‘Have respect’. My Italian 1980s upbringing could be easily summed up with this sentence. Most of our parents had this phenomenally heavy heritage of humbleness that they had to pass on to our generation–blame it on catholicism or their post-fascist education, possibly both, go figure. ‘Have respect’ was a clear warning before any form of action, rather than a reparatory reprehension like the English ‘show some respect’. In a nutshell, live by the saying ‘forewarned is forearmed’ and you might as well dodge mum’s flying slipper.
The ‘have respect’ admonition used to be considered a perfect fit for any purpose: when you addressed other people, when you had to go somewhere and needed to be on time, or when you sat down for a meal, for instance. Because there was always a good reason to have respect and to make sure you did not miss the opportunity to show it.
Today, even though mostly lost culturally-wise, the daunting pseudo psalm ‘have respect’ still survives within every piece of Italian food prepared from the Alps to Lampedusa. It becomes a ritualistic foreword which prevents you from conceiving a pizza with pineapple (unless it is a video prank in Naples), or ask for cream or ham in your pasta carbonara, for example. The same can be said about pesto: it is delicious in its traditional recipe and that is about it.
Pesto genovese is an uncooked, fresh sauce for pasta originating from Genoa. The Ligurian capital, also called The Superb, is as old as its stones–the first settlement actually dates to the Neolithic. The town boasts a traditionally fierce population, mockingly as stingy as its perched-up mountains slanting onto the sea. So, when you deal with pesto, you had better be careful and have respect.
The original pesto recipe is registered at the local consortium and includes seven specific ingredients: Genoese DOP (Denominazone di Origine Protetta, i.e. PDO, Protected Designation of Origin) basil leaves, pine kernels, garlic, coarse salt, Sardinian DOP Pecorino cheese, DOP Parmesan cheese, and Ligurian extra virgin olive oil (check our previous post on EVO oil). A traditional serving may well include potatoes and green beans boiled with the pasta, in order to add starchiness and texture to the dish.
Pesto Genovese (serves 2, about 250g of pasta)
BASIL (leaves only), 25g
PINE KERNELS, 8g
GARLIC, 1/2 clove
SALT (coarse/rock), 1 tsp
PECORINO CHEESE (grated), 15g
PARMESAN CHEESE (grated), 35g
EVO OIL, 50ml
If you want to do it the proper way, get yourself a marble mortar and a wooden pestle–it also works if you use a marble pestle like I do. Work it clockwise while holding the mortar and spinning it in the other direction. Do it as quickly as possible, in order to preserve all the oils from the ingredients and to prevent oxidation, but do not rush it. Give each of the following steps the time you need to properly complete the process.
Grind garlic and the coarse salt till they become creamy.
Add the pine kernels and continue until they are finely ground.
Add the basil leaves and shred them while moving the pestle.
Add the two types of cheese, previously grated.
Finish with the EVO oil and work it till the compound is almost smooth, yet preserve some texture of your ingredients.
If you want to cheat, use can use a hand blender. In this case, I recommend you keep the blades in the fridge for a couple of hours before using the blender and operate it intermittently rather than continuously, so your basil will not bruise during the process and the pesto will not come out brownish.
The beauty of a good pesto starts with its colours palette, ranging over emeralds, dots of forest green, and sapphire shimmers. If it is a respectful pesto, when you eat it you want to feel the textures of its precious ingredients. Sharp, balsamic spikes hit your tongue with every snippet of basil. Salty, crunchy crystals of cheese gently melt in your mouth’s warmth. And it all makes sense as the heat of the pasta melds the flavours together.
An old Genoese saying goes ‘A l’à a belessa de l’ase‘, literally ‘it has the beauty of the donkey’, possibly a linguistic corruption from the French saying ‘La beauté de l’âge’, or ‘The beauty of age’. In any case, a Genoese calling you that could mean that your only good quality is beauty because you are young. Do not get offended, it is still a compliment. Have respect.
