Tuesday, 20 November 2012

Jammie Dodgers (Biscotti alla Marmellata)

I rarely buy biscuits. The long list of ingredients on the side of the packet is enough to put me off and most of them don't taste great either. I make an exception with shortbread - I love it, in all its forms and even the cheapest brands are fairly unadulterated, listing just flour, butter, sugar and salt.

Homemade biscuits however are a completely different proposition. They are a joy, both in taste and to make. There's something very therapeutic about rolling out the dough and then cutting it into pretty shapes, like the star biscuits here. I didn't intend them to be Christmas biscuits, it's just that stars are the only cutters I have with a matching small shape for the open centre. Looking at the photo, I realise that the shape, together with the raspberry red middle, makes them look very festive indeed. I'll certainly be baking these again nearer to Christmas.

This recipe comes from Pam Corbin writing in The Guardian but it is originally from the River Cottage Handbook: Cakes by Pam Corbin. It is similar to shortbread but with the addition of an egg yolk which makes the dough more pliable and the biscuits hold their shape better too. 

As this month's letter is 'J' in the brilliant Alphabakes challenge by Caroline at Caroline Makes (this month's host) and Ros from TheMoreThanOccasionalBaker, I'm sending this as my entry. I always enjoy seeing what everyone comes up with for this imaginative challenge!

RECIPE (from River Cottage Handbook: Cakes by Pam Corbin)  - Makes 6-7

175g plain flour
Pinch of sea salt
75g icing sugar
125g unsalted butter, cut into small pieces
1 egg yolk
1 tsp vanilla extract
150g raspberry jam (or whatever flavour you like)

2 large baking sheets, lined with baking parchment
6–7cm biscuit cutter
2.5cm heart, square, round or animal biscuit cutter

Sift the flour, salt and icing sugar into a large mixing bowl. Add the butter and lightly rub into the flour mix, using your fingertips, until the mixture resembles fine breadcrumbs.

In a small bowl, whisk the egg yolk and vanilla extract together. Make a well in the centre of the flour mix. Add the egg and vanilla mix and work together to form a soft, smooth dough. Seal the dough in a polythene bag and chill in the fridge for 25–30 minutes.

Preheat the oven to 170°C. Divide the dough into two equal portions. Place one portion between two pieces of lightly floured greaseproof paper and, using a rolling pin, roll the dough to approximately a 4mm thickness. Repeat with the second piece of dough. Remove the top paper

With the larger biscuit cutter, cut the dough into discs (make sure you have an even number). Using the smaller cutter, cut out and remove the centre of half the biscuit discs; the cut-out pieces can either be kneaded back into the remaining dough or baked just as they are.

Place all the discs on the baking sheets. Bake for 15–20 minutes until just firm and barely coloured.

Remove from the oven and place a teaspoonful of jam in the centre of each whole biscuit. Spread to 1.5cm from the edge. Place the cut-out rounds on top. Return to the oven and cook for a further 5–6 minutes by which time the biscuits will be evenly cooked and the jam sufficiently hot to stick the biscuits together.

Leave the biscuits to cool for 5 minutes before transferring to a wire cooling rack.

Thursday, 15 November 2012

Chicken cooked in beer - Pollo alla birra

I'm the first to admit that this does not look particularly appealing but you'll have to trust me. It's a fantastic dish, really easy and tastes delicious. It's a staple in our house.

The origins of the dish are slightly obscure but the general consensus is that it comes from Belgium. Be that as it may, it's a very common dish in northern Italy and this recipe comes from my father-in-law, Giuseppe who's been cooking it for years. 

Be careful with the beer you use. I used to make it with whatever I had to hand but some beers, particularly standard lagers, leave a decidedly bitter taste when cooked. The one that I've found works best is Leffe but some real ales work well too.

