Almond, Pear and Olive Oil Cake

The seasonal change has hit our southern shores, swapping the warm breeze for a crisp chill. I have packed away my summer dresses and sandals to wrap myself in wooly layers, scarves and boots. To accompany the cooler weather, the stalls now abound with glorious winter produce, whose main purpose is to nourish and comfort. As I type this I’m embracing this sunny yet cool day, sipping tea and indulging in my second slice of this incredibly moist pear and almond cake, lightly scented by cinnamon and mandarine. Cold months to come, I fear you not! INGREDIENTS, makes1

3 small pears

3 eggs

1 cup of brown sugar (plus 2 tablespoons to sprinkle over the pears)

Cinnamon

1/3 cup extra-virgin olive oil

1/2 cup of buttermilk

juice of 1 mandarine

1 cup of almond flour (almond meal)

1-1/2 cup of self-raising flour (gluten free flour will also work)

METHOD

1. Preheat your oven to 180 C (350 F)

2. Line a round cake tin with baking paper. Sprinkle the base with 2 tablespoons of brown sugar and a little cinnamon

3. Cut the pears into two, scoop out the core, then cut each half into two, lenghtways. Line the base of the cake tin with the pears.

4. Beat the eggs with sugar until fluffy, add 1 teaspoon of cinnamon, oil, buttermilk and mandarine juice and whisk well. Add the almond flour and the sifted self-raising flour and gently incorporate them into the batter without over mixing. Pour the batter over the pears and bake for 40-45 minutes or until a skewer comes out clean when inserted into the center of the cake.

5. Turn up side down and leave to cool on a rack for 30-45 minutes before serving. Enjoy as it is or with vanilla gelato, cream or thick Greek yoghurt.

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Overnight Healthy Rye and Spelt Loaf

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I would love to make you believe that I spent days elaborating a new recipe for a healthy and delicious bread. That I experienced, tried and tested various formulas until one day, exhausted but elated, I triumphed…Alas, the truth about how this bread came to be is that a few weeks ago, as I was setting up to mix a loaf, I realized I only had near-empty packets or various flours! Then epiphany hit me: mix them together and hope for the best! My, was I happy with the result! A crusty, dense and flavorsome loaf, perfect for sandwiches, divine with jam!

INGREDIENTS, makes 1 loaf

300 gr of spelt flour (2-1/4 cup)

200 gr of rye flour (1- 1/4 cup)

70 gr of wholemeal spelt flour (1/3 cup +2 tablespoons)

1 teaspoon of dry yeast

1 pinch of sugar or 1 teaspoon of honey

370 ml (1-1/2 cup) of water, at room temperature

2 teaspoons of salt flakes

HOW TO

1. Start this recipe a day ahead.

2. Mix the three flours together in a large bowl, add the dry yeast and sugar (or honey) and gradually add the water, mixing with a spoon until a soft dough forms. Try not to add all the water at once. As flours always vary, it is better to start with 2/3 of the water and only then you can decide if you need the extra liquid. You are after a rather sticky dough, but not a wet one. If your dough feels too dry after you have used all the liquid, add 1-2 extra table spoons.

3. Once the dough has been mixed (you can easily do this by hand as it requires no kneading, just mixing until combined), add the salt and mix until well incorporated.

4. Cover the bowl with plastic film and leave at room temperature for 6-8 hours, then move to the fridge to rest overnight.

5. The next morning, take the dough out of the fridge and let it rest at room temperature for 2 hours.

6. Heat up your oven to 220 C (430 F)

7. Line a baking tray with parchment paper and very gently shape the dough into a loaf, being mindful not to knock out the air. Prove at room temperature for 40 minutes, then score the top with a sharp knife, sprinkle the loaf with a little water and place the tray into the oven.

8. Bake for 35-40 minutes or until the top is crusty and the bottom sounds hollow when tapped. Cool at room temperature on a wire rack for 1 hour before slicing.

