.. It’s been quite quiet around here lately, hasn’t it? I have barely opened my computer – any computer – in the last two weeks. I needed time, I’ve been needing it for quite a long time: time off, simple as that.
It’s been two long weeks of taking time. I stayed here in my new home or quite close by, alone or with my partner, or with some friends. I’ve been missing my family, an inevitable feeling at Christmas. But all in all, it was a great time. I had time to talk it over and to think about what I want to do: although I have not taken any decision yet, I feel more confident and in control. I had time to explore the surroundings with the leisurely lazy pace of the local, not the frantic-holidaymaker-who-ticks-all-the-boxes pace I usually have. I had time to sleep, to start taking care of my garden, to read books.
And of course I had time to cook. I always cook, even if I don’t feel like writing about it or taking pictures of it, which is always harder in winter. I always think about food. I picked up from the library some big solid basic cookbooks and spent some time leafing through them. A great read was ‘How to eat’ by Nigella Lawson. I can’t say I’m eager to try her recipes: her aim is to give you a feeling of how it works to cook if you’ve never really done it before, so I’m probably not the right target. But she surely knows how to write, and she is genuinely obsessed about food, which I always appreciate.
I made a lot of whole wheat chocolate cookies, some lovely jasmine tea cantuccini, and some fantastic Champagne truffles from Ottolenghi (the boy never stops to impress. The truffles were a lot of work, but they were I-could-kill-for-another-one good). I made a beautiful potato tart from Plenty. I made Italian classics like gatto’ di patate and lasagne, with creative substitutions driven by lack of the right ingredients – some of them successful , others less so. The best one was tortelli di zucca, roasted squash filled pasta, one of my favourite dishes ever, which I’m going to post soon. I made some more recipes from Good to the Grain and one of them actually failed – a bread that just tasted like molasses (it is difficult to convert ingredients from the US). I also had a major achievement. I finally won over my life long fear of meringues.
I always messed up with meringue, whether dry crunchy ones to use for a fool, or a soft one for topping a cake. I never seemed to have the right type of sugar, or working whisks in time of need. I never seriously tried, to be honest: all my experiments were a bit of afterthoughts when I did not know what to make with remaining egg whites (next try, these walnut cookies from Simona’s aunt). Quite funny considering I never had a problem making soft poached meringues like floating islands and egg white based cakes and cookies like pan di spagna and amaretti.
Then, once, I decided to give it a serious try to top some lime and mango curd tartlets. Just to be on the safe side, I used Ottolenghi’s recipe from his first cookbook: heat castor sugar in a tray in the oven until hot but not melted, and add it to barely whisked egg whites, then whisk until stiff and shiny. I failed big time. First, it is not easy to judge hot before melting from a little bit hot without touching the sugar, and you don’t want to do that. Second, pouring hot sugar from a tray into the egg whites is not that easy as well. The egg whites did not stiff up at all. I keep telling myself that this is because my whisk broke, but let us be honest, it broke because I’d been whipping non stop for half an hour in vain hope to deny an obvious defeat. Depressed but not defeated, I made some research and decided to go for a completely different technique: Italian meringue. While I worry about whipping egg whites, I have no fear of melting sugar. I have a candy thermometer, and it was all so easy I wondered why I had not tried it before. The meringue turned spectacular, showing me that my next challenge is to improve my piping technique. I even dried some in the oven and obtained crisp little meringues – a dream come true (I do like them very much, and I miss them: every panettiere in Italy sells them).
This semifreddo was a result of me wanting to play around with the technique. Semifreddo is like ice cream for people who don’t have an ice cream machine or like something a bit softer. A mixture of whipped cream and whipped egg white – or egg yolks, depending on the recipe – create a lovely soft consistency even when the dessert is frozen. The basis should contain egg whites for a lighter consistency and egg yolks for a creamier finish; I decided to do both. It is a light dessert all in all because it contains a lot of air, but it always looks stunning. I find it the perfect way to end up a heavy meal. I scattered mine with almond praline (had I had good torrone at hand, I would have chopped some of it), and decided to wet the sponge with a honey, orange and spices syrup: I’d normally go for something a bit boozy, but I had to cater for children. I did not resent it in the least: it was really tasty. I added in a spiced chocolate sauce that played a nice contrast with the soft cake. Anyway, this is more of a template than a recipe. You could add chocolate chips, or swirl the cream with a raspberry sauce, or wet the cake with espresso: the possibilities are endless.
