Growing up, mum used to bake something sweet and delicious most weekends. Dad has a sweet tooth in the traditional Italian style: In other words, he likes lots of nuts and creamy flavours. As a result, much of what mum would bake would have some kind of nut, cheese or dairy element. Her inspiration would come from a number of cookbooks but none more than The Australian Women’s Weekly ‘Cakes and Slices Cookbook.’ Her well leafed copy is firmly pressed at page 45 where dad’s all-time favourite, the Pecan and Sour Cream Cake can be found.
Mum spent many a Saturday afternoon, firing up the trusty Sunbeam Mixmaster and filling it with eggs, flour, sugar and sour cream as she created this delightful dessert. The smell of it baking still lingers in my nostrils all these years later, as does the taste of the cake mix, licked straight from the beaters. So. Darn. Good.
This moist, nutty cake is somewhere between a cake and a dessert and never fails to please. It’s perfect with a little extra cream and served with a cup of tea or coffee or as a special occasion cake (which is what I made mine for last week.) It was my Aunty Josie’s 50th birthday, and so I decided to bake this cake for her. Matt and I were heading to Mount Hotham for a long weekend, and so mum, Aunty Josie and two friends stayed at our place. I decked it out with pretty soaps, a fridge full of nibblies and left this cake on the kitchen bench as her birthday cake. I don’t have a Mixmaster like mum, but I do have a beautiful, apple green KitchenAid named Gigi. She did the job well and my Aunty loved it.
This brings me to another reason mum used to bake; for my birthday. For the first few years of my life, mum would bake the most spectacular cakes for my birthdays. Mostly, from the Australian Women’s Weekly ‘Children’s Birthday Cake Book’ which is now a classic. I remember flicking through the colourful, glossy pages of this now vintage cookbook, dreaming about all the amazing cakes mum could conjure up for me to share with my friends.
Among the cakes she made for me, my siblings and cousins were the Puss in Boots, an array of numbers and the space themed astronaut cake. These cakes were not only food but a work of art, and definitely instilled my love of baking from an early age.
So thanks mum for letting me lick the beaters and for taking the time to create such delicious memories, always baked with love. I’m now going to share my version of the Pecan and Sour Cream Cake with you so you too can bake it for that special someone in your life. Enjoy!
Sour Cream and Pecan Cake
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- 270g butter, softened
- 2 teaspoons of vanilla essence
- ¾ cup of caster sugar
- 2 large eggs
- 300g carton of sour cream
- 1 ¼ cups of wholemeal, plain flour
- ½ cup of wholemeal, self-raising flour
- 1tsp baking powder
- ¾ cup finely chopped pecans
- 3tbs brown sugar
- 1tsp cinnamon
Preheat oven to 180C. Grease a deep, 23cm round cake pan.
Cream butter, essence and sugar with an electric mixer until light and fluffy.
Stir in sour cream and add sifted flours and baking powder.
Spread half of the cake mixture into the prepared cake pan. Sprinkle with half of the combined nuts and sugar. Spread evenly with the remaining cake mixture and sprinkle the rest of the sugar and nuts on top.Bake for up to 1 hour, depending on your oven. Check with a skewer to ensure its cooked through. Stand for 5 minutes before turning onto a wire rack to cool.The wholemeal flour gives it a drier texture. The pecans can also be replaced with any nut you like; walnuts or almonds would also work well.
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Lentils and I have had a love/hate relationship over the years, much like most daughters, including myself, have with their mother. As with my mother Carmela, I used to struggle to get along with lentils as a kid. Maybe there was something about how wholesome they were that turned me off, or maybe Mum has just improved her recipe over the years. They say your taste buds ‘mature’ as you get older too, causing you to enjoy new flavours. I reckon there’s definitely some truth to that too.
Mum would often make this soup during winter, cooking up big batches of it so we would be able to have it as a quick meal during the week. It would often form part of a larger meal (usually with chicken or veal cotolette (snitzel) and salad – an upcoming post) and I would always try to bypass the lentils in favour of the rest of the meal.
However, as an adult I’ve grown to love this meal and now cook up my own batches of it so Matthew and I can take it to work for lunch each day. It’s exceptionally easy to make, freezes really well and is one of the healthiest meals in my repertoire. It’s also very, very satisfying – one of those really hearty soups.
Now, Mum used to soak the dried lentils overnight but I think you can definitely get by doing things this way, or even using tinned lentils if you’re really pressed for time. I’m sure Mum won’t mind me saying that.
And now that I’m older, not only do I make Mum’s soup and appreciate it more, I appreciate her more too.
