The Mint Shop

The Mint Shop

Monday, 20 December 2010

Hazelnut biscuits

Personally I don't find anything more disappointing than discovering that your favourite cooking magazine has in fact not tested its recipes. Especially when I always relied blind-folded on it. But I guess disappointment may come sooner or later on everything.

I suppose one way of limiting the disappointment is not to expect too much from anything. But that is a bit sad, actually, isn't it? So my best way of overcoming disappointment is just to give it another chance and try my luck.

That is why I think I will give these biscuits another go, possibly with all the tweaks which I believe will make it work properly and create some yummy biscuits. I give you the recipe as it should be. I don't want to feel responsible for your own disappointment.

Hazelnut and cinnamon biscuits (Delizie alla cannella)

170g flour
70g ground hazelnut
1 egg
2 egg yolks (leave the whites aside)
1 tsp baking powder
3 tsp cinnamon powder
1 lemon zest
120g butter
120g sugar
20 hazelnuts

1. Mix the flour with 80g of sugar, ground hazelnuts, cinnamon, lemon zest.

2. Beat until pale the sugar with the eggs.

3. Sift the dry ingredients into the eggy butter.

4. Make a ball and roll it into a sausage of 4cm diameter.

5. Wrap the sweet sausage in cling film and leave it in the fridge for at least 30 minutes.

6. After the half an hour the sausage has been resting in the fridge, take it out and cut it into slices of 1.5cm

7. Cook the slices on a greased tray for 10minutes at C180.

8. Aside beat the egg whites until it forms peaks adding 50g icing sugar and a tsp of cinnamon. Remove the biscuits from the oven and decrease the oven temperature down to C100.

9. When the oven is now C100 place a tsp of the merengue on top of the biscuit and place a whole hazelnut on top. In this way the biscuit will finish to cook and and meringue will cook slowly without burning. The disappointment of the original recipe was that they make you bake everything together at C180 which cannot work as of course the meringue will burn.

Unfortunately R. brought me the wrong wire to upload other photos...but I must admit I might have decided to omit it anyway as they didn't look all this great....I would be interested in hearing what your biggest disappointments have been (without going too personal of course!).

Tuesday, 14 December 2010

A slice of Spain

Somebody told me that in the next few days it will snow. I am not surprised, considering the bitter cold that seems to be raging in Cambridge. I'm glad we went for that walk on Sunday to pick up more logs...

I must admit that I wouldn't like spending Christmas on a beach roasting fish and playing frisbee; snow falling and a steaming cup of chocolate correspond more to my imaginary. I wouldn't say no though to a few days of sunshine. For some reasons Andalusia springs up to my mind. Probably because it is normally insane to go during the Summer - unless you do like suffering...

Local sweets and cakes have a very strong Arabic influence. Almonds - even the words itself has Arabic origins as it starts with an AL (which means that it made all its way to England too) - are the key and basic ingredients of most cakes, a bit like in Sicily. I would say they are *rich*, but not fatty, as normally butter is not used.

I thought it would have been a good idea to plan ahead and present a hand-made cake to my in-laws on returning from Italy. But unless I cook at night I won't have the time to do that. But ta, ta, ta...I will freeze it! I have discovered that cakes, providing they have enough fat and are well wrapped, can easily freeze up to two months. And this cake may not have butter but I reckon a large quantity of very healthy oil.

Andalusia Almond cake (Pastel de Almendras)

220g sugar
300g ground almonds
8 eggs
1 tsp cinnamon
1/2 tsp vanilla extract
zest of 1 lemon

1. Preheat the oven at C180. Butter a 20cm cake tin and flour it shaking any excess.

2. In a large bowl combine the egg yolks and sugar and whisk together until foamy. Add the lemon zest, cinnamon and vanilla extract. Mix well. Add the ground almonds a little at the time mixing well after each addition.

3. Beat the egg whites until they form soft peaks. Scoop the whites onto the egg yolk mixture and incorporate well using a metal spoon. Mix well making sure you don't "kill" the air in the whites.

