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Making pignolata

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A few days before Easter, I give Mamma Rosa a call and suggest we knock together a pignolata, we haven’t made it for ages. “You know”, she says, “I was thinking the same thing”. We’re getting into the territory of hardcore traditional Southern Italian sweets, and for me one that comes with a lot of memories. Nonna, Mamma Rosa and I would get a little production line going to make it happen. When I was growing up, pignolata would typically be made at Christmas and Easter, in the shape of a wreath. But Mamma Rosa, clever lady that she is, often made it into other shapes, giant number 18’s or 21’s depending on the birthday, and there was a dove or two here and there.

Like all of her recipes, none of the quantities are exact, it’s really about look and feel and experience. The dough for pignolata is very similar to that of crostoli, it’s just what you do with it that’s different. The amount we made was quite a big batch – it can produce two large pignolate, or three smaller ones. (By the way other Italian readers may know this sweet as struffoli, but in my mother’s village it has always been pignolata).

So off we go. We start by putting ten large eggs in a large bowl of the electric mixer. Next, says Mamma Rosa, “metti ‘na cucciarinata di zucchero per ogni uovo”. That’s one heaped spoon of caster sugar for each egg. Whisk them in the electric mixer till combined and fluffy.

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Next, add about half a cup of olive oil. Mamma Rosa never uses standard cup measures. Its just “ ‘na tazza” and typically whatever coffee cup she grabs from the cupboard. I guessed it to be about half a cup. Then half a cup of Sambuca (Molinari the only acceptable one at their house!) or Millefiore. She loves Millefiore, a lovely floral Italian liquor she often uses in sweets, but she says its dreadfully expensive here compared to Italy. Combine the oil and liquor into the egg mixture with a wooden spoon.

Now it’s time to add the flour. Like crostoli, she uses two parts plain flour to one part self raising flour. At a guess, I’d say we used about 800g of plain and 400g of self raising. You want the dough to be soft and pliable. We fold in the flour with a wooden spoon then we used the dough hook attachment to bring it together for a couple of minutes. Turn the dough out onto a floured surface, knead until smooth and form in the shape of a log. (If it is too much to knead in one piece just split it in two).

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Cut the log into discs, then roll each disc into long thin strips, kind of like breadsticks. They do need to be quite thin because the dough does puff up when cooked due to the self raising flour. Dad grabs a giant tile from the garage and Mamma Rosa and I take a seat and get rolling. As we roll she chatters as she often does about growing in Italy. She tells me that when Nonna used to make pignolata she’d make seven or eight at a time, and hand them out around the village. It would be the same with bread, biscuits, blankets,  whatever she was making. “Mama era di mani larghe” she says. “She was of big hands”.  Generous, she means. I miss Nonna. But the apple hasn’t fallen far from the tree.

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Once we have all our strips ready its time to cut. Grab a serrated knife and cut the strips into little pieces, about 1cm long or so.

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Then it’s time to fry. Heat some oil in a deep pan (Mamma Rosa used canola) and then fry the dough balls in batches until nice and golden. Set the fried balls aside and give the pan a clean. At this point we divided the balls in two to make two separate pignolate. The honey mixture below was just for one of them. If you don’t want to make two at once you can store the fried balls (once cooled) in an airtight container then go again another day.

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Return the pan to the heat and add about 350g of honey and half a cup of caster sugar on low/medium heat. (You can also add a little cinnamon but I’m not really a fan). Stir constantly until it starts to go golden and caramelise – but not toffee –  (was a good ten minutes or so), then add in the dough balls, combine till well coated keep stirring till the honey starts simmering, and continue to stir for another 5-10 minutes.

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The next step is to shape it. You can either shape it on a board or on the plate you’re going to serve it on. Be very careful, the honey is scaldingly hot, so we had a bowl of iced water at the ready. You can’t really let it cool down much as then it will begin to set before you can shape it. We spray the board with olive oil, put a glass down and then tip the honey coated balls around it and begin to shape. Add some sprinkles for decoration, remove the glass, then leave it to harden and set. Once it is set store in the fridge until you are ready to serve and cut with a serrated knife.

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It keeps well in the fridge in a sealed container for several days. It took the two of us a good three hours to make this, so it is a labour of love, but well worth it!

