Tag Archives: Christmas

Last morning, summer at the beach house

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Before summer officially ends in the Antipodes, I’m sneaking in some photos of a beach side garden.

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It was the end of Christmas at the holiday beach house. All week, we were waking up to the morning sun coming through our window. On our last morning, I went into the garden and took photos of the flowers before the day began in earnest.

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It was a strange, beautiful half hour. The other house occupants were still asleep. So I padded around in oversized flip flops, feeling the dew on my feet, the sun getting warmer and brighter. A (rare) sense of being absolutely alone.

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Despite the early hour, the sun was almost too bright to look at. It cast a golden morning glow. Reflected on the water, it turned dark blue into streaks of yellow. Trees and other plants became silhouettes. Starkly black against the sky and ocean.

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A beachside Christmas, a recipe for spicy cranberries and raisins

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Christmas lunch has come and gone. Once again, I didn’t take photos during lunch, as I didn’t want to interrupt the festivities. This morning, I sat in a garden looking out over the ocean, in a white tee and white sun hat, writing down notes from the meal: what worked, what can be better next time.

I was peaceful, lulled into daydreams, detached from the comings and goings in the house, yet more aware, alert to the sounds and sights of nature around me. The sun was shining; turning the ocean shades of royal blue, deep sea blue, turquoise. The sun made dappled patterns through a tree. It was warm on my back, yet a sea breeze brushed across my notepad. The waves continually crashed on the rocks, again, and again. White clouds formed fantastical patterns on the edge of an equally blue unending sky.

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Inside the house, guests talked about local traditions over tea and slices of Sri Lankan Christmas cake. Every year, the local fire brigade dresses up as Santa and his helpers, drives a fire truck to every local house and popular beaches, and gives out lollies to children (and the young at heart). It is one of my favourite part of Christmas on the South Coast – anyone can go to a shopping centre and have their photo taken with Santa, but how many have caught a bag of lollies from Santa standing on top of a big red fire truck?  

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I digress.

Here is our Christmas lunch menu, which featured flavours from Sicily and Morocco rather than Ye Olde England. The recipe for spicy cranberries and raisins follows – halfway between a pickle and a chutney, a nod to tradition in an unorthodox Christmas meal. Recipes for a few other dishes will be posted over the next month or so.

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Sicilian mince pie in a tart, frolicking with pasta frolla

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Wednesday was a sweltering day. Not just sunny, not just hot, the air felt like hot porridge when I step out of the air conditioned office. Aussie summer arrived with a vengeance, just in time for our annual Christmas + New Year + January + Summer + because I want to sit and read on the beach all day holiday period.

What does a gal do on a day like that? Fired up the oven of course. I made a Sicilian-esque mince pie tart, in a pasta frolla crust.

Yep, a mince pie in a tart. Other, more worthy souls, have the patience to make cute little mince pie crusts and cut out tweensy stars for the top, but I had reached the ‘let’s do something low fuss’ stage of Christmas preparations.

Sicilian mince pie?

Remember I said I didn’t like Manu’s Buccellato filling as much as the Cuccidati filling from SBS? A little voice in the back of my head kept nagging: “What if you just didn’t make it right? Do you really want to reject Manu’s family heirloom recipe after one flimsy trial?”

That inner voice is usually pretty good on work matters. Seems it can also give advice on food. 

I made Manu’s recipe again, paying more attention to small things, like how finely I chopped the fruit and nuts, how fresh each spice is and whether I should add a little more or a little less.

Turns out, I really like the Buccellato filling, especially with an extra splash of brandy. The first batch was a bit overwhelmed by cloves (because I had an ultra-fresh, ultra-pungent bag). For the second batch, I used less cloves and bumped up the cinnamon. The result was richly spiced but balanced.

The Buccellato filling had me thinking, this could be a Sicilian take on mince pies?

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Pasta frolla

Pasta frolla is a shortcrust pastry that seems to be a staple in almost infinite forms of Italian baking, sweet, savoury, tarts, and of course crostata. When I thought of a Sicilian mince pie-tart, I immediately thought of pasta frolla crust.

