Every family has a set of favourite stories in rotation, the kind you tell at social gatherings, on meeting new people or simply to each other: a kind of comfortable, if slightly repetitive, recognition of knowing each other inside out and of memories fondly shared.
When she’s feeling sentimental, my Mum loves to tell stories from our childhood holidays in Italy. The tale of choice for my brother involves a restaurant laid out for a wedding banquet, an excitable two-year-old boy, a table cloth corner just a little too enticing not to pull and . . . well, you can probably guess the rest (except, perhaps, the part where the restaurant owners forgave the devastating mess, whisked my brother into the kitchen and onto the counter, then proceeded to feed him as my mortified mother finished up her meal. God bless the Italians). Continue reading
Brutti ma buoni – ‘ugly but good’ hazelnut meringue biscuits
Don’t judge a book by its cover.
Despite this age old idiom, evaluating things by their appearance is sadly second nature in so many circumstances in life. Appearance influences the big decisions – it is said that in an interview, you have just seven seconds to make a good impression – but also the little ones: the quality of an apple, the content of a book, how delicious a dessert is going to be.
I’ve talked before on this blog about the pitfalls of style over substance when it comes to food. Incredible wedding cakes covered with beautifully crafted decorations concealing bland or dry sponge; slicks of sauce on a plate so small as to make little contribution to flavour; an artfully placed sprig of mint that you have to push to one side without eating.
Soft, smooth ice cream, sweet, crunchy praline & a mellow hint of frangelico
The first time I ate ice cream with alcohol in, it made me cry.
I was on holiday with my family in Italy, a much littler loaf than I am now, and we’d just emerged from eating lunch at our favourite local pizzeria. The kind of pizzeria with no pretensions, just incredible dough rolled paper thin, rich red tomato sauce spread over the top and milky mozzarella dotted between volcanic blisters of risen crust. By all accounts we should have been full, but anyone with even the slightest sweet tooth will understand that there’s full, and then there’s the pudding stomach.
Normally we’d have jumped in the car and headed up into the walled town to get a cone of homemade ice cream from one of the local bars, but for some reason or other we had to get on the road. If memory serves me correctly it was raining, so my Dad hot footed it into the next door café to grab a couple of cornettos for my brother and I to eat in the car 0n our way to wherever we were going. Continue reading
Sponge fingers encase creamy layers of tiramisu topped with fresh raspberries
‘Some woman is going to want me to do it to her, and I’m not going to know what it is.’
‘You’ll love it.’
20 years ago, the world was a very different place. In lots of ways, of course, but this particular scene from Sleepless in Seattle where Tom Hanks’ character is about to embark on the dating scene again shows just how much our knowledge of different types of food has changed since 1993. To even be able to contemplate including such a joke in the script, the screenwriter would have had to be pretty comfortable that plenty of people didn’t know what tiramisu was; that for every person laughing at Hanks’ clueless comment, another one would be scratching their head and wondering what this unusual aphrodisiac might be. With 5.3 million pages returning on the search term ‘tiramisu’ on UK Google alone today, that hardly seems possible now. Continue reading
Layers of hazelnut & chocolate meringue, vanilla & praline cream & chocolate ganache
While Italian food will always hold a special place in my heart, when it comes to desserts I have to admit it’s the French who really know what they’re talking about. Their puds are good. Too good, perhaps. Elegant, flawless and invariably involving multiple stages, these incredible feats of confection can often feel beyond the realm of your average home baker, appearing more frequently in the pages of a restaurant menu or the window of your local patisserie than on a private kitchen table. Recipes requiring rounds of piping bags, pints of cream and the patience of a saint aren’t everyone’s idea of fun, and a fancy French gâteau can be altogether far flightier than a dependable British pud.
