Wednesday, December 19, 2012

Panforte and Buon Natale a Tutti Quanti!

Our sweet Christmas adventure started in the Middle East, from there we flew all the way to Germany and now we land in la Bella Italia.

Ah Italy!!! Where to start? The history? The elegance? The art? The architecture? The people? The dolce vita? The simple yet bursting with flavor food? Okay, you get it, I am deeply passionate towards Italy. It's nothing new, I had developed this passion almost 20 years ago.

My first trip to Europe was to Italy and the first region I visited was Tuscany which is arguably one of the most beautiful regions in the world featured many times in great classical movies. The first major city I visited was Florence, the Renaissance city. I was amazed by the beauty of this city, the immense Santa Maria de Firoi or the Duomo Cathedral, its museums, the walk to Ponte Vecchio and simply wandering in its old narrow streets soaking in all the art, history and beauty.

The next major city was Siena, another beautiful Tuscan city with a unique character. Like all Italian cities it has a wealth of sites worth seeing. While walking in its picturesque streets a type of sweets caught my attention: Panforte.  With my broken Italian, I walked into the shop and bought a piece, I was happy with my little discovery. Needless to say, it was delicious, it was love at first bite!

Panforte is essentially consumed during Christmas times, but can be found in Siena all year long.

Panforte or Siena cake, goes back to the 13th century, the first documented recipe was in 1205, it is said that the recipe  originated in monasteries as a strong bread that had honey and pepper, other spices were added later to the recipe.

For some time, panforte was reserved to the nobility, but luckily now everyone can sample this delicious bread and even better, with my easy recipe, you can prepare this sweet in the comfort of your home, probably thousands of miles away from Siena and its beautiful churches, monasteries and houses.

Without further ado, here's the recipe to follow!

What you need:
  • 200 g of nuts (I used 100 g almonds, the remaining quantity divided between pistachios and hazelnuts)
  • 100 g candied peels (I used orange and lime peels that I made few days earlier; store bought is fine too)
  • 100 g sugar
  • 100 g honey
  • 1/4 tsp cinnamon
  • 2 g of coriander seeds
  • 1 or 2 cloves
  • 1/4 tsp of freshly grated nutmeg
  • 2 g of pepper
  • 45 g flour
  • 15 ml masala wine (optional)
  • Tsp of glucose or corn syrup (optional, and just to be on the safe side, to prevent any crystallization)

Start by roasting the nut in a preheated over (180C) for about 10 min. Dice the peels into small cubes.
Mix the peels and the nuts (you can peel the nuts if you wish but I didn´t bother). Add the flour.
Grind  the cloves and the coriander seeds and add them to the rest, followed by the cinnamon and the grated nutmeg.

In a heavy bottom pan, combine the sugar, honey and glucose (if you are using it), put them on a low heat, and wait for the sugar to dissolve and for the syrup to get an amber golden color.
Add the syrup and the wine to the nut and spices mixture and mix well until all is combined. The smell that filled the air at this point was so intoxicating, it took me back to those narrow and beautiful streets of Siena!

When you combine your liquid and dry ingredients, if you feel your mix is too dry add some hot water, a teaspoon at a time.  When all is well mixed and combined, transfer the mixture into an 18 cm pan, covered with parchment paper and  greased. Press down gently to have an even top.

Bake for about half an hour (160C), until it becomes a bit darker in color.

 Let it cool down before you dust it with confectioner sugar, and this is it.

You can appreciate the great mix of taste of panforte eating it with a cup of espresso,  a sweet wine, or just alone, a nibble from time to time will do you good!

Tuesday, December 11, 2012

Vanillekipferl or half moon vanilla biscuits!

In the previous post I shared with you a recipe that I grew up with, those oriental pancakes, a pre-Christmas delicacy, filled with nuts and a slight hint of spices that would bring warmth into cold December days and nights.

Today I will share another recipe, that I discovered by the end of 2005.

For almost a decade I shared my living spaces in Madrid with different people from across the world. I co-rented with French, Japanese  Americans,... with which I shared some quality moments. Sharing the flat also meant long talks in the kitchen, midnight chats from bedroom door to another, and the best was having international dinners, where each would make a typical dish from his country. Sharing food and recipes for me is always the highlight of sharing a flat!

One cold december day, when I got home, as I stepped in I was greeted with this incredible aroma of a baked sweet. I got into the kitchen and my flatmate at that time, Rebecca, a great German girl with whom I shared fond memories, was baking these white crescent shaped cookies. She asked me to try one and it was delicious. I still have her recipe written in Spanish on a small piece of paper.

As I try new and exciting recipes all the time, I got to do Rebecca's recipe only once. However, as winter creeps in and below freezing temperatures are becoming more frequent in the long Madrid nights, I decided to do these cookies again since they go along perfectly with a big warm cup of coffee or even a warm glass of wine.

It is not clear where this recipe originated, some say it´s a Hungarian recipe, some say it´s Austrian, and other say it is a specialty of the Bavarian city of Norldlingen! Perhaps they were inspired by the almond snowdrops, after all they are very similar in terms of ingredients and texture, by these ones are characterized by their vanilla flavor.

Anyways, during Christmas those cookies are enjoyed in many countries, and they can also be found in many Viennese coffee shops all year long.

