s rather good, and could even make a good alternative to the traditional British Christmas pudding – a heavy, alcohol-infused concoction I’ve never liked.

Traditional British Christmas pudding is often called “plum pudding” – though its main fruit component is raisins, not plums. It gets the name as in older English “plum” was used to mean raisin, or dried fruits in general. St Nicholas pudding, on the other hand, is a genuine plum pudding.

I’m slightly confused by this as the plums on our Victoria tree were all ripe in August, and while there are later varieties, any fresh plums in early December would surely have been imports – but importing fruit was a less commonplace activity in Olde England than it is now in our industrial, seasonality-quashing modern world. More likely, it used prunes – dried plums. This recipe uses both. Luckily I had 3kg of our plums stoned and frozen from August.

Prunes and plums

Like Christmas pudding, this is a steamed pudding2 so it’ll need a good 2 hours cooking time. Plan ahead!

125g butter
125g caster sugar
1 orange, zested and juiced
2 eggs, lightly beaten
90g plain flour
8g ground cinnamon
4g ground cloves
4g baking powder
50g breadcrumbs
200g plums, stoned
60g prunes, stoned and chopped
80g golden syrup
About 6 more plums or prunes, stone and halved

Sauce
750g plums
240g caster sugar

1. Cream together the butter and sugar.
2. Add the zest of the orange.
3. Add the egg a little at a time.
4. Sieve together flour, baking powder and spices, and add to the mixture, along with the breadcrumbs.
5. Fold to combine.
6. Add the orange juice, plums and prunes and mix gently until well-combined.
7. Grease a pudding basin, then put the 80g (two generous tablespoons) of golden syrup in the bottom.
8. Arrange the halved 6 plums or prunes in the syrup.
9. Spoon the batter onto the top.
10. Seal with foil and tie.

Seal the pudding basin with foil and string

11. Steam for approx 2 hours.
12. Make the sauce by slicing plums into saucepan, with a little water. Simmer until well softened then puree by putting through a mouli, or blending and putting through a strainer.

Caramelise the sugar
13. Dissolve the sugar with about 60-80g water. When it’s dissolved, turn up the heat and boil to caramelise slightly. Remove from the heat, stir in about 60-80g more water – carefully, as it’ll spit.
14. Add the plum puree to the syrup, and stir well to combine. You can add some booze if you like – port, Kirsch, a dash of brandy.
14. Check if the pudding is cooked by lifting the foil and sticking in a skewer; it’s basically a moist cake, so the skewer won’t come out clean – but nor should it come out with bits that still resemble batter. If it’s still battery, keep steaming.
15. When the pudding is cooked, turn it out onto a plate and serve with the sauce.

You could even serve with some cream or vanilla ice cream, if you’re feeling really indulgent. It’s a lovely pud, with the orange, and possibly the caramelised sugar, tempering the sweetness of the sugar and syrup and adding some bitterness.

Portion of St Nicholas' pudding

1 I say apparently as although a recipe appears in my 1997 copy The Pudding Club Cookbook, and that one is essentially copied in Cooking With the Saints (Ignatius Press, 2001), I can’t find any mentions of the pudding in my books of older traditional British recipes.
2 OK, some Christmas puddings are boiled still. See this post for more discussion of just what is meant by “pudding” and its history.

8 Comments

Filed under Feasts, Puddings & desserts, Recipes

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!

11 Comments

Filed under Baking, Breads, Cakes, Cakes (yeasted), Discussion, Feasts

Remembrance and St Martin’s Day

Poppies at Cenotaph

Poppies at The Cenotaph (pic: Cameron Cox)

Up in London on Sunday 15 November, we found ourselves alongside a memorial procession taking place in Whitehall, where The Cenotaph, the UK’s national war memorial, is located. This was the remembrance ceremony of AJEX, the Association of Jewish Ex-Servicemen and Women. Among the more elderly participants, adorned with medals and proudly wearing their regimental berets, were representatives of the 65,000 British Jews who fought for the Allies in World War II.

It was a moving event, and I’m surprised I’d not heard of it before. Perhaps it’s somewhat overshadowed by our main Remembrance Day, which takes place four days earlier, on 11 November. The “eleventh hour of the eleventh day of the eleventh month” is when the guns officially stopped firing in World War I in 1918.

