The Blue Cross says: Paws for Tea.Red Fruits Tart

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Is there a nicer way to help raise money for pets in need than throwing a Tea Party?
I don’t think so.

I always had a fascination for tea parties, I used to throw one each afternoon for my dollies, pouring imaginary tea and serving imaginary cakes with my whimsical blue and white Dutch china tea set. At the time I felt I was doing something outrageously exotic but my friends later confessed that they thought it was quite a snobbish ritual, as Italian children usually have a not so fancy “merenda” in the afternoon, no tea involved, just a glass of milk and a slice of sponge cake with some home made jam or some bread with Nutella. Moreover Italian children drink very light tea with a slice of lemon, a kind of yellowish warm water, only to recover from a stomach bug or indigestion and never for the pleasure of it. Oh my, how uncivilized of us !

I honestly think that being in charge of serving tea to comfortably seated people was the psychological trigger that made me want to be an air hostess in the first place (and yes, also travelling around the word, sleeping in 5 stars hotel and going out for dinner with handsome men in uniform might have played a role).

The Blue Cross doesn’t really need any introduction as they have been taking care of sick and injured unwanted pets, finding them new loving homes from 1897. They really are a god send to animals in need and to animal lovers. So immagine my joy when they asked me to bake some goodies to be sold as refreshment at The Burford Centre Tea Party.
I’ll never bake for a better reason, that’s for sure.

I baked a range of different things, but my red fruit tart was considered good enough to be offered as a prize in the raffle so I feel I should share the recipe with all you tea party enthusiasts.

Creme patissiere filling:

g 500 whole milk
g 175 granulated sugar
g 40 glucose syrup
g 25 corn starch
g 25 all purpose flour
g 50 egg yolk
g 50 whole egg
1 vanilla bean
1 finely grated unwaxed lemon zest

Bring the milk to the boil, mix all the other ingredients together into a bowl and when the milk is hot pour the half into the egg mixture and stir. Pour it back into the pan with the rest of the milk and bring it back to the boil, stirring constantly. Remove from the heat as soon as it starts to thicken. Pour into a cold bowl and keep on mixing until lukewarm. Then cover with cling film and let it cool.
My trick to get a silky smooth custard is to use a blender to stir it when it is on the heat

g 175 unsalted butter
g 150 icing sugar
g 25 whole egg
g 250 type OO flour
g 1.5 salt
1/2 vanilla pod
1 lemon grated zest
g 2.5 baking powder

To make the shortcrust: cream the room temperature butter with the icing sugar first, then add slowly egg, vanilla  and lemon zest. Add the baking powder to the flour, sieve it, and when the buttercream mixture is smooth add the dry ingredients all at once. Mix until the flour is absorbed, but don’t overwork it as you want your shortcrust to be crumbly, not tough.

Preheat oven to 180°C, and place a rack in center. Roll gently the the dough on a slightly floured surface  and line a pre greased fluted tart pan with it. Prick gently  with a fork to prevent the dough from puffing up as it bakes. Cover the pastry with oven paper and pour baking beans  or a smaller tart pan on the top. Bake it for 15 mins then take it out, remove baking beans and oven paper and let it golden into the oven, same temperature.

Remove from oven and place on a wire rack to cool completely before filling. Best thing would be to brush the bottom with melted cocoa butter to prevent it from absorbing to much moist from the custard, or to fill it last minute before serving, as Mary Berry HRM of pudding would put it: “Nobody likes soggy bottoms!”

Top it nicely with seasonal fruit of your choice, here some grand ideas   and if you want it to last for a couple of days you might want to pour some vegetable gelatin or warm clear fruit jelly on it otherwise the fruit will brown and leak on the custard.

Nice to know: creaming the butter makes all the difference in terms of elasticity and flexibility of the dough. So no more swearing when you try to line a tart pan or worse a tartlet mould with a shortcrust that melts and crumbles in your hands.
Hip hip hooray for Fabrizio Donatone, the Maestro (third place at Coupe du Monde de la Patisserie in Lyon 2007 with Jessica a chocolate cake that can blow your shoes…and socks off) who taught me this miracle swear-free shortcrust.