The most commonly cited recipe seems to be the one written by Pellegrino Artusi in his seminal work, The Science of Eating and Art of Fine Dining. Artusi gave us the basic ingredients, in precise proportions. While I didn’t use his exact recipe, it’s worth listing here:

250 grams flour
125 grams cold butter
110 grams sugar (icing sugar is the best, or fine castor sugar should be ok)
1 egg plus 1 egg yolk
zest of 1 lemon

The website La Cucina Italiana also gives variations on the basic recipe. For example, add egg whites if you want a crispier pastry; add more fat and sugar for a crumblier pastry. I also saw a recipe that uses baking powder, for a puffier pastry, but not sure if that would have Signor Artusi’s stamp of approval.

My current go-to recipe for pasta frolla is a bit of a rebel, from Mary Simetti’s book, Sicilian Food: recipes from Italy’s abundant isle. It uses egg white and lard, as well as butter; it’s extra egg-y; there is less butter/fat, but a little extra splash of white wine helps to bring the dough together.

I love this recipe. The pastry can be rolled out or pressed into a pan, holds its shape, doesn’t seem to need blind baking when using dry-ish filling, and retains a flaky texture even after my manhandling. By adjusting the amount of sugar slightly, I have used it for sweet (like here) and savoury (like generous hand pies with zucchini, caramelised onion and goat cheese filling). A low fuss but showy pastry.

Probably because of the addition of lard, it doesn’t brown as easily as other shortcrust pastries. but brushing the pastry with egg wash or syrup will give you a beautifully browned top.

This time, I topped the tart with random pastry rounds and clumsily hand-cut pastry stars. About 30 minutes later we had a mince pie tart. A tart, from my oven-light-less oven!!

If only the rest of Christmas cooking was as easy.

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Sicilian mince pie, in tart form

(Recipe – if you can call it that – by moi. The filling came from Manu’s Menu, and the pasta frolla from Mary Simetti’s Sicilian Food: recipes from Italy’s abundant isle)

Ingredients

Pasta frolla (makes twice as much pastry as I needed)

425 grams or 15 oz flour (I used 390 grams plain flour and 35 grams cornflour)
2 tbsp castor or icing sugar (adjust and use more or less depending on the filling)
pinch of salt
125 grams / 4 f butter
75 grams / 3 oz lard
1 egg plus 1 egg yolk (reserve the egg white for glazing the pastry)
125 mL / 4 fl oz whit wine

Optional: a generous pinch of cinnamon, inspired by the description of an amazing macaroni pie in The Leopard, by Giuseppe Tomasi di Lampedusa….)

Filling (makes much more than needed, but who’s complaining?)

500 grams / 17 oz dried figs, chopped
250 grams / 8.5 oz apricot or fig jam
100 grams / 3.5 oz almonds, chopped
100 grams / 3.5 oz hazelnuts, chopped
50 grams walnuts / 1.75 oz, chopped
50 grams pistachios / 1.75 oz, chopped
200 grams candied cherries, chopped
100 grams / 3.5 oz raisins
100 grams / 3.5 oz candied orange zests, chopped
100 grams / 3.5 oz dark chocolate, chopped (or chocolate chips)
1 tsp vanilla extract
Zest of 1 lemon, grated
1 tsp cinnamon
1/2 tsp clove powder
1 espresso shot
100 ml / 3.5 oz Marsala or Muscat wine (I found that twice the wine produced a looser, more liquid filling, which was best for the tart as opposed to the Buccellato)
125 grams / 4.4 oz honey

Optional: a splash of brandy (1-2 tablespoons)

Method

1. For the filling: start the day before or up to a few days ahead. Toast and chop all the nuts. Chop the dried figs and candied fruits. For this tart, I found I preferred more finely chopped nuts and dried fruit, as it gave a smoother filling and allowed the flavours to meld together better.

2. Put all the ingredients, except for the chocolate chips and brandy, in a pot, cook over low heat for 5 minutes. Stir well and make sure the wine has moistened all chopped fruit. Let it cool down completely, then add the chocolate and optional splash of brandy. Stir well to mix and keep it aside.

