Rainbow cake: it’s (birthday)party time!

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I love birthdays. More than Christmas, more than weddings, more than any other celebrations. And I love them even more since I have become a mother, because my daughter’s birthday is not only her special day to celebrate, it is also my birthday as a mom.

Finally, my daughter has turned three. Whoever has children will understand the suffered and intense meaning of the word “finally”. So, she had her first “real” birthday party, with friends, whom she chose, balloons, lots of food (I might be a strange sort of Italian, but still Italian after all) and a cake. Actually THE cake.

I have been “flirting” with the idea of a rainbow cake for ages but I was never able to find the right occasion because, let’s face it, unless one is used to hang out in Liberace-inspired extravanganzas, or to party in carnival of Rio style, it’s really unlikely to find the right moment to make something so over the top.

But a kid’s birthday party, well, that’s whole another story. It was so nice to see their surprised faces once the cake was cut open, and to see them “fighting” over the piece of cake with their favourite colour, my daughter even learnt about indigo! It was lot of work, seven layers of cake all coloured and baked individually, but in the end it was well worthy. My husband said that next time each individual sponge should be flavoured individually with a taste inspired by the respective colour. OK it was fun, OK it was worthwhile, but he still doesn’t know that there might not be a next time!

Recipe

For the sponge:
500gr butter
500gr caster sugar
500gr eggs
400gr plain flour
100gr corn flour
3 heaped tsp of baking powder
Gel food colouring
For the filling milk cream:
400ml full fat milk
1tsp honey
10gr ground cardamom
40gr plain flour
40gr corn flour
80gr caster sugar
150gr double cream
100gr white chocolate
For the Buttercream:
400gr of granulated or caster sugar
80ml of water (for precise measurement weight it on a digital scale: 80gr is 80ml)
5 large egg whites
1 tsp of cream of tartar or lemon juice
680gr of butter at room temperature
2 tbsp of vanilla paste

This recipe is very much a joint effort among me, my cooking books, and my very good friend Francesca. She gave me the recipe for the milk cream filling, which I have adapted by adding a Finnish touch of cardamom and the white chocolate.


Prepare the sponge. Cream the butter and the sugar, mix the powders and add to the butter and sugar mix alternating with the eggs, keep mixing until all the ingredients are well incorporated. The batter should be enough to make 7 batches of 270-280gr each, divide them as evenly as possible using a scale and add the food coloring accordingly to get the seven colours of the rainbow. Bake each batch in a round 20-24cm tin for 15 minutes at 180°C. Place on a cooling rack.


For the milk white chocolate and cardamom filling cream, warm 300ml of milk in a saucepan with the cardamom and the sugar, dissolve the flours in the remaining milk and add to the saucepan. Add the honey and keep mixing, bring gently to the boil and let thicken while mixing for a few minutes. Remove from the heat and melt the white chocolate inside the milk sauce. Pour in a bowl, cover with cling film and let it cool thoroughly in the fridge. Whip the double cream and combine gently with the milk and chocolate cream.


Combine sugar and water in a small saucepan over medium-high heat. Cook the mixture until it reaches 120°C. Meanwhile combine the egg whites with the cream of tartar and whisk to a soft peak. As soon as the syrup reaches 120°C, reduce the whisk speed to medium and start pouring, slowly but steadily the hot syrup into the eggs. Careful to not splash the hot syrup! Raise the speed to high and continue to whisk until the mixture has cooled down to almost at room temperature. It could take a little while, sometimes I help the process by placing ice-bags in contact with the outer walls of the mixing bowl. When the meringue is not more than lukewarm reduce the speed of the mixer and start adding the butter, one spoon at once and making sure the previous is properly mixed before adding the next one. If butter seems to not incorporate properly you can raise the speed of the mixer just make sure to not over-mix or it will split. Once incorporated all the butter add the vanilla paste.


Build the cake by alternating one layer of cake with a couple of spoon of milk cream filling. Soak the sponge with a syrup made with equal amount of orange juice freshly squeezed and icing sugar. Cover the cake with a thin layer of buttercream and use the rest to decorate with a piping bag or just a palette knife according to your taste and inspiration.

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Chocolate and walnut torte: only for those who are not afraid of the “dark”

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I started to like dark chocolate quite late in life; as a child, I remember the disappointment of receiving dark chocolate eggs for Easter, the merriment of my relatives, and the wonder “who on earth would like to eat that”? I have always identified dark chocolate as the chocolate “for adults”, as something with an acquired taste, that does not go down well with children. That is, of course, until my child showed me how little kids too can go crazy for it.

