Three or four years ago I went to Italy for the first time. I have always kept a mental list of the places I would like to see and visit, and right up there at the top sat Italy.
I was desperate to go, and would avidly watch on television Andrew Graham Dixon hold forth about the art, and envy Steve Coogan and Rob Brydon as they ate their way around the country in the marvellous series, The Trip to Italy.
I read Antonio Carluccio’s autobiography, A Recipe for Life, while in drizzly Cornwall and imagined myself on the Amalfi Coast. Frankly, I was a bit obsessed. So when my family and I did at last visit, I was gripped by an overwhelming sense of fear that it wouldn’t be as good as planned. Thankfully, I was wrong.
We stayed in Tuscany in a lovely little agriturismo run by a very entertaining family. Grandmother Regina taught me to make pasta properly, while her granddaughter whizzed around the farm on a bike, followed by my youngest sister. On our first night we were served enough pizza to have sustained a month-long trip.
It was bliss. My mum and I escaped to Florence on one very rainy day, and we also ventured to Siena to gaze at the cathedral and the ice cream shops. Pistachio every time.
The pizza, pasta and ice cream were all as expected (though in taste were above and beyond all of the anglicised versions available in this country). What I hadn’t banked on, however, was the baking. Little cantuccini biscuits from a supermarket that cost less than a euro were more delicious than I could have ever hoped and the tiramisu left me speechless.
I was also impressed by the cakes. Shops displayed rows of little sweet treats in their windows – light almond sponges stuffed with cream and figs, dense sticky tortes finished simply with icing sugar, ricotta, pear and chocolate patisserie that I felt had been made just for me. It was naive of me not to have expected such breadth and beauty (of course the famous Italian pudding wines need their accompaniment), but also a great surprise.
These recipes are my attempts to recreate the sunshine in my own home. James and I are off to a wedding in Lake Garda in a month’s time and I am excited to see what culinary excitements are to be found in this more northerly region. For now, it’s time to bake and bring about a little bit of la dolce vita!
Fennel seed and nut biscotti
- 2 eggs
- 125g caster sugar
- 1 tsp vanilla bean paste
- ½ tsp fennel seeds
- 2 tsp sesame seeds
- 2 tsp poppy seeds
- 125g plain flour, plus more for dusting
- 100g ‘00’ flour
- 1 tsp baking powder
- 100ml sunflower oil
- 150g nuts (I use walnuts, flaked almonds and pistachios)
- Preheat the oven to 180C/Gas 4 and line a baking sheet with greaseproof paper.
- Weigh out and mix all the ingredients together until you have a rough dough. Tip out on to a lightly floured work surface and knead until smooth.
- Split the dough into two and form rough log-shaped lengths. Place on the baking sheet and bake for 20 minutes. Remove and allow to cool.
- Turn the oven down to 140C/Gas 1.
- Slice each log on the diagonal into 12 biscotti. Return the slices to the oven for 15 to 20 minutes or until dried out.
- Store in an airtight container and serve with ice cream or simply dunked into Italian pudding wine.
Vin santo cake with a Campari syrup
For the cake
- 100ml very sweet vin santo
- 150ml sunflower or vegetable oil
- 4 eggs, separated
- 175g caster sugar
- 175g self-raising flour
For the syrup
- 50ml Campari
- 100g caster sugar
- Juice of ½ grapefruit (optional)
- Preheat the oven to 180C/Gas 5. Grease and line the base of a 23cm cake tin.
- Measure out the wine and the oil into a jug.
- Place the egg yolks in a bowl with 100g of the caster sugar. Whisk (I use an electric hand whisk) on a high speed until the yolks are thick, pale and fluffy. Still whisking, gradually and slowly add the oil and wine mixture to the bowl until fully combined.
- In a second bowl whisk the egg whites until stiff peaks form. Add the remaining sugar one tablespoon at a time, whisking in between, until combined and glossy.
- Fold half of the egg whites into the yolks. Add the second half and sift in half of the flour. Fold in very gently to combine. Finally sift in the remaining flour and fold once more. Pour into the prepared tin.
- Bake for 30 to 35 minutes or until the sponge has risen and is golden brown. A knife inserted should come out clean.
- Boil the Campari, sugar and grapefruit juice (if using) with 50ml water in a pan. Boil to reduce for two minutes until very slightly thickened in consistency.
- Serve the cake with the syrup and either some softly whipped cream or vanilla mascarpone.