Category Archives: Feasts

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.

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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!

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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?

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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.

 

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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.

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Filed under Biscuits, cookies, Discussion, Feasts, Recipes

Michette di Liguria: sweet buns, strange legend

Michetta, michette di liguria, Dolceacqua

After a slice of my torta di Santiago, a friend of my brother’s asked if I knew of any cakes that are traditionally eaten for the Christian feast day of the Assumption of Mary, celebrated on 15 August. I didn’t.

My native England has lost so much of its traditional festival foods, and I hadn’t encountered any Assumption baked goods while living in Italy. So some research was undertaken. The Feast Day Cookbook suggested veal cutlets and shrimps in béchamel. Neither of which satisfies the cake remit. Digging around more though, I came across a sweet bun from Liguria, northwest Italy. Specifically they’re from the town of Dolceacqua.

They’re called michette. Michetta is a term that’s more commonly used in Italy to refer to a type of hollow bread roll, originating from Lombardia; I knew it in Rome as a rosetta. The Dolceacqua michetta is a little different though: it’s a small, enriched bun. It also comes with such a striking, disturbing folkloric origin story.

Once upon a time…
Here’s the story, or an interpretation thereof based on me plodding through various Italian sources and a couple in bad English.

In the 14th century, a Dolceacqua baker had a beautiful 19-year-old daughter called Lucrezia. She was set to marry a young lad called Basso. Unfortunately, Marquis Doria, the ruler of Dolceacqua, enjoyed his droit de seigneur, or lus primae noctis: the supposed right of the feudal ruler to claim peasant brides on their wedding nights. With claim basically meaning rape. Remember the scene in Braveheart? (Fictitious. Apparently droit de seigneur is fictitious too, or at least historians agree there’s no conclusive evidence for it happening in the Middle Ages in Europe.)

Understandably, Lucrezia and Basso were not happy about this and tried to hide. Doria, however, had had his eye on Lucrezia and tracked her down, taking her back to his castle. Desperate, she tried to throw herself from the window of a castle tower. The Marquis stopped her, and to subdue her, locked her in a hot, damp dungeon. She remained steadfast though, and died there of hunger and thirst.

Hearing of the death of the popular girl, the locals had had enough and approached the castle. Basso was able to sneak in and, at knife point, forced the Marquis to abolish the lus primae noctis.

To celebrate – and commemorate – local bakers like Lucrezia’s dad started to make a small, sweet bun – michette.

I’m a bit confused at this point, but some of the sources say the bun was supposed to resemble female genitals – it was like an offering to the feudal lord, an alternative to the rape. It’s the sort of thing that sounds like it has its origins in older, even weirder, stories, but I’m not sure. Some of the source even had quotes in Ligurian language, which really threw me.

Anyway, the day after the Marquis relented was the Feast of the Assumption, which in Dolceacqua also became the Festa della michetta. Since then, “the word ‘michetta’ is still used to define the virginity and the female womb”, apparently. I suspect locals could explain it all better.

Not many sweet buns come with such heavy historical and cultural associations though. Take the Chelsea bun – it’s a sweet bun, which was first made in Chelsea. That’s its story.

Michetta, michette di liguria, Dolceacqua

Shapes and notes
The most common shape for the michette seems to be a small elliptical bun. Then on this video (at 1.00 minute) you can see a baker making a version with snakes of dough rolled into three ball shapes. I’ve given instructions for forms. I’ve also read of the existence of a cross form, the crocetta, but I haven’t done these.

Note, this is a very yeasty dough – it’s not a nice healthy long fermentation bread, it’s an indulgent, feast-day bun. Even if you can buy them all year round now in Dolceacqua. It’s also a very rich dough – as befitting a feast-day sweet – containing sugar, eggs, butter and olive oil.

Butter in doughs can be problematic if it gets too warm, it’ll become greasy and ooze. If your dough is getting too greasy, cool it off in the fridge, to firm up the butter a bit.

Also note that Italians may well make the dough volcano-style, that is with the flour piled up on the work surface, a crater in the middle and the liquid ingredients added. I do this for pasta, but I find it easier to use a bowl for bread doughs, as it’s more familiar and gives me a better sense of how it’s feeling.