Cooking at home has always been a daily activity for me, pretty much since my teens. I have been going through different phases of cooking, and I cannot really say that I have satisfactorily settled with one. There are times when I want to replicate recipes with absolute precision, other periods when I become obsessed with a cuisine style and its ingredients, or various intervals where experimentation takes multiple forms, whether in terms of taste or appearance, for example.
Through constant change, I like to rely on certain essential elements suitable for my cooking. For instance, I still get my rock salt from Italy, as it does not really exist in the UK. The same can be said for other ingredients, such as Abruzzo’s saffron. You can find good alternatives, from India or Iran for example, yet when I am looking for its specific sweet flavour, I need to use the proper Italian crimson stigmas, often combining them with some saffron powder as well.
Similarly, oil and vinegar are equally essential in my kitchen. I should actually say oils and vinegars. Each one has a specific aroma, texture, and cooking performance, so they can be real game changers if aptly used. A basic distinction can be made between broad categories, such as vegetable, seeds, or olive oils, or white and balsamic vinegars. However, the more you experiment and cook with different types, the better you get to choose your ideal flavour enhancer. In some way, you can think of it like wearing a different perfume according to how you feel, your dress code, or the people you are going to be with.
Due to my Italian upbringing and cooking tradition, my selection of oils and vinegars is a ‘tad’ biased and strongly leans toward Italian products. I linked some of the producers’ websites, but none of the products below are sponsored or promoted. These are just my home kitchen flavour buddies. Let’s have a look at my oil bottles.
My dream team includes a range of oils I can use for cooking, marinades, dressings, or just plain raw, plus some flavoured ones. I use Waitrose Extra Virgin Olive oil for everyday cooking, as it is a decent EVO oil, with a mild flavour, quite versatile, and it is cheap. I use it for frying, marinades for meat, or as a base for spicy dressings.
The second bottle on the left is currently my good EVO oil to be used raw. It is a Tuscan oil from Fiesole, with a light yellow colour and an elegant flavoursome finish, quite silky on the tongue and slightly robust in the throat. This kind of oil is perfect for fresh salads, or to snack on some crispy vegetable, such as bell peppers or celery.
The three bottles in the middle of the picture are my ‘luxury’ EVO oils. I only open these when I find freshly-baked bread, or buy some serious fish, or get my hands on some proper burrata. If in luck with the food, a small bottle of these might easily not survive one sitting.
The taller bottle, Marfuga EVO oil, is what I call a green oil, and I am a sucker for it. This oil from Umbria has a superb finish, which feels like a gentle tingle on the sides of your tongue, while warm balsamic perfumes fill your mouth. Because of its taste, I associate it with the colour green and it makes me happy just smelling it.
The other two smaller bottles are EVO oils from Matera, organic gems from two small producers. They are as intense as fresh and mark an aromatic, long-lasting groove on your tongue. These are delicious oils; I can spend a good five minutes only enjoying their natural fragrance when I open a bottle.
The small can and the reuse bottle are my flavoured oils. The can contains EVO oil with white truffle aroma, good for cooking and also useful to dress some cooked food, such as chips or red meat. The reuse bottle contains EVO oil with chopped bird’s eye chillies. I prefer to make small quantities of spicy oil and I use fresh chillies—which is probably an abomination to purists, as you should use dried chillies in order to make a classic chilli oil. Using the fresh chillies allows me to have a clean EVO oil flavour with a sharp spiciness from the chillies, rather than the typical round, spicy hot flavour of a classic chilli oil.
Sometimes I also buy vegetable oil, if I know I will deep fry something, or if I am making a carrot cake, for instance. Because I do not use this type of oil very often, it tends to be a buy-on-requirement only item, hence the exclusion from the group above.
Looking at my vinegars, I am possibly even more a glutton than a cook. Different vinegars inspire so many of my food memories. I use vinegars for cooking, marinades and dressings, and I secretly have an occasional sip of my reserve bottles. I do not use just one type of vinegar and there are so many shades of flavour that I have several opened bottles on my kitchen counter.
