Tag Archives: walnuts

Gubana: Italian Easter bread for an Australian road trip

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We are on a road trip!

Tonight, we are in the inland town of Gundagai. First stop in what is shaping up to be a trip through historic inland towns and villages.

I haven’t driven our car for weeks, and for at least a couple of months before that, since I prefer to walk or take public transport to get around our patch of inner Sydney. It took a while to get used to the manual gears, the road, other cars, but then I settled back into familiarity with our good little car, and we were away, to quieter and greener places.

When I was not driving, I nibbled on a slice of gubana.

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Gubana. A special Easter cake/bread I stumbled across almost by accident. I made the recipe, and found the flavours intriguing, lingering, in a way that says old fashioned good things. Bread-like, not quite as rich as brioche or challah, crammed full of walnuts, pine nuts, raisins, chocolate, hazelnuts, and more. The bread is almost like panettone, and filling is so flavoursome, with a lingering sweetness that comes from dried fruit rather than sugar.

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A tale about kale: kale salad with raisins, walnuts and pecorino

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Here I am, on a Monday night, trying to think of a witty, captivating way to introduce a kale salad. I could wax lyrical about its impressive pedigree: from Barbuto in NY via Deb Perelman’s kitchen to yours truly. I could go all food anthropology on you and talk about the similar ingredients found in pasta or even bread from that island off Italy (disclaimer: only in the world according to Google).

Or, I can just sit back and tell you about this salad – the flavours, textures, ideas.

Because, this way, I won’t have to talk about how this is yet another kale salad. I can just say – this salad doesn’t make me feel like I’m eating grass. Grass is virtuous to be sure, and good for moo-cows, but I prefer my grass a little more mediated by cows, say in the form of pecorino cheese.

Then, I can tell you the salad is savoury, sweet, tart. These bold flavours complement (but not mellow) kales earthiness – think Ottolenghi’s way with radicchio in Plenty. The textures vary between lemon-softened kale, plumped raisins, crunchy walnuts and crumbly-creamy pecorino.

I’ve served variations of the salad at two elaborate dinners, a Moroccan/Sicilian epic, and our similarly epic Christmas lunch. Both times, it was hoovered up, with people asking about it as they peered into the salad bowl for more.

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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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Fougasse with walnuts and fig paste (don’t mention the focaccia)

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Fougasse, panis focacius, fogatza, fouace, hougasse, fouasso.

Just don’t say focaccia.

Fougasse is a type of flat bread made in France, with a name derived from Latin and Occitan (the language of the Languedoc region, among others, and apparently a close relative to modern Catalan). The most famous variety is slashed to look like an ear of wheat, and is savoury, though other varieties include a sweet bread flavoured with orange water. Fougasse is baked until it’s very browned, and should have a crispy crust and a soft interior.

The English and French Wikipedia both tell me that fougasse was used by bakers to test if their bread oven was at the right temperature. If the French Wikipedia says so about a French bread, it must be right, right??

I also quickly learned it’s not focaccia. For a variety of reasons, including focaccia is Italian and fougasse is French.

Having got these preliminaries out of the way, I can get on with this week’s Tuesdays with Dorie (TWD) assignment, sweet fougasse. I’ve wanted to make fougasse, with its distinctive wheat or leaf shape, for a while. Who could resist the idea of slashing dough, pulling on dough, until there are giant holes in the dough? It’s all of my “playing with food” wishes come true.

But.  Like a stroll through Alice in Wonderland, nothing turned out quite the way I expected.

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“Ultimate” banana bread?

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‘Ultimate’ is a fraught word. When someone claims something is the ‘ultimate’, I can just see the pitfalls open up and a line of other ‘ultimate’ versions ready to fight for the title. For something as simple as banana bread, the word ‘ultimate’ becomes even more complicated.

Everyone has an opinion on what makes a banana bread the ‘ultimate’ of its kind. Research on the internet reveals a panoply of secret techniques / ingredients / you name it. All for what is basically a cake made with mushy bananas.

Some say the secret is really ripe bananas (but, there are even disagreements about the right degree of ripe: whether we are talking a few black spots, or black all over and squidgy and, you know, the word ‘rotten’ starts to come to mind). Some say it’s how the bananas are mashed / pureed / chopped. Still others say the secret lies in the other things in the batter – type of flour or sugar, baking soda versus baking powder, vanilla / cinnamon / nuts / chocolate, even yoghurt / butter / oil / sour cream.

There are ‘quick’ recipes, ‘quick’ and ‘ultimate’ recipes, ‘best’ recipes, ‘quick’ and ‘best’. Recipes with icing, recipes without icing, recipes with cinnamon sprinkled on top, and recipes made with coconut oil. I half expected to find a recipe for raw banana bread (now I’m curious, is there such a thing as raw banana bread?)

Finally, some swear that the secret is for mum, or grandma, or that special friend who runs that bakery, to make the perfectly imperfect banana bread that brings back childhood memories.

Phew! Are we overwhelmed yet?

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