Mum’s Italian Lentil Soup (Zuppa Lenticchie)
- 375g dried green lentils
- Olive oil
- 2 small potatoes, peeled and diced
- 3 regular carrots, peeled and diced
- 1 brown onion, diced
- 4 celery stalks, trimmed and diced
- 400g tinned tomatoes
- ½ red capsicum, diced
- ½ green capsicum, diced
- 1L chicken stock
- 1tbs ground cumin or curry powder (optional)
- 1tbs chilli flakes (optional)
- Salt and pepper
- Extra water if needed
- Lots of fresh parsley
Heat the oil in a large saucepan. Add the onions and lentils and sautee until the lentils are well coated and the onions begin to soften.
Add all the other ingredients, except the parsley, and bring back to the boil. Turn the heat back down and simmer for up to two hours, allowing the ingredients to soften and the flavours to intensify. Remember to stir occasionally and add water as required.
Add parsley at the very end and stir through. Serve with extra olive oil drizzled on the top, cracked pepper and some crusty bread.
Next Monday, I’ll post another of Mum’s recipes, a Sour Cream and Pecan Cake baked with love for my Aunty Josie’s 50th birthday.
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The golden rule when cooking gnocchi is to always use old potatoes. I’m talking about the ones you have forgotten about for a week or two that are starting-to-shoot-and-grow-more-eyes, kind of old.
My mum tells me about when she first cooked gnocchi for dad, after they were married, and how instead of serving him up the beautiful plate of pillowy, doughy morsels she had envisioned, she had to throw out a saucepan full of watery, potatoey and floury mush. She obviously didn’t listen to Nanna.
Well I sure did. Last Saturday I spent the day cooking deliciously sweet potato gnocchi with my amazing grandmother and I’m about to share her words of wisdom (and her recipe) with you now.
Before I do though, let me tell you a little more about my Nanna Maria.
Firstly; she is amazing. If you continue to read my posts, you will only begin to appreciate how true this is. I know everyone has a special place in their heart for their Nanna but mine truly is a star. Let me explain.
When Nanna, her mother Giussepina and her older sister Palma made the trip to join my great-grandfather Antonio in Australia back in 1938, the globe was about to be caught in the grips of World War II. My great-grandfather had begun to make a life for them, working as a potato and onion picker.
Unable to speak a word of English, Nanna tells me that it was her mother’s food that endeared their family to the fearful and predominantly Australian community of Warrion – in South West Victoria. Giussepina would bake loaves of bread in the old stove, sending wafts of wheaty smells into the town air and like the music in the Pied Piper, these smells would draw all the children to the Luppino home. Being Italian, Giussepina was only too keen to share her food with the children and I guess this is how they overcame the cultural divide: with food. It’s a philosophy I continue to employ today when I share food to bring people together.
So in the spirit of my great-grandmother’s generosity, I will now share with you, Nanna’s Gnocchi di Patate con Bolognese recipe. I vividly remember Nanna making these most weekends and watching in awe (and some frustration) as she would artfully flick the gnocchi up the back of a fork to imprint them.
I never could get the hang of that until last week! You can use a gnocchi board to put ridges in too (this looks more professional) but Nanna insists on using the fork (the ‘old school’ way) and I must admit, it does seem more authentic.
Nanna also prefers steaming the potatoes rather than boiling because they don’t take in too much moisture. You can boil or bake them though if you prefer. I’ve also provided you with a version of Nanna’s secret bolognaise sauce and meatballs that she serves with the gnocchi. With a little parmesan on top, it’s absolutely too die for. So read on and enjoy!
Gnocchi di Patate con Bolognese
Gnocchi (serves four)
- 500g of old potatoes, peeled, chopped and steamed
- 50 g butter
- 1 egg, lightly beaten
- 50g self raising flour
- 250g plain flour
While the potatoes are still warm, add the butter and mash well. Pour in the egg and mix through.
Sift the two flours together and mix through about three quarters of the combined flour. Mix through with your hands to form the dough. It should hold together and be soft and smooth so add more of the flour if it’s still too sticky.
Heavily flour your board or bench top and work the dough into a ball. Be careful not to overwork it though. Pull off a section at a time and roll it into a ‘snake’. Each snake should be about 1cm thick. Keep the length of your snake manageable (just cut off whatever you don’t need and redeposit into the ball).
Once you have your four or five manageable ‘snakes’, start cutting the individual gnocchis with a butter knife. They should be about 1.5 cm long. Place them on prepared trays laid with baking paper.
After cutting all the gnocchi, use a fork or gnocchi board to put indents into the dumplings. If using a fork, the easiest way is to push the fork into your bench/board with the back facing upwards. Then, place the gnocchi on the bottom of the fork and using your index finger, roll it upwards. (See the photo below)
This sounds tricky but really isn’t, just give it a go and see what works for you.
Fill a large saucepan three quarters full with water and bring it to the boil. Add a good pinch of salt.
