No Sardines in Sardinia

When we came back from Naples, A and I had uneasy thoughts about our next trip to Italy. Naples had been a shock to the system, grimy, gritty, hard to love. Would Sardinia be the same?

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At first, we weren’t sure. Rolling our suitcase out of Alghero’s tiny airport, we headed for the car rental stall, only to see a group of angry Germans arguing furiously with a group of 5 sunglasses-clad deeply bronzed Italians manning the desk. It took all 5 of them to sort out one car for this increasingly irate man.

Thankfully, our own car hire was a smooth, relatively uneventful process. The Ford Fiesta was a step up from the car I had originally picked, and soon we were driving out of the airport, deep into the midst of olive groves, green hills, the roads lined with poppies and other wildflowers. Blue skies ahead, I felt utterly content.

The hotel too was a dream, surrounded by gloriously green countryside. I completely fell in love with the swimming pool, and A was rather bemused at how much time I spent floating about in it. 

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With huddles of sheep in the distance, and the trill of birdsong in the air, tortoises crawling across the road, you just couldn’t get further away from the busy urban life of work, London and commuting.

I’m not sure I remember doing much in the way of tourist attractions apart from exploring some of Sardinia’s nuraghe, stone towers that are the last remnants of an ancient civilisation. So much more interesting than Stonehenge, and dotted just about everywhere.

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The rest of the short holiday was naturally spent happily doing laps in the gorgeous hotel swimming pool, or sunning myself on a virtually empty beach, hills dotted with purple blooms of wild orchids rising into the background.

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It was just simply perfect. Not to mention the fresh seafood, grilled on the beach, and served up with a fresh tablecloth, napkins, and squeeze of lemon, because fish and chips has a totally different meaning Italian-style.

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When all you want is a little R n’ R, I cannot recommend Sardinia highly enough. It was a perfect holiday destination, and I can’t wait to go back.

Nutella Torrone

I’m on a bit of a downer this week. It comes of post-holiday blues, and too much time spent on Facebook. Oh Facebook, how great you make everybody’s lives look. Also despite the startlingly warm Autumn we’ve been having, the clocks have turned back and it is horribly dark in the evenings. Urgh. Winter is Coming.

So I tried to create a taste of warmer climes – Italian torrone.

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Torrone comes in two forms, the hard, chewy nougat you get in the UK, and the softer, truffley version. I tried some when I was in Naples, it’s sweet and rich and you can only eat tiny pieces before starting to feel sick. I used a recipe from Italian blog Dolci a go go with the aid of Google Translate.

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I found making the torrone was a bit faffy. Nothing particularly hard – just lots of melting of chocolate, and sticking the whole lot in the fridge to set. You know when you make something, and you’ve had fun making it, but you probably won’t ever bother making it again? Yeah, I think this goes into that category. However, I do reckon it could go down very well as an edible Christmas gift, especially if you use the torrone as a vehicle for dried and candied fruit, nuts and chocolate pieces.  Think of it as a fancy Italian fridge cake!

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Nutella Torrone

Adapted from Dolci a go go

  • 200g dark chocolate
  • 200g white chocolate
  • 400g nutella
  • 250g whole hazelnuts

Preheat the oven to 180˚C. Spread the hazelnuts out in a single layer on a baking sheet and toast until lightly browned and fragrant, tossing them occasionally to make sure they toast evenly. Allow the hazelnuts to cool.

Melt 150g dark chocolate. Using a brush, cover the inside of a non-stick loaf tin with the melted chocolate, pop in the fridge to set, and then brush another layer on until all the chocolate is used up. This forms a chocolate shell around the torrone.

Then melt the white chocolate, and mix together with the nutella and toasted hazelnuts. Allow to cool slightly so when you add it to the tin, it doesn’t melt the dark chocolate shell. Fill the tin with the nutella cream, and tap to level out. Return to the fridge overnight to set completely.

Melt the remaining 50g dark chocolate and pour over the set nutella cream to form the dark chocolate base of the torrone. Return to the fridge to set completely.