La Colomba – Easter dove cake: come fly with me!

dove cake

“And I said, Oh that I had wings like a dove!
For then would I fly away, and be at rest.”
Psalms 55:6

The Colomba Pasquale, Easter dove cake, is a sweet and rich yeast dough, which traditionally closes the Italian Easter dinner. It has a strong symbolic value in proclaiming peace and announcing that it’s time to put away our heavy Winter clothing as the Spring good weather is just behind the corner, well, at least in Italy!

Story goes that the gift of sweet bread shaped as a dove by an artisan baker of Pavia sweetened the embittered spirits of the barbarian king Alboino and saved the city from being ransacked by his hoard of Longobardi.

Another legend links its origin to the battle of Legnano fought between the forces of the Holy Roman Empire, led by the German Emperor Frederik Barbarossa, and the Italian Lombard league. The brave union of Lombard cities managed to quash the Imperial vanguard and brought an end to the German rule on Northern Italy. A sweet bread was then baked to honour three white doves that were seen “guarding” the Lombardy standard during the battle.

More recently the meek Dove Cake took by storm Italian festive tables and became the emblem of the Italian Easter around the 30s of last century, when Dino Villani, an iconic ad man who was at the time working for Motta, a company specialized in baking Panettone, had a brilliant idea to launch  for Easter time a pastry preparation using the same ingredient as panettone and the same machinery but molded in the shape of a dove and enriched with almond paste and icing sugar.

A little bird told me that this idea made the company a lot of money!

Among Colomba fine ingredients are a large amount of eggs, flour, butter, sugar, honey and a generous amount of candied citrus peel. To allow such a heavy dough to rise and get its micro bee-hive like texture it would be best to use a mature and ready to rumble natural yeast or sourdough, although you can find a little cheat recipe here.

Now arm yourself with Zen patience, read the recipe a couple of times and let’s open together the window to this sweet little Italian bird that, accordingly to an old ad, “tastes like Spring itself”.

Ingredients of dough 1 (for 3 dove cakes of 750g each)
g 500 very strong white flour
g 160 granulated sugar
g 190 unsalted room temperature butter
g 260 lukewarm water
g 260 room temperature egg yolks
g 125 matured natural yeast starter (aka sourdough starter); it must able to triplicate is volume in circa 3 hours  when left to prove at room temperature
g 12 Malt (powder or syrup)

How to make dough 1 : dissolve the sugar in the water,add the flour and the natural yeast and put the mixture into a planetary mixer with dough hook attachment on, and let it work for 10 minutes until smooth.
Add the soft butter piece by piece, while the machine is working, and let the dough incorporate it; when it’s fully incorporated add the slightly pre-beaten egg yolks slowly, with the planetary still working, and again let the dough incorporate them.
The operation should not last longer than 25 mins, be watchful that the dough doesn’t became to shiny, which means it’s got too warm and is expelling the fats, and when it seams elastic enough (pinch it and pull it and see that it has developed enough gluten to spring back quickly like an elastic band). Then put it in an air tight container and leave it to prove 12 hours in the fridge until its volume triplicates.

Ingredients of dough 2
g 125 “OO”type flour
g 63 granulated sugar
g 95 honey
g 190 unsalted butter (90 g room temperature, 100g melted)
g 190 egg yolks
g 5 salt
g 600 candied citrus peel, (orange, lemon, cedar etc.)
2 orange zest
2 lemon zest
2 vanilla pod

g 100 unpealed almonds
g 50 hazelnuts
g 200 granulated sugar
g 10 cocoa powder
g 10 corn flour (polenta flour)
g 10 potato starch
g 150 egg white


How to make the glaze: put all the ingredients into a cutter with a sharp blade and cut them very finely; add the egg white  spoon by spoon and stir; if it seems to be getting too runny refrain from using all the egg white, as the consistency must be thick.