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No-knead Spelt Focaccia with Potato and Zucchini

Move over, white flour! The more recent diets trends have cast the spotilght on an ancient grain that has been enjoying a new-found popularity amongst home-bakers and those with a knack for healthy eating. Spelt, or dinkel wheat, contains a … Continue reading

Schiacciata con Olio e Rosmarino (Italian Flat Bread with EVOO and Rosemary)

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You may call it schiacciata, pizza bianca or focaccia toscana, but the fact remains that, if you grew up in Italy or you have holidayed there at some point in your life, this would have been part of your daily ritual, offered to you as a snack, merenda, by your mamma, nonna or a friendly neighbour. Italian gulp it down with exceptional gusto in its plain incarnation or accompanied by a few slices of prosciutto or a squashed tomato. Comes September, married with ripe, bursting figs, heralding the end of summer and making the thought of going back to school a little more bearable!                                                                                                           Schiacciata is an intrinsic part of an Italian upbringing and it is more often than not confused with its more notable cousin, Focaccia. Although the two bare an obvious resemblance, they differ greatly in texture. Schiacciata ditches the soft, chewy texture in place of an irresistible crispy crust, each bite so satisfying you will find yourself licking your finger in between morsels, oblivious of social niceties and table manners. Such ineffably light crunch is the result a long, slow fermentation of the dough. It is easy enough to make, but be sure to start this recipe a day ahead or even three, for that matter. The schiacciata here pictured is the offspring of a batch of dough that had been resting in the fridge for that long, the baked product turning out wondrously crunchy and savoury.

INGREDIENTS. serves 4

3 1/2 cups  00 type flour (or plain)

1/2 cup  wholemeal flour

1 teaspoon of dry yeast

1-1/4 cup  lukewarm water

1/2 teaspoon of sugar

2 teaspoons of salt flakes+ more for sprinkling on top

Extra-virgin olive oil, to grease the bowl and to drizzle on top.

Rosemary sprigs

Cheese, figs, salami to serve

HOW TO

1. Dissolve yeast and sugar in water. Stand for 5 minutes or until frothy.

2. Place flour in a large mixing  bowl, add the yeasted water and mix for 1-2 minutes, then tip the dough onto a floured surface, add the salt and knead vigorously for 10 minutes or until the dough is smooth and elastic. Shape it into a ball. A standing mixer fitted with a dough hook will make short work of this. As all flours tend to differ slightly, you may have to add a little more water of a little more flour in order to have the perfect dough. You want a soft, pliable dough, but not too sticky.

3. Rest the dough in an oiled bowl, covered with a tea-towel for 30 minutes, then lift it out, place it back onto a floured surface, stretch it with your hands and fold it into three and then back into a ball. Put the dough back in the bowl to rest for another 30 minutes, then stretch and fold again. As tedious as this process sounds, this is paramount for obtaining a light, crispy and easy to digest base.

4. After the second stretch-and-fold, place the dough in a large oiled container fitted with  lid (like a Tupperware one). Place in the fridge (with the lid on) and slow-prove for a minimum of 6 hours, up to 4 days.

5. When you are ready to make you pizza, take the dough out of the fridge and place it in an oiled bowl and cover it with a tea-towel. Rest at room temperature for 30-45 minutes.

6. Preheat you oven to 200 C (395 F). If using a pizza stone, put in the oven now to heat up. Roll the dough onto a a sheet of baking paper to 1/2 cm  (0,2 inches) thick. Drizzle with EVOO, salt flakes and rosemary and slide onto the hot pizza stone or onto a baking tray. If using a pizza stone, slide off the baking paper after 15 minutes to allow the bottom of the crust to go crispy. Bake for 20-25 minutes or until golden and crunchy. Serve hot, warm or cold with your favorite antipasto snacks.