Turn the tin upside down, and firmly tap to release the torrone. It should slide out without any problems. Cut into thin slices with a hot sharp knife.

Nomming Through Naples

“See Naples and die.”

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Thus goes the saying, referring to a time when Naples was so beautiful you had to see it in your lifetime. These days? Well, I travelled to Naples this Autumn, and I can’t help thinking the saying takes on a whole new meaning.

Naples has a pretty unsavoury reputation. Before my visit, I’d heard stories about the strong mafia presence, heavy crime levels and piles of refuse heaping the streets. As soon as we exited the airport, it looked like the rumours were true. An angry taxi driver gesticulated and shouted at quaking young tourist. The mêlée of screeching crowds vying with zigzagging mopeds in the dirty, graffiti-plastered historic centre was both dismayingly loud and claustrophobic.

So it’s not an inviting city, that’s fair to say. The historical centre, with its narrow almost derelict houses and swathes of laundry, almost feels like a step back into the middle ages. People fling buckets of dirty water out into the street, household refuse piles up in unsuspecting corners, and vagrants paw through the communual rubbish bins. By day, there is a certain charm about some of the streets, peddling their wares of nativity scenes, red horns to protect against the evil eye, gelato, and local specialities. By night, the poorly lit alleyways are menacing rather than exciting.

We did try our hardest to explore Naples, and behind its grimy coating, the city does offer some bright, albeit well-hidden gems. Traditional taverna Cantina del Gallo was the best place we ate at. We arrived at the doorway, only to be warmly welcomed by the owner and tempted with plate after plate of delicious nibbles.

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The arancini were delicious, as were as the mini pizzettes and the croquetes. The pizzas you could watch being made in the open plan kitchen and they came generously topped and full of fresh flavours.

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For the home of pizza we tried out a fair few. Neopolitan favourite Gino Sorbillo also do a roaring trade in traditional stonebaked pizzas. You won’t get good customer service, but you will get a very very tasty pizza. Go early or be prepared to queue for a very, very long time.

For the sweeter-toothed, Pastisserie S. Caparelli did the best sfogliatella, delicious ricotta filled pastries, and you got them with a smile too, which was a bonus.

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Gay Odin do very tasty fruit sorbets, gelato and the Italian classic, torrone morbido. I’m going to try and make some of this soft, almost truffley torrone soon once I find a workable recipe.

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There aren’t a lot of exciting attractions to see in Naples otherwise. The archeological museum is worth a glimpse for the stunning mosaics and rude roman paraphenalia, but often the good exhibits are shut due to staff shortages. The Capella Sansevero is worth a visit due for the beautiful sculptures and anatomical machines. Italy has a wealth of beautiful churches, and I guess once you’ve seen a few, there’s only so much you can gasp in awe.

I imagine most travellers use Naples as a pit stop for the Almalfi coastline (where we didn’t go, sob) or the sights of Pompeii. It’s probably quite harsh of me to say so, but I certainly wouldn’t regard Naples as a place to return to again. There are a few goodies, but it’s not enough to entice me back.

Penne Carbonara

I was once told by an Italian that the way I pronounced penne actually sounded like pene, the Italian word for penis. And no matter how much I tried to correct my pronunciation, it always caused a riot of mirth whenever I started talking about pasta. So maybe I should only whisper the name of this dish in the vincinity of any Italian-speakers out there. Just in case.

I realise that this carbonara may be my first savoury recipe post of the year! Shock, horror! What a glorious thing it is too. As with most pasta-based dishes, it is surprisingly quick and speedy to concot, as well as being perfect for dinner à deux. I’d never cooked this before, so turned to Google for a quick skim. The sheer volume of different recipes out there, in all shapes, sizes and uctuousness, is quite mind-boggling.

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In the end, I went for a trusty James Martin recipe, which requires a rib-sticking quantity of double cream. I had only a dribble left over from making this summer berry cheesecake, so substituted the remainder with single cream. The quantity we made could easily serve 4, but you can adapt it for 2 just by halving the ingredients.