Somehow, the beginning of my real passion for baking is associated, in my mind, to when I started to love chocolate and now I cannot even remember why it has not always been like that. Chocolate is the ultimate baking and patisserie ingredient: master working with chocolate and you can call yourself a pastry expert. And dark chocolate is the king.

I cannot really claim to be there yet, but I always try new recipes or work out some of my own. This torte is the results of a few experiments of mine with my favourite chocolate; so dark it is sometimes difficult to find in shops; so dark that once the cake is in the oven you need to be extremely careful, because you will not be able to check from the colour whether the cake has burnt.

One of the first people who tried this said that “this is how a chocolate cake worthy of that name should be”; which, for me, is as good as it gets, in terms of appreciation to my baking. Try it if you like bitter intense chocolate, the roasted smell of the walnuts give it an extra kick, or even if you are not a great fan of dark chocolate: you may start loving it.

Recipe

Ingredients:

200gr 90% dark chocolate (if you cannot find 90%, 80% would do almost the same job)

200gr 50-70% dark chocolate in small pieces

300gr butter

250gr brown sugar

5 large eggs

100gr plain flour

50gr corn starch

50gr cocoa powder

350gr roasted and ground walnuts

1 level tsp of salt

1 heaped spoon of baking powder

13-15 walnut halves for decoration

Melt the 90% chocolate and butter and let cool slightly. Mix eggs and sugar with a whisker at high speed to obtain a foamy and light mix. In the meantime, mix all the powder ingredients (flour, cocoa, salt, baking powder).

Add the chocolate and butter to the eggs and sugar mix and whisk gently. Add the powders in 3-4 batches mixing very gently with a metallic spoon from the bottom to the top. Add the walnuts and the chocolate in pieces, mix a little more.

Butter and cover with some cocoa powder a cake tin, add the cake batter, decorate with the walnut halves, and bake at 180°C for about 45 minutes, the centre of the cake has to be still wobbly when taken out of the oven, and not properly cooked (check with a knife or a stick, they should come out dirty). Once cooled down, the centre will collapse slightly, don’t worry, it means it is cooked perfectly.

 

Pesto Lasagne: one of the (many) hidden gems of Italian food.

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Although the great reputation of  Italian food in the world is always a reason for pride to a food lover like me, to see how very limited the concept of “Italian food” sometimes is can get a bit frustrating. Pizza, pasta, panna cotta, and tiramisù. With these few dishes, we have already covered a good 90% of the menu in any regular Italian restaurant around the world. But Italian food is so much more than that! And even with pasta, you can have thousands of shapes, dressing and cooking methods. But so many times it looks like that in Italy we only eat carbonara, tomato sauce, and ragù (if you are not sure what ragù is, don’t worry it’s just because someone insists calling it “Bolognese”, but so you know…that does not mean anything in an Italian kitchen).

And that is why I thought that it was the time to write about a dish that I particularly love, but that is unlikely that you will ever hear, not only abroad but even in many region of Italy: Pesto Lasagne. Of course everybody knows this wonderful, comforting dish, but generally lasagne are identified with a very specific recipe ofh layers of pasta, ragù (to be repeated as a mantra, please, “ragù, not Bolognese, ragù, not Bolognese, …”), béchamel, and parmesan. They are delicious, but let’s face it, after 20, 30 times they can be a it boring. But lasagne are so versatile, in Italy every region has its own traditional recipe, they can be made vegetarian, with all possible combinations of ingredients. And in a small, charming region of the North West of Italy, Liguria, lasagne are made with one of the best sauces that Italian cuisine has ever produced: Pesto.

Pesto is typical from Liguria and made of few, simple but delicious ingredients: fresh basil, olive oil, garlic, pine nuts, parmesan, salt and pepper. As my good friend Sara, born and raised in Liguria, and from whom I have taken inspiration for this recipe, would tell you, the true pesto is always eaten with potatoes and green beans, no matter what kind of pasta you use. So, if you take a classic lasagne recipe and replace the ragù with all these ingredients, you will end up with a fresher, lighter, even almost summery version of this Italian classic. To me, this is a wonderful change to the usual “lasagne routine”, especially during the grey Finnish winter: it shows how versatile Italian food is, it reminds me of close friends far away, and it is full of green, my favourite colour!

