Tag Archives: biscuits

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 Baladin, 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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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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Nut and cocoa nib cookies

Nut and cocoa nib cookies

I’m the kind of guy who always has to have some homemade biscuits or cookies waiting in a tin at home. Just in case of visitors, or in case of the munchies. So I’m always on the lookout for good recipes. I particularly like versatile recipes that can be tweaked depending on what you have in your store cupboards. I’m also enjoying adding cocoa nibs to things; see, for example, my crystallized ginger and cocoa nib cookies.

This one is based on a recipe for a biscuit Justin Gellatly calls “The nutter” in his book Bread, Cakes, Doughnut and Pudding. His recipe uses blanched almonds, blanched hazelnuts, walnuts, Brazil nuts and macadamia nuts, but he does say you can use whatever nuts you’ve got; I’ve done various versions, and they’ve all been great, with a nice crunch and warm nuttiness (unsurprisingly). You can even use nuts that aren’t technically nuts, like peanuts, which are actually the seeds of legumes.*

200g nuts, unsalted, mixed
50g cocoa nibs (or indeed cacao nibs)
125g butter, soft
125g caster sugar (you could also use soft brown, for a more caramelly flavour)
1 egg
150g plain flour
Pinch of salt

1. Heat the oven to 180C.
2. Put the nuts on a tray and roast for about 12 minutes, until lightly browned. Turn off the oven.
3. Put the toasted nuts in a food processor and whizz to a rough consistency – I like it a bit powdery, and bit chunky for crunch.

Grind the nuts and nibs
4. Add the cocoa needs and give it one last whizz, to break them a bit.
5. Beat together the butter and sugar until light. Beat in the egg. If it starts to curdle, add a little flour.

Form a dough
6. Add the flour and nuts and bring to a dough. It’ll be pretty sticky. Flour your hands a bit if it helps, and form a ball or disc.

Wrap in plastic and rest
7. Wrap in clingfilm and rest in the fridge for a few hours.
8. Preheat the oven again, to 170C.
9. Flour a work surface then roll out the dough to about 5mm thick. It’s quite a sticky dough, so be relatively liberal with the dusting if needs be.

Roll out and cut
10. Cut out biscuits with a cutter. I use a round 65mm one, but it’s up to you – and again, depends on what you’ve got.
11. Gather any scraps, squidge together and roll out again.
12. Put the biscuits on baking sheets, lined with parchment or silicon mats.
13. Bake for about 12-15 minutes until nicely browned.
14. Cool on wire racks.

Enjoy with a cuppa or coffee. We have hot chocolates most evenings in the winter. As the English summer seems to have given up, we seem to be starting to do that again already, and the cookies go well with that too. It’s a bit different to this time last year when we walked the South Downs Way in warm, rain-free weather.

Nut and cocoa nib cookies

* Peanuts are basically beans, but even weirder, unlike other beans, the pods grow underground. Anyway, if we’re being pedantic about nuts, in botanical terms, they are defined as dry fruits with one, or possibly two, seeds.

By this definition, most things we call nuts in English are technically not nuts: Brazil nuts, almonds, walnuts, pecans, cashews, cashews, and as mentioned, definitely not peanuts. However, when we say “nut”, we’re usually defining it in culinary, not scientific, terms, and can therefore include all these. In fact, the only nuts that seem to qualify both botanically and culinarily are hazels.

Many of the culinary nuts are actually the seeds of drupes – but who’s heard that word before, besides botanists and specialists??

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Reminiscences and butter biscuits

Petits beurres biscuits

I’ve just spent a great long weekend with Rachel Roddy, helping out with the food for the party celebrating the launch of her book, Five Quarters, catching up with Rome friends and meeting lots of interesting new people.

Given the theme of Rachel’s book and the fact that we met there, inevitably Rome was a big topic of conversation at the party. There’s a lot I’m missing about Rome. We know why we moved back in December 2013 – to try and adopt. But that doesn’t mean I’m not pining for certain things, especially food-related things: a six-days-a-week food (etc) market on the next block; a great gelateria two blocks away on our street; restaurants and cafés where you can get good food and drink for a sensible price (a fairly elusive concept in much of England); checking out the latest birra artigianale; going to the Città dell altra Economia in Testaccio to meet friends and buy huge, affordable chunks of local cheese on a Sunday. I could go on, but I won’t.

As I said in my post about Rachel’s book, I have to avoid the rose-coloured specs. But it’s hard, especially now while we’re at a difficult stage in the adoption process. We’ve been approved, but there don’t seem to be any children that are a suitable match for us. It’s a form of limbo – and as such all too conducive to drifting memories, reminiscing.

So much in our life now re-connects us to Rome. Even all the recipes I’m currently trying from The Art of French Baking by Ginette Mathiot. My sister – another Rachel – gave me this book just as we moved to Rome in August 2011 and in my mind’s eye I can still see it sitting on the shelf in our kitchen there, alongside a few I’d brought with me – Lepard’s The Handmade Loaf, Bertinet’s Dough – and some we acquired there – The Food of Rome and Lazio by Oretta Zanini de Vita, La Cucina di Roma e del Lazio (ie the same title) by di Marco and Ferré, Cucina Romana by Sara Manuelli, er, Cooking Apicius by Sally Grainger etc.