I realise that the way I’ve made this, it’s not strictly speaking an authentic carbonara anymore. However, the mushrooms and spinach do add a zazzle of colour, texture and some veg so I’m not complaining!

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By the way, the mirth I generated amongst Italians was not limited to pasta dishes alone. Chicken Katsu was thought to be very amusing too. I don’t think I should elaborate on this.

Penne Carbonara

Adapted from James Martin on BBC Food

  • 1 tbsp olive oil
  • 150g pancetta, cubed
  • 150g mushrooms, sliced
  • 1 handful fresh spinach
  • 3 egg yolks
  • 25ml double cream
  • 75ml single cream
  • 50g finely grated parmesan (reserve some for sprinkling)
  • 350g penne
  • salt and pepper
  • 3 tbsp fresh flat-leaf parsley, finely chopped

Heat the oil in a frying pan until hot, then add the pancetta and cook until crispy. Add the mushrooms and when almost cooked, throw in the spinach until just wilted. Set to one side.

In a large bowl, mix the egg yolks, cream and most of the parmesan, reserving some for sprinkling later. Season well with salt and pepper.

In a pan of salted boiling water, cook the penne until done. Drain, then add to the bowl of cream mixture, and stir continuously until smooth. Add the parsley.

Dish the pasta into bowls, and season again with salt and pepper. Garnish with a sprinkling of parmesan, and a little sprig of parsley. Serve outdoors in the summer sun, with a simple tomato salad on the side.

Chocolate Nemesis Cake

I’d like this year to be the year I restarted running. After marathon plans fell through, my efforts tailed off last year due to a combination of lack of motivation, extensive travelling, and a lack of time.  Anyway, one of the best feelings after a long run is the knowledge that you can stretch out your aching muscles, and curl up to a thin sliver of chocolate luxury.

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The River Cafe’s Chocolate Nemesis Cake is well-named. It is notorious for its difficulty, yet despite this, remains incredibly popular thanks to its reputation for being one of the Most Delicious Chocolate Cakes Ever. I thought it was about time I tried out a new challenge, and so this cake came into being.

It certainly lived up to its reputation. I found this cake rather complicated in its method.  It needs to be baked in a water-bath, and I have yet to acquire the skill of wrapping my cake tins so they don’t leak. There was a little water leakage onto the edges of the cake, not enough to affect the texture, but enough to make me think twice about baking this again. If anyone knows a foolproof way of wrapping cake tins so they are watertight, I would be delighted to know a good trick or two!

On first taste the Chocolate Nemesis was actually slightly disappointing – lightly moussey, which wasn’t what I was looking for. However, I went back to it a few hours later and was sold. It had settled into a very dense, almost fudge-like texture of chocolatey intensity.

I turned it out onto the cake stand upside down, but this is what it looks like once baked:

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The image is pleasingly similar to the picture in the cookbook, but I am keen to know how it looks at the actual River Cafe restaurant.

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Chocolate Nemesis Cake

Slightly adapted from River Cafe Cookbook Easy

  • 272g dark chocolate
  • 180g unsalted butter
  • 112g +56g caster sugar
  • 80ml water
  • 4 eggs

Grease and line a 23cm cake tin. Wrap around the tin securely with tin-foil. Preheat the oven to 120˚C.

Melt the chocolate and butter together in a bain-marie and set to one side. In a small saucepan, heat 56g caster sugar with the water so the sugar dissolves into a light syrup. Bring it just to the boil, and take off the heat. Pour the syrup into the chocolate, leave for 1 minute, and stir together. Allow the chocolate mixture to cool.

Whisk the eggs with 112g sugar until quadrupled in volume. Pour the cooled chocolate mixture, and beat on a very slow speed until it starts to come together. Finish mixing with a spatula.

Boil a large pan of water for the water bath. This probably works out better than having to boil the kettle three times in a row.

In a large roasting tin, fold a tea-towel and place it on the bottom. Place the cake tin on top of the tea towel. Then pour in the water until it comes three-quarters up the sides of the cake tin, and bake for around 50 minutes (it took 49 in my oven) until set. Leave the cake to cool in the water before turning it out of its tin. Leave it aside for a few hours to settle before serving.  Cut into thin slices with a hot sharp knife.

