Biscotti are tasty Italian biscuits and the next of my Christmas bakes. They are great as a seasonal gift and very easy to make. They are also very moreish and so you may find them hard to give away. The secret is you make a double batch. That way you will have enough for both your friends and yourself.
The origins of biscotti
Biscotti or cantucci ( most commonly used in Tuscany ) are delicious twice-baked Italian biscuits. They are usually made with almonds. Traditionally they are served with a sweet Italian dessert wine called Vin Santo. You might also find them on the side of a cappuccino or latte. To be honest I’m very happy dipping them in nothing more than a mug of tea. We always make several batches at home, in December, as they are a wonderful handmade small gift at Christmas time.
“Biscotti” is derived from medieval Latin and literally means twice baked. It is also the origin of the English word biscuit, but these are just baked once. There is a long history of double baking. Roman soldiers ate twice-baked bread. Sailor’s rations used to contain the dreaded hardtack or ship’s biscuits. These were often riddled with beetles and weevils by the end of a long voyage.
What ingredients can I use?
Biscotti were traditionally made from flour, eggs, sugar, pine nuts, and whole almonds. Today you can find biscotti with a multitude of ingredients and flavourings. Including spices, nuts, dried fruits and can be dipped in dark chocolate. For this recipe, I’ve included nuts, fruit, orange zest, and some seasonal spices. You can experiment and add anything you fancy. Why not try chopped dried apricots, mixed peel, walnuts, hazelnuts, and chestnuts. You can even flavour your biscotti with liqueurs.
However you choose to make them I’m sure you will find them addictive. Enjoy.
For a more traditional Biscotti recipe omit the spices and dried fruit.
I love garlic, I adore garlic, I cook with absolutely loads of garlic like today’s recipe for Spaghetti with Parma Ham and Roasted Garlic. I could actually employ a full-time garlic peeler, knee deep in discarded garlic husks. A manager I worked with regularly joked I could not cook a dish without garlic, cream, and alcohol, including the desserts.*
But here is a but – I LOATH BURNT GARLIC. I jump up, gesticulate, shout and scream at the number of cookery programs where poor, innocent, sweet, comely garlic is tossed into woks and pans of smoking hot oil.** I am pretty certain every single person who utters the frankly unbelievable phrase ‘ it doesn’t have garlic in it does it, I really don’t like garlic ‘ is the result of a traumatic exposure to such cooking travesties. Burnt garlic is a cheek sucking, eye-watering experience, an awful culinary disgrace.
Hence a recipe for roasted garlic, I swear all the disbelievers could be converted with this delicious way of cooking garlic. The slow roasting with just a little oil highlights the natural sweetness and tempers any harsh raw flavours. I first encountered roasted garlic when I worked as a manager at the Bel and the Dragon, Cookham served with rustic, crusty bread and olives and olive oil, the garlic squeezed out and spread on the bread as a kind of pungent pate. Wow!
I keep some roasted garlic cloves covered in oil in the refrigerator now handy for lots of cooking especially this simple full flavoured lunch or supper dish recipe Spaghetti with Parma Ham and Roasted Garlic. Post the Christmas and Boxing Day excesses I think it is nice to have something really tasty and easy to cook. The Parma ham and roasted garlic can be cooked in the last few minutes of your pasta cooking. The chilli provides a little bite but is not there to overpower this wonderful dish, however, if you want to add a little extra go for it, one of the joys of cooking is experimenting. Enjoy.
*The garlic cream rum babas were perhaps a little ahead of their time. ** Just add the garlic later during the cooking process when the heat is lowered or with more ingredients that dissipate the heat.
Spaghetti with Parma Ham and Roasted Garlic serves 4
50 to 65 gr Spaghetti per person ( I grab a generous handful but I’m greedy )
Preheat the oven to 400F/ 200C/ Gas mark 6. Remove the tops of the garlic bulbs, place on to a baking tray. Sprinkle liberally with olive oil, the herbs and plenty of salt and pepper. Roast for twenty-five to thirty minutes until the bulbs are soft. Cool and squeeze out as required.
