“On Comet, on Cupid, on Donner and Blitzen!”
There’s a second half to this feast, so it’s back to the kitchen –
Six more festive things to put on the table,
But before we do so, an ending to our high-water fable …
With the rising tide lapping at damp reindeer toes,
Our poor Babbo feels nostalgic for crisp Northern snows;
But a shake of the head, ‘When in Rome,’ so they say!
And then a light bulb appears, and he knows there’s a way –
For what goes for Rome, goes here in Venice too,
Through the fog a saviour floats: Gondoliere to the rescue!
Gliding all together through town on their water-borne sleigh,
A sigh of relief from Babbo, they’ve saved Christmas Day!
The moral you ask? Well, ‘Eat, Drink, Be Merry,’
And when in Venice for the holidays, best take the ferry!
Late night waters recess, steady, but slow,
Only a few hours before Christmas dawn morning to go…
So away slips our gondoliere, on a trail of moonlight,
“Buon Natale” he calls “and to all a good night.”
On the seventh day of Christmas, my true love gave to me….
Uno Spritz con Campari
A Spiked Campari Spritz
Venetians typically drink their Spritz not with Aperol, but with Select, a slightly stronger and lesser-known liquor. But I like my Spritz ‘un ‘po più amaro’ still, so usually opt for Campari. I also like it ‘un ‘po più alcolico’ achieved by sneaking in some Martini Rosso. The result is part Spritz, part Negroni, and very festive...
Each glass a total of 7 parts:
- 4 parts Prosecco
- 2 parts Campari
- 1 part Martini Rosso
Pour over ice, give everything a quick stir, and garnish with rings of orange.
On the eighth day of Christmas…
Un paté su Crostini
Chicken Liver & Orange Parfait Crostini
There is a little bar along a canal in Cannaregio called Al Timon. In the summer they have a boat moored to the canal-side where you can climb aboard and make a picnic of the delicious little chicchetti available behind the glass inside. In the winter, huddling along the bar is preferable, but ridiculously conducive to over-eating! My favourite chicchetto is their delicious liver crostini. This is my tribute version, using chicken (as opposed to veal) liver, and flavoured with orange juice, orange booze, and orange pieces! Perfect as a Christmas party canapé.
(Makes approx. 16 crostini)
- A few tablespoons of olive oil
- 2 small shallots – finely chopped
- 1 large garlic clove – crushed
- 250g chicken livers
- 60ml Cointreau or Grand Marnier
- 1 orange – juice of half the orange, the other half to garnish
- Sea salt & freshly ground black pepper
- 100g of softened butter – cut into cubes
- 1 thin baguette for crostini
- Extra virgin olive oil for drizzling
- Some sprigs of rosemary to garnish
Heat the olive oil in a frying pan over medium heat, then add the shallots and fry gently until soft but not coloured (approx. 5 minutes). Next add the garlic and continue to fry for a further couple of minutes, while stirring to ensure that the garlic doesn’t stick or burn.
Add the livers to the pan, season generously with salt and pepper, and fry until coloured on all sides and cooked through, (6-8 minutes). If in doubt, cut one open to check that it’s done – a touch of pink is fine, anything more and it needs more cooking.
Next remove everything from the pan and into a food processor. Return the empty pan to the stovetop over a high heat, then deglaze by first adding the liquor (whichever you are using, Cointreau or Grand Marnier), followed by the orange juice. Allow the liquids to reduce for a couple of minutes or so at a simmer, use a wooden spoon to gently encourage any residue off the bottom of the pan into de-glazing liquid!
Next, pour the reduced pan juices into the food processor over the liver and onions, and proceed to blend on a high setting until smooth.
With the motor of the food processor still running, add the cubes of butter, one by one, and continue blending until these are well incorporated.
You’re now ready to refrigerate the parfait until ready to use. Try to leave at least 3 hours in the fridge before serving to allow time for it to set and achieve the correct consistency.
To prepare the garnishes, slice orange very thinly, and proceed to cut each slice into small triangles. I like to leave the peel on, because it looks festive, and because, cut thinly enough, it adds a zesty, but not over-powering flavour. But, if you’re not so sure, simply cut if off instead. Prepare the rosemary by pinching little groups of two or three leaves off the main stem.
When ready to assemble and serve, thinly slice the baguette in 16 rounds. Drizzle these very lightly with olive oil and place under a hot grill for a couple of minutes until golden.
Use a butter knife to spread a spoonful of pâté onto each of the grilled rounds, then garnish with an orange triangle and a little frond of rosemary leaves – like the feathers in a mountaineer’s felt hat!
