I almost always like to experiment with traditional recipes, often by including ingredients that traditionally are not tolerated by purist Italians. I persevere with my variations because I usually like the end result. It is a little like the situation with Sangiovese produced in Tuscany and the wine from Sangiovese grapes grown in Australia. I once had a lengthy discussion with a lovely wine bar owner in Firenze who could not believe that we would dare call our wine Sangiovese because Australia could not possibly have the traditional characteristics of the Tuscan region, the terroir and the climate. But how important are the skills of the winemaker and the subtle variations of in an aged old tradition?
I make panforte every year for Christmas. In traditional panforte recipes the most common nuts are almonds and hazelnuts. In recent times pistachio nuts, walnuts and macadamia have become common, especially in Australia.
We have also taken liberties with what we do with the nuts – whole or chopped nuts, skin-on, blanched or toasted? This time I used blanched almonds and hazelnuts with their skins – I blanched and toasted the almonds and toasted the hazelnuts and rubbed some of their skin off.
I like black ground pepper and plenty of it; traditional recipes do not add as much as I do, but then again I also like to add black pepper to my fruitcakes. The common spices are cinnamon, cloves and nutmeg. Some add coriander, and I too have done so in other panforte I have made.
I added cocoa powder and chopped dark chocolate pieces. I wanted colour, richness and a slight bitterness, a contrast with the sweetness of the fruit. I also thought that the chocolate would melt and once cool would solidify (like in a Florentine biscuit) and make the panforte texture less candied. I used citron and orange peel, figs and ginger (in syrup, but I drained it). I have also eaten panforte with cranberries, cherries and pineapple. Where does one draw the line?
Could I still call what I made panforte? Not likely.
Zenzero (ginger) is not common in Italian cuisine and is not found in panforte, nor are dark chocolate pieces included in the traditional mix.
I used equal amounts of honey and sugar – the sugar, like toffee makes it brittle, the honey adds flavour and gives the panforte a softer, less brittle consistency.
A little flour and a little butter – the more flour you add, the firmer the texture of the panforte; the more butter the richer and shorter the mixture. I used the chocolate and too much of it and because of the chocolate’s fat high content I should not have used. the butter. My panforte did not end up as chewy as the classic variety of panforte.
I ended up with a fabulous tasting concoction – how could it not be with all of those good ingredients and flavours. The ginger and pepper makes it very more-ish. But is it panforte?
I enjoyed making it and shall enjoy eating it and sharing it with friends but not call it a panforte – an experiment perhaps, so that I could make use of all of the ginger in syrup that I had in my pantry.
A friend went overseas and left me with an incredible amount of candied ginger. I made a syrup and turned the candied ginger into moist ginger in a very flavourful syrup with the texture of honey.
370 g of nuts – almonds, hazelnuts
370 fruit – figs, citrus, lemon and orange peel
4 tsp ground black pepper
2 tsp ground spices – cinnamon, nutmeg, less quantity of cloves
150g plain flour
4 tsp cocoa powder 150g chopped dark chocolate
1 tsp butter (I used 1 tbs and this was too much)
1 cup white sugar
1 cup honey
Roughly chop the figs, place then into a bowl with the peel and drained ginger
In a different bowl put in the nuts.
Into a large heatproof mixing put in the flour, cocoa and spices. Combine these and stir in the fruit and the nuts.
Heat the oven to 200C
Line containers with baking paper.
Put the white sugar and honey into a pan and gently heat until it bubbles. Keep it on the gentle heat for another minute. Place in the butter.
Work quickly and stir the hot liquid into the other ingredients until well combined, then scrape into the prepared tins and press down. Bake the small ones for about 15mins and larger shapes about 30 minutes. They harden as they cool.
Cool the panforte before turning out. Wrap them in more baking paper until you are ready to gift wrap them in cellophane and sprinkle with icing sugar.
Caponata has evolved over the ages to become the dish, which personifies Sicilian cuisine and is a popular dish during festivities ( perfect for Christmas). As you’d expect, there are many regional variations and enrichments of what must have been a very humble dish, as well as the personal, innovative touches from the chefs of ancient, Sicilian aristocracy (called monzu, a corruption of the French word monseur).
