Spring, sunshine and food bingo

Spring in Garbatella

Spring! Sunshine, flowering trees, time for allergy medication and looking at the surviving plants in our balcony boxes. It is a lovely day here, and people are making the most of our last weekend before lockdown starts again in Rome Monday until 6 April. Most of Italy moves to red now, so we will just have to make the best of it.

Spring drinks while bars still open: the blue spritz is made with blue Curacao. Classic Aperol Spritz is better.

One new thing we have tried this week is a food waste app, TooGoodToGo. I view it as food bingo: you pay a small amount from participating food shops to get a “Magic Box” of mystery food at reduced price that would otherwise be food waste. Near here it is mainly pizza, bakeries, bars, pasta shops and supermarkets. So far, it looks promising.

Today: a pizza box for 4€ and a very nice tray of pastries for 5€. Desserts for a week!

I looked for offers within 3km, with convenient collection time, and took it as an opportunity to explore new streets – and walk off some of those pastry calories in advance…. We like to cook, but now and then, it’s nice to try something else.

Hopefully we know better what to expect this time. There will be fewer zoom cocktails this time than our lockdown a year ago, but more making sure to get out for walks to maintain our mental health. Bonus if the walk passes a nice bakery or vegetable stand. The food markets here should still be open too, thank goodness.

Special greetings to all in lockdown. Forza! We will get through this. The news of friends and relatives getting vaccinated does help. Cheers to spring and more people having drinks in sunny Roman piazzas soon!

Baking Shrovetide buns (fastelavnsboller)

The days are getting longer, and despite the polar winds (well, -2C at night, which is cold for Rome) it does feel like spring is on the way. Some optimistic cherry tree are flowering, and there are electric yellow sprigs of mimosa bobbing down the street along with the red roses in Valentine’s Day bouquets today. Rome is currently in the yellow zone, so restaurants can open for lunch and we can go for coffee, as we did this morning, sitting outside bundled up against the wind. Everyone on the street wears masks, and it was a busy Sunday with people out walking in the sunshine. Carnevale must have started, as there are colorful sprinkles of paper confetti scattered here and there on the sidewalks, and a few small children in costumes. I confess, I’ve lost track of whether the kids are in school or not. The palazzo next door had a mini birthday toast for someone this morning, and it was great to see a couple kids with tutus and play swords. Even with plenty of distancing and masks, seeing that makes life feel almost normal again. The pastry shops in Rome are also selling frappe and castagnole, deepfried dough pieces dusted with icing sugar, and little dough fritters.

It’s Shrove Sunday, so I made Norwegian fastelavnsboller today, Shrovetide buns. Yeasted wheat buns with a little cardamom, split in two horizontally and filled with whipped cream, dusted with icing sugar. Some years I make a healthier version, this year I used the classic Tine recipe, just with less yeast, no egg and longer rise.

Fastelavnsboller (Shrovetide buns, makes 12-14)

100g butter, melted and slightly cooled
350 ml lukewarm milk (I used semi-skimmed)
25g fresh yeast (or 13g dry yeast)
100 g sugar
500 g white flour
1/2 tsp ground cardamom
½ tsp salt
1/2 tsp baking powder

To serve
200 ml whipping cream, whipped wirh a little vanlla sugar, plus icing sugar to dust over

Melt butter, and add milk. Heat until it is just finger warm, about 37C. Crumble the fresh yeast in a bowl. When the milk and butter are lukewarm, dissolve the yeast in the milk and butter, in a large bowl. Careful it is not too hot, that will kill the yeast. Add flour, sugar, salt, cardamom, and sugar. Stir well, the dough will be quite sticky. Knead for a few minutes, you will feel the dough getting smoother. Let the dough rise at room temperature, under cover (I use a plastic shower cap) for 2-3 hours, you will see it doubling.

Knock the dough back. Divide it into 12-14 pieces, and roll these out to round buns, roughly the same size. Leave to rise on parchment paper on a baking tray, covered with a tea towel. Dampening the tea towel slightly keeps the dough from drying out. Leave to rise until it doubles, half an hour or so. Bake at 220ºC on the middle rack for 10-11 minutes. Let the buns cool on a rack.

When cool (otherwise the cream goes runny): whip the cream with the vanilla and sugar. Slice the buns in half. Spoon a generous blob of whipped cream on the bases, then replace each bun top carefully. Sift over icing sugar, and serve.

I hope you are all staying safe and that sunny days are on the way for you too.

Trying to replicate my mother’s fruitcake

In Rome the shops and markets are full of fruit cakes, as well as nuts and dried fruits for making fruit cakes: pangiallo, panpepato, panforte (the latter is from Siena). There are towers of pandoro and panettone in the supermarkets, along with bastardized panettone versions with limoncello cream or chocolate filling. I already bought a couple classic panettone, as they are really nice for making bread and butter pudding, which my husband does very well. However, what my husband really does not like is dried fruit. His mother still makes the traditional English Christmas cake each year, fed for weeks with brandy and decorated right before Christmas with marzipan and royal icing. I quite enjoy it, in small slices, and it lasts for ages. Fruitcake is however not something I ever make. But this year, with no traveling, there is lots of time to bake, and my mother kindly sent her recipe. A little more austere, and not covered, but very good. This cake is an adaptation of that. Start the day before baking by soaking the fruit.

Italian version of my mother’s fruitcake (approximately – makes two loaves

Fruit: 1 kilo of dried fruit of your choice. I used dried figs, prunes, dried apricots, dates, raisins and dried cranberries. To soak: 300 ml whisky and orange juice, 50/50. Or just orange juice, if you prefer.

350 g butter
250 g brown sugar
110 g white sugar
5 eggs
200 g orange marmalade
400g white wheat flour (I used 00)
2 tsp baking powder
150 g hazelnuts
2 tsp pain d’epices (mixed spices: allspice, ginger, cinnamon)

Day before: Chop fruit, removing any stones or pits, and soak overnight in liquids. I used orange juice and some mystery homemade pear liqueur, which is probably spiced pear vodka from this Diana Henry recipe, Make sure all ingredients for next day are at room temperature.
Next day: Cream butter and sugar. Beat in eggs, one at a time. Stir in rest of ingredients. Line base of loaf tins with baking parchment, butter sides. Divide between loaf tins. Bake at 175C for 70 minutes. Maybe a little longer needed. Cool well before slicing.

.I was quite pleased with this! It should make two long loaves, I made two medium and two small ones, not very tall. A little crumbly, and not quite the pristine thin fruit-crusted cake of my mother, but after a night in the fridge they are easier to slice and they taste right. I suppose I could poke some holes and spoon over more pear liqueur, but this is nice as it is. They will keep for ages in the fridge, wrapped in foil. I am also handing out some small pieces to friends, Time to decorate our tiny plastic tree and enjoy some advent spirit.

Speaking of Christmas spirit, I was out for a quick walk the other night to get some air. After lockdown this spring, that is a luxury not to take for granted. The piazza up the road was heaving with excited teenagers, which usually means I go the other way. (They are perfectly civil here, just often in groups and possibly contagious.) Two small red AS Roma trucks were parked there, and assorted young men were putting on Santa hats. It was a charity event, the Roma footballers seem to be supporting the Comunità di Sant’Egidio in handing out masks and food to the elderly. Not I would recognize any of the players, but the starstruck teenagers were thrilled.