An Acquacotta-inspired Christmas

christmas log Tuscan christmas recipes

Some of my favourite ingredients from the Maremma, in southern Tuscany, are also those flavours that I love at Christmas — I’m talking about chestnuts, dried figs, nuts and chocolate, and game like guinea fowl. They are ingredients that make this season’s table feel special yet not over the top. I’d rather be comforted by a Christmas meal than overwhelmed by one and these dishes, for me, do just that.

These recipes are essentially all from my second cookbook Acquacotta, which I wrote while we were living on the southern Tuscan coast. I have tweaked them ever so slightly to make them perfect for Christmas. I love the food of this area not only for the way seasonal ingredients rule but also because they are extremely low maintenance — easy preparations that have maximum effect — which honestly makes catering for a special occasion so much easier. I made all these with a clingy, sick 6 month old baby on my hip, so I can attest to the fact that these are simple to prepare and everything can be done in stages ahead of time, making things less stressful.

The chestnut gnocchi — forever my favourite kind of gnocchi (also handy if you’re cooking for anyone intolerant to wheat flour) – is wonderful even dressed simply in butter and parmesan cheese or in a rich ragu. I’ve paired with the simplest walnut sauce, which isn’t in the cookbook but I have in a recipe for Food52. It’s delicious, creamy and incredibly easy to prepare, you can even do it a few days in advance.

I’d serve this with one of my favourite mains in the cookbook, pollo all’aceto, a delicious chicken stew spiked with vinegar, which comes from the town of Pitigliano on the Tuscan-Lazio border. To make it a bit special, try it with faraona, or guinea fowl, or other game. It is actually a preparation — rich with herbs, juniper berries and that splash of vinegar — which was traditionally used for game meat in the first place. I love this one-pot dish; it is utterly delicious with that vinegary kick (I quite like adding a small, hot chilli to this too). After browning the meat, you put everything back in the pan and simply let it bubble softly for an hour. You can make this in advance — it is even better the next day and more flavourful the next time you reheat it. Serve it with any those comfortable, starchy things — mashed potatoes, soft and creamy polenta or your favourite, crusty sourdough bread. A salad of greens or radicchio next to it is lovely.

christmas chestnut gnocchi

For dessert, I love making a festive il tronco di natale, a Christmas log. I use my chocolate sponge roll recipe for the log (I have some versions here and here), a popular dessert on the Tuscan coast called simply tronco. It is a pillowy sponge roll, painted with Alchermes and usually filled with Nutella but I find the bought kind so sickly sweet that it hurts my teeth — so I make it with a less sugary, dark chocolate pastry cream. This makes it perfect for slathering with chocolate buttercream icing to turn into a Christmas log. I decorate it slightly differently every time I make it, either with candied walnuts that look like wood chips, crushed meringue that looks like lumps of snow, berries (here, corbezzoli or Irish strawberries, which grow outside my window) but the constant is always sprigs of rosemary frosted with sugar, which look like branches encrusted with snow. This log, too, is easy to make ahead of time — the pastry cream can be made several days ahead and once the sponge is made and rolled, it is actually better if you do this at least a day in advance. The icing can be made in advance too and simply warmed over a bain marie to loosen it again before decorating.

A final thing. Making pagnotella has become a tradition in our house. A fudgy, lightly spiced fruit bread that hails from Porto Santo Stefano in Monte Argentario, it is made with soused dried figs, nuts and chocolate, held together with just some flour. I love it so much and it is a sturdy, delicious cake that gets better with time so it makes a perfect little food gift. You can make one large one — rather like a large, round loaf of country bread, but I like the idea of turning the recipe into 10 small ones that you can wrap and give as gifts to your guests. This recipe warranted a post in itself — I have so much to say about it. So it’ll be coming this week in the next post!

I hope you find these dishes inspiring for your Christmas table too and wish you the very best for a calm, happy gathering with your nearest and dearest.

christmas chestnut gnocchi

Gnocchi di castagne con salsa ai noci
Chestnut gnocchi with walnut sauce

Serves 4

For the walnut sauce:

150 grams walnut kernels (about 2 handfuls)
1 garlic clove, peeled
1 pinch salt
80 ml (about 1/3 cup) extra virgin olive oil
50 grams finely grated parmesan cheese (about a handful), plus more for serving if desired
a handful of fresh herbs (I like marjoram here)

For the gnocchi:

1 kg starchy potatoes (such as Dutch Creams and try to use ones roughly the same size)
2 eggs, beaten together
1 teaspoon salt
200 grams of chestnut flour, sifted

For the sauce:

Place all of the ingredients except for the cheese and herbs together in a food processor or blender. Mix in the cheese then set aside. This sauce (much like pesto) can keep well in an air-tight container in the fridge for several days to a week. When ready to use, there is no need to heat this sauce but you do want to add a good splash or two of the boiling gnocchi-cooking water until you have a very creamy, smooth sauce.

