Cocadas are everywhere throughout the Spanish and Portuguese-speaking world. They’re the bake is for coconut lovers: there’s nothing I’ve ever mode which has a higher percentage of pure coconut.
In most places, cocadas show up as balls or swirls (they’re often translated as “coconut cookies” or “coconut macaroons”). In Bolivia, they make them as “bar cookies”, which I take to mean baked in a tray and cut into squares, somewhat like brownies.
Western recipes tend to use sweetened condensed milk: I’ve started with a recipe from “Bolivia bella” in which you make your own condensed milk by starting with coconut milk and sugar. The original then adds freshly grated coconut, but I didn’t have any, so I’ve put in desiccated coconut at the beginning of the process to allow it to rehydrate while the coconut milk is condensing. I’ve also considerably reduced the proportion of sugar to coconut – you can increase it to 200g if you prefer a sweeter end product.
400ml coconut milk
150g desiccated coconut
3 egg yolks (mine clocked in at around 54g)
10g sesame seeds
grated rind of 1 lemon (around 2g)
Heat oven to 160℃ fan
Line a baking tin with parchment: I used a 23cm x 23cm tin
Mix the coconut milk, the desiccated coconut and the sugar into a saucepan.
Bring to the boil and simmer gently, stirring frequently, until thickened to a paste. Take it off the heat and stir in the sesame seeds, butter and lemon rind – mix until the butter is melted and combined. Leave to cool for a couple of minutes more: you don’t want to scramble the eggs in the next step.
Beat the egg yolks thoroughly, then add them to the mix and blend them in quickly
Return the saucepan to a low heat and cook for a few minutes longer until the mixture is very thick.
Remove from the heat and spread the batter evenly into your tin.
Bake for 30-40 minutes until firm to hard. Use a longer time for a crisp biscuit, a shorter time for a softer brownie-like consistency.
Leave to cool in the tin. You’ll struggle to extract it when it’s still warm.
Remove the whole thing from the tin and cut into squares or rectangles.
Confession time on the photos: I got the baking temperature/time badly wrong on my first attempt and then inexplicably used the wrong baking pan on the second. So my final cocadas are too thin and unevenly baked. But they still taste great…
Having travelled so far to get to Australia and New Zealand for the Lamington, we might as well stay there for the region’s other iconic bake: the ANZAC biscuit. It’s a biscuit with a story, conjuring up images of the wives and sweethearts of soldiers in the Australia and New Zealand Army Corps lovingly baking them to be sent to their embattled loved ones at Gallipoli and other World War I battlefields. Whether or not this is actually true (Wikipedia is mildly sceptical about the evidence), ANZAC biscuits are a feature of Australian and Kiwi veterans’ fundraising events to this day, their popularity stemming not just from the history but from their general deliciousness: the flavour combination of butter, golden syrup and coconut is a surefire winner.
More prosaically, you can think of ANZAC biscuits are a kind of sweet version of the Scottish oatcake (bake 10). They’re fairly straightforward to make: I followed the basic recipe in the ever-reliable taste.com.au, which gives variants for increased crispiness or chewiness. Most recipes are similar, varying mainly in the amount and type of sugar, with occasional other flavourings added such as vanilla essence.
The quantities here make around 30 biscuits (the eagle-eyed will spot a level of attrition on the way to the biscuit tin).
150g plain flour
90g porridge oats (don’t use jumbo oats, which are likely to result in your biscuits falling apart)
85g desiccated coconut
100g brown sugar
55g caster sugar
40g golden syrup
½tsp bicarbonate of soda
Preheat oven to 160℃ fan
Line a couple of baking trays with baking parchment
Mix the flour, oats, coconut and sugar in a large bowl.
Cut the butter into pieces and put it into a saucepan with the golden syrup and water. Warm gently until the butter is melted and everything is combined.
Add the bicarbonate of soda to the wet mixture and stir to dissolve.
Pour the wet mixture into your bowl and mix thoroughly. You want to make sure that there’s no dry flour visible when you spoon the mixture away from the sides of the bowl.
