Add some zest to seasonal festivities with sumptuous sweet Italian bakes
In our house, baking is therapy. My wife bakes in the early morning before the rest of us are up. We come down to steamed-up windows and a warm loaf of banana cake to slice up for breakfast, or cram into a school bag for an afternoon snack. I am more likely to be found crouched over the work surface at the other end of the day. My wife has been known to have pudding hours after supper while reading a book in bed.
By Advent, there isn’t a surface in the kitchen without a dusting of flour. I remember my love of boozy puddings, and my wife enjoys the necessity of a cake to cut up with her afternoon cup of tea. There is here a clutch of instant-gratification recipes: a jam made when it’s needed, a sunken cloud-like marsala soufflé cake that requires eating right away, and a spiced apple and pumpkin cake.
I’ve included a festive biscotti recipe, for treats to package up and give as a gift or to buoy yourself up with mid-morning.
Pumpkin and apple cake
I tried several versions of this, the final edit being a pale, pillowy number studded with apples, with subtle spiced flavours. In true tray-bake style, serve in rectangular squares, maybe with a dollop of something creamy. Serves 6
salt a pinch
oil 4 tbsp
baking powder 1 tsp
cinnamon ½ tsp
apples 3, small
honey 2 tbsp
pumpkin seeds 25g, toasted
Heat the oven to 180C/gas mark 4. Line a baking dish with greased baking paper, mine is 20cm x 14cm. Dice the pumpkin into 1cm cubes and place them with several tablespoons of water in a small pan. Cover and place on a medium high heat for 5 minutes, until they’re soft. Remove from the heat and mash with a fork.
Separate the eggs and whisk the yolks with sugar and salt until pale. Next add the oil and pumpkin and then flour, baking powder and cinnamon. Whisk the egg whites until firm peaks and fold them into the pumpkin mixture.
Peel the apples, quarter and cut out the cores. Now cut into eighths. Pour half the cake mix into the dish, cover with apples, then add the remaining cake mixture. Bake for 35 minutes. When done, remove from the dish.
In a small pan, bring the honey and butter to the boil and cook for 1 minute, then add the pumpkin seeds and remove from the heat. Allow to cool and thicken briefly before spooning over the cake.
Clementine jam crostata
Jam crostata is the quintessential Italian dessert. It can be unforgivably sweet, so I like the contrast of a little rye flour. The one clementine peel is plenty to give it a bitter marmalade hit. Serves 6
clementines 600g, peeled
lemon juice of 1
plain flour 150g, plus extra for dusting
rye flour 50g
baking powder ¼ tsp
salt a pinch
butter 100g, plus extra for the tin
egg yolks 2
Peel the clementines, and reserve one of the skins. Cut the fruit in half and remove any pips with a fork. Place them with 115g sugar, all the lemon juice and the reserved skin in a food processor, then blitz until smooth. Transfer to a heavy saucepan and bring to the boil. Turn to a simmer and cook, stirring very often, until the consistency has changed from juice to something altogether firmer. It shouldn’t take more than about 15 minutes to achieve something like jam. If you are unsure of its texture, place a spoonful onto a cold plate and see how it thickens as it cools. If it is very runny, keep cooking.
Make the pastry by food processing the flours, baking powder, salt and remaining sugar with the butter until it resembles breadcrumbs. Then, pulsing, add the yolks until a dough is formed. Separate a quarter of the dough off and roll both pieces into balls. Set the dough balls aside to rest for 30 minutes in the fridge.
Heat the oven to 170C/gas mark 3. Grease a 20cm pie dish. Dust the work surface with flour and roll out the larger piece of dough into a round and line the tin. Fill with the jam and then roll out the remaining pastry. Cut into thin strips and arrange into a lattice over the tart or do as I do and just have it in artful little scattered pieces. Bake for 35-40 minutes. Serve when completely cooled.
This is a quick cake, best very soon after it is made. Depending on the type of night you’re having, it’s a contender for making at the end of a meal – if you’ve prepped ahead. Serves 4
butter for the tin
egg yolks 3
Prepare a 12cm loose-bottomed cake tin. Line the bottom with a disc of paper and the sides with a ring of paper, buttered on both sides, to double the height of the tin.
Heat the oven to 180C/gas mark 4. In a small pan, reduce the marsala with all but 10g of the sugar over a medium heat until reduced by half and visibly thicker.
In the impeccably clean bowl of an upright mixer, add all the eggs and yolks with the remaining 10g sugar and whisk at a medium speed for 1 minute. With the mixer still at a medium speed, add the hot marsala syrup in a stream. When incorporated, turn the speed to maximum and run for 5 minutes until very thick.
Carefully fold in the flour, spoon into the tin and bake for 12 minutes. It will have risen and will now sink spectacularly. Allow to cool for several minutes before removing from the tin. It should be softer at the centre.
Ginger chocolate biscotti
The ubiquitous Tuscan biscuit, given a bit of a makeover with Christmassy flavours: walnuts, ginger and chocolate. Makes about 30 biscuits
00 flour 250g
baking powder 1 tsp
dark chocolate 50g, finely chopped
ginger 30g, finely chopped
Heat the oven to 180C/gas mark 4 and toast the walnuts for 8 minutes, until faintly coloured. Whisk the eggs with the sugar until pale and light. Then add everything else, mixing to make a dough. Break the dough into three pieces and roll each into a ball. Then roll each ball into a branch about 3cm thick and place side by side on a baking tray lined with paper.
Bake for 20 minutes, then remove from the oven. Allow to cool for 5 minutes before cutting into 2cm thick slices. Lay them back on the baking sheet and return to the oven for 5 minutes. Turn them over and bake for a last 5 minutes. Once cool, they will be very crunchy and will last well if kept in an airtight jar or tin. Tip from my Danish friend: if you mix up several types of biscuits when storing, they soften quickly.
Joe Trivelli is head chef at the River Cafe, London