How to make dough 2 : put dough 1 into the planetary mixer, add the flour and the sugar and let it be kneaded by the machine for 10-15 minutes.
Add the salt, and let the dough incorporates it, add the softened butter by piece and then the egg yolks as you have done for the dough 1. When the dough seems elastic enough stop the planetary, add the melted butter and the candied peels and let the planetary work it again until the peels will be fully incorporated.
Then take the dough and weight it and cut it accordingly to the dove paper mould you have bought  (1 kg, 750 g, 250 g). Put the dough into the moulds and put the moulds in the oven with only the light on (temperature is around 28°C in there ideally to let it prove).

Let them rise until the 3/4 of the mould then add the glaze, let it rise again until the dough reaches the rim of the moulds.
Bake them into a preheated oven at 160°C for 40-50 mins.
Hang them to upside down using some skewers or knitting needles and leave them to cool for 12 hours.

Now bag them nicely and give them away to your best friends and see your popularity taking off as this little bird lands on their festive tables.

This recipe is by one of my Pastry Art teachers, Maestro Fabrizio Donatone winner of the bronze medal at the World Cup of Pastries  in Lyon; its signature Dove cake with cocoa glaze is featured among the best 3 in Rome.


Hey, Piche’s apple pie!

P1010630_2Good Apple Pies are a considerable part of our domestic happiness.”
Jane Austen

No offence to the other fruit but the apple might well be the fruit par excellence.
I bet that if somebody was to go around asking people to name the first fruit they can think of  apple would come to their mind first.

It is the most represented fruit in history of art and holds a very important place in mythology too. Looking at a beautiful red apple is not difficult to understand why its spheric shape suggested to philosophers the bond between the earth and the sky, a unity of the opposite in a whole spiritual entity,that made this fruit a symbol of power, knowledge and sensuality.

In the Scandinavian mythology the apple was the food of the gods and it was a golden apple cast among the greek goddesses and addressed to the Fairest of them, that led to the Trojan war.
In ancient Greece throwing an apple to somebody was a love declaration or invitation to a love meeting (ouch I see that a lot can go wrong here)

I don’t know if it’s true what they say about apple keeping away the doctors, but it’s a fact that its health properties ranging from cholesterol lowering to diabetes management are well known, although it has also been discovered that its acidity can damage our teeth.

A suggestion, if you want to allure someone, why don’t you give them a slice of this heavenly pie, a recipe of the maestro Luca Montersino, no need of throwing any apples around…. unless the object of your love is a theoretical physicist, in that case aim for the head!

P.S. My mum made this apple pie for two special little friends of mine, Anna and Sofia, hence the name “Piche” which is Italian baby talk meaning piccole (little ones) , they were really young at the time but can still remember the lovely smell…and taste!

g 200 butter
g 100 granulated sugar
g 10 salt
g 50 egg
g 100 water
g 550 “00” type flour

g 1000 apple ( try apple with least water content you can find)
g 100 granulated sugar
g 20 lemon juice
g 25 corn flour
g 4 cinnamon (powder)
1 tbsp good vanilla extract
1 tbsp lemon zest (finely grated)

How to make the dough: put room temperature butter, sugar and salt into the planetary mixer with the beater attachment on and let it go until well mixed, but do not cream it.
Slitghly whisk water and egg together and pour it into the mixture, let the mixer go again for a couple of minutes (don’t worry if they won’t come together as we need some loose liquid to help the dough develop some gluten to retain the heavy filling) and then add the flour all at once and let the mixer work it until the dough comes together.
Put the dough onto a wooden board and work it until it gets smooth and elastic.

Peel and cut the apples, the pieces should be as big as a finger tip, then add all the other filling ingredients starting from the lemon juice that will avoid the browning.

Grease a pie pan of your choice and then line it with a thin layer of pastry, prick the bottom evenly with a fork and fill it with the apple mixture. Place a second thin layer of dough on top of the pie filling, prick it with a fork to vent. Seal the edges of the crust with a fork or by hand. Dot with butter and sprinkle with granulated sugar

Bake at 180°C for 45 minutes or until the crust is golden and the filling is bubbly.
Leave it to cool on a cake rack and hey apple pie !