The first one on the left is a sherry vinegar, which I discovered when cooking with chef Gabriel Waterhouse at the Water House Project. We first used it to caramelise banana shallots braised in apple juice and thyme, which we used to serve with polenta, as a vegetarian alternative to one of our mains. This vinegar is perfect for colouring food in the pan and it leaves a quite sharp finish, distinctly different from the sweetness you would get from a balsamic vinegar, for instance. Notes of wood are still detectable in its aroma and it feels smooth and clean on the palate.
The small bottle of Filippo Berio balsamic vinegar is a rather ordinary IGP balsamic vinegar. It is acidic and young, it contains caramel, and I use it only for meat marinades, such as a šašlik/shashlik (pork or chicken marinated for skewers to be charred on the grill). It is runny and quite sharp for a balsamic vinegar, so I find it good only for limited cooking purposes.
In a nutshell, balsamic vinegar can be Modena IGP (Indicazione Geografica Protetta) or Tradizionale di Modena/di Reggio Emilia DOP (Denominazione di Origine Protetta). The striking difference lies in two main factors, ingredients and aging. IGP allows the presence of other grapes’ vinegar and limited quantities of caramel, whereas DOP is made only with endemic DOC grapes (like Lambrusco, Ancellotta, Trebbiano, Sauvignon, Sgavetta, Berzemino), which are cooked right after pressing. Also, the IGP needs a minimum of 60-day aging to obtain the badge and can be called ‘aged’ after 3 years, whilst the DOP requires a minimum of 12 years of aging. If you do not mind waiting, the Tradizionale di Modena DOP ExtraVecchio requires a minimum of 25 years of aging.
The process of making balsamic vinegar is as relentless as it is elegant. The cooked grape must is sealed in wooden barrels for aging. With time, the vinegar reduces and it is moved to smaller and smaller barrels made of different wood (such as chestnut, durmast, cherry tree, and juniper), until it is ready. It is this long process of ripening which makes aging the real game changer.
The third bottle in the picture is a red wine vinegar from Reggio Emilia made with 100% Nebbiolo grapes, aged in oak barrels. It is not a balsamic vinegar, although it is produced with traditional methods by specialists of balsamic vinegar. It is fluid, with shades of brown and burgundy, gentle at the nose, yet punctual on the tongue. It is just lovely. This vinegar is exceptional on fresh vegetables and fish, as much as used for raw marinades.
The flask-shaped bottle is a luscious IGP, made by the oldest balsamic vinegar producer in Italy, Giuseppe Giusti, founded in 1605 (they even have a museum). It is made with must of cooked sun-dried grapes and aged wine vinegar, offering a powerful balsamic bouquet with a sweet, flavoursome finish. Its intensity makes it rather perfect for dressing on anything salty, but it is also great to glaze meat or strongly flavoured vegetables, like an aubergine steak for instance.
The next bottle is a prepared dressing with balsamic vinegar IGP. It comes from a deli shop in Parma, but it is produced in Reggio Emilia. This is perfect for salads or vegetable marinades, as it is slightly viscous and sweet on the palate. It performs similarly to commercial balsamic glazes, but it has no added sweetener such as honey or maple syrup, so it does not get sticky.
The two squared bottles are balsamic vinegar vintage reserves, the tall one coming from Acetaia Pagani, and the tiny inkwell sealed with wax from Giuseppe Giusti. They could be compared to a cuvée, as in selected prime grapes of one year.
The tall bottle from Acetaia Pagani has an insane consistency, practically impossible to describe without a degree in chemistry or physics. Even if you capsized the bottle, the vinegar would not accelerate during its fall, remaining perfectly fluid at the right density. The flavour of this vinegar is a precise equilibrium between sweet and savoury, with woody berries on the nose. I love it on strawberries accompanied by Parmesan cheese, a typical snack around Modena, as much as it tastes magic on red meat or grilled halloumi, for example.
Similarly, the inkwell contains a beautifully aged balsamic vinegar reserve, which is simply delectable. The bottle in the picture is still closed, but I had the pleasure to taste it some months ago in Milan. It is slightly fluid, yet it changes texture once opened and applied onto any food. It could be compared to lacquer, as it sets after a few minutes from use. This vinegar becomes like a flavour encasing, although without solidifying, since it releases its fruity aroma and melts on the tongue just with the warmth of your mouth. Similarly to the other balsamic vinegar reserve, it tastes fantastic when used in sweet and savoury contrasts, especially when punched by a salty flavour.