On the ninth day of Christmas…
Risotto di Treviso e Amarone
Amarone & Caramelised Treviso Risotto
Amarone, a strong red wine grown in the Veneto, is a great match for another of the area’s most famous products – Treviso Tardivo radicchio. Both are a vivid violet-maroon in colour, and both have an amaro, or almost bitter flavour. This risotto works on a kind of agrodolce idea – balancing the bitterness of the wine and the leaves, against the creaminess of a risotto enriched with stringy Asiago cheese (another delicious product from the Veneto region!), and the sweet flavour of caramelised balsamic.
The hazelnuts offer another contrast, crunch against cream, but also a bit of colour, their golden brown kernels standing out in a sea of rich maroon.
- 100g butter
- 2 tablespoons of olive oil
- 1 brown onion – very finely diced
- 1 clove garlic – crushed
- 240g risotto rice – Carnaroli or Aborio
- 250ml Amarone wine (or substitute another rich, red wine)
- 1.75 litres good quality vegetable stock
- 2 heads of Treviso Tardivo (or another red radicchio) – roughly chopped on the diagonal into approx. 2cm pieces
- 2½ tablespoons of good quality balsamic vinegar
- Sea salt & freshly ground black pepper
- Handful of shelled hazelnuts – lightly crushed into halves or smaller
- 100g aged Asiago (Asiago Vecchio or Stravecchio) cheese – the aged cheese has a harder consistency (almost like a Parmesan), the younger version, typically used in panini, isn’t really a suitable substitute.
Boil the vegetable stock in a medium saucepan, then, once boiling, place on a back burner, over minimum heat, to remain at a low simmer.
In a heavy-based pan, melt half of the butter (the second half will be added at the end), together with 1 tablespoon of the olive oil, over a low-medium heat. Add the onion and cook slowly, until soft, but not coloured (approx. 5 minutes), then add the crushed garlic and cook for a further 2 minutes, stirring with a wooden spoon as you do so.
Next, pour in the rice, and stir vigorously to coat the grains in the butter. Toast for two minutes, until the rice has begun to go transparent at the edges, then slosh in the Amarone.
Stir to allow the rice to absorb the wine – it will turn a beautiful purple colour as it does so. When all the wine is absorbed, add your first ladle of hot stock, and continue to stir while this is absorbed. (If at any point during the absorption phase, you feel the colour of the rice isn’t as intense as you like it to be, top up with a little extra wine…).
As each ladle-full of stock is absorbed, add another, continuing to stir between additions to coax all of the starch from the rice grains and ensure a rich, creamy texture.
While still keeping an eye on the risotto, place the second tablespoon of olive oil into a medium frying pan and allow to heat. Add the chopped Treviso and fry until soft, then add the balsamic vinegar. Continue to cook gently until the radicchio is dark, caramelised, and sticky.
Meanwhile, also turn on the grill, ready to toast the hazelnuts. When hot, toast these for 3-5 minutes, or until golden – keeping a careful eye out as you do so, as they can burn quickly.
After about 15 minutes cooking time, taste a few grains of the risotto – they should be cooked through, but still have some texture. Add salt and pepper to season, then remove from the heat.
Lastly, add the remaining 50g of butter to the risotto in cubes, along with the grated Asiago cheese. Beat quickly and energetically to incorporate these into the rice, then pop a lid onto the pan and leave it to sit for 2 minutes. This will allows the cheese and butter time to melt, and for everything to meld together, ensuring an even more creamy risotto.
Dollop onto four plates to serve, creating a little well in the centre of each to receive the caramelised radicchio. Scatter the toasted hazelnuts over, and eat immediately, while still warm and gooey.
On the tenth day of Christmas…
Qualche Quaglie Ripiene
Quail with a Chestnut, Sage & Prune Stuffing
Quails might not be associated with Christmas in the same way that turkeys (or partridges, for that matter!) are, but I think they make a nice change… they also take a lot less time to cook!
The stuffing – chestnuts, sage, Armagnac soaked prunes, and red Camargue rice – is my idea of pure winter decadence, sweet, nutty, herbal, rich, fruity, savoury, and boozy all at once. This recipe is for more stuffing than is necessary just to fill the quails, so as you can roast the excess in balls, and serve these alongside.
- 4 jumbo quails
- 4 slices of prosciutto crudo
For the stuffing
- 100g prunes
- 1 tea bag of black tea
- 6 tablespoons of Armagnac or another brandy
- 1 tablespoon of caster sugar
- ½ cup red Camargue rice (substitute a white long grain rice if you’d prefer)
- 500ml light chicken stock
- 100g unsalted butter
- 1 tablespoon of olive oil for frying
- 1 small brown onion – finely chopped
- 2 garlic cloves – crushed
- 12 sage leaves
- 1 thick slice of stale sourdough bread
- 8 chestnuts – cooked and peeled (or use the pre-cooked vacuum-packed sort)
- Juice of ½ a lemon
- Sea salt & freshly ground black pepper
- 2 tablespoon of additional olive oil
You can make the stuffing a day in advance if you wish to cut down on Christmas day tasks…
To begin: soak the prunes in a small bowl of freshly brewed black tea. Leave stand to absorb the tea for up to 4 hours.
