Category Archives: Feasts

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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Maltese Easter figolli

Small figolli

I was introduced to figolli by friends down the road, Anoushka and Francis and their boys Alexander and Casper. Anoushka is half-Maltese, and they make these every Easter. They called them biscuits, but they’re more a pastry, almost an iced pie, consisting of two layers of pastry sandwiched with an almond paste, then iced and decorated.

Figolla cut in half

When I’m studying Italian recipes, there’s so much information online, and I can read some Italian, so I can usually work out the story. But Malta has a population of less than half a million, so its culture isn’t the most widely discussed thing online. And even my fairly reasonable collection of books about feast day foods doesn’t include any mentions of figolli. Which I deduce is the plural, with figolla the singular.

Some history
Francis told me that Malta has a complex history not unlike that of Sicily. It was Greek and Roman, with the Carthaginians and Phoenicians also having an influence. Like Sicily, it was subsequently Arab, then conquered by the Normans in 1091. The Norman reach in the 11th century always amazes me. Aragon and France followed. The Brits had a big influence during their imperial period, with the island famously a fortress port that suffered heavy bombing in the Second World War.

Anyway, so the language is complex and the culture is mixed. The presence of ground almonds and citrus flavourings in figolli would seem to indicate the Arab legacy, as similar ingredients are found in other recipes from Sicily and across the Eastern Mediterranean.

Francis gave me the recipe they use in their household, which I subsequently found online. It’s here. Its instructions aren’t the clearest, and its almond paste is fairly heavy duty. Watching videos of Maltese and Maltese emigrant cooks online, their paste is much lighter, more like frangipane than marzipan. So I’ve made some tweaks.

Not napping
This project has been a bit rushed. I was hoping to have it up sooner, but as you can see from the inactivity on my blog, I’m finding it hard to update it. Keeping the blog going with two pre-schoolers was always a challenge, but now they’re not really napping any more, I simply don’t have much time – or headspace. Researching, testing, photographing, sorting photos and writing up recipes is fairly demanding, and when I have a two year old and four year old also (yelling) their demands at me (bless ’em), it’s tricky. It’s especially tricky to be really satisfied with the results. So I’m not claiming this is a perfect recipe.

The Raver, aged 2, doing the decorating

As for the decoration of the figolli – that’s not exactly authentic or traditional. Fran and the kids took over for that bit. The kids do love sprinkles, and the opportunity to readily lick icing.

Figolli templates

The Maltese versions were traditionally shaped like men, women, fish and baskets. They would use large cutters. We don’t have any enormous cookie cutters, despite Fran’s somewhat obsessive collecting, so I drew shapes and made templates in cardboard. I went for a bunny, a heart and a fish. Other shapes are sheep, butterflies, and eggs – most of which are of course some kind of fertility symbol.

Recipe
The quantities here are fairly substantial. We made three large ones and a dozen smaller ones. If you don’t want to get so carried away, halve it.

For the pastry
800g plain flour
400g butter
Zest of 1 lemon
320g caster sugar
4 egg yolks, beaten
Cold water

For the almond paste
300g caster sugar
300g icing sugar
600g ground almonds
Zest of 1 lemon
Juice of 1 lemon
3-4 egg whites, approx, lightly beaten
A few drops orange flower water (optional)
A few drops of almond essence (optional)
Orange juice or similar
Cold water

To finish
Icing
Confection eggs
Sprinkles

1. Make the pastry by rubbing the butter into the flour until it resembles breadcrumbs, then stir in the sugar and lemon zest.
2. Add the egg yolks and enough cold water (but not too much) to form a dough. Knead briefly then wrap in plastic and rest in the fridge. You could use a food processor, but it would have to be a big one.
3. In a large bowl, make the almond paste by mixing the sugars, ground almonds and zest. Some recipes also include a little spice, such a cloves and cinnamon – so go for it if you like.
4. Lightly beat the egg whites, add the essences (if using) then start combining with the ground almond/sugar mix. I got in there with my hands. I added the lemon juice and even squeezed in some Clementine juice until it was reasonably soft, as noted above.
5. Cover the almond paste while prepare the shapes.

Cut out pastrySmear with paste
6. Roll out the pastry to about 6mm thick. Cut around your shapes, creating pairs – one for the bottom, one for the top.
7. Place the bottom pieces on baking sheets lined with parchment or silicon.
8. Cover the pastry shapes with a layer of the almond paste.
9. You can brush the edges of the lower piece of pastry with water, then put the top, and lightly press together. You don’t have to crimp firmly, as the filling isn’t that runny. Indeed, some of the pics online show the layers are barely pinched together at all. I tried both ways, and both were fine.
10. While you’re doing this, preheat your oven to 180C.
11. When you’ve filled all the shapes and topped them, put the baking sheets in the oven for around 20-25 minutes, until slightly browned.

