20/2/2011 Italian Adventure (or how focaccia drove me mad)

Post date: 24-Feb-2011 21:26:03

Our Italian Adventure was meant to describe the adventure Reena had had in pursuing her dream in Italy. In the event it was quite a culinary adventure for both of us! She’d chosen the dishes based on those most nostalgic meals from her time in Italy. Admittedly, there were some alteration that needed to be made. I’d resolved to let her make her own mistakes on this one and just cook whatever she chose - it would be a great learning curve for her in terms of menu design, and with 2 of us, I was sure we could cook whatever. But, I’m afraid, I had to stick my oar in.

Mainly because when she sent me over the menu, she had Cavallo on it as a main course. Now my Italian isn’t fluent, but I think cavallo means horse. I had to mail her back - telling her 1) we don’t eat horse in this country and 2) serving that would be the surest way to get me firebombed I know of! Back to the drawing board.

The next missive I received had another Italian delight instead - Lingua. Again, my Italian’s not great but last time I looked, that meant tongue. I’m sure my enthusiastic butcher can manage to get it but I have memories of my second ever supper club when I put Chicken Liver Pate on the menu. I know it’s good because friends eat it enthusiastically every time I serve it - but only ONE person ordered it and I had a mountain of chicken liver pate to dispose of. I swore never to put offal on the menu again. So - tongue was off all my menus too. The only people I really know that eat tongue happily are my parents’ generation, and I don’t get too many 70+ customers.

At the third attempt I got oxtail. OK, it’s offal but I can live with that. Also on the menu were marinated anchovies, foccacia, tiramisu, walnut strudel, ribollita, spinach and ricotta tortelli, mozzarella di buffala, tomato bruschetta and olives. All except the olives, the mozzarella (thanks Sainsburys, who actually sell it at a reasonable price) and the tortelli caused us problems!!

I had really no idea where to get fresh anchovies from, short of going down to Billingsgate at 4am. Trawling around Ridley Road, for the first time I spotted little mounds of small silver fish. In fact they were everywhere, how had I not noticed them before? They were called sprats. They were bigger than the tiny things Reena had described but we took one home to experiment with, figured we could fillet them and make them work. Reena had the recipe from her friend who’d made it so that was a goer. In the event it took 2 hours of our morning to fillet about 1.5kgs of sprats - hey, I’m a lot faster for next time, got the hang of it now - so I don’t advise anyone else putting this on their menu as it’s not really something you want to do a couple of days before if you’re eating them raw!!

Next we had to find recipes for the other stuff. Reena sent over a rather dodgy-looking recipe for walnut strudel. It didn’t even look like a strudel! I asked her is that what she actually ate and she admitted it wasn’t but it was all she could find on the web. So I searched my Italian cookbooks in vain for walnut strudel recipes. In the end I gave up in despair and decided to adapt an apple strudel recipe. That’s when I remembered the Apple Strudel Grandma Clar which I have wanted to cook for over 20 years. That’s right, I remember recipes that long. The reason I haven’t cooked it for 20 years is that it requires an entire big dining table, a spare tablecloth that you cover in flour, and willing friends to help make it. Finally, I have all these things. When I dug up the recipe - lo and behold - it had walnuts in it. Good grief. That Grandma Clar was surely smiling on me.

What it involves is making the strudel dough and pulling it out to the size of your table, can you believe, until you can see the pattern of the tablecloth through it. We had a fantastic time reading the instructions out loud to each other 25 times to work out what to do, and making the thing look like a Jackson Pollock painting (as instructed), before rolling it up and making 2 large strudels, far too much (I thought), so I promised left-overs to the Nuns.

Next problem was finding ripe tomatoes for the Bruschetta. I went the length of the market 2 days before, looking for good tomatoes. Right at the end I found not-very-ripe but large and lovely plum tomatoes. And the bit of cardboard propped up behind them said in marker pen “ Grown on the hillsides of Italy by Benedictine Monks”. Mamma Mia. Apparently (I did ask!) that’s what they were told when they bought them at the wholesale stall!! Well the story was good so I bought a bunch of ripe bananas, took them home and tied them all up in a plastic bag on the heated stone floor. This is the appliance of science. 2 days later and they were quite ripe, from all the ethylene given off by the bananas. I tell you, it works, ‘coz they weren’t even very red when I bought them.