RECIPE - Serves 3-4
9 chicken pieces, thighs and drumsticks work well here
500 ml beer - read note above
Plain flour for dusting chicken
1 stick celery
1 carrot
1 onion
Olive oil
Salt and pepper

Chop the onion, celery and carrot very finely (I usually just pulse them in a food processor). Then fry gently in a little oil for about 5 mins until softened. Remove the vegetables to a plate.
Season the chicken pieces with salt and pepper, then dust the chicken with flour, knocking off any excess.
Add a little more oil to the pan and fry the chicken until golden brown on all sides.
Put the vegetables back in the pan with the chicken. Pour in the beer (it won’t cover the chicken completely), put a lid on and cook gently for about 35 mins.
When the 35 mins are up, remove the lid, turn up the heat and cook for a further 5-10 minutes until the sauce has reduced. Check the seasoning.
Serve the chicken with the sauce poured over, a crisp green salad on the side and lots of crusty bread  for mopping up the sauce.

Monday, 12 November 2012

Chicken stuffed with goat's cheese and herbs

I dream of having a big kitchen, the kind where people can sit and chat, read the newspaper with a cup of coffee, lend a hand with the cooking without getting in the way... My kitchen is small. I'm not complaining (although it may sound like it) because it's perfectly formed and fulfils its function very well. It's just that when I have friends and family over for dinner I have two choices - I can either prepare everything in advance which allows me to take part in the conversation happening in the dining room or I can cook there and then which means that I miss out on everything else that's going on.

Needless to say, I usually prefer the first option, that of preparing most things in advance, thus maximising time spent with my guests. This chicken dish (the inspiration for which comes from an old Good Food magazine) fits the bill on many counts. Firstly, it can all be prepared ahead of time and simply put in the oven when needed. Secondly, the chicken is cooked on a bed of courgettes and tomatoes which means that you can dispense with a separate vegetable, leaving you with less to do in the kitchen and minimising the washing up. This method of cooking also ensures that the chicken stays nice and moist. Finally, and most importantly, it's delicious, with a great balance of flavours - crisp saltiness from the pancetta, creaminess from the cheese and mild sweetness from the vegetables.

The thyme and oregano used in this dish mean that it can be sent to one of my favourite challenges, Herbs on Saturday, created by Karen from the inspirational Lavender and Lovage and hosted this month by Jen at Blue Kitchen Bakes .

Herbs on Saturday

I'm also sending this over to Javelin Warrior's weekly challenge, Made with Love Mondays which encourages us all to cook from scratch and provides a fascinating, eclectic mix of recipes to try every week.

RECIPE - serves two

2 skinless, boneless chicken breasts
100g firm goat's cheese
a few sprigs of fresh thyme
1 teaspoon dried oregano
6 slices of pancetta (or thinly sliced streaky bacon)
2 courgettes, thinly sliced lengthways
1-2 tbsp extra virgin olive oil, plus extra for drizzling
250g tomatoes, any kind, thinly sliced

Pre-heat oven to 190°C.

Slice the chicken breasts almost in half from one long side and open them out like a book. Cover with cling film and bash with a rolling pin to  flatten them. Season on all sides. Put half the goat's cheese on each piece of chicken and sprinkle with some of the thyme leaves and oregano. Roll the chicken up to enclose the cheese, then wrap each one snugly in three slices of pancetta.

Lightly oil a shallow gratin dish, then arrange overlapping rows of courgettes and tomatoes over the base. Drizzle with olive oil and sprinkle with salt, pepper and thyme sprigs. Place the chicken breasts on top.

Bake for 45 mins until the pancetta is crisp and golden and the courgettes are tender. Cut in half diagonally if you so wish and serve with new potatoes or good bread.

Wednesday, 7 November 2012

Butternut Squash Soup with chilli and herbs

I love cooking with butternut squash (as long as I don't have to peel it). The intense colour when you cut it in half always comes as a surprise and magic occurs with the heat of the oven, transforming the hard, unyielding flesh into soft, sticky sweetness. Even its name sounds delicious.

This soup is perfect for November - the vibrant orange adds colour to a grey day, the squash makes the soup satisfyingly filling but still silkily smooth, the herbs give freshness and the chilli really warms you up from the inside.

As squash is still very much in season, I'm sending this over to Ren at Fabulicious Food for her wonderfully inspiring Simple and In Season challenge.

I'm also sending this over to Javelin Warrior's weekly challenge, Made with Love Mondays which encourages us all to cook from scratch.