Mini Chocolate Turnovers

choc turnovers

Juggling everything we have to do to keep our modern life running smoothly can be pretty complicated, so sometimes we really need something sweet, innocent and easy to put our mind and soul at ease.

By the way, that reminds me about of what Woody Allen once said about life, in a true stroke of genius:

“In my next life I want to live my life backwards. You start out dead and get that out of the way.
Then you wake up in an old people’s home feeling better every day. You get kicked out for being too healthy, go collect your pension, and then when you start work, you get a gold watch and a party on your first day.
You work for 40 years until you’re young enough to enjoy your retirement.You party, drink alcohol, and are generally promiscuous, and then you are ready for high school. You then go to primary school, you become a kid, you play. You have no responsibilities, you become a baby until you are born.
And then you spend your last 9 months floating in luxurious spa-like conditions with central heating and room service on tap, larger quarters every day and then voilà, you finish off as an orgasm!”

When you feel like you wanted to live your life backwards,  spare on the shrink’s bill and soothe yourself and your loved ones with these zero effort mini chocolate turnovers.
It’s an easy peasy mixed spice flavoured pate sucrée with a rich ricotta and chocolate filling, good for breakfast and afternoon tea.

And  voilà, you’ll feel reborn!

Pate Sucrée ( shortcrust ):
g 185 plain flour
4 tbsp caster sugar
g 90 salted butter ( diced, room temperature )
g 55 egg
2 tbsp milk
1 tsp mixed spice
1 tsp ground cinnamon
1 tbsp orange zest ( finely grated )

g 150 ricotta cheese
g 70 dark chocolate ( finely grated )
2 tbsp caster sugar
1 tbsp good vanilla extract

How to make the turnovers: simply put flour, sugar, spices, orange zest and butter in a food processor and process until it comes together like big bread-crumbs. Add the wet ingredients left to cling it, kned it gently until smooth but no longer and leave to rest in the fridge for a couple of hours.

Remove the dough from the fridge and roll it on to a slightly floured surface. Cut it into rounds ( if you use 8 cm round cutter you’ll be able to make about 20 ), put a level teaspoon of the ricotta and chocolate mixture in the centre of any round and brush the edges with egg white, fold in a half and close the pastry to form a half moon.

Place the turnovers onto a lined or greased oven tray and bake them in a preheated oven until firm ( about 15-20 mins ) at 180°C.
Let them cool on wire racks and dust them with vanilla icing sugar and place into an air tight container.

Whats up, Doc? Carrot and almond cake.

Carrot cake

“Vegetables are a must on a diet. I suggest carrot cake, zucchini bread, and pumpkin pie.”
Jim Davis

I agree to some extent with this witty American actor’s take on what a healthy diet should be like.
Zucchini bread is an old Italian classic that I’ve never tried to bake, yet, pumpkin pie is a hate or love it kind of dessert, but carrot cake is a must bake in every repertoire.

Its dark brown colour is comforting and honest and it doesn’t give you the same guilty consciensce that eating any other cake does, after all aren’t carrots one of our five-a-day?

Everybody knows that carrots are healthy but I was surprised to discover how the humble tuber had even a place as a medicinal plant in the gardens of ancient Rome, where it was used as an aphrodisiac and in some cases as part of a potion to prevent poisoning.

In more recent times, in Great Britain during World War Two, the Ministry of food did its best to awake enthusiasm for carrots. “Carrots were truly one of the foods that helped win the war. People experienced culinary delights such as curried carrot, carrot jam, carrot puddings and a homemade drink called Carrolade.”

They also played their part in winning the air battle. “Famously, the Government responded to a temporary wartime oversupply of carrots by suggesting, through propaganda, that the RAF’s exceptional night-flying and target success, was due to eating high carotene content carrots. The ruse worked: consumption of carrots increased sharply because people thought carrots might help them see in the blackout, thus taking the pressure off other food supplies.”