It may sound a bit weird to be sharing a cake right after all the partying. I’ve already been eating lightly for a while, I don’t crave sugars or rich food at all, but today it is a special day for children raised in a Catholic country like Italy: it is la befana, Epiphany day. My mother used to receive her presents today when she was a child. We received our presents at Christmas, but we did receive a sock full of sweet treats today, every year. We ate on them for a month or so afterwards, and my mother always made sure to fill it with our favourite sweets: dark chocolate, marzipan, torroncini, marron glacé. It was the one time of the year where I felt, actually I was, really spoiled.
Semifreddo di Natale
pan di spagna (sponge):
3 tablespoons cake flour
3 tablespoons sugar
pinch of salt
zest of half lemon, grated
100 g almonds
100 g caster sugar
3 eggs, separated
120 g sugar
40 ml water
grated zest of half lemon or orange
200 ml whipping cream
2 tablespoons honey
2 tablespoons water
3 cardamom pods
1 cinnamon stick
100 gr chocolate (I used a dark chocolate with spices and orange from Green&Blacks)
50 ml of the leftover syrup, or to taste
100 ml whipping cream
The first, and most difficult, step, is making sure you have enough room in your freezer for the cake you want to make.
Start with the sponge at least a few hours before, better the day before you will make the rest. Line with parchment paper a 24 cm round spring form. Heat the oven to 170 celsius. Whisk egg yolks with sugar and lemon zest until they ‘write’ – a ribbon of dough will leave a clear trace on the eggs below. Whisk egg whites to stiff peaks, then add a little at a time to the egg yolks, making sure you lose as little air as possible. Sift flour into the egg mixture a tablespoon at a time, and mix very gently until the flour is incorporated. Pour in the pan and cook for about 40 minutes. Insert a skewer in the center of the cake to check it is completely dry. Make sure the top does not colour too much: if it does, cover with an aluminium foil.
For the praline: melt sugar to a dark blond caramel, then stir in the almonds. Put on a sheet of baking paper to cool. See here for more detailed instructions.
For the syrup: mix honey, water, spices and juice of one orange together over low heat until it starts to bubble and thickens slightly. Add the remaining orange juice and leave aside to cool, with the spices in.
For the semifreddo: divide egg whites from egg yolks. Using a hand held blender start whisking the egg yolks and the zest until they are a bit foamy. Use another pair of whisks (or wash them if you only have one) and whisk the whites until they are foamy but not stiff as well. Put sugar and water in a pan and cook until it reaches 120 Celsius. The sugar is well melted and boiling with big bubbles, but not starting to colour: unfortunately the temperature range where it behaves like this is quite big. I don’t think I could tell the exact point by look only, but there are methods apparently if you don’t have a thermometer (although I have to warn you, I was never successful when relying on them, before I had a thermometer). When the sugar has reached the temperature, start whisking the whites again and slowly pour in half of the syrup while whisking. Be careful not to hit the moving whisks with the melted sugar, or you could end up burning yourself with it. Whisk until stiff and gloss, and almost cold.
If the syrup has turned too thick put it back on the fire with a bit of extra water until it reaches the right temperature again – mine was fine. Whisk the egg yolks and add the hot syrup to them. Again whisk until cold. They will get a lot of volume, though not as much as the whites. Finally, whisk the whipping cream, while it is well cold. Mix everything together trying to lose as little air as possible. Chop the almonds – save a few for garnish – and mix them into the cream.
Assemble the cake: you can choose pretty much any shape you like for it, even individual cakes. I chose to make one big central piece using a cake ring (about 15 cm diameter, 15 cm height) on a flat serving dish so I did not have to worry about unmolding. Whatever container you choose, line it with cling film to be on the safe side, although it will mean the cake is not perfectly smooth (see mine). Arrange layers of thinly sliced sponge, quickly soaked in the cold syrup, with praline semifreddo. If you want you can cut any leftover sponge into squares and mix it with the cream. Finish off with the cream, make sure it is perfectly level, and decorate with a few caramel almonds.
To make the sauce: melt chopped chocolate with cream and syrup over a double boiler. Adjust the consistency with a bit more syrup or cream to your liking. Mine was liquid when hot and spoonable at room temperature, meaning that it thickened up on the cold semifreddo.
Put in the freezer for at least four hours. It will keep for few days but it tastes better if eaten fresh. Keep out of the fridge for ten minutes before serving, for a nicer consistency.