Afternoon tea at my house is a pretty uncivilised affair. Sometimes it's cupcakes and hot chocolate in amongst homework and lego back hoes. More often it's vegemite crackers and water with me screaming sit down. Always there is a mess and a spilt drink.
I was fascinated with Barbara Small's stories of afternoon tea in her childhood home. It sounded so other worldly, so proper. Bread sliced ever so thinly, particular fillings, everything prepared with great care. So here in the second instalment of Eating Better at Home, my quest to cook everything in Barbara Small's excellent book Stirring the Senses, Barbara talks about those afternoon teas from her her childhood and shares two recipes she picked up later as an adult in Italy, both of which make wonderful afternoon treats. The chestnut cream bigne are decadent, but not heavy, cream-filled puffs and as I sat eating them, two in fact, on the floor of the verandah in the afternoon sun, with cream on my nose and both hands, I felt like a five year old. And food that can take you back to a time when the sun was brighter and the days longer and everything more keenly felt is such a joy. The second is a recipe for delicate hazelnut biscuits sandwiched together with dark chocolate, baci di dama. This has become a staple in my family at Christmas time when my aunt Debra makes a big batch to be picked at in between glazed ham and salmon and semifreddo with glace fruit and cold prawns and whatever else is in the fridge.
But now over to Barbara...
"Afternoon tea - the table laid with a starched linen cloth, linen napkins and the finest porcelain cups, saucers and plates. I have a recipe book of my mother's delicious cakes. They were never bigger than 20cm usually iced and filled with cream or lemon cheese etc. They were served cut into small wedges. Now those afternoon teas always included sandwiches. Thinly sliced bread, white and brown, crusts cut off and the bread well buttered. Fillings such as cream cheese with chopped glace ginger, hardboiled egg mixed with butter and a little mustard and salmon,crab or anchovies, thinly sliced leg ham with just a smear of English mustard. The filling was the important ingredient with the bread slices just to hold it together. Each sandwich was cut into 4 triangles which were arranged on a large dish and covered with a damp linen teatowel which would keep the sandwiches beautifully fresh. Sometimes sprigs of freshly picked curly parsley would decorate the dish.
As for those bigne (the Sicilian word for the French beignet - which is a deep fried choux pastry), these were a gift from the French chefs who were employed by the Sicilian aristocracy in the 18th and 19th centuries. The chefs were known as monzu. Many years ago I met the last monzu in Sicily. He was working for the family of a count and countess who owned a large vineyard south west of Palermo. The chestnut bigne brings back wonderful memories of my few weeks cooking in the appartment of Anna Maria overlooking the busy harbour of Palermo. We cooked, I believe, every conceivable speciality of the island. The dessert trolley was always groaning. Not only did we make those chestnut bigne, the favourite of Anna Maria's husband, but we made another version, more Sicilian in flavour, filled with ricotta sieved to a fine cream, sweetened and flavoured with cinnamon and vanilla, glace fruits and chocolate. A melon sauce the colour of a fading sunset was spooned over the top. My mouth is watering."
"Those delicious baci di dama are found in pasticcerias in town all around Piedmont. The magical combination of hazelnuts and chocolate for which this region is famed. The hazelnuts known as 'madama' are considered to be the best in Europe. The baci di dama come in all sizes - some like a full blown kiss. I prefer the small one-bite size. Then its fine to take another. In the warm weather you have to be careful because the butter oils run and make this dough too soft. Just add a tiny bit more flour."
CHESTNUT CREAM BIGNE
Makes about 24 bigne
150g plain flour
100g unsalted butter
good pinch salt
4 x 65g eggs
440g can of unsweetened chestnut puree
50ml underproof rum
300ml whipped cream
100g egg whites
200g caster sugar
300g whipped cream
30g dark chocolate
marrons glace to decorate
PREHEAT OVEN 230CFF
BIGNE: Bring water and butter to the boil. Remove from heat and add flour, sugar and salt. Beat vigorously to form a smooth paste. Place back on low heat for a few minutes to allow paste to dry. Turn out onto a board and allow to cool. Put cooled paste in a bowl and add the eggs one at a time, beating vigorously to form a glossy paste. Either pipe mixture onto a buttered baking sheet using a 2cm wide piping tube OR put large spoonfuls onto the baking sheet.
Bake 12-15 minutes then turn heat down to 200C, put a wooden spoon in the oven door to keep it ajar and continue cooking for a further 15 minutes. Cool on a rack.
Cut bigne open with scissors and fill with chestnut cream. Arrange in a circle on a dish, cover with some meringue cream, pile on remaining bigne and cover with more cream.
Drizzle melted chocolate over the top and decorate with chopped marrons glace. Chill in the refrigerator for a few hours before serving.
CHESTNUT CREAM: Put chestnut puree in food processor with sugar and rum and process until smooth. Fold in whipped cream.
MERINGUE CREAM: Beat egg whites stiffly and add sugar while still beating to form a glossy meringue. Fold in whipped cream.
BACI DI DAMA
Makes about 30 double biscuits
40g ground almonds
60 ground hazelnuts
60g caster sugar
80g plain flour, sifted
75g soft unsalted butter
50g dark chocolate and a small nut of good butter (about 8g)
Mix the ground almonds and hazelnuts together and put on a baking tray. Bake in a 170C
oven for 12-15 minutes until toasted and nicely coloured. Cool.
Cream the butter and sugar. Add the toasted nuts followed by the flour and salt. Turn out onto a floured board and form into 1/5cm thick logs. Chill for 10-15 minutes.
PREHEAT OVEN 160CFF
Cut small even pieces of the dough and roll into small balls the size of a small cherry. Put on a buttered baking tray or line it with baking parchment. Bake for about 18 minutes. Cool on a rack.
Melt the chocolate with the butter over hot water and spread on one biscuit. Sandwich with another biscuit. When cool store in an airtight container.
NOTE: In the warm weather it may be necessary to add a little more flour.