After this time, drain the prunes from the tea and add them to a small saucepan along with 2 tablespoons of water, half the Armagnac, and the caster sugar. Bring to a simmer, over a low heat, stirring to dissolve the sugar. Continue to simmer gently for 10 minutes, then remove from the heat and put aside until needed.
Meanwhile, boil the Camargue rice in 300ml of the chicken stock (reserving the remaining 200ml) for approx. 30 minutes or until cooked through. Drain the rice once cooked, then return it to the pot, and set aside until needed.
Next, heat half the butter, along with 1 tablespoon of olive oil in a frying pan over medium heat. Add the onion and cook gently aiming to soften, but not significantly colour it, for around 5 minutes. Then, add the garlic and continue to cook gently, stirring to ensure that it doesn’t burn or stick, for a further 2 minutes.
Tear the stale sourdough into rough chunks, and then place these in a food processor. Blitz to achieve a large crumb.
To assemble the stuffing: Add the sourdough breadcrumbs, along with the fried onion and garlic to the cooked rice. Drain the prunes (reserving the excess liquid as we’ll use this later to make a light gravy), then chop these into small cubes, and add also to the stuffing mixture. Roughly tear the sage leaves, and mix these through the mixture as well. Then finally, crumble in the cooked chestnuts, varying the size of the pieces as you crumble.
Season the stuffing with salt and pepper, then squeeze in the juice of half a lemon. It’s worth doing a taste-test and adjusting accordingly… if you want to add more sage, more chestnuts, etc., adapt to suit your taste.
Lastly, dot the remaining 50g of softened butter through the stuffing, and mix with a spoon, and refrigerate until needed.
When you are ready to cook, preheat the oven to 210°C.
Prepare the quails by washing the cavities out with a little water, then pat dry all-over, inside and out, with kitchen paper.
Season with salt and pepper, then rub a little bit of olive oil over the outer skin as this will help it to crisp.
Next, fill the quails with loosely-packed stuffing, then use a toothpick to fasten the crossed drumsticks closed, sealing the stuffing inside.
Now, drape a slice of prosciutto crudo over each quail, and tuck this underneath at the edges.
Roll the extra stuffing mixture into little balls, and pop these into a separate baking tray, ready to cook alongside.
Pour the remaining 200ml of chicken stock into the base of the baking tray containing the quails, and roast both the quails and extra stuffing mix, uncovered for 25-30 minutes, until crisp and golden. (If your quails are particularly small, as opposed to ‘jumbo’ sort, they’ll cook a lot more quickly than this, so adapt cooking time accordingly).
Once cooked, remove the birds to a warmed dish and leave to rest loosely covered with aluminium foil while you make a quick gravy.
Place the baking tray directly over a medium-high heat, and de-glaze with the remaining 3 tablespoons of Armagnac along with the poaching liquid reserved earlier from the prunes. Scrape the base of the tray with a wooden spoon as the liquid reduces – around 3 minutes or until slightly thickened.
Place the quails on individual plates to serve, then spoon the warm gravy over top. Roast stuffing balls also appreciate a bit of gravy if you have enough to go around!
On the eleventh day of Christmas…
Una Mostarda ‘Finta’ per Formaggi
Gorgonzola Dolce with a kind-of ‘Mostarda Vicentina’
Mostarda is a traditional condiment of candied fruit pickled with vinegar and flavoured with mustard. At Christmas time in Northern Italy it's usually found served alongside bollito, a fairly strenuous dish made from boiling meat. Unlike most mostarde though, the Venetian sort, ‘Mostarda Vicentina,’ utilises quinces – mele cotogne in Italian – and for this reason, I thought it might go well with cheese instead of meat...
Nonetheless this recipe is still for a very ‘fake’ (i.e. heavily adapted) mostarda, a mostarda finta. I've cooked the fruit whole (not diced), and in (untraditional) Moscato wine & honey, and with not quite so much mustard! A loose update on the concept, I suppose, as opposed to a faithful rendition… but if you’ve ever seen a vat of the real stuff – sugary, scary, and psychedelically coloured – hopefully you’ll understand why!
(Makes 1 cheese board to serve 4)
- 1 medium-sized quince
- A small glass of Moscato or another sweet white wine
- 1 tablespoon white wine vinegar
- ⅓ teaspoon of mustard seeds – finely ground
- 2 tablespoons of honey
- 1 generous chunk of ripe Gorgonzola Dolce
- Crackers to serve
Preheat the oven to 170°C.
