Paste di Mandorle (X’mas Almond Pastries)

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And so, the long-awaited jolly season officially begins at my house, with a tray full of these colourful, soft almond cookies, heralding the impending gluttonous days that this time of the year invariably brings. And although it only feels it’s been a couple of months since my last Christmas, which I spent back home in Milan with my folks, I cannot help feeling comforted by the glorious festive spirit that my children and I exude as we set off to the kitchen to shape these traditional Italian cookies. Some call them Paste di Mandorle, others call them Amaretti, but Raffi and Miro have duly renamed them Rudolph’s nose cookies!

INGREDIENTS, makes 18-20 cookies

275 gr (1 – 1/3 cup)of caster sugar

300 gr (2- 1/2 cups) of almond meal

2 egg whites

1 teaspoon of vanilla essence

1/4 teaspoon of almond extract

glaceè cherries

 HOW TO

1. Place sugar, almond meal, egg whites, vanilla and almond extract in a standing mixer and beat together for 2-3 minutes or until a sticky dough is formed.

2. Roll bits of dough the size of a large walnut and place them onto an oven tray lined with baking paper.

3. Make an indent in each ball of dough with your index finger, then sit a cherry onto each dimple. Shape the rest of the dough into small rectangles (this is the typical Ricciarelli shape), cover them liberally in icing sugar and place them onto the oven tray with the rest of the cookies.

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4. Bake at 180 C, 350 F for 18-20 minutes of until the bottom is firm, but the cookies are still pale in colour

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5. Allow to cool and further firm up at room temperature before serving

They will keep for up to 1 week in an airtight container

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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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Focaccia Pugliese (home-made focaccia Apulian style)

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When it comes to the delicate matter of Focaccia the authentic, 100% born-and bred Italian proudly turns into a -very- opinionated baking expert. Be it as it may that most Italian would rather buy their focaccia at the local bakery instead of baking at home, they all seem to reach a common agreement when it comes to  texture, flavor and, most-importantly, the lightness of the crumb. Don’t try to sell an Italian a dense, doughy, thick bread, whose resemblance to authentic focaccia is a mere matter of those glistening holes dimpled on top. No, no, to the authentic Italian Focaccia connoisseur, that will not do. Focaccia, is not a bread. It is it’s very own creation and you will know you have sunken your teeth into the real thing, when you bite into a feather-light crumb, that comes apart with the slightest involvement of your jaws, leaving you wondering how on earth it is possible to pack so much flavor and such a delightful texture into one humble mouthful.

The secret is now unveiled!

Ingredients, adapted from my Focaccia Genovese recipe

1 tablespoon of dried yeast

3/4 cup lukewarm water

1 teaspoon of barley malt syrup or honey

320 gr (2 3/4 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 dried oregano, 1 cup of halved cherry tomatoes, salt flakes to taste.

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 sea salt.

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.

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8. Drizzle the holes with the glaze and sprinkle with some more salt.

Bring your oven to 200 C (390 F) and bake for 20-25 minutes or  until it looks slightly golden and utterly irresistible…

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Spiced Angel Cookies

150 gr (1 and 1/3 cup) sifted flour

50 gr (1/4 a cup) almond meal

1 egg yolk

95 gr (3/4 cup) of icing sugar

100 gr (a little less than 1/2 cup) of soft butter

2 tablespoons of milk

1 teaspoon of vanilla paste or extract or scraped seeds.

1 teaspoon of ground cinnamon

1/4 teaspoon of nutmeg

1/4 teaspoon of ground cloves

Plus ground cinnamon and icing sugar for dusting.

As I often do with cookie dough, I chucked all the ingredients in my Kitchen Aid and let the machine turn the messy assembly into a slightly sticky paste.

Naturally, you can do this by hand, and rather quickly too. Put your flours and spices into a bowl, then add your soft butter and quickly work it into the flour until it all looks crumbly and  wrong…Don’t panic! Simply add your yolk and milk and knead with the palm of your hands to release the gluten in the flour that will magically turn this goop into perfect cookie dough.

Add the vanilla, then roll into a ball, wrap in cling film and rest in the fridge for 30 minutes.

Roll out your dough onto a floured surface. Cut out your angels and place them onto a baking tray lined with baking parchment.

Rest in the fridge for 10 minutes while you bring your oven to 170 Celsius (340 Farenheit).

Bake for 10/12 minutes. They will still feel quite soft, but keep in mind that they will firm up during the cooling time.

Dust the angles with ground cinnamon and icing sugar while they are still hot from the oven and surrender to the  X’mas Spirit!

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