Italian Fig Cake

End of  June, as we enter July,  figs are in full season here. Although I have never been quite a fan of dried figs, fresh figs are a little better and I was curious how they would taste like baked in a cake.  So here we go…!

150 g of butter softened (or 100 g of light vegetable oil)
4 large eggs room temp
120 g sugar
a pinch  of salt
1 grated lemon peel
250g plain flour
1 tsp of baking powder
50 g milk
350g fresh figs

Preheat the oven to 180 degrees C. Grease and line  a round baking tin with baking paper.

If using butter, cream the butter with the sugar until light and fluffy. Then add in the eggs and whisk it for another 2 mins before adding the lemon peel.

* If using oil, beat the eggs, sugar and salt together until thick and creamy about 5 mins on high speed – afterwhich then blend in the oil and continue whisking for 2 mins. Add the grated lemon peel.

Sieve the dry ingredients and add in 2 portions alternately with the milk, into the egg/butter mixture folding well.  Pour the batter into the prepared tin.  Add the fresh figs that have been peeled, sliced on the top of the batter. Bake the cake for about 40mins or until the skewer when inserted comes out clean.
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I Cannoli Siciliani

 

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Photo from http://www.croce-delizia.blogspot.com

Finally we watched the trilogy ” The Godfather” – how appropriate, the fact we are based in Venice today, ok, ok , probably more so if we had been living in Palermo or somewhere in Sicily. I think what was most amazing besides watching this classic of a family drama of the Corleone family, was seeing the actors especially Al Pacino aging perfectly for each part of the trilogy as Michael Corleone. Ottimo!

Unfortunately I could not forget the cannoli they kept serving up in the movie.  Not likely I will be going to Sicily in the very near future hence the hunt for a cannoli recipe has begun. I found a few youtube videos but since I do not have any aluminium cannoli tubes, I would just have to wait for another day when I’ve managed to get my hands on some, that or an actual box of cannoli from Sicily, whichever comes first – hopefully the latter, so I know how an authentic and very good cannolo tastes like . Why? So that 1) I can compare with the generic cannoli I have tried to see what standard I should judge a perfect cannolo to be 2) and should I be brave enough to make them meself.. how far I am from perfection. As for the recipe, there are several on the internet – hmm this I suspect will be a long on-going project.

For now I just have to settle with this photo  from a beautiful food blog (unfortunately in Italian) I stumbled upon while looking for a cannoli recipe.

Victoria Sponge

For a tea time treat today, I made Victoria Sponge with strawberry jam as the filling. Sometimes one just craves for a good old fashion butter sponge cake and the Victoria Sponge was the answer to my craving .  I am enjoying a slice now – heaven!

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Recipe

220g butter, softened, * if butter is unsalted (preferably, do put in a pinch of salt to the flour)
220g caster sugar, 
4 medium eggs, lightly beaten
250g self-raising flour
1 tsp of vanilla essense (or grate peel of 1 lemon + 1tsp of lemon juice)
2 tbp milk *
3 tbp of sour cream OR thickened cream (panna per cucinare) *
1/2 cup strawberry jam
extra castor sugar to sprinkle ontop

* optional although I would highly recommend the sourcream.

  1. Preheat your oven to 180°C,  grease two 20cm-diameter sponge tins and line the bottom with parchment paper.
  2. Cream  the fat and sugar together until light and fluffy. It’s important to beat the butter and sugar well, as this incorporates lots of air which makes the cake light. Begin with very soft butter, add the sugar and beat with an electric whisk for 2 minutes, until fluffy and pale. Add in the vanilla or lemon peel/juice.
  3. Now add the slightly beaten eggs, gradually : 1 -2 spoons at a time alternating with spoonful of flour, beat until completely incorporated – in order we do not have the butter/sugar and egg mixture curdling.
  4. Add the remaining flour and fold in with a large metal spoon. Add milk & cream – mix them in well.
  5. Divide the mixture between the two greased cake tins, smoothing the tops. Put in the oven – preferably on the same shelf – and bake for 20 minutes. The cakes should look well-risen and golden brown, and should have pulled away slightly from the sides of their tins. The cakes are done, when the wooden skewer comes out clean with few dry crumbs attached only. If  it is sticky, bake for 5 minutes more, then repeat the test.
  6. After 10 minutes cooling in the tin, turn the cakes out on to a wire rack . Put the smoothest-looking cake right side up (this will be the top of the finished cake) and the other upside down, so its domed top flattens slightly. Leave to cool completely.
  7. Spread jam over the base sponge, put the second one on top, and sprinkle with caster sugar.

