Slowly fried

Soffritto means gently-fried, I am told. And so is this post, I guess…. Ten months in the cooking. Whoops. It’s not that things have not been cooked (they have), just that they have not made it onto the camera or the page.

Both the radio silence and the sudden resumption can be explained by the fact that I started maternity leave yesterday. Baby’s due in 10 days, and now I don’t have to schlep to work every day (and then slump on the sofa in a pregnancy coma of an evening, before failing to sleep a wink all night), I can get down to business. 10 days to nap as much as possible, and fill the freezer with meals, so that (when the naps are no longer possible, and cooking is beyond me) we can defrost some deliciousness, and not rely too much on the local takeaway scene.

One day of batch cooking down, and there’s already 20 meals in the freezer (we never knowingly undercater in this family) – 14 portions of Bolognese ragù, and 6 of timpana, plus a pot of soup to get me through the next few days without resorting to the Beef Monster Munch (just kidding – nothing can keep me away from the Beef Monster Munch!).

All these are based on the aromatic loveliness that is a soffritto. Finely chopped celery, carrot and onion, fried slowly and gently in olive oil until they soften and the flavours all mix up gloriously. They impart depth of flavour and sweetness, and can be used as a base for all kinds of meals.

Basic Soffritto

6 celery sticks, finely chopped
5 fat carrots, finely chopped
4 large white onions, finely chopped
Generous glug of olive oil
Sea salt

In a big cast iron pot over a medium flame, gently heat the oil. Add the vegetables and the salt, and stir to cover them all in the oil. Cook slowly and gently, stirring regularly, until the vegetables are all softened, but not yet brown. Turn the heat down if you need to to stop them catching, but the volume of veg (and the high water content) should help them to steam-soften, rather than fry brown.

Soffritto of onion, celery and carrot

 

Bacon and Barley Soup

4 rashers streaky bacon, chopped
2 tablespoons cooked soffritto
2 small potatoes, peeled and in 1cm cubes
2tsp tomato paste
1L chicken stock
150g pearl barley
Oil, salt and pepper

Fry the bacon in a bit of oil, until just brown. Add the cooked soffritto, and mix well so the vegetables are all coated in the bacon fat. Add the potato, and cook gently for 5 minutes or so, until just starting to soften, but not brown. Add the paste, stir and cook another 2-3 minutes.

Add the stock, and bring to the boil. Once boiling, add the barley and turn down a touch to simmer for 30-40 minutes, when the barley should be cooked and the soup thickened a bit. Season to taste, and serve with grated parmesan and a drizzle of olive oil.

Bacon and barley soup

 

My Bolognese Sauce (apologies to the people of Bologna for lack of authenticity!)

Makes about 20 very generous portions

One portion of soffritto (as above)
200g chopped pancetta
2kg minced meat (I used half pork, a quarter veal and a quarter beef)
Parmesan rind
5 bay leaves
Milk, oil, butter, salt and pepper
400 ml passata
1 tube tomato paste
1 glass white wine

Remove the soffritto from the pan, and add the pancetta and another glug of oil. Cook slowly so the bacon fat softens and starts to brown. Add the mince and the bay leaves, breaking the meat up thoroughly with a wooden spoon. Cook, stirring regularly, until brown. This will take a while as all the water will need to evaporate first – maybe even half an hour or so. Get it to brown without burning.

Once the meat is brown, return the soffritto to the pan, along with the parmesan rind and the tube of tomato paste. Stir well, add a couple of knobs of butter, and cook it out gently for five more minutes. Add the wine, stir again, and wait til it’s mostly cooked off, before adding the passata and a pint of milk. Bring it up to the boil, and then turn it down to a very low bubble. Simmer for 3-4 hours, until all the flavours are melded together, and it’s thick and delicious. If it dries out too much at any point, top up with a bit of milk or water. Finish it off my mixing in a final 50g butter.

Bolognese

Timpana (sort of… actually, baked macaroni, or Imqarrun il-forn)

Serves 6 as main meal, 10-12 as a starter

1L Bolognese
600g dried macaroni, freshly cooked and drained
2 eggs, beaten
2 hardboiled eggs, chopped
Salt and pepper
100g grated parmesan
100g grated cheddar

Gently mix together all the ingredients except the cheddar. Pour them into a greased pyrex dish or tin, and sprinkle the cheddar over the top. Bake in an oven at 180 for around an hour, until the eggs are set and the cheese melted and golden.

It’s better reheated on the second day, so plan to make it ahead.

For actual timpana, instead of baked macaroni, replace the cheddar with a sheet of puff pastry, and an egg wash.

