Neapolitan pastries

November 30, 2011 § 2 Comments

Surprise, surprise, I didn’t find any UK style “Neapolitan ice cream” on our recent trip to Naples and the Sorrento peninsula – you know, that rigid tricolour block of strawberry, vanilla and chocolate flavours touted by Walls and similar industrial concerns.

What I did find was cake in profusion – on every street corner there’s a little pasticceria catering to what is clearly a very sweet Italian tooth. What’s on offer ranges from trays of positively austere little biscotti sold by the etto (100g) to some of the most over-the-top and lurid confections I’ve come across, like this glazed blue swan marvel from Sorrento:

The city of Naples itself is home to some of the most long-established family run pasticcerie like this one, Angelo Carbone’s, complete with its obligatory skein of drying laundry. You’ll find Carbone’s in Largo Regina Coeli, a mini-square amidst the maze of streets that makes up Naples’ centro storico.

We stopped here after a visit to Naples’ wondrous Museum of Archaeology and refuelled on thimblefuls of espresso and a generously proportioned zuppa inglese pastry and wild strawberry tartlet:

Tempting they may look, but my goodness they were heavy! Those fragoline di bosco atop the tartlet may look delicate but beneath was a layer of hefty pastry and a crema pasticcera that you could use to repoint the walls of Pompeii.

Perhaps a better option might have been a slice of home-made torrone, a Carbone speciality, or a jam-filled biscuit:

Of course we couldn’t leave without sampling some of Naples’ famous sfogliatelle. The name, meaning “many leaves” implies a light-as-air puff-pastry confection and indeed one type, the “riccia” exceeds expectations in this regard. I fell instantly in love with this organza-wrapped parcel of clamshell-shaped loveliness.

The intricate pastry encloses a dense sweet filling of cooked semolina, ricotta, candied fruit and spices. Oh, and they’re served warm, generally from a hot cabinet, much as we buy our cheese and onion pasties back here in the UK.

Just to confuse the novice pastry-eater, there’s a second type of sfogliatella known as a frolla, the plainer country cousin of the glamorous riccia, made with a sweet, crumbly shortcrust pastry encasing the same semolina/ricotta filling. In the interests of research, I had to try one of these too:

I’d happily eat either of these for breakfast along with a cappuccino. Having looked at recipes for each, I might consider having a go at baking a frolla, but shaping the riccia looks enough to have even a proficient croissant-maker quaking in his or her boots. There are videos of the process on youtube if your curiosity is piqued

I think the conclusion I’ve drawn is that Italian pastry-chefs come into their own when they’re not aping their French cousins. This display from Capri’s legendary Pasticceria Buonocore would seem to prove my point – don’t these look inviting?

And maybe the best Italian cakes are home-made – Marcella Hazan and Anna del Conte’s recipes for walnut cake, ricotta cake, apple cake and the like are enough to persuade me that this is the case. In fact, some of the best cakes we ate on our trip were not professionally made but were these slices of nutty chocolatey Torta Caprese and lemony lipsmacking baked ricotta cheesecake served up at a little café above Capri’s blue grotto and made by the proprietor’s wife. Home bakers rule!

Good things from Borrowdale

November 10, 2011 § Leave a comment

Perhaps the only good thing about having the kitchen redecorated is that we’re forced to get out of the house. When a glistening fresh coat of extra-slow drying oil-based eggshell arrived on the cupboard doors on Friday afternoon, we were forced to spend a weekend away. Fortunately, it all fell into place as there was a weekend of glorious high-pressure weather forecast for the North of England (remarkable for the first week in November) and my favourite youth hostel, the remote but cosy one up on the Honister Pass in the Lake District, had a family room available. So we packed the car, upped sticks and were rewarded with the most fantastic autumn weekend in and around the Borrowdale valley.

Saturday was spent on a circular lower level walk which, in addition to uplifting views and vibrant autumn colours, took in 4 different tearooms at Grange-in-Borrowdale, Watendlath, Rosthwaite, then back to Grange for a visit to its other tea establishment. Definitely my kind of walk.

I took the opportunity to stock-up on local products including this fantastic comb honey available from the Grange tearooms. According to the label, it comes from S. Edmondson of Troutdale, just down the road. It’s a dark, clear honey – from heather perhaps? and spread on my breakfast toast this morning I can confirm that the taste is divine – deeply fragrant, not too strong, and, odd as it may sound, I love the chewy crunch of the little bits of honeycomb wax.

