All Seasons

Honey Olive Oil Almond Cake

Honey Almond Olive Oil Cake - Life Love FoodHoney Almond Olive Oil Cake - Life Love FoodHoney Almond Olive Oil Cake - Life Love Food

I have just recently come to terms with the fact that, for the biggest part of my life, I missed out on one of the most delicious things nature has to offer: honey. Unlike, say,  beetroot, which I continue to dislike no matter how much I try to masquerade it under thick layers of horseradish-injected dressings or to blend it into chocolate cake (I just can’t get past the very earthy flavour), my feelings towards honey have changed with me. They grew as I grew, from childhood to adolescence to adulthood, increasing and amplifying at every stage, spreading like a spoonful of oil on a smooth surface, slowly, unavoidably. And so, I gradually went from being the kid who couldn’t stomach a drop of it to the grown-up addict who eats her weight in liquid sugar, jar after jar after jar.

After years of refusal, I’m now making up for lost time by keeping my pantry well-stocked and varied at all times. And although I like to keep things interesting by trying new flavours and brands, I always tend to go back to the same, old trusted ones.

Orange blossom and acacia honey are my all-time favourites. I use them for drizzling, normally on toast, and often over a layer of fresh ricotta, but also over yoghurt, and porridge and other creamy things that can benefit from some sweetness. Saline honey from seaside locations (like miele di barena from the Venetian lagoon, still produced on the island of Sant’Erasmo) is my flavour of choice for dressings and marinades, either for mellowing down the bitter bite of radicchio or for glazing a roasted chicken. And then, citrus, chestnut and prairie honey I find wonderful to bake with – the former to fortify the freshness of a lemon cake; the second to give depth to sweet breads and fruit loaves; and the latter for everything in between.

Honey Almond Olive Oil Cake - Life Love FoodHoney Almond Olive Oil Cake - Life Love FoodHoney Almond Olive Oil Cake - Life Love Food

Baking with honey is something I came to late in life, but that I’m keen to explore with dedication from now on. What I learnt so far is that it doesn’t work with everything – that it can’t replace sugar every time. But whatever it goes with it turns into a wonderfully floral affair, powerful and yet discreet, sweet but subtle. A cake made with honey will be a little bit denser than your usual cake, but by no means will it be heavy. Its crumb will be close, but the texture will be tender. The batter will take an unfamiliar amount of liquid – less than you’d normally use – but never will this lead to a dry result. In fact, quite the opposite: it’ll be moist (that dreaded word we are told to avoid); and it will be moreish, and marvellous.

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Zabaione al Caffé

One of the first exchanges between Jesse and I on the night I landed in Sydney went something like this:

‘Did you bring the big moka pot?’
‘I had to leave it. My bag was overweight’
‘Oooh Val…’
‘Well, we have the little one that you brought…’
‘Mmm’

He wasn’t happy. For the first time in five years, we had to part with our 12-cups Italian stove top cafetière. It was one of the first things we bought together when we first moved into our little flat in Bra. It had travelled with us through Italy and then moved with us to London. It had come along on most of our trips – to France and the Basque Countries, to Croatia, to Mexico. Now, it was sitting in a box in my parents’ garage, wrapped in newspaper, mingled with other possessions of ours, catching the dust. We had to leave it behind in favour of a smaller and lighter 3-cups moka – a later addition to the family, suitable mostly to Sundays’ after lunch pick-me-ups, or sporadic after-dinner coffee cravings.

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Salt-Kissed Dark Chocolate Bark with Candied Orange, Almonds and Pistachios

This new year started slow and relaxed as it ended. After the final mad rush that built up to Christmas Eve, everything assumed a more natural pace as soon as we landed in Venice to spend the holidays with my family.

I write this as the Christmas tree sparkles in front of me, a clear morning sky and a bright sun in the background. The air is cold and pungent, perfect to wake you up after a long sleep. One more day off before we get back, a few more hours of festive celebrations. We haven’t quite given up sweets and rich foods for the January detox regime just yet…there is still some panettone left for breakfast, good for dipping into a steamy cup of coffee. There is still Epiphany today, the last day of the holiday season when stockings are filled with sweets and citrus and nuts.

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Holiday Gifts + Cod Brandade Recipe

We are going to Venice for Christmas this year, the first Christmas with my family in three years. I am excited and happy beyond words. We are flying on Christmas Eve and landing just in time for dinner. The plan is to get a gin tonic as we fly high up in the sky while watching an episode or two of Boardwalk Empire, just to kick off the holiday season with the right foot.

I am ready to be covered in hugs and fed well and copiously. There will be bigoli in salsa for dinner on the 24th, I am sure, and lots of panettone. There might be cantucci too – now an official threat to my first ever tooth filling as of this week (not proud of that). We’ll take small day trips here and there – perhaps Venice and Padova, or who knows Bologna, or even Milan, or just some small villages in the beautiful Veneto hills. I’ll make sure to report back about any of these, but more about them in a few weeks.

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Braised Lentils with Egg

Moving away from Italy was possibly the best thing I could do to truly become interested in the food of my origins. Before then, Italian food was just food, normal food, everyday food, something not worth talking about, not original, surely not interesting. I knew about regional differences, and I had a pretty clear idea of what the most iconic and traditional dishes from each Italian region were. Travelling around the country with my family, I would try the specialities of the area. Also, sometimes at home, my mum would prepare something exotic like sarde al beccafico (rolls of butterflied sardines with bread crumbs, pine nuts, and raisins, Sicilian style), or fagioli all’uccelletto (stewed beans, Tuscan style). Still, I was interested in the flavour, in the story maybe, but not in the recipe.

Living abroad, though, I became more of a nostalgic cook and more curious about Italian traditional recipes linked to a place and a culture. I have been travelling back to Italy quite often, looking for traditional dishes, eating in local, honest osterie, imprinting the flavours of Puglia, Piedmont, Tuscany, Rome, Friuli, Umbria, and Sicily in my memory. I also started to collect Italian cookbooks – something I never thought I would do – digging into recipes as much as into the travel stories and everyday tales the author would unfold around them. I discovered a fascination for traditional yet unusual recipes that were new to me, and I found it especially in books written by non-Italian food writers – Claudia Roden and Elizabeth David especially. I loved seeing the food and the country through the eyes of someone who was not originally from there, but could still appreciate Italian culture and its local cuisines, and had the curiosity to go beyond stereotypes and write honestly, reporting regional differences and bits of the culture that Italians would bring in the kitchen and to the table.

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