The last two bottles are quite basic vinegars that I use for cooking. Waitrose’s IGP is great for glazing food in a pan or for meat marinades before roasting. It is quite mild and makes a good base for stronger flavours, as it has no added sweeteners. The white wine vinegar at the end of the line is my go-to item for making ricotta at home, or also great for sharp, light pickling of vegetables such as radishes.
Growing up in Italy and pretty much spending a lot of time in the kitchen every day since I was a child, I learnt quite early how to use oils and vinegars for different types of food. But it certainly does not mean I know something or that these oils and vinegars above are my definitive dream team: I am always experimenting and still exploring new flavours and traditions.
Back in January 2016, I started blogging about some of my favourite home recipes. I wanted to share my passion for cooking, while introducing my genuine Italian food culture. I also dragged in my friend Maria, an excited foodie who happens to make delicious desserts. We started our blog Foodamaze, wanting to publish more or less weekly, alternating a recipe each. Then, summer 2016 marked a series of unexpected and rather life-changing events, and Foodamaze went slowly dormant for almost four years, till now.
Meanwhile, I saw my kitchen life going through a rather exciting evolution: my then casual catering activity Matango London slowly became a full-time commitment, with exciting exploits in a few London restaurants, Taste of London, and extravagant private events. Later, in 2018, I became the sous chef of Gabriel Waterhouse, the mastermind chef behind one of the most inspiring and successful fine dining experiences in London, The Water House Project. After this truly game-changing experience, I became the senior-sous chef of Madera at Treehouse Hotel, till the outbreak of the Covid-19 virus and the subsequent global lockdown.
Last year, I created the platform called FoodVcancer to help fundraising for people suffering from sarcoma and other cancers. The idea is to broadcast on social media some home cooking time I spend with the patients, while supporting healthy eating and honest nutrition choices. My own experience with sarcoma and insatiable appetite give me the essentials, the rest usually comes naturally in a completely off-the-cuff flow. FoodVcancer also got me to become a judge of the Great Taste Awards at the Guild of Fine Food, exploring the mechanics of quality ranking without the despotism of brands—I owe this extraordinary opportunity to a simply fabulous lady foodie, Maya Orr.
So here I am now, reviving Foodamaze pretty much out of the blue, with the same intention of sharing the food I truly enjoy. It could be an impromptu fridge-emptier dish, or an engineered fine-dining-wannabe, or maybe just my oil and vinegar selection from my kitchen cupboard. I ignore how much I will keep going with writing it, with what frequency, and if it will ever mean anything. I just have a compulsive need to write and expose my food devotion.
Today, even more than ever, cooking is to me something exceptional. I believe in its pure alchemy, as cooking means mastering the art of transmutation and sublimating the harmful into delicious. I equate this with love. Plus, cooking is fun, is catharsis, it charms you into taming danger, while it revolves in constant variations. Food animates a choir of human senses, its music accented by trills wafting down our emotional core. Food is home. Cooking is hearth.
Recently I have become a great fan of pancakes and crepes. When I was a child we would always make sweet crepes for Fridays or as Saturday snack. My mum never liked making them as it takes ages. So I was usually the lucky one to spent at least an hour watching golden crepes and perfecting my ‘flipping’ technique. But somehow I enjoyed it, and it has it’s perks of eating hot pancakes when no-one is watching. After all I love a fresh hot crepe on it’s own.
So this year on Pancake day I decided to make a chocolate crepe cake. There are so many ways on how to make them thought. But I settled for a simple recipe from my mum. Because obviously she knows best! Chocolate make it really hard to guess if the pancake is cooked and when it starts to burn. So it took me about 5 pancakes to figure out when I need to turn and not to leave the second side on for too long.