3. For the pasta frolla: start at least an hour before baking, or up to a few days ahead. Sift together the flour, salt and sugar. Use a cool knife, ‘cut’ the butter and lard into the flour, until you get a texture of a coarse meal.

4. Stir in egg and egg yolk. Add just enough wine to bring the dough together. I usually find I use most of the wine. Gather the dough together and place in fridge for at least 30 minutes, and up to a few days ahead (the longest I’ve left the dough in the fridge is 3 days). You can knead the dough for a minute before placing in the fridge, but I find not kneading the dough at this stage reduces the likelihood of over-working the dough when I come to roll it out.

5. To assemble the tart: Preheat the oven to 350F / 175C. Butter a rectangular loose based tart pan. Either roll out the pasta frolla and press into the tart pan, or take chunks of the pasta frolla and press into the pan. Chill for about 30 minutes for the pastry to firm up. I pressed the dough directly into the pan as it saved rolling and was a little easier on a weeknight. It was less perfect but still looked fine.

6. Spoon the Buccellato filling into the tart pan, smooth the top of the filling as well as you can, using a fork or the back of a spoon.

7. With the remaining pastry, cut out rounds of pastry, or make random shapes of pastry. Add to the top of the filling, press down slightly. Whisk the leftover egg white slightly and glaze the pastry.

8. Bake for approximately 25 minutes, but start checking after 15 minutes. Serve warm or cold.

A Sicilian Christmas: buccellato

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I was walking through the maze-like backstreets of Newtown, and stopped in my tracks. In the air was a scent that was heady, sweet, fresh and just dive in and luxuriate. I think, am almost sure, it was the scent of jasmine flowers.

The memory of it so strong that I was still thinking about it days later, when I read about jasmine scented confectionaries and pastries that were made in Sicilian convents. Jasmine-scented ricotta, Sicilian pastries, the legendary fruits of the nuns’ labour. These ideas lingered like a line of poetry or music. Like a food earworm.

I didn’t have jasmine water, instead, I had lots of Sicilian pastries bookmarked under ‘must make this soon, really soon’. One of the recipes was Buccellato. 

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That’s how two of the Sicilian Christmas/new year ‘cakes’ found their way into our Christmas gift boxes, along with other goodies like thousand-layer spiral mooncakes (pictured above). I made a Sicilian version of Buccellato based on a recipe from Manu’s Menu, which is more like a giant cookie log with a fig-chocolate-wine filling. After I made it, I realised it’s like a larger version of the cuccidati or fig cookies from the Tuesdays with Dorie (TWD) group, using a recipe from Baking with Julia.

Another version of Buccellato, from further North in Italy, is a yeast cake with the filling ingredients folded into the dough (see here, for example). But I couldn’t go past a Sicilian recipe just now, especially something that can be described as a giant cookie.

It’s a forgiving recipe. My circles weren’t perfectly circular, the pastry was perhaps unusually dimpled, but they still had an appealing home made look. The original recipe has an apricot jam glaze topped with pistachio and glace cherries. I also drizzled royal icing and sprinkled over finely grated dark chocolate. Gilding the lily? Me?

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Making ma’amoul, a Syrian recipe for semolina and date cookies

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Do you have a Christmas tradition (or traditions for other religious or secular holidays)? Would you like to have celebrations that involve little crumbly, buttery semolina cookies filled with date butter, or sugared walnuts or pistachios, and scented with orange blossom water?

Yep, me too.

We made ma’amoul (also spelled mamool, mamoul or maamoul) in a cooking class in the Almond Bar, Sydney. I had heard about these cookies being made for Easter celebrations in Lebanon, and remembered eating them in Syria. Chef Sharon Salloum (whose family is from Syria) said her mum made lots of these cookies for Christmas too – I guess these are celebratory kinda cookies. Once you’ve had one, you’d be looking for more reasons to celebrate too.

The recipe we used comes from the new Almond Bar cookbook. The pastry starts with a mix of semolina, ghee (clarified butter) and sugar, rested, then kneaded with orange blossom water, milk, mahlab and yeast. Then, balls of dough are wrapped around balls of date filling, shaped in a specially made wooden mould, and baked until light brown. Other common fillings are walnuts, or pistachios, chopped finely and mixed with sugar. Be still my beating heart.