Scoop out a level tablespoon of mixture (this is a good way of getting the biscuits to be around the same size), roll it into a ball and place it on your first baking tray. Now repeat for the others, allowing as much space as you can between your biscuits.
Now press each biscuit slightly flatter. The 1cm thick suggested gets you a biscuit with a slightly chewy centre: going flatter will get you a crispier version. Either way, the biscuits will spread out somewhat during baking.
Bake for around 15 minutes, switching shelves half way to make sure they’re all baked the same amount.
I eat between meals. Because I’m type 2 diabetic, I need things that I can snack on that are neither overly sweet (we’ll draw a discreet veil over the cake recipes in this series of posts) nor overly salty (I can eat bags of peanuts for days, but this is a terrible idea also). Scottish oatcakes contain little or no sugar, don’t have to be overly salty and are really delicious, either on their own or with a bit of cheese: in short, they are the perfect snack. And they turn out to be one of the easiest things on the planet to bake.
This recipe is only slightly modified from the recipe by BBC good food contributor “zetallgerman”: I’ve changed a few things and added some details, but it’s basically their recipe and hats off to them, because it works like a charm.
I’ve given quite a lot of detail on rolling and cutting here, because this is a really good beginner’s bake – I beg forgiveness from experienced bakers for whom this is all obvious.
225g oats (ordinary porridge oats if you can; jumbo oats need to be blitzed first)
60g wholemeal spelt flour (ordinary wholemeal whear flour is fine: my lockdown larder has spelt flour and it works very well)
½ tsp bicarbonate of soda or baking powder
½ tsp salt (zetallgerman says 1 tsp: I prefer ½ to ¾)
½ tsp sugar (optional, as far as I’m concerned)
60g unsalted butter (or use salted and reduce the amount of added salt)
70ml warm water, plus 10ml or so more for the next round
Preheat oven to 190℃ fan
Get a baking tray ready. If it isn’t non-stick, line it with baking paper. You’ll also need something with which to cut the oatcakes into circles: I use a fairly solid mug whose diameter is 9cm, so I just fit 12 oatcakes into my 30cm x 40cm tray.
If your butter came out of the fridge, soften. My favourite way is to cut it into small cubes and leave it in a warm place in the kitchen: five minutes in spring sunshine is plenty.
Mix the oats, flour, baking soda or powder, salt and sugar until everything’s reasonably evenly distributed.
Add the butter and mix thoroughly, pinching with your fingers until all the butter is absorbed. If you can, do this with one hand to keep the other one clean. Pastry and biscuit recipes always say “to the consistency of breadcrumbs”: personally, I’ve never succeeded in achieving anything looking remotely like a breadcrumb, but it doesn’t seem to matter.
Add 70ml of warm water and combine everything together into a dough. The amount of water is a bit variable: if your dough fragments horribly when you try to roll it, add a few drops more, remix and try again.
On a floured board, roll your dough out to 4-5mm thickness. Cut a circle (I use a mug) and transfer to your baking sheet (I have to first put the mug over my hand and then thump it for the oatcake to come out). Repeat: if all is well, you should be able to get six oatcakes.
Now gather together the off-cut dough and put it back in your bowl, add a few drops more water and recombine. You can now roll out the dough again and repeat. Hopefully, you’ll manage another four oatcakes this time.
At this stage, I normally have enough dough for two oatcakes. I divide it in half and roll them out individually
Bake for 20 minutes. As well as the usual oven variability, the exact time is a matter of taste: longer = crispier but gives more danger of a burnt taste
That’s it folks – a really low effort bake which has given me reliable results every time!
OK, so I’m cheating here: the Brigadeiro, pretty much Brazil’s national sweet, is cooked in a saucepan, not in an oven. But they’re really delicious (batch 2 was demanded immediately), really easy to make and by a long way the most Brazilian thing I could find. So here goes.
Brigadeiros have a relatively short history: they were created in Rio de Janeiro in 1946 and named after a presidential candidate, Eduardo Gomes, who happened to be an army Brigadier. Gomes lost the election, but these gooey chocolate truffles won the hearts of the Brazilian people and have been a favourite ever since.