Recipe
500g flour – 300g strong white, 200g white plain (all-purpose)
40g fresh yeast (or 25g active dried yeast)
100g water, tepid + about 80g more
100g unsalted butter, not warm
2 eggs (about 100g, without shells), lightly beaten
120g caster sugar
2g fine sea salt
Zest of one lemon
40g extra virgin olive oil
Water
Extra caster sugar

1. Mix the yeast with about 100g of the water.
2. Put the flour in a bowl and rub in the butter until it resembles fine breadcrumbs.
3. Stir in the sugar, salt and lemon zest.
4. Add the yeast mix, eggs and oil.
5. Bring to a dough. Add more water if it feels tight. I ended up adding about 80g more, so about 180g total.
6. Turn out the dough and knead. You want it quite moist and sticky – but manageable. Don’t overwork it, or the butter will get to oily. The best way to handle this is a few more short kneads over half an hour.
7. Clean out the bowl, oil it slightly, then put the dough back in and cover. Leave 10 minutes then give it a short knead. Return to bowl, cover, leave 10 minutes then give it another short knead.

Michetta dough, first proveMichetta dough, first prove, doubled

8. Put the ball of dough back in the bowl, cover and leave to prove until doubled in volume. As there’s so much yeast in this mix, it’ll be quite quick, especially if the room temperature is warm.
9. Turn out the dough onto a lightly floured surface and gently deflate to redistribute the gases.
10. Divide the dough into pieces, scaled at 60g if you’re being accurate.

Michetta dough, scaled at 60gMichetta dough, form balls

11. Form the pieces into balls.
12. Form the balls into the final shapes, as mentioned above, there seem to be two variables. For the basic buns, they’re small ellipses, so just squash and stretch the ball slightly. For the longer form, roll out the ball slightly, then using the karate chop side of your hand, roll slightly to make two indentations all around the circumference of the cylinder (see pic below).
13. Place the michette on baking sheets and allow to prove up again.
14. Preheat the oven to 200C.
15. Bake for about 12 minutes, until lightly browned.

Michette - two shapesMichette, baked, caster sugar

16. While still warm, brush the top with water and sprinkle with (or roll in) caster sugar.

Enjoy as a breakfast bun or for afternoon tea.

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Filed under Baking, Cakes (yeasted), Feasts, Recipes

Torta de Santiago for St James’s Day

Torta de Santiago, Tarta de Santiago

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Plus
Butter, for greasing
Icing sugar, for dusting cake

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

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

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

Add the egg whitesTorta de Santiago batter

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

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

Torta de Santiago template, dusted with icing sugar

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Filed under Cakes, Feasts, Pies & tarts, Recipes

Acciuleddi – Sardinian deep-fried sweet pasta

Acciuleddi, drizzled with honey

We first encountered acciuleddi on our holiday in Sardinia a few weeks ago. They’re a form of sweet, deep-fried pasta and as such are a cousin to frappe, which are found on the Italian mainland. I ate a lot of frappe in Rome, when they would appear in shops for Carnevale – the blow-out before the fasting period of Lent, the run-up to Easter in the Christian calendar.

Pasta, deep-fried then sweetened? What’s not to like? Well, perhaps such things aren’t brilliant for your arteries so it’s good they’re just eaten for Carnevale. Except of course it wasn’t Carnevale in June for our holiday, so I think the proprietress of the Gallurese (northern Sardinian) bakery we bought them, La Panetteria del Porto in La Maddalena, from was bending the rules slightly.

If she can do it, so can I. Though I wouldn’t normally endorse eating celebratory seasonal or feast-day foods at the wrong time of year. It’s as obnoxious as British supermarkets stocking hot cross buns all year round. They cease to be special if they’re on the shelves all the time.

Sweet pasta
The very concept of sweet pasta may be a bit weird for staid Brits, but I just couldn’t resist a crack at these, given my love of frappe.

Looking at Italian – and Sardi – recipes, the pasta generally seems to be made with semola rimacinata di grano duro – that is fine, “re-milled” semolina (Triticum durum) flour. That’s not something it’s terribly easy to source here in the UK, so I went for a mixture of 00 flour for the fineness, and normal (ie medium milled) semolina for some robustness.

