Tuesday, February 22, 2011

Explaining apple crumble

Explaining new desserts to the cooks has always been a challenge. They can all do tiramisu blindfolded (I imagine). And their strong point is always, always without fail the semifreddo, a frozen icecream dessert, and their favourite for me to try is always al pistacchio. So when I come up with apple crumble (ap-play croom-blay) it’s a big challenge to his ego. I have to build him up first by telling him how good his risotto is, and it helps that for the first order I take since August I convince the couple to try his risotto al profumo di limone with courgettes and prawns. The grated lemon zest really does the trick. His involuntary smile as he squints at the order (all our cooks are halfblind but pride prevents tem from wearing glasses) makes me warm to him. It also helps that he made a fabulous chocolate cake alle mandorle e all’arancia earlier which I was able to praise. But more on that later.

It would help if I was a baker myself. But no, I am just the daughter or one of the best dessert makers ever. My mother is the domestic goddess Nigella Lawson evoked in her cookbook. So, although mia madre has explained how to make the simplest dessert on earth – the one you make in Home Economics class when you’re twelve – the cook stumps me on a couple of issues. Just how small do the apples need to be chopped? Because my mother said a few minutes in the microwave would leave them slightly glutinous and stop them from going brown of course, so they would keep a few days in the fridge. But the microwave here must have different settings, we conclude, because the cook is getting increasingly frustrated that his carefully timed attempts have just produced slightly soft apple slices. I try to explain that it needs to be a kind of lumpy apple sauce. But he doesn’t get it, because salsa in Italian is only used for savoury dishes, really. Compote? I know it’s the French word, but in the international world of haute cuisine …? No good either. (He was spoofing to me one day about the wonderful sauce he makes for meat, ‘è internazionale,’ he insisted, giving me some Neapolitan French – I still don’t whether it was jus de la viande, or sauce brune, he was trying to say, the accent just didn’t quite make it – it was GRAVY he was going on about. Ah yes. That would be the sauce I grew up on, my mother’s own homemade special My mother-in-law ha capito – a purea, she says, a purée. Yes, that will do. He’s got it now. Well, we’ll have to chop the apples into small cubes then, he decides, a bit more confidently. But the kind of apple also provokes plenty of discussion. They don’t have cooking apples in Sicily; cooking apples are best because of their texture, they shred easily into mush. The most similar thing seems to be mele renette, but they appear to be hard to come by. He uses Golden delicious, which are very sweet, I probably would have chosen Mele Stark or Pink Lady … but he experiments with the sweetness and adds much less sugar. And the result is not bad. It is less lumpy and more compote than it should be … but I can’t be too fussy. Plus, no one here knows how it should be really. He gets the croom-blay right first time. I have added some crushed almonds to the recipe and they give it just the right crunch. But my sister-in-law says that he isn’t fond of this dessert because it takes 15minutes to cook it properly in our old oven as the heat only comes form below, and he can’t put the paella in the oven if they are in it because of the smell of fish. Definitely to be avoided.

As for the chocolate cake. This one is a masterpiece. But so simple to make, according to my mother’s recipe. Everything just gets thrown into the magimix and then into a cake tin then into the oven and an hour so later it is transformed into a delicious torta. The cook is nervous again since his experience of chocolate cakes is of the Sette Vele variety, a veritable bomba or all types of chocolate and cream and and icecream in seven layers, the current favourite in the pasticceria here. Sicilians like everything to be full on, no half measures. But this cake, which is called Chocolate amaretti cake in mum’s recipe, is exquisite. The crushed amaretti and crushed almonds give a slight crunch to the velvety smooth stiff mousse texture of the dark chocolate, and the fresh orange juice and zest of course, is a classic association. I change the name, because amaretti reminds people of stale biscuits in their grandmother’s cupboard in Sicily, but it’s the description that is difficult. My sister-in-law tells me people turn up their noses when she starts telling them about it, because anything different is scary. She says most people think of big puffy sponge cakes when they think of chocolate cake. She has tried telling them it is a wonderful Irish recipe, but it turns out in Sicily Ireland is not noted for its dolci … it takes just one person at the table to be intrepid enough to try it, and then someone else at the table plucks up their courage. Because she tells me on Saturday night two separate tables already had come back for the apple crumble. Yeay! And it’s only been on the menu a couple of weeks. By Sunday all our desserts were gone. And on Friday I was concerned we had way too many when I checked the fridges. All sold out. Crema Catalana, crepes, Baileys Cheesecakes, Apple crumble, chocolate soufflé (or flan, the one baked in the oven with the runny centre – amazing) and the new torta di cioccolato alle mandorle e all’arancia).

But the best thing was the cook’s reaction when he had made the cake and I sampled it. I pretended not to know that he had misread the recipe and put 500grams of amaretti biscuits instead of 50 into his first attempt. (Mio marito told me) But I took a slice of his second one home to eat in peace before putting it on the menu. Mio marito told me he put on a show of being nervous when I phoned up to give it the go ahead. It’s ‘spettacolare’ I told him, ‘you must taste it, because this is exactly how it should be.’ ‘Of course it is,’ he declares, ‘didn’t I make it myself.’ As if he had come up with the recipe.

I found three plates of crepes in the fridge last Monday. So on Wednesday I left a note for him not to make so many … there were about 30 crepes in total. And they are not nice after a couple of days in the fridge. Also they were tasteless. And the lemon and orange zest was missing – though he assured me he had put it in ‘You can taste the orange zest when it is there,’ I said. Because he has an excuse for every single thing you say to him, just to get the last word. So I reckoned he was following his own recipe, as most cooks here know how to make crepes. But not necessarily the best recipe. My mother has the best, naturally. And that’s the one to be followed so I left the recipe under my little note to him. The proportions of egg and flour are just right and make a runny mixture which allows for proper thin crepes, not the thick spongy things he was coming up with. He will start wishing I had never come back! But it is the attention to details that makes the difference. And all the other restaurants around here offer pannacotta or semifreddo or tiramisu basically. So we have to make sure our desserts are good, our unique selling point!

Being napolitano, the cook makes quite a good foccaccia and pizza bread. Quite light and not oily or with the strong taste of raising agent from ones in the town. But with his accent, everything he says sounds like a threat. Last night he was making up some foccaccia for the aperitivo. I asked for a few slices without meat, as he puts prosciutto in everything and then forgets to tell me …. Ughhh. ‘Tre pezze ti bastano?’ he asks me as he hands me the plate. He barely opens his mouth as he speaks, so it is all a bit cotton woolly, like the Godfather movies, though Marlon was Sicilian of course. So I usually have to get him to repeat. ‘Are three slices enough?’ he says again, in a slightly raised voice, giving even more of an aggressive effect. They better be enough, is what it sounds like, ‘cos that’s all your getting.

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