With the possible exception of some flatbreads in posts to come, I’m unlikely to provide any recipes with a smaller number of ingredients:
1 can of sweetened condensed milk (approx 400g)
30g cocoa powder (unsweetened)
30g butter (if it’s unsalted, add a gramme or two of salt)
Dessicated coconut for rolling
In fact, you can roll your brigadeiros in anything you like: in most recipe photos you’ll see, they’re coated with chocolate sprinkles; some recipes go for chopped pistachios or almonds. I happen to love coconut and think it brings extra Brazil-ness, but the choice really is yours.
The steps in the method are just as simple:
Put the first three ingredients into a saucepan and mix thoroughly
Heat, mixing continually, until you have a sticky paste that comes away from the sides of the pan
Leave to cool until they don’t burn your fingers
Shape into balls around 3cm in diameter, and roll in your favourite topping
There are, however, some details worth mentioning:
Cocoa powder clumps. A balloon whisk is a good idea for the first five minutes or so until it’s really smooth, then switch to a wooden spoon. If you don’t have a balloon whisk, go for elbow-grease.
“Mixing continually” means what it says. Don’t leave the mixture on the heat for more than a few seconds without stirring it to get some off the sides of the pan, especially towards the end.
Knowing when to take the mixture off the heat is tricky. Too soon and you have a liquid chocolate sauce that you can’t mould. Too late and your brigadeiros are decidedly chewy. My guidelines for the best point: (1) wait until the point where, when you run a wooden spoon through the liquid, it flows back very slowly and reluctantly, then give it another couple of minutes, or (2) when the mixture temperature is just above 100℃. Or just keep practising until you can do it by feel, at risk to your waistline.
You want to cool the mixture enough so that it doesn’t burn your fingers. If you want the mixture to cool more quickly, dump your saucepan into cold water when you’ve taken it off the heat.
If you’ve overcooked and then over-cooled the mixture so that it’s too stiff to mould, warm it up slightly – it won’t hurt. But if that’s happened, be kind to your tasters’ teeth and make smaller balls.
Having said which, this is relatively simple stuff. And the results are incredibly moreish…
P.S. For added Brazilian authenticity, pronounce the name with the “Bri” rhyming with “Me”, the “ei” rhyming with “hay” and the “os” rhyming with “louche”. If you can be bothered.
Mid-process shots follow, somewhat more boring than usual…
For this post, we’re travelling to the Middle East – or, more accurately, to refugees from the Middle East. It turns out that when you’ve been exiled from your war-ravaged home, the one thing they can’t take from you is your food memories. Food writers Itab Azzam and Dina Mousawi have done the rounds of Syrians in exile and produced a lovely book called “Syria – recipes from home”: this recipe comes from the Shatila refugee camp in Beirut – yes, that Shatila, the site of the appalling massacre in 1982.
The recipe is for “fatayer”, which are small pasties made of yeasted dough which is rolled thinly and then shaped and pinched around a filling of your choice. There seem to be two popular shapes: I went for a simple half-moon, which gets you something like a miniature version of an Italian calzone. You’ll also see lots of images of fatayer where a hexagon of dough has been folded into a characteristic triangular pyramid: this looks complicated, so I thought I’d leave it for a second time round.
A bit of reading shows that you can fill your fatayer with pretty much anything: I tried two of the three fillings that Itab and Dina list in the recipe: a spinach-based one and a labneh-and-cherry-tomato one.
If you can imagine miniature folded pizzas filled with your favourite yummy Middle Eastern flavours, piping hot out of the oven, you’ve pretty much got it. What’s not to like?
In what follows, by the way, the recipe in the book has been tweaked mildly to adjust seasoning, follow my usual baking drills, etc.
First, make your dough
300g plain flour, plus some for rolling
½ tsp dried yeast
½ tsp sugar
½ tsp salt
2 tbs sunflower oil (or any other fairly neutral oil)
Put the milk into a saucepan and warm it to around 45℃, add the sugar and yeast, and wait for 5-10 minutes for it to go frothy. Mix the flour and salt in a bowl.