“Joymani !Yipe!”.


Here is the recipe for the cake I made in the picture…

To make the carrot sponge:
g 250 egg
g 200 caster sugar
g 250 ground almond (fine)
g 80 breadcrumbs (or ground amaretti biscuits)
g 250 carrot (grated)
g 15 baking powder

g 160 softened butter
g 160 cream cheese
g 230 icing sugar (sifted)
1 tbs good vanilla essence

To make the sponge: mix room temperature egg and sugar and beat the mixture until it looks like a very fluffy and light pale yellow foam, as you would do for any regular sponge cake. Mix all the dry ingredients and pour it at once into the egg mixture, fold it very gently and carefully in order to not deflate the cake mix. Finally add the grated carrots.
Spoon into the pre-greased and pre-lined cake tin and bake for about an hour, or until a skewer inserted into the cake comes out clean.
Absolutely do not open the oven for the first 45 mins.
Let it cool before removing from the tin, then place on a cake rack and let it cool completely before icing.

To make the icing: beat together cream cheese, softened butter, icing sugar and vanilla essence. Spread the mixture over the cake and decorate with finely chopped walnut, if you wish.

Tip: the main point in baking every sponge cake is for the final texture to be spongy, and by that I mean that the alveolation of the cake must have many micro cavities full of air as in a microscopic honeycomb.To be able to reach that texture we should try not to deflate the cake mixture too much while adding the dry ingredients. It is a real life saver adding a table spoon of luke warm acidic substance, say lemon juice, orange juice, or cider vinegar, before folding the dry ingredients in. So when the egg mixture seems to have reached its full volume and stiffness add it, keep beating for a minute and then add the dry ingredients. It will help stabilize the mixture and retain the air bubble.

Zia Tata’s frappe: a Roman Carnival evergreen

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“The Roman Carnival is not really a festival given for the people but one the people give themselves… everyone has leave to be as mad and foolish as he likes, and almost everything, except fisticuffs and stabbing, is permissible. […] The difference between the social orders seems to be abolished for the time being; everyone accosts everyone else and the insolence and licence of the feast is balanced only by the universal good humour […] the most serious-minded Roman, who has so carefully watched his step all year, throws dignity and prudence to the wind”.

J.W. Von Goethe. Italian Journey, 1786-1788. Penguin, 1970.

Carnival has indeed been for centuries a festival “given for the people by the people”, and its culture of laughter “helped the under classes in medieval and Renaissance times to parody official languages and established notions of high culture”, according to Mikhail Bakhtin, one of the most important literary theorists. The name Carnival itself alludes to a time of “merrymaking” and  grande bouffe before the traditional fasting of Lent.

The revolutionary element of Carnival might have been buried by the dust of time, and Catholics no longer tend to fast during Lent, but Italian people still enjoy making any sort of high-calorie delicatessen during Carnival, more than ever on Fat Thursday, the last Thursday before Lent.The most popular are those sweet, crisp, thin, lemon scented twisted ribbons of dough, deep fried and sprinkled with powdered sugar, called frappe in Rome, but known by many other names across Italy’s other regions and Europe, where they have been integrated into other regional cuisines by immigrant populations.

Chiacchiere, frappe, cenci, crostoli, intrigoni, bugie, galani, sfrappole in Italian, хрушчы (chruščy) in Belarusian, krostole in Croatian,  Klejner in Danish, bugnes in French, Raderkuchen in German, chruściki in Polish, angel wings  and so on.
Take your pick and call them whatever you want, after all hasn’t a famous English man said that “a rose by any other name would smell as sweet”?

On the personal side, this recipe opens the floodgates of my childhood happy memories.These pastries are very special to me, as is the person that has been making them for me and all the little ones in my family for as long as I can remember.
This 84 year old selfless soul has never been too good at expressing her feelings through words so she picked food as medium of choice to let us know that we were loved, nurtured and cherished. We’ve never thanked her enough for what she’s done, and is still doing for us all, not out of rudeness but simply because she’s like a “white hat” good guy in the old westerns, a moral and solid slow talker that has always answered embarrassed: “sì, vabbè” (yes, whatever) to any expression of gratitude.