4. Pour in the tin and cook in the oven for 30minutes. Leave it to cool on a rack.

In Seville we had it with vanilla ice cream but any flavours would be good. Likewise being this cold I think a runny vanilla custard poured on top would also go well. Almonds to me mean Christmas so I think this would be a great cake to have during the holidays!

Monday, 13 December 2010

All I want for Christmas is..chocolate!

It always surprises me the number of people who have friends around and do not put music on. Even if you are the worst host on the planet, everyone must know by now that music creates instant atmosphere. Rule number #1.

It is also surprising how many people seem more worried about their furniture than ensuring their guests feel comfortable. I would suggest to offer plates to your guests so that they won't need to use napkins or,even worse, their hands with the increased risk of dropping crumbs or sauces. Rule number #2.

Finally, and I know that this is very controversial among Brits, I just cannot stand having to remove my shoes. Especially if I have forgotten to wear the clean and holes-free-socks. (My granny always said you had to make sure you have clean underwear and new socks in case you get run over by a bus and are taken to the morgue...not too sure I would be that bothered at that point...).
Of course if your guests have just stepped from a muddy garden, shoes will be abandoned at the entrance. But in that case you hope you have sensible and polite enough friends who don't need to be told. Rule number #3.

Of course the same amount of basic rules exist also for guests. But this will be covered in one of my next blogs.

I do not want to pride myself as being the *perfect* host but it seems to me that these are basic rules that everyone ought to observe, even those who hate having people around, those who go nuts and get into real panic at the mere thought.
It is true that I do love "entertaining". But I think the secret is to invite enough close friends whom you can ask to bring a dish and contribute to the buffet - especially those you know love cooking. Your job will be a lot easier! Cunning eh?

Last Saturday we had most of our best friends at home. I thought of trying a triumphal cake which wasn't too Christmassy but celebratory enough. Sophie Dahl made in her "Celebratory" mood a flour-less chocolate cake. I have modified it a bit to suit my tooth better (less sweet and less buttery). And served it with fresh fruit. I know, I did say that I would never buy strawberries in December. I can call to my defence that it wasn't me who bought them!! can replace them with the more seasonal cranberries or any other berries you find in season.

The photo is not the best I could have done but I had a pressing crowd behind wanting to tuck its spoon in it...

Dark chocolate cake

300g dark chocolate
6 eggs
140g sugar
2 tsp vanilla extract
160g butter
1 tsp coffee powder
150ml hot water
1 tab of creme fraiche
mixed fresh fruit
icing sugar

1. Cut the chocolate in medium pieces and place them in the mixer. Add to the mixer the sugar and blitz to turn the chocolate into chips. Add the butter and blend more.

2. Transfer the chocolate into a large bowl. Add the water and mix well. By doing this you make sure that there are some bits of chocolate in the final product rather than being a smooth paste as otherwise you can melt it on a pan.

3. Add the vanilla extract, the coffee powder, and the yolks of the 6 eggs mixing in between.

4. Beat the egg whites until they form firm peaks and then slowly and carefully add them to the rest of the mix using a metal spoon.

5. Cook in two Victoria sponge tins (aka sandwich tins) for 40minutes at C180.

6. Let the cakes cool for at least 2 hours.

7. When time of serving comes, remove the cakes from the tins and tear them apart making them in medium/small pieces which you will arrange on a cake stand forming almost a small mountain. Pour on top, very casually, the creme fraiche, and the berries scattered on top. Sprinkle the icing sugar to give it a fairy tale effect.

Everyone loved it.

Friday, 10 December 2010

Almost Christmas?

Why every year Christmas comes all of a sudden? I always think I can prepare myself in advance making cards, sweets, and decorations but then without even realising I wake up and find an obscene list of last-minute jobs that require my attention.

(By the way, between you and me, I still haven't started the famous hand-made food gifts...but I am confident that I will - sooner or later...)