In Sicilian cooking the melanzana (eggplant) is said to be the queen of vegetables, second only to the tomato and the principal ingredient in caponata is the eggplant.
If you eat caponata at my house you are likely to eat the version of caponata as made in Catania and it will include peppers as well as eggplant. This is because my mother was born in Catania and this is the caponata I grew up eating. The caponata which is common around Palermo has no peppers.
I prefer to keep my caponata di melanzane simple, but again, variations in the amounts of ingredients are endless. Some versions add garlic, some have oregano, several recipes include anchovies, others add sultanas and/or pine nuts or toasted almonds. These are all acceptable and authentic variations.
In keeping with the tradition of what is customary in Palermo, just before serving add a sprinkling of coarse breadcrumbs (toasted in a fry pan in a little hot extra virgin olive oil) or almonds — blanched, toasted and chopped.
For me, Peter Robb in his book Midnight in Sicily captures the essence of a Sicilian caponata, when he describes how very different the caponata he was savouring in Palermo was to the caponata he had been eating in Naples.
I realised caponata in Palermo was something very different. It was the colour that struck me first. The colour of darkness. A heap of cubes of that unmistakably luminescent dark, dark purply-reddish goldy richness, glimmerings from a baroque canvas, that comes from eggplant, black olives, tomato and olive oil densely cooked together, long and gently. The colour of southern Italian cooking. Caponata was one of the world’s great sweet and sour dishes, sweet, sour and savoury.
The eggplant was the heart of caponata. The celery hearts were the most striking component: essential and surprising. Pieces of each were fried separately in olive oil until they were a fine golden colour and then added to a sauce made by cooking tomato, sugar and vinegar with a golden chopped onion in oil and adding Sicilian olives, capers …….
As Robb discovered: eggplant is the purple heart of Sicilian caponata – and it is the principal ingredient.
There are a variety of caponate (plural of caponata) and the variations and inclusions of different ingredients in the basic caponata recipe are many.
Some traditional recipes use tomato paste rather than chopped tomatoes, some add garlic, others include chocolate (or cocoa). Many recipes contain nuts – almonds or pine nuts or pistachio, fresh in some, in others they are toasted. In a few recipes the caponata is sprinkled with breadcrumbs and sometimes the breadcrumbs have been browned in oil beforehand. Frequently herbs are added – sometimes basil, at other times oregano or mint. Certain recipes also include raisins or currants and some fresh pears. Several include fish, singly or in combination and include canned tuna, prawns, octopus, salted anchovies and bottarga (tuna roe).
You will need a deep, large fry pan. If you use a non-stick frypan you may not need as much oil, but the surface will not be as conducive to allowing the residue juices to form and caramelise as in a regular pan. (After food has been sautéed, the juices caramelise – in culinary terms this is known as fond. Non-stick pans do not produce as much fond).
Although the vegetables are fried separately, they are all incorporated in the same pan at the end. When making large quantities I sometimes use a wok.
extra virgin olive oil, ¾ cup (depending how much the vegetables will absorb)
eggplants, 3-4 large, dark skinned variety
onion 1, large, chopped
red tomatoes, 2 medium size, peeled and chopped or 2 tablespoons of tomato paste and a little water or some canned tomatoes
capers, ½ cup, salted or in brine
green olives, ¾ cup, stoned, chopped
celery, 2-3 tender stalks and the pale green leaves (both from the centre of the celery)
white, wine vinegar, ½ cup
sugar, 2 tablespoons
salt and freshly ground pepper
Cut the eggplant into cubes (approx 30mm) – do not peel. Place the cubes into abundant water with about 1 tablespoon of salt. Leave for about 30 minutes – this will keep the flesh white and remove any bitter juices while you prepare the other ingredients. Although it is not always necessary to do this, the eggplant is said to absorb less oil if soaked previously.
Prepare the capers – if they are the salted variety, ensure that they have been rinsed thoroughly and then soaked for about 30 minutes before use, and then rinsed again.
Chop the onion.
Slice the celery into very fine slices and chop the green leaves.
Peel, and coarsely chop the tomatoes (or use tomato paste or canned tomatoes).
Drain the eggplants and squeeze them to remove as much water as possible – I use a clean tea towel.
Heat a large frypan over medium heat with ½ cup of the extra virgin olive oil.