Large heart figolla ready to bakeLarge heart etc baked

Small heart figolli ready to bakeSmall heart figolli baked
12. Allow the figolli to cool on the trays. I tried to move one too soon and it cracked badly.
13. When cool, transfer to a rack or tray for decorating.
14. You can decorate with elaborate royal icing piping and suchlike, but we just used a simple glacé icing – that is, icing sugar, water and colourings.* As well as eggs and sprinkles. It seems commonplace to include small chocolate eggs or half-eggs in their foil, but I couldn’t find any that suited, so we used candied mini eggs.

Misc figolli, decorated

Happy Easter!

 

* It amuses me that natural blue food colouring these days is made with spirulina. About 20 plus years ago, I remember spirulina, a green-blue algae, being the superfood du jour, but it’s decidedly out of fashion these days.

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Santa Lucia crown

Santa Lucia crown

The feast day of Santa Lucia,  St Lucy, is celebrated on 13 December. Her name derives from the Latin lux, as in “Fiat lux!” – “Let there be light!”. We also have a cat called Lux. She’s not divine in any way, she’s a needy, bony scrag, but we still love her.

Lucia was supposedly born into a wealthy family in Syracuse, Sicily, in 283AD, a time when the Roman Empire was still officially devoted to Zeus, Apollo and co. Christianity only won out a century later. The Emperor Diocletian was old-school, and she was killed during his reign, in 304AD. Medieval accounts of her death are grim, and involve her eyes being gouged out before she was burned at the stake. She remains the patron saint of the blind. As well as salesmen, oddly.

The facts are, of course, uncertain, but her veneration spread to Rome by the 6th century, and had even reached Britain by the 8th century. Today, she’s mostly celebrated on her home island and in Sweden. Her namesake role as a bringer of light was particularly important in the mid-winter gloom and her feast day may previously have been celebrated on the solstice, the shortest day of the year: now 21 December and more bound up in Christmas itself.*.

Santa Lucia crown cut in half

Anyway, this is based on another recipe from Cooking with the Saints by Ernst Schuegraf, “The Most Unique Catholic Cookbook Ever!”. It’s purportedly based on a traditional Swedish bake, but I can’t guarantee that. I’ve made Swedish inspired Santa Lucia buns before, which feature a similar enriched dough with saffron. And in the book Scandinavian Baking, Trine Hahnemann has a saffron bread recipe and recounts a Swedish legend about a man being woken by beautiful singing on the long, solstice night, 13 December 1764. It was St Lucia, bringing light, food and wine, and adding herself to the pantheon of Swedish annual traditions.

125g water
125g full-fat milk
A few sprigs of saffron
6g active dried yeast
250g plain (all-purpose) flour
250g strong white bread flour
2 eggs
120g caster sugar
50g butter, softened
3g salt

Plus
1 extra egg to glaze
100g icing sugar
30g milk, possibly more
3g vanilla essence
Candied fruit, lightly toasted flaked almonds, nibbed sugar or sprinkles to decorate

1. Combine the milk and water, warm slightly, add the saffron and leave to infuse for at least 20 minutes, even overnight.
2. Warm the liquid again then add the yeast and leave to froth up.
3. In a large bowl, combine the flours, sugar, salt, softened butter and two of the eggs.
4. Add the yeast mix and bring everything together to form a rough dough.
5. Turn out onto a lightly greased surface and knead to combine and create a smooth dough.
6. Form the dough into a ball and put in a clean, lightly oiled bowl.
7. Leave to prove until doubled in size. This will depend on the temperature. I don’t have a prover or warm cupboard, and our kitchen was about 19C; the doubling took a couple of hours.
8. The total dough should be about 1030g. Cut off a piece weighing about 350g, leaving the other at about 680g. Form these into balls, rest them for 10 minutes or so.
9. Stretch the balls slightly then slice each one into three equal sized pieces.
10. Roll the small pieces into snakes around 40cm long, and the larger ones into snakes about 80cm long.
11. Braid the three longer pieces, then form into a circle, pinching the ends together. Put this circle on a greased baking sheet.
12. Braid the three smaller pieces and go through the same process. Put this smaller circle on top of the larger circle.
13. Cover with a clean cloth then leave to prove again until doubled in size.
14. Preheat the oven to 190C.
15. Whisk the final egg, then brush over the dough to glaze.
16. Bake for about 15 minutes then turn down to 180C. Keep an eye on this bake as the glaze can brown then burn easily. If it does, cover with foil. Bake for another half hour or so.
17. Cool on wire racks.
18. Sieve the icing sugar, then add the milk (adding more as necessary) and sugar to create a basic icing.
19. Drizzle the icing over the crown and decorate as you wish – you could use glace cherries, I suppose, but they’re the Devil’s work. The kids like sprinkles, so I’m using vermicelli and nibbed sugar.
20. Serve the crown with birthday candles for Lux, Lucy, Lucia, light.

