On the first of December we begin eating panettone. So dictates family lore; and, as is the way of family lore, so it has been for as long as I can remember. One of the most pronounced memories from my childhood, in fact, is the walk through the back streets here in Venice on a December afternoon to buy our panettone. The city cloaked in that frosty, foggy haze of darkness which at this time of year sets in not so long after lunch – and I remember so vividly stepping out of the cold and into the welcoming warmth of our local pasticceria, to choose the panettone among the array of those piled high on the shop shelves, still fresh out of the baker’s oven and permeating the room with their heady scent. The pasticcere would carefully wrap our cake in a layer of printed paper and then one of celophane, and I would carry it home to eat for tea. Some days I would choose a panettone with rich chocolate ganache filling – not canonical per se, but ever so good; other days, just a plain one, peppered with plump raisins and candied peel – then eat it lightly toasted and doused in brandy butter. But without fail, panettone everyday until the last of the year. And then panettone no more until December comes again once more. In my mind panettone is Christmas tradition as much as the tree or the mulled wine.
With the first slice of panettone begins that season which is Christmas but isn’t quite Christmas yet. More broadly known as the month of December. The shopping, the wrapping, the whirlwind of parties, the carol services and the long-overdue catch-ups with friends (usually enhanced by a good bottle of wine and a hearty meal). It is a blur of sweets and ribbons and sparkling lights and I think my favourite time of year – perhaps even more than Christmas itself, because it is so rich with anticipation, so heady with excitement you can almost feel your stomach squeeze a little. For the first time this year, Aeneas (only just turned three) really seems to understand Christmas: he sings ‘jingle bells’, he chatters about Father Christmas, and with endearing enthusiasm he jumps out of bed each morning to rush and switch on the lights on our tree.
For my part, I am happy to have an excuse for busying myself in the kitchen with the decadent likes of fruitcake, brandy butter, sugared cranberries, maroons glacés and sweet red mulled wine.
All of which leads me to my current infatuation: persimmons. Beautiful, beautiful persimmons. The persimmons are new to me – rather as Christmas is new to Aeneas. That’s not to say that I hadn’t encountered them before now; they’re a very common fruit in Italy, and at this time of year, they hang from trees, heavy and plump, their skins translucent, and gleaming like a burning sunset. In Venice you see them aplenty on the market stalls and we call them ‘kaki’. Yet, for most of my life – I studiously ignored the kaki. For no good reason other than some misconstrued notion that I didn’t like them. I was wrong: turns out they are the fruit of the gods. The ripe ones are so sweet that they need nothing doing to them – their flesh is like thick, ambrosial jam. But the harder fruits – still sweet, but firm – those I have taken with relish to cooking every which way. A particular favourite: poached in amaretto syrup and drizzled over creamy pannacotta. Not traditional Christmas fare, but somehow has become to feel Christmas-y to me. That, after all, is how traditions are forged.
Other current culinary infatuations that I can’t resist sharing with you: candied orange and star anise cake. Because December is the time for candied fruits of all sorts – something about them that feels so irresistibly decadent and festive. And because I can’t help but think that the cake looks like a sky lit up with bright shooting stars, like those you imagine shining over Bethlehem once upon a time. It is a pleasingly simple recipe to make: an upside down cake of sorts, the kind where you toss all the ingredients into one single frying pan and then turn the cake out in one fell swoop, and as if by some kind of magic it lands picture perfect on the plate in front of you. We have taken to eating it – still warm from the pan – with lashings of bourbon butter.
And last but not least: truffles. Because it wouldn’t be December in Italy without truffles in some shape or form, be it shaved over a plate of buttery tagliolini or topping pizza. Here a baked cheese-y pasta, doused in white truffle oil and topped with crisp breadcrumbs – and a favourite of mine.