Timpana, or baked macaroni

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For my Grandma

My Grandma is 90 today. It’s thanks to her that I am a cook, and today I want to celebrate her, and the influence she has had on my life (and my cooking!).

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Lucrezia, Lola, Lella, Grace, Grandma

Her name is Lucrezia. In Malta, she was known as Lella.  To family she is Lola. To English friends, she is Grace (the only reason I can think of is that Grace sounds ever so slightly like Lucrezia).

She was born into a huge family in Malta in 1923, the second youngest of many siblings. I don’t know what her father did for work, but I know they kept chickens – she refuses to eat poultry, as she has memories of birds flapping about that she hates! She lived with her Godparents for a lot of her childhood – presumably because there wasn’t much room at home.

Grandma's the little one in the middle

Grandma’s the little one in the middle

She was 15 when war broke out, and lived the end of her teens through the Siege of Malta. They had huge bombing raids, and very little food or fuel. The island was on the brink of starvation when the Santa Marija convoy limped into Grand Harbour in August 1942.

She is deeply proud of Maltese history, and of the George Cross awarded to the whole population in recognition of the suffering they bore. She told me about the soup kitchens they ate from, and the rumours of unsavoury meat (dogs and rats were mentioned) that people ate to survive. She told me about the three planes, Faith, Hope and Charity, that valiantly defended the Maltese skies. And she told me that one hot day she and her friends got in trouble with a policeman for swimming across from Sliema to Valletta (unsurprisingly this was considered unwise during war time).

I know very little else and, other than the swimming story, the tales she told of the war were stories of Malta’s triumph against adversity, not about her life and experiences. I think she had a boyfriend who died in the bombing, but I don’t know how she felt about that or how it impacted her life. And now I can’t ask her – two years ago she nearly died from a stroke, and has lost almost all of her speech, her ability to write, and a lot of her memories. I wish I’d asked her when I had the chance.

I do know more about her story after the war. I know she met and fell in love with a Military Police Officer called Dennis, and that he proposed after just four days. And I know that she was too scared to tell her mother (and her half a dozen older brothers!) that she was engaged to an English man (and a non Catholic!), so she persuaded her Priest to break the news.

Grandma and Grandad on their wedding day

Grandma and Grandad on their wedding day

They married in Valletta and stayed there for a few years. My Grandad worked in a tailors’ shop, and (from the pictures I have seen) they had a wonderful life. A few years later, a little girl was born (my mother) and then another (my Auntie Louise). Then, when my mum was about 5, they moved to England. I don’t know what triggered this, and I can’t begin to imagine what it felt like to leave the small-town old-world sunshine island, surrounded by family and friends, to go to cold, wet England.

She experienced racism, missed her family and, horror of horrors, could only buy olive oil from the chemists. She was not a fan of British food, and was particularly snotty about suet puddings. But she loved Guinness and Whiskey. Food culture clash aside, it must have been a real struggle, and I think there must have been times she was very lonely.

But she must have found comfort in cooking, and in food from home. She cooked, and cooked, and cooked. It’s the thing I always remember growing up – Grandma’s cooking. Cakes, big lunches, family festivities. There was always something freshly baked, and every single day, until my Grandad died, she would make a 3 course lunch (soup or pasta to start).

She didn’t only cook Maltese food, but there was a lot of it. Timpana (baked macaroni, with ragu and egg) was, and is, a firm favourite. Bragioli (stewed beef olives, stuffed with garlic, egg, bacon and parsley) was wheeled out for special occasions. And there were many, many pastizzi (mini pasties of puff pastry, filled with ricotta, egg and salt). Actually, ricotta got quite an airing. Grandma used to make her own, before it became usual for the supermarkets to stock it, and later she used to like trying the different supermarket brands and declaring which was the least awful. She’d mix it with icing sugar and pipe it into dates at Christmas, or make makeshift kannoli out of brandy snap biscuits.

Every Easter, without fail, you’d be asked if you wanted a fish, a duck or a basket. Easter meant Figolli – almond-filled iced biscuits in traditional shapes to symbolise resurrection and new life. When I was young, my Figolla seemed enormous – bigger than me! It also came topped with a Cadbury’s cream egg. Maltese traditions with an English twist. Tastes might have changed, and children of the 80s like me might prefer the egg to the biscuit, but the Figolli didn’t change. One each, every year, until her stroke stopped her cooking. That’s why every Easter, I make Figolli too. They’re messy, time-consuming and I suspect some people would prefer a chocolate egg, but I’ll make them anyway. They’re smaller than Grandma’s, spicier, and covered in crazy neon icing, and don’t tell Grandma I’m using her sister’s recipe…

I’m lucky that Grandma wanted to pass on her cooking traditions to me. Some of them, I haven’t adopted. She must have told me a hundred times how to stuff an artichoke with tuna.  I’m still never going to do it. I can’t imagine myself stuffing a shin of beef either. Maltese cooking always seems to involve stuffing something. Often with bacon, parsley, garlic and an egg (“then you put an egg!”, she would say).