Enjoy in the pre-Christmas mayhem of Advent, close to the solstice.

St Lucia crown baked

* I’m talking about the northern hemisphere of course. The shift from the old Julian calendar to the new Gregorian calendar involved removing between 10 and 13 days, depending on when the transition took place. Strongly Catholic countries like Italy, Spain, Portugal, France and Poland made the switch in 1582. Britain, Canada and most of the US didn’t until 1752.

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Speculaas for St Nicholas’s day

Totoro speculaas

Our Dutch friend Annely told us about speculaas a few years ago. They are the spiced biscuits traditionally eaten in the Netherlands and Belgium for St Nicholas’s day, Sint Nicolaas, Sinterklaas, on 6 December. They’re also, apparently, eaten in Germany at Christmas itself.

When I say “spiced biscuit”, what I mean basically is gingerbread. They’re all related these spiced feast day biscuits. What made speculaas interesting for me wasn’t just the recipe or spice blend – predominantly ginger and cinnamon, and possibly some quantities of nutmeg, coriander, cardamom, anise and white pepper depending on your family’s or your local baker’s recipe. No, it was more the way they’re made.

Traditionally, the dough is rolled into a wooden mould, the excess cut away, then it’s tapped hard – to free the dough, which takes on the stamp from the mould. The stamps can be ornate figures of men and women, as well as animals, windmills, and, of course, clogs. Such moulds can be purchased online, here and here for example. Maybe we’ll invest in a few moulds for next year; this year, it’s miscellaneous cookie cutters and Totoro (and Chibi and Chu, too).

I’m even more excited about this because while I was doing this recipe, with Fran making a few batches, I had a child-free chance to visit my local library. I was researching a fabulous local building and its clock tower, but in a book called Memories of Old Sussex by Lillian Candlin I found a chapter called Fair Gingerbread. This was all about the spice biscuits historically sold across the county at fairs, when gifted called “fairings”. One blog I read about speculaas said the figures could be given during courtship. I can imagine this happening with Sussex fairings too.

Candlin says they were patterned or shaped as “effigies” – ie figures. “The wooden moulds that were used for stamping ginger-bread are now museum pieces.” I must see if any are still on display in Brighton museum, as they’re very similar to those used to make speculaas. She mentions moulds of the “Duke of Wellington on horseback, all complete with sword and pistol; a solemn looking cat and a grandfather clock.” And then there’s this one, from Horsham, which appears to show a cockerel sitting on some trousers.

Horsham gingerbread mould

If I ever see such things in antique shops, I’ll know what they are now. Such a shame their use is another tradition we’ve lost in England.

Anyway, here’s a recipe for speculaas (the plural; singular speculaasjes). Frankly, I’m happier with it than my earlier gingerbread, as it’s got a nice snap: so long as it’s rolled thinly (thanks Fran). About 3mm. Tweak the spice mix to taste.

225g butter
300g light brown sugar
5g fine salt
80g milk – QB
500g plain flour
12g baking powder
15g cinnamon
10g ginger
2g ground cloves
A few grates of nutmeg
A pinch of white pepper
Flaked almonds & pearl sugar for decoration

1. Cream butter and sugar.
2. Add the salt and milk and blend. Note, the milk quantity is QB, as the Italians say – as much as you need. You might want to add a dash more.
3. Sieve the flour, baking powder and spice mix in then bring to a dough.
4. Form a ball, then wrap and rest – ideally for at least 12 hours but the results are fine if you want to do it sooner. Total dough is about 1200g – quite a lot. So you could freeze half.
5. Preheat the oven to 150C.

Raver sprinkles and rolls

6. Roll out the dough to about 3mm and cut with cookie cutters of choice. (If you have moulds, flour them and push in the dough. Cut away excess. Bash the mould on works surface to release the shape.)
7. Place on baking sheets lined with paper or mats.
8. Decorate as you wish with flaked almonds or nibbed sugar.
9. Bake for 30 minutes.
10. Leave to cool on a wire rack.

Oh, and etymology geeks – the name may derive from the Latin speculum. This means mirrror (in modern Italian, specchio… ah, that reminds me of via degli Specchi, the address of an old favourite haunt in Rome, Open Balandin, with its 50 or so craft beers). It’s a neat suggestion, as the mould’s stamp is then mirrored in the biscuit.