The Mathiot was a newly published Phaidon edition of the 1938 book Je sais faire la pâtisserie (“I know how to make patisserie”), translated and adapted by Clotilde Dusoulier. The book provides, in Dusoulier’s words, “the elemental components of French baking”: pastries, biscuits, cakes and puddings.

I used it a bit, but in all honestly I didn’t embrace it at the time. Why? Well – because Rome was all around us and I was somewhat distracted by all the pasticcerie (patisseries), biscotterie (biscuit bakeries), forni and panifici (bread or general bakeries) had to offer. I ate, I found favourites, I learned to make them at home. I got a bit obsessed with Italian baked goods. We have French-style patisseries in England, but Italian ones are considerably less common, so there was a lot to learn. (And still is1.)

I’m enjoying the Mathiot a lot now. I used it during my puff pastry experiments back in January, and I’ve been trying a lot of the biscuit and galette2; recipes, and musing over the brioche recipes. All eight of them. Eight. Rachel’s been talking about brioche too – they’re a common product in Sicily and Naples – so I plan to test them all, as well as the others in my cookbook collection. In the meantime, however, some biscuits.

Twice the fat, twice the pleasure
If Italian food is synonymous with olive oil3, French food is synonymous with butter. Petits beurres4 – for those who don’t have spectacular school French like mine – simply means “little butters”, or little butter biscuits. But not only do they have a good proportion of butter, they have the same proportion of double cream too. The result is a rich, light, crumbly biscuit. I make mine with a small, rectangular cutter that’s 40x75mm, so each one is a perfect size for a couple of bites.

I love this cutter. The result is not unlike the famous French industrial biscuit the “Petit Beurre LU” or “Véritable Petit Beurre” from Lefèvre-Utile. There isn’t much about it online in English, but French Wikipedia gives the story. It says the 1886 recipe by Louis Lefèvre-Utile was originally inspirant des productions anglaises de l’époque. “It was inspired by English products of the era”. That’s not something you hear the French admit very often. It’s also officially 65x54mm so slightly different proportions to mine.

These petits beurre are – unsurprisingly – considerably richer than the LU factory version, which doesn’t have half as much butter and no cream, instead being made with milk powder. Bugger that. Butter + cream = pleasure. As many chefs will tell you: “fat is flavour”. It’s something I heard often from Chris Behr, chef at the American Academy in Rome, when I did an internship there.

100g unsalted butter, chilled and diced
250g plain (all-purpose) flour
50g caster sugar
Pinch salt
100g double cream

1. Put the flour in a bowl and rub in the butter until the mixture resembles breadcrumbs.
2. Add the sugar and salt and combine.

Petits beurres - add the creamPetits beurres - form a dough

4. Pour in the cream then combine to form a dough, working it by hand. Work it enough to clear and form a smooth dough. Don’t overwork it. It’s basically a rich, sweet pastry paste, without raising agents, and overworking it can toughen it up.
5. Form a ball, squash it into a disk, wrap it in plastic and put it in the fridge to rest for least half an hour.
6. Preheat the oven to 180C and grease your baking sheets.
7. Dust the work surface with flour then roll out the dough to about 5mm.

Petits beurres - cutting out

8. Cut out rectangles. If you don’t have a rectangular cutter you’ll have to do it by hand.
9. Place the biscuits on the sheets and prick them in diagonal pattern with a fork.
10. Bake for 15-20 minutes until starting to turn golden.
11. Transfer to a wire rack and allow to cool. I got 24 from this batch, but it depends on how big you cut them.

Enjoy. With a cup of tea or even alongside a nice strawberry dessert – as they’re in season here in England now. You should always seize British produce seasons as they’re not half so long as those in Italy. Damn it, there’s me reminiscing again!

Petits beurres

Notes
1 Italy, as you probably know, is a country of regions with strong local, cultural and culinary identities. Each region has dozens of food specialities, even when it comes to baked goods, breads and pastries etc. My two years in Italy were just a start really. It would be a lifelong project to learn them all.
2 Galette is a French word that doesn’t have an immediate equivalent in English. Sometimes it refers to something we’d translate as a pancake (eg Breton buckwheat pancakes), other times things we’d call a pastry, and others it’s more like a cookie. I looked at the etymology over in my post about galette des rois.
3 Despite that being a more historically southern Italian thing, with strutto – lard – arguably a more common fat in the mountains and the north.
4 Should they be called petits beurres or petits-beurre? They can’t seem to agree on the agreement. The English is just petit beurre biscuits.

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Cocoa nib and crystallized ginger cookies

Plate of ginger and cocoa nib biscuits

The past few years, my favourite chocolate bars have been those that contain both a high percentage of cocoa solids and cocoa nibs. I had a few brands I favoured in Italy, but back here in England I mostly eat Lordy Lord, from local Sussex chocolate company Montezuma’s. It’s “min cocoa solids 79%” and it contains nibs. I love the nutty crunch the nibs provide. Yet it’s taken me ages to get round to trying using nibs as a baking ingredient.

What are nibs?
Before I go any further, let’s clarify what cocoa nibs are. Chocolate is produced from the cocoa beans, the seeds of the tree Theobroma cacao, the first bit of which suitably means “food of the gods”. The pods containing the seeds are harvested then cracked open. The pulp and beans are  piled up and left to ferment, to reduce the innate bitterness of the beans. They’re then dried, before being roasted and cracked – the resulting fragments are the nibs.

