Pan di Spagna (Italian sponge base)

Chocolate Pand di Spagna

Pan di Spagna is the most popular sponge base in Italy, a success that is hardly surprising as it is very light in texture and neutral in flavour, so that it can be used pretty much with anything. Growing up in Italy, I’ve always known it, and when I saw the recipe for the first time I was surprised by the fact that no yeast is used. In fact, only three ingredients are needed, eggs, sugar and flour, and it is the correct manipulation of the ingredients that makes it rise and become so soft.
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Ingredients:

5 eggs
150g white sugar
150g plain flour (or, preferably, 75g flour and 75g cornstarch)
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The reason why this sponge works without yeast is due to a property of eggs, that have the capacity of incorporating air when whisked (this capacity is obvious also when making a meringue, that uses only the egg whites, for example).
Therefore, the eggs are whisked with the sugar until they reach the desired consistency (see below), and then the flour is incorporated, being careful that the volume of the mixture is reduced as little as possible. Imagine that like a structure with microscopic air bubbles, a bit like a sponge, but fluid: the heat, during baking, will make the air expand, thus making the cake raise; at the same time the heat will cook the eggs and the flour, making them hard enough to hold that shape.

See below the process. I suggest that you line the baking tray and sift the flour beforehand if you are using an electric hand whisk, whilst you can do it while whisking if using a planetary mixer:

  1. Preheat the oven at 180C
  2. Line a baking tray with baking parchment
  3. Sift the flour and starch together or (this is quicker) whisk them with a hand whisk (it will have the same effect as sifting)
  4. Using a planetary mixer or an electric whisk, work the eggs with the sugar until it forms ribbons. It takes 10 to 15 minutes, so quite a bit of work but it’s worth it. This step is very important and needs some considerations:
    – If using an electric hand whisk, work like a planetary would, moving it in a circle, it will be quicker
    -In Italian we say that the mix is ready when it ‘writes’, i.e., when you lift the whisk (after switching off!), the mix that falls leaves a trail on the surface

    This is the sort of trail that the mix should leave on the surface when you lift the whisk

    This is the sort of trail that the mix should leave on the surface when you lift the whisk

  5. When the mix ‘writes’, we are ready to incorporate the flour; this is a critical step, as you need to be fast and light handed at the same time. Some chefs even suggest that you use your hands but I think it’s way too messy and use a wooden spoon or -even better- a silicon spatula. Throw the flour/ cornstarch into the mix all at once and fold it in with quick upward strokes; the mix will lose some volume but your goal here is to keep as much volume as possible
  6. When all the flour has been incorporated, put the mix in the baking tray that has previously been lined, and bake without opening the oven for at least 20 minutes
  7. Cooking time can vary, but it is around 30 minutes; to check if it’s ready, insert a cocktail stick in the middle: the sponge is ready when it comes out clean
  8. Do not take out of the oven immediately or it will collapse: turn it off and let it cool down inside for at least 15 minutes

After that the base is normally sliced and used for assembling a cake

VARIATIONS:

LEMON:
The good thing of pan di Spagna is its neutral flavour that makes it suitable for virtually any type of cream; however, someone (me included to be honest) might find it boring: to add a bit of freshness, add the filtered juice of half lemon to the eggs and sugar before you start whisking.
IMPORTANT: add it before you start whisking, if you add it at the end it will ruin it!

CHOCOLATE:
Depending on what you are using it for, a chocolate pan di Spagna will be more suitable than a plain one: simply mix 50g of cocoa powder with 50g of flour and 50g of corn starch (some recipes say 75g of cocoa with 75g of flour/corn starch, but I tried and the proportion I gave you works better for me)

Frutti di Mare (Seafood pasta sauce)

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Basic techniques needed:

Tomato Sauce
And at least one of the following:

How to steam mussels
Prawns & prawn stock
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Ingredients (for 4 people):

1/2 onion, finely chopped
4 garlic cloves, minced
4 anchovy fillets
800g peeled tomatoes
Salt & sugar, to taste
Finely chopped parsley, to taste
Chilli pepper (optional but recommended)

600g of clams OR 600g of mussels OR 300g of each
6 large or 8 medium prawns
500g squid OR 500g cuttlefish

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Frutti di mare is the generic Italian word for seafood. Basically, we say ‘sea fruits’ instead of seafood.