For the gnocchi:

Rinse the potatoes and place them whole in their skins in a pot and cover with cold water. Cooking them whole means they get less water-logged and therefore you have fluffier gnocchi which don’t need as much flour. Bring to the boil and cook until they are completely soft and a fork slips easily into their centres. Drain the potatoes and, while still hot, peel them – use a fork to ‘hold’ the potato for you in one hand while you peel the skin with a sharp knife using the other hand. Immediately mash them, spreading them out over a chopping board or a tray to allow the steam to escape as quickly as possible.

When you have fluffy and cool mashed potato, combine with the eggs and salt until you have a smooth, creamy mixture. Add the sifted chestnut flour until you have an easy to handle dough that rolls nicely without sticking (depending on the quality of the chestnut flour, you may or may not need all of the flour). Because these gnocchi have no gluten in them, you don’t need to worry about overworking the dough here as with regular gnocchi but it should be a pretty fast procedure.

On a work surface, lightly-floured with chestnut flour, cut the dough into four portions. Work with one piece at a time, roll the dough into a long log about 2 cm thick, then cut into pieces 2.5 cm long. Place finished gnocchi in a single layer on a tray lined with baking paper. Continue until the dough is finished.

Cook the gnocchi in a large saucepan filled with gently simmering, salted water (ideally, 1 teaspoon of salt per litre of water). Once the water comes back to a simmer and the gnocchi are floating, let them cook for a further minute or two.

To serve, remove gnocchi with a slotted spoon and place directly into warm serving bowls and pour over some of the walnut sauce. Garnish with the fresh herbs and serve immediately with extra parmesan if desired.

christmas faraona all'aceto

Faraona all’aceto
Guinea fowl stewed with vinegar

In Acquacotta, the original recipe is with chicken. An ancient dish derived from a method used to cook game meat, this comes from the town of Pitigliano on the Tuscan border. I like this cooked in a terracotta pan that can be brought to the table, the sauce left as is, but if you want a more elegant presentation you can remove the meat after cooking, blend the sauce until smooth, then place in a platter with the sauce drizzled over. It goes well with mashed potatoes, soft polenta or your favourite sour dough bread.

Serves 4

1 whole guinea fowl (about 1 kg), chopped into large pieces
3 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil
1 onion, finely chopped
1 carrot, peeled and finely chopped
½ celery stick, finely chopped
handful of fresh herbs such as basil, sage, parsley, oregano, calamint, fennel pollen
3 or 4 juniper berries
2 bay leaves
80 ml white wine vinegar
juice of 1 lemon
125 ml dry white wine

In a deep casserole dish, brown the guinea fowl pieces (in batches if necessary) in the olive oil over high heat until evenly coloured, about 5-7 minutes. Remove the meat from the pan and set aside while you cook the soffritto of vegetables in the same pan. 

Add the onion, carrot and celery with a pinch of salt and turn heat down to low. Cook, stirring occasionally for about 10 minutes or until the vegetables have softened. Add the herbs, juniper berries and bay leaves, then pour over the vinegar, lemon juice and wine. The liquid will deglaze the pan, so scrape up any wonderful juicy brown bits from the bottom of the pan. 

Return the meat to the pan with the vegetables, add about 500 ml of water and season with salt and freshly ground pepper to taste. Bring to a simmer and cook, covered, for 1 hour. Check occasionally, and top up with a little splash of water if needed. Towards the end, check for seasoning. Serve the guinea fowl with its sauce.

christmas 640-5448Tuscan christmas log

Tronco di natale
Chocolate Christmas log with candied walnuts and sugared rosemary

To make this suitable for anyone intolerant to wheat you can simply use 100 grams of cornstarch and leave out the flour. Both the pastry cream and the icing can be made several days ahead of time and stored in the fridge. Warm the icing slightly until smooth before decorating.