Add nibs to dough

Cocoa vs cacao
Now reading about this online, I’m coming across the usual internet disagreement and misinformation about the difference between cocoa nibs and cacao nibs. Some sites insist the latter are the version where the beans bypass the roasting process; some health food sites say this results in a product that’s higher in antioxidants. This may well be true, but I can’t find any scientific reports. Plus, the words cocoa and cacao are often used as synonyms. Both words are translations, transliterations or fluid (mis)spellings of the word in the languages of the Mesoamericans (Mayans etc) who first cultivated the tree and added the term to European languages via the Spanish.

Indeed, in most Romance languages (Spanish, Italian, French etc), the English “cocoa” is simply translated as cacao.

I’m using Organic cocoa nibs from Naturya, and they describe the product as “simply unprocessed cocoa beans, broken into little bits. Nothing more, nothing less.” With no mention of roasting. Or cacao.

Chocolate cake with coca nib sprinkles

Sprinkles and chips
So I’ve been using the nibs as sprinkles for chocolate cake (above), or as an ingredient for biscotti and cookies. Cocoa nibs are funny as, strangely, they’re reminiscent like carob, which, for those of us who remember the 1980s, was another fad food that health foodie types tried to promote as an alternative to chocolate. I like carob, as carob, but as an alternative to chocolate, it just doesn’t cut it.

So if I want a chocolate chip cookie, I have to use chocolate. But my cocoa nib cookies are great – as something distinct. I’m enjoying playing around with a recipe for cookies that uses the technique where you form a cylinder of dough then cut it. This can be called “slice cookies”, or “icebox cookie” (from keeping the dough in the freezer, or fridge). I first encountered it years ago via the Hummingbird Bakery Cookbook, but the ever-informative Alan Davidson, in the Oxford Companion to Food, writes, “The American habit of making rolls of cookie dough and keeping them in the refrigerator or freezer may have come from Germany; the doughs for some German biscuits such as Heidesand are made into rolls and chilled before slicing.”

Crystallized ginger

Crystallised ginger
Adding crystallised ginger was just a hunch I fancied playing with, and I’m pleased with the results. Ideas are rarely new in this day and age – seven billion plus humans, the internet – and I’ve definitely enjoyed ginger and dark chocolate combined before, so that led me to nibs and crystallised ginger, an ingredient I enjoy in steamed puddings and pear cakes.

Ginger is the root of Zingiber officinale, but rather than being dried and powdered, it’s boiled in syrup, rolled in sugar – another name for crystallised ginger is candied ginger. As such, it’s a cousin of things like candied peel or candied angelica (the stems of Angelica archangelica, a somewhat out-of-fashion ingredient).

Recipe

140g plain flour
100g self-raising flour
1 tsp baking powder
1/2 tsp powdered ginger (optional)
1/2 tsp fine sea salt
150g unsalted butter, softened
100g light brown sugar
100g granulated sugar [test with caster also]
1 egg, beaten (at room temperature*)
100g cocoa or cacao nibs
120g crystallized ginger, roughly cut up

1. Sieve together the flours, baking powder and powered ginger – only use the latter if you like the cookies a little bit more gingery. Stir in the salt.
2. In another bowl, cream together in the sugars and butter. Cream until light and fluffy.
3. Add the beaten egg, a little at a time.
4. Add the flour mix to the creamed mix and bring together, adding the nibs and chopped ginger.

Cookie dough

5. Bring the whole mixture to a dough. It should be a little sticky, not too much.

Dough cylinders
6. Form the dough into two cylinders, using slightly floured hands if you find it too sticky.
7. Wrap each cylinder in plastic and put in the fridge, for at least an hour. The cylinders will be fine in your fridge for a day or two, though the dough will dry and become slightly crumblier the longer you leave it. Some say this deepens the flavour, but that’s another discussion.
8. When you’re reading to make the cookies, preheat the oven to 180C.
9. Line a couple of baking sheets with parchment.

Slice the cylinders
10. Cut the cylinders into rounds, about 8mm thick. The mixture may crumble a bit, if it does, just gently squeeze back together. You won’t achieve perfect rounds, due to the nibs and chunks of ginger.
11. Place the rounds on the sheets, leaving some space for expansion between then, about 4-5cm.
12. Bake for about 15-20 minutes, until nicely coloured.
13. Transfer to wire racks to cool.

Cocoa nib and crystallized ginger cookies

 

* Always bake with your eggs at room temperature. I doubt it makes any difference to taste but it does help when beating eggs into a creamed sugar and fat mixture, reducing the chance of curdling. It’s also better when making things that require the egg, or the white, to be whisked, as the warmer egg incorpates air more effectively. Personally, I don’t generally store eggs in the fridge. Eggs have a great storage system already – it’s called a shell. If the egg is off, having it cold won’t make any difference. And, frankly, when was the last time you had an off egg? I’ve encountered them once or twice in my life. Plus, as I bake so much, and like omelettes and whatnot, eggs never last long in my house, so are are generally fresh, usually from these guys.

 

 

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Lebkuchen in my new kitchen

Lebkuchen

So we’re in week 22 or 23 of our 12 week building project now, with the few final jobs dragging on and on. But the good news is that we got a kitchen back in the past few weeks. We’ve now got it in pretty usable order.

It’s a fairly slow process getting used to a new kitchen: the layout, your workflow in the space, the new equipment. In this case, the only new kit we got was an oven. As a baker, this is obvious the most important thing. Especially as, suddenly, we seem to be poised on the verge of that annual blow-out that is Christmas.