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White wine and Olive oil flat bread (Pizza Scima)

The last days of my holiday in Torricella Peligna, my mum’s home-village in the mountains of Abruzzo, are fast approaching.
I always feel a deep sense of sadness at the thought of leaving this charming place.
Every street, every narrow lane and alley, is embedded with strong childhood memories of feeling free, utopistic and adventurous, and utterly in love with one local or the other!
It is as if, each time I say good-bye, I leave a little piece of me there.
 I have found particularly moving to witness my 4 year-old boy, Raffi, an aussie-looking and sounding little lad, quickly becoming more and more abruzzese, both in his language and in his mannerisms, and I have loved to watch him play where I used to play, along with my friend’s children.
It has been a great manifestation of life at its best.
Raffi has taken on his heritage so much that one day he insisted we went to visit our neighbour Matilde and ask her to teach us her recipe for Pizza Scima.
Pizza scima basically is an unleavened bread. It literally means “silly pizza”, as it lacks yeast, but there is nothing silly about it.
Far from being complicated to make, its value lies in the tradition it carries.
Pizza Scima is said to have been around the areas of Gessopalena, Torricella and Roccascalegna since the 15th Century and used to be a great staple in everybody’s kitchen as most of the original ingredients were easy to come by.
These days it is still available in bakeries around Abruzzo, but nothing can beat the home-made one Matilde makes.
When we asked Matilde for her recipe, she kindly wrote it down for me, but I know the local villagers far to well to trust a recipe they write. They may indeed list all the right ingredients, but I had to see for myself the way she would mix them together and how she would knead the dough and exactly what “a small glass of oil” would mean…
Matilde is a strong and courageous woman, with small, dark and piercing eyes and hands that carry, in their strength and creases, all the years she devoted working in the fields. She lost her dear husband a few years ago on a freaky tractor accident, but, although still grieving his loss, she hasn’t lost her kind spirit and her generous friendliness towards others.
Pour 800 gr of plain flour (preferably 00) onto a board and make a well in the centre.
Add 1 small glass ( about 65 ml/70ml) of Extra Virgin Olive oil and the same amount of dry white wine. Start mixing in the flour, add the tip of a teaspoon od baking soda and  a little salt (about 2 teaspoons, unless you like it very salty). As the dough is coming together pour a little amount (around 150/200 ml) of sparkling water, enough so that the dough becomes smooth and elastic.
Flatten it out with rolling-pin to about 2 cm thickness, put the dough onto an oiled oven tray and score it with a serrated knife to create a criss-cross pattern.
Bake at 200 Celsius ( about 390 Farenheit) for around 30/35 minutes, or until the scent of wine and oil is powerful enough to make you want to eat it straight away!
Matilde and I had a nice, chilled Martini with lemon while we were waiting, and I would daresay you ought to do this to if you want to pay tribute to this great abruzzese lady and her treasured recipe.
It keeps for a few days and it stays crunchy and slightly crumbly. Best married with pecorino shavings, salame cacciatorino and ice-cold wine.

Authentic Italian Focaccia

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I feel the need to specify authentic because I am afraid l there is an overall misconception about what focaccia is and should be.

Focaccia should not be thick or doughy. I have encountered so many of this kind, such disappointing, heavy-as lead thick breads so wrongly called Focaccia, that I am now compelled to speak for its true identity and get rid of this misapprehension once and for all. Focaccia is its own thing and it’s one of the most recognized marvels of Liguria, a God-blessed region in north-west Italy. It is light, airy, bouncy and ever-so-satisfying. Each little (or big!) bite, so well seasoned with salt and ligurian extra-virgin olive oil is a joy for the palate. Focaccia is said to have been created by the masterful Genovese artisan bakers and to this day all Italians young and old know that it is in Genova and the nearby villages that you will find the best Focaccia. In Italy we love it so much we mostly eat it plain, fresh from the oven, warm and inviting. I have finally managed to snatch the recipe from my brother, a professional Chef who made Focaccia daily when he worked at “Il Genovese” , in Milan in the late 90’s. This recipe is so great I have been baking trays for two days straight…

Can you blame me though?

