Posts tagged ‘Baking’

April 15, 2012

Guest post: how to improve your oven for pizza

Pita bread and pizza stone

Do you ever fantasize about what type of house you’d want to live in if you had access to an unlimited amount of money? Something that you would like to have, if you could and would afford a totally unreasonable luxury? I do, of course; and after careful considerations I have come up with two dreams.

One is a swimming pool – boring, I know, but I just love swimming. I need to sort out the details. I would want a house by the sea, a very warm and calm sea. However an indoors swimming pool makes sense at night or in winter: I’d want some limited winter in my dream world. Or actually, it may well be that my house is close to a very scenic ocean, which produces the most soothing background noise, but makes swimming in the sea a bit tricky. And I can’t rule out the possibility that I am going to learn how to surf and I’d want to live close to a good surf beach – again, not so great for swimming. Anyway. I still need to sort out the details, but swimming pool is totally unreasonable dream number one.

Number two is a pizza oven.

I have always wanted to have one. There is no substitute for a proper pizza oven to have a great pizza, and there is nothing like a great pizza. It is hands down the thing I miss the most of Italy. Such oven belongs to the ‘unreasonable luxury’ world. It is not as expensive as a swimming pool, but running one regularly is a luxury. Those beasts are huge, for one thing, and they need to be heated for hours, so they are just not really compatible with the scales of an average household. I even have a friend who owns one, and we used it once for a party. It was great fun and some hard work. But there are only that many times when I get to invite fifty people. And still, to make really good pizza, you need that proper oven.

So when Heather from Clay Ovens asked me if I would be interested to share with you a few tips on how to build your own stone pizza oven, I could not say no, literally. I had to know more. The Clay Oven Company is a family run business based in London, and they build ovens professionally. They build much more than pizza ovens, actually: I did not realize before how many interesting recipes you can prepare once you have the basic facility of a very hot oven set up and running. Here are the tips they have kindly agreed to share with us. I, for one, can’t wait to try them all.

April 10, 2012

Roasted pineapple and almonds tart

Pineapple and almond tart

I have quite a name for being easily disappointed by desserts. It has happened to me more than once to have a wonderful dinner in some restaurant, only to be let down, and quite badly, when it comes to the dessert department. Too sweet, too fat, not really fresh, just plain boring: wasted calories, really. I recently had a nice dinner in a place where they prepare dishes with tens of vegetables, each cooked to perfection with its own technique. Intrigued by such precision, and curious about the (inevitable) ‘Michelin-star trained chef’, we ordered pudding. They brought us a treacle tart so chewy that it is still hanging from the work of my dentist, tasting only of sugar, covered by an ice cream ball sized scoop of clotted cream, and a stale vanilla sable’; all probably worth the calories I normally consume in a day. When I decide to indulge, I want to get bangs for my calorie investment. I want flavours and textures so exciting I cannot stop eating.

This is one of those desserts worth each and every of the calories it contains, and there is quite a lot of them. Many of the cakes in this group have been inspired by this book of recipes from Laduree: it is, after all, one of the most famous patisseries in the whole world for good reasons. On the other hand, again, the recipe on the book was not quite right: not such a bad thing, if you think that I had to make the recipe twice just to confirm that my changes were working. Ah, the hard life of a dedicated food blogger. This is the version of the recipe I’m going to make from now on, hopefully many times.

December 7, 2011

Late nights and cookies

Buckwheat biscotti

These cookies are golden, crunchy and smooth. I was surprised how much a conversion to black and white revealed of their texture. When you see them in colour, they are a triumph of golden, rich hues and the little cracks are easily overlooked.  When you bite into them, they snap and crunch, but then they are actually easy to munch and swallow, a texture that matches their flavour perfectly. They contain buckwheat flour, intensely nutty and with a raw taste, mellowed out by the conspicuous amount of butter and sugar. They are once again a creation of Kim Boyce.

We ate almost all of them with a glass of whisky while chatting with an old time friend who is here with us now. It was a good evening. This weekend we are going back to Wales. Many of our friends are still there and I almost feel as if I did not move, as if those two years never happened. It is a good feeling. I am going to bring them big boxes of cookies if I can. They are in season right now.

 

The picture goes to Black and White Wednesday, hosted by Susan of the Well Seasoned Cook.

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December 2, 2011

Late autumn dinner: pear and almond galette

Pear and almond galette

I feel much better, although I’m not sure how long it is going to last. Add to this that the season is just perfect for baking: it is not yet cold outside, not really, and I don’t keep the heating on that much, but a warm oven is definitely welcome for the little heat it produces. So here I am, in the middle of a baking frenzy.