Now, I love seasonal and festival specialities, and over the years I’ve enjoyed trying various international seasonal baked goods like stollen, panettone and kringle. I did the latter, a Scandinavian sweet bread, while living in Italy, and the panettone, the classic Italian sweet seasonal bread, while living in England. I’m in the process of revising my panettone recipe but in the meantime, I wanted to try another classic European Christmas baked treat – lebkuchen, the traditional German biscuit or small cake that’s related to other European sweets like British gingerbread biscuits and cakes, Danish honning hjerter (honey hearts), Polish Toruń pierniki, and various international spice and honey cakes.

As biscuits, these were considerably less of a challenge than an enriched dough when trying to get used to a new oven.*

Lebkuchen were a big part of our Christmas eating when I was younger – perhaps strangely as we’re thoroughly English. But my dad had business partners in Switzerland and Germany and the latter would send us a bag or tin of these spicy, soft German biscuits every year, possibly starting in 1979. Indeed, one large tin, decorated with seasonal scenes, is still in use by my parents as a biscuit tin 15 or so years after it was gifted to them.

Despite enjoying them over the years, I’d never tried to make them. So it was nice to see a recipe in The Guardian’s Cook section last week, from 2013 Great British Bake Off contestant and now newspaper food writer Ruby Tandoh. This was the first of Tandoh’s recipes I’d tried, if memory serves, and it worked well. I tweaked a few things though, partly as I like a tad more spice than she was suggesting, and as I’m pretty sure lebkuchen need honey in them.

I would also say the spice mix is up to you. Yes, they need ginger, but you can mix up the other spices to taste: basically you’re going for that medieval winter feast vibe, and traditionally lebkuchen can involve aniseed, allspice, cinnamon, cloves. As fresh spices are always more alive with flavour, if you have a small spice grinder or pestle and mortar, that’s great.

Here’s the original recipe on The Guardian’s site, and here’s my tweaked version:

120g unsalted butter, cut into small cubes
160g plain flour
1 t baking powder
5 t ground ginger
1/2 t cinnamon
6 whole cloves cloves
2 cardamom pods (freshly ground)
1/2 t aniseeds (freshly ground)
100g ground almonds
80g soft light brown sugar
A pinch of salt
2 large egg yolks
60g runny honey

To glaze
20g water
100g icing sugar

1. Preheat your oven to 180C (fan oven)
2. Grind any fresh spices you’re using.
3. Sieve together the flour, baking powder and all the spices into a large bowl, discarding any big bits of cardamom pod etc.
4. Rub in the butter, until it resembles crumbs.
5. Add the ground almonds, sugar and salt to the flour and spice mix.
6. In a separate bowl, beat together the honey and egg yolks.

Lebkuchen 1
7. Pour the egg and honey mix into the dry mix and bring together with a fork or spatula to create a soft, moist dough.

Lebkuchen 2
8. Take lumps of the dough and roll into a ball. Ruby said “conker-sized” pieces, but as any British schoolchild of a certain age will know, conkers can seriously vary in size so I scaled mine at 30g. This resulted in 19 perfectly sized biscuits.

Lebkuchen 3
9. Squash the balls with your palms, flattening them out on lined baking sheets leaving some space between for expansion.
10. Bake for about 8 minutes then swap the trays around on the shelves so they bake evenly.
11. Bake for another 8 minutes or so – you want them nicely coloured, but not too dark. This will depend on the fierceness of your oven.

Lebkuchen 4
12. While they’re still baking, sieve the icing sugar into a small bowl then add a small dribble of water, about 20g, or 2 or 2 T. You want a runny, but not too runny, icing.
13. When the biscuits are baked, leave them on their trays and glaze by brushing on the icing “liberally”.

Lebkuchen 5
14. Leave to cool on the tray.

 

 

* A Rangemaster Professional + 110 Induction. My first impression is, sadly, that the ovens heat up slowly and are a good 10C less hot than it says on the dial. I should do a proper review at some stage as it’s not like you buy new cookers often, and it’s not like you can try before you buy.

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Filed under Baking, Biscuits, cookies, Feasts, Recipes

Cocoa and cookies

Cookies and cocoa

Or, “hot chocolate and biscuits”, if I’m being both more and less accurate, and true to my Britishness.

Having arrived back in Britain in the middle of the flippin’ winter, we’ve been drinking a lot of hot chocolate. Now, I’m quite fussy about my hot chocolate. So many cafes (especially those chain places) just fail straight off by serving tepid drinks that aren’t particularly chocolaty. Seriously, the description of the product is in the name: it needs to be hot, and it needs to be chocolaty.

It surprises me how long it’s taking for hot chocolate to be taken as seriously as coffee as a drink. Sure, it’s a hot milky drink, so is perhaps more of a winter drink – but having said that, most so-called coffees served by those chain places are basically just flavoured (warm, frothy) milks drinks too.

Surely hot chocolate deserves as serious attention as coffee? Single estate and all that.

I was discussing this with Michael Temple, proprietor of the Coffee House on Fisher Street in the historic heart of Lewes, East Sussex, and he agreed, mentioning that hot chocolate was popularised in Europe before coffee. Coffee spread from Asia and Africa into Europe, via the Arab world and trade through Venice, in the 16th century, with coffee houses starting to open in England in the second half of the 17th century. Chocolate – which was a bitter drink of the Aztecs – reached Spain with Cortes in 1528, and was soon developed into a sweet drink. The first chocolate house opened in England in 1657.