Mamma Rosa’s Zucchini Ripieni (stuffed zucchini)

Mamma Rosa has been great at catering for my vegacquarian Marito over the years. Though really, in the world of Southern Italian cooking, this isn’t hard. A lot of Southern Italian is old style “cucina povera”, or peasant food, as meat was considered a real luxury, and vegetarian anyway. That is the type of food I ate all of my childhood, and what I often now make my own children. The decades following the second world war, when my parents grew up, were a time of terrible poverty in Italy’s south, hence the name of this type of cooking. My father tells the story of him as a very young boy, sneaking out to the chicken coop to take the eggs, eating them raw, so desperate were the times and so severe his hunger. My nonna would go to collect the eggs wonder and why the chickens weren’t laying. He tells it with a laugh, the story of a mischievous boy who tricked his mother, but there is sadness there too.

But I’ve meandered a little. Flipping through Mamma Rosa’s little book this weekend, I felt like making this stuffed zucchini recipe of hers. Like many of the recipes, it is a little light on detail and quantities, as when she is making something it is generally done by feel and taste, and she found them difficult to scribe for me. She has always used the light green zucchini variety for this dish – the variety you’ll see growing in Italian backyards around Sydney in the Summer – and I think the shape is better for this recipe. The number of zucchini is approximate, it really depends on the size. Mine were on the smaller size so I used eight.  Her quantity of cheese is “a piacere”, a phrase you see a  lot in Italian recipes.  It means “to your liking”. I used about half a cup, but use more or less as you please!

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Ingredients
6-8 light green Italian zucchini
1 medium onion, finely diced
1 leek, white part only, diced
50ml olive oil
1 cup aborio rice
750ml stock
1/2 cup finely chopped Italian parsley
Grated parmesan cheese, “a piacere”
3 eggs
Salt for seasoning

Making them

1. Bring a pot of salted water to the boil.  Cut the zucchini in half, and place in the boiling water for 4-5 minutes so that they soften slightly.  Drain and once they are cool enough to handle, using a knife and/or a spoon scoop out the flesh, leaving the skin. (This step is rather fiddly, you want a nice thin casing, but not too thin so that it doesn’t hold). Set the flesh aside in a colander to drain.  Place the hollowed out zucchini in a baking dish or a tray lined with baking paper, and season with salt.

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2. In a pan, heat the olive oil then saute the onion and leek until softened. Squeeze the zucchini flesh to remove any excess water, chop coarsely then add to the pan and continue to cook for a couple of minutes. Add the rice, stir to coat, then gradually add the stock as if making a risotto until cooked. Remove from heat and allow to cool slightly. Add the parsley and parmesan and stir through. Taste for seasoning and add salt if required. In a bowl, beat two of the eggs and stir through.

3. Heat the oven to 180 degrees. Fill each of the zucchini cases with rice. (If you were preparing ahead, after stuffing you could place them in the fridge for cooking later). Beat the remaining egg and brush over the top. Spray some foil with olive oil, cover, and place in the oven for 20 minutes. Remove the foil and cook for a further 20 minutes. Serve.

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Neil’s Three Milk Cake

A dessert I’ve been unable to resist at visits to Spice Temple is the three milk cake.  So I was excited to see that it was included in Neil Perry’s Spice Temple Cookbook.  I tried to make it and my first attempt was pretty good.  You’ll feed a big crowd with this, at least a dozen.  The cake needs to be made the night before so there’s less prep to do on the day of serving.  If you’re not a fan of meringue or don’t have time to make it I think it is still a really lovely dessert without it.  Here’s the end result

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And here’s the restaurant original – I didn’t do too bad for a first go, though I didn’t quite have enough of the garnishes on hand as no quantities were specified.

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Three-milk cake (make day ahead)
300 g plain flour
2 tsp baking powder
Pinch of fine salt
6 eggs, separated
275 g caster sugar
125 ml milk
30 ml rum
1 tsp vanilla extract
375 ml pouring cream
550 ml evaporated milk
500 ml condensed milk

Preheat the oven to 180°C and butter and flour a 30 cm × 20 cm Pyrex dish or cake tin.

Sift together the flour, baking powder and salt, then set aside.

In the bowl of an electric mixer, whisk the egg whites to stiff peaks, then whisk in the sugar. Add the egg yolks one at a time, ensuring each is well incorporated before adding the next. Alternately fold in spoonfuls of the milk and the flour mixture, mixing to a smooth batter. Finally, fold in the rum and vanilla. Pour into the prepared dish or tin and bake for 30 minutes or until a skewer inserted in the centre comes out clean.