Chocolate Crepe Cake
1 l milk
440 g plain flour
50 g cocoa powder
700 ml whipped cream
70 g raspberry jam
150 g dark chocolate
150 ml double cream
Sieve the flour and cocoa to break all the lumps and them mix well with milk and eggs. Leave the batter to stand ideally for an hour or 2 in the fridge. Heat up a small frying pan with a few drops of oil. Pour one ladle of batter and spread evenly over the surface of the pan. Turn the crepe over once the edges are coming away from the pan. Each pancake takes about 2 minutes to take but be careful not to burn as batter is dark already. Leave each pancake to cool before putting on top of each other so that you don’t trap too much moisture between them. Once all pancakes are done you are ready to whip the cream.
Spread the cream over each pancake and spread jam after every 5 pancakes. Once all pancakes are stacked up, spread the rest of the cream over the sides. Place a plate on top and leave in a fridge for a few hours or overnight.
For chocolate ganache, bring double cream to boil and then pour over dark chocolate. Leave it to melt and mix well together to dissolve all the lump. Spread the chocolate over the cake and leave to set for about an hour.
I have been neglecting the blog recently. And this is due to my oven being broken and also spending way too much time outdoors. This summer has not been very hot but then I guess I am getting used to the English mild temperatures. Unfortunately my oven decided to give up on me and it seems to be on a mission to wreck every cake I make. So let’s keep the fingers crossed for the engineer to fix it up really quickly.
On the other hand I found a new yummy recipe for an unbaked cheesecake. I have been experimenting a bit with fresh fruits. I know raspberries and chocolate are a superb combination and so I have tried to mix them into the cheesecake. First, I thought it would be a great idea but then I realised that raspberries have fallen apart very quickly and therefore they got a bit lost in the mixture. So I decided to place raspberries on the biscuit base and to keep them intact. I was delighted that the raspberries did not get crushed. But I quickly realised it is not so easy to spread the chocolate on top of them. However the final cheesecake looked really lovely and tasted delicious.
This cheesecake is very rich and the best way it to keep it chilled. I would strongly recommend to take it out of the fridge about half an hour before serving as it is much easier to cut. Also I prefer to eat it at the room temperature.
170 g digestive biscuits
35 g melted butter
1 tbsp golden sugar
350 ml double cream
200 g soft cream cheese
40 g icing sugar
300 g dark chocolate
200 g fresh raspberries
Line the sides of 9 inch cake tine with baking paper, preferable one with high sides. Brush the side of the tin with melted butter in case the paper does not want to hold on the sides . Crush biscuits with the rolling pin, until they become breadcrumbs. Then mix with golden syrup and butter. Press the crushed biscuits to the cake tin and level out, then leave in the fridge to set.
Place washed and dried raspberries on top of the biscuit base.
Melt the dark chocolate over the boiling water and set aside to cool. Whip the double cream until it thickens, then add icing sugar and cream cheese. Finally add cooled chocolate to the mixture and mix well. Once all the chocolate is incorporated with the cream, transfer the mixture to the tin and spread carefully over the raspberries.
Leave the cheesecake to set in the fridge for at least 4 hours before serving.
I love cakes and especially chocolate ones. Most of the time I am a bit disappointed with the shop bought ones. They tend to be far too sweet and a little bit too much for me. Sometimes it is the use of the buttercream that puts me off the cake completely. I am a great fan of cream and that is probably why most of my cakes are based around double cream rather than buttercream. It is much quicker and less of a hassle to whip the cream.
I also watch my sugar intake and therefore less sugar I can use and eat the better. You are probably shaking your head as cream is much heavier. But I am also a firm believer that small portions of deliciousness are just fine 😉
Cherries are just coming to season and they go very well with dark chocolate. I have made this cake for my friends ages ago. And they really enjoyed it. I like using a regular whisk rather than electric. Cream can be very temperamental and it only takes a couple of seconds to over-whisk it, and the cream will start to separate. It is useful to also consider that spreading cream over the sponge will work as whisking. So the best is to stop whisking while the cream is still liquid.
