Cook this: almond Amaretto cake

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Sundays, growing up, were always “family days,” spent with grandparents, aunties, uncles, cousins, and I’m sure this will ring true for a lot of others with an Italian background. As I’m getting a little older, though, that’s changing; I’m understanding that I’m needing a little more time alone, and time to look after me. The one thing that won’t ever change, though, that still makes me as happy and comfortable and safe as it did when I was a child, is seeing my grandparents. This post and recipe is a bit of a shout out to Dad’s parents, who are two of the most incredible people I know. Well into their eighties, they are so self-sufficient it almost defies belief and logic. That my beautiful little Nonna is still growing all of her own produce (literally everything from carrots to strawberries, zucchini to tomatoes, figs to grapes grow in their ENORMOUS garden – see below for a little bit of it), spending hours on her hands and knees digging up the sweetest carrots and that Nonno is still climbing up small step ladders to pluck me a small bowl of the figs I’ve loved since I was a tiny little person is both crazy, and at the same time, I can’t imagine it any other way.

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But don’t think it’s limited to fresh produce; Nonno does his own alcohol, too. A genuine purveyor of quality home brew. Wine and spirits, thank you very much. And every time we visit, we get sent home with half a car full of fresh fruit and veggies, as well as a little bit of whatever’s just been bottled; last visit was Amaretto, a sweet, almond-based liqueur. I really like Nonno’s Amaretto, particularly for use in baking. It’s insanely strong (really, I shudder to think of the alcohol percentage…), so you don’t have the problem of it all being baked out when you add some of the home brewed stuff to your cakes, which means it’s still got that distinct flavour and kick that I remember so vividly (and fondly) from all the cakes and biscuits that I used to eat when I was younger.

I didn’t really have a recipe in mind to use when I got the bottle from Nonno the other week, so I had a flick through one of my older cookbooks, the Larousse Treasury of Country Cooking Around The World (1975 edition), purchased for change at the Grub Street Book Shop a few years ago. I found this recipe which I screwed around with a little and ended up with a cake that Nonna and Nonno would have been pretty happy with, had husband and I not eaten it all within 48 hours.

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What I changed:

– Swapped the walnuts out for toasted, slivered almonds (left whole, not ground)

– Used the juice and peel of an orange instead of a lemon

– Added a standard shot glass of Nonno’s Amaretto

 

Other than that, I used the recipe and method as printed in the cook book, and got a great result – it was somehow dense, yet light and moist all at the same time, with the almonds really bringing out the flavour of the Amaretto, and the orange flavour sitting nicely with the almond. A bit of whipped cream would have been perfect with it (note to self for next time), and a little icing sugar dusted lightly on top wouldn’t have gone astray either (if I’d had any in the pantry). It’s one I’ll definitely make again (don’t think husband is going to give me much choice there), and I’ll double the recipe next time so I have some to bring to Nonna and Nonno!

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Cook this: Polenta with roast tomato & mushroom sugo

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It’s been a pretty tough and trying weekend, that only got worse last night at the news that my “other” grandmother Auntie Win had just passed away. She & her husband were my grandparents’ first neighbours when they came from Italy to live in Australia, and it was a friendship that turned into family and remained fiercely strong for many decades. Without children (or therefore grandchildren) of her own, Auntie Win became another grandmother. She was at all the family birthdays and Christmases, she was our family. She also lived a long and wonderful life, and I will miss her. 

As the proper Italian I also am, though (which Auntie Win would understand having spent most of her life around my grandparents), times like these call for a bit of comfort food. Polenta is comfort food for me. It reminds me of my grandparents and being a kid again, being safe and warm and knowing that everything was going to be fine, because that’s how I always felt around my grandparents. When I’m a little flat and down and not sure if things are really going to be ok, I like to make myself a bowl of polenta with some sort of thick, chunky sugo (sauce) piled on top. The combinations are endless, but some variation of tomato and mushroom has always been my favourite, so here’s the latest polenta bowl of love from my kitchen.