And now I've got the play looming over my shoulders...For the last couple of years I have inflicted on my friends the staging of A Christmas Carol. I thik everyone was too polite to refuse to take part in it. When I suggested the idea to my family, there was a general chorus of "Nooooo" with miming of throat slitting and self asphyxiation. I didn't insist.

So I was quite reluctant to propose the idea to my friends. But to my surprise a few of them even requested it. Suspicious, very suspicious...

For the moment I can probably breathe a sigh of relief that the cooking class last night didn't witness any chopped fingers and burnt hands. My tiny kitchen was swamped by 9 people...I tried to camouflage the lack of space by putting candles everywhere (the decision not to have curtains in the kitchen turned out to be a good one as I would have definitely set fire to them otherwise...) and some pretty Nigella-style lights around the window.

I was a bit anxious, despite having repeated to everyone "nine people at the cooking class? No problem, eeeeasy!". But I pretended I wasn't. And I believe it worked. Or was it the amount of wine I offered around?

The panforte we made though was excellent. I am munching some it right now being careful not to break (again) any WARNING: it contains hard nuts. If you do crack your teeth, don't blame me or send me hefty claims. I have NO money!

Panforte (or Hardbread)

Makes 2 small tins

250ml water
300g almonds
170g caramelised citron
110 g caramelised orange
200g sugar
140g flour
1 tbsp honey
4 tsp all spices
1 tbsp dark cocoa

1. Boil the water in a pan and add the honey and sugar until they form a froth on the surface. Don't let it over-boil or it will evaporate and you will left with a gloopy blob.

2. Add the candied fruit, the spices, the chocolate and almonds (whole not chopped) and let it simmer for about 6-7 minutes

3. Remove from the hob and let it cool in a large bowl. Add to it the flour sifted and incorporate well. Set it aside while you grease a tin (12cm wide x 5cm tall).

4. Pour the mix in the tins and cook in the oven (pre-heated) at 180C for 25 minutes.

5. When it is cold, sprinkle it with icing sugar.

It is ideal to be served cold and accompanied with a glass of sweet wine or vinsanto. Everyone loved it. And thought of making it again as a Christmas gift. It is seriously easy, and everyone can do it.

When I was little (or I should say younger as I am still little....) I used to hate it. That spiciness and stickiness. With age and wisdom I have learnt to appreciate it. Normally we are so stuffed by the end of the meal that nobody wants a slice of panforte (together with fifteen other cakes). This year I will make sure I do give it justice.

Wednesday, 8 December 2010


Considering the time of the year, I too had some revelations.

Revelation number #1: French macaroons are in reality Italian (from maccherone or the verb ammaccare, crush into chunks, probably due to their main ingredient which is ground almonds, and brought to Henry II from Caterina dei Medici).

Revelation number #2: R. can produce a ragu' (aka Bolognese sauce) that is almost better than mine. It is true: making a good sauce is a "labour of love". And I guess I don't have much love to give to pork lately. The secret: mix some pork to lean mince meat . R. boned a leg of pork, diced it into small pieces, and cooked all together which definitely added taste to the general yum of the thing. I guess you could use pre-diced pork but I suspect it will lose the freshness.

Revelation number #3: you cannot improvise with biscuits. They are not easily fooled. The original recipe required only ground almonds. As I only had a third of it, I decided to top it up with normal flour and some semolina. The result? Good but a bit sandy...and reasonably hard but perfect to dip in sweet wine or in your tea! If you use entirely ground almonds the biscuit becomes really soft. I will give it another try!

Almond biscuits

Makes around 30

300g ground almonds (or 100g almonds, 100g flour, 100g semolina)
1 egg
1 tsp baking powder
zest of a lemon
1 tsp cinnamon
150g icing sugar
50g butter

1. Work the butter with the sugar. Add the zest and the cinnamon.

2. Mix the flour or almonds with the baking powder. Sift it into the wet mix and knead well. The mixture will be quite wet and soft.