I’m not a coffee drinker – I’ve never enjoyed the taste of coffee – but strangely I do prefer my chocolate, and by extension, my hot chocolate, to be bitter with coffee-ish notes.  (Talking of which, I’m on a side-quest to try chocolate with the highest percentage cacao; tried Mr Popple’s 88% Strong yesterday. It’s only sweetened with yacón syrup – no, I hadn’t heard of that before either – has a great, gritty crunchiness, and flavour that’s coffee-ish and sharp.)

Mr Popple's chocolate

Taking hot chocolate seriously

Michael takes his hot chocolate seriously enough to offer two types, which he calls “Italian” and “Spanish”. The former is made with (French) Valrhona and is 50% cacao. It’s very good, especially as he serves it suitably scalding. I’ve found another that pips it though, and it’s a local brand. This is Montezuma’s, a British chocolatier founded in 2000 and based just outside Chichester, West Sussex. Sure, the cacao’s not British-grown, but that doesn’t trouble my locavore inclinations too much. After all – this is chocolate we’re talking about. One’s personal ethics have to have some exceptions.

Montezuma’s do four hot chocolates at the moment, but I’m a purist so there’s only one for me: their Dark Chocolate, with 54% cacao. Years ago, I used to drink Green & Blacks, but by comparison that just seems too sweet and weak now (plus G&B sold out to Cadbury’s, who sold out to Kraft; meh). I also used to drink  stuff based on an original Sir Hans Sloane recipe that they sold at the Natural History Museum, but that brand was discontinued. Then we discovered Mortimer Chocolate Company‘s 70% chocolate powder. These guys take their drinking chocolate satisfyingly seriously, talking about blend and provenance in a language not unlike that used for coffee.

Leone and Venchi

In Italy, meanwhile, my favoured brand was first Venchi, then Fran found Leone, who did a 70% stoneground-coarse-granules hot chocolate. Montezuma’s comes in flakes and chunks, not granules, and is a thing of beauty, making a far superior drink to the other brand I bought recently – Clipper. Its powder form just seems oddly twee and lame in comparison to these chunky options.

Winter comforts

Drinking lots of hot chocolate is one of the great pleasures of winter, and has helped us through the past three weeks or so of largely miserable grey, wet, windy weather. It’s an even more pleasing, and comforting, experience when accompanied by some nice biscuits. So we had a little baking session. Fran did some shortbread from a Dan Lepard recipe in Short and Sweet. The results are good, though they have a little more chew than crunch.

I wanted something with a bit more snap, so I tried the Pain d’amande / Almond wafer cookies recipe in the American Academy in Rome’s Biscotti book.

As with most of the book’s recipes, it involves fairly large quantities and a fairly unclear, insufficiently tested, poorly edited recipe. Mine weren’t perfect, but dipped in hot chocolate they were yummy. They’re made with Demerara sugar, giving them a warm caramelly taste. The recipe called for slithered raw almonds but I only had flaked almonds, so used them. I think the cookies would have been better with the almond skin, so I’ll try that slicing whole almonds next time.

So anyway, here’s a recipe.

Almond wafer ingredients

40g water
110g unsalted butter
1/2 t ground cinnamon
150g Demerara sugar
70g whole almonds, sliced into slithers. Or flaked almonds if you CBA
150g plain/all-purpose flour
Pinch of baking soda
Pinch of salt

1. Warm the water, butter, cinnamon and sugar together in a pan. Melt, don’t boil!*
2. Pour the warmed mixture into a mixing bowl and stir in the nuts.
3. Sift together the flour and baking soda, and add, along with the salt, to the mixture.
4. Combine and form a dough.
5. Shape the dough into a rectangle. You want it to be wide and flattish, about 25mm deep.
6. Wrap up the rectangle in plastic and rest in the fridge for about half an hour.
7. Preheat the oven to 160C.
8. De-fridge, de-plastic and the dough.
9. The slice rectangle across (not along) into pieces about 3mm thick.

Slicing the slab
10. Place on baking sheets lined with parchment and bake until golden. About 10 minutes.
11. Cool on a wire rack. They will crisp up as they cool.

Eat dipped in the best quality hot chocolate you can find. And made with flavoursome full-fat milk.

Now if only Montezuma’s would produce a 70%-plus hot chocolate to their range I’d love them forever. (Or at least until they sell to an ethics-free corporation. Please don’t sell out Montezuma’s!)

Montezumas Dark  Chocolate

(Oh, and if anyone has any WordPress wherewithal – why on earth would uploading just this one image have WordPress changing it from a landscape format 1747×983 image into a portrait format 976×1747 image?)

* I’ve been corresponding with Ilse Zambonini about these almond “wafers”, which she dubbed “dentist’s joy”. When you melt the sugar and butter, don’t bring it to the boil or you could make a caramel or even a very hard toffee! Also, when you slice, make sure they’re nice and thin, and when you bake, don’t over-bake. Follow these tips, and you’ll get a biscuit that’s crisp, but not too-breaking!

