The office is a dangerous place. Temptation lies around every corner – specifically the corner outside with a rather lovely restaurant-cum-patisserie-spot. It also, however, lurks within our walls themselves in the form of a rather delightful designer named Gen, and her granny’s multitude of old-school treats. There’s something incredibly comforting about grandmotherly confectionary, and Gen’s is top notch, including something I’d completely forgotten I’d even liked… Coconut Ice…
After a stressful couple of days, finding this on my desk was a rather welcome surprise. I haven’t had coconut ice in ages, and it always reminds me of being little and learning how to cook. I’m a sucker for coconut, and since quitting smoking a couple of months ago, appreciate the kick of a sugar rush. There’s something incredibly toothsome about its texture, and it’s almost Proustian in its nostalgia-inducing qualities. Bizarrely, though, it always manages to taste as pink as it looks.
All in all, probably not something I should be eating, but considering my forays into Pilates and Yoga, combined with the panoply of virtuous meals to be had at the Avant Gardener’s house, I reckon it’s allowed.
Now, working up where I do presents me with the most double-edged of swords. Every day, I schlep up from the coast to Kloof, to the Bellevue Campus, an exceptionally leafy little enclave just off Field’s Hill. Some usual business-y type companies are based here, along with a rather lovely little art gallery / curiosity shop and restaurant. While I successfully manage to resist the temptation to get lunch from the restaurant, despite the food being rather good (I’ve heard), they also have a delightful range of patisserie-type treats that are impossible to ignore.
My workmates and I usually resist the siren-song of baked goods until at least Wednesday, when willpower crumbles like the rather light pastry of these treats. I am a big fan of the chocolate and orange tarts, and the deliciously zesty pasteis de nata. This week I succumbed to a sinfully good almond tart, which sufficiently perked up the spirits to carry me through to the weekend. A kind of jammy amazingness binds the nutty insides of this delight, housed in crisp pastry and topped with chewy caramalised almonds. Altogether the last thing I actually needed to consume, but I am a firm believer in the virtue of the midweek treat. And anyway, there’s always gym to counteract the indulgence. In theory…
I decided to make panforte as a treat for Mother’s Day. It’s one of my Mom’s favourite nibbles, and I tweaked the recipe somewhat to include her fruit of choice, figs. This is usually a Christmassy affair, but I don’t think that this dense combination of nuts, glacé fruit and spices is something that should ever be kept for only once a year. It’s somewhere between nougat and Christmas cake, but without all the raisins to spoil it.
Now, this recipe requires a hint of daring, because it requires one to get out the cooking thermometer and delve into the somewhat scary world of cooking with molten sugar. I don’t think I’ve ever gone through this ordeal without at least a few scars afterwards, but if you grit your teeth, and prepare for a bit of pain, the results are worth it. This time I managed to flick an incendiary piece of the molten sugar onto my lip, but such hazards are to be expected.
So, one begins by chopping up and combining a combo of glacé fruit and nuts and then combining it with cocoa powder, spices and a hint of flour. Then you melt sugar and honey until it hits the magic mark on the thermometer and, throwing caution to the wind, combining the two mixtures. Once coaxed into prepared pans (quickly, mind you, because this solidifies incredibly quickly) and baked for half an hour, the results are always magical. Once it’s done, a liberal dusting of icing sugar keeps it from sticking to all and sundry. Sliced into slivers and served with coffee, you’re ready to impress everyone with your delightful confection, and street-cred scars…
150g mixed nuts (toasted) – I used almonds and walnuts.
175 g glacé cherries, peel and figs (chopped)
50 g flour
25 g cocoa powder
½ tsp cinnamon
½ tsp mixed spices
100 g caster sugar
100 g honey
Line the bottom of a round 20 cm pan with baking paper.
Preheat the oven to 150°C.
Mix nuts, fruit, flour, cocoa, cinnamon and mixed spices.
Mix sugar and honey in a large sauce pan and gently heat until the sugar has dissolved/melted. Raise the temperature and allow the mixture to cook until 115°C. Immediately add the nut, peel and flour mixture and stir until combined.
Spoon the mixture into the prepared pan and smooth the top with a wet spoon. Work as quickly as possible because the mixture will firm up when it cools.
Bake for 30 minutes. Allow to cool in the pan. Invert and place the right side up. Generously dust with a mixture of icing sugar.
I suggest some daring, devil-may-care music while making this. Morrissey is always a good choice when throwing caution to the wind and “You are the Quarry” has the right hauteur for the occasion. That, and I just like listening to Morrissey. No-one usually lets me, but when in possession of a vat of scorching sugar, not many will argue with one’s music choice.