Also, the pasta does seem to have been traditionally made with strutto – lard. Now, I don’t have a problem with lard in principle, as I do eat some meat and as it was a key ingredient for older, traditional British baking (such lardy johns, or the more well-known lardy cake). The thing is, I try to only eat meat where I know the provenance, and generally that means from people we trust who have a farm nearby. I hoped they’d do some lard, but they just don’t have the demand. Instead, the only readily available lard in small-town England is foul crap spat out by the grotesque industrial meat machine, and I don’t want to use that. Instead, I’m going for all eggs, which some of the Italian recipes I researched also did.

So really, it’s just a pretty basic egg pasta – with the familiar ratio of 1 egg to 100g flour. Though with a little added sugar and some lemon zest.

Then deep-fried.

Surface & tension
The best surface for making fresh pasta is marble, the next best is stainless steel. I don’t have either, so I just used my bamboo worktop, rubbed with a bit of oil, as I do when making bread. It worked fine.

150g 00 flour
50g semolina
20g icing sugar (or caster)
Pinch salt
Zest of half a lemon (optional), finely chopped
2 medium eggs (about 110g total yolk & white)
Extra water, or egg, if mixture is too dry
Oil for frying

1. Sieve together the flours and icing sugar, add the pinch of salt and lemon zest.
2. Form a mound on your work surface.
3. Create a hole in the middle of the mound, much like the gaping mouth of a miniature volcano. Or like when you’re making concrete by hand.
4. Crack the eggs and put in the hole. You can of course do all this in a bowl, but there’s something very satisfying about eggs in a mound of flour..

Making acciuleddi pasta 1Making acciuleddi pasta 2
5. Using a fork, whisk up the egg, then starting combining the flour. Try to keep that wall around the edge intact, and add the flour bit by bit.
6. When the dough is starting to get quite thick, bring the rest of the flour into it by hand.

Making acciuleddi pasta 3Making acciuleddi pasta 4

7. Knead the dough until smooth, then form a ball, wrap in plastic and rest in the fridge for about half an hour.
8. Take the dough out and cut off small pieces. Mine weighed in at about 15g.

Acciuleddi pasta ballAcciuleddi cutting pasta
9. Take a piece and roll it out to form a long snake. Mine were about 300mm long, 5mm wide.

Acciuleddi, roll outAcciuleddi, roll out
Shaping acciuleddi 2Shaping acciuleddi 3

10. This is the tricky bit, so I’ve also made a video. It’s my first video and it’s not exactly slick, focus is an issue, going out of frame is an issue, and it is entirely un-edited, sorry. But it might help.


11. Anyway, you take the snake and join the two ends together.
12. Gently roll one end, while holding the other end still, to form a spiral. There will be some tension in the spiral – retain it.
13. Now, join the ends together again and that tension should cause it to spiral around itself again – creating a kind of double helix. Help it on its way as needs be.
14. Squeeze together the join.

Acciuleddi ready for frying
15. Put the acciuleddi on a tray or plate, lightly dusted with flour or semolina, and cover while you make the rest so they don’t dry out.
16. Heat oil for frying. I used sunflower oil, though I imagine the most authentic, original ones were fried in lard too. You want it at 180C or thereabouts, if you have a thermometer or fryer with a dial. If not, throw a small piece of dough in. If it bubbles, bobs to the surface and browns within a few minutes, you’re good to go.
17. Fry the acciuleddi in batches until browned.
18. Drain and put on some absorbent paper.

Acciuleddi, drizzle with honey
19. While they’re still warm, pile them up and drizzle them liberally with honey. I used some from our friends’ hives, from when they were in south London. I’ve been saving it for a special occasion. This seemed like one.

The results were good. Sweet, crunchy and simultaneously indulgent and undemonstrative. They were a bit chunkier than the ones we bought from La Panetteria del Porto, so if you want to make more refined, smaller ones, use pieces of dough weighing about 10g and roll that snake even thinner!

I want to go back to Sardinia now.