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Ugly bread, pastries, lunch at L’Asino d’Oro, outer space and saucy suppli

Last loaf

The storms – apparently called Cyclone Penelope ­– arrived last night, rumbling over Roma and shaking our palazzo. I love being indoors, in bed, on such nights. Frequently in Rome, the stormy weather has the decency to blow over by the morning. Not so this morning though, when it was still raining buckets, piove a catinelle (where a catinella is a basin; I love the image of rain pouring down as if it’s overflowing celestial basins).

It looks like the Autumnal rain is settling in until we leave on Wednesday. In a way that’s just perfect – it’s re-acclimatising us to British weather. But it does look like yesterday was our last day that was dry enough for a long, casual, umbrella-less wander around town.

We started the day with a slice of bread – from the final loaf I’ll be baking in Rome. This was a bit of a disaster, but it was fun. It was a “using up leftover stuff before we leave loaf”. In this case meant a lot of seeds: specifically buckwheat, sunflower and poppy; and a some not-entirely ideal flour: 0 grano tenero (okay, fine), rice and amido di mais. The latter is what we’d call cornflour in the UK, meaning corn (maize) starch, so more a thickening agent than a bread ingredient. Hi ho. It felt like a good dough when I added the seeds, but went strange after that.

Adding seeds

As Fran pointed out, the resulting loaf looked like a giant brutti ma buoni  (“ugly but good”) cookie. It was pretty solid and, er, I might have forgotten to add any salt. But that’s fine: a lot of traditional bread from Tuscany and Umbria doesn’t contain salt, and as such is good for strongly flavoured bruschette. Not sure the seedy stuff will work as bruschette, but it’s good with good old Marmite.

We headed out down the hill, through Trastevere, past the enjoyable window displays of vintage pasticceria Valzani. This included their selection of “tea biscuits”:

Valzani tea biscuits

Then slices of pangiallo romano, which literally means “yellow bread” and is a type of hard Roman  Christmas cake, made with honey, nuts and dried fruit; and panpepato (aka pampepato), a similar cake that originates from central Italy and, as well as containing dried fruits, candied fruit and nuts also contains spices like cinnamon and nutmeg, and even chocolate.

Pangiallo, panpepato at Valzani

Then the Roman version of the Campania sfogliatella, which look kinda squashed compared to the more refined Neopolitan sfogliatella riccia. Indeed, compared to say French patisserie, Roman patisserie often has this seemingly crude finish – but I like that, it’s less poncey. Alongside was a tray of cannoli siciliani, then a tray of maritozzi, Rome’s epic cream buns, which I made over here.

Valzani sfogliatelle romane, cannoli, maritozzi

After meeting a friend in the street, who was discussing the possibility of opening a café, we headed over Ponte Sisto into Regola, rione VII. Past this fab old sign for a biscuit shop that, sadly, isn’t a biscuit shop any more.

Biscotteria sign, Via dei Pettinari, Rome

We stopped at I Dolci di Nonna Vincenza (“Grandma Vincenza’s Sweets”), a Sicilian pasticceria chain that opened a branch here about a year or so ago.

Brioche, ciambelle, Nonna Vincenza

It’s a bit cutesy, but the doughnut-type thing (“È una tipa di ciambella”) we had – that wasn’t the more common ring-shape of ciambelle, but more a knot – was good.

Ciambella, Nonna Vincenza

I got some almond paste cookies that were pretty good too.

Biscotti, Nonna Vincenza

We chilled out on the pastry indulgences after that, even managing to walk by the justifiably renowned, somewhat pricey Roscioli bakery without buying anything.

Roscioli

We wanted to save space for lunch at L’Asino d’Oro in Monti, one of our two favourite Rome restaurants. Our other fave is Cesare al Casaletto, which we’d vowed to go to at least once or twice more before leaving, but had been confounded by forgetting which day was their riposa settimanale (weekly rest day), then it being fully booked, and then by discovering that they were closed for our final 10 days in Rome. Nooooo! Fortunately, L’Asino d’Oro hit the spot.

Asino D'Oro

This is a superb restaurant, where chef Lucio Sforza (who, Renaissance scholars, may or may not be part of that family) uses seasonal, local, quality ingredients and every weekday does a pranzetto for (currently) €13. This set “little lunch” changes every day and is a serious contender for the best value, best quality lunch available in Rome. Thirteen flippin’ euros for bread, antipasto, primo, secondo, glass of wine and small bottle of water! And it’s always been excellent, every time I’ve been, though I prefer Friday, as that’s Rome’s main fish-eating day.

We had a bruschetta with bean purée, the best broccoli soup I’ve ever had, pasta with a ragù of cuttlefish, and a fillet of scorfano (scorpion fish). We then decided to order some dessert (which isn’t included in the menu) and a glass of Marco Carpineti’s delicious Ludum Passito dessert wine. Just cos.

Passito and zuppa inglese, L'Asino d'Oro

I had a zuppa inglese, which is basically Italian trifle. Although the name can be translated as “English soup”, I like the slightly deeper meaning of zuppa as a reference to bread dunked in broth, from the verb inzuppare, to soak, to immerse. In the case of zuppa inglese, there’s sponge cake soaked in alcohol and custard. Going to miss these lunches at The Golden Ass (or The Golden Donkey if you have that troubling American-English relationship with that word). Veramente un buon rapporto prezzo-qualità!