When the yeast mix is frothy, pour it into your bowl with the flour, add the oil and mix it well. You should get a soft dough: knead this reasonably vigorously until it goes nicely springy. Brush some oil around a bowl big enough to hold the dough when it’s risen, and put in a warm place. My favourite method is to heat an oven to 50℃ and turn if off just before putting the dough in to rise – it should take 60-90 minutes.
Now make the spinach filling…
4 tsp sumak
Juice of half a lemon
Salt and pepper to taste
Chop the onion very finely, fry very slowly in a wok or other large pan bit of olive oil until it caramelises. (The pan has to be large enough to take the spinach before it’s wilted).
Add the spinach and keep frying until it’s wilted right down. Add the sumak, lemon juice and pomegranate seeds, season, and keep reducing gently until virtually all the liquid has gone. You don’t want the spinach to burn, but you don’t want any surplus liquid either.
…and the labneh filling
This is even simpler and, if I’m honest, the better of the two…
12 cherry tomatoes
2-3 baby cucumbers (or perhaps ¼of a large cucumber)
5g fresh mint
4 tbs labneh
2 tbs olive oil
Chop the three dry ingredients as small as you can manage (or can be bothered). Mix everything together thoroughly.
Put it all together
Preheat your oven to 200℃ fan
Flour your board and roll your dough out as evenly as you can. Itab and Dina say 3mm – I’d go thinner if you can do it without breakages.
Cut out circles of dough to a size of your choice: 8cm is about the minimum. Spoon a dollop of filling into the middle of your circle, then fold the dough in half to enclose the filling. You then need to pinch it closed, taking care (a) not to let any filling seep out and (b) that you haven’t left any gaps.
The tricky part is to do this without letting liquid from the filling making it impossible for you to pinch the dough properly so that it stays closed, so two pieces of advice: (1) use a couple of teaspoons for the filling so you don’t dirty your hands and (2) don’t overfill. I ended up giving each circle a little extra roll to thin it out and give myself more margin.
Once you’ve done your first batch, you’ll have a lot of left over scraps of dough. I rolled them all into a ball, re-kneaded them somewhat and then did a second batch.
When each fatayer is made, place it on an oven tray. When they’re all made, bake them until nicely brown – everyone’s oven is different, so keep an eye on them (opening the oven won’t hurt). They took around 15 minutes in my fan oven.
When people use the words “Russian” and “Bread” in the same sentence, the chances are that the word “Rye” appears between them. And the most famous of Russian rye breads is Borodinsky Bread (in Russian: бородинский хлеб): a dark, dense, coriander-spiced sourdough.
Soviet Russia being what it was, there were officially sanctioned recipes. Therefore, if you’re on a quest for officially authentic Borodinsky Bread (and a Russian speaker) look no further than GOST 5309-50. There’s an even older source, which predates the GOST standards board, for “Borodinsky Supreme” (the 100% rye version; the “standard” has 15% wheat flour). It’s reprinted in a 1940 recipe book and lovingly recreated in this Youtube video. The origin of the name, by the way, is by no means as precise, with various stories to pick from. Choose your favourite: mine involves the wife of a general using coriander from her garden to make flavour the bread she was making to fortify the troops at the battle of Borodino (but don’t spend too much time considering the plausibility of a general’s wife feeding an entire Napoleonic army).
For an amateur baker in the West today, there are two problems with going for absolute authenticity. The first is that the process is seriously lengthy, with multiple stages of pre-ferment, “scald” and different rises and washes. The second is that you may struggle to get hold of one of the key ingredients: red rye malt (in Russian: solod (солод). If you’re desperate for the authentic, look out for stockists of home brewery supplies like this one.
While I may get round to trying for absolute authenticity one of these days, for regular use, I’m doing a cut down version based on the one in my usual bible, Andrew Whitley’s Bread Matters. I’ve approximately doubled the quantities for my large loaf tin and done a bit of flavour adjustment for my own taste: in particular, I’ve reduced the molasses, which I do find tend to take over the flavour to the exclusion of everything else, at the expense of the result not being quite as dark.