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Filed under Feasts, Misc, Other food, Recipes

Challah

Challah torn 2

Not being Jewish, I don’t have an iota of authority making challah, aka chollah, challa. But it’s a bread I love, and I’ve made a few times before, so I wanted to revisit it.

Quintessential for Sabbath and Jewish holidays, challah is not only a delicious enriched bread, a religious cousin to the secular brioche, it’s a great shape. I love the braid format, it’s handsome, fun to make and satisfying to tear.

I believe one of the reasons it’s a braid is that it’s easier to tear and as such doesn’t require cutting, thus avoiding introducing a knife – a weapon – to Sabbath and holiday proceedings.

Challah torn 3

I also believe the strands of the braid are symbolic of the Twelve Tribes of Israel. Being a pretty amateur braider, I’m not ready for a 12-strand version yet, so I am sticking with the more commonplace four-strand form. It’s not something I’ve done for a few years, so excuse any clunkiness in execution. Heck, I can’t even practice plaiting my wife’s hair, as she’s wearing it short at the moment.

Symbols and meanings
Talking of the symbolism and heritage of challah, I do get the impression that there are different interpretations. So while Alan Davidson in the Oxford Companion to Food writes, “… the meaning of the word challah in biblical Hebrew is this bit of dough, ‘the priest’s share’.” Claudia Roden writes, “The name challah was given to a bread in South Germany in the Middle Ages, when it was adopted by Jews for the Sabbath… John Cooper (Eat and Be Satisfied) notes that the first mention of the bread was in the fifteenth century and that the term was coined in Austria. Before that the bread was called berches, a name that is still used by Jews in some parts today.”

Other sources suggest berches – at least today – is a water-based challah, with potato in the dough. Fascinating. I love these baked-goods family trees.

Anyway, my challah is a dairy version. I’ve read about enough American-Jewish versions to know they exist, with butter instead of oil and milk instead of water, but not enough to understand the kosher restrictions. Indeed, none of my friends with Jewish heritage seem to understand these things either, so I shouldn’t kick myself too much for being an ignorant gentile in this case. Adapt as fits your requirements, eg replace the sugar with honey.

Recipe

As with all my recipes, it helps if you have electronic scales. And I use grams. They’re simply easier and more accurate. Plus, it’s the second decade of the 21st century, folks!

I’ve included baker’s precentages too, as they’re handy for conversions, scaling, comparisons etc.

This recipe uses a pre-ferment, a sponge. It’s a very pleasing technique, as you feed the yeast on some of the flour and some, or all of the liquid, and create what becomes a lively bubbling mass. Andrew Whitney also says it’s an important and useful technique for enriched doughs as “Yeast cannot feed on ingredients like fat, egg and spice, so it is a good idea to get it working vigorously before mixing it with these things.”

Make 2 medium sized, 4-braid loaves

Ingredients

Ingredient Percentage Quantity (g)
White bread flour 60 340
Plain white flour 40 225
Milk 42 240
Yeast (fresh) 2 12
Egg 20 110
Salt 1 6
Butter 12 70
Caster sugar 4 25
Total 181 1028

Notes
White bread flour – that is, higher protein.
Plain or all-purpose flour – that is, lower protein.
Use 6g of active dried yeast or 5g of instant yeast instead.
110g of beaten egg was exactly two medium eggs for me, though sizes vary. I wouldn’t agonise too much, bit more would be fine as it’s quite a dry dough.

Method

1. Warm up the milk and crumble in the yeast. In a medium bowl, mix the yeasty milk, the sugar and 200g of the white bread flour and beat together to make a slurryish mixture.
2. Cover and leave to get bubbly. This will take about an hour, depending on temperature. You could leave it in the fridge overnight.
3. In a large bowl, combine the plain flour, the remaining bread flour and the salt
4. The butter should be soft – at least at room temperature. If it’s not, warm it up a bit. I tend to nuke it for a few seconds in the microwave.
5. Crack a couple of eggs into a bowl, whisk briefly, then weigh out the necessary amount.

Combine egg, butter, sponge and flourBring together
6. Put the butter, egg and sponge in the large bowl with the other flour and bring to a dough. Alternatively, just combine in a mixer with a dough hook, and form the dough.