Creamy Mushroom Risotto

A very blustery run today, although the sun was out which never fails to cheer me up. I’m finding my usual route getting a bit slippery and slidey, and there are still some fallen trees from the St Jude’s storm, so it’s a bit of an obstacle course at times!

Today’s recipe is going to be very seasonal, with a warming creamy mushroom risotto. Yesterday I went out for dinner with A, and he had a mushroom soup that was very good. Suffice to say that today I got a craving for fungi.

Risotto is just right for this time of year – starchy, creamy and yet not wholly unvirtuous. I cooked it in the later hours of the afternoon listening to the radio. It gets very dark these days, so apologies for the poor photo!

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Creamy Mushroom Risotto

Adapted from BBC Food

  • 1 tsbp dried porcini mushrooms
  • 2 tbsp olive oil
  • 2 shallots, finely chopped
  • 1 squeeze garlic puree
  • 225g chestnut mushrooms, sliced
  • 350g arborio rice
  • 150ml white wine
  • 2 tsp vegetable stock powder (I use Marigold bouillon)
  • 2 tbsp chopped fresh parsley
  • salt and pepper
  • knob of butter
  • freshy grated parmesan to serve

Soak the porcini mushrooms in a litre of boiling hot water for 10 minutes. Drain the mushrooms, but save the soaking water. Add the stock powder to it. This will form your stock for the risotto. Simmer the stock in a pan over a low heat to keep it hot.

Heat the oil in a large, heavy based saucepan and add the onion and garlic. Fry over a gentle heat for 2-3 minutes, until softened. Add the chestnut mushrooms and fry for a further 2-3 minutes, until softened.

Stir in the rice and coat in the oil. Pour in the wine a little at a time, stirring, until the liquid has been absorbed. Add the stock, a ladelful at a time, simmering and stirring until all the liquid has been absorbed. Keep adding stock this way until the rice has plumped up and become tender.

Chop up the soaked porcini mushrooms and stir into the risotto, along with the parsley, butter and salt and pepper. Serve with freshly grated Parmesan, and a sprig of fresh parsley to garnish.

Friday Lasagne

It’s been a really tough week, and there are few things better than rounding off Friday with a spot of homemade lasagne, a good book, new Cath Kidston pjs, and a handful of dark chocolate-and-ginger biscuits. The lasagne is a bit different from my other recipe although it runs along the same lines – I just chucked in a lot more veg to bulk it out, and give it a higher nutritional value.
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Lasagne always seems to taste better when the ragu has been cooked in advance. So a great thing is to assemble the ragu in the middle of the week when you have a spare moment, let it bubble away whilst you’re catching up on some TV, and whip it all together in a matter of minutes on Friday evening.
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Friday Lasagne 
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  • 400g organic pork mince
  • half a leek, sliced finely
  • 1 carrot, finely chopped
  • 6-8 mushrooms, sliced
  • 1 courgette, diced
  • 150ml red wine
  • stock cube, dissolved in a little hot water
  • 1 tin chopped tomatoes
  • salt, pepper
  • fresh oregano leaves
  • 50g salted butter
  • 2 spoonfuls of flour
  • pint of milk
  • grated nutmeg
  • packet of fresh lasagne sheets
  • half a ball of mozzarella torn into strips
  • handful of grated cheddar

Brown the mince in a pan until thoroughly cooked. In another pan, sautee the leek, carrot, mushrooms and courgette until soft. Combine the vegetables and mince together in one pan, then stir in the red wine, and leave to simmer on a low heat until the liquid has reduced completely. Then stir in the stock thoroughly. Mix in the tin of chopped tomatoes. Swill the tin with a little water and tip that into the simmering mince mix as well.  Leave to simmer on a low heat until the liquid has almost completely reduced. Season with salt, pepper and fresh oregano leaves. If you’re not making the lasagne immediately then leave it to cool down, and put it into a bowl, cover with clingfilm and leave in the fridge for about 2 days maximum until needed.