Serves 6-8

For the chocolate pastry cream:

2 egg yolks
60 grams caster (superfine) sugar
1 tablespoon 15 grams cornflour, sifted
250 ml warm milk
100 grams dark chocolate 70% cocoa, chopped

For the chocolate icing:

85 grams dark chocolate 70% cocoa
85 grams butter, cut into cubes
85 grams powdered sugar, sifted

For the sponge:

50 grams of cornstarch/cornflour
50 grams of plain flour
3 eggs (weighing 55-60 grams each), separated
100 grams of caster (superfine) sugar

To assemble the roll:

2-4 tablespoons caster (superfine) sugar
125 ml Alchermes (or rum)
rosemary sprigs
a few tablespoons of sugar
red berries (here, wild corbezzoli or Irish strawberries), as desired
powdered sugar for dusting

For the pastry cream, whisk yolks and sugar together until pale. Stir in cornstarch. Place in a saucepan and over low heat and add milk, little by little. Stir continuously until the mixture becomes smooth and thick, about 10 minutes. Remove from heat and fold in the chocolate until melted. When it is smooth and well-combined, cool quickly by spreading the pastry cream out into a shallow bowl. Place plastic wrap right over the top of the pastry cream so it doesn’t develop a skin and keep in the refrigerator until needed.

For the icing, melt the chocolate in a small, heat proof bowl over a bain marie or in the microwave, if you have one. Remove from the heat once smooth and melted, add the butter and stir until melted. Add the icing sugar and stir until smooth and thick. Set aside.

To make the sponge, sift the starch and flour together. Separate the yolks from the whites and place in two clean metal or glass mixing bowls. Whisk the egg yolks and the sugar with an electric mixer or electric egg beaters for up to ten minutes, or until the yolks become very pale and creamy. Clean the beaters very well, then whisk the whites until stiff peaks form. Gently fold in small amounts of the whites and the flours, alternately, to the yolks until just combined.

Pour into a 23 x 33 cm baking tray (you can also use a flat tray and spread the batter out to the size you like with a palette knife) lined with baking paper – the batter should be about 1cm high. Bake at 160ºC for about 10-12 minutes or until the top is very pale golden and springy in the middle.

Remove the sponge from the oven and let it cool ever so slightly so you can handle it easily – you still want to work with it while it is warm. Gently turn sponge upside down onto a sheet of plastic wrap scattered evenly with the caster sugar (this helps to stop that golden top from sticking to the plastic). Remove the baking paper to reveal a spongey soft cake. With a bread knife, trim the edges – this will stop the sides from cracking as they roll. Then, with a pastry brush, stain this side of the sponge evenly with Alchermes, you may have to do a couple of “coats” for a bright pink. Then generously spread the cooled pastry cream over the top, smoothing out evenly and leaving a 1cm border around the edges.

To assemble:

The rolling part is rather like rolling sushi, if you’ve done it – the tricky part is really in starting the roll, the rest is all about the right amount of pressure (not too tight, but not too loose). Picking up the short end of the sponge with the help of the plastic wrap, carefully roll the entire thing up firmly and then secure by wrapping completely in the plastic wrap. Keep in the fridge to chill for 1 hour or, ideally, overnight.

To turn it into a log, remove the plastic wrap carefully, and make a diagonal cut at one end of the log, to remove approximately a quarter of the log. Place this cut end on the side of the log as in the photograph below — if you need to prop it up a little bit, stick an almond or a walnut or even a bit of a cookie underneath!

To decorate the log, use a spatula or a palette knife to smooth the icing all over the cake. A palette knife will leave marks that look like “bark” all over. Some also like to use the tines of a fork for this effect. Leave to set while you prepare some decorations — I like to snip a few sprigs of rosemary from the garden. Rinse them, give them a shake then roll them in a few spoonfuls of sugar. Repeat if desired for a “frosted” look. Another easy decoration is candied walnuts — simply place a handful of walnuts in a small, nonstick pan. Add a couple of tablespoons of sugar and a knob of butter. Heat gently until the butter has melted into the sugar. Move the nuts around by shaking the pan. Watch the sugar turn golden brown, continue tossing the nuts so they do not burn. It is all very quick — it has to be as you don’t want either the nuts or the sugar to burn. Once you see the sugar is a caramel colour, pour the whole thing onto a layer of baking paper and let it set. Chop roughtly. Decorate the cake with red berries, the sugared rosemary sprigs and a sprinkling of candied nuts. Crushed meringues also work brilliantly as “snow”. Add a light dusting of powdered sugar.

building a christmas logchristmas 640-5482

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Comments

2 Responses to “An Acquacotta-inspired Christmas”
  1. Christine Beveridge says:

    I intend to make the chestnut gnocchi when the weather is cooler again here. I would’ve served it with burnt sage butter, but the walnut sauce sounds very good! I love chestnut flour and regularly make chestnut pasta during the cool weather. Buon Natale a te e alla tua famiglia.

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