Turn outKnead till smooth
7. If working by hand, turn out the mixture and knead until you have a smooth dough.

Prove till doubled
8. Form the dough into a ball, then put it in a large, clean bowl, cover and leave to prove until doubled in size. Time will vary depending on the air temperature but mine took about two hours.
9. Turn out the dough, then form it into a ball again. Leave to rest, covered, for five minutes.

Divide into pieces
10. Weigh the dough. It should weigh around 1000g. To make two medium loaves, divide it into eight pieces, each weighing about 125g. Alternatively, you can make one large loaf – just divide into four pieces, each weighing about 250g.
11. Form the pieces into balls, cover and rest for five minutes.

Form balls, form strands
12. Form each ball into a snake or sausage or rope. You get the gist. Each needs to be the same length. Mine were 50cm, but I’m actually thinking it looks better if they’re shorter. Your choice.
13. Take four snakes and pinch one end of each together firmly, tucking the end under and laying the strands out in front of you like half a tired octopus.

Lay out strands

14. There are plenty of videos online for braiding four strands. I remember it like this: 2/3, 4/2, 1/3 and repeat.

2 over 34 over 2

So take 2 (the second from the left) and put it over 3 (the third from the left), see above left. Then take 4 (the furthest right) and put it over 2 (the second from the left), see above right. Then take 1 (the furthest left) and put it over 3 (the third from the left).
Note, you’re not numbering the same strand itself, you’re numbering the position the strand is currently in, from left to right. Repeat to the end, then pinch together and tuck under again.

BraidingBraiding 2
15. Put on a baking sheet, cover and leave to prove again until doubled in size.
16. Preheat the oven to 220C.

Final prove - beforeFinal prove - after, egg wash
17. Brush the risen loaf with the remaining beaten egg. (At this point you can decorate it with seeds: poppy and/or sesame. Dip a wet knuckle in the seeds then press it onto a segment of the braid. Repeat until each segment has a patch of seeds on it.)

Baked
18. Put in the oven and bake for about 10 minutes, then lower the temperature to 180 and keep baking for another half hour or so. You want a nice golden colour.
19. Transfer to a wire rack and leave to cool completely.

2 challah

 

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Filed under Baking, Breads, Feasts, Recipes

Zeppole di San Giuseppe, St Joseph’s Day fritters

Zeppole San Giuseppe 2

March 19th is the feast day of San Giuseppe – Saint Joseph, husband of Mary, Jesus’ mum. For this feast day Italians eat various goodies including bignè and zeppole, types of sweet fritter.

This recipe is a modern take on zeppole di San Giuseppe. Or are they bignè di San Giuseppe? The two terms seem to sometimes be interchangeable, but one distinction between the two seems to be as follow. Bignè are choux balls filled with pastry cream (crème patissiere, or crema pasticcera in Italian). Zeppole on the other hand are choux piped in nest shapes that are then filled with pastry cream. Both are cooked by deep-frying. Except when they’re baked.

Different regions and dialects may use the words bignè and zeppole differently. Furthermore, in Gillian Riley’s Oxford Companion to Italy Food, she says in her entry on zeppole: “The sfinci of Sicily are similar”. She doesn’t discuss the similarities or otherwise with bignè. The word is clearly related to the French beignet though.

Ah, the confusing world of the taxonomy of traditional foods!

St Joseph’s Day
Either way, these fritters are made and eaten for St Joseph’s Day. Except, however, I recall seeing them in Rome several weeks before St Joseph’s day, sitting alongside castagnole during Carnival and, if memory serves, remaining available until Easter. So much for the Lenten fast. It’s not unlike the modern British habit of eating hot cross buns for the six weeks preceding Easter, when originally they were made and eaten only on Good Friday to celebrate the end of fasting.

The site Italy Revisited features various different versions of zeppole and bignè in its fascinating collection of recipes. On one of the zeppole recipe pages it says “North Americans often think of ‘zeppole’ as cream puffs because that’s what pastry shops sell in March round the Feast Day of Saint Joseph. However, the cream puff style of zeppole is a rather modern take on this recipe. Apparently, prior to the 20th century ‘zeppole’ was just another donut-shaped fried dough that was sweetened with sugar.” As with all these food traditions, it has mutated over time (see my discussion of simnel cake.)

