Tag Archives: Christmas

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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“Double happiness” cake

This cake had a good yarn, presentation and tastiness too. It was definitely one of my favourite baking moments this year.

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The yarn

Two people who were coming to Christmas lunch had got married eloped recently, in a ceremony with only 5 people present (including the celebrant). We were invited to ‘casual drinks’ that evening, which turned out to be their ‘wedding’ drinks. With this in mind, I wanted to give them a ‘wedding cake’ at Christmas lunch – which they were happy to have.

The presentation

This gave me permission to put highly unorthodox cake decorations on the Christmas cake. Other than the fact that I used a red and white colour scheme, it wasn’t Christmassy at all.

The cake had a raised circle of white icing in the middle, which was covered in white holographic glitter and edged with silver cachous (balls). In this circle, I used red-coloured white chocolate to write the characters ‘double happiness’, which is commonly used at Chinese weddings. And outside the circle, I drew abstract-ish patterns vaguely based on traditional Chinese graphics, also using red-coloured white chocolate.

I didn’t get a very elegant, smooth surface on the calligraphy-icing, but I did manage to reproduce some of the characteristics of calligraphy brush strokes. If I do this again, I may use a pattern rather than writing freestyle, as a pattern would ensure the characters were aligned and perfectly proportioned.

Still, it was a fun, light hearted way to celebrate (again) with the recently eloped couple.

And the cake?

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Lunch, Christmas day

beach signIt is 8pm on Christmas day, in a 1950s style beach house. I am writing this lying on a couch that doubles as a day bed. We are still recovering from a lavish Christmas lunch that ended barely a few hours ago.

[this is posted one day later, when we got internet]

Every year, Mr Gander’s family and close relatives gather on the south coast of NSW for Christmas. The family bought land in this area before running water and electricity had made its way through the bush, before sealed roads and bridges had replaced dirt tracks and car ferries across the river. Each year, Christmas lunch or dinner have consisted of a surfeit of turkey and ham with all the trimmings, and a brandy pudding with all its trimmings. 

Last year, Mr Gander and I broke from tradition and stayed in Sydney (he had just moved up from a few years in Melbourne), where I cooked a seafood Christmas lunch just for him and his immediate family. This year, I made Christmas lunch for the extended clan.

Lunch is served

christmas flowersFor this occasion, I walked a middle ground between tradition and innovation.

Instead of turkey and ham, I made farsumagru again (I had made it earlier this year and friends loved it). Farsumagru is a renowned, old-fashioned Sicilian meat (and cheese and herbs) roll that is, for me, the epitome of festive rich decadence. It is also redolent of history and culinary tradition.

For dessert, I gave everyone a summery trifle scented with rose water, followed by a traditional Christmas cake (traditional except for the decoration, but more on that next time).

Here is the full menu. The recipes will be in the following posts.

Canapes
Dates stuffed with goat cheeses and prosciutto
Mixed nuts

Entree
Home made buffalo milk labne with pita, cucumbers, and young herbs

Main
Farsumagru
Mixed herbs and walnut salad, with tarrator and pomegranate molasses dressings
Orange, fennel and parsley salad
Smashed potatoes with duck fat and rosemary

Dessert
Rose water trifle, with watermelon, strawberries, pistachios and rose petals
‘Double happiness’ Christmas cake

Drinks
Lots. Responsibly served. (enough said?)

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Almost Christmas: très serious fruit cake

This year, I have tried out many Christmas fruit cakes. While there are variations in the mix of dried fruit (or, indeed , fruit mince!), type of alcohol, or the exact way to mix the batter, the cake that comes out of the oven share important characteristics of a dark fruit cake, ripe with tradition and dried citrus peel.

What happens when a French chef puts his spin on a fruit cake? Will it have unexpected quirks, as though you were served baguette instead of scones for Devonshire tea?

I had one answer to this question when I made Philippe Rochat’s recipe for Serious Fruit Cake, reproduced on the now-dormant fxcuisine. (The site is still well worth a visit and still sets the benchmark for memorable and often unusual food adventures. For this cake, FX used one of the most expensive brands of rum in the world – yikes!) According to FX, this recipe was designed by Swiss chef Philippe Rochat as food to be taken on an expedition by his friend and adventurer Mike Horn.

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