Friday 11 January 2008

Recipe: Duck à l'Orange

It's the season for bitter oranges. Louisa's tree is laden with them, and there's a garden just off Piazza Cavalieri where the branches of the orange tree are heavy with fruit every year at this time, looking like something from the background of a Mantegna fresco.....

At lunch at Mazzolla, at the start of the week, I was the happy recipient of a bag of oranges which had come from the Brancolis' tree - they were doing a brief fly-past to their hillside, to do some vine-pruning, and took time-out to join in the birthday lunch. Beautiful and blemish-free, the oranges sat in a glass bowl, for the next few days, crying out for attention. No point in making marmalade, since a supply of premium-quality marmalade makes its way to us down the hill from Brancoli, anyway - and so my thoughts turned to Duck à l'Orange.

This is another dish desperately in need of being saved!

There once was a time when it was deservedly famous; served at the most distinguished restaurants, it was a classic. Now, most chefs grimace at the very thought of it. How did something once considered synonymous with sublime become so, well......... naff?

The recipe is easily tracked back to the end of the 19th century - but almost certainly it goes back much further than that. The main ingredient, bitter orange, was introduced to Europe at the time of the Crusades and became widely used, so it wouldn't be surprising to find a 500 year old recipe. Fatty duckling and astringent bitter orange seem a natural combination.

In the early 1900's, the recipe comprised duckling, braised or pot-roast, served with one of the then basic brown sauces - Sauce à la Bigarade: a sauce flavoured with bitter oranges. The basic sauce was made of well-reduced stock, or braising liquor, which was flavoured with the juice of bitter oranges, a little lemon juice and a little caramel to cut the acidity. Bitter orange juice is pretty sour and the fruit is not particularly juicy.

Unfortunately, substituting modern oranges for bitter can lead to some alarmingly different results. Six bitter oranges will yield about a cup of sour juice, six supermarket oranges will give you two cups of very sweet orange juice. This is probably where things started to go wrong: too much sugar and too much orange, and before you know it you have a sticky marmalade sauce, which is really rather disgusting.
Sauce à la Bigarade, when correctly made, is a deliciously, intensely savoury sauce with a hint of orange and a complex bitter-sweet tone.

On conducting some research on the library shelves here, I found that Mrs Kafka's version is very similar to that of Alice B Toklas, except with the addition of Cumin and the specification to use blood oranges; Robert Carrier introduces Cognac, and makes a Caramel to stir in at the end; the version in Larousse Gastronomique (1988 Edition) incorporates a generous quantity of Mandarin Napoleon, and a spoonful of Vinegar; Escoffier gives the Sauce à la Bigarade quoted above .......and Alan Davidson gives no recipe, but merely refers witheringly to the place Duck à l'Orange has shamefully assumed within 'debased international cooking'.....

Something niggled at the back of my mind, though. Without exception - and I suppose not surprisingly - all of the sources specify squeezing quantities of orange juice, and then laboriously reducing it to a usable, concentrated amount. There are better ways to do it than that, I concluded, and ended up devising the following version. Very simple, and delicious.

For two servings of roast Duck.

Ingredients: 5 fl oz of Duck Stock (I boned the Duck before roasting it, and used the bones to make the stock for the sauce base); 1 tablespoon of Cognac; 1 teaspoon of Boyajian Orange Oil; half a teaspoon of dark Molasses (or Fowler's Black Treacle - wonderful stuff, and surprisingly useful in the kitchen, in general).


1. Bring the Stock to a slow boil in a small saucepan, along with the Cognac and Orange Oil.

2. Reduce it carefully, over about half an hour, until you have only a very small amount of liquid remaining in the bottom of the pan - remember, you need only a spoonful of intensely flavoured liquid per person.

3. Stir in the Molasses, as you take the Duck from the oven to rest for five minutes or so.

Serve; one spoonful per person.

Of course, this leaves me still with the bitter Orange question. ......
Something tells me we'll be having Nigella's Bitter Orange Ice Cream for dessert tomorrow evening!

Thursday 10 January 2008

A Mystery Ingredient...

