Wednesday, 24 February 2010

is it a cake? is it a dessert? no, it's chocolate torrone

chocolate torrone 1

So, I seem to be on a bit of an Italian drive at the moment. And that's having denied all knowledge in my last post. Oh well. Never mind. Speak first, think later, and all that.

You may have gathered by now that I like chocolate. So at least I'm being consistent by coming up with another chocolate-themed post.

But next, a dilemma. Torrone. Soft. Chocolate. What to call it? Cake or dessert? Dessert or cake? Or neither? Anna del Conte calls it 'a confection' - a neat get-out if ever I saw one, particularly as she then goes on to explain that it is 'usually served as a pudding, though it is delicious with coffee at any time of day'.

Hmmm, not a good start. And then there's the question of which recipe. As any fule no, Italians will argue all day and night - nay, an entire lifetime - over the provenance and authenticity of a recipe.

Fine. Once more unto the breach, dear friends, once more, I go.

What follows, then, is my version, based on a recipe by Anna Del Conte. She is in no way responsible for what I've done to it, be it for better or worse. (No way could I countenance putting digestive biscuits in it, for example. To me that would result in something much more like the ubiquitous chocolate tiffin.) Mine will give you a very soft and intensely chocolatey 'nougat', which should be served straight from the fridge.

chocolate torrone 2

100g blanched almonds
100g blanched hazelnuts or pistachios
200g unsalted butter
120g cocoa powder (the best you can get, 100% pure cocoa)
1 large egg
1 tbsp golden syrup or a plain honey
2 tbsp dark rum

Preheat the oven to 180C/Gas 4. Line a 2lb loaf tin with cling film. Spread the nuts on a baking tray, and toast for 7-10 minutes until they've turned golden. Watch them like a hawk, though - they burn very easily.

Leave them to cool, and then whizz in a blender until coarsely ground. (Alternatively, depending on how you like your torrone, whizz half until coarsely ground, and the other half more finely.)

Cream butter and sugar together until light and fluffy. Add the cocoa, a spoonful at a time, and beat hard until completely incorporated. Next, mix in the nuts. Then beat the egg and golden syrup together, and add to the mixture. Add in the rum, and stir the whole lot until thoroughly blended.

Spoon the mixture into the clingfilmed tin, press it down, and level the top. Cover with clingfilm and refrigerate for at least 4 hours.

(Anna's serving suggestion: 'Decorate with crystallised flowers and/or blanched or sugared almonds to serve.' As you can see, I ignored that, and went with blood oranges instead - a good match for both the rum and cocoa.)

chocolate torrone 3

This chocolate torrone goes well with a Maury, or with a decent, strong coffee. Eat it as a dessert, a cake, I really don't care. Have it for breakfast, if you feel so inclined. Life's too short to argue about it.

Monday, 15 February 2010

a slice of the action: torta caprese

torta caprese 1

I'm aware that some people out there in the vast space that is the interwebby think that my blog is, or should be, all about Italian food.

Er, no. It's not.

There are flashes of it on occasion, but this blog was actually named after my very first gastro-memory, and not for my expertise in all things Italian.

Nevertheless, it's certainly the case that Italian food remains high on my list of all-time culinary preferences, not least because - if done properly - it brings back wonderful memories of happy holidays and of several months spent living and working in central and southern Italy in my early twenties.

Those days are sadly long since behind me, but that doesn't stop me trotting out a few old favourites from time to time.

Torta caprese is one of them. Frankly, what's not to love? Chocolate and ground almonds and a few minor supporting ingredients all whisked together to make a light, moist cake which is chocolatey, but far from overwhelmingly so. I've known many a professed non-chocolate eater to tuck into this, pronounce it to be delicious, and to come back for more. I think that says it all, really.

I whirled it out again this last weekend, for a rather indulgent Sunday lunch, and served it together with lightly caramelised blood oranges, which rather livened things up from the aesthetic point of view.

OK, enough yabbering - let's get to the pointy end.

torta caprese 2

There are numerous recipes for torta caprese - but they vary little. Here's one, a Sophie Grigson recipe taken from 101 Best Loved Chocolate Recipes.

Sophie Grigson's Torta Caprese (serves 8-10)
200g butter, melted and cooled until tepid, plus extra to grease
200g dark chocolate, in pieces
4 large eggs
170g caster sugar
1 tsp vanilla extract
250g ground almonds

Line the base of a 24cm cake tin with baking parchment and grease the sides. Preheat oven to 180C/Gas 4.

Whizz the chocolate in a food processor until finely chopped, but still retaining a little texture.

In a large bowl, beat eggs with sugar and vanilla extract until the sugar has dissolved. Mix in the chocolate, ground almonds, and butter until evenly combined. Spoon mixture into the tin.

Bake for 50-60 mins, until the cake is just firm to the touch. Leave to cool in the tin, then turn out.

Dust with icing sugar.

torta caprese 3

Serve, eat, enjoy! (I usually serve it with creme fraiche or double cream.) If it doesn't become one of your favourites, then too bad. All the more for me. ;-)

Sunday, 7 February 2010

100 posts: what's it all about, then?

This blog and I have reached a mini-milestone. It's taken just over a couple of years to get here, but we've finally made it: 100 posts.

'100' sounds vaguely important, doesn't it? I feel I should be celebrating, or doing something momentous, such as cooking some outrageously inventive dish, or coming up with a suitably profound insight into the world of food blogging.