However, meaning of the name aside, pasta with seafood is by far one of my favourites, as long as it is made properly and using good quality ingredients. In a nutshell, what I will describe here is a tomato sauce (see Tomato Sauce in Basics, you will just add some anchovy fillets when sweating the onions and squid or cuttlefish before adding the tomato) with the addition of various types of seafood, most of which will be cooked separately to get the best flavour and texture out of them, and then added to the sauce.

Also note that, since all the ingredients have to be fresh (although prawns and squid can be an exception, and I will explain it), and any reputable fishmonger that sells fresh fish will NOT have everything everyday, you will have to select the ingredients when doing your shopping. Therefore, I will provide guidance on different types of seafood but bear in mind that you don’t need to use them altogether, I would say that three works very well for me, I normally include squid or cuttlefish, that I cook with the sauce, some shellfish (either mussels or clams) and crustaceans (shrimps, but also langostines are good). If I find it fresh, I also love crab, as it gives a fantastic flavour. However, it needs to be treated after cooking or taken off the sauce and used separately as we will see.

NOTE: If you are using mussels, clams and/or prawns, prepare them before you start making the sauce, as you will need to use the liquid for your sauce:

How to steam mussels
Prawns & prawn stock

Also, the only items that you will cook with the sauce from the beginning are the squids (or cuttlefish if using). Shellfish needs to be cooked separately and added at the end, crustaceans (like prawns), once shelled, need to be added at the end as they required minimal cooking

This is the process. In order to understand this recipe, read it through to the end, as I will explain certain things at the end.

So. after you have cooked the clams or mussels and filtered their liquid, and made the prawns stock if using it do the following:

  • Sweat the onion for 5 minutes in 2 tbsp. of olive oil
  • Add the minced garlic and anchovy fillet
  • When the anchovy fillets have dissolved into the oil, add the squid (or cuttlefish), prepared as below (Next paragraph: How to treat seafood)
  • Cook gently without adding any liquid; the squid/ cuttlefish will release its own water, and cook on low heat until it has almost completely evaporated
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  • Add the tomato (blended and passed through a sieve – see Tomato Sauce)
  • Add some liquid:
    1) if using prawns, use the stock, made as described in Prawns & prawn stock
    2) if using mussels or clams, use the liquid, filtered as described in  How to steam mussels
    Even better if you use both!
  • Bring to the boil and then simmer, skimming the surface, for an hour or until the desired thickness is reached – if using crab, add it when the sauce is simmering -see below for cooking times
  • Season wilt salt and sugar
  • Add the other ingredients: prawns, shellfish or whatever you like (see below for cooking times)
  • Add a good handful of finely chopped parsley and some chilli pepper (optional but recommended)
  • Let it cool down completely before using it.

HOW TO TREAT SEAFOOD:

 

Squid and cuttlefish will make your sauce more substantial and will also add interesting note to your dish. Since I like to be in control of the outcome when I cook, I prefer to cook them separately and add them to the sauce at the end, when the sauce is ready; cooking them in the sauce you might end up overcooking them

SQUID
First, some consideration on the product: make sure you buy unprocessed squid . Squid can be fresh or defrosted, it will still be good, but do not buy any precooked one; also, be wary of the so-called calamari (which indicates squid rings in English but is simply the plural for squid in Italian), as it might be processed as well and go for the whole squid; if unsure on how to clean it, have your fishmonger do it for you.
Once cleaned, lay the squid tube on the cutting board and you will find a groove inside; with a very sharp knife, cut along that to open the tube up. You will see that the two sides do not have the same consistency, the outside is harder and the inside is softer
You can cut it in small pieces now, otherwise, you can give it a Chinese style criss-cross pattern that will make it look better when cooked: using a very sharp knife and being light-handed, make shallow incisions; it is preferable to do this on the softer side; whilst it is preferable to cut it into pieces with the harder side up.

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  • Once that has been cut, season with salt and cook gently in a tbsp. of oil without adding any liquid; the squid/ cuttlefish will release its own water, and cook on low heat until it has almost completely evaporated
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  • At that point, try if itstender enough; if not, add a splash of liquid (water or white wine, depending on your taste) and cook until the desired texture is reached (you might need to repeat the operation)

CUTTLEFISH: to some extent it is similar to squid once cooked, although much different as it’s got a big bone and the body is not a tube like squid; it’s also got a much bigger ink sac (the ink can be used as an ingredient in many other preparations) and it is more tender and requires a shorter cooking time compared to squid.
Other than that, what I said about the criss-cross pattern applies to it as well