Poppies and chapels
I’d been meaning to write something for 11 November, as it’s also, in the Christian Calendar, St Martin’s Day or Martinmas. However, I felt somewhat overwhelmed by the number of different feast day bakes that are traditionally made in various countries around Europe, so got a bit stymied.

Among the many bakes are rogale, or rogal świętomarciński (“St Martin crescents”) pastries from Poznań, Poland, which can have a poppy seed filling. This connects nicely with the poppy as the symbol of remembrance, as worn during the commemorative events on Sunday and on the Tuesday beforehand.

The poppy was chosen as a symbol in the UK and Commonwealth countries as it’s a flower that proliferated in the former WWI battlefields of Flanders. Not speaking Polish, I’m struggling to find out if the use of its seeds has any older symbolism in the rogal świętomarciński. Their use may have come about simply as an alternative to an almond-based filling when the nuts became scarce after WWII.

I’m not going to do a recipe here, but did want to write about St Martin’s Day as it’s got all sorts of interesting angles. As an etymology geek, one of my favourite associations with St Martin is how one of his myths gave us the words “chapel” and “chaplain”.

Martin was born in the 4th century, in what is now Hungary, and served in the Roman army before finding his religion. He later became the bishop of Tours, in France. His conversion was inspired by a meeting with a beggar. Touched by his poverty, Martin tore his army cloak in half, giving a piece to the beggar to save him from the cold. Martin purportedly then dreamt of Jesus wearing the half-cloak. The remaining half became a holy relic. The Latin (and Italian) for a cloak is cappa; a small cloak, a cappella. The place Martin’s cloak was kept took the same name, and cappella became “chapel” in English.

Disgrace and favours
Germany produces a similar pastry to the rogale, called Martinshörchen, while there are various products from different regions of Italy. When I lived in Italy I found chestnut flour on the market, and used it for making a chestnut bread. I subsequently discovered this was something that was traditionally done in St Martin’s name: pane di San Martino.

The Sicilians, meanwhile, have biscotti di San Martino, which aren’t biscuits, and aren’t twice-baked, but are instead small yeasted buns, often flavoured with anise or fennel seeds. The one I’m most intrigued by is pizza di San Martino.

In Italy, the word pizza is used not just for thin dough discs topped with cheese etc, but for other breads. Pizza di San Martino is one such bread. It may originally be from Molise and nearby regions of central and eastern Italy, but I can’t be sure. It seems a fairly loosely defined product that be can be sweet or savoury, enriched and flavoured with grated parmesan, and again, might contain fennel or anise seed. The most interesting aspect of this bread is how it’s made is sections or balls of dough, with a different seed or grain hidden inside them.

This hiding of seeds and grains is another example of the habit of hiding “favours” – think of the coin inside the British Christmas day pudding, a baby Jesus in French galette de rois, or an almond hidden in Danish Christmas Eve rice pudding (thanks to my half-Danish friend Kate for informing me about the latter). And many other examples.

Most of these favours are about bestowing good fortune or a special status on the person who finds them, but in the pizza di San Martino, each one symbolises something different. It’s fascinating. So the person who finds a dried broad bean, a fava*, in their portion is the queen (or king) of the household for the duration of the feast day. Who finds the acorn is a pig. A grain of barley? An ass (as in Equus asinus, not the American for arse). Pumpkin seed – liar. Grass pea (cicerchia) – farter. And of course it involves that prime Italian insult, the cuckold – whoever finds the fagiolo, common bean.

This is why I like traditional baked goods. They’re steeped in history. And, often, good to eat too.

All these rich St Martin’s Day baked goods used to be eaten to mark the start of a 40 day fast. I doubt many people observe that now, certainly not in Britain, with its protestant official religion and widespread secularism. But that doesn’t mean you can’t make the breads and appreciate the stories. And, as St Martin’s day and Remembrance Day have been conflated, also spare a thought for all those who’ve died in war. Whatever their religion, or lack of; soldiers and non-combatants alike.

 

 

 

* I wonder if there’s some etymological connection between “favour” in the sense of a hidden charm, and fava?

7 Comments

Filed under Discussion, Feasts

Harvest festival wheat sheaf loaf

A bread wheat sheaf for a harvest festival

Beside my primary school was a church, St Stephen’s. In the summer, house martins built their nests under its eaves and whizzed over our heads as we came and went or played in the yard on wet days. Just as the house martins were leaving at the end of the summer, the autumn term started. Soon after, we had a harvest festival.