 

Ingredients (2 serves)

For the polenta:
– ½ cup polenta (cornmeal)
– 1 – 2 cups milk (or water if you need a lactose free or lower fat version)
– 1 tbsp butter
– 2 tbsp finely grated parmesan cheese

For the sugo:
– 400g cherry tomatoes, halved
– 1 clove of garlic, minced
– olive oil
– salt and pepper
– ½ small brown onion, diced
– 200g pork mince
– 300g button mushrooms, quatered
– 2 large tomatoes, diced
– 1 cup plain tomato pasta sauce
– 2 cups baby spinach, chopped
– ½ cup fresh basil leaves, torn
– finely grated parmesan cheese, to serve

 

Method

1. To make the sugo, place the cherry tomato halves, cut side up, in a baking dish. Mix the minced garlic and a tablespoon of olive oil in a small bowl and pour over the tomatoes, then sprinkle with salt and pepper. Place under a hot grill for 10 – 15 minutes, until the tomatoes start to brown and char, and the skin shrivels a bit. Remove from the grill and set aside.

2. Heat a saucepan over medium heat and drizzle a little olive oil. Add the onion and pork mince and cook, stirring constantly, until the pork is no longer pink. Then add the mushroom and keep stirring and cooking until they begin to brown and shrink a bit.

3. Add the diced and roast tomatoes to the saucepan, along with the pasta sauce, basil, and a little more salt and pepper if you want. Reduce the heat to medium/low and simmer for 5 – 10 minutes, until the sauce thickens a little. Remove from the heat, stir in the spinach until it wilts, and set aside while you make the polenta.

4. To make the polenta, heat the water or milk in a saucepan over high heat. Once the liquid gets to boiling point, turn the heat down to a simmer, and pour the polenta in bit by bit, whisking as you go. Your arm may start to hurt a little, but just keep whisking slowly and constantly for 5 minutes or so, until the polenta thickens up. You can add more liquid if you want your polenta to be a little more soft and runny. Then whisk in the butter and parmesan, and serve between two bowls.

5. Re-heat the sugo if it’s cooled down too much, and spoon onto the polenta. Sprinkle with a little parmesan and enjoy, preferably with a glass of wine!

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My grandparents’ garden paradise

I consider myself to be supremely lucky – not only do I belong to a fairly close-knit, fairly traditional Italian family, but I am 28 years old and have only recently lost my first grandparent. The other three are all still with me, and not only that, but they’re all strong. I think that comes from the way they were raised; to be strong, self-sufficient, always fighting and always preparing for another day.

 

Dad’s parents’ house has always been a hub for important family events, bringing together both sides of the family. We gather there for birthdays, anniversaries, special holidays. Our big one is Christmas Eve, for what us grandkids have dubbed “The Feast.” Traditional Italian Christmas Eves involve a lot of seafood, and just food in general. Our family makes no exception to this rule, with the family gathering to feast on calamari, prawns, lobster, all fresh from the market. Salads, pasta, meat, potatoes, it’s all there! And all help on the back decking of their house, overlooking their big, beautiful yard, complete with one hell of a veggie patch, fruit trees of every kind, and a wood fired pizza oven that has it’s own little house.

 

Not long ago, I thought I needed to capture some of the beauty of this backyard, the place I’d grown up in. The yard I’d run around, ridden through on a tractor, climbed trees to look over, torn party dresses while climbing fences on “adventures” with my sisters and cousins. It’s where I’ve always eaten good food, then learnt to cook it as I got older, picked mulberries and figs off trees, using the lemons that had fallen off the giant, central lemon tree as projectile weapons against my sisters and cousins, and in turn being hit hard with more. It’s where I’ve taken part in the annual tomato-sauce making, watched my grandmothers drink wine and giggle like teenagers while gossiping in Italian, where my grandfathers have talked and talked and watched us kids with serene, satisfied smiles, and where I have both literally and figuratively grown up. It’s something I want shared and immortalised, because it’s really special. I hope everyone has a special place like this in their lives  and I’d love to hear about some of them  : )

 

 

Photograph © Jess Carey 2014

 

Photograph © Jess Carey 2014

 

Photograph © Jess Carey 2014

 

Photograph © Jess Carey 2014

 

Photograph © Jess Carey 2014

 

Photograph © Jess Carey 2014

Photo Essay: Nonna Gemma’s frittelle

I’ve tried to start this post a few times, and haven’t been able to do it right. Haven’t been able to do it justice. There’s too much history to tell, too many stories. So, let’s try to keep it simple.