Cafe 2Periodico, Monti

Afterwards we had tea in a favoured nearby café in Monti, 2Periodico, watching the world go by before we continued on our way… to the movies. What?! You could say. Why sit in a cinema when Rome is only your city for a few days more? Well, I used to be a film journalist, and just adore the big screen and the darkened room. Plus, I fear a culpa d’aria got me so I fancied planting my donkey for a few hours, getting away from the tourist zombie hordes clogging up the streets.

Normally I cannot abide, and veto, 3D films, but the own lingua originale option was Gravity in 3D. And even with shonky 3D, in a cinema not designed specifically for 3D, it was an extraordinary experience. I’ve not felt that pushing-yourself-back-into-the-seat tension in a film for years.

I Suppli, Trastevere

On the way home, we stopped in Via San Francesco a Ripa in Trastevere, buying some handmade chocolates from Dolce Idea to take home and a suppli from the small, seemingly nameless hole-in-the-wall pizzeria opposite to scoff straight away. It might just be called “I Suppli” as it has the word in green neon above the door. And rightfully so, as their suppli are great – the tomato risotto mix is very saucy, meaning they’re moister than many versions. Their structural integrity may suffer as a result but they’re so tasty.

So all in all a great day; eating and movies, two of my favourite things. I even managed an ale when I got home, so three of my favourite things.

Info
Pasticceria Valzani
Via del Moro 37b, Trastevere, 00153 Rome
+39 06 580 3792 | valzani.it

I Dolci di Nonna Vincenza
Via Arco del Monte 98a/98b, Regola, 00186 Rome
+39 06 92 59 43 22 | dolcinonnavincenza.it | arcodelmonte@dolcinonnavincenza.it

Roscioli (Forno)
Via dei Chiavari 34, Regola, 00186 Rome
+39 06 686 4045

L’Asino d’Oro
Via del Boschetto 73, Monti, 00184 Rome
+ 39 06 4891 3832

2Periodico Café
Via Leonina 77, Monti, 00184 Rome
+39 06 4890 6600

Dolce Idea
Via San Francesco a Ripa 27, Trastevere, 00153 Rome
+39 06 5833 4043 | dolceidea.com | info@dolceidea.com

Nameless Pizzeria (“I Suppli”?)
Via San Francesco A Ripa 137, Trastevere, 00153 Rome
+39 06 589 7110

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Red wine and chocolate ring cookies, or Ciambelline al vino rosso e cioccolato

Red wine and chocolate ciambelline, Ciambelline al vino rosso e cioccolato

These are a long way from authentic ciambelline al vino – ring cookies that are normally made plain or flavoured with fennel or anise seeds. But hey, I love chocolate. Chocolate doesn’t seem to play a big role in Italian biscotti etc, but as we’re moving house soon, and I have a large pot of cocoa in the cupboard that needs using up, I thought I’d try chocolate ciambelline.

Plus, we had a bottle of red wine that also needed using up. This cost us the princely sum of €1.50 so was clearly seriously and definitely hardcore cooking wine; or very desperate-at-the-end-of-an-evening-wine; or Withnail wine (“This is a far superior drink to meths!”).

We also had a bar of chocolate and did chop it up and add it to the mix, but it caused problems with the rolling: the chips kept severing the dough. So if you do it, I’d recommend either chopping the chocolate up into small pieces (I’m talking chips of a just a few mm) or leaving it out completely. Ditto, some slithers of almond would be nice, but they’d have to be small or they’ll compromise the structural integrity. You don’t want a hull breach. (Sorry, going a bit Star Trek.)

Kitchen

Anyway, ciambelline are classic Italian cookies that are often served with a digestivo after a meal. They’re related to taralli, which are almost like hard-baked bagels (and, indeed, they’re boiled in water before baking), and tarallini, which are smaller versions thereof. I’ve generally encountered savoury taralli and tarallini, but in one seafood restaurant we like in central Rome, they serve you a Vin Santo desert wine with a few small, fennel-seed flavoured sweet ring biscuits that they call tarallucci.

So, as with so many Italian nouns relating to food, usage is fairly mutable! (Depending on region, slang, dialect, inclination, family etc.)

So anyway. Here’s my recipe. Bear in mind, these sorts of recipes are traditionally made with the whole qb approach: quanto basta, “how much is enough”. I always prefer to use grams but if you do make these, and you feel your dough isn’t quite right, just follow your instincts and adjust the amount of liquid or flour.

360g flour
50g cocoa
150g sugar
160g extra virgin olive oil
160g red wine
(Optional: 50g dark choc, cut in small pieces, or some small slithers of nut)

Red wine and chocolate ring cookies, or Ciambelline al vino con il cioccolato mix

1. Combine the wine, oil and sugar.
2. Sieve in the flour and cocoa, stirring.

Red wine and chocolate ciambelline, Ciambelline al vino rosso e cioccolato
3. Form a dough. Add more flour if it’s too wet, more oil or wine if it’s too dry.
4. Rest the dough, for about half an hour, to let it relax.

Red wine and chocolate ciambelline, Ciambelline al vino rosso e cioccolato
5. Preheat the oven to 180C.
6. Form balls, about the size of a walnut. I went for a scaling weight of 30g, but ciambelline are often bigger, so you could go for 60-80g. Whatever you prefer.

Red wine and chocolate ciambelline, Ciambelline al vino rosso e cioccolato
7. Roll the balls into sausages.
8. Form the sausages into rings, pinching together the ends.
9. Dip the top in granulated sugar.