Sweet Treats: Cherry and Chocolate Cake (serves 6-8)
For Chocolate Sponges
175 g salted butter, plus 10 g for greasing
75 g dark chocolate
300 g plain flour
375 g golden caster sugar
25 g cocoa powder
1 tsp bicarbonate of soda
2 medium eggs
200 g buttermilk
100 ml boiling water
200 ml of double cream
150 g cherries
2 tbsp morello cherries jam
For Chocolate ganache
100 ml double cream
100 ml dark chocolate
Heat the oven to 180°C/160°C fan/mark 4. Grease with butter and line two 8-inch cake tins. Boil the kettle with water. Put chocolate, broken in small pieces, and butter into a small pan, then heat gently and continuously stir until melted. Mix flour, sugar, cocoa, and soda bicarbonate together with a pinch of salt in a bowl. Whisk the eggs and buttermilk until lighter in colour then add to the flour mixture together with melted chocolate. Add 100 ml of boiling water and whisk preferably with electrical whisk, until the mixture is lump free.
Divide the cake mixture into two tins and bake in the oven for 20 minutes. Check with a skewer towards the end of baking time. Cake is ready once the skewer comes out clean. Take both sponges out of the oven and allow to cool down before decorating.
Pit cherries with a cherry pitter if you have one. And cut into halves. Spread the jam over the first sponge and place some of the cherry halves. Spread the whisked cream over. For the chocolate ganache, pour the double cream into a heavy based pot and bring slowly to boil. Pour over the chocolate and allow to melt the chocolate. Once ganache is all melted, pour third over the cream on the first sponge. Place the second sponge on the top and pour the rest of the ganache. Place the rest of the cherries over the ganache. Allow the cake to stand for about 2 hours until ganache hardens a bit. You can also place the cake to the fridge to speed up the process.
Asparagus season is always so exciting! I was not impressed by asparagus as a child. Back home we had only pickled white asparagus. The colour of it was a little bit off putting. My mum was very curious but we gave up very quickly, as none of us liked it. However I was still determined to try it fresh when I moved to London. And I can honestly say that I just love the fresh green asparagus! So no surprises I have been gorging on it for about 3 weeks now… Some shops sell the thin variety which is super easy to prepare and tastes lovely.
My favourite way of having asparagus is in a risotto. I love how well it goes with the rice and peas. A little bit of chilli sauce is excellent to enhance the flavours. I have decided to add some of the goat’s cheese just towards the end of cooking. The crumbled pieces melted beautifully into the risotto and add some delicious nutty flavour.
I also like to add a bit of meat just to bring a bit of saltiness and a crisp finish. Sliced chorizo is delicious when fried on a hot pan. In this way each slice crisps up and some of the fat melts away. If you prefer you can also fry a few prawns or just keep the risotto as vegetarian option.
Asparagus and White Wine Risotto with Crispy Chorizo
80 g frozen peas
1 cup rice
3 cloves of garlic
80 ml white wine
400 ml vegetable or chicken stock
70 g goat’s cheese
50 g sliced chorizo
Chop the garlic into small pieces or if you have a garlic press put through to create a paste. Fry garlic with olive oil on ow heat until it become darker in colour. Add white wine and leave to simmer until wine and oil incorporate together. Wine is cooked off once all the oily spots disappear and the mixture has one consisted colour. Add the rice and fry further until all liquid is soaked up. Keep on the heat for a bit longer to fry the rice. Add part of a chicken stock and leave to simmer. After 5 minutes add asparagus and frozen peas. Keep pouring the stock as required to keep the rice covered. Keep stirring until mixture starts to thicken.
Once rice is cooked, add broken cheese pieces and chilli sauce. Mix well to allow cheese to melt. Fry chorizo slices in a separate pan until crispy. Plate up risotto and decorate with fried chorizo slices.
As you probably noticed tarts are somehow my favourite desserts to make. If I am lucky they look and also taste lovely. I am very lucky that my friend has some mini tart tins I could use.
This time I decided to up pastry leftovers I had. It was not enough to make another large tart, I thought, so I made four small ones instead. The decorating was no rocket science as I still had some blueberries in the fridge. And so in the end I managed to make rather cute looking blueberry tarts with a bit of a passion fruit syrup.