The abiding notion in Britain is that school summer holidays freed up children to help with the harvest. This may be a myth, but certainly the biggest grain harvests start happening here in the middle of school holidays, around the festival of Lammas, 1 August.

Harvest festivals continue through late summer and autumn, notably occurring around the time of the nearest full moon to the autumnal equinox. This year, the equinox is today, 23 September, the full moon 28 September. Though our local primary school is doing its harvest festival on 16 October. I’ve not seen how they do it yet, but I’ve got strong memories from a couple (several) decades ago of the festivals at St Stephen’s, with the altar piled high with foods, to give thanks and for charity. There were tinned foods, but there was also fresh autumn produce, and possibly even a wheat sheaf: real or made of dough.

Stalks and symbolism
A sheaf is a tied bunch of grain stalks after they have been harvested. It was a common sight at this time of year during the centuries when harvests were done by hand with scythes. I did it this way when I lived on a small farm in New Zealand in 1990, and I know people these days growing heritage grain varieties that still do in England, but mostly harvesting is done now with combines: so no more sheaves.

An old "wheatsheaf" pub sign in Dorset

It’s a shame really, as they’re an ancient symbol and one that you’re more likely to encounter now in pub names. Symbolically, however, the wheat sheaf represents plenty, a good harvest, fertility and even resurrection, as the cycle of seasons has once more given grain for bread. Indeed, the sheaf infers bread, and bread is of course a quintessentially important symbolic food in some religions. The heart of Christianity is the eucharist: the eating of bread to reiterate the Last Supper, where Jesus prepared for his sacrifice by shared bread, saying, “This is my body, which is given for you. Do this in remembrance of me.” (Luke 22:20).

Back to school
Although I’m not religious, I enjoy the symbolism and stories, and most of all appreciate the tradition, so I thought it was about time I had a go at a bread wheat sheaf.

It’s based on the recipe in The Bread Book by Linda Collister (1993) which is in turn based on a recipe in The Modern Baker, Confectioner and Caterer (1907) by John Kirkland, a former head of The National Bakery School (founded 1894), then at Borough Polytechnic and now part of London South Bank University. I did a diploma there in 2010, but we didn’t make anything quite this ornate.

This is slightly tricky to do in a domestic oven as it won’t be as capacious as a commercial oven. Mine can cope with baking sheets 35cm wide. It’ll mean your sheaf isn’t as grand as those professionals might make for harvest festivals, but even the comparatively stumpy results can still be very pleasing.

It’s a fairly time-consuming project. Not only do you have to make the dough and wait for it to prove, you also have to shape a lot of small pieces of dough. Notably to make the ears of corn. (And when I say corn, I’m using it in the Old English sense meaning any edible grain, though particularly wheat grain, not the modern American sense – which is taking over here in Britain – meaning maize.)

1350g strong white bread flour
20g salt
8g caster sugar
15g fresh yeast
750g tepid water (approximately, see below)

Glaze
1 egg
Pinch salt

1. Combine the yeast and most of the water. Hold say 100g back.
2. Put the flour, sugar and salt in a large bowl and mix to combine.
3. Add the yeast mixture and bring to a dough.
4. It will be quite a tight, firm dough as you want it for sculpting, however if it feels too dry add a little more of the water. How dry your dough feels will depend on how absorbent your flour is. As I’m using a stoneground flour, which contains more bran than an industrial steel roller-milled flour, it’s quite absorbent.

Turn out the doughKnead to a smooth dough
5. Turn the mixture out onto a lightly oiled surface and knead until smooth and well combined. These days I rarely do long manual kneads, but as this is quite old-school, go with it. I added water to a total of about 750g – meaning the dough is 55% hydration.

Before provingDoubled in size

6. Return the ball of dough to the bowl (cleaned and lightly oiled), cover or put in a plastic bag, then leave to prove until doubled in size. At an ambient temperature of about 18C this too about two and half hours.
7. When doubled, turn out. My total dough weighed approximately 2150g.

Deflate the dough
8. Give the dough another short knead to deflate and redistribute the gases. Again, this isn’t a loaf where we’re after a nice pleasing crumb, it’s a medium for sculpting.
9. Divide the dough up into pieces: two at 320g, one at 400g and the rest, about 1110g. Don’t worry too much about total accuracy – you’re making a wheat sheaf, an organic thing, not something geometric.
10. As this is quite a protracted process, you might want to keep the pieces you’re not working on in the fridge, so they don’t keep proving and swelling too much. Too much proving and the resulting shape may crack where you don’t want it to.