The first ingredient, as in any sourdough, is the starter: mine has been going for six months now. I bake a loaf more or less weekly, and refresh it with two parts water to one part dark rye.
80g dark rye sourdough starter
580g dark rye flour
100g light rye flour
10g ground coriander
5g coriander seeds
30g barley malt extract
The night before you will be baking, make your “production sourdough”: mix your starter with 80g of dark rye flour and 100ml of water. Leave at room temperature overnight: in the morning, it should be bubbly and nicely fermented.
Crush the coriander seeds in a pestle and mortar. Brush the sides of your loaf tin with oil, and line the sides with half of them.
Make your dry mixture of the rest of the flours, the salt and the ground coriander. Make your wet mixture from the production starter, 400ml of lukewarm water (mine was at 43℃), the molasses and the barley malt extract.
Mix the two together thoroughly till everything is smoothly combined into a wet, sticky dough. Pour the dough into your bread tin, shaping it to be somewhat domed at the top. Don’t bother trying to press the dough into the corners of the tin. (In case you’re wondering, by the way, I haven’t forgotten all about the kneading stage: it’s just that dark rye won’t form gluten properly so there’s no point in bothering).
Sprinkle the remaining coriander seeds over the top of the loaf and press them in slightly.
Leave the dough to rise in a warm place: my own technique is to heat an over to 50℃, put the bread tin in together with a mug of water, and switch the oven off. It’s hard to know how long the rise time is likely to be: mine took about 6 hours.
Preheat your oven to 250℃. Bake for 15 minutes, turn the heat down to 200℃ and bake for another 30-45 minutes. I tend to take mine out after 40 when it’s still just a fraction damp, because I don’t like risking overbaked, dried out dense rye; you may be braver.
Like any dark rye, this won’t rise massively. But the combination of rye, sourdough ferment and coriander makes Borodinsky the most intensely flavoured bread I know and my favourite accompaniment to lunchtime soups and salads.
It’s time for this blog to cross a few time zones and head to the Caribbean coast of South America. “Torta negra” is the go-to cake for family celebrations in Colombia, if the Internet is to be believed. It’s a fruit cake darkened by caramel (the name means “Black cake”) and it’s lighter in weight and darker in colour than a typical English fruit cake. On the basis of the recipe I started with, from Colombian expatriate Erica Dinho, Torta Negra is a lot less sweet than the average fruit cake over here – although this may vary, since it seems to be another of those bakes where every family has its own recipe.
Erica must have a large family or friendship group, because her recipe is for two substantial cakes at a time. I therefore started by halving her recipe; I’ve also turned the measurements into metric and the US names into English ones. That left the thorny question of the caramel: Erica recommends baker’s caramel or dulce quemado, neither of which I knew how to find (even in the foodie land of North London, where you really can get most things) or molasses, which make me nervous because they have a strong and distinctive flavour of their own which tends to overpower everything else. So I decided to go for making my own caramel, which is messy but not all that hard.
Since there’s a very long waiting time in the middle of this recipe, I’ve split the ingredient lists up according to stage.
Stage 1 – get some fruit macerating
120g pitted prunes
120g dried figs
120 ml port
60 ml rum
Chop up the prunes and figs, then put everything into a tightly sealed jar (I used a Kilner of the sort you use for making jam). Before sealing the jar, do your best to press the fruit down so that as little as possible pokes above the surface of the liquid.
Now leave the fruit to macerate for at least two weeks, turning it every few days to make sure that none of the fruit is simply drying out.
Stage 2 – make some caramel
If you do this immediately before starting to make your cake mix, it will be not too far off the right temperature to add to the mix: you don’t want the caramel to cool past its freezing point the second you add it to your mix, but you also don’t want it so hot that it’s baking the mix the moment it touches it. (By the way, this might be a good time to start preheating your oven, and to get your butter out of the fridge and softening).