For the Spagehetti
Bring a large pan of salted water to the boil. Add the spaghetti and cook for eight to ten minutes until ‘ al dente ‘ or with just a little bite left in the pasta. The old student technique of seeing if sticks to the wall is not necessary, just remove a little of the spaghetti and bite between your front teeth. While the pasta is cooking gently heat the olive oil in a medium-sized heavy-bottomed frying pan. Add the chilli and garlic, sauté for two minutes. Add the ham and season, cook for a minute. Squeeze in the juice of half a lemon and stir in the parsley. Drain the spaghetti and stir thoroughly into the frying pan, ensuring all the spaghetti is coated with the oil, chilli and parsley mix. Plate and serve with a little extra chopped parsley.
Anyone of a certain age and living in the British Isles will share my experiences of Minestrone soup and see how far as a nation the British have come in terms of eating freshly made authentic cooking. My earliest memories are of a tomato ( ? ) soup with a few vegetables and broken spaghetti pieces, quite often made from a dried packet base. Twenty years ago, restaurants seemed to work on some mysterious unseen rota Monday Minestrone ( using the weekends leftover veg ! ), Tuesday Cream of Mushroom for their choice of soup of the day, fortunately for us all today chefs use seasonal produce and their knowledge and skills to bring us soups like Carrot and Coriander and recipes from around the world like Cantonese Crab and Sweetcorn or Patatas Riojanas from Spain.
At its best, a hearty, Italian classic, Minestrone is more of a stew of root vegetables and beans, sometimes with pasta or rice and with the addition of whatever other seasonal vegetables are available. It is the perfect lunchtime or supper course nourishing, filling and very tasty. Minestrone is like many Italian recipes everyone seems to have an authentic recipe and their own list of special ingredients, there isn’t even a clear picture if it is made with a vegetable or meat stock. Minestrone belongs to the style of cooking in Italy called “cucina povera” (literally “poor kitchen”) meaning dishes that have rustic, rural roots, as opposed to “cucina nobile” or the cooking style of the aristocracy and nobles. I love hearty style dishes and this type of recipe suits me down to the ground.
Minestrone has been served most certainly since Roman times and who am I to challenge a dish with such a pedigree, in fact even the name is a derivative of ‘ minestra ‘ or soup. Derived from the Latin ministrare , meaning “to administer”, the word reflects the fact that minestra was served out from a central bowl or pot by the figure of authority in the household. The major change from the Roman version would have been the addition of tomatoes sometime after their introduction to Europe in the mid-sixteenth century. Interestingly the ancient Romans believed in the health benefits of a sparse vegetarian diet of which soups such as Minestrone would have been a staple. This has given us the modern word ‘ frugal ‘ from the Latin fruges, the common name given to cereals, vegetables, and legumes.
If you want to be authentic then you should finish your Minestrone with small Bacon, Garlic and Parsley Dumplings and a great tip from an Italian friend of mine is to save your Parmesan rinds and add them to the simmering soup to add extra flavour, removing before you serve up the delicious soup. You can further enhance the following recipe stirring in two tablespoons of fresh pesto to make Minestrone alla Genovese.
100 ml good quality Olive Oil
1 large Leek, washed and sliced
2 large Onions, peeled and finely chopped
4 large Carrots, peeled and chopped
2 Courgettes, thinly sliced
300 gr Green Beans, cut into 2 cm pieces
8 stalks Celery, thinly sliced
½ Green Cabbage such as Savoy, washed and ripped into pieces
454 gr tin Flageolet or Cannellini beans, strained
100 gr dried Macaroni or Pasta shapes
Sea salt and freshly ground Black Pepper to taste
Heat olive oil in a large thick-bottomed saucepan, over medium heat. Add the onions, leeks, carrots, celery and garlic. Gently cook for fifteen minutes without colouring, shaking the pan occasionally to prevent the root vegetables sticking. Stir in the stock, tomatoes, purée and thyme and bring to the boil and simmer gently for thirty minutes.