Add eggplant cubes and sauté until soft and golden (about 10-12 minutes). Place the drained eggplants into a large bowl and set aside (all of the vegetables will be added to this same bowl).
Drain the oil from the eggplants back into the same frypan and re-use this oil to fry the next ingredients.
Add the celery and a little salt gently for 5-7 minutes, so that it retains some of its crispness (in more traditional recipes, the celery is always boiled until soft before being sautéed).
Remove the celery from the pan and add it to the eggplants.
Sauté the onion having added a little more oil to the frypan. Add a little salt and cook until translucent.
Add the tomatoes or the tomato paste (with a little water) to the onions, and allow their juice to evaporate.
Add the capers and olives. Allow these ingredients to cook gently for 1- 2 minutes.
Empty the contents of the frypan into the other cooked vegetables.
For the agro dolce sauce (sweet and sour sauce):
Add the sugar to the frypan (already coated with the caramelised flavours from the vegetables). Heat it very gently until it begins to melt and bubble. Add the vinegar and allow it to evaporate.
Incorporate the cooked vegetables into the frypan with the agro dolce sauce.
Add ground pepper, check for salt and add more if necessary.
Gently toss in all of the cooked ingredients over low heat for 2-3 minutes to blend the flavours.
Remove the caponata from the pan and cool before placing it into one or more containers. Store in the fridge till ready to use and remove it from the fridge about an hour before eating– it will keep well in the fridge for up to one week.
When ready to eat, sprinkle with either toasted almonds or toasted breadcrumbs. I like to add fresh basil or mint leaves.
CAPONATA DI MELANZANE CON CIOCCOLATA (Caponata with chocolate)
In Sicilian cuisine there are a number of recipes, which include chocolate to enrich the flavour of a dish (see HARE or RABBIT COOKED IN CHOCOLATE) and chocolate in eggplant caponata is a common variation in certain parts of Sicily.
In the early 1500s, the Spanish conquistadors discovered a variety of unknown foods in the New World.Among these was xocolatl, (chocolate) obtained from ground cacao seeds. Spanish nobility arrived in Sicily during the 15th and 16th centuries and they brought their exotic ingredients from the New World to the island. This was also an ostentatious period of splendour and opulence for the clergy and the Sicilian aristocracy.
Although many traditional Sicilian dishes are said to be Spanish legacies, it is more accurate to say that some Sicilian cuisine incorporated both Sicilian and Spanish traditions.
Follow the recipe for eggplant caponata above and add cocoa or good quality, dark chocolate.
Cocoa: The majority of the recipes for caponata enriched with chocolate suggest the use of cocoa powder (about 2 tablespoons of cocoa to 2 tablespoons of sugar dissolved in a little water to form a thick paste). Add this mixture to the pan after you have made the agro dolce sauce and before you add the cooked vegetables.
Dark Chocolate: My most favoured alternative is to use 50g of dark, extra fine chocolate (organic, high cocoa content – 70%). Add the chocolate pieces into the agro dolce sauce and stir it gently as it melts, and then I add the cooked vegetables. This results into a much smoother and more luscious caponata.
In a modern Sicilian restaurant with a young chef, I was presented with an eggplant caponata where the chocolate was grated on top, much like grated cheese on pasta.
In my first book, Sicilian Seafood Cooking there is whole chapter devoted to caponata. I have also written other posts with recipes on the blog :
One of my favourite ways to cook rabbit or hare is with chocolate; chicken can also be cooked in the same way but is less common. If it is chicken it will cook in a relatively short time, a rabbit will take longer and a hare will take much longer – I cooked hare and it took close to three hours to cook.
There are several Spanish and South American recipes where chocolate is used in savoury dishes so the chocolate does not need to be considered unfeasible – Spaniards ruled Sicily over long periods.
Those of you who have been to eastern Sicily may have noticed the Baroque architecture that is especially prevalent in this part of Sicily and you may have visited Modica, the centre for Sicilian chocolate; this is where the recipe is said to have its roots.
In this Sicilian recipe the rabbit (or hare) is cooked in the same way as alla stemperata (in all stemperata dishes the ingredients include celery, carrots, onions, vinegar, sugar, raisins or sultanas, pine nuts, green olives and capers)but fennel seeds and cloves replace the last two ingredients and finally dark chocolate is used to enrich and thicken the sauce. The flavours in the stemperata have been partly accredited to the Arabs and are characteristic of much of Sicilian cuisine.