Red wine and chocolate ciambelline, Ciambelline al vino rosso e cioccolato
10. Place on a baking sheet, lined with parchment.
11. Bake for about 20 minutes, depending on your oven.

Red wine and chocolate ciambelline, Ciambelline al vino rosso e cioccolato
12. You can crisp / harden them more by leaving them in the oven, switched off, while it cools. Though these harder ones may need stronger teeth / liquids for dipping and dunking.

Now of course, there’s something else about these ciambelline that’s so far going unsaid. It’s the elephant in the room of this recipe. If you don’t have appreciate scatological humour, browse away now! If you’re not easily fazed, scroll down and highlight the black.

Oh dear. Oh dear oh dear oh dear.
So yes, they look like poo. Especially when I was making them. All that cocoa and glistening olive oil – poo, or at least joke-shop plastic turds. And when I rolled them in the sugar, I couldn’t help thinking of the saying “You can’t polish a turd… but you can roll it in glitter.” But then, thought I, worry not: what could be more perfect in Rome, a city that’s totally and utterly and liberally decorated with dog mess, than a ciambelline of that resembles these pavement obstacles? (Our v borghese neighbourhood is especially bad – worse than Paris in the 1980s, and that’s saying something.)
Sorry.

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Pine nut cheesecake, or cheesecake della nonna

Pine nut cheesecake, cheesecake della nonna

If you’re in a Roman restaurant and they offer you desert, it’s quite likely you’ll encounter torta della Nonna – that is “Grandma’s tart” or “Grandma’s cake”. I’m not sure about the labour laws, but all this pudding-making must keep granny pretty busy.

Sources vary, but torta della nonna is either a Florentine or a Ligurian dish. Though surely any nonna has her own torta? There are variations, but most commonly in Rome it’s a tart made with a sweet pastry crust and a filling based on custard and/or ricotta. Its defining feature is pine nuts, pinoli.

This post isn’t, however, about torta della nonna. As I had some leftover cookies that had been smashed on their journey to and from the park for a picnic on Sunday, I thought I’d make a cheesecake with a della nonna twist: ie, with the addition of pine nuts.

A note on the cookies
I made some cornmeal cookies – they were basically like a digestive, but with a slightly different crunch, and a few spices (cinnamon, ginger). They worked well, but you can use whatever biscuits you like: digestives are most typical for UK cheesecakes, US recipes use graham crackers. My friend Juli-from-Jersey said the cornmeal cookies reminded her of snickerdoodles, though they’re cookies with a name so ridiculous I can’t quite bring myself to discuss them.

I won’t include the cornmeal cookies recipe, but will say digestives are so easy to make you don’t need to reach for some plastic-wrapped stuff from a factory. I’ve included a simple recipe at the bottom of this post. If you do use this recipe, I’d add some cinnamon and ginger to the crumb base mix.

A note on the candied peel
Only use your own candied peel, or other hand-made stuff. Don’t use that yucky sticky stuff you get in tubs from the supermarket. Peel is easy to make. Honest. Just Google it, if you’ve not tried before. I’m still using some of my candied-vodka-infused-kumquats-from-the-garden-peel.

A note on cheeses
Often, cheesecake recipes will just say “cream cheese” in the ingredient list. It’s a bit vague. Though perhaps it doesn’t matter what cream cheese, as a baked cheesecake mixture seems pretty forgiving. Here I used mascarpone and robiola. The latter could be replaced with something like Philadelphia, if you really had to. You could also do, say, half-half mascarpone and ricotta. I might try that next time as you can get stupendous fresh ricotta here in Roma.

Pine nut cheesecake slice, cheesecake della nonna

Ingredients
Base:
40g hazelnuts
120g cookies/biscuits like digestives
60g butter

Cheesy bit:
250g mascarpone
200g robiola
2 eggs
Zest of 1 lemon
100g caster sugar
30g candied peel
60g pine nuts

To serve:
30g pine nuts
Icing sugar

Method
1. Pre-heat the oven to 180C.
2. Toast the hazelnuts until starting to brown.
3. Grind the hazelnuts in a food processor until fairly fine, then add the cookies and grind to a medium crumb.
4. Melt the butter in a pan, then combine with the hazelnuts and cookie crumbs.
5. Push the crumb mix into the bottom of a 20cm loose-bottomed cake tin.
6. Combine the cheeses, eggs, sugar, and zest, blending well by hand or with a handheld zizzer.
7. Finely chop the candied peel and add to the cheese mix, along with the pine nuts.
8. Pour the cheese mix onto the crumb base.
9. Bake for around 50-60 mins until the top is browning and even cracking slightly, and firm to the touch.
10. Remove the sides of the tin, and leave to cool completely.
11. When the cake is cool, toast the extra pine nuts and sprinkle on top, dusting the whole lot with icing sugar.
12. You could serve it with some whipped cream, for added deliciousness. We didn’t as it’s hard to get nice cream here in Roma, despite the cornucopia of other wonderful dairy products.

Extra! Free! Digestive biscuits recipe
90g butter
120g wholemeal flour
120g oatmeal
40g caster sugar
Pinch salt
Pinch baking soda
1 egg, beaten

1. Preheat oven to 200C.
2. Rub butter into flour, stir in the rest and bind with beaten egg.
3. Roll and cut out rounds.
4. Prick with a fork.
5. Put on baking sheet, sprinkle with oatmeal and bake in a hot oven till browned.

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