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The resulting cookies are melt-on-the-tongue soft, yet crumbly. After the richness of the ghee, comes the fragrance of orange blossom water and the hint of something from the mahlab. Then, the more intense hit of fruity sweetness from the date filling. Then, it’s gone and you find yourself reaching for another one.

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What’s in a name? Cucidati and X cookies

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What prompts you to try a recipe? Is it the ingredients? A technique to learn? The photo?

Or the name?

I am attracted to names that have culture or history behind them, especially if they evoke the smells and flavours of places long ago and far away. Why have pinwheels when there is rugelache, sweet bread when there is krantz or babka, meat loaf when we can have farsumagru, pasties instead of borek or saltenas, or chocolate scrolls when there is kakaós csiga?

(Then, I am also fascinated by recipes with unusual ingredients and techniques. Like turduken, or the Tabrizi kofteh, or 90% hydration bread, or making Ratatouille’s ratatouille.)

Reading about these recipes, their origins and histories, and each step involved, is almost as good as tasting the food itself. I suppose, I studied literature at university and have always been susceptible to the magic of a well-turned phrase. Also as the saying goes: “This is what recipes are, stories of pretend meals.”  

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Cucidati is one of these recipes that got my attention with an intriguing name. A spiced Italian fig cookie that is made at Christmas, the name means ‘little bracelets’. Italians, especially Sicilians, still call these “mum’s cookies” and for them, it wouldn’t be Christmas without cucidati.

While the cookies might be like a version of fig newtons or other filled cookies, the name cucidati and the distinctive crescent shape made the recipe intriguing. I’ve read different versions of the recipe and wondered about who made the first batch of cucidati (and is the singular form of the noun cucidato?), whether it came from Sicily and shows the influence of Arabic cuisine in the spiced fig filling, and whether anyone ever tried to wear it as a bracelet.

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Panforte, with skill, daring and panache

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More than most other cakes I’ve made, panforte called for skill, daring and panache, and a readiness for adventure.

Panforte, or strong bread, floods our shops at Christmas next to panettone and whisky fruit cake, then disappears for the rest of the year. I like to hoard panforte for a couple of months after Christmas, nibbling on thin slices with an afternoon coffee. Dark, rich with nuts and fruits, mysterious with peppery spices, it also tells me whether it’s time for a visit to the dentist.

I first saw a recipe for panforte a year ago. It stuck in the back of my mind. It nagged me every month or so. When I looked for a recipe to use up the nuts and dried fruits in our kitchen pantry, before a five week holiday, the recipe raised its head and said ‘aha!’

It wasn’t quite that simple.

In the two weeks before our holiday, work reached fever pitch. It felt as though I was working into the night, and woke up the next morning simply to start again. We had more takeaways than home-cooked meals, Mr Gander found a new favourite Turkish pide vendor. The recipe sat in the neglected kitchen and looked at me with sad puppy eyes. Then, miraculously, work had a lull, I was home early, there was nothing to do except cook a proper meal and bake. And bake I did.

Oh boy.

We had blueberry & lemon mini-bundt cakes, a savoury goat cheese & pistachio loaf, a mysterious concoction that is best described as white choc macadamia blondies topped with coconut-walnut macaroons (turned out surprisingly well, considering there was no recipe and I simply added butter and sugar until there was no butter or sugar left). I also made panforte.

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We invited people around and ate everything except the panforte. It was sliced, dusted with icing sugar, inexpertly wrapped, and we were away to Europe.

Upon our return, I unwrapped one package to find a dark, dark cake that…looked and tasted more or less like panforte!!

There is the sticky, mellow undertone of honey, a pick-me-up from spices and black pepper, and the age-old play between Christmas-y nuts and candied and dried fruits. It was dark, tending to black, contrasting with snow-white icing sugar. It was less tooth-breaking than commercial panforte, and less evenly mixed, but was still best enjoyed in thin slices, with a strong black coffee or whisky. I have just made my first panforte.

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