Stand the quince upright in a baking dish, then pour over the Moscato and vinegar. Mix the ground mustard seeds into the honey and then drizzle this directly over the quince.
Bake slowly for 1-1½ hours, depending on the size of the quince. Baste during cooking a couple of times and if the quince is looking dry add a little more wine.
Remove from the oven when the quince is glazed and amber in colour. The fruit will have softened, but should still hold its shape well enough to cut.
Serve with the gorgonzola dolce, some crackers, and a little glass of something sweet alongside.
On the twelfth day of Christmas…
Torta di Pera con Mascarpone
Pear, Pistachio & Cardamom Cake with Lemon Mascarpone Cream
‘Pears-a-poaching’ the last verse in this Christmas tale... I wish it were twelve pears for the sake of consistency, but alas only five are a-poaching as more would make enough topping for a very large cake indeed!
- 700g (approx. 5) small pears
- 1 lemon
- 100ml water
- 3 tablespoons caster sugar
- 90g caster sugar
- 90g light brown sugar
- 180g butter – cubed and softened + extra for greasing
- 3 eggs
- 1 teaspoon of vanilla essence
- 175g plain flour
- ¼ teaspoon bicarbonate of soda
- Just under 1 teaspoon baking powder
- ½ teaspoon ground cloves
- Just under 1 teaspoon ground cardamom
- 80g shelled pistachios – finely ground (this is most easily done using a food processor)
- Icing sugar for dusting – optional
Lemon Mascarpone Cream
- 200ml whipping cream
- 125g mascarpone
- 1½ tablespoons caster sugar
- Juice and zest of ½ a small lemon
The flavours in this cake develop well with time, so it’s possible to make it in advance, and store wrapped in cling film for up to a couple of days.
If possible, it’s best to grind the whole spices for this cake yourself – the flavours are so much more intense and less ‘dusty’ than with store-bought spices. Grinding the cardamom is easy – just pop the black seeds from the husk and grind away. The cloves are even easier still, just grind the whole spice to a fine powder.
First, peel the pears and immediately rub each, once peeled, with a cut lemon to stop the flesh from discolouring. Arrange upright in a saucepan, then squeeze the remaining juice from the lemon over the top of the pears. Pour 100ml of water into the base of the saucepan, add the caster sugar, cover with a lid, and place over low-medium heat. Poach the pears gently for up to 20 minutes, or until softened, but not falling apart.
Once cooked, carefully remove the pears to a chopping board, reserving the remaining poaching liquor in the pot.
When cool enough to touch, cut the pears into quarters, removing the core section from each, and slicing into thin slices 3-5mm thick, as evenly as possible.
Next, preheat the oven to 170°C.
Prepare a circular 23cm diameter x 3cm high removable-bottom cake tin by lining the base with kitchen paper. Grease the top of the paper lining, as well as the edges of the pan, with butter.
In a large mixing bowl, combine the caster sugar, brown sugar, and softened butter. Cream these together, using and electric mixer, until light and fluffy.
Next, break the eggs into a separate bowl, and lightly whisk the vanilla essence into these.
Now gradually add the egg mixture, in batches, to the creamed butter and sugar, whisking thoroughly to incorporate after each addition.
In a further bowl, combine the flour, bicarbonate of soda, baking powder, ground cloves, ground cardamom, and ground pistachios. Stir to through with a dry spoon to mix.
Fold the flour mixture gently into to the butter, sugar, and egg mixture in three instalments, continuing to fold until well combined.
When ready, pour the batter into the prepared tin. Use a rubber spatula to evenly spread the mixture in order to create a level surface.
Next, retrieve the saucepan containing the poaching liquor – how is it looking? Depending on the heat at which you poached the pears initially, you’ll either have a sticky, thick syrup, a pourable syrup, or a runny fluid. A pourable syrup is ideal, so if yours is too thick, add a bit of water and place back over the heat to loosen, too liquid-y and you’ll need to place it over the heat to reduce to a syrup consistency.
Gently arrange the pears on top of the batter in slightly overlapping layers of concentric circles, starting at the edge of the tin and working your way towards the centre.
When you've got the poaching syrup to the right consistency, finish by glazing the tops of the pears with a thin layer of this.
Place the cake on a middle shelf of the oven to bake for 50 minutes, or until a inserted skewer comes out clean. Remember to allow the sufficient time to cool on a wire rack before attempting to remove from the tin.
To prepare the accompanying lemon mascarpone cream, add all the ingredients, with the exception of the lemon zest, to a bowl, and whisk using an electric mixer until the cream is softly whipped.
Dust the surface of the cake with icing sugar if you'd like, and serve, either warm, or at room temperature, with a dollop of the mascarpone cream and a little sprinkle of lemon zest on top.