I’ve now done a little reading round about the etiquette of whether or not to eat the wax in honeycomb. The consensus amongst the beekeeping community seems to be to go for it and eat the lot, honey, wax and all, so I now feel vindicated. There are some more delicate folk out there who prefer to chew then discreetly spit out – each to his own I suppose.

The village of Rosthwaite is home to Yew Tree Farm and its Flock-In tearoom which with its practical slate floors and generously sized cakes and mugs of tea, offers a warm welcome to walkers.

They make their own Borrowdale teabread here and sell whole loaves to take away as well as buttered slices to accompany your tea. I love teabreads of all kinds – quickly made, wholesome, and because there’s generally not much if indeed any fat in the cake mix itself, you can feel justified in enjoying a slice spread with lots of lovely butter.

Borrowdale teabread is a dark, moist slightly spicy loaf cake. Its colour comes both from the tea-soaked dried fruit it contains and the soft brown sugar used in the mix. I had a chat with Mrs Relph of Yew Tree Farm who was behind the counter that afternoon about the origins of Borrowdale teabread. Her view was that the dried fruits, spices and indeed tea in this teabread are a legacy of the overseas trade from the nearby port of Whitehaven. She mentioned that her recipe is made without the addition of fat so that it needs to be well-wrapped and stored in an airtight tin if it’s not to dry out if kept for any length of time. Not much chance of that in our family…

I’ve researched Borrowdale teabread recipes and have come up with my own version which I give below which combines the best bits of each recipe. I think the addition of a little melted butter which several recipe authors suggest will improve the keeping qualities of the cake.

I was then reminded of a treasured recipe for Borrowdale biscuits which I assume must originate in this same Lake District valley. Here’s the recipe given to me by my schoolfriend Helen Wright’s grandmother absolutely ages ago and kept in a file ever since:

These are the most moreish pale gold crunchy biscuits – like a superior Hob Nob for those familiar with the McVities product range. Going back to Helen’s house after school we’d be offered some of these with a cup of tea. I’m not proud to say I’d help myself to 6 or so more than the polite 2 offered when I thought nobody was looking…

I’ve tinkered with the original recipe just a little, substituting butter for margarine as I avoid margarine if I possibly can on grounds of flavour and odd as it may sound, health – all those lovely fat-soluble vitamins in butter from grazing cows can’t be all bad.

Most of the measurements in the original recipe are in “small teacups” so I’ve done my best to standardise the measures to give a consistent result.

I can’t wait to get back into my kitchen to start cooking once again rather than relying on baking memories, but in the meantime, it’s good to be outdoors burning off those cake and biscuit calories.

Recipe for Borrowdale teabread

Adapted from various sources including a Lakeland contributor to the Farmer’s Guardian, Carole Gregory’s little booklet “Favourite Lakeland Recipes”, Sizergh Barn’s online recipe (unusable as published as riddled with errors) and eating carefully the of Flock-In tearoom’s own teabread. I’ve maintained the key ratios and ingredients of the recipe but have incorporated what I think are the best elements of each recipe.

Good spread thickly with salted butter and maybe a wedge of crumbly Lancashire cheese.

Makes one large loaf cake.


½ pint (225 ml) strong hot black tea
14 oz (400g) dried mixed fruit (to include sultanas, raisins and glacé cherries)
6 oz (170g) dark soft brown sugar (use light soft brown sugar for a paler teabread with a less pronounced molasses flavour if you prefer)
1 large egg, beaten
grated rind of 1/2 orange and 1/2 lemon
1 oz (25g) melted butter
7 oz (200g) plain flour
2oz (50g) wholemeal flour
3/4 teaspoon bicarbonate of soda
¼ teaspoon freshly grated nutmeg
½ teaspoon mixed spice

Mix together the dried fruit and sugar in a large mixing bowl. Pour over the hot tea, cover and leave overnight to steep.

The next day, prepare a 2lb loaf tin by greasing and lining the base with baking paper. Preheat the oven to 160 C (fan).

Add the beaten egg, melted butter, grated citrus rind and grated nutmeg to the bowl containing the soaked fruit and mix well.

Sieve together the flours, bicarbonate of soda and spices. Tip any bran from the wholemeal flour or any larger pieces of grated nutmeg which don’t make it through the sieve back into the bowl too. Add to the bowl and fold into the mixture to blend thoroughly.

Pour the mixture into the prepared tin and bake for about 1 hour until firm when pressed lightly, well-risen and a deep golden brown.

Cool in the tin for 30 minutes then turn out and cool on a wire rack. Store in an airtight tin. Best left overnight before eating to allow the flavours to develop and the bread to soften and become sticky.

Recipe for Borrowdale biscuits

Adapted from a recipe given to me by my schoolfriend Helen Wright’s grandmother.

