I love my shelves of cookbooks; piles of coloured hardcover and softcover books, currently placed in size order so they will better fit on the shelves. I remember every single book; where I was when I bought it, or who gave it to me. I remember the ones I have cooked from, the ones that are slightly dog-eared, and have stains on the pages that have recipes that I have made many times. Many other books sit on the shelf, beckoning to be picked up. These are the ones I have flicked through briefly in the shop/car/plane after I bought them, and then placed them on the shelf with the other cookbooks, wherever there was space and never picked up again. This seems remiss of me but I seriously have SO MANY of them. I look at them wistfully, longing to have the time to read them the way they deserve to be read. I am not one to make new year’s resolutions, but I hope that 2018 will be the year that I start enjoying all my cookbooks. So my promise (which is sort of like a resolution) is to use my blog as a platform to enjoy my cookbooks, posting monthly menus with two or three recipes from the books on my shelf. If you haven’t cooked from a cookbook, I do not think you have given the book the love it deserves, so I plan to start loving all my cookbooks.
This month’s menu from my cookbook collection is for lunch with friends, maybe a Saturday catch-up, suitable for most seasons, where many elements of the meal can be prepared the night before: a fragrant lentil soup accompanied by a thin cheesy focaccia, followed by a honey ricotta cake served with poached seasonal fruit.
The first book I picked up from the shelf was Domenica Marchetti’s “Preserving Italy“. I have been following Domenica on social media for many years, and love her down-to-earth recipes. She has a journalism background, so her books and recipes are well written and well-researched (as following her travels through Instagram I know exactly how often she goes back to Italy to research). A book on preserving is a great premise. Italians are big on preserving food; I grew up making jam with mamma and have more recently taken up making salumi with friends, but this book delves into preservation of vegetables (which I cannot wait to try), as well as fruit, meat and even cheeses. It also has a number of related recipes that use the preserved food.
The Ligurian-style cheese focaccia in particular piqued my interest, and is the first recipe I made from the book: two super-thin layers of bread-like dough with a layer of creamy cheese between them, cooked briefly at a temperature as high as your oven will go. The focaccia makes an ideal snack for an evening pre-dinner drink or can accompany a main meal. You could also play with the filling – a thin layer of olive tapenade would go well, as would a sun-dried tomato pesto. The options are endless. Once you master the technique of stretching the dough (much of it is by hand), it is one you will make often.
To find a recipe to accompany the focaccia, I picked up several books that were sitting on the shelf next to Dominica’s book (as they were a similar size); they were all by the same author, Tessa Kiros. All of Tessa’s ten cookbooks are beautiful. I picked up my first one “Venezia – food and dreams” almost ten years ago from Readings in Melbourne. It was one of my first cookbooks that had photos that were not all of food, giving me a completely different concept of what cookbooks can be about (and inspiring my own cookbooks). It has close-up photos of Venice and nostalgic Venetian artefacts throughout, dreamy recipe photos and a velvet ribbon marker attached.
I bought several more of Tessa’s books: one about Portugal “Piripiri starfish”, as well as “Limoncello and linen water” and the divine “Food from many Greek Kitchens”. Now comes the time to confess….I have a minor obsession with Greece: the country, its food and its music. Melbourne in particular has many descendants of Greek migrants, and hearing English spoken with a Greek accent sounds so comforting and familiar to me (almost as much as English spoken with an Italian accent). As I say to my friend Kathy (who is Greek), if I wasn’t Italian, I would be Greek (she says the same to me, though she would be Italian rather than Greek). So I flicked through the photos in Tessa’s book with longing; blue and white ceramic figurines on shelves, pink geraniums growing in tins covered with Greek writing, plates of fried fish on floral tablecloths under dappled light and rings of sesame bread.
The recipe for lentil soup with carrots seemed delicious. As Tessa writes, it is the soup that most Greeks have grown up with, and the unusual thing about it is that it is served with a drizzle of vinegar. It can be made in less than an hour and the dash of red wine vinegar, which has been infused with garlic and herbs, added after it is cooked gives the soup a most delightful lift. And I knew it would pair well with Domenica’s thin layered focaccia.
Now that the main course was sorted, it was time for dessert. Rather than getting out a third cookbook, I stuck with Tessa: a honey cake (melopita) from “Food from many Greek Kitchens”. Greek sweets often contain a syrup or honey, but this one is mainly lemony ricotta, with honey being the sweeting agent. Tessa had paired the cake with poached figs, but I opted for seasonal apricots from a friend’s backyard (home-grown fruit remind me very much of the Greek and Italian migrants from when I was growing up, with trees surrounded by nets in summer, often in the front yard rather than the back). The cake is best eaten cool (or even cold from the fridge) and is simple to make.
Here are the recipes for a lunch inspired by Domenica and Tessa, all tweaked slightly from the originals. I so look forward to delving into my cookbooks through 2018 and sharing some of the recipes with you; it is like discovering them for the first time.