Hare, like all game benefits from marinading in wine before cooking. I do this when I am cooking rabbit as well, but there is no need to marinate chicken. I always save some of the leftover cooked hare and sauce for a pasta dish – use ribbon pasta, e.g. tagliatelle or pappardelle.
Whenever I buy hare I remember butcher shops in Italy where each beast is often left with a part of its body to make it recognizable – the head or the foreleg complete with fur, hoof, claw or paw.
hare, rabbit or chicken 1.5- 2 k
dark chocolate, 200 g
onion, 1-2 sliced
red or white dry wine, 1 cup
wine vinegar, ½ cup
celery, 4 stalks, sliced finely
carrots, 3 sliced finely
bay leaves, 4-6
fennel seeds,1 large tablespoon
extra virgin olive oil, ¾ cup
chilli flakes and salt to taste
pine nuts,1 cup
raisins or sultanas, ½ cup (naturally sun dried)
sugar, 1 tablespoon
PROCESSES: Clean the hare or rabbit or chicken and cut it into manageable sections at the joints.
Marinate it in the wine and half of the quantity of the oil and bay leaves for at least 3 hours and turn it occasionally (if cooking chicken you could marinade it for 1 hour if you wish).
Remove the pieces of meat and drain well; keep the marinade for cooking. Add the rest of extra virgin olive oil in a large frying pan and sauté the pieces until golden. Remove them and set aside.
Add the onions, carrots and celery to the same pan and sauté until soft but not coloured.
Reduce the heat, and add the wine marinade, bay leaves, fennel seeds and cloves, the seasoning and vinegar. Cover with a lid and simmer it gently until it is soft – the time will vary as it depends on the meat. For example farmed rabbit will cook in a little time ( 40-60 minutes, the same as chicken, whereas a wild rabbit could take 2-3 hours).You may need to add some water periodically as it cooks so that it does not dry out (this has always been my experience).
Add the sultanas or raisins, pine nuts and chocolate about 30 minutes before it is cooked Remove the lid and evaporate the juices if necessary.
One of my friends is enjoying drinking cocoa – the English way, as genteel ladies once drank it, made with good quality cocoa, water and a dash of milk. And in a fine cup.
I too like my cocoa unsweetened and made with good quality cocoa. During my many visits to Italy I have drank many hot chocolates in bars and each one I ordered was different in taste and thickness.
As a child living in Trieste, I grew up with drinking hot chocolate. It was my breakfast, it was drunk at childrens’ parties and at bars while the adults drank coffee. Trieste is close to Austria and the hot chocolate I was used to was always presented in a fine tea cup with a blob of whipped cream. It was always made with a generous quantity of quality cocoa powder and with milk. My mother always made it in a pentolino (we had a special small saucepan that we only used for heating milk) and she would stir the mixture until hot. When in bars the same ingredients were used, but the milk was foamed like in a cappuccino or caffé latte.
When my family travelled to Sicily (each summer), my relatives gave me milk with a dash of coffee for breakfast – hot chocolate did not seem very popular and I remember the hot chocolate in bars being rather watery and very sweet.
I tasted my first, thick hot chocolate when I first went to Mantova. It was almost the consistency of custard. Those of you who have ordered hot chocolate anywhere north of Rome (except Trieste) would know what I am talking about – milk, sugar, thickening (usually corn flour or potato starch), and chocolate (often cocoa powder). No thickening seems to be used anywhere south of Rome.
Traditionally, thick chocolate was made in the top of a double boiler, over boiling water – good quality, dark chocolate (not cocoa) is melted in water and stirred until it is dissolved. Still over heat, it is then whisked by hand for at least 3 minutes (in a modern kitchen, an electric wand can be used).
Another recipe for making a good tasting, thick, hot chocolate also contains some shaved good quality bittersweet chocolate (high level cocoa-70-80%) as well as the good quality cocoa, milk and sugar to taste (Italians like sugar). In a milk saucepan, mix the sugar and cocoa with a little bit of milk till smooth. Add milk and stir over medium heat. Add the bits of chocolate to taste (and preferred thickness). Keep on stirring till melted.