Advent Sundays, fruit cakes….and the house smells of spices

December 6th, 2008
Certofino

Certosino

Time begins to shrink as St. Nicolas rolls around again, the sixth of December marks the season of treats for young and ….less young. Memories of the St.Nicolas Festival in Nancy and St.Nicolas-du-Port in Lorraine flash past – such a long and sparkling parade, many tots perched on their papas’ shoulders to see above the crowd as Saint Nicolas’ poly-bubble of a float rolled past, the red-robed man with whiskers waving to all. Then everyone squeezed into crowded cafés for hot chocolate: the festive season’s very social grand opener. This tradition was one of the pleasures discovered while researching La France Gourmande, my first book about food festivals and traditions. Now I hunt for holiday recipes using honey, inspired by the pain d’épice discovered in Nancy and in Marchées de Noël across northern France.

Honey and almonds go hand in hand, I find – from Greece to Galicia, from north to south in France, Spain and Italy. For this round I’m reviving an adaptation of a Christmas cake with honey and dried fruit from northern Italy, a moist cake so surprisingly delicious, without eggs and very little butter. For years, my standard fruitcakes were basically butter cakes, dense with all kinds of dried, rum-soaked fruit. But last Christmas I baked a Certosino, and a new “tradition” began. Preparations begin la veille, the evening before baking: the moon, as translucent as a turnip slice, rises in the winter sky as I set the raisins to plump in port for Sunday’s baking, and a pot of applesauce (or pears and quince?) bubbles on the back burner. Baked a few weeks before festivities, the Certosino needs a week or three to mature – like so many good things, it improves with time.

Recipe for Certosino: This is a standard Christmas cake in the region around Bolgona, where it is also called Pan Speziale. In some kitchens, Certosino is made with grated apples, and the proportion of honey ranges from 2 teaspoons to 2 cups. The chopped chocolate is sometimes replaced by cocoa, and a few versions add eggs, while others add cookie crumbs.

Begin by soaking 1/2 cup of white raisins in port or marsala to cover, left overnight or longer. Pare 4 apples, core and chop them to yield 2 cups, then cook in 1/4 cup of water with 2 1/2 T.sugar and 1 T.lemon juice. When cooked (about 15 minutes, depending on the variety of apple), mash or strain them and measure out 2/3 cup of applesauce; let cool (this can be done a day before making the cake).

Butter a 9 1/2inch/24 cm. springform cake pan. Preheat the oven to 325°f/160°C. Toast 6 oz/170 g. blanched almonds in the oven for a few minutes to heighten flavor (if you use Marcona almonds, they will begin to sweat beads of oil – a signal they are toasting), cool them and chop coarsely; also toast 2oz/50g pine nuts (check freshness, as they go rancid quickly) – leave them whole. In a double boiler, warm 12 oz honey (I used chestnut honey this year, which gives a deeper flavor), and add 2 oz. sweet butter and 1 tsp. cinnamon, grated nutmeg, 2 tsp anise seed (or fennel seed and ground cloves if you wish); stir all together and set aside to cool. Sift 13 oz. flour (not self-rising) into a large bowl, stir the honey-spice mixture into the flour, adding 2 1/2 oz shaved dark(70%) chocolate, mixing it with the chopped almonds, the pine nuts and 3 T candied orange and lemon peel to coat with the flour. Dissolve 1 1/2 tsp. of baking soda in 2 T port (of the raisin-soaking bowl). With a wooden spoon, fold all together gently and pour the batter into the prepared pan. Bake for an hour, check with a piece of spaghetti or a knitting needle – if it is done, this will be clean; the cake will pull slightly away from the pan. Do not overbake. Let it cool on a rack, slip onto a serving plate, and spread 3 T (or more) apricot jam over the top, garnish with glazed cherries and perfect nuts. The glaze serves to keep the cake moist. Keep in a cool place, wrapped in foil, for a week or two before serving – to 8 or 10.  Sip a ten year old Monbazillac or amber Amaretto with the Certosino.

Acknowledgements: This recipe is adapted from New Country Kitchen, Henrietta Green’s classic and ever-inspiring collection of seasonal delights. It was published in 1992 by Conran Octopus Ltd, and I found it in a corner of Hagelstam’s Bookstore in Helsinki early in the new millenium. Not only do the recipes reflect the seasons – all across Europe – but illustrations are fresh, photos superb; it is my seasonal guide. Nordic travelers might enjoy a visit to www.Hagelstam.net for books, new and used, in a variety of languages.

Next up: Notes on almond butter, plus some fowl advice: whether mulard or barbarie, getting the ducks in a row.

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