Add the tinned beans, courgettes and pasta then simmer for an additional five minutes. Add the green beans and cabbage then continue to simmer until pasta is al dente. Season with salt and pepper to taste before serving with bacon dumplings, Parmesan and finely chopped parsley.
4 oz smoked back bacon
1 oz finely chopped parsley
4 cloves garlic, peeled and finely chopped
2 pinches of black pepper
In a blender pulse ingredients until a rough paste is formed. Oil fingers and form into small roughly shaped balls and place on baking tray. Lightly grill until cooked but not brown.
My perfect Valentine’s Supper is as I am sure you could guess would be with my partner Susan. This year, unfortunately, we cannot be together, but when we do get the chance to sit down to eat together what would I cook? Well we both like pasta so a nice Italian style menu perhaps, a plate of anti-pasta to share, a rich Ragu or Bolognese sauce on the pasta and a light Zabaglione for dessert. Pasta it is then and when I first started to cook it the dish would be Spaghetti Bolognese as favoured by so many high street chains and local trattorias.
But as I have developed and learnt about different cuisines, I can tell you this popular dish would be heresy in Bologna where the sauce originates from. Spaghetti Bolognese was probably created by Italian emigrants in the USA just like the creation of the Chinese dish General Tso’s Chicken. You see in Italy there are centuries of tradition and some very complex rules about pasta. Each shape is clearly defined and registered and suits a type of sauce or dish, your Bolognese coats and lubricates Rigatoni or Penne pasta, creating little pockets of meat and sauce, Spaghetti is best suited to lighter coatings maybe a recipe like Con Vongole with clams, a little garlic, oil and parsley. So for my authentic pasta, I am going to use Fettuccini and make a delicious slow-cooked ( ideal in fact for a slow cooker ) shin of beef ragout.
Fettuccini with slow-cooked Shin of Beef Ragu serves 4 to 6
1.2 kg Beef Shin brisket, cut into six to eight pieces,
( ask you butcher to cut up the Shin, it will be easier for him and to give you the bone )
2 large White Onions, peeled and very finely chopped
2 large Carrots, peeled and very finely diced
4 sticks of Celery, washed and very finely diced
4 Cloves of Garlic, peeled and crushed
1 bottle of good Italian Red Wine
500 ml good quality Beef Stock
100 ml quality Olive Oil
2 tablespoons of Tomato Puree
1 tablespoon of dried Oregano
3 Bay Leaves
½ teaspoon dried Thyme
½ teaspoon ground Nutmeg
Sea Salt and freshly ground Black pepper
500 gr Tagliatelli or other pasta of choice ( pappardelle is ideal)
Freshly grated Parmesan cheese
Fresh parsley, washed and finely chopped
In a large heavy-bottomed pan heat half of the olive oil over medium to high heat, season the beef and sear each piece on all sides until well browned, then set aside on a plate. Turn the heat down and add the remaining olive oil, add the onion, celery and carrots and sauté until soft. Add the garlic and cook for a couple more minutes*, then repeat with the tomato puree, stirring continuously to prevent burning. Return to beef to the pan and any juices and add all the remaining ingredients then bring up to a simmer, then turn it down to the lowest possible setting.
Cover the pan and let it cook for three to four hours until the beef is tender enough to pull apart with a fork. Remove the lid and let it cook for a further thirty minutes until the liquid has reduced to a thick sauce.
Remove the sauce from the heat and transfer the beef from the sauce into a large bowl. Shred the beef with two forks and return it to the sauce. Adjust the seasoning with salt and pepper and keep warm.
Cook the pasta as per the instructions on the packet. You can reserve a little cooking liquid and toss the strained pasta, ragu and pasta water together or simply spoon the ragu on top of the cooked pasta. Serve with lots of freshly grated Parmesan and garnish with chopped parsley.