Hope you enjoy!

Recipe

1 pack of dried egg-pasta sheets (you can make your own egg pasta if you feel brave and patient enough, the recipe call for 1 egg for each 100gr of plain 00 flour, a pinch of salt and a lot of elbow grease, but pasta sheet that is sold everywhere is shops and supermarkets is still very good)

250 gr basil, including the stalks

3 large garlic cloves

100 gr pine nuts

grated parmesan (to taste)

250 ml extra virgin olive oil

2 litres full fat milk

80 gr plain flour

40gr butter

40ml vegetable oil

a pinch of nutmeg

salt

pepper

4 large boiled potatoes

400 gr boiled green beans

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Prepare the pesto. Basil, in pesto, should be cut quite coarse and it can be done manually with a cutter: in this case, simply combine basil, garlic, pine nuts, cut in small pieces add the olive oil (adjust the amount to taste), the grated parmesan, salt, and pepper to taste. If you are using a food processor, I recommend to process first garlic and pine nuts together, and add basil and oil only afterwards, to avoid over processing the basil. Let the pesto rest for a couple of hours.

Prepare the béchamel. Melt very gently the butter with the vegetable oil in a large pan; as soon as all the fat is melted, remove from the heat and add the flour whisking vigorously to avoid the formation of lumps. Add the milk gradually in batches and mixing well in between each batch. Return to a medium-low heat and bring to the boil while stirring constantly (in particular, make sure no flour is attaching to the bottom of the pan). The sauce will start thickening close to the boiling point, let boil for about 3-5 minutes and keep stirring.

Set pesto, pasta sheets, béchamel and grated parmesan to build the lasagne and a large and high rectangular oven dish. Boil for about 3-4 minutes the pasta sheets that will cover the bottom of the pan in the first layer. Add some béchamel to the bottom of the dish together with a little vegetable oil and spread out evenly. Cover the bottom of the dish with the first layer of boiled pasta sheet. After this first layer, the rest of the pasta can be added as it come out of the pack. Scatter 1 potato cut into thin slices and about ¼ of the green beans on top of the pasta, pour ¼ of the pesto on top in generous spoonful sprinkle with parmesan (for very cheesy lasagne you can add some other cheeses like mozzarella that melt easily) and pour a couple of full ladles of béchamel. Repeat 3 times to have 4 layers in total. I normally keep a bit of extra béchamel for the last layer as it prevents the lasagne from drying out too much in the oven.

The lasagne can be now let to rest, a couple of hours or even overnight, before cooking. Just remeber tht the longer they rest the softer the pasta will be once cooked. Cover the lasagne with aluminium foil and place in a hot oven at 200°C for 30 minutes. Remove the foil, lower the temperature at 180°C, and cook for about 30 minutes. Make sure that the lasagne are ready to come out of the oven at least 20 minutes before eating: like for any other type of lasagne they are best eaten after resting a bit at room temperature. During the resting time (about 15-20 minutes), you can cover them again with the foil used earlier in the cooking to prevent them from drying out.

Mini-muffins: baking as a gift

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Two weeks ago, I started a 42 weeks long sugar-strike: no added sugar or sweets of any kind until the 26th of February. I don’t want to bother you with the details and the “whys” and the “hows” of this decision, but one thing I was a bit worried taking this step was my blog. Not being able to taste and try and eat what I make will be surely a big challenge, but then I thought: well, OK, baking is more like Science, so the really important thing is not to taste but to follow the recipe. And in all truth, if I want to develop something new or make my own adaptations and try new things there will always be a number of people willing to make the “sacrifice” of tasting my concoctions on my behalf, my husband, for example, has already signed up very happily.

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Vaja: my childhood in an apple pie.

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I have been thinking of posting a recipe for an apple pie for very long time, but somehow never got around, as I never managed to decide on the best version to make. Apple pie is one of those mythical concepts very difficult to grasp because everybody knows it but always in a slightly different version. Every household has a favourite recipe, which slightly differs from all the others and, as they are all likely to be very good, it is very difficult to pin down the ultimate one. So, in a sort of enlightenment, I realised there was no point in looking for the perfect apple pie, the one that would make everybody happy and, as usual, when I stopped overcomplicating things, it became clear that the only right choice was MY apple pie, or rather, the apple pie of my childhood.

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