She’d also delight in collecting recipe cards from magazines and supermarkets for me. I must have the full set of Sainsbury’s cards a dozen times over. I was less keen on them, though I’d try to be appreciative. I wanted to know more about the egg-putting.

One day I went to Grandma’s for lunch (how much do I regret not doing this more when I had the chance?) to find a red envelope (no doubt recycled from Christmas) with my name on. Inside were written out her favourite recipes for me.  They are Silver Spoon style, with no quantities and wonderfully vague instructions (“add 1 or 2 eggs according to how much mince you’ve got” and “if you get stuck, phone me up”). They are the recipes of a woman who didn’t need recipes to cook this food.

I’ve made one or two of them – but not enough. Perhaps I’ll celebrate her 90th birthday year by trying them all out. I know she’d like me to tell her about it, even if she can’t offer advice now. I’m glad I have them – her gift to me.

Me and my Grandma at her 90th birthday lunch

Me and my Grandma at her 90th birthday lunch

There are three things that spring to mind when I think of what my Grandma has passed on to me. Faith, family and food. All put into practice yesterday, as her children and grandchildren  gathered with her for Sunday Mass in her nursing home, followed by a slap up lunch. We moved then to my Auntie’s house for more celebrations. She tutted “I don’t know how you can eat after that lunch” as she piled up plates of more food on the table. But she didn’t mean it. Feeding people is how we show our love in my family.

I regret not asking my Grandma more about her story when she could communicate. And I regret not eating more of her food while I had the chance. But I’m going to make up for it by cooking those recipes, baking those Figolli and by passing on some of that love for faith, family and food to my own children one day.

Happy Birthday Grandma. I love you, and may you be with us for many more birthdays. And I’ll be bringing some dates stuffed with ricotta next time I come to visit.

Baked Rice - Ross il-forn

Baked Rice – Ross il-forn

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Maltese-style shepherds’ pie (with an egg, naturally!)

Penne with ricotta

Penne with ricotta

Timpana

Timpana

Bragioli

Bragioli

Steamed beef

Steamed beef

Patata fil-forn – Maltese Roast Potatoes

Patata fil forn

Patata fil forn

I think these potatoes win the prize for lowest effort to highest tastiness ratio. You chop things, chuck them in the oven, salivate over the delicious smells, then scoff in large quantities.

They go with just about everything. We usually have them with fish (try sprinkling a few fennel seeds on top), but they perk up any roast dinner too. And they’re extra special with a bit of meaty goodness – slow cooked shoulder of lamb finished off on top of these spuds is a work of art.

There’s a bit of an art to the cooking of them… They pretty much steam to begin with and then, once they’re cooked and most of the liquid gone, you whip the foil off to let them roast. But the time it takes to steam them is a bit of a moveable feast…. So be prepared to check them and keep cooking if they’re still hard. It’s very hard to be patient, especially as the braising onions give off the most delicious whiff for the whole cooking time. But there is not much mankier than a raw potato, so stick it out.

It’s worth it for the deeply savoury flavour, and the softness of the bottoms of the potatoes contrasted with the crunch of the crispy, salty, pepper tops.

Maltese Roast Potatoes - before

Maltese Roast Potatoes – before

Ingredients

800g potatoes, peeled and sliced to 1cm
2 onions, peeled and sliced
2 cloves of garlic, crushed
Olive oil
Salt and pepper

Method

Drizzle oil over the base of the oven dish. Spread over the garlic, and about half of the onion slices.

Lay out the potatoes in one layer.

Cover with the rest of the onions.

Pour water into the dish so it is 1.5 – 2cm deep – all the potatoes should be touching the water, but they should not be covered.

Drizzle with olive oil, and sprinkle the tops with plenty of salt and pepper.

Cover tightly with foil, and bake for around 45 minutes in a hot oven. After 30 minutes, check and see if the potatoes are cooked (poke with a knife). It might take up to an hour.

Once the potatoes are soft, remove the foil and roast for about half an hour, until the tops are crunchy and most of the water has evaporated.

 

 

 

Figolli time!

Lamb figollaEvery Easter, for as long as I can remember, there has been a selection of enormous biscuits, stuffed with marzipan, iced and topped with a creme egg, that do the rounds in our family. As far as I know, my Grandma made one for everyone in the family every single year from when they moved here in the 1950s, until she became ill a couple of years ago.