3. Make out of the mix little balls (walnut size) and squash them down on icing sugar that you will have placed on a plate. Pick up the squashed ball making sure you don't drop the sugar on the other side of the biscuit. If you think there is too much, shake any excess.

4. Place the biscuits on a greased try and cook in the oven at 180C for 15minutes.

For the moment with all my revelations I am enjoying a cup of festive tea with my biscuits next to the fire. This morning the frost was so thick that it appeared like snow...leaving a fairy-tale effect everywhere.

Sunday, 5 December 2010

Dresdener handbrot

I remember the first time I went to the theatre. It was a real experience, truly marvel. And everyone so well dressed. People made the effort. And when I say "effort" I don't mean expensive. A bit like going to a wedding, or a first job interview (well I would have a couple of words even on this topic to be fair...).

On Friday at the Royal Opera House to my disdain there were more jeans and trainers (trainer, for God's sake, trainers!) walking around than black dresses and ties. What is this? A political statement that culture only eats brains and not clothes? As if wearing a suit had become an offence. Or simply too bourgeois to worry about.

I was almost even more astonished once at my seat. A grumpy man who reported me for taking pictures during the break, a Marcel Marceau-looking-guy who must have been concerned about hurting his palm while clapping, a ginger-haired girl in rosy wellies. Where will we end up like this I wonder?

Before the ballet experience we froze almost to death at the German Christmas market in Hyde Park. My idea was to spend the entire afternoon wondering around markets. I don't think I would have survived...somebody would have found a small corpse crumpled in a corner...

What made us going for half an hour though was not gluh-wine but a wonderful hand-baked bread stuffed with cheese and bacon covered with a generous dollop of sour cream. The bread seems to originate in Dresden (for those of you who like me have no clue as where Dresden is, it is practically in Poland and once in the hands of the Communists (is this politically incorrect?). No idea what it looks like - will have to wait for a £0.01 Ryanair flight...

In any case last night while waiting for the agnolotti sauce to be ready (recipe to follow soon) we thought of reproducing the bread and it turned out very similar - of course if you had an open-air wooden oven like Jamie Oliver that would taste better. But you can't have it all. The recipe goes like this:

Dresden handbrot

250g plain flour
2 tsp yeast (if dried, otherwise half a cube of fresh yeast)
150ml lukewarm water
50g cheddar (or Edamer) cheese
2-3 slices of smoked bacon
2 mushrooms
2 tbsp sour cream
a small handful of chive

1. Pre-head the oven at 240C.

2. Mix the dried yeast with the flour or melt the fresh yeast in warm water (the same warm water you are going to use for the recipe). If dried yeast, then add the water and let it rest for 1-2 minutes and then mix kneading well. If fresh then add the water to the flour with the yeast melted in it and proceed in the same way as above.

3. Leave the dough to raise for 1 hour. When almost doubled, flatten it down and make a rectangular. On one side of it place the slices of cheese, the bacon and and mushroom (optional). You can make it as cheesy as you like. It is actually pretty scrumptious when the cheese overflows and slightly burns on the outsides!

4. Fold the other side and tuck it in well making sure it is well sealed. Sprinkle a small quantity of salt on top and brush with some olive oil.

5. Cook it in the oven for about 20-30 minutes depending on how big you have made it.

6. Serve it hot in slices with some sour cream and sprinkle of chopped chive on top.

Below are some snaps I managed to take before my hands turned blue - at which point I decided to put my gloves back on and switch off the camera...

Friday, 3 December 2010

Goodies under the Christmas tree

Every year I hear myself saying "this Christmas I will give everyone hand-made food gifts presented in nice boxes or bottles with pretty and colourful ribbons". And then I don't. Last minute Rome meetings, Christmas parties (and plays), and so I am whizzing around so much that I simply cannot afford two (only two??) entire days in the kitchen creating my culinary works of art.