Remove the cake from the oven, but leave it in the dish. Use a skewer to prick the cake all over.

Mix together the pouring cream, evaporated milk and condensed milk, then gradually pour over the cake, letting it gradually absorb before pouring on more (if you just try and pour it all at once it will go everywhere!). Leave the cake to cool, then cover with cling film and refrigerate overnight.

Meringue (make when ready to serve)
100 ml water
2 tsp lemon juice
300 g caster sugar
180 g egg whites (from about 4–5 eggs)
3/4 tsp cream of tartar
2 tsp rose water

Place the water, lemon juice and all but 3 tbs of the sugar in a small non- reactive saucepan. Place over medium heat, stirring to dissolve the sugar. Cook the syrup without stirring until it reaches 120°C on a sugar thermometer.

Meanwhile, using an electric mixer, whisk the egg whites to stiff peaks, then whisk in the remaining sugar and the cream of tartar to make a meringue. With the mixer on low speed, slowly pour in a quarter of the sugar syrup and whisk to combine.

Continue adding the syrup in this way, whisking well each time, until it is all incorporated, then add the rose water and whisk on medium speed for a few minutes until smooth and glossy.

Three-milk sauce (for serving)
280 ml evaporated milk
240 ml condensed milk
140 ml pouring cream

Combine all three ingredients in a jug

To serve
Finely grated lime zest
Roasted flaked almonds
Roasted unsalted pistachios
Freeze-dried raspberries

Cut the cake into squares and place a square on each plate, then pour some three milk sauce around the cake. Scoop a large spoonful of the meringue onto the top of each cake square and garnish with grated lime zest, flaked almonds, pistachios and raspberries.

Today’s cake – Italian apple cake

The Marito is a big apple dessert fan, and I used to make this cake for him regularly when we first got married.  But somehow I forgot about it, and recently finding myself with excess apples, made it and remembered how good it was.  It’s almost custard like in the centre.  I have used Granny Smith and Golden Delicious for this, but you could also use a mixture of varieties depending what you have in the fridge.   Strega is an Italian liquor (and a favourite of Mamma Rosa) the addition of which is optional.

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Ingredients
5 medium apples
Juice of 1 large lemon
Grated rind of 1 large lemon
4 eggs
150g plain flour
150g caster sugar
1 tsp baking powder
Pinch of salt.
20ml Strega liquor
100g unsalted butter, melted and cooled
Icing sugar for dusting

Making it
1. Preheat the oven to 180 degrees fan forced. Grease a 20cm cake tine and line the base with baking paper.

2. Core and peel the apples, halve and slice thinly. Place in a bowl and cover with the lemon juice.

3. In a separate bowl, whisk the eggs and sugar with an electric mixer until thick and fluffy. Add the lemon rind and Strega and combine.

4. Gently fold in the flour, baking powder and sale. Carefully drizzle in the melted butter and gently combine, then finally add the apples and gently fold in.

5. Place the mixture in the prepared tin and level it out. Bake four about 40 minutes or until a skewer inserted in the middle comes out clean. If the cake is browning too much on the top and not cooked in centre, cover with foil. Remove from oven, rest in tin for 10 minutes, then turn out onto a wire rack. Dust with icing sugar and serve.

Trifle of poached pear, mascarpone and pistachio

Recently I bought a tray of Corella pears and I thought I’d turn them into a trifle.  I made it first thing in the morning to serve that evening, but even better make it the night before.  You’ll serve a good crowd of a dozen or more with this. The pear brandy I used was the German Weis, which is available in most bottle shops. Any left over syrup can be stored in the fridge and drizzled over ice cream or other fruit.

Poached pears
700g caster sugar
Thinly peeled rind of 1 orange
Thinly peeled rind and juice of 1 large lemon
2 cinnamon quills
2 star anise
1 vanilla bean split and seeds scraped
100ml Vin Santo or other dessert wine
10 small Corella pears, peeled, cored and quartered
2 tablespoons pear brandy

Combine sugar, rinds, lemon juice, spices, vanilla and 1 litre of water in a large enough pot, stir over medium heat until sugar dissolves. Add the pears, cut a round of baking paper to fit the pot, place over the pears and weigh down with a plate and gently simmer until pears are tender (25 minutes or so). Remove pears from pot and set aside in a bowl.

