Unbelievably, we managed to get the olive harvest out of the way before the rains, which have caused so much trouble in the north of Italy eventually made their way to the heel. We picked over six quintales (620 kilos to be precise) in just four days, which made 105 litres of lovely oil. That’s a 17% oil return, which we’re really happy about, as the word in the town is that most people are only getting a 13% return this year. There are still plenty of olives left on the trees, so we may do one more pressing when the rains disappear.
Monsoon-like rain seems a good enough excuse to get in the kitchen as any, so I’ve been preparing a few Christmas goodies. Christmas for us is a mixture of English and Italian, and as we have abundant supplies of both figs and almonds, I always make a figgy pudding. The recipe I use doesn’t need any suet, so it makes for a much lighter pudding, which I prefer. I’ve never been a fan of suet puddings (veggie or not) as I find them too cloying. Using butter makes for a lighter dish and no greasy film left in your mouth. If you don’t have any figs, you could use whatever combination of dried fruit you fancy.
8 oz butter
6oz brown sugar
4oz plain flour
generous pinch of salt
half-teaspoon ground ginger
1 and half teaspoon mixed spice
2oz ground almonds
3oz finely grated carrot (or small apple chunks work well)
16 oz dried fruit I used about 8oz figs and a mix of currants sultanas, mixed peel and cherries for the rest
2oz chopped almonds
grated rind and juice of one lemon
4 tbsp of water mixed with either rum or brandy
butter for greasing bowl
Grease a two-pint pudding basin. Cream together butter and sugar, then whisk in beaten egg a little at a time. Sift flour, salt and spices on top of the butter mix. Add the remaining ingredients with enough boozy liquid to make a soft mixture, which will fall heavily from a spoon. Mix well. Spoon the mixture into the basin and cover with pleated greaseproof paper and then foil. Tie securely and place in large saucepan. Pour water until half way up sides of the basin. Bring to the boil and cover the pan and simmer gently for 4 hours (or two and half if you are using a pressure cooker). Check water level and top up with boiling water when necessary. Remove the pudding from the pan and store in a cool, dry place. Come Christmas, steam for three hours, or less, if using a pressure cooker, before flaming with brandy.
Luckily I had a generous spoonful leftover, so I made a mini pudding, which we greedily sampled.
I also experimented with some savoury biscuits to have with cheese over Christmas. They are a bit too rich for that but I reckon they’d be perfect for passing around with drinks.
2 or 3 tbsp pesto (I made regular basil pesto with added sun-dried tomatoes, but I reckon mint pesto would work just as well)
good handful of Parmesan or Pecorino cheese
some extra basil leaves
While the pastry is resting in the fridge make your pesto. Roll your pastry into a rectangle as thin as you can. Spread pesto all over, but leave about 1cm from the edge. Add some torn basil leaves and most of the cheese. Season and fold in half. Roll as thin as you can (some pesto will escape 🙄 ) and then cut into shapes. Brush milk on top and then scatter the rest of the cheese on top and leave for around 10-mins before popping in a fairly hot oven for around 5-10-mins until they begin to brown and the cheese is bubbling.
Cool on a rack before scoffing with a festive tipple or two. Although these are only made with shortcrust pastry I reckon the oil in the pesto makes them a bit more melt-in-the-mouth.
While on the subject of drinks: no Christmas would be right without a good supply of limoncello, so I’ve got my freshly picked lemons peeled and the rind is currently steeping in a couple of bottles of alcool. They will remain infusing for a week before I strain the lemon peel and mix the lemony-boozy remains with some sugared water. For quantities I find a third of each is about right, providing the perfect kick and sweetness balance.
If you need inspiration to make your own booze and cordials for Christmas I’d thoroughly recommend Booze for Free by Andy Hamilton of self-sufficientish fame. If you pick up a copy now, you can still get some drinks ready before Christmas, alternatively it would make a great Christmas gift for anyone interested in home brewing.