But this year I have made a resolution (a pre-New Year's one) and announced that everyone in the family will receive at least (note this!) one edible present to devour in a day or shut in a cupboard, as my mother will probably do as she feels sorry to ruin them (and so years of presents get accumulated...).

This announcement was received with a sarcastic smile by R. "you always say this" he mocked me. Fine then! You'll see! So now it is a real duel. And I'm sure I will conquer my victory! Urgh...even if this means I will have to cook for the next 2 weeks! Argh....

Of course I'll make sure that everyone realises how much it takes to make these hand-made stock-fillers. For some reasons people always assume that DIY presents are cheaper and that is why one does it. Wrong. Equally wrong is that it takes no time to bake some cakes or make pates. For as much I hate battling and making my way through mad crowds ravaging shops, it is still quicker to pop in John Lewis or Borders and tick your shopping list.

When I was at school there was this tradition (not sure how really well accepted it was by everyone) to give all your class girl friends a Christmas gift , regalo or better regalino (small gift) as it was assumed to be tiny. Just a thought. Well I put a lot of thought in it. I could have gone to at the time "Everything 1,000Lire" (which at a closer inspection 1,000Lire was only the starting price). Instead I made them myself. Once I remember I made candles. I fiddled with a concoction of stinky wax and soap to the disgust of my parents. The fading smile on my class mates' face once they had opened the packet made me understand. I never did it again.

So. I will keep you updated about the developments of my Christmas laboratory. Rose scented Turkish delights, coconut macaroons, chocolate coated orange peels, star-shaped breads, and many more! Yum! I must make sure I make enough for us too!

Time has started ticking...

Thursday, 2 December 2010

Barley and fennel in China

Is it just me or it seems like more or more people want to have an opinion at no costs? No matter what they know about the subject, they will still impart you their lecture making sure that their point comes across loud and clear.

When I was younger (without giving my age away....) I always thought things could be easily divided into black or white but over the years I've realised that's just not true. It really depends on many variables and jumping to conclusions is not productive. Those who know me will probably think I am talking about somebody else as I seem to be the first to give a judgement about something or somebody. But actually that is not true. What I try to do is to find a reason behind people's acting and thinking. My parents think I just do it on purpose to question anything they say. But are you sure? But perhaps...but..but...mhmmm.....

I've been told for example that Chinese people (ok this is a bit generic, the country is quite large) tend to smile and nod even when they don't mean to condescend in the slightest. A friend told me it's called the Monna Lisa smile. You never know what they really think. I find differences in cultures fascinating.

For example if you go to a restaurant with friends, or anyone really, if your back is towards the kitchen you will be the one the waiter/waitress brings the bill (and who pays -unless you plan a big run after the meal...). Or if you are invited out and you then order rice at the end of the meal you will mortally offend your host because that means you hadn't have enough and still need to stuff your stomach. I could probably go on and on....

Last night I wasn't really in a Chinese mood but just wanted to find ways of using two ingredients: barley and fennel. And for funny reason I came across these recipes in this book, Chinatown, by Ross Dobson. I have made a few changes to the original recipes but you can keep the recipes in their original version.

Barley and vegetable soup

6 small dried porcini (or shitake) mushrooms
1 tbsp vegetable or olive oil
1 small onion chopped
1 garlic clove roughly chopped
1 celery stalk
1 carrot cut unto half and in slices
2 tsp grated fresh ginger
1.5 lt chicken stock
110g pearl barley
1 tbsp light soy sauce
1 chilly
1 tsp sesame oil
half leek

1. Soak the dried mushrooms in a small bowl with hot water and cover with a lid (or plate) to ensure that the steam is retained inside the bowl. Leave it for about 20 minutes and then squeeze the mushrooms and cut them into medium pieces if they are quite large. Keep the water they have produced.

2. Heat the vegetable oil in a saucepan over medium heat and cook the onion and garlic for 2 minutes, or until the onion is just softened. Add the ginger, celery, chilly, leek and carrot and cook for another 1 minute.

