Every time I fly to Italy for the Christmas break, I look forward to indulging in my favourite simple pleasures: spending time with family and friends I haven’t seen in ages, eating my weight in mum’s lasagne, taking restful naps with my cat, and unearthing old teenage mixtapes from the pile of CDs I left behind. The other day, while I was driving around town, I couldn’t shake the feeling that something important was missing. It took me a while to realise what it was: the music playing on the car radio was just not loud enough. As I turned up the volume, I heard the first notes of this song:
My 18-year-old self sure loved those lyrics. Even now, at the age of twenty-seven, I wonder if growing up is really worth the hassle: what with the neverending worries about work and money, the fear of never reaching what you’ve set out to accomplish, the feeling that hardship and unrest are the only things you come across easily in life. Sure, it’s great to no longer live at home, have to get by at school, or make a complete fool out of myself to impress that boy who never gave a shit about me anyway – but that’s as silver a lining as I can see right now. This hard, trying 2014 shaped me into a person I sometimes struggle to recognise: wiser and more confident perhaps, but also colder, in a way, and more conscious of how fast time is slipping through my fingers. Times like these, I’d give anything to be the hopeful, warm-hearted 18-year-old me once again; visiting my old hometown is just another reminder that those years are long gone.
Being home is bittersweet, and making the most of the sweet side is the least I can do to enjoy my stay. I’d be a fool to spend so much time in the house I grew up in, and miss the chance to cook in my mother’s kitchen. You know, a kitchen with a real worktop, a life-saving dishwasher, and furniture that doesn’t look like a WWII relic. And my favourite little helper, too.
The pots of granola I gave my loved ones last Christmas went down incredibly well, so I figured I’d come up with more homemade gifts this year. In Italy, Christmas is all about panettone, pandoro and nougat; the task of finding a festive treat no one has ever seen before isn’t a hard one at all. Mince pies and boozy Christmas puddings are easy enough to bring back from London, so I went for a treat that isn’t so easy to transport, but never fails to impress: a bunch of florentines, packed with dried fruits and chocolate, which us Italians can never get enough of at Christmas time.
The recipe is deceptively easy: just when you think you made it, and your biscuit thins are a lovely shade of golden brown, you realise how much sweat and swearing goes into the final few steps. My florentines all broke into pieces the first time round, meaning I had to make them twice – and fill a metal tin with biscuit shards, which my mum just couldn’t stop snacking on. If you ask her, she’ll say I brought a powerful, irresistible drug to our home. I don’t know what she’s talking about, though: a little butter, cream and chocolate are hardly anything to worry about…aren’t they?
(makes 20 – 24)
- 100g granulated sugar
- 50g butter
- 100ml double cream
- 50g sultanas
- 50g dried cranberries
- 100g flaked almonds
- 50g dark chocolate
Recipe (adapted from The Dessert Deli by Laura Amos)
- Put the sultanas, cranberries and almonds in a medium-sized bowl.
- Melt the butter in a saucepan, on low heat.
- Add the sugar and cream, and bring to the boil while stirring continuously.
- Remove from the hob, pour into the bowl with the dried fruits, and mix until well combined.
- Leave the bowl aside to cool down for 10 – 15 minutes.
- Line two muffin tins with muffin cases, to give the biscuits a round shape. (*)
Baker’s tip #1: Use silicone cases instead of paper cases, to avoid the risk of paper sticking to the bottom. If you don’t have muffin cases, place the mixture on a sheet of greaseproof paper. You’ll need to keep at least 10cm between each biscuit, so they won’t stick together when they spread.
- Drop a spoonful of mixture in each case, and spread it around with a metal spoon.
Baker’s tip #2: Keep the sultanas and cranberries in the middle, so they don”t fall off when you remove the biscuits from the cases.
- Pre-heat the oven to 170°, and bake for 15 – 20 minutes, until golden brown on top.
Baker’s tip #3: By “golden brown” I mean very golden. If they’re just a light shade of brown, they’re undercooked, and will be harder to take off the cases.
- Remove from the oven, and leave aside until the butter melt has set into a crispy biscuit thin.
- Carefully remove the biscuits from the paper cases, handling them very gently.
Baker’s tip #4: Don’t leave the biscuits in the cases too long, otherwise the base will become damp and sticky and risk breaking.
- Melt the chocolate in a heatproof bowl over simmering water. Leave it aside to cool down for a few minutes.
- Brush the bottom of the biscuits with lashings of chocolate. Leave aside until set, then serve and enjoy!
(*) This was my mum’s idea – and even if she can’t read English, I know she’ll be upset if I don’t mention it!