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Almonds & oranges: Spanish for 20

April 06, 2006


A few weeks ago my friends Aura and Sarah decided to make paella for a church meal. This glorious dish is a famous meal from Valencia on the east coast of Spain. It's one pot cooking at its finest: layers of bright, saffron-tinted rice, spicy chorizo, shrimp, chicken and mussels in their sharp black shells, opening to a pearly nugget of flesh. You get a different taste of rice and meat in every mouthful. In Spain it's often cooked in the spring, or for picnics outside, the pot presided over by the men of the family.

Sarah and Aura wanted to do a full Spanish meal, with all the proper accoutrements for such a classic and laborious dish. So I volunteered to cook pretty much everything else, and buried myself in Spanish recipes and menus for a week. (Obsessives unite!)


This meant salad, tapas, and, of course, dessert. Tapas were relatively simple. I am not as familiar with Spanish cuisine as, say, Italian, and it was interesting to explore the basics. Sharp, pungent Manchego cheese with quince paste - soft and a little gritty - all in one sweet and salty bite. A wonderfully comforting potato and egg tortilla - which promptly went in my file-away-for-easy-supper pile. Olives, chickpeas, cumin, little pieces of toast with tomatoes and peppers. And of course, I could not resist the tiny red tin of anchovies sitting in my cupboard. I mashed them with a little pepper and butter and smeared them on toasts for a salty shock of an appetizer. Delicious with sweet, fruity sangria.

But, as you know, no meal is complete without something sweet, and I simply could not decide on a dessert. I didn't want to default to flan, the most standard Spanish dessert going, apparently. It was like, look! A Spanish menu. What's for dessert? Flan! So that was just too obvious and out of the question, unfortunately, since I really do love custard. I wanted something instead that expressed the character I saw recurring in Spanish cuisine, and so the recipes I ended up choosing are not necessarily Spanish - except for the natillas, a very traditional Basque dessert - but I liked the flavors and textures against this meal.

The centerpiece, an orange almond cake produced by both Claudia Roden and Nigella Lawson, was a deliciously easy, a bittersweet and nutty homage to the almonds and oranges of southern Spain. I served it with sliced oranges, drizzle-soaked in a deep, dark, rich wine syrup, infused with cinnamon. Cooking this is the shortest route to making your kitchen smell like heaven. Really. Like heaven.

On the side I had natillas, a cold custard sauce, and tiny shooters of a heavily brandied dark chocolate mousse, decorated with my first attempt at burnt sugar decorations. (Ha!)

I felt a little guilty - we had this long, rather extravagant meal during the first week of Lent. We're obviously not observing the traditional Christian calendar here. Oh well. Feasting and rejoicing instead.

This was the final menu:

Tapas & Starters
Tortilla - Spanish omelet with onions and potatoes
Crostini with a chunky deconstructed gazpacho
Crostini with anchovy and garlic paste
Sarah's olive salad
Chickpea salad with cumin and sun-dried tomatoes
Manchego cheese wedges with membrillo (quince paste)
Fried almonds

Main Meal
Aura & Sarah's paella
Aaron's eggy almond bread
Spinach salad with artichoke hearts and red Sevillana dressing

Natillas: Cold custard with fresh ground cinnamon
Brandied chocolate mousse with burnt caramel topping
Clementine almond cake
Spiced wine syrup and orange segments

My natillas and chocolate mousse. Don't laugh at my burnt sugar "decorations." They may have looked like bug feelers, but they tasted good, darnit!


Spiced Wine Syrup (Or, The Best Thing You Can Do With a Four-Dollar Bottle of Wine)

1 750-ml bottle dry red wine
1 cup sugar
2 cinnamon sticks, broken in half

1. Bring wine, 1 cup sugar, and cinnamon to boil in a medium saucepan, stirring until sugar dissolves.
2. Boil until reduced to about 1 cup. About 25 minutes. Watch near the end to make sure the wine doesn't caramelize.
3. Cool syrup completely. Cover and keep chilled. Can be reheated gently in the microwave or on stovetop before serving.

Note: The simmering wine leaves a fine mist of spattered syrup on everything around it. So use a high pot, stay out of the way, and be prepared to scrub your stove afterwards. Small price to pay, though. This stuff is amazing. It's good on anything.

Claudia & Nigella's Clementine Cake
4-5 clementines (about 1 pound total weight)
6 eggs
1 cup plus 2 tablespoons sugar
2.33 cups ground almonds
1 heaping teaspoon baking powder

1. Preheat the oven to 375ºF. Butter and line an 8 inch springform pan. Not necessary, but helpful: Line bottom with buttered parchment paper.
2. Put the clementines in a pot with some cold water, bring to the boil and cook for 2 hours. Drain and, when cool, pull each clementine apart and remove any seeds.
3. Dump the clementines - skins, pith, fruit and all - into the food processor and give a quick blitz.
4. Then tip in all the remaining ingredients and pulse to a pulpy liquid.
5. Pour the cake mixture into the prepared pan and bake for an hour, when a skewer will come out clean; you'll probably have to cover with foil after about 40 minutes to stop the top burning.
6. Remove from the oven and leave to cool, on a rack, but in the pan. When the cake's cold, you can take it out of the pan. Store in the fridge, tightly wrapped. Bring to room temperature to serve.

I like to dust this with a layer of powdered sugar to give a sweet top to what is a very grown-up cake: tart, slightly bitter undertones, but lush and sweet as well. Very dense and soft. It stays good for up to a week, when refrigerated.

Posted by Faith at 6 April 2006

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I would loved to have been the 21st diner at that table. What a glorious sounding feast - many of my favorite dishes in one place! The cake sounds particularly delectable.

Posted by: Brett at April 19, 2006 02:14 PM

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