The herbs used in this dish mean that it can be sent to another of my favourite challenges, Herbs on Saturday, created by Karen from the consistently wonderful Lavender and Lovage and hosted this month by Jen at Blue Kitchen Bakes .

Herbs on Saturday

RECIPE - serves 4

1 butternut squash
1 onion
1 clove garlic
2 tablespoons olive oil
40g butter
dried chilli flakes, (a pinch or two, depending on how hot you want it)
2 sage leaves, finely chopped
900ml vegetable (or chicken stock)
a handful of fresh coriander

Pre-heat the oven to 220°C

Cut the unpeeled butternut squash in half, from top to bottom and deseed it. Make a few cuts in the flesh with a knife and drizzle with some olive oil. Place on a roasting tray and roast for about 40 mins until soft.

In the meantime, finely chop the onion and garlic. Heat the oil and butter in a saucepan and soften the onion and garlic slowly over a gentle heat. It's important to do this slowly as you really don't want the onion and garlic to burn or even colour. After about 20 mins the onion should be soft and translucent.

When the squash is cool enough to handle, scoop out the flesh (discarding the skin) and add it to the softened onions and garlic, together with the sage, chilli and stock. Bring it to the boil and cook for a few minutes before removing from the heat.

With a stick blender, blitz until smooth and check the seasoning. It will probably need both salt and pepper, depending on the stock you have used and personal taste.

Put the soup back on the hob to heat up thoroughly. Serve with generous quantities of fresh coriander and a drizzle of crème fraîche.

Thursday, 1 November 2012

Pane dei Morti

Italy has never really had a Halloween tradition per se; the important days at this time of year are Ogni Santi, All Saints' Day, on November 1st and Il Giorno dei Morti, All Souls Day, on November 2nd. During these celebrations, you won’t find costumes, scary decorations or children trick-or-treating on the street. Instead, people go to mass to pray for the deceased, followed by the cemetery to visit their loved ones and bring flowers and candles to their graves.

As with other feste in Italy, each region makes their own particular delicacies on these occasions. Pan dei Morti, or Bread of the Dead, are dark, spicy, chewy biscuits, originally from Lombardia, that are sold in bakeries around this time although they disappear after November 2nd. They are usually eaten after dinner on Ogni Santi and Il Giorno dei Morti. The biscuits, in common with many traditional Italian baked goods, are quite dry but full of complex flavour: cocoa, cinnamon, pinenuts, figs, raisins, wine, ancient flavours that have been used for celebratory occasions for hundreds of years. These are biscuits firmly rooted in Italy's past which is perhaps why they remind Italians of their ancestors.

I won't deny that there is a long list of ingredients and the method, though simple, is rather long-winded and fiddly. However, I think they are worth the effort...

Auguri per Ogni Santi.


100g amaretti
250g sponge fingers
150g dry biscuits (I used gingernuts but Rich Tea would be good too)
50 g cocoa powder
250g plain flour, 00 if possible
120g dried figs
60g blanched almonds
60g pine nuts
300g caster sugar
6 egg whites
120g raisins
100 ml vin santo or other sweet wine
10g baking powder
1 teaspoon cinnamon
some freshly grated nutmeg

First, put the raisins in some hot water to plump up.

Put all the biscuits (amaretti, sponge fingers, other biscuits) in a food processor and blitz to make crumbs. Transfer to a large mixing bowl.

Next, blitz the almonds, dried figs and pine nuts together and put in the mixing bowl with the biscuit crumbs.

Add all the other dry ingredients to the mixture and mix well. Finally, drain the raisins and add to the mixing bowl, together with the baking powder, sweet wine and the egg whites.

Start to mix it all together. It's extremely sticky so it's easiest to do this by hand (I wear latex gloves to make this a bit easier).

When the mixture has come together, transfer to a floured board and form a loaf shape. Using a sharp knife dipped in flour, cut vertically into 1 cm thick slices.

Using your hands, form the slices into vaguely lozenge-shaped biscuits.

Put them on a baking tray lined with greaseproof paper, leaving room for them to expand slightly as they cook.

Bake in the oven for 25 mins.

Remove from the oven and transfer to a wire rack to cool, dredge generously with icing sugar before serving.

They last very well for 4-5 days in a cake tin and go very well with a glass of vin santo.