And so begins March. Gosh. Can the year slow down slightly? I’m starting to get dizzy. March marks the almost half-way point of my PhD. It’s 19 months until my hand-in date. To celebrate, and to prevent me from losing my mind, I’ve decided to start up a new project here on Philosophy and Madeleines. Every month, for the next 19 months, I’m going to be cooking and baking and dessert-making from a different country somewhere on the planet. And to clarify, that doesn’t mean I will be in the actual country (sadly!), merely that I will be making dishes from it’s cuisine in my tiny kitchen here in Nottingham. I feel I’ve been getting complacent in my cooking and baking skills. I tend to do the same dishes over and over again, which is nice and easy and relaxing, but I think I need to push my boundaries a bit more and this is the best way I can think of to do it.

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The challenge will be not only to cook from one place but to also not buy any more cookbooks whilst completing this mission. There. I admit defeat to the cookbook gods. My addiction to cookbooks is getting out of hand and something needs to be done to stop it. So, this is it. I’ll need you all to remind me I can’t buy anything new from time to time, I think. Instead of buying books I’m going to be using my local library. (This part makes the challenge more challenging, I think.) I’ve already scoped out the library’s cookbooks and I think I’ll be okay for a while. I’m going to borrow various books on the country of the month, including memoirs/travel writing/food writing/recipe books, and will be using them to cook/bake from for the month. I’ll also be using any relevant books I happen to have on my shelves. So that’s it. That is the challenge. I do hope you’ll join me on this new adventure.

And so to begin. This first month I am cooking and baking from Italy. Italy seemed the logical choice to begin a challenge like this one – I like pasta and pizza and risotto and olive oil as much as the next person and finding out about the various regions and their different dishes seems like a fun idea. The cuisine is also as old as they come and there is loads to read about it.

So to Italy we go.

I’ve borrowed the following books from the library (and my own bookshelf) and shall be using them to cook from this month. I might add a few more as the month goes on, I’m not sure yet. (Which is part of the adventure I guess!)

The Essentials of Classic Italian Cooking by Marcella Hazan

Bringing Italy Home by Ursula Ferrigno

The Food of Italy: Region by Region by Claudia Roden

A Year in the Village of Eternity by Tracey Lawson

Delizia! by John Dickie

I’ve also borrowed a copy of Jamie does… Spain Italy Sweden Morocco Greece France, mainly for a quick reference point and fast recipes. We all need a little Jamie in our lives after all.

I thought I’d start with dessert today. It’s Friday and something quick and easy is often necessary on a Friday, especially if it’s been a rough week. Tiramisù is a classic Italian dessert which Claudia Roden writes is fairly new – she was writing in 1989 but I guess she means new in comparison to dishes which have been around since the 1100’s or before. Now, I don’t think you can mention Italy without someone mentioning tiramisù. The other books I’ve got don’t reference tiramisù at all so I read Jamie’s version in Jamie does just to see about method. He makes his the same way as Claudia, but uses more ingredients and flavours. I wanted to keep things simple and fast so I’ve followed Claudia’s recipe but I made my own sponge fingers. The resulting dessert is rich and satisfying. The rum is incorporated into the flavours so it doesn’t taste alcoholic (I left out the brandy in the recipe because I don’t have any at the moment) and the dark chocolate adds a bitterness which cuts the richness and keeps the dessert from being too overwhelming. I remember making this at cooking school and thinking it was amazing but when I consulted that recipe this morning I worked out why I hadn’t made it since – a list of ingredients, including gelatine, and a method which was convoluted and long. This is simple, quick and satisfying. You’re supposed to leave it overnight (according to Claudia) but I felt it was okay to eat after a few hours of chilling. She also makes it in one big dish but I quite like it in individual moulds – it’s up to you how to serve it really.

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Adapted from The Food of Italy: Region by Region

2 tbsp rum

1/4 cup strong black coffee

8 sponge fingers

250g mascarpone

1 egg

2 1/2 tbsp golden icing sugar

50g dark chocolate

Makes 4

Mix 1 tablespoon of rum with the coffee and allow to cool slightly. Meanwhile, separate the egg and whisk the yolk with the icing sugar and mascarpone. Once the mixture is smooth, add in the other tablespoon of rum.

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Dip the sponge fingers into the coffee mixture and lay them in the bottom of four ramekins, if necessary, break them to fit. Brush any leftover coffee mixture over the sponge fingers.

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Whisk the egg white until stiff and fold into the mascarpone. Spoon this onto the sponge fingers.

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Put the chocolate into a blender and blend until finely powdered (Claudia calls this pulverising). Sprinkle over the desserts and refrigerate for at least four hours if not overnight.

Lady’s Fingers

We had to make these at cookery school and I haven’t had cause to make them since. You can cheat by buying Boudoir biscuits (or the equivalent if they’re not available). Just break them to the size you need when using.

50g golden caster sugar

2 eggs

pinch of salt

50g plain flour

Preheat the oven to 160C and line a baking tray with baking paper.

Separate the eggs and whisk the egg yolks with half the sugar (25g) until pale and at ribbon stage.

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Whisk the egg whites until foamy and then add in the salt. Whisk to soft peak and then add in the other half of the sugar in three goes, forming a soft, glossy meringue.

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Sift half the flour over the yolk mixture and fold in, followed by half the meringue. Repeat.

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Fill a piping bag and pipe strips onto your baking sheet.

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Bake for about 15 minutes, until the fingers are golden along the edges, and slightly coloured on top. Remove from the oven and slide the baking paper onto a cooling rack so they stop cooking and don’t dry out. Cool and use as needed.

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