These giant biccies are figolli (one figolla, two figolli), and they are basically the Maltese version of an Easter Egg – ie, everyone has at least one each! They are a soft biscuit, cut into a range of shapes (figolla has the same roots as the word ‘figure’) with some religious, Easter-y significance. The most traditional is the lamb-shape, but you can buy cutters in lots  of shapes – I have a butterfly, a duck, a heart, a basket and a fish, which I guess have vague overtones of new life and re-birth.

About 7 or 8 years ago, I was in Malta for Easter, and we went to Birgu on Easter morning to watch the statue of the risen Christ being run up the hill (this is more crazy that it sounds – the statue is MASSIVE, heavy and on a huge wooden stand that has to be carried by a lot of men). There were loads of children waiting to hold their Figolli up to be blessed by the Priests following the statue.

The same year, a few days before, we had visited my Auntie Ginny (Grandma’s little sister). She looks the spitting image of Grandma, and their mannerisms and little ways are so similar – down to the blue plastic bowls that are plonked in the middle of the table after a meal, filled with water so you can wash your fruit before peeling it (I have even seen grapes being peeled!). Auntie Ginny must have been over 80 at this point, but she was making a dozen or so figolli for her children and grandchildren, just as Grandma was doing the same back in the UK.

I managed to coax the recipe off Auntie Ginny – Grandma Lola had always been very reluctant to hand over her family recipes (no idea why not – a determination never to give up the roll of chief family cook?), though she has since relented, and given me an envelope full of hand-written notes.

Naturally, I then hit the shops on Merchant Street in Valletta, and stocked up on the cutters, and went home and set-to making my first batch. There were a few years when Grandma and I both made them – I mostly found friends to palm them off on, rather than inflicting two giant biscuits on everyone in my family! Since she’s been ill, it’s just been me baking them – a tradition I hope to keep up as long as she did.

I think my figolli cutters are actually ‘medium-shaped’, but I think the finished biscuits are probably a good 18cm across. The large ones must be huge! I think Grandma must have had larger ones (or maybe she actually had a cardboard shape she cut around?) – I remember thinking they were the biggest sweet things I had ever seen when I was little. “Do you want a duck, a fish or a basket?” she would always ask (the options were a bit more limited then!).

I’m taking Grandma’s figolla over to her on Easter Monday. It’s a bright red heart, runnily iced to say Grandma – I think she’ll like the fact that the tradition’s been passed on, and no-one in our family will be wanting for a giant, almond-stuffed biscuit any Easter soon!

Maltese Figolli – Easter biscuits – makes 11/12

Ingredients for pasta frolla:

800g plain flour
400g caster sugar
400g butter, fridge cold and chopped or grated
4 or 5 egg yolks

Ingredients for filling:

200g ground almonds
200g chopped almonds (toasted)
400g caster sugar
1 tablespoon mixed spice
zest of two oranges
2 teaspoons almond extract
3 tablespoons orange juice, or orange blossom water
3 medium eggs

To decorate:

2 packets royal icing sugar, made up according to instructions
Food colouring
Creme eggs (essential – one year my mother gave me my figolla without a creme egg, and claimed that was how it had come from Grandma – needless to say I quickly identified the creme egg culprit!!)

Figolla dough ingredients1. Make the dough by rubbing the fat into the flour, until it has the appearance of fine breadcrumbs. I cheated this year, by grating the butter in, then giving it a 1-minute whallop on full blast in the kitchen aid with the dough hook. It seemed to work, and (other than a lot of flour on the work surface) was a lot quicker than doing it by hand. Lazy me!

Figolla dough - made in the stand mixer - look, it's breadcrumby!2. Add the sugar to the floury breadcrumbs, and mix it through. Now add the egg yolks, one at a time, until it holds together. I find that the kind of flour, and size of eggs, can make quite a difference here – sometimes only 3 yolks are needed, sometimes 5, so see how it feels. Once it’s binding, use your hands to shape it into a huge disc, wrap in clingfilm, and refrigerate for at least an hour.

Pasta frolla3. While the dough’s resting in the fridge, make the filling. This bit’s nice and easy.Put dry ingredients in a bowl. Add the wet ones. Mix. Actually, if the eggs are a bit big, it can get a bit wet, so I would advise adding the eggs bit by bit, and stopping when it’s a thick paste that will drop off a spoon. If it’s a bit wet, it doesn’t matter too much, as it will thicken a bit if you leave it out, uncovered, while the dough finishes resting, but if it’s very wet it risks leaking out of the figolli in the oven.