As for the recipe few ingredients are needed, I made half batch and got almost 28 cookies, and to make them you will need:
  • 25 g toasted ground almonds
  • 25 g toasted ground hazelnuts
  • 140 g flour
  • 35 white sugar
  • 100 g butter pinch of salt
  • 1 egg yolk
  • 1/4 teaspoon of vanilla extract

To make thing easier,put the butter,salt and flour in a food processor, pulse for few seconds until combined. Add the nuts and sugar and pulse again. When all combined add the egg yolk and the vanilla, pulse again then transfer the mixture onto a surface and with your hands work the dough a bit to make sure everything is well combined. Wrap the dough in plastic and put in the fridge for about an hour.
Take your dough out, and form your crescent, I took pieces of 10 to 12 gr each, I think they make perfect cookies, bigger is just too much.

When done forming the crescents, just leave them for about 10 to 15 min in the fridge, then bake them for about 10 to 15 min in a preheated oven (180 C). You know they are done when you see that the edges are golden brown.

Let them cool for few minutes, then put them in a bowl that has 25 g of vanilla sugar and a 1/4 cup of icing sugar, give them a big coating and it´s done. Easy and quick way to get crumbly and full of flavor cookies!

Monday, December 3, 2012

Katayif, Oriental Pancakes, a Pre-Christmas Delicacy

December is upon us, one of my favorite months of the year. Despite the cold, it's a month that warms my heart and fills me with the Christmas spirit. I've always been one of those people who impatiently wait for the 25th of December.The excitement of the celebration, the stress of buying the perfect gift, the frenzy in the streets, shops and markets is just amazing. But Christmas season is a culinary feast where each region around the world has a specific set of traditional sweets and treats that are served before and after Christmas eve.

Back home, the preparation for Christmas starts on the 4th of December; on that day, in some Near Eastern  countries , we celebrate Saint Barbara, an early Christian martyr. Among the traditions, several cereals and grains such as wheat, chickpeas, lentils, are sprouted in small pots to be used in the decoration of the Nativity scene. As they sprout, the green they bring is seen as a symbol of hope in the birth of Jesus Christ.

The West has Halloween, the Eastern Christians celebrate Saint Barbara, during which little children wear creative disguises and roam the streets singing songs and knocking on doors to be rewarded with treats and money.

Sweets abound in that day too. Wheat is boiled and perfumed with cinnamon and anise then it is served with a sprinkle of sugar or honey and decorated with nuts. More elaborate sweets are prepared too such as a fermented dough that is fried in balls than dipped in syrup known as Ouwamet. Mchabak is even more elaborate and requires some skills to make, it is a fried dough shaped in a bicolor laced fashion then dipped in syrup. But what I loved most during Saint Barbara are the Katayif which are the Arabic version of pancakes minus the eggs and butter. 

The katayif  recipe is very old, it is said to go  back to the 7th-8th century, while others say it goes back to the Fatimid caliphate era (909-1071). The story says that a cook had created a a flat dough that he filled with nuts, arranged it on a plate so people could pick up the one they desired and this is why they are called katayif which in Arabic means 'picked up'.

These baked goodies are especially consumed during the holy month of Ramadan all over the Arab World and in some other religious celebration like Saint Barbara.

We always used to help my mom baking those panckaes, she used to prepare the dough and we used to take care of the rest. Baking, chopping the walnuts, filling them and of course eating them!
Since I moved to Spain I always made sure to make katayif on the 3rd of December. It makes me feel that I´m not that far away from home and this year is not going to be an exception!

For the dough you need:
  • 200 g flour
  • Teaspoon of granulated sugar
  • Tsp icing sugar
  • 1 tsp of instant yeast
  • 1/4 tsp bicarbonate
  • A dash of salt
  • Few drops of lemon
  • 300 ml water

Combine all the ingredients but the flour in a blender. Whisk all together well then add the flour, blend for few seconds until all combined. You will get a thick runny batter, leave it to rest for about 30 min.
The batter is bubbly and almost doubled.

Heat a non stick pan, pour a bit of the batter and cook until the top is dry. The dough will have small holes when it dries!
Put the cooked ¨pancakes¨  on a clean towel, and let cool. When cooled cover them so they won´t harden.

For the filling you need:
  • 150 g walnuts
  • 2 tbsp cinnamon (you can add the quantity you desire)
  • 4 tbsp sugar
  • 3 tbsp orange blossom water
  • 1 tbsp rose water

Chop the nuts, add cinnamon and sugar then the rose and orange blossom waters. You can also fill the katayif with kachta (or heavy clotted cream if you want) and decorate with pistachios and rose petal jam!

The walnuts katayif are usually fried, but mom never did, and I must admit I really prefer them like that, just delicious, soft from the outside crunchy in the inside, and served with a drizzle of syrup, just amazing! You can of course fry them in deep vegetable oil if you want to, but while fried food is good, when something is just as good without being fried, I prefer to eat the healthier option.

As for the sugar syrup, just combine a cup and a half of sugar and a cup of water, add a small stick of cinnamon, a cardamom pod, let it simmer for 15 min and when it is ready add few drops of lemons juice, teaspoon of orange blossom water and another of rose water and take off the heat.

To fill the walnuts katayif, put about a teaspoon and a half of the filling in the center, then close the katayif by joining the sides together, press to make sure you seal them well. As for the kachta ones, you join the sides of the pancake half way to create a small pocket which you fill with Arabic cream or other creams you want.

I´m sure once you try these pancakes you will do them over and over again. They are so easy to make, and you can even eat them without any filling. They are very healthy and have low fat and calories. You can just drizzle them with  honey and some nuts making them an ideal breakfast!

Enjoy and happy Saint Barbara!