Back in January when Mark and I were looking after our friend’s country property, we mused on the year ahead. There was to be a 5-week trip to Italy and Istria in April-May, my tour of Puglia with Southern Visions travel, a stopover in London to spend time with my daughter who had moved there, renting a beautiful Istrian stone house in Valle d’Istria (Bale) for two weeks as a base to complete the research for my third cook book. How things have changed from those days when my simple daily routine consisted of feeding the chickens, collecting the eggs, cooking, long walks around the property, collecting flowers, taking photos. As I write most of the world is in lockdown, with Italy being the most greatly affected to date in terms of deaths. It breaks my heart and it won’t go away quickly, as this virus makes itself around the world, devastating families and businesses. But in the middle of these dark times, there are a few positives.
I found out last night that my elderly aunt Dina is ok, her Polish carer Anna is still with her. My daughter is working for Public Health England and safe so far. Although I have not been able to see my mother in the nursing home for almost two weeks (and it will be a lot longer I am sure), I speak to her daily. I am in the middle of writing her a letter and she is so excited that two of her grand-daughters are expecting babies in September. Dear friends who were stuck in Tanzania then in Botswana are thankfully now on a flight that has left South Africa and on their way back to Australia. Photos show streets empty of people but also show that fish have returned to canals in Venice and dolphins have been spotted in the Gulf of Trieste. As people social distance or lock down, and industry slows, wildlife returns. I am heartened by the way we are connecting with our neighbours, looking after each other, sharing so much online. I have tee’d up an online lunch next week and a few online coffees (being on video/skype/facetime as we each have lunch or coffee and chat).
I have been enjoying not rushing around, going out daily for a long walk (I realise I am lucky and still can at this stage), shopping at my local shop every few days. I am spending a lot of time in the kitchen, as many of my online friends have been, posting more recipes on Instagram though I do love the blog format so will be posting here more regularly after a bit of a hiatus. I have also started looking at my cookbooks again – I have many to choose from.
The Essentials of Italian Cooking by Marcela Hazan was one of the first cookbooks I owned. It was published in 1992 and has no photos, but is one of my go-to books for savoury dishes. There is only a small section on sweets and desserts. As I was leafing through it yesterday morning, the polenta shortcake caught my eye, as its uses mainly pantry ingredients (useful during a lock down!) and is essentially a mix and bake cake. It is a dense, moist and rustic looking cake, with dried figs, sultanas, pine nuts and fennel seeds. Mark and I have eaten half of it since yesterday and may even finish to off today. One of the down sides to this lock down and time of decreased movement (and increased time in the kitchen) is weight gain, I am sure! I have made a few changes to Marcella’s recipe, and I imagine you also could use different nuts and dried fruit in it. If you do make it, please let me know what you think, here or on Instagram.
All cooking classes and events for March – May inclusive have been deferred including the workshop at Villa Floretti and my tour of Puglia with South Visions Travel. If you have booked any of these, you would have received notice directly from me or from the tour/workshop organisers. Hoping that things get back to normal very soon. In the meantime stay home, stay safe and much love from afar
Polenta short cake
140g yellow polenta (not the instant variety)
1 1/2 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil
50g pine nuts
50g sultanas (soaked in grappa if you like, drained)
115g dried figs
2 tablespoons fennel seeds
1 tsp pure vanilla essence
120g plain flour
Preheat oven to 200C. Grease and line the base and sides of a 22cm cake tin (mine is spring-formed).
Place the sugar, pine nuts, chopped figs, sultanas and fennel seeds in a large bowl and stir briefly to combine. Place the egg and vanilla in a separate small bowl and whisk briefly to combine.
Bring 500ml of salted water to the boil. Pour in the polenta slowly, whisking the whole time. Keep whisking, add the oil and then replace the whisk for a wooden spoon. Cook for a few minutes until it thickens. Remove from the heat and scrape into the bowl with the dried fruit and stir through. Add the butter and stir until it has melted and combined, then add the egg and vanilla mixture and stir that in. Lastly add the flour and mix well so that the cake mix is homogenous. Scrape into the prepared cake tin and smooth the top as well as you can with the back of a spoon.
Bake for 45-50 minutes until golden on top. Remove from the cake tin and set on a wire rack to cool completely before serving.
Lasts 3-4 days in a lidded container placed in a cool spot.