15 ml water
15g butter (optional)
Choose a small stainless steel pan. Put in the sugar and water, mix thoroughly, and heat it up, fast at first and then more gently as you’re trying to find the right caramelisation point. It’s going to bubble furiously, but keep stirring it and you’ll eventually get to a point (around 175-180℃, if you have a sugar thermometer) where it turns very dark. Take it off the heat and add the butter and mix thoroughly (the only point of this is it keeps it a bit more liquid).
By the way, you’ll have way more caramel than you needed. When I had used what I neede for the cake, I poured the rest onto a sheet of baking paper: once it had cooled, I broke it up and kept in a jar for future use.
Stage 3 – mix your dry ingredients
½ tsp ground cinnamon
½ tsp baking powder
¼ tsp ground nutmeg
¼ tsp ground cloves
Mix all these together in a bowl.
Stage 4 – make your cake mix and bake
Grease a cake tin and line the base with baking paper. Mine worked fine on a 20cm diameter round springform tin, but I imagine you can use any shape you like.
250g butter, softened
6 medium to large eggs
½ tsp vanilla extract
Cream your butter and sugar together (I use a Kitchenaid stand mixer for this, but if you don’t have one, elbow grease and a wooden spoon works fine). Add the eggs, two at a time, mixing well at each stage. Add the vanilla extract and mix in. Next, put in your dry ingredient mixture and mix thoroughly: you don’t want lumps and you don’t want bits of dry raw flour.
Now add around 2 tbs of the caramel you made above. If you’ve left the caramel long enough for it to solidify, warm it up until it’s the consistency of toothpaste before trying this, or you’ll merely end up with shards of caramel through your mixture.
Take your macerated fruit out of its jar, giving it a squeeze so that you’re keeping as much as you can of the soaking liquid in the jar. Add the fruit to the cake mix and do your best to mix it evenly through the mix.
Put the mix into a tin and bake until the cake passes the usual test of a skewer poked into the middle coming out clean. Erica’s recipe says 1h45: mine was done in 1h15 in a 175℃ fan oven. Everyone’s oven is different, I guess – and I suppose hers might not be a fan oven.
Leave the cake to cool for 10 minutes or so, remove from the tin and leave to cool for another 10, then brush your remaining wine/port mix over the cake, letting it seep in.
Wrap the cake in cling film and foil, leave it to mature for a few days, and serve.
To end with: a few more of the usual in-process shots…
If you’re thinking of Greece and baking, the chances are that spanakopita is at or near the top of your list. But what exactly is it? The most usual answer is “spinach and feta pie”, but the truth is, you can take pretty much any leafy vegetable, any set of alliums, your favourite dairy products to enrich it (or not, if you’re vegan) and your favourite herbs and spices: wrap that in filo pastry in a shape of your choice (bite-sized or pan-sized), bake it and you get something that’s arguably a spanakopita. There are probably as many recipes as there are cooks.
So I’m not in any way claiming that what follows is a definitive spanakopita. But I will claim that it’s tested, it’s absolutely delicious, it’s filling, it looks good, it doesn’t take all that long to make, it’s highly tolerant of inaccurate quantities and as long as you take it out of the oven before it starts burning, you’re unlikely to ruin it. In short, whether you’re a frequent vegetarian cook or not, it’s a winner.
The filo pastry and butter is a given, and unless you’re going to opt for kale or other leaves, so is the spinach (the recipes I’ve seen recommend fresh non-young spinach, but all I have available in my local supermarket is the young stuff, and it works fine). For alliums, I like a mixture of leek, shallot, onion and garlic – but you can leave out at least two of these. For flavourings, I go for nutmeg and lemon rind, which gives a real zing, plus a mix of dill, oregano and flat leaf parsley. But again, the first time I made this, I only had parsley in the house, and it was fine. For enriching the filling, I like eggs and feta cheese with a generous dose of grated Parmesan. But you get the idea: don’t feel overly bound to my choices and quantities. Lots of variations will work. So here goes…
The recipe serves four generously as a meal on its own, or would do a starter for at least 8.