Wheat sheaf base layer
11. Take the two 320g pieces and form two rough rectangles, approximately 22x13cm. Use one to form the trunk of the sheaf, the other the top. Place both pieces on the largest baking sheet you have (that’ll fit in your oven of course). Stretch the head out slightly. You want a kind of cartoon tree or mushroom shape. Prick all over with a fork and brush with water to stop a crust forming. Cover with a damp cloth while you do the next bit.

30 pieces30 pieces into sausages
30 pieces as stalks

12. Take the 400g piece and divide it into 30 pieces, each scaled at around 13g.
13. Roll these pieces into snakes, again about 22cm long.

Add the stalks
14. Place 27 of the snakes on the base, making the wheat stalks. Twist or braid the remaining three to form a sheaf band, tucking its ends underneath on each side.
15. Cover or bag this and place it in the fridge as the next bit is the most time-consuming.
16. Take the large, remaining piece of dough. This is to create to ears. Divide it up into about 70 pieces, each scaled at 16g-ish. Do more, smaller pieces if you want daintier ears.

Make the ears
17. Roll each piece into a ball, then roll out, rolling one end to a point.
18. With a pair of sharp-pointed scissors, make snips in the small piece of dough, three or four, on three sides. Cut down and inwards towards the rounded base. It’s a bit like making dozens of mini versions of the French pain d’épi – meaning ear or cob bread.
19. You could make all of them in advance, but I got the main part out of the fridge again, and started positioning them on the top. Place them loosely to give a sense of them having grown out of the stalks.
20. While you’re doing this, preheat your oven to 220C.
21. Keep adding the ears, layering slightly, with the thickest point in the middle.

Position all the ears
23. Beat the one egg with the pinch of salt and use it to – carefully and lightly – glaze the sheaf.
23. Bake for 20 minutes, take out of the oven and brush with more egg glaze.
24. Turn the heat down to 170C and bake for another 40 minutes or so until nicely browned.

Baked

At this point, you can decide whether you want to eat it – it’s a perfectly serviceable, albeit low hydration, bread – or use it as a decoration. If you want it for the latter, turn your oven down to 140C or 130C and leave it in for a few hours longer to completely dry it out. Collister says six hours and if you have a wood or oil range, maybe you could just leave it in, but using electricity this seems a bit excessive in terms of energy consumption.

Collister decorates hers with a blobby little mouse on the stalks. If I’d been doing this with children in the house I might have been tempted, but as our adoption process continues to drag us along on its emotional roller-coaster, and we still haven’t been able to expand our family, I wasn’t inclined.

It’s easy to make a mouse though – just save 30g or so of the dough used for the wheat ears, make it into an eggy shape, snip a few ears, skewer a few eyes and add a snaky tail. I don’t think the mouse has any particular symbolism, though I could be wrong. Maybe it today it could symbolism how biodiversity is so tragically compromised by modern industrial farming techniques.

Wheatsheaf, detail

Addendum
So I dried out the wheat sheaf loaf – every time I used to oven for other things, then turned it off, I put the loaf back in to dry while it cooled.

I gave it to the local primary school, where I volunteer, and they used it as part of their harvest festival display. It’s a nice echo of my own memories of harvest festival at my primary school, all those years ago.

School harvest festival display

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

A few notes
1. Here’s a film of a British master baker making a wheat sheaf in 1957. His wheat ears are a bit finer than mine!
2. Out of interest, Fran, my wife, works at Kew Foundation, at Kew Gardens in London. As I was doing this, she was working on a document that contained this remarkable statistic. While the human genome contains 3 billion letters, that of bread wheat (Triticum aestivum L. ) contains 17 billion. I’m not a scientist – clearly – but that’s boggling. The human sense of superiority leads one to imagine a sophisticated, sentient animal organism like us would be that much more genetically complicated.