Fiori di Sicilia. This is a heavily-concentrated flavouring essence that I first came across in the States about ten years or so ago. I can't now remember where it was that I originally became aware of it - maybe somebody recommended it to me? - since it wasn't in a shop anywhere, and the only place I've ever found it available for purchase is online at The Bakers Catalogue. This stuff is quite simply wonderful! Impossible to know exactly what's in it, and the label on the bottle gives nothing away; for sure the base notes are a very good vanilla, combined with one or more citrus flavours........but there are other things in there as well, tantalisingly familiar, but just out of reach at the same time.

In the marketing blurb, the makers confidently assert that this is what Italians use to make Panettone - and it's true that the smell is headily reminiscent both of Panettone and of Panforte di Siena .........and when we lived in Via Vernagalli, the smell emanating from the back door of the pasticceria on Piazza de Pozzetto which stopped me in my tracks every time I passed that way en route to Borgo Stretto was exactly the aroma of Fiori di Sicilia. But have I ever been able to find anybody in Italy who's ever heard of it? Nope.....I quizzed Sergio and Simonetta about it on one occasion, even taking along a bottle of the real thing for comparison purposes, and we opened bottles of arome di arancia, and mandorle, and rosa, and millefiori (which they were convinced must be the one......) none of which came anywhere even close. Which means that when I want some more, I'll have to resort to the usual complicated expedient of getting somebody in the States to order me some, and then forward it to me on receipt, since this is yet another american business that thinks sending anything overseas must involve contravening every fiscal, pest-control, and anti-terrorist law that's ever been invented, and so they just won't do it!

It is, however, worth the effort. A few drops of this stuff added to pastry or to a simple cake mixture, and the end result is transformed. The smell while it cooks gets the nostrils twitching uncontrollably, and the flavour in the finished product is superb - an additional accent that is subtle and rich and beguiling. You'll understand exactly what I mean, the first time you open the bottle......If only there were a scratch and sniff function on this screen!

Tonight's Dinner:

Artichokes, with Truffle & Lemon Mayonnaise

Duck à l'Orange; Celeriac roast in Duck Fat.

Tartes aux Pommes.

Wednesday 9 January 2008

A Birthday Feast.....

To Trattoria Albana in Mazzolla, for lunch, on a dreary, rainy January day. It was a birthday celebration for one of the Belforte crowd, and the venue had been suggested as being halfway between Belforte and Pisa - Mazzolla being a little hilltop village two or three kilometres south of Volterra. The claim of equidistance was not entirely accurate, but forgivable, not least on the basis of the quality of the lunch.

Albana is the sort of place where local hunters congregate after a good morning's slaughtering, and at the right time of year the occasional intrepid tourist can also be sighted, toiling their way up the hill and all the way through the village to where the Trattoria is tucked away in its obscure little corner. Last time we were there was a couple of summers ago, in sweltering heat, when we sat under the awning outside and enjoyed a long and lazy and bibulous lunch, in the company of the owners' two large and shaggy and very friendly dogs. On that occasion, a walking tour of Germans had raggedly toiled their way into the little square over the course of half an hour or so, before collapsing in relief into chairs placed around the large table next to ours, generously supplied with iced water and chilled wine....

This time, Mazzolla was shrouded in wintry mist, and we had Albana entirely to ourselves - in fact, they'd only bothered to open for us, because we were a large enough booking to make it worthwhile. And instead of the terrace and the shaggy dogs, we took over their large inside room, a long and narrow space, with whitewashed walls and a barrel-vaulted terracotta ceiling. Apart from a couple of stags heads stuffed and mounted and hanging on the wall behind my seat, the room was otherwise bare.

The food was ......excellent! Really, very very good indeed. Mixed antipasti to start, of which I can recall some courgettes finely sliced and cooked with a light vinegar; Crostini alla Toscana (chicken liver.......and an as-yet-unresolved debate about whether or not the recipe also includes spleen) and some others of wild mushroom; a delicious Caponata, which included pine nuts and sultanas along with the aubergine; little fish fillets, poached and served with a creamy sauce and cubes of ricotta; and a generous platter of salami, and sausage, and cured ham. Thereafter, the pasta course: I had gnocchi, which came with a light sauce of veal ragu cooked with finely diced wild fennel. Superb! I traded some gnocchi with some of my neighbour's papardelle con cinghiale, which was also splendid. Reports were enthusiastic from elsewhere along the table of spaghetti served variously with a spiced tomato sauce or else with funghi porcini.
To follow, I had chopped Pig's Liver, formed into large bocconcini by wrapping them in lardo di colonato, and then fried. Other options included grilled rabbit, or duck breast - and the morsels of the latter which also ended up on my plate were tender and delicious, and much better than duck generally is in Italy.