I have learnt a few tricks since working with a shortcrust pastry. Never push pastry with a rolling pin to stretch it. Just roll it out with sharp but short strokes. Pastry sometimes crumbles a lot but be patient and it will eventually work. When blind baking always ensure the pastry is crispy and has sort of a biscuity texture before removing the baking parchment with the beans. And once the pastry is turning nicely golden it will be lovely and dry when filled with the cream.
Sweet Treats: Blueberry Tarts with a Passionfruit Syrup
For the pastry
200 g plain flour
100 g cold unsalted butter, cut into cubes
2 tbsp cold water
For the filling
100 ml double cream
4 tbsp passion fruit syrup
250 g blueberries
For the pastry, rub the butter, with your fingertips, into the flour to create a breadcrumb texture. Shake the bowl every now and then to allow large lumps come to the surface. Once the texture is fairly even sprinkle a little bit of water and work the dough with a round end knife until it come together. Bring the dough together with your hands and tip on a surface. Sprinkle the surface with a bit of flour, this will make it easier when rolling the pastry. Sprinkle a bit more flour on the rolling pin and roll the pastry to about 1 mm thickness. Cut the pastry to a slightly larger size than each tin and lay carefully over each tin. Press the dough into the wrinkled corners of tin using your fingers. Chill for about 20 minutes.
Heat the oven to 200 C/180 C fan/ gas 6. cover the pastry with a baking parchment sand fill with baking beans. Blind bake for about 10 minutes and then without the paper for another 5-8 minutes. Take out of the oven once golden in colour and allow to cool down. Trim the edges with a sharp knife to cut the overhanging pastry.
Whip the double cream until it is about to thicken and then spread over each pastry shell. Spread some of the passion fruit syrup over each tart. Or if you prefer whip the syrup with the cream. Place blueberries in circles starting with the outer circle. And finally sprinkle a little bit of icing sugar on top.
When I think of an early summer I am always reminded of strawberries. They are the first tempting taste of those lovely warm evenings. The gorgeous bright red colour is perfect for the summer and it just gives us a light hint that spring is slowly coming to an end.
Ideally strawberries should be collected in late May or June to ensure they had enough time to develop its full fruity flavour. I still remember impatiently grabbing first crop in my parent’s garden. We had mostly forest strawberries that are much smaller and taste very different from the perfect shop bought ones. But the advantage was that they took less time to ripe and their taste was much stronger. However cooking with these little treasures was not an option. Well I guess it would be if we ever left them alone. But we had a perfect excuse of ‘protecting’ them from evil snails.
My mum always made some strawberry jam and the making of it made our house smell like fairytale. She loved leaving big pieces of strawberries so that we had juicy chunks mixed with delicious sweet and sticky juice. Later she admitted to us that she just didn’t fancy chopping all the fruits. Apparently she found it far to tedious.
This cake is very simple and takes only and hour or so to make. The sponge itself is a basic Victoria Sponge recipe. I love the combination of rich cream with fruitiness of the strawberries and delicious vanilla sponge. You can also add some jam if you wish to sandwich the two sponges.
Sweet Treats: Strawberry&Cream with Vanilla Sponge Cake (serves 8-10)
4 medium eggs
225 g softened unsalted butter
220 g self raising flour
220 g caster sugar
2 tsp baking powder
1 tsp vanilla essence
200 ml double cream
2 tbsp strawberry jam
1 packet of strawberries (about 200 g)
Preheat the oven to 180° C/150° C fan. Grease the 2 sandwich tins with butter and dust with flour, or with greaseproof paper.
Whip the softened butter with sugar until pale, and then add eggs, and the rest of the ingredients. Mix until combined. The mixture should be light and easy to spread. Do not over-mix as that would stop sponges from rising. Fill both tins with roughly the same amount of the mixture and place in the oven next to each other.
Leave to bake for about 20-25 minutes. You might need to rotate your tins in the oven to allow an even bake. Check the cake after about 20 minutes and test with a toothpick. if the toothpick comes out clean then sponge are done. Set aside to cool for about 5 minutes. Then release both sponges from the tins and leave to cool on the side, preferably on a cooling rack if you have one.