I am becoming friends with the new oven. I still need to dig out the instructions for it, because it is of a type I never had before. It is made of two smaller ovens stacked one on top of the other, both gas fuelled. The top one seems to have a broiler and some sort of ventilation going on, but I don’t really get it. The bottom one seems more conventional. In Italy I always had gas ovens but they were larger – the monster being my mum’s 90 cm large oven, spectacular in its early days, when you could bake a roast, potatoes, bread and a cake, if you could make the temperatures somehow work together, or you could bake half a kilo of biscotti for our Christmas production in one go. This oven collapsed a few months ago, and was recently replaced with an equally sized beast, after a long agony where making it work involved a complicated process with a protective metal plate and some mountaineering ropes. I hope the new one will do as well as the old one, although I feel it is a bit oversized.

November 23, 2011

Apple strudel

Apple strudel

A while ago, Sigrid asked her readers to share a grandmother’s recipe for an apple cake or pie. Adding the link, I realized it was quite a while ago, much longer than what I intended; on the other hand, this is just the best period ever for making apple cakes. I actually have two of those recipes that are part of my tradition; they both are recipes my mother regularly made for me. One of them is a simple, moist apple cake, perfect for dunking in milk. I think the recipe comes from my grandmother, but who knows where she took it.

The other recipe is a more challenging and ‘grown up’ dessert: strudel di mele. Strudel is a thin layer of dough rolled with something in it; it can be savoury, or more often sweet. Most people are accustomed to the variety made with puff pastry, quite greasy and sugary, which I don’t particularly like. The original has a thinner, less fat dough, quite common in the (also) German-speaking part of Italy and in Austria. In the regions where Austria met the Balkans, like Slovenia, an even thinner version is wide-spread, with almost no fat in it: actually, given that Wikipedia traces the origin of strudel to Levantine pastries like baklava, this is probably the most faithful version. The recipe we use in my family definitely belongs to the latter group; it comes straight from a lady who ran from the occupied Istria to Italy at some point. She was Italian – or rather, she spoke Italian as a first language, but her hair was blonde, almost white, and her eyes were blue; I’m not sure whether she would have considered herself being Italian, since these otherwise straightforward adjectives can be quite unaccurate and very dangerous  when applied to some sensitive parts of the world.  Her granddaughter is my mom’s best friend. She too is blond, in a way very few Italians are.

October 27, 2011

Birthday cake: pear mousse, walnut biscuit, chocolate icing, praline

60 Birthday cake

I hope you’ll bear with me. I have no camera, or rather, I brought my point and shoot, but of course, since I neglected it so badly after the arrival of my wonderful DSLR, the point and shoot is stubbornly refusing to work now. The picture of the cake I took with my phone is nothing short of awful,  however this cake is so good it makes up for an ugly picture; in real life, it was also very pretty, almost professional looking.

I don’t want to forget about this cake. The primary purpose of this blog is for my own reference. I like to have all my favourite recipes here, tried and tested, and go back to it when I need them. Besides, not only is this cake fantastic as is, it contains no less than four distinct elements that turned out perfect, useful building blocks for future dessert projects.

It gives me great pleasure to have all the special things I cook gathered here, a sort of diary: I do now and again remember that awesome something I did on that occasion before I started with this blog, and of course I don’t recall the recipe details. Being with my parents when they turned sixty is definitely a moment I want here. I also want to celebrate the exciting news about one of my closest friends being pregnant – I can’t be with her chatting and spoiling her with cake, but she’s in my mind so much these days.

The recipe itself comes from an idea of Laduree’s book, a chestnut and chocolate delight called duchesse. I changed the recipe completely, using it as a starting point, because of two reasons: I did not have the equipment to try the original meringues (and the guts! meringues have always been my biggest kitchen failures), and the recipe called for four different chestnut based components without explaining what they were supposed to be, and what ratio chestnut to sugar they were supposed to have. That was so annoying, I decided to ditch chestnuts in favour of another autumn treat, pears; I replaced the meringues with chopped praline on the sides of the cake. The result was a beautiful layered mousse cake that was rich and festive without being overwhelming, a rewarding project easy to adapt to a busy schedule, since it is made of several steps, but none of them takes very long. A make-ahead dream.

August 19, 2011

Pantry cleaning: Seeded granola

Seeded Granola

I am cleaning my pantry.

Here are some embarrassing items I have found – embarrassing because I’m not going to use them before I leave:

1) A can of sweetened adzuki beans, bought with some vague Japanese dessert plan, and who left me wondering why exactly can’t I make it from real adzuki in case I wanted to. I still don’t have an answer to that, and anyway the chances of me trying my hand at doing adzuki paste filled mochi are getting thinner by the hour.

2) A small sachet of powdered ‘latte macchiato’, a promotional gift from a pharmacy. There are a lot of pharmacies in Germany and they try to buy you out by giving you little presents – these particular powders were awful, and I’m not sure of why I kept them – or maybe they were not that awful, it is just that I’m not into powdered drinks. I preferred the pharmacy where they gave you little paper blocks.