 

My Nonna Gemma was one hell of a woman. She was my grandmother, and I, her first grandchild. We had a special relationship and meant a lot to each other. She taught me to knit, to sew by hand, to speak Italian, to cook, to clean, and to stand strong and fight. She herself fought through four enormous brain tumours, the first of which presented towards the front of her head, the size of a grapefruit, a few years ago now. They kept coming back and she kept fighting. She fought them off over and over again, but last June, sadly, her fight was finally over. We didn’t want to let her go, but she fought with all of the dignity and grace of warrior princess, and she had certainly and finally earnt her peace in Heaven.

 

When I think of Nonna, I think of her little wooden kitchen with the beautiful green plants outside the window. I think of her sewing room where I’d happily sit for hours on the tiled floor with a bucket of buttons, a scrap of material, a needle and thread, sewing away, oblivious to the world. I think of the spare bedroom where I used to sleep, with her jewellery box sitting on the dressing table, sparkling in the light, where I’d dream of the day I’d be old enough to be a lady in jewels. I think of her taking me along to visit her friends on school holidays, where they’d hug me and pinch my cheeks and send me home with biscuits. I think of the tree in the driveway that I used to climb to the first branch of, and sit, and look at the garden. I think of her dry sense of humour, ridiculous sarcasm and ability to make any of us six grandkids feel like damn fools, while she laughed at us, with that “don’t give me your young-person sass, I’m your grandmother” look on her face, glass of pink champagne in her hand, sitting at the head of the table like the queen she was. She’d waltz into any party, be it her actual birthday or someone else’s birthday or Christmas, and just command the attention of the room without an ounce of effort. It was incredible! God, she was funny though. Even the boys, as they got older, couldn’t hold it with her. She’d take the mickey out of you for anything and everything, and for a kindly, old, Italian grandmother, she took no prisoners and made no apologies. We loved it! And God help the new boyfriends and girlfriends we took home to meet her – she had an absolute field day with them!

There is so much to know about her, and no words could ever do her justice, but the most important thing to know about her was that she loved her family more than anything else, and she loved to have us all sitting around a table, sharing a meal that she’d prepared and having a good time. That’s about all I can write without bursting into tears, so let me show her as I remember her; bossing Nonno around the kitchen, cooking and laughing together, in the kitchen I spent so much time growing up in, making their infamous frittelle…

 

Photograph © Jess Carey 2014

 

Photograph © Jess Carey 2014

 

Photograph © Jess Carey 2014

 

Photograph © Jess Carey 2014

 

Photograph © Jess Carey 2014

 

Photograph © Jess Carey 2014

 

Photograph © Jess Carey 2014

 

I was taught by the best!

I just got off the phone – my grandparents called me. Firstly, my Nonno wanted me to know that he had some figs for me (they grow all their own fruit and veggies), but the “bastard rats” got to them. Nonno hates the “bloody bastards.” Then Nonna got on the phone to tell me she loved the orange polenta biscuits I made her last week.

I laughed as I hung up, and thought about how so many of my conversations with them revolve around food… They almost always start with “Have you eaten yet? What did you have?”

Anyway, I was flicking through some photos on my phone and found this one..

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This was at, I think, my uncle’s 50th, which was a massive family event at grandparents’ place. Nonna was giggling like a school girl after being busted taking a piece out of the cake – her defense was that she just wanted to try it before it was served! She laughed hysterically for a few minutes, before getting back to the task of hosting her 50+ guests.

This attitude of happiness, excitement, and the pure, unadulterated pleasure of hosting and feeding her family and friends is what keeps her young! She has the most amazing, can-do attitude, you’ll never ever hear her complain about anything, not even a trip to hospital, and has little patience for those who wallow in self-pity and refuse to help themselves. She’s no-nonsense, DIY, waste nothing, make everything from scratch (I was over at their house last weekend and she was baking a loaf of bread, because the local bakeries just don’t make them right apparently).

She’s taught me so much about being self-sufficient, about being a strong woman, about cooking and about taking pride in my home without stressing about little things. Like my other three grandparents, I owe her an eternal debt of gratitude and all my love.