And to finish, we'd brought a Sachertorte, made at home the previous day and only iced that morning (which is what happens when you discover midway through a Sunday afternoon in Italy that you've run out of sugar, and have to halt production until the shops open again at 8 am the following morning!). Transported with great care, and handed to the kitchen on arrival, along with a single birthday candle and enough cream to whip for the assembled throng. "Oh", somebody cried, as a large piece was placed before them, "this looks just like Sachertorte!". Which was something of a relief........

I hardly need add that we fell (intentionally) off the wagon for the course of the lunch, and enjoyed a very good local prosecco, from Terriciola, about ten minutes down the road.....

Back on the wagon now. Only three more weeks to go. You know, in the right frame of mind, tonic water with a dash of angostura bitters really isn't so awful.

Tonight's dinner:


Salmon and Lemon fishcakes, with Coriander sauce.

Fresh Mango, with Maraschino.

Monday 7 January 2008

Recipe: The Original Sachertorte...

Inspired by Joanna's reference to a disappointing version from Nigel Slater, I was prompted to do some research - both literary and practical......

Karl Schumacher and Eva Mayer-Bahl in "Das Grosse Buch der Osterreichischen Mehlspeisen" wail mightily about the thousands of variants on the Sachertorte that have found their way into the wild, most of which are complete nonsense and involve such things as almonds, marzipan, hazelnuts and orange rind. The version given below, they insist, is the correct recipe (translated from the German).

Real life is rarely simple, however: In Vienna, the Bakery Demel and the Hotel Sacher were locked for years in a bitter legal dispute as to who had the right to the recipe and whether or not it should have a layer of jam in the middle. One gets the feeling that there wasn't a lot to do in Vienna at the time. As in all really good silly disputes it ended in a draw. The Hotel Sacher won the right to call theirs "Original Sacher Torte" but Demel retained the right to make a cake called "Demel's Sacher Torte". Both are excellent but Demel's doesn't include the central layer of jam.

The recipe for the cake is simple, similar to making chocolate mousse. You can make the basic cake a day or two before you will need it. To get a perfectly flawless finish on the icing is a bit trickier, but worth the effort. Once you have the knack, you can ice a whole cake in a minute.

I. Making the Cake

Ingredients for a cake 24cm diameter by 5cm high: 130g Dark couverture chocolate (Felchlin, by preference, but otherwise as good as you can get); 130g Butter; 40g Icing sugar; 5g vanilla sugar; a pinch of salt; 6 eggs; 180g caster sugar;130g plain flour.


1. Melt the chocolate in a double boiler or Zimmertopf. It is important to let it cool to 35°C when you use it. You will be adding all the ingredients to the bowl you start with, so choose a large enough one to melt the chocolate in or transfer the chocolate into your work bowl once it has melted.

2. Add the softened butter, icing sugar, vanilla sugar and salt to the chocolate and beat until fluffy with a hand mixer. If the chocolate is too warm, the butter will melt and you will end up with a mess. Add the six egg yolks one at a time until blended.

3. Separately beat the six egg whites and beat in the caster sugar.

4. Fold the beaten egg whites in to the chocolate mixture.

5. Fold in the sieved flour as lightly as possible.

6. Butter and flour a false-bottomed springform baking tin - or use Trennwax spray; additionally, place a disk of greaseproof paper on the base to make unmoulding easier. Put the prepared tin onto a baking sheet. Nearly fill the tin with batter and level carefully with a straight-edged plastic scraper. Leave ¼" of rim above the batter.

7. Bake at 190°C for an hour or until a fine skewer piercing the centre comes out clean. The cake should rise but only a little higher than the tin.

8. Invert at once onto a cold baking sheet generously sprinkled with caster sugar. This ensures that both faces of the cake will be perfectly flat. When the cake is cool, score around the tin with a knife to loosen the cake, remove the base and gently peel away the greaseproof paper. Work carefully, as the cake can easily tear.