But that's not really what this blog's been about. So far, it's been a rather eclectic mix of restaurant 'reviews', several recipes, a peek at a few cookbooks, and some random other stuff. Focussed and organised, it is not. It's not even a reliable indicator of what I cook or eat - I blog only a tiny fraction of all that. Sadly, there aren't enough hours in the day or days in the week.

I have, however, learnt a few things along the way (notably, that I prefer to eat my food while it's hot, rather than faff around photographing it, and that British daylight really isn't up to the job for much of the year), and that the more I learn, the more I learn that I've got lots more learning still to do. Hmm. There endeth the first (and only) lesson: food blogging = mini life lesson.

And, of course, it's been fun. I've discovered an amazing array of food bloggers (for me, it all started with the wonderful mattbites), been to some great restaurants and food 'events', tried new recipes, and revisited old ones. I've trialled new products, reviewed cookbooks, and interviewed a few of my food heroes. When I started this blog, all those months ago, I had no idea that it would bring me so many opportunities.

Above all, though, it's been about the FOOD - about making it, eating it, trying it, sharing it, and enjoying all that it brings. Food is my raison d'etre, my modus operandi, and quite probably my most powerful memory bank. I wouldn't have it any other way.

So, dang it, I WILL celebrate - with 3 photos from last week that neatly sum up some of what 'a forkful of spaghetti' has been all about...

1. Cheese, lovely cheese


Or, to be more precise, Yarg, lovely Yarg. Cheese has always been a big part of my life. As far back as I can remember, when smelly cheeses were largely unknown here and the cause of much instant suspicion, my dad was buying wonderful and weird cheeses and bringing them home like a proud hunter. Where he got his love of the stuff from, I don't know. It certainly wasn't from his upbringing. But I share that love, and now that he no longer lives or works anywhere near a decent cheesemonger, I take particular pleasure in tracking down cheeses for him that he may not have come across before. I'm fairly certain he's familiar with Yarg, but that won't stop me buying him another truckle at some point in the not-too-distant future.

Carefully wrapped in nettles, it's gorgeous to look at - but it's better still to eat. Despite its slightly chalky, crumbly appearance, it's actually a smooth and creamy cheese. Buttery, tangy, earthy, and with a hint of the salty sea from the Cornish coast, it's subtle and extremely moreish. The baby pictured above came to me from the kind people at Lynher Dairies. Apparently, they're also offering heart-shaped truckles for Valentine's Day. If your lover is a cheese lover, then this is surely a perfect gift.

2. Chocolate, in (almost) any form

brownie cookies and milk

'Real' chocolate has been my big discovery of the past few years. As a child, I was never into all those sickly Cadbury and other confections, and so never really ate much chocolate. Easter eggs would go untouched. Christmas tins would go unopened. Chocolate cakes, however, and some chocolate biscuits, were a different matter altogether. And now I understand why. It's all in the cocoa. Cakes were made with the real stuff, whereas the chocolates of my childhood were not.

Now my life is happily punctuated with real chocolate, and London, even more happily for me, is studded with some truly great British chocolatiers. Paul A Young, Demarquette, L'Artisan du Chocolat, Melt, Damian Allsop... I salute you all. And a special mention must go the Mother of them all, Rococo, and its founder, Chantal Coady. I've got messy in the Motcomb Street kitchen and learnt a tremendous amount over the last two years about all things cocoa from Chantal and 'Prof Choc', Laurent Couchaux - from the secrets of ganache-making through how to make a perfect mousse to how to taste chocolate properly.

But while my stash of real chocolate is a relative novelty, my love of chocolate biscuits, cakes, and desserts still thrives. Last week, I made a batch of deeply dark, all-chocolate chewy, fudgy cookies. With a glass (or mug, in my case) of cold milk, they are one of my life's simple but indulgent pleasures.

3. Eating out
Let's get a few things straight. I love cooking, and I cook a LOT. Most of it is functional, and goes largely unblogged - the evening meal - but I enjoy it no less for that. But - and it's a big but - I do also love eating out from time to time. Whether it's being cooked for by friends or eating at a restaurant, it's all good as far as I'm concerned.

Eating in restaurants does, of course, lend itself to a special kind of expectation. I'm fascinated and awed by what some chefs come up with, and my tastebuds revel in trying something new. I usually make a point of ordering things I can't readily get hold of, have never eaten before, or know I'll never make in a month of Sundays. Sometimes expectations are sorely disappointed; sometimes they're spectacularly exceeded. For me, it's all part of the adventure.

At the very tail end of last summer, I was lucky enough to visit Pierre Koffman's 'pop-up' restaurant. From start to finish, the meal was superb, and the experience will live long in my memory. Last week, I received this through the post:

Koffmann menu

A menu from the night, signed by the great man himself! I was, and still am, ridiculously chuffed. Claire, his partner, had been as good as her word. She took a note of my name on the night and promised she'd get Pierre to sign a menu for me. Weeks and months passed. Nothing. I wasn't unduly disappointed - I still had the memories of one of my great dining experiences, and Koffmann is, after all, a tremendously busy man. How could I possibly be disappointed?

Now, though, that memory is forever signed and sealed. I'll be framing it and putting it somewhere that I can see it every day. The autograph thrills me, the cartoon amuses me, and the menu serves as inspiration and a reminder of a truly great meal and experience. I couldn't ask for more.

And that's what food is all about, isn't it? Fun, experiences, memories.

What will my next 100 posts bring? I have no idea. But I can guarantee you there's a lot more fun, experiences, and memories still to pass this way.