Strain cooking liquid from the pot into a heavy based saucepan and simmer on medium high heat for about 40-45 minutes. Turn off the heat, add Vin Santo, stir, then allow to cool. Once cool mixture will thicken and should be a golden caramel coloured syrup. Stir in the pear brandy.

Mascarpone cream
500g mascarpone
2 tablespoons sifted icing sugar
2 egg yolks
350ml thickened cream
4 tablespoons pear brandy

Using at electric mixer, beat the eggs, icing sugar, mascarpone and brandy until combined. Add the cream and beat until thickened, be careful not to over whip.

Other ingredients
Half a packet or so of savoiardi biscuits
180g of natural pistachio nuts, lightly toasted and coarsely chopped or whole as desired

You’re now ready to assemble

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Assembly
Place a layer of savoiardi on the bottom of your trifle dish.  At the bottom of the reserved bowl of pears there should be a little juice – drizzle a couple of tablespoons over the savoiardi. Then drizzle over some of the caramel syrup. Next add a layer of pears, drizzle over a little more syrup and then sprinkle over a third of the pistachios.

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Then a layer of half the cream. Then again a layer of savoiardi, pear juice from bowl, syrup, pears, syrup, pistachios, cream and sprinkle remaining pistachios on top. Cover tightly with cling wrap and refrigerate until ready to serve.

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Lychee granita with mango, ice cream and mint

This very easy and lovely little recipe which appeared in Good Food just before Christmas is a perfect Summer refreshing dessert.  I personally prefer Kensington Pride mangoes, but you can use any variety you like. Serves four.

lycheegranita

Ingredients
Vanilla ice-cream
3 mangoes, peeled and diced
Handful of baby mint leaves
1 quantity lychee granita

For the lychee granita
560g tin lychees
30g castor sugar
1½ tsp fresh lime juice

Making it
1. Drain lychees, reserving the tin liquid, and purée in a whiz or food processor until very fine. Strain through a fine sieve into a 250ml cup measure; add liquid from tin to fill the cup.

2. In a small pot, gently heat sugar in 30ml water until dissolved. Allow to cool.

3. Combine purée, sugar syrup and lime juice to taste. Pour into a shallow metal container and place in the freezer. When almost frozen, scrape with a fork to create a fluffy texture then return to the freezer so that it is fully frozen.

4. Place a scoop of ice-cream in a chilled glass, then a spoonful of mango, a few mint leaves and a spoonful of granita. Repeat. Garnish with mint

My sugar free granola

A new year has rolled round and with that comes the usual spate of resolutions.  Eat less, exercise more, read something vaguely intelligent, buy less stuff and so on.  On the eat less front, sugar is something we are told should be high on the list.  Fats are not necessarily the enemy we thought, but sugar is.   One of the worst sugar culprits is often breakfast cereals, granola among them – have a look at sugar content in the supermarket and you’ll be surprised – even though we think it is ‘healthy’.

I love the texture and crunch of granola, but I’m not that keen on the sweetness.  In the pre-made ones, even if there is no added sugar, there is almost always maple syrup or honey which I don’t particularly fancy, I’d prefer to get my sweetness from fresh fruit.  After a couple of trials I came up with this version, which you could almost call savoury granola. I soaked the nuts overnight because I found they burn otherwise and taste unpleasant. You can probably use any nuts you like. The egg white is optional, but if you like “clumps” in your granola, this is an easy way to achieve it.

Ingredients
2 cups rolled oats
1 cup raw almonds, soaked overnight and drained
1/3 cup raw macadamia nuts, soaked overnight and drained
1/2 cup pumpkin seeds
1 tablespoon vanilla extract
Ground spices of your choice (I used nutmeg, ginger, cinnamon)
1/2 cup coconut oil
1 egg white, whipped to soft peaks (optional)

Making it
Preheat the oven to 150 degrees. Place the oats, nuts, and seeds in a bowl. Add the vanilla, spices, and coconut oil and stir well so that everything is coated. Add the egg white and combine. Place on an oven tray lined with baking paper and spread in a layer, and bake for about 30-35 minutes until golden. Remove from oven and allow to cool completely before placing in an airtight container and store in the fridge. Its then ready to eat any time, either with milk or yoghurt and fresh fruit, or as is as a snack.

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