II. Assembling the Cake:

Ingredients: 350g of sieved Apricot jam - the best you can find - for the filling and coating.


1. Cut the cold cake in half across the middle.

2. Spread one half with about 1/2 of the jam and top with the other half of the cake. Ideally sit the cake on a 24cm cake disk. If your cut wasn't exactly horizontal, make sure the top goes back in the same position or the cake will be sloping.

3. Place on a wire rack. Warm the remaining jam and brush the top and sides thinly. After this stage, place the cake in the fridge - when you come to the icing stage, it will help if the surface of the cake is cold.

III. Icing the Cake (A sugar thermometer is essential for this):

Ingredients: 250g caster sugar; 120ml water; 300g grated dark Chocolate.


1. Over a low heat melt the sugar in the water; while stirring, bring to 110°C. Add the grated chocolate stir and remove the pan from the heat.

2. Continue to stir constantly and gently as the mixture cools down - it needs to cool until it is thick enough to coat the cake and not run off it completely. This will take about ten minutes for this quantity of icing. Work gently, and be careful not to stir air bubbles into the thickening icing since they will spoil the finish. If you want to test for appropriate consistency, pour a very little over the back of a coffee saucer which you've inverted over a dinner plate - you'll be able to see from the way it behaves whether or not it is yet thick enough.

3. Pour the icing over the exact centre of the cake, ideally letting only a little run off through the wire rack. If the icing is too hot it will run straight off the cake leaving a thin bumpy layer, if it is too cold it will merely sit in a blob on top . (When doing this for the first time, you had better stand the cake-rack on a tray, in case the icing flows off the cake, onto the floor and under the dog.) The perfect finish comes from letting the icing gently flow over the entire cake - you shouldn't need to touch it or smear it about. The icing that flows off can be used again if gently reheated.

Set aside to cool completely.

4. Trim the bottom edge with a knife to make it even. Loosen from the rack with a clean palette knife. It is then ready to serve, as in Vienna, with whipped cream, good coffee and the latest gossip.

Sunday 6 January 2008

A Gem........

One of the packages left under the tree for me this Christmas was an early edition of Alice B Toklas' renowned cook-book. Although, over the years, I've occasionally come across references to recipes from it , I confess I've never before actually seen a copy - and it is an absolute delight! Doubly so in that it is an early enough edition to contain 'her' recipe for 'Haschich Fudge', printed before the publishers realised what it actually was and hastily pulled it from all later versions....

In fact, it was a recipe given to Toklas by a friend of hers, an artist called Byron (or Brion, or Brian - nobody seems entirely clear on the detail) Gysin (or Gysen, as he appears in the Penguin edition). Alice B, in her innocence, included it in full, and the people at Penguin - presumably, equally wet behind the ears when it came to recreational drugs - faithfully reproduced it in the published work. It was only when some slightly more savvy reviewers got to grips with the text that the truth emerged, and the red faces that followed must have been a sight to behold....

To anybody who lived through the seventies, the recipe is nothing more nor less than a variation of Hash Brownies!

It's too long to include here in full, but the highlights of the text - which Gysin airily describes as something 'which anyone could whip up on a rainy day' - are as follows:

'This is the food of Paradise - of Baudelaire's Artificial Paradises: it might provide an entertaining refreshment for a Ladies' Bridge Club or a chapter meeting of the DAR*........' .'.....Euphoria and brilliant storms of laughter, ecstatic reveries and extensions of one's personality on several simultaneous planes are to be complacently expected. Almost anything Saint Teresa did you can do better if you can bear to be ravished by un évanouissement réveillé.......'

* Daughters of the American Revolution.

And on, and on...

The whole thing is made even more delicious by the fact that the recipe is featured in a chapter of 'recipes from friends', where the other contributors are people like 'The Late Lord Berners', 'The Princesse de Rohan', and various, presumably high profile, knights of the realm. It's hard to tell, but Alice B doesn't immediately strike one as somebody with a great sense of humour, and it seems unlikely that she appreciated the joke once it had been revealed. One could say it serves her right for lazy editing.......

Ho hum.....

Tonight's dinner:

Tart of Aubergine, Anchovies and Parmesan

Saltimbocca alla Romana, with Carrots in Marsala

Orange & Ricotta Cheesecake