3) A bag of kamut, the oldest item to date, bought a few days after I moved to Germany in a moment of enthusiasm for all the organic supermarkets: I did not like it, I found it bland when compared to spelt or barley, and it takes ages to cook.

4) Three packets of powdered sugar. When I think I have finished something, I keep on buying it until I have a huge supply. Three packets of breadcrumbs, same logic.

5) A bar of agar agar, bought before I found where they sell the powder here, and mother to more than one culinary disaster – I’d like to know what was in the head of the supermarket’s buyer when he decided to stock solid agar agar as opposed to powder.

6) Some Vietnamese rice paper, and with ‘some’ I mean something like two hundred leaves: considering that four are plenty for a meal, and that I make little rice paper rolls – very cute! – maybe every two months, I wonder how long this stock could last me.

But there is plenty of interesting stuff as well: Italian Venere rice, pitch black, still vacuum packed; my mother’s candied tomatoes and some Calabrese sun-dried tomatoes in oil, both extremely useful for I’m-too-tired-from-packing-to-cook type of dinners.  

August 4, 2011

100th post: scones, and the next move

Brown butter scones

All this time I’ve been missing the sea, its smell, the way it reflects light. Some people tell you that if you are born by the sea, you can’t do without it. I wasn’t born by it, but I belong to the sea anyway, never had a doubt about it. I am a different person when I am close to the sea.

One of my last days in Wales I took a break from packing and went to a yoga class with my bike. As I was cycling back home, I stopped. I took that ride almost every day, apart from the darkest part of winter, to go to work. It went from my house down the hill, then  it ran through the heart of the forest. I’d check for mushrooms in autumn and bluebells in spring. The path then continued by the sea, between the city centre and the beach, until the office, some 3-4 miles further down. I had gorgeous summer days on that path. I had harsh days as well: when there had been a tempest the night before it would be covered with a thick layer of sand. With high tide some sprays would hit me. By the time I came to the office my heart was beating fast and I felt alive. I developed an addiction to weather forecast – I checked the excellent met office ones trying to guess if I was to have half an hour window without too much rain, or whether the wind gusts would just be too strong. Wind is the worst enemy when cycling by the sea, it can literally stop you if you are going against it. I learned not to mind rain that much, on the other hand. Like my landlord once said, while trying to unblock a pipe in our garden under a torrential rain: “It’s just water”. It is.

July 19, 2011

Cherries!

Cherries tart

There is an idiom in Italian: ‘Una ciliegia tira l’altra’, a cherry leads you to the next one. Indeed, I cannot stop. Cherries are among my favourite treats. The season in Italy is painfully short, probably over by now, but for my good luck it tends to be longer here up North. We have been having sweet and dark Spanish, Turkish and Italian cherries for months, but the true highlight is now, when the local ones are ready and ripe, and oh so tasty.

I probably inherited the passion for cherries from my dad, although to be fair, it is quite common a passion. It is one of the best moments in life to wander through the Italian countryside, possibly on a bike, and come across a cherry tree, in a sunny morning of May, the air hot but still bearable. It is a joy me and my dad have shared more than once. Every time, we don’t care whether the cherries are of the sweet or the tart variety (both are quite common, there are often trees that have been abandoned, or so my dad used to say to me, which is probably not completely true, but anyway, we are not doing more damage than birds). We eat cherries until we are literally sick, both of us.

June 6, 2011

The secret to weight loss

Peach ginger muffin

I am quite happy with the way I eat (and cook). It served me well over the years not to gain any weight, and to have plenty of energy to carry on with my activities.  Of course there are (more than) occasional treats, but overall I’d say my diet is quite balanced. I am not thin, never have been,  but I still have the same size – actually, nearly the same weight – of ten years ago. It could not be any other way, because first, I hate feeling out of shape, and second, I can’t diet. Like in, follow a set diet to lose weight. The ‘d’ word itself gives me sweaty palms and an anxiety that can increase my hunger to epical amounts. I never eat as much and as badly as when I’m trying to follow a ‘diet’.

This is a personal problem however. My partner on the other hand has much more discipline, and a worse metabolism.

A couple of months ago I decided I needed a special treat and ordered myself a pile of cookbooks. Some of them were definitely health oriented (the excellent ‘Just bento cookbook‘, and Heidi’s first book). But for the first time, I had also ordered a book devoted to baking only. As I leafed through it, I admired the gorgeous, homely, intimate photography, and I could not wait to try the many enticing flavour combinations, the rich fruit compotes, the soft pillows of pancakes.. And my partner, drooling, was spying over my shoulder.

‘This book is going to be dangerous.’ I joked.

‘ Fair enough -  he answered – you’ll have it back when I have lost five kilos’

And snatched the book away.

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