It’s Christmas Eve and it’s sticky, muggy, humid, hot. The air is thick and still beneath the high wispy cloud – so typical this change in the weather after my last post despairing of Wellington’s Christmas climate. Long may it continue, until tomorrow at least.
Today we have made fruit and nut truffles of the whole food kind – walnuts and sunflower seeds blended until gritty then bound together with prunes, dried apricots, raisins and a glug of brandy. We have iced the Christmas cake with brandy butter icing; Christmas smells of brandy in our house. Today we made mayonnaise for our hot smoked salmon hors d’oeuvres platter we are having tomorrow. On one of our first truly hot days Mum and I decided to whip, vigourously I might add, home made mayonnaise. Michael Bublé’s Christmas album took a welcome break and The Eagles, Pearl Jam and Leonard Cohen’s Hallelujah played as we whisked and coaxed a buttercup yellow egg yolk and olive oil into beautifully thick, rich and bright mayo. Droplets of sweat appeared on our foreheads and our arms ached, but goodness, that mayonnaise, I could eat it with a spoon. Tomorrow will be delicious.
On Friday we had our Christmas dinner with Ollie and Jason at their flat. A de-constructed Christmas tree is tacked to their kitchen walls, fairy lights are woven among branches, candy canes hooked between sprigs and baubles hang from the ceiling. We drank bubbles and pulled Christmas crackers; it felt very festive.
The boys cooked an absolute feast that we devoured with greed, each mouthful taken with a hmm and aah, and exclamations of “these potatoes!” “these beans and olives!” “this chicken!” Ollie makes the best roast chicken: moist and tender with crispy skin. There were potatoes roasted in duck fat to a crisp outside with soft white insides; a vegetable tian with eggplant, tomatoes, zucchini, garlic and herbs; and green beans lightly sautéed to bright forest green in colour with black olives, lemon and garlic.
For dessert Jason made the best lemon tart I have ever eaten. The filling was thick, high on the pastry and luxuriously creamy like a custard with the sweet tang of lemon. It was light yet rich, sweet yet thrillingly citric, the way only a good lemon tart can be.
For dessert I made an upside down pear ricotta and lemon cake. We hardly needed two desserts but the idea for this cake had crept into my head and wouldn’t leave. After Christmas tea and episodes of 30 Rock this cake became our midnight feast.
I roasted slices of bosc pears in butter, brown sugar and a little salt until they become slips of sweet juicy fruit. I layered these on the bottom of the pan, a haphazard layering far from a delicate spiral, with the lemon ricotta mix on top. The ricotta lends the texture of ground almonds and gives an open crumb. The cake beneath the pale pears is buttery in colour and in flavour – the smooth, rich butter flavour that becomes soft and sweet in the oven. This is the same mellow butteriness that can be found in a good Chardonnay, in a pear itself and perhaps, even, a tissue thin slice of prosciutto or salami. There is comfort to be found in this buttery warmth, even when it is nearly 100% humidity.
Upside-down Pear Ricotta Cake
The ricotta cake base I adapted from a recipe I found on the BBC Good Food website: a wonderful site and one of my most trusted sources of online recipes. A few extra notes: I used defrosted ricotta which I had frozen a few weeks ago. It worked fine but I made sure to squeeze any extra moisture out before adding to the mix.
For the pears:
3 bosc pears, peeled, cored and sliced
a generous knob of butter
half cup brown sugar loosely packed
pinch of salt
For the cake:
175 grams softened butter
175 grams caster sugar
zest of 2 lemons
3 eggs, separated
250 grams ricotta
125 grams flour
1/2 teaspoon baking powder
Pre-heat oven to 180°C. Place the sliced pears in a roasting dish with the butter, sugar and salt and roast until tender. About 20-30 minutes. Line a 20cm cake tin with baking paper.
Meanwhile prepare the ricotta cake mix. In a bowl cream the butter and sugar together until pale and smooth. Then beat in the lemon zest, egg yolks and ricotta. In a clean dry bowl using clean beaters beat the egg whites until stiff peaks form, then fold into the ricotta mixture. Sift the flour and baking powder together then fold into the cake mixture until just combined.
Once the pears have roasted use tongs to layer the pear slices with on the bottom of the cake tin with the least amount of excess juices as possible. Sprinkle over a teaspoon of brown sugar. On top of the pears pour the cake mixture and smooth. Bake in the oven for 35-45 minutes until golden brown and a skewer inserted in the middle comes out clean. Leave to cool in the tin for one hour before turning upside down onto a serving plate. Serve with cream or yoghurt.