 

24 Comments

Filed under Baking, Breads, Discussion, Feasts, Recipes

St Roch’s Fingers – a trifle, of sorts

St Roch's Fingers

Internationally, St Roch, whose feast day is 16 August, is also known has Rocco, Roque, Rock and even Rollox. Rock ’n’ Rollox. He sounds cool. Though actually he’s invoked against things like epidemics and skin diseases. And is the patron of a wide variety of people in different nations: the falsely accused, surgeons, tile-makers, gravediggers, second-hand dealers, wool-carders, pilgrims, apothecaries. As well dogs, sick cattle and bachelors.

He’s pretty multi-purpose.

The story says he was born in Montpelier in France and, after the death of his parents, became a pilgrim, bound for Rome. He didn’t get there (or maybe he did. The whole saga is hardly factual). Instead, he found himself in an area gripped by epidemic. Staying to minister, he apparently performed various miracles before himself contracting the disease, at Piacenza, northern Italy. He retreated to the woods. There, a dog found him, and brought him bread every day, taken from his owner’s kitchen.

Roch survived, and would only die in 1327 when he returned to Montpelier, was taken for a spy and stuck in a dungeon. Maybe. He may have instead died in Angleria, Lombardy, Italy, where he’s patron of two towns, Potenza and Gerocarne. Or he may have been an amalgam of other historical figures, or, like many saints and feast days, the story may have drawn on older, pagan stories. Hagiography does blur with folklore and legends.

As his story features the bread-bearing dog, I would have thought he would have a traditional feast-day loaf. But seemingly not. Instead, Feast Day Cookbook (Burton and Ripperger, 1951) and Cooking with the Saints (Schuegraf, 2001) say one should make something called St Roch’s fingers. The latter book says it’s Spanish in origina. It is basically another variation on the theme of trifle – sponge and custard, a dash of alcohol.

Sponge fingers
St Roch’s fingers requires sponge fingers. Now, you can just go and buy these, but they’re pretty easy to make and cooking from scratch is fun, rewarding, and means you can avoid any nasty additives you will very likely get in industrially made biscuits and cakes bought from supermarkets.

Sponge fingers, ladyfingers or savoiardi, are basically made with the same mix you use for Genoise, or a similar one. I wrote about that, and trifle, more here, but here’s another basic savoiardi recipe.

Makes about a dozen fingers.

2 eggs
62g caster sugar
1/2 teaspoon vanilla extract
pinch of salt
55g plain flour

1. Preheat oven to 190C.
2. Line 2 baking trays with silicone or baking parchment.
3. Fit a piping bag with a plain 1.25cm nozzle.
4. Separate the eggs. Whisk the egg yolks with half of the sugar and the vanilla. Beat until light in colour.
5. In a clean bowl beat the egg whites. While beating, slowly add the salt and the remaining sugar, continuing to beat until you achieve soft peaks.
6. Gently fold the beaten egg whites into the egg yolk mixture.
7. Sieve the flour over the egg mixture and gently fold it in.
10. Pipe fingers, about 9cm long, 4cm apart.
11. Bake for about 12 minutes until firm to the touch and golden.

Sponge fingers unbakedSponge fingers baked
12. Place on racks to cool.

Crème de la crème
You also need custard. Again, you can buy this in tins, or cheat with a cornflour-based powder, but you simply cannot beat homemade stuff.

145g full-fat milk
145g cream
1 tsp vanilla essence
2 egg yolks
15g caster sugar

1. Heat the milk and cream together in a saucepan, and scald – that is, bring it almost but not quite to the boil
2. In a bowl, beat the eggs with the sugar.
3. Pour the hot milk over the egg yolks whisking continuously. When completely mixed in, return to the pan.
4. Stir over a low heat until the mixture thickens.
5. Pour into a bowl and beat in the vanilla essence. Allow to cool completely.

St Roch's Fingers

To assemble the dessert:
Some brandy. Or other alcohol. To taste.
Some whipped cream.
Some small glasses.

1. If you want to flavour the custard, beat in a little alcohol – brandy for example.
2. If you want to make the custard go a bit further, beat in some whipped cream.
3. Line the glasses with the sponge fingers: a piece in the bottom, and up the side.
4. I’d just made some jam – or indeed jelly – from the cherry plums (Prunus cerasifera) in my garden so I put a blob of that in the bottom.
5. Cover with custard.
6. Add some extra whipped cream on top if you fancy.

Quite why you’d eat this for St Roch’s day I don’t know. But enjoy, while basking in that protection from epidemics and skin diseases.

2 Comments

Filed under Biscuits, cookies, Discussion, Feasts, Recipes