Thursday, 20 December 2007

IT'S STARTING TO FEEL LIKE CHRISTMAS...


“Cooking is like love. It should be entered into with abandon or not at all.” - Harriet van Horne

The closer it gets to Christmas, the more hectic it is. Traffic on the way to work this morning was horrendous even though it was only 7:30 a.m. (I am an early bird and usually like to get in early). Yesterday on the way back home from work I stopped at a shopping centre as I needed to get a couple of presents for my colleagues (we have our Unit pre-Christmas party today!) and it was hellishly difficult to get a parking spot. The people appear to be possessed by some curious and malign frenzy as they invade the shopping complexes and their eyes seem to be crazed, gleaming with impassioned consumerism.

At the shopping centre I saw some Italian Christmas cakes, the Panettone or ‘big bread’ as it called. I love this light, sweet, fragrant and fruity cake and I was reminded that I was given a recipe for it by an Italian friend some time ago. Here it is if you are in a baking mood and you are not tempted to buy it ready-made from your local Italian patisserie:

ITALIAN PANETTONE
Ingredients
1 pound (≈ 450 g) white bread flour
1 teaspoon salt
3 ounces (≈ 90 g) sugar
1 ounce (≈ 30 g) fresh yeast
3-4 fluid ounces (≈ 90-125 mL) warm water
4 ounces (≈ 115 g) sultanas
2 ounces (≈ 55 g) mixed candied peel
1 lemon, peel and juice
3 eggs
4 ounces (≈ 115 g) softened butter
2 ounces (≈ 55 g) flaked almonds
1 pinch nutmeg
4 drops vanilla essence

Method
Sift the flour, salt and sugar together into a large bowl. Dissolve the yeast in the warm water. Soak the sultanas and the peel in the juice of the lemon. Beat the eggs well and add them together with the yeast, vanilla essence and softened butter to the flour. Knead well. Put dough on a floured board and knead in the drained sultanas, peel, almonds, nutmeg and lemon zest. Add more lemon juice if the dough needs more liquid. Continue to knead until dough is smooth and elastic. Let the dough rise in a covered bowl for two hours or until double in bulk. Divide into two portions and put each in a lined and greased 15 cm cake tin to which you have tied a collar of greased foil to come 6-8 cm above the top of the tin. Cover the tins with greased film and allow the panettoni to rise well up into the tins. Brush the tops with molten butter and bake in a moderate oven (350˚F or 180˚C) for 40-50 minutes. Allow to cool in tins until the sides shrink slightly and then gently remove and cool on wire racks.

Christmas in Italy is delightful, especially so in the smaller towns and villages. As well as the religious side of the holiday, which is still staunchly observed, there are numerous customs and folk traditions (varying from village to village and region to region), which make the celebration of this holiday particularly charming. Needless to say that special dishes and sweets are prepared and the panettone is only one of these.

Although panettone is quintessentially Milanese, it is more popular today in central and southern Italy, which accounts for 55% of sales, than in the Milan region in the north, with 45% of sales. It is served in slices, vertically cut, accompanied with sweet hot beverages or a sweet wine, such as Asti. In some regions of Italy, it is served with Crema di Mascarpone, a cream made from mascarpone cheese, eggs, and typically a sweet liqueur such as Amaretto; if mascarpone cheese is unavailable, zabaglione is sometimes used as a substitute to Crema di Mascarpone.

Enjoy your Christmas!

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