Make the bechamel by melting the butter in a pan, then stirring in the flour, and finally the milk bit-by-bit to form a smooth sauce. Season with a dash of nutmeg.

Pour 1/4 bechamel onto the base of an ovenproof dish and cover with a layer of lasagne sheets. Spoon in 1/3 of the ragu. Then spoon the second 1/4 of the bechamel over this, followed by lasagne sheets, and another 1/3 ragu. Spoon over the third 1/4 bechamel, then another layer of lasagne sheets, the final 1/3 ragu and top with the final 1/4 bechamel. Sprinkle with cheese, and pop into the oven to cook for around 30 minutes until golden and bubbling.

Cranberry Amaretti

It’s no secret that I LOVE Ottolenghi’s cookbook. None of his recipes that I’ve tried have gone totally tits up for me.

So here’s another recipe from Ottolenghi: The Cookbook. It can also be found on The Guardian. Simply some ground almonds mixed together with egg white, and some lemon zest. The original recipe called for dried cherries, but I didn’t have any of those, so substituted cranberries instead. I think the biscuit would be a wonderful vehicle for candied peel/pistachios/whole almonds/the whole dried fruits and nuts supermarket aisle. But not the cocoa nibs, because let’s face it – I hate them, and nothing will taste nice with cocoa nibs in – ever.

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Baci di Dama

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Baci di Dama, also known as Lady’s Kisses, are Italian hazelnut biscuits sandwiched together with a dollop of chocolate. I first saw them on David Lebovitz’s blog, and then a couple of months later, when an Italian friend introduced me to these delights. And with the newly replenished stock of hazelnuts in my baking cupboard, here finally was my opportunity to recreate these delights!

I can’t resist playing with a recipe. I had made some hazelnut butter, and wondered if that would make a good subtitute for part of the butter, and I wanted to reduce the butter content anyway. I decided to make a small batch following David Lebovitz’s recipe, and one batch reducing the butter content and replacing it with hazelnut paste.

The biscuits smelled wonderful as they were baking. All of the biscuits had a fantastic flavour, and short crumbly texture, which made for slightly messy eating! The hazelnut butter batch was slightly less cracked in appearance, and tasted just as great.

Lemon and Pistachio Mini Cakes

I’ve been thinking about baking with pistachios for some time, and I really wanted to replicate a gorgeously damp nutty cake I sampled when I went to Franco Manca’s several months ago. Browsing in the blogosphere, I came upon this divinely tempting looking recipe on The Little Loaf  for Pistachio and Lemon Loaf Cakes…. and it looked like it was exactly what I was hoping to make!

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I made some very slight modifications, halving the recipe as I didn’t have quite enough nuts, and using cardboard square cake cases instead of a loaf tin. It was, without doubt, an absolute joy to eat, beautifully moist, and full of flavour. Definitely a recipe certainly to make again and again in the future!

Lemon and Pistachio Mini Cakes

Original recipe from River Cafe Cookbook Easy and adapted from The Little Loaf

  • 125g soft butter
  • 165g caster sugar
  • 2 medium eggs, whisked
  • zest and juice of 1 lemon
  • 20g plain flour
  • 50g ground almonds
  • 60g ground pistachios
  • 30g pistachios, roughly chopped

Preheat the oven to 150˚C. Whisk together the soft butter and 125g sugar together until pale and fluffy. Then gradually whisk in the eggs until completely incorporated. Whisk in half the lemon zest, then add the flour and ground nuts and whisk in until incorporated. Put the cake mix into small cases and bake for 20-25 minutes until golden and springy on top. Or you can bake the mixture in a lined 1lb loaf tin for approximately 40 minutes.

Set the cakes aside to cool.

Meanwhile, combine the lemon juice, remaining zest and sugar into a small pan. Over a medium heat, cook the liquid until it has reduced and become syrupy. Mix in the chopped pistachios. Using a teaspoon, spoon the syrup over the pistachio-topped cakes.