Ribollita - well, it needs white beans. I didn‘t get a Valentines card this year, but my friend the bean-man gave me the beans - get this - as a Valentine‘s present!! Well, that cheered me up. Also, it requires cavolo nero to be totally authentic. Not an easy thing to get in this country (a friend tried for me at Borough market and failed), so I had to beg some dark green cabbage leaves off a market trader (who no doubt thought I was mad!). What with the butcher who thinks I only eat chicken bones (since he gives them to me free and otherwise only sells non-freerange meat which I don’t buy!), and the market traders who think I eat left-over cabbage leaves…. They must think I’m really hard up. At least no-one can say I don’t have a bean.

But the crowning glory of our troubles was the focaccia. Well, after all the internet searches, I can tell you I know how to spell it now. It certainly didn’t seem like a problem. I went to Sainsburys and found that they were out of Sainsbury’s strong bread flour (I had only 1 bag left after dim sum making). After careful and lengthy consideration of all the different flours available and their gluten content (Sainsbury’s strong bread being the highest at over 13%), I plumped for Hovis Extra Strong, mainly because it wasn’t very expensive. I’d found 3 focaccia recipes in my cookbooks, all quite similar so I was confident in the recipe. Actually the internet recipes were similar too (similar AND similarly hopeless). In the end we had to make it up.

Our first attempt (with Sainsbury’s flour) produced a solid, dry and close-textured bread that seemed suitable for grissini, or breadsticks. Horrific. We did in fact use that exact method and flour to produce our excellent home made breadsticks later, so I’m not kidding. Reena looked horrified. I think we had both thought that it would be relatively easy to do, since it‘s so easily available all over Italy. Second attempt was marginally better (using Hovis flour), but all the cooking times given of 20-30 mins produced a hard crusty bread. So we cut the cooking time down to 10 minutes, which seemed similar to another soft crust wholegrain bread that I make. 3rd attempt was better yet but we forgot it in the oven and still baked it for 15 mins. Oops. 4th attempt (helped by the grill for browning) was definitely better in terms of soft crust - after all, who ever ate a crusty focaccia?!. By this time I was well fed up of baking bread, the oven had been on all day and I’d read every piece of scientific explanation of gluten and crust formation I could get my hands on. Finally, the next day, we got it right. Add oil TO the dough, use Hovis flour, make sure the dough consistency is correct before it goes in the oven, use the top oven heat, get the right sized pan, don’t over-rise and cover the bread with a tea towel when it comes out of the oven. It was perfect. Now you can see what we go through to give you all your perfect dinners?! Anyway some of our failures went into the Ribollita so it didn’t all go to waste!

Here in France (where I am now), I can definitely say that there’s a lot to do with the milling of the flour, more so than the gluten content as far as I can see. I actually baked some bread this morning using French flour, about 12% protein (long story, but it started with an experimental dim sum that needed leavened dough, not that I’m a glutton for punishment or anything with a Boulangerie just outside my front door!, so I baked the leftovers). It was light, airy, soft and delicious. Without even trying. I’m bringing a suitcase of French flour back with me.

Oh yes- and the tiramisu. I begged the recipe on e-mail off an Algerian friend married to an Italian here in France. YOU try working with a recipe that goes like - “take 2 tubs (unspecified size!) of mascarpone. Mix it with egg yolks. Beat the whites with a glass of sugar (a glass? a GLASS?!). Mix it in with the mascarpone mix. Pour it over sponges soaked in coffee.” Yet again, we had to make it up. And after all the anchovy filleting, we were so behind I was doing this AFTER the guests already arrived - in fact one poor guest had to beat the mascarpone for me. Hey, dinner and cooking lesson into the bargain. It ended up huge, since I used 11 eggs, and tasted great. The nuns didn’t get either this or any walnut strudel, I’m afraid to say. None left. We'd made enough dessert for 22 people and 14 people ate the lot.