60ml good quality red wine vinegar
3 garlic cloves, peeled and crushed
1/2 tsp dried oregano
2 bay leaves (fresh or dried)
300g small brown lentils
60ml extra virgin olive oil
1 large onion, peeled and finely diced
1 medium sized carrot, peeled and cut into 3mm slices
1 stick cinnamon
300g ripe tomatoes, grated so the skin remains in your hand
Put the vinegar in a bowl with one clove garlic and the oregano. Set aside.
Rinse the lentils well and drain. Place the oil in a large heavy bottomed saucepan and add the lentils, remaining garlic cloves, onion, carrot, cinnamon and 1.75 litres of water. Bring to the boil then reduce the heat and simmer, skimming the surface if necessary, covered for 25 minutes. Add the grated tomato, season with salt and pepper to taste, then cook for another 20 minutes, uncovered until the vegetables are cooked through and the soup has thickened. Remove from the heat and splash in half of the strained vinegar and allow to sit for a few minutes before serving. You can add extra vinegar from the remaining amount at the table and drizzle on extra virgin olive oil if desired. I like serving the soup closer to room temperature than hot, but it is equally nice just off the stove.
Ligurian style cheese focaccia
190g bread (strong) flour
90ml tepid water
1 tablespoon extra virgin olive oil (plus more for the pan and the top of the focaccia)
1/2 tsp fine sea salt
1 tablespoon Greek yoghurt
1/2 tsp dried oregano
To make the dough, place the flour in a mound on your work surface and make a large well in the centre.Pour in the water and the olive oil and scatter on the salt and sugar. Use the tines of a fork to whisk in the edges of the flour closest to the liquid, slowly incorporating more flour to thicken the liquid (this is much like making pasta dough by hand). Eventually you will have to use your hands to work the dough. Knead for about 5 minutes until smooth and no longer sticky, much like pizza dough. You may have a bit of flour left behind (which is ok). Wrap the ball of dough and place in the fridge for a few hours or overnight.
Remove the dough from the fridge and allow to come to room temperature before proceeding. Position a rack in the upper third of your oven and if you have a pizza stone, place this on the rack. Preheat the oven as high as it will go (mine is 255C).
Mix the ricotta with the yoghurt and the dried oregano with a spoon until it is homogenous and set aside.
Lightly flour your work surface and cut the dough in half, wrapping up the remaining half with cling film. Start stretching the dough with a rolling pin into a circle the size of your pizza tray (mine is perforated and 32cm in diameter). It will bounce back as you go, so you may need to stop and let it rest a minute before proceeding. I alternate stretching the circles of dough, allowing one to rest and relax while stretching the other. The dough is very supple and I find it easier to stretch it by hand, much like a pizzaiolo would, than using a rolling pin. You place the dough circle over your knuckle and stretch the dough that falls around with the other hand, working around the edge of the circle. The dough is thin enough when you can see your work surface through the dough. It will take a bit of time to stretch it to the right size, so you will need to be patient. Repeat with the rest of the dough until you have two circles the size of your tray.
Lightly oil the pizza tray and drape one circle of dough onto it. The dough should reach the edge of the tray or just beyond. Spread the ricotta mixture over evenly, then carefully place the second circle of dough, pressing down well at the edges and trimming any excess. Brush the top with extra virgin olive oil and place several incisions in the top layer to allow air to release.
Bake for ten to twelve minutes, checking half way to see if the pastry has formed any large air pockets, and knocking them down carefully with a wooden spoon if this happens.
Allow the focaccia to rest for a few minutes and cut into wedges. Serve warm with the lentil soup.
ricotta honey cake with spiced poached apricots
2 tablespoons plain flour
1 tablespoon lemon juice
1 tablespoon brandy (I used grappa as that is all I had), substitute with milk for a version without alcohol
500g ricotta, whisked until smooth
1 tablespoon sugar, extra
1/2 tsp powdered cinnamon, for dusting
2 sticks cinnamon
3/4 cup water
3/4 cup caster sugar
1/4 cup sweet white wine
Preheat the oven to 180C. Grease and flour a 25cm diameter oven-proof ceramic pie or tart tin.
Place the eggs and sugar in a large bowl and beat with electric beaters until creamy and thick (about 4-5 minutes). Add the flour, beating briefly. Next add the honey, lemon juice, brandy and ricotta. Beat using an electric whisk until it is creamy and homogenous (about 3-4 minutes). Pour into the prepared dish, jiggling it slightly to ensure the surface is smooth.
Cook for 30-35 minutes until the ricotta is set and just starting to turn golden. Scatter on the extra sugar and cinnamon. Wait until it has cooled completely before slicing directly from the pan. It can be eaten cold, straight from the fridge and lasts for 2-3 days covered (in the fridge).
Serve on its own or with poached apricots.
To make the poached apricots: wash and halve the fruit, discarding the stone. Place the water, sugar, spices and wine in a medium sized saucepan and bring to the boil, stirring to dissolve the sugar. Once it boils, reduce the heat to medium, add the apricot halves and cover. Cook for five minutes. Remove from the heat and allow to cool to room temperature before serving.