Whip the double cream until it is just about to start to thicken. Then spread over both sponges. If you wish you can also spread strawberry jam over the bottom sponge. Place some of the sliced strawberries on the top of the sponge and sandwich both layers together. Scatter the rest of the strawberries on the top of the cake and dust with icing sugar.
I was thinking recently that I have never tried to bake or prepare rhubarb. This is such an lovely ingredient and still I was never even tempted to try. However this time, I realized that rhubarb is actually in season, as I stood in the veg and fruit section in one of my local shops. So I grabbed a packet and decided to make a tart for my friends as they were coming for lunch in a couple of days.
When I make tarts I always prepare my own pastry. I used the shop-bought one a couple of times and I must admit it is an easy option. But I just love making it myself. It is not so difficult and you can most definitely spot the difference in the texture and also in the overall taste. My hands are usually very cold and this is very useful when working with butter. Some recipes suggest to use food processor when starting the breadcrumb process but I prefer to do it myself. In this way I get a better feeling on how much more liquid is needed and how the pastry is binding together.
Rhubarb itself is super easy to prepare. I bought the forced rhubarb which was unfortunately more green than lovely pink colour. But once cooked the colour became paler and lighter. I was unsure whether the round tin will work when arranging the stalk. But then I figured out the way of placing each segment without breaking it too much.
Sweet Treats: Rhubarb Tart (serves 8)
450 g rhubarb, trimmed and cut into 13 cm long batons
1 tsp vanilla essence
50 g caster sugar
juice form 1/2 lemon
225 g plain flour
20 g ground almonds
2 tbsp icing sugar
140 g cold unsalted butter
1 egg yolk
For creme patisserie
250 ml milk
2 egg yolks
2 rbsp caster sugar
1 tbsp cornflour
1 tbsp plain flour
50 ml double cream
Put sugar, vanilla essence and lemon sugar with about 300 ml water in a wide pan or casserole and bring to boil over the low heat. Once the sugar is dissolved add the rhubarb batons and ensure that rhubarb is covered with the liquid. Leave to simmer for about 5 minutes. Then take from the heat and allow to cool. Keep the rhubarb in the sirup for another 1 hour or up to 1 day.
For the pastry, mix butter and flour with almonds and sugar in a bowl. Use your fingers to break the chunks of butter and to create breadcrumb texture. Stir the ingredients every now and then to allow large chunks come to the surface. Then add egg yolk and dribble of 1-2 tbsp cold water. Knead the pastry briefly to allow all ingredients come together and to form a dough. Wrap in cling film and allow to chill for 30 minutes in the fridge.
For creme patisserie, place milk and vanilla essence on the hob and bring to boil on a medium heat. Whilst milk is coming to a boil, whisk the egg yolks and sugar together with flour in a bowl, until pale and light. Pour the hot milk whilst whisking the eggs mixture. Place the mixture back on the medium heat (in a clean pan) and stir continuously until it becomes thick and covers the back of the spoon. Be careful with the heat at this stage, as creme is very likely to stick and burn at the base of the pan. Scrape the creme into a bowl and cover it to prevent the skin formation. Chill for 1 hour and up to 2 days.
Roll out the pastry to about 1-2mm thickness and line the tart tin. Press the pastry into the flute edges of the tin and ensure it is also overhanging the edges of the tin. Chill for another 30 minutes. Heat the oven for 200 C/180 C fan/ gas 6. Line the pastry with a baking parchment and place baking beans on top. Blind bake for 20 min and temvoe the baking parchment. Then bake for another 6-8 minutes until pastry is golden and dry. Whilst pastry is still hot trim the edges of the tin with a sharp knife. Cool in the tin.
Remove the rhubarb from the syrup and set aside. Then bring the syrup to boil until it becomes thick and sticky. Leave on the side to cool down.
Whisk the cream until stiff and carefully fold in the creme patisserie. Fill the pastry case with the creme patiserrie and smooth the surface. Then line the rhubarb on the creme and ensure the whole surface is covered with the rhubarb. Glaze the tart with the rhubarb syrup and chill for 30 minutes.