3. Add the stock, the barley, the soy sauce, mushroom water and season with black pepper. Don't season with salt as soy sauce is quite salty already! I made this mistake was inedible!

4. Cook for at least 40 minutes until the barley is soft and plump. Serve it with the chopped mushrooms and a few strings of spring onion if you have.

I also made some biscuits. Once again I changed the recipe slightly so instead of using orange I used a lemon. I will try it again as the recipe says but I think in this was it was pretty good. And that was not just my opinion....

Lemon, almond and fennel biscuits

80g butter
110g white sugar
60g brown sugar (you can have just 170g of white sugar if you prefer)
210 plain flour
40g ground almonds
2 eggs
1/2 tsp fennel seeds
zest of half a lemon
1 tsp baking powder
80g ground almonds

1. Preheat the oven to 180C (this is the best part of the recipe now as it warms up my kitchen!)

2. Mix the butter, seeds and zest together and combine well (by hand or in a food processor - if you have a mixer that'll do too...I am still dreaming of one of those massive boys to sit on my shelves...Christmas is near...)

3. Add the eggs to the butter and mix well.

4. Mix the baking powder and the ground almond to the flour and sift it into the wet mix.

5. Make a sausage out of this mix (of you think it is still too wet add more flour until you can handle it) of about 20cm lenght and 3-4 cm thick.

6. Cook it in the oven for about 20 minutes. Remove it from the oven and cut 2cm slices. Turn on one side the biscuits and cook them for 10 minutes. Then turn them on the other side and cook it for a further 10 minutes until the biscuits will have become crunchy.

This is essentially the recipe to make cantucci (which Sturbuck calls biscotti which is the generic Italian word for biscuits). This means that if you hate fennel seeds, you can use anything you like - pistachios and almonds, chocolate chips, poppy seeds etc. etc...

They are quite addictive. But if you resist they can also be a really nice Christmas (or birthday) gift if arranged in a nice box with some tissue paper. Perhaps a Chinese looking tin. Personally I don't think I've ever had this type of biscuits when I was in China and I suspect that fennel seeds are used in many kitchens (French, Italian). So I guess you can claim they are from wherever you want...

I should definitely go back to China. Last time I only visited a small portion...and it was before the Olympics - I am sure they caused a lot of changes...

Wednesday, 1 December 2010

Chai Tea

As the Ice Age is still raging in Cambridge (I heard it reached -10C which may or may not be true depending on how dramatic they want it to make it sound to excuse themselves for being so rubbish at non-coping with the cold), I came to adopt drastic measures.

I am now wearing four layers between tops and jumpers (of various thickness), three pairs of socks (including the skiing ones), the water bottle under my feet, and the fire place burning Wimpole Hall-collected-logs (shhh...don't say this too loud!) almost non-stop. To give me an extra boost, I decided to make a spicy drink. And thought of Chai Tea.

The idea of simmering milk with spices and water made R. very worried. The look on his little face was so dispirited that I accepted to modify the original idea. So instead of adding milk, I simply simmer the water for a minute or two and then let brew for 2-3 minutes with all the goodies I added. The smell was so overpowering - it almost made me forget my three toes were frozen....

Reinvented Chai

For 2 cups (or 4 glasses)

4-6 cloves
4-6 cardamom pods
half a cinnamon stick
grated zest of 1/4 lemon
1 tbsp Indian black tea (or Gunpowder)
1/2 tsp grated nutmeg
1 tbsp sugar

1. Grind the cloves, cardamom together.

2. Add the nutmeg, the zest and sugar. Place the mix in a pan.

3. Pour boiling water in the pan and simmer for 1 or 2 minutes.

4. Transfer in a pot and let it brew for a few more minutes. Add more sugar according to taste.

The sugar really brings out the flavour of cardamom. It is a really calming and warming drink. Even just making it is a pleasure.

I will make it again later perhaps with a biscuit I will bake tonight.