Maccheroni Al Forno con Tartufo Bianco
(Truffled Maccheroni and Cheese)
Prep Time: 20 mins
Cook Time: 20-30 mins
500g maccheroni pasta
300g cheddar cheese
200g swiss raclette cheese
500ml double cream
7 tsps white truffle oil
75g panko breadcrumbs
Preheat the oven to 200 degrees centigrade. Fill a large saucepan with water, and a generous pinch of salt. Bring to the boil and add the pasta, then cook for 5 mins or as per the packet instructions (you want the pasta to be al dente). Meanwhile, grate the cheddar and the raclette into a large mixing bowl; then pour in the cream and stir to combine well. When the pasta is done, scoop a little of the cooking water out of the pan (approx 1/6 cup) and set to one side. Drain the pasta and toss it in the bowl with the cheese. Add the salted cooking water and stir vigororously until the pasta is all well coated in a melted cheese sauce. Add 3-4 tsps of the truffle oil to the pasta, stir well and taste. Season with a little with salt and pepper if needed. Grease an ovenproof dish with a little butter, then spoon the cheese-coated pasta into the dish. Toss the breadcrumbs into a small bowl, and drizzle with the remaining truffle oil. Toss together, so that the breadcrumbs are all coated in a little oil, then sprinkle over the pasta. Set in the oven to bake for 20-30 mins, until golden brown on top and hot in the middle.
Pannacotta con Kaki e Amaretto
(Pannacotta with Persimmon and Amaretto Sauce)
FOR THE PANNACOTTA
750ml double cream
6 gelatine leaves
75g caster sugar
FOR THE PERSIMMON & AMARETTO SAUCE
200ml amaretto liquor
750 ml water
50g caster sugar
To make the pannacotta, set the gelatine leaves in a small bowl and cover with cold water, then set to one side. Pour the cream and sugar into a small saucepan and set over a gentle heat, until the sugar is dissolved. Take the cream off the heat, squeeze the excess water out of the gelatine leaves with your hands and add to the cream. Stir until dissolved. Lightly grease individual moulds with a little oil and fill them with cream, then set in the fridge for 3-4 hours to set.
To make the sauce, pour the liquor and water into a large saucepan and add the sugar. Set over a medium heat and bring to the boil. Roughly chop and peel the persimmons and toss them in the syrup. Turn the heat down to a gentle simmer and poach for 15-20 mins until the fruit becomes soft. Leave the fruit to cool in the syrup, so that it absorbs more of its flavour. To make the sauce, blend the fruit with a little of the syrup to make a thick, sweet sauce. If you would like more of a syrup-like consistency, add more of the poaching syrup, if you would like the sauce thicker, then just add less.
Torta di Arance Candite e Anice
(Candied Orange and Star Anise Cake)
I make this in a frying pan that is roughly 20cm in diameter – make sure that it has an ovenproof handle, as you will put the whole thing in the oven.
Prep Time: 15 mins
Cook Time: 40-45 mins
2-3 medium to large oranges
220g demarara sugar
6-8 whole star anise
150g self-raising flour
200g caster sugar
1 tsp ground cinnamon
120g ground almonds
Preheat the oven to 160 degrees centigrade. Use a very sharp knife to finely slice the oranges and set to one side. Pour the sugar and the water into the frying pan and set over a medium heat to dissolve the sugar, then add the orange rounds and star anise and leave to bubble away for 10 mins or so, until the fruit has softened. Now take the pan off the heat and set to one side to cool.
Toss the butter into a small saucepan and set over a low to medium heat to melt, then set to one side to cool. Crack the eggs into a large mixing bowl; add the sugar and cinnamon and whisk vigorously for 8-10 mins until the eggs become light and fluffy, and have almost trebled in volume. Sift the flour over the egg mixture and gently fold through the batter. Add the ground almonds and pour in the melted butter, before folding through.
Pour the batter over the orange slices and set the pan in the middle of the oven to bake for 40-45 mins, until a knife comes out clean when inserted into the middle of the cake. Leave the cake to cool in the pan for a few minutes, before gently loosening the edges with a knife and turning the cake out on to a platter. Most delicious served still lightly warm.