Figolla filling

4. Pre-heat the oven to about 170 Celsius, and grease a big, flat (no raised edges if possible) cookie tray. The bigger the better, so you can bake 3 at a time, or the baking could take a while….

5. After dusting the work surface with a little flour, cut off about a quarter of the pasta frolla, and roll it out to about 7mm thickness. Cut out the shapes with your cutters (or cut round shapes if you are using a template. Obviously, you will need at least two of each shape! Lay the bottom layer of each on your baking sheet.

Figolla bottom layer6. Using a teaspoon (and no doubt your fingers) pop little blobs of your filling on the base, leaving about 1.5cm around the edges. I usually pile the blobs of filling quite deep, as they do spread and even out a bit thinner in the oven.

Figolla base and filling7. Dab a little water around the edges of the bottom layer. Take your top layer, and (after it’s been cut) roll it out a tiny bit more, so it’s slightly bigger than the bottom layer (to fit over the filling). Drape it over the bottom shape, and press down firmly at the edges to seal it. The world won’t end if it leaks a tiny bit in the oven, as you can tidy it up with a knife, but try to seal it as much as possible.

20130327_111856_Hagrid_Vignette_Ground8. Leave a decent space between the figolli, as they spread a lot in the oven. Bake for 15-20 minutes – the edges should be starting to go brown, and the centre should look cooked, and not damp and doughy. Remove from the oven, and leave on the tray to cool for 10 minutes or so, while you roll out the next batch. They are very fragile when warm, and really need this time to cool and set a bit – otherwise they can just break up. Once cooled sufficiently, move to a wire rack, while you finish baking the rest.

Duck figolla9. Once completely cool, ice thickly in bright colours, and top with a creme egg. THIS IS COMPULSORY. Ideally, bake the figolli on Maundy Thursday, as I find they improve in texture after a few days.

Happy Easter all.

Better late than never – kwarezimal time

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Kwarezimal – Maltese Lenten sweets

Yesterday was one of those leisurely Saturdays that seems to go on forever. An epic lie-in with big bowls of porridge topped with blueberry jam, then a late afternoon snowy walk to sit with the papers in our local coffee shop. We even had time to catch up on a bit of TV, and watch a film. Earlier in the evening, I pottered in the kitchen, while Oliver watched Midsomer (not too sad to have missed that one…..).

Today, however, has flown by – even though we got up at a much more civilised time…. though that could be due to the looooong Passion Sunday Church service this morning. Church, a short and feeble run, a spot of speed-baking, then I felt like I blinked and it was time to march up the hill to our other Church for the wonderful Passion Play, the finale of the Telegraph Hill Festival.

Anyway, we’re now home, dinner’s in the oven, the fire’s lit and apparently the Godfather’s on tonight, so we’re onto a winner. And only two days at work, then a bit of leave before the Bank Holiday.

I cannot believe how quickly Holy Week has come round this year. Maybe it was the drama of Benedict’s abdication and the papal election, but it’s another case of blink and you miss it. I think we’ve managed to stick to fishy Fridays the whole time, but being honest most other good intentions have gone to pot. I’ll try again next year….

I like marking the seasons and religious festivals with food. Christmas food traditions abound, and mark it out as a special time, and I’ve just bought the ingredients for the Easter Figolli (more on them next week).

For Lent, I bake kwarezimal. I’m not sure I’ve ever left it as late as Palm.Sunday before, but better late than never.

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These are traditional Maltese Lenten biscuits, made with no fat and no dairy. They sound as though they should be more of a pennance than a treat, but they’re surprisingly moist, and fragrant with orange zest and spices.

You can read the recipe here from last year, but suffice it to say they are as easy as baking gets. Mix ingredients, add water, drop onto tray, bake.

It also makes far more than I expected…. 70 biscuits! I think I’ll be palming them off at work tomorrow. Though they actually keep like a dream, and in fact get softer and moister with time, so I guess there’s no hurry.

I’ll be starting the Figolli on Wednesday, the. I have a huge gap until Christmas when it comes to seasonal festive baking, which seems a little sad. If anyone has any other suggestions for foodstuffs to mark the year (Maltese bone-shaped biscuits for All Souls, anyone?) I’d love to hear them

A year in bread #18

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Ħobż biż-żejt!

There’s been a lull in the bread-making of late, as boyo’s away with work, and I’ve spurned sourdough in favour of edible polystyrene (aka ricecakes)…

I’m out and about with work today, though, and needed a packed lunch, so I baked up the tiny, sour-as-anything blob of dough that’s been sat in the fridge for a fortnight, and filled it with tomato paste, olive oil, a bit of feta and loads of black pepper.

Can’t wait, move over ricecakes, you can’t compete!