I used a square 23cm x 23cm metal baking tin, which probably better than a thick ceramic dish, but you can adapt the instructions for whatever you have.
You’ll need a brush of some sort for spreading the butter – otherwise, you’re likely to break the filo too much – it’s very fragile.
400g fresh spinach (frozen is said to work well, but I haven’t tried)
2 leeks – around 300g, 240g after trimming
1 red onion – around 120g
3 cloves garlic – around 20g
1 banana shallot – around 50g
Bunch of dill
Bunch of oregano
Bunch of flat leaf parsley
3 eggs, beaten
200g feta cheese
120g Parmesan or similar hard cheese
Rind of 1 lemon, grated
Grated nutmeg and salt to taste
12 sheets of filo pastry (around 150g)
Melted butter for spreading – I needed around 100-120g
Olive oil for frying
Here’s the usual collection of in-process shots:
Preheat oven to 180℃ fan.
Boil a kettle, put the spinach in a colander and pour the boiling water over it. Leave it to wilt and drain while you prepare the rest of the filling.
Chop the leeks, onion, shallot and garlic and fry gently in some oil (I add a bit of salt at this stage). Meanwhile, chop your herbs: when the mixture has gone transparent, add the chopped herbs and stir well so that everything is nicely blended. Keep frying gently for a few minutes until it’s all soft and beginning to go golden: don’t let it go dark brown. Remove from heat.
Crumble the feta into a large bowl, add the grated parmesan, beaten egg, lemon rind and nutmeg and mix thoroughly. Make sure the leek and onion mix is no hotter than lukewarm – you don’t want it to scramble the eggs – then combine it with the mixture. Now squeeze some water out of the spinach, add this, and stir/chop vigorously with a spoon or spatula so that the filling is thoroughly blended – you don’t want lumps of cheese or lumps of pure spinach.
Spread a layer of melted butter over your oven dish or tin. Open your packet of filo and work quickly (the stuff dries out): spread two pieces across the bottom of the tin so that they hang over the sides, brush melted butter over the area lining the bottom and sides the tin now repeat this but going the opposite way. When you’ve done this, your square tin will have filo draped over each of its four sides. Repeat this twice, so you’re using 12 sheets of filo in total.
Pour your filling into the pastry-lined tin and even it out into a single, thick layer reaching the corners.
Take the overhanging edges of the last pair of pieces of filo you put in, wrap them back over the dish, and brush them with melted butter. Repeat for the remaining five pairs. Make sure you have enough butter left to give the top a good brushing: that’s what will make the pie go gold.
Bake for around 30-40 minutes, until a deep golden colour.
You can serve it straight out of the oven, cold for a picnic, or anywhere in between.
The first things that strike you are the olive trees. On the way from Bari airport to our first hill town, Ostuni, we pass untold hectares of them. When we visit the Masseria Brancati, we get to see them close up, laden with leaves and fruit, which is still unripe – it’s August and the earliest harvest is still a couple of months away. Some of the trees, named the monumentali, are very, very old – 2,500 years or more: their trunks are several feet wide, gnarled, looking generally grumpy at what they’ve seen.
Puglia produces 40% of Italy’s olive oil. But this ancient part of the nation’s culture is vulnerable, as evidenced when you drive past Brindisi and see the road – the old Appian Way from Rome – lined by thousand upon thousand of dead trees, standing upright but with their leaves scorched. They’re the victims of a single subspecies of bacterium, the xylella fastidiosa subs. pauca: since 2013, farmers and government scientists have been engaged in a desperate struggle to save the olive trees: there are signs of some recovering or being replanted, but the lines of brown trees are still a desperately sad sight.
In Italy, food defines everything. And Puglia is where the food is grown, so it’s all about doing simple things with the local ingredients. The centro storico of Ostuni is packed with shops selling local food items to the well-heeled tourists from further north, of which the most important is olive oil. Apart from details of terroir and whether or not the oil is organic, the principal differences between oils lie in whether or not they are first pressing (the Italians tell you to keep extra virgin olive oil for salads and not use it for cooking) and the harvest date: early harvest olives (mid-October) give an oil with a distinctive strong flavour, whereas late harvest olives can give a smooth oil with a long aftertaste.