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The Spongecake Challenge I

 

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Summer is here and strawberries are abound. That got me thinking and my itchy fingers twitching.. what should I make as a nice light cake with strawberries and cream? Aha! why not a sponge cake with strawberries and cream? First to find a good light sponge cake recipe was easy – got one from my Australian host family, Lauren the mother who makes delicious cakes and a real talent in cake decoration too! (By the way, there are tons of light sponge cake recipes on the internet-if you lack a source of inspiration) 

Her recipe calls for:

the Sponge
4 large eggs (room temperature)
3/4 cups of castor sugar
3/4 cups of corn flour (in Australia they use Kreem – which is wheat starch actually)
1 tbp of custard powder
1 tsp of cream of tartar
1/2 tsp of bicarb soda

Heat up oven to 180 degrees Celsius – dust the cake tins 2 x 20cms deep round tins or a regular square cake tin large enough to bake the cake in.

Beat the eggs on high speed  while gradually adding the sugar as you go along, beat for 7-10 minutes until thick and creamy (colour pale yellow).

Sift the dry ingredients 3 times. Sprinke it into the egg mixture while carefully folding the flour mixture in without deflating the air that has been trapped in the egg.

Pour the mixture into the prepared tins and baked for about 25-30 mins.

Okay – I did all that , yet my sponge sank and was heavy. Tried 4 times, ie 16 eggs and 1 whole box of corn flour later, . not getting anywhere close to the cake Lauren makes or tasted like it! I started looking up on the internet to compare notes.

After comparing notes with Lauren, it turned out, it could have been I did not beat the eggs long enough and the corn flour they used in Australia was in fact wheat starch. Hence I did a bit of experiment on my own.. so I continued with my 5th, 6th attempts – careful with the eggs, using wheat starch instead and gentle folding techniques – still wasn’t quite there yet. The sponge rose better but the texture was stringy! Finally on the 7th and 8th attempt I think I got it!

fruninaThe 7th attempt I used Frumina (wheat starch I found in the stores here in Italy) to replace the corn starch called for in the recipe. I also whipped the egg yolks and whites separately. The egg yolks first, with the sugar until pale yellow and creamy – about 5 mins on high speed. Then the egg whites beat until stiff also on high speed for about another 5 mins. I gently folded the egg whites to the egg yolks – followed by the dry ingredients. Baked it and turn out quite well in fact, the sponge was light, did not sink too much although still a little stringy.  The photo above is the result of the 7th attempt. Using ‘kagecreme’ from Maizena I made the custard and added fresh sliced strawberries as filling and topping to the cake. 

And now for the 8th attempt, I modified the recipe further to the following. by omitting the custard powder:

4 large eggs (room temperature)
1 tsp of vanilla essence or extract
3/4 cup of castor sugar
1/2 cup of wheat starch
1/4 cup of plain flour 
1 tsp of cream of tartar
1/2 tsp of bicarb soda

Heat up oven to 180 degrees Celsius – dust the cake tins 2 x 20cms deep round tins or a regular square cake tin large enough to bake the cake in, using the corn or wheat starch, shaking off excess flour. You don’t want lumps at the bottom of the sponge.

Beat the eggs on highest speed  while gradually adding the sugar as you go along, beat for 7-10 minutes until thick and creamy (colour pale yellow).

Sift the dry ingredients 3 times. Sprinke it into the egg mixture 1-2 tbp at a time through a sift, while carefully folding the flour mixture in without deflating the air that has been trapped in the egg. I used the electric beater on low speed lifting the beater up and down to trap more air as to ‘fold’ in the dry ingredients.

Pour the mixture into the prepared tins and baked for about 25-30 mins. Here is the result – as topping I whipped up some fresh cream, made my own strawberry sauce* and mix them together, and spreaded it on top of the cake. Finishing up with some sliced fresh strawberries

sponge2

* strawberry sauce : 100 g of fresh strawberries roughly sliced , add 1/4 cup brown sugar, 1 tsp of lemon juice – cook them altogether in a saucepan on high heat for the first 3 mins afterwhich lower the heat and simmer for the remaining 10 mins.  Leave to cool.

Am still in pursuit of the perfect sponge, as the 8th attempt cake still sank a little in the middle… but a very much improved verison and the best I have done so far!  I read somewhere there is something called the hotwater sponge – hmm will need to explore that a little further. Stay tuned!

Carnevale Venezia 2009

photo from Marc Wu
photo from Marc Wu

The Venice carnival goes as far back as 13/14th century. At that time masqueraders would at night go about their ‘rendezvous’ and even to monasteries where the nuns lived. Several decrees were made to prohibit wearing masks at night, men dressed as women entering the monasteries, etc to prevent further moral decline of their society. Initially masks are forbidden but it grew so popular with royalties and rich families coming to Venice to party and splurge that it stayed. The masks and costumes allowed the rich and poor to mingle together and celebrate the festivities (including hiding the identity of the wearer so they could indulge in decadent activities – to trangress the harsh social rules imposed by the Serene Republic) ending in the beginning of Lent.  Although the version we see today was revived 2 decades ago and has now become more of an arts and performance celebration rather than what it was in the past. This year  it starts from Feb 14th and ending on 24th which is Shrove Tuesday(Martedi Grasso – italian or Mardi Gras  – French).  You can read a lot more about the Venice carnival on the various websites and her historical aspects.

cover3In her good old days Venice was also known to be a very libertine society – also in respect to homosexuals.

