Tag Archives: spices

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

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

Birrificio Math’s La 16 amber ale with jasmine flowers

Birrificio Math La 16 bottle

Quite intrigued by this one. I’d enjoyed my previous experience of a brew from Math brewery (birrificio), La 68, a wheat beer I drank when experimenting with making fish and chips and the label on the La 16 said it was a Birra ambrata ai fiori di gelsomino – an amber beer with jasmine blossoms. The ingredients once more included the cryptic spezie too (spices – but what blimmin’ spices?). What’s not to like? Well, I was slightly wary of the 7% ABV. I would have thought I was getting used to Italian strong beers, but it seems to be going the other way. Especially as I drank this shortly after coming home from a trip to England, and enjoying several quality ales with less than 5% ABV.

One tricky factor at the moment is getting the temperature of the beer right. It’s been around 35C for several weeks now, peaking even higher a few weeks ago. Ergo, I keep my beers in the fridge, reasoning that I can take them out and let them warm up a bit before drinking. It’s not an exact science though; my food thermometer has died, so I’m having to guess when the beer is at the ideal 10C-ish.

Birrificio Math La 16 and glass

Maybe I guessed wrong this time, but drinking the La 16 I really got surprisingly little interesting perfume. I thought the jasmine flowers would make their presence felt, but I didn’t get that at all. Perhaps it was still too cold? Or perhaps it’s just not as great a beer as I was hoping. Tasting it too, I didn’t really get much floral or spicy. Very little fruitiness at all, just a fairly heavy malt and decided heavy hoppiness. So: not well balanced. Medium body, medium carbonation, pleasant coppery brown colour, borderline unpleasant taste.

It was assertively bitter, to the point of being too much, as if the hops have been cooked too long. Stewed, like an old cup of tea. Or at least it was too stewed for my taste. I’m really beginning to not enjoy these Italian strong ales (sometimes called “Belgian style” – but I dislike that expression. There are so many types of Belgian beer, it’s too vague). They’re just not subtle. Drinking them is like eating gelato (or ice-cream) too fast – you get that instant ache at the front of the brain. You’re punched with the hoppiness, with the high alcohol content.

Or as Loeser, the protagonist in Ned Beauman’s The Teleportation Accident, says when he opens a bottle of terrible (ersatz) champagne and has a swig: “It’s as if they’ve decided to incorporate the eventual hangover directly into the flavour as a sort of omen.”

Birrificio Math La 16 label

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Filed under Ale, beer