Almonds are another important crop. If you’re an ice-cream lover, don’t miss their combined fichi e mandorle (fig and almond) flavour, and the shops have plenty of almond biscuits of various types. There are many types of hard biscuits (including the biscotti type familiar to us outside Italy), but my downfall was the mouth-watering soft ones, something between an almond biscuit and marzipan, that we bought from the Furne di Porta Nova bakery, towards the east of the old city in Ostuni. The bakery also makes focaccia, the Puglian version being delightfully light, with far less oil and salt than I’ve had elsewhere, and usually laden with olives and cherry tomatoes. Apart from focaccia, my favourite bread here is their equivalent of the Spanish pan rustico, an unevenly shaped sourdough loaf with a hard crust and a delectable soft, moist middle: in at least one bakery we visited, the sourdough starter was made with fruit. Hard crackers (taralli and friselli) are ubiquitous, handed out as snacks with virtually any drink you buy at a bar.
Puglia’s hallmark cheese is burrata: soft, white balls, usually 6 centimetres or so in diameter which are popular both as breakfast and lunch items. Cut into the skin-like outside and a creamy filling gushes forth, delicious on its own or as part of a salad (but be sure to eat fresh burrata the day they’re made – they don’t improve). Lunch plates are also likely to include caciocavallo, a hard cheese made of sheep’s or cow’s milk or, most deliciously, both. There’s also capocollo (a cut of cured pork from the neck and shoulder, somewhat fattier and somewhat stronger tasting than typical prosciutto).
And then, of course, there’s the wine. Various connoisseurs I know are rather dismissive of Puglian wines as being easy drinking and lacking in distinction. Personally, I love Puglian red wines: they’re scented, full of flavour and low on hard tannins. The predominant grapes here are Primitivo (the same variety as the US Zinfandel), Negroamaro and Malvasia nera; there’s a wine called Salice Salentino that blends either two or all three of these. There are others to be discovered: we didn’t get round to Nero di Troia, but the contents of our bottle of Susumaniello vanished without trace in a chorus of yums. I’m less keen on the whites here, but they make a mean summer rosé with Negroamaro.
A short trip to Matera in the neighbouring province, Basilicata, revealed another truly lovely red wine, Aglianico, said to be one of the oldest wines from Greek times (the name may or may not be a corruption of “Hellenico”). It tells you something about Italian regionalism that Aglianico was nowhere to be seen on the shelves in Puglia, even if you’re only half an hour’s drive from the border. If you’re buying a present for a friendly baker, a neat souvenir from Matera is a wooden bread stamp, used in bygone days to stamp you initials on your loaf when baking it in a communal bread oven.
Even within the province, there is variability according to region. We stayed at Gallipoli on the Salento peninsula (not to be confused with the battle site in faraway Turkey), a town which has been a fishing centre for centuries and is celebrated for its seafood. At the fish market, stalls proudly announce that the produce is “recently fished”: the fish was very good; the clams and mussels were outstanding. The surprise of our trip were the gamberi viole (purple prawns), said to only be available in the Salento area and up there with the most intense-tasting shellfish I’ve ever eaten. When I asked the man in the market how best to cook them, his response was “anchè crudo” (don’t bother and eat them raw). I wimped out and showed them the pan for a couple of minutes and I’m glad I didn’t do more: they were fabulous, but we discovered in one restaurant that they lose their flavour if overcooked by even a minute or so (the restaurant, to be fair, replaced them without demur).
Our experience of Puglian restaurants was that they’re not particularly good at trying to be fancy. But when it comes to taking great fresh ingredients – even humble ones – and cooking them simply, they’re masterful. Portions, by the way, are giant: if you’re trying to leave room for dessert, be wary. Il Pettolino in Gallipoli, Nausikaa in Martina Franca, Il Guercio di Puglia in Alberobello and PerBacco in Locorotondo all served us meals that were thoroughly memorable without a sniff of haute cuisine. We’ll be back.