This year the theme is 6 senses in line with the 6 sestieri (sectors) in Venice. http://www.carnevale.venezia.it/ Each sestieri represents a sense. For instance, Dorsudoro is hearing hence concerts will be held around Dorsudoro’s campos while Canneregio is fo ‘taste’ – food stalls and restaurants get into the spirit of carnival while promoting foods from around the region.

cover1Today, carnevale is growing strong with many activities for the young and old. People take pains to dress up in period costumes or any costumes. Various groups of people from Europe like France, Germany and Russia come to participate specially in the carnevale in their 18th Century or from napoleanic era costumes – very well preserved. Normally they will also hold masquerade balls in the various palazzos here in Venice. However, through only special invitations. But for the rest of us,  there are shows and concerts , street performances from artistes all over the world and including public balls/parties which you pay around €190-450 for a dinner and show in one of the palazzos , some events will even throw in a gondola ride with the price.

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If you have to choose one time to visit Venice, I would recommend the carnevale (and not summer which is normally too hot and full of mosquitoes). Come with your costumes and join in the revelry… this is defintely one of the best places to do it!  And if you are game enough to come in a period costume , please go have a cup of coffee and cake at Cafe Florian on San Marco square. The ambience is extra special then. Ask for Mauro Hartz, and say hi to him. He can be found sometimes by the door.

Viva, viva il carnevale!

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Carnevale sweets

Carnevale is just around the corner. This year the carnevale will start from Feb 14th to 24th. Here is the official site http://www.carnevale.venezia.it/.  Will be writing more on the carnevale as we go along into the 10 days of celebration. This is the first post about the event.

For the last 3 weeks, the pasticerrias in Venice and the supermarkets have been selling all sorts of sweet delights specially for the carnevale. These delights are all fried pastries.The Venetians love to fry everything and douse them with lots of sugar!  There are different ‘carnevale sweets’ all over Italy, you can check out this site http://www.ricette-tipiche.com/1-speciale-dolci-di-carnevale.htm (in italian though) for a comprehensive list.

The typical ones found in Venice are fritelle, galani, castagnole and bugie.

The photo below shows the various fritelli in a bakery in Venice. There are plain ones with raisins, orange peel and pine nuts, you have those filled with zabaglione or creme or sweet ricotta.

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If you would like to try to make them at home, I found the following recipes for Fritelle and Galani (from Citta di Venezia site):

Fritelle

20 g  yeast
500 g plain flour
300 cl milk
2 eggs
100 g sugar
100 g butter
120 g raisins soaked in rum
50 g pine nuts
75 g orange candied peel
1 lemon

  1. Grate lemon zest
  2. In a bowl mix the flour and milk together, eggs, sugar, a pinch of salt, yeast and melted butter.
  3. Combine all mixture well to form a soft consistency
  4. Rest the dough in a warm place (30 mins)
  5. Once it has rised, mix in the raisins, candied peel and pine nuts.
  6. Heat up oil and drop spoonfuls of dough
  7. Fry until golden brown
  8. Drain the fritters in absorbent paper
  9. Roll them in sugar
  10. They can be served while warm.

The source of this recipe apparently came from the cook  Bartolomeo Scappi to Pope Pius V. Il Marangoni in the 7th century became the national cake of Veneto.

Galani
Fried crisp breads with sugar

500 g plain flour
100 g sugar
50 g butter
2 eggs
125 dl white wine
a pinch of salt
grated lemon zest
1 tsp of rum

  1. Make the pastry by combining eggs, flour, sugar and melted butter, rum, wine, the pinch of salt, lemon zest together.
  2. Let the dough rest for 5 mins
  3. Take a small ‘pinch’ of the dough, roll it out with a rolling pin as thin as you can.
  4. Cut out the dough in a squares and make small incisions in the middle to facilitate air through when frying.
  5. Heat up the oil
  6. Fry these squares
  7. Drain them on absorbent paper and dust with sugar
  8. Leave them to cool before serving.

Here is a quick write up on the best fritelle in town (Venice) – I highly recommend to try the ones with zabaglione, ricotta and Veneziana (plain ones with pine nuts and raisins)

1) Tonolo (close to Campo San Pantalon, Dorsudoro)
2) Majer (at Campo Santa Magherita) for the ones with sweet ricotta
3) Le Cafe (at Campo San Stefano)
4) Il Fornaio (San Marco)