I was planning to make something that would these days, in Rome at least, be called bignè – a filled choux-ish item. But as I fancied practicising my (very rusty) piping skills I sidestepped to what would now most likely be called zeppole. If any Italians are reading, please tell me what your family calls these things!

Makes 10-12

Crème patissiere / crema pasticcera

250g milk (full fat)
2 egg yolks
30g cornflour (cornstarch in the US, amido di mais in Italia)
60g caster sugar
Zest of 1 lemon
1 tsp vanilla essence (or fresh vanilla seeds, if you’re so inclined)
1 tbsp Strega liqueur (optional)

1. Put the milk on to heat up.

Mix sugar, yolks and cornflour 1Mix sugar, yolks and cornflour 2
2. Beat together the egg yolks, sugar and cornflour. Add the vanilla, lemon zest, and Strega if using.
3. Bring to the boil. (If you prefer to use a vanilla pop, scrape out the beans and add them to the milk before you heat it.)
4. Allow the milk to cool slightly then pour it onto the egg mix, beating.
5. Put the mixture back on the heat.

Heating cremaCrema cooked
6. Heat the mixture up again, gently, stirring all the time, and keep cooking on a medium heat until it thickens. This shouldn’t take long – a matter of minutes.
7. Pour out into another clean, cool bowl. To prevent a skin forming, dust with icing sugar and/or put some plastic film on the surface.
8. When cool, refrigerate until you need it.

The paste

Let’s not beat about the bush. From looking at various Italian recipes really is basically a choux paste.

80g butter
200g water
3 medium eggs, beaten (QB), approx 150g
150g flour – plain, all-purpose or low-protein 00
Pinch of salt
40g caster sugar
Zest of half a lemon

1. Put the butter, water and salt in a saucepan and heat up.

Butter and waterButter and water melted
2. Bring to the boil, stirring with a wooden spoon.

Butter and water, flour addedMixing in flour
3. When the butter has melted and the water is simmering, add all the flour (ideally sieved first), beating until you have a smooth paste.

Cooking flourCool bowl
4. Keeping cooking the mixture, on a low heat, for a few minutes. This gelatinizes the flour, ie makes the mixture gelatinous and jelly-like – it shouldn’t be sticky, and should come away cleanly from the sides of the pan.

Add sugar and zestAdding eggs
5. Remove the mixture from the heat, beat in the sugar and lemon zest, then put in a clean, cool bowl.
6. Allow the mixture to cool. If it’s too hot when you add the egg it will scramble.
7. Beat in the egg slowly and gradually. Each time you add some egg, mix it in completely. You may not need all the egg (QB). You want a thick paste, not runny. If you have a mixer, that’s great for making this type of paste. Mix well.
8. Allow to cool and rest.

To make the zeppole

The crema
The paste
Sunflower oil
Sour cherries in syrup or glacé cherries… or not. See below.

1. Put the paste in a piping bag fitted with a star nozzle.
2. Cut out squares of baking parchment or foil, about 8cm square.

Piping nestsPiped nest CU
3. Pipe nest shapes onto the squares. The older type of zeppole was simply a ring, but as we’re adding crème pat to these, you need a middle – so start by piping a spiral, then build up a slight wall around the edge.

Frying
4. Heat sunflower oil in a pan to about 170C and add the nests, paper and all. Don’t overcrowd the pan.
5. The square of parchment or foil will come away. Remove it with tongs.
6. Keep cooking until the zeppole are a golden brown colour.

Fried
7. Remove and cool.
8. Once cool, pipe the crème pat into the centre of each.
9. You can top with a cherry. I hate cherries – sour, preserved, glacé or even fresh. Frankly: yuck. That would spoil it for me. So instead, I just dust with icing sugar.

You may notice in the above pic my batches came out different sizes. The ones on the left puffed up best, on the right worst. It’s shoddy work I know. I suspect it’s to do with the oil not staying a constant temperature. Really must get a decent thermometer. Being a boy, obviously I want one of those ray gun ones  (er, infrared). I’ll add it to the list of kitchen kit I covet.

Zeppole San Giuseppe

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