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INGREDIENTS, makes 1 large focaccia

1 tablespoon of dried yeast

3/4 cup lukewarm water

1 teaspoon of barley malt syrup or honey

320 gr (2-2/3 cups) 00 or plain flour

2 tablespoons of extra-virgin olive oil

2 teaspoons of salt

For the glaze : 2 tablespoons of extra-virgin olive oil, 1 tablespoon of water.

HOW TO

1. In a large bowl dissolve  yeast with water, add  flour, oil and  barley malt syrup or honey. Knead for 5 minutes, then add the salt.

2. Knead vigorously until it looks smooth and elastic (feel free to use an electric mixer with a dough hook).

3. Shape into a ball and rest for 20 minutes in a bowl, covered with a tea towel.

4. Stretch it with your hand to form a rectangle and fold into 3 or 4. This step will give strength and texture to your dough and is essential in order to obtain a soft,  airy and chewy focaccia.

5. Place the folded dough in an oiled oven tray, cover it with a tea-towel and let it prove for around 90 minutes or until it doubles in size.

6. Once the dough has risen, stretch it out to cover the tray and sprinkle the surface with seasalt.

7. Let it rest for another 30 minutes, then, using your fingertips, press the dough down onto the tray to create lots of little holes.

8. Drizzle the holes with the glaze and sprinkle with some more salt. You can top it with caramelized onion or cherry tomatoes if you wish, but , believe me, this is already amazing as it is.

9. Let it rest for another 20 minutes.

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10. Bring your oven to 200 C (390 F), then bake for 20-25 minutes  until it looks slighly golden and utterly irresistible…

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Focaccia con Taleggio e cipolla

I am not against experimenting with flavour combinations.

At times I have been extremely and pleasantly surprised by the daring offerings of Chefs like Tetsuya, although I must admit , when I am cooking I remain loyal to more traditional food marriages.

Nothing can beat the marry union of Tomatoes and Basil, Lemon and Vanilla, or the more wintry Taleggio and Caramelized  Onion, which I made yesterday.

First off, you need to make a Focaccia dough.

I am in a habit of using my own sourdough yeast, but I don’t expect you would all be making it from scratch (although I will be posting my recipe for it very soon), so it’s just as good to use fresh or dried yeast.

In a large bowl, mix 400 gr of plain 00 flour and 100 gr of wholemeal flour with 325 ml of lukewarm water, 20 gr of fresh yeast (or 1 sachet of dried yeast) and 1 table spoon of EV olive oil. Combine the ingredients using your hands or a wooden spoon.

Add half a table spoon of salt *and knead for about 6 to 7 minutes, ot until the dough is smooth and elastic.

Feel free to let your Kitchen Aid do the hard work, if you have one.

Leave to prove covered with cling wrap in a warm place for 1 hour after which time

give your dough a second, gentle knead, fold into three and leave to rest for another hour.

Using your hands (easier if you rub them with olive oil), flatten the ball of dough and leave to rest for 20 minutes.

In the meantime, turn the oven on to 220 degrees. If you have a pizza stone, leave it in the oven to heat up.

Slice up some onion (I used 1 brown onion, 1 red onion and 2 French shallots) and cook gently in a frying pan with a drizzle of olive oil, a pinch of salt, and a splash of water, lid on. It will take around 20 minutes to go soft and smell delicious. I added a little aged balsamic vinegar at the end , to balance the sweetness of the sugars released by the onion.

Place the cooked onion on your Focaccia dough, add some thyme leaves and place in the hot oven. If you have a pizza stone, carefully slide the Focaccia onto it, making sure you have dusted it with semolina or polenta flour to prevent  the focaccia from sticking. After about 15 minutes, add your taleggio.

Bake for a further 10 minutes.

You can serve straight out of the oven with a rocket salad.

It also very nice at room temperature…if there is any left, that is!

* Only add your salt after the yeast has been incorporated into the flour mix.

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