Makes 50-60 biscuits


8 oz butter
8 oz golden caster sugar
2 dessertspoons golden syrup
6 oz rolled porridge oats
8 oz self raising flour
1 teaspoon bicarbonate of soda
2 tablespoons boiling water

Cream together the butter, sugar and syrup. Dissolve the bicarbonate of soda in the boiling water. Add to the mixture then add the dry ingredients.

Pinch off and roll between your palms small balls of the dough about the size of a heaped teaspoon and set a little way apart on a prepared baking tray.

Bake at 160 degrees C/325 F/gas 3 for approximately 15 minutes.

Contact details

Flock-In tearoom
Yew Tree Farm
CA12 5XB
Tel 01768 777 675

Borrowdale honey – jar and whole honeycomb in box available from tearoom in Grange-in-Borrowdale

Details on honey label are:
S. Edmondson

Pizza from Naples vs pizza from Pizza Express

November 4, 2011 § Leave a comment

Arguably the highlight of our recent half term trip to Naples was a pilgrimage to Da Michele, the self-appointed “Temple of Pizza” to sample the city’s most influential cultural export.

This venerable pizzeria, founded in 1873, has a shabby, typically Neapolitan exterior and is tucked away in a sidestreet (Via Cesare Sersale 1) in the centro storico not too far from the main station.

We arrived at noon for an early lunch and were rewarded by not having to queue, in fact we bagged a prime table with an excellent view of the preparation area and all-important wood-fired oven.

I mused as we waited to order how little this oven differed from the ancient Roman one we’d seen in Pompeii the previous day. Clearly the appeal of freshly-baked flatbreads is centuries old. It’s rather fun to imagine Caecilius and his chums tucking in to their own version of pizza (minus the tomatoes of course).

The interior of Da Michele is unfussy, in fact its two rooms could be described as austere – white and green ceramic tiles on the walls and simple marble topped cast iron tables lined up in rows.

The menu is equally minimalist – just 2 types of pizza, the classic Margherita (tomato sauce and cheese) and the even simpler Marinara (just tomato sauce without the cheese).

The place runs like a well-oiled machine. There’s a guy (and yes, the staff are exclusively male) to seat you and take your order which is then passed to the compact open-plan kitchen; the first chef forms the pizza dough into rough rounds; a second tops the dough with tomato, cheese and a solitary basil leaf; a third expertly flicks the pizzas into the oven with a wooden paddle; a fourth tends the fire and removes the cooked pizzas from the oven. Finally, in the corner of the room behind a small corner counter sits like a benign genie a venerable gent in a white coat collecting the money and keeping a watchful eye on proceedings.

Enough of the preparatory stuff – what was the pizza like? This is how it looked as it came out of the oven, truly a thing of beauty:

The crust was chewy rather than dry and crispy and frankly quite deliciously soggy in the middle. This meant it had to be eaten at least in part with a knife and fork though I couldn’t resist picking up the crust later on:

We subsequently discovered that we were sitting in the very same seats occupied by Julia Roberts when the film “Eat, Pray, Love” was filmed here a couple of years back. Dressed in a similar black sweater, the staff must have taken me for a Julia groupie. If only I had the hair and bone structure to match…

As we were seated so close to the open plan prep area I couldn’t resist having a closer peek at the pizza ingredients and attempting a brief chat with the kitchen staff.

The tomato topping was quite a runny sauce which was ladled onto the dough. I couldn’t tell if this was prepared using fresh or tinned tomatoes let alone whether they were the well-known San Marzano variety. I couldn’t bring myself to ask if these were tinned tomatoes nor, thankfully, could I remember the Italian word for a can so decided to abandon this line of questioning.

However, I did manage to pluck up sufficient courage to ask about the cheese.

“E mozzarella di bufala?” I yelled and pointed.

What luck! I’d made myself understood and the response came back:

No – fiordilatte” – So it’s a cow’s milk mozzarella rather than the prized and frankly expected buffalo kind.

Buoyed up by my success, I kept the conversation going and enquired about the second harder and more finely grated cheese which went on to the pizza along with the mozzarella.

Che formaggio?” I shouted and pointed at the second cheese container:

Bingo once again – “Pecorino!” was the response.

So now I, and you too now, know the secret to an authentic pizza topping.

And now the answer to the question I posed at the outset – how does the ultimate pizza from Naples compare with what I can pick up at my local Pizza Express in South Manchester?

Unsurprisingly perhaps, the Da Michele version gets my vote, BUT only just as I didn’t find it very much more wonderful than the pretty good pizza we can get back home.

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