Speculaas

Oh 2. I realise my daughter’s hair looks a bit disreputable in the pic. I did brush it this morning, but well, she’d just got up from an afternoon nap when she was “helping” Fran make the biscuits. What I was more impressed with was her technique for sprinkling flour and rolling the dough. Go Raver, aged 2!

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Martinshörnchen – St Martin’s day crescent rolls

 

Martinshornchen

When I started this blog – blimey, five-ish years ago – it was because I was loving the products that appeared in Roman bakeries during certain periods of the Catholic calendar, for feast days and whatnot, notably Carnevale. I miss Carnevale, that indulgent period after Christmas and before the fasts of Lent when I gorged myself on such things as frappe and castagnole.

Anyway, for a spell, I researched and made several Italian feast days bakes, then continued to try and do the same, with British and international products, when we moved back to England at the end of 2013.

Soon after that, we started the adoption process, and in early 2014, our two wonderful kids moved in with us. Since then, I’ve been doing a lot of childcare. Almost full-time childcare. Now, some people manage to have children, jobs and involved blogs. And acclaimed books. Not me. That’s effing superhuman. Hats off to them. I’ve struggled to keep my blog going, let alone research new feast day bakes.

Martinshornchen

But my diary keeps on reminding me. I noticed Martinmas – 11 November – was coming up, the feast day that celebrates the life of one-time soldier St Martin of Tours and is conflated in the UK with Remembrance Day.

OK, I won’t shirk. I need to get things moving around here. So I reached for my spreadsheet and pile of books. I’ve made a couple of other things for St Martin’s day. This time I nearly tried the Sicilian biscotti di San Martino, which are not biscuits, but rolls with a ricotta filling. But, well, it looked like it might break me when the kids rejected them for the aniseed flavour after the hard work. So I’m trying Martinshörnchen instead.

These are crescent-shaped rolls from Saxony in Germany, literally “Martin’s little horns” or “Martin’s little crescents” (thanks Pa). I hesitate to call them croissants, as they’re not laminated. Without lamination (layering the dough with fat multiple times) they’re a lot easier to make, but don’t have the wonderful flakiness of laminated doughs and pastries. They are, however, made with a dough enriched with milk, butter, sugar and eggs. I love anything made with an enriched dough – you know, brioche, panettone, challah, doughnuts, hot cross buns, currant buns, saffron cake, babka etc etc etc. Yum.

So here we go. This is adapted from a recipe in Cooking with the Saints by Ernst Schuegraf. The original recipe has a slightly counter-intuitive method where you’re supposed to try and make a dough with 200g of milk and 500g of flour, then add the enriching ingredients later. I’ve revised this to make it more logical and straightforward, and less likely to carbonise the results.

200g full-fat milk
3g active dried yeast or 6g fresh yeast
250g strong white flour
250g plain (all-purpose) flour
35g caster sugar
3g fine sea salt
3 eggs, that is around 155g beaten egg
100g butter, softened

Plus
100g butter, melted
2 egg yolks
100g-ish nibbed sugar

1. Warm the milk (to about 35C) stir in the sugar, then add the yeast. Leave it to froth up.
2. Put the flours and salt in a bowl, then add the yeast mix, beaten egg and softened butter.
3. Bring to a dough, then knead well. It’s soft and sticky, but that’s good.
4. Form a ball, using flour sparingly to help, then leave to rest in a clean, lightly oiled or greased bowl. Leave to prove until doubled in size. Note, fat (butter and egg yolks) can slow the fermentation. It’s at this point I wish we still had our old hot water cylinder in the cupboard, or an oven with a prover… Hi ho.

Dough

5. When it’s proved, melt the second 100g of butter and preheat the oven to 200C.

Rolled out

6. Roll out the dough to about 3mm thick. I made a sheet about 48cm square, then cut this into 16, ie pieces at 12x12cm. Approximately… This being dough, of course it stretches and shrinks.

Cut into squares

7. Brush with the melted butter and sprinkled with the nibbed sugar.

Form crescents

8. Roll up the squares, starting from a corner, then curl the ends in to make a crescent shape.
9. Transfer to baking sheets, lined with parchment or silicone mats.

Brush with egg yolk

10. Brush with beaten egg yolk and sprinkle with more sugar.
11. Put in the oven and bake for about 15-20 minutes. Keep an eye on them – if they start browning too much, turn the oven down to 180C and/or cover the Martinshörnchen.
12. Cool on a wire rack.
13. Feel free to eat them with butter and jam, though I’ve no idea if that’s traditional in Saxony. Happy St Martin’s day!

Martinshornchen spiral

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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