That said, sometimes you need to take a leap of faith. It’s easy to stay in your kitchen comfort zone and shy away from anything that sounds too tricky, but where’s the fun in that? Continue reading
Decadent, dark chocolate brownie beneath a rich, creamy cheesecake
Last weekend snow descended on the UK. After one of the mildest winters on record, including un unseasonally warm Christmas Day, we’re finally being reminded what it feels like to be cold. As is always the case in a country where we’re as unprepared for annual snowfall as we are surprised by the heatwaves that regularly occur in the summer, lots of things ground to a halt; thousands of flights were canceled, trains came out of service, motorways slowed to a standstill.
While snow always brings a certain element of chaos, it also adds a sense of peace and tranquility. The world is a different place under its blanket of snow; smells are crisper, scenes softer and sounds swallowed by the heavy sky and thickly carpeted ground. In London the snow never lasts very long – delicate flakes of ice are little match for the combination of traffic, heat and hundreds of thousands of feet pounding the pavements – but for a few hours at least, the road outside our flat stayed covered in a pure, snowy blanket. Continue reading
Simple & delicious – homemade filled ice cream cones
Ice cream and Italy go hand in hand. It’s almost impossible to imagine an Italian holiday without a visit to the local gelateria, long minutes spent staring at the dazzling array of colours and flavours on display and agonizing decisions to be made before being handed a crisp cone, rich with anticipation and dripping with deliciousness.
I’ve been lucky enough to taste more than my fair share of Italian ice cream over the last twenty seven years. My parents have a house in Italy, and every summer we’d spend weeks there as a family, swimming, sunbathing and sightseeing to fill the gaps when we weren’t eating and drinking. Pasta and meat dishes reigned supreme, and when it came to sweets, any trip to the nearby towns invariably involved an ice cream pit stop (more often than not to bribe a grumbling little loaf to participate in tours of the latest art exhibition or the fifteenth frescoed church of the day). Continue reading
Crispy, chewy, creamy chestnut meringue cake
With Christmas just around the corner, thoughts are turning to festive food. Turkeys, geese and glistening hams have already been ordered, mincemeat made for perfect pies, salmon smoked, butter brandied and puddings laden with boozy fruit stored. In the last week or so there’s been a creeping chill in the air, and suddenly all this hearty winter fare feels just that little bit more tempting.
For most, a Christmas spread wouldn’t be complete without stuffing, and when I think of stuffing, chestnuts come to mind. Associated with warmth and winter, chestnuts are in their element when roasted over hot coals, the toasty smells wafting temptingly through the streets as vendors tout their treats to passers by. The Christmas Song, composed in 1946 and sung by Nat King Cole, is alternatively titled ‘Chestnuts Roasting on an Open Fire’ and conjures up all the cosily romantic images we so strongly associate with Christmas. There’s never been a better time to cook with these strong, sweet, shiny nuts.
Creamy nutella, crunchy wafer and toasted hazelnut enrobed in a cloak of milk chocolate
I’m not sure how many of you are going to read this post in full. In my experience, baking blogs are often an exercise in unashamed food pornography, and I’ve pretty much provided you with the money-shot right here. In fact, I can already picture people scrolling straight down to the recipe and racing off to grab a jar of Nutella from the kitchen cupboard so they can get started straight away.
You know what? I wouldn’t blame them. This recipe really is that good 😉 Continue reading
Light hazelnut cupcakes with dark chocolate buttercream
I don’t know about you, but my baking goes through phases. While chocolate is a fairly reliable constant in my recipe repertoire, I love to try new flavours and textures; once I’ve discovered an ingredient or technique, I like to explore all the different possibilities it might hold. Dulce de leche was a recent find – once I realised how easy it is to make yourself I was adding it to everything from pecan and banoffee pies to ice cream sundaes, cookies and even brownies (recipe here).
A couple of weeks ago I posted a recipe for Gianduja ice cream chocolate chip cookie sandwiches. It was the first recipe I’ve made with my brand new ice cream maker (another slight obsession), and got me seriously excited about hazelnuts as an ingredient for the first time. Although I’ve been a lifelong fan of Nutella, I hadn’t really considered the flavours of a simple roasted hazelnut outside the context of this chocolatey, sugary spread. Continue reading