Hail to my auntie Tata then, I kind of wish I were Proust so that her exquisite pastry ribbons
and the stream of soothing memories and “the feeling of inexplicable happiness” that their smell triggers within my mind would be as famous as aunt Léonie’s madeleines.

Sugar, butter, flour, egg, white wine and lemon zest, I might have discovered the stuff that sweet, happy memories are made of.

g 400 all purpose flour
g 50 granulated sugar
g 50 salted butter(room temperature)
g 150 egg
3-4 tbs dessert wine (vin santo)
1 lemon grated zest
1 tbs good vanilla extract

How to make the dough: beat the eggs, salt and sugar together, add the flour and the soft butter and mix well. Knead the dough on a slightly floured surface, until it’s smooth, but not don’t over-do-it. Roll it very thinly, I use my lasagna sheet pasta maker, and cut it into strips about 8-9 cm long with a pastry wheel. Make a slit in the center of each strip and pull one of the ends through.

How to cook it: preheat vegetable oil to 170°C, it is very important for an even result that you keep the oil at this temperature to ensure even results, I use an oil safe thermometer courtesy of my mum’s dear and thoughtful long time neighbour Pina and it really makes the difference. Drop each strip, one at a time, in the oil; it will cook in less than one minute, so turn them half way through and remove as soon as the colour changes to a pale brown.
Place them on a plate with some paper towels to absorb the excess oil and let them cool down.
Sprinkle with powdered sugar and store in an airtight container.


“C” is for Cookies!

P1010547 copia

I made some of the most iconic American cookies to celebrate the birth of a new friendship with Melissa; finding a friend is always very exciting.
I quite agree with Bernard Meltzer’s point of view that goes: “A true friend is someone who thinks that you are a good egg even though he knows that you are slightly cracked.”

However it’s not friendship I’d like to chat about, in fact, I’d like to focus on the cookies themselves and what they really stand for.
As a matter of fact I consider cookies an indulgence that has a strong power of suggestion upon people of all ages.They are nothing less than topos of the cinematographic language; if vanilla ice cream is the dessert usually associated with break-ups in our collective imagination, well, cookies must then sit just about on the other side of the moon.They are associated to the semantic of love in its most pure and jubilant form.
It goes without saying: if you’re eating ice cream in a film you must be feeling miserable and looking for self soothing, while if you’re either baking or eating warm cookies you must be at ease or spurting sparks of joy and wanting to share your crunchy little wheels of happiness with your loved ones.

The desire unleashed by cookies is irrepressible, and triggers in the individual a basic urge to have one immediately, regardless of the safety of themselves and others.

As any other pleasure in life cookies aren’t free from side effects, which their packagings should be legally obliged to list. Something along the lines of: “attention eating too many can turn you in a monster with bad manners and poor grammar skills”.

Allergy advice : am I the only one that thinks that writing “attention may contains traces of peanuts” on a peanut butter jar is hilarious?
However, if you suffer from nut allergy please stay away from this recipe and nurture your soul instead with this lovely short story about a cookie thief

Ingredients for about 40:
g 125 butter, chopped
g 220 brown sugar, firmly packed
g 50 egg
g 130 crunchy peanut butter
g 225 all purpose flour
g 105 peanuts, roughly chopped
g 200 dark chocolate drops
1 tbs good vanilla essence

How to make the cookie dough: beat room temperature butter, peanut butter, sugar, egg and essence in a bowl with electric mixer until smooth. Stir in flour, peanuts and choc drops and let it cool in the fridge for a couple of hours.
Roll rounded tablespoons of the mixture into balls, place on oven trays, flatten with a slightly floured fork.

Bake in a preheated oven at 180°C for 15 mins, or until browned.
Let them cool on trays.