MUSSELS: either mussels or clams is a must in a seafood sauce, it won’t just look and taste right without. Mussels are very delicate and the long cooking time of the sauce would destroy them; furthermore, the liquid that they release needs to be filtered, as it might contain sand and other impurities, therefore you should cook them separately.
See How to steam mussels for more details. I suggest that you cook the mussels and filter their liquid before adding the tomato sauce to the squid (or cuttlefish base). At this point you should know that you need to add some liquid to the tomato in order to simmer your sauce, and you can add that liquid instead of /along with the water.
IMPORTANT: the liquid is very salty, so that will reduce the amount of salt you need to add to the sauce
Cooking time in the sauce: add them to the sauce after turning the heat off as the  mussels should be completely cooked already and overcooking will ruin them

CLAMS: clams are cooked pretty much like mussels, the only difference is that they do not have bits of seaweed coming out of the shell but will need to be rinsed thoroughly before cooking. Everything else is the same, including filtering the liquid and adding it to the sauce
Cooking time in the sauce: you can add them after turning the heat off as the  clams should be completely cooked (same as mussels)

PRAWNS
See: Prawns & prawn stock :
Shells and de-vein the prawns, make a stock with the heads and shells, add it to the tomato sauce and simmer until it reaches the desired thickness.
You can cut the tails as you wish: in small pieces, or lengthwise (they will take a nice spiral shape when they cook), or just leave them whole and place one on top of the pasta for a nice presentation
Cooking time in the sauce: prawn tails require minimal cooking, 3-4 minutes is enough

CRAB
I do not suggest a whole crab for your sauce, unless you’ve got a massive pot. Also, use fresh crab (it should actually be still alive when you buy it). If only precooked crab is available, just leave it, it’s pointless.
To make it easier I suggest that you buy the claws only (obviously is available and fresh): cook them in the sauce until you smell the crab (you won’t miss it it’s a very distinctive aroma), then take them off the sauce, rinse and break the shells to extract the pulp. The pulp can then be added to the sauce, but personally I prefer using it for other preparations (a filling for ravioli, a mousse, a fish cake just to name the most obvious)

Meatballs

Ingredients:

500g beef, veal or pork meat
1 medium egg
25 ml whole milk
80g red onion, finely chopped
2 garlic cloves, crushed
15g finely chopped parsley
10g breadcrumbs
10g Salt

The first consideration is on the meat that should be used: I indicated beef, veal or pork, as they can be used alternatively or together, or two out of three can be used – most people do not have an issue with beef, but veal is rather expensive and hard to find in the UK, and some do not eat pork and not only for religious reasons.

I haven’t included lamb because (apart from being generally quite fatty), it’s got a very strong flavour and you should use it only if the other ingredients of choice work well with it.
However, rather than the type of meat, as the choice depends on your taste and circumstances, I would like to focus on the amount of fat that the meat should contain.

Health-conscious people will be tempted to buy lean or even extra lean mince, but the result will be that your meatballs will be quite dry and not very pleasant.

On the other hand, choosing meat with a very high fat content will give you very nice meatballs but will have a bad effect on your waistline (and cholesterol level etc.).

I found out that a good compromise is a mince with a fat content of 10-15%, that will keep your meatballs moist and won’t hit you too hard on the calories side. If you are buying pre-packed mince, the fat content per 100g will be clearly stated on the label (they even show it on a pie chart nowadays), otherwise you can ask your butcher.

Once that the meat has been chosen, we can focus on the other ingredients: onion, garlic and parsley will add some flavour; these meatballs are quite neutral because I am mainly explaining the process, but I will provide more recipes that include other ingredients, herbs and spices to offer more variety.

The other ingredients are needed to give the right texture: the milk will make your meat softer, the eggs, as their proteins coagulate during the cooking process, will make the meat balls firm and the breadcrumbs will make the mix less sticky and easier to work, as well as firming the meatballs up as they cook.

The preparation, once that all the ingredients have been measured (you won’t need to measure them every time, but I suggest you do it at least the first times, till you get a bit of practice) is very simple:

  1. Mix all the ingredients together in a bowl (if you have a planetary mixer you can use the K-beater)
  2. Refrigerate for at least 30 minutes
  3. Using the palm of your hands, make little balls

Once made, the meatballs can be cooked in many different ways, the most popular one in Italy probably being in tomato sauce.

To do that, simply bring the tomato sauce to a simmer and gently place the meatballs in it, shaking slightly the pan but without stirring at the beginning or they will break. They will be ready in 15 minutes