Pour the gnocchi all in at once. At this stage, Nanna says that you should not stir but use Nonno’s trick of sticking the end of a wooden spoon into the middle and just tapping the bottom firmly to help separate the dumplings.
Within minutes, the gnocchi will rise to the surface. Once they are all up, boil for only another two minutes or so, and then strain well.
Serve with Nanna’s bolognaise sauce and meatballs, or your favourite sauce, and enjoy!
Now that you have the gnocchi, here are two sauce ideas you can serve it with – both can be made ahead of time, and freeze really well too.
- 1 brown onion, finely chopped
- 2 cloves of garlic, crushed
- Olive oil
- 300g mince beef
- 4 tbs red wine
- 1 litre of tomato sugo (tinned tomatoes or supermarket ‘passata’ will do)
- 3 tbs tomato paste
- 1 handful of fresh basil
- 1 handful of fresh parsley
- Salt and pepper
- 4 eggs, hard boiled and then shelled
- Salt and pepper
Heat a good glug of olive oil in a large saucepan and add the meat.
Mix and separate the meat until brown. Remove from pan.
Add some more oil, heat and add onions. Stir constantly for two minutes.
Once the onions are opaque, add garlic and continue to stir constantly for about two minutes or the garlic starts releasing its aroma.
Return the mince to pan, heat through and deglaze the pan with the red wine.
Add the rest of the ingredients, except the boiled eggs, and stir well. Simmer for up to two hours, stirring occasional. The longer you simmer, the richer the flavour but if you’re time pressed, half-an-hour of simmering is fine.
Add the eggs at the end, just to heat through.
- 500g mince beef
- 2 cup of fresh breadcrumbs
- 2 cloves of garlic, chopped finely
- 1 large egg
- ½ cup of parmesan, finely grated
- ½ cup parsley, finely chopped
- Salt and pepper
- Olive oil
Using your hands mix everything together in a bowl until well combined. Roll into balls.
Lightly fry in a pan of heated olive oil. At this stage, you only want to brown them, don’t cook through.
Drop into the sauce (above) once it begins to boil and cook through.
There it is; a little piece of my culinary history. You’ll find this is a meal that will both satisfy the hungriest tummy and impress the fussiest guest. It truly is an easy recipe to master and one that you can add your own flair to, depending on what sauce you decide to use and what ingredients you put in the gnocchi. This is a basic gnocchi recipe that you could add any flavours to – even sweet ones! Some ideas include chocolate, pumpkin (instead of potato), herbs and more. Have fun with it and let me know how you go!
So what’s your favourite family recipe? How have you used it to bring people together?
Next Monday I will share another family recipe that I love. Mum’s Italian Vegetable and Lentil Soup.
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I’m a writer and an enthusiastic home cook.
One of my favourite things to do on a weekend is be at home in my cosy Woodend cottage with my boyfriend Matthew and our chocolate Labrador Bruce and cook up a warming soup or a hearty roast dinner. Or better still, bake some cookies with my favourite kitchen appliance – Gigi the green KitchenAid.
Growing up in an Italian family has made a huge impression on my cooking. It goes without saying that food is religion to any Italian.
My father, Natalino, was a butcher – so meat was always a feature. Good. Quality. Meat. Each year, dad continues makes Italian pork sausages to both dry into salami and cook fresh.
My maternal grandmother, Maria, is a typical Italian cook. While my grandfather, Cosimo, was still alive, they would often make fresh pasta for the family to enjoy with fresh passata (tomato puree) that had been made and bottled when tomatoes were fresh.
My mother, Carmela, is the baker extraordinaire. Some of my fondest childhood memories are of mum firing up the whirring Mixmaster to bake a delicious chocolate cake. Of course, the best part of this experience was getting to lick the beaters. Needless to say, all of my birthday cakes were masterpieces.
The other major culinary influence for me has been my Aunty Cathy and Uncle Sam. Aunty Cathy is one of those amazing Italian cooks that can fill a table with the most delicious, amazing food for the whole family to share while making it look effortless. The most amazing thing is that most of the food is grown in Uncle Sam’s amazing vegetable garden. This has inspired me to grow my own vegies in my garden in Woodend.
The other things that inspire my love of food are ‘food porn’ like recipe books (I have more than I could ever use), MasterChef and My Kitchen Rules and newspaper lift-outs like Epicure and Taste. I’m always soaking up new ideas.
Overall, my philosophy on food is to cook from the heart, with fresh, delicious ingredients honouring my culture and history and simply to put a smile on my loved ones’ faces.
Who in your family inspires you in the kitchen? Maybe it was the way grandma used to make her sponges, or watching your mum make a favourite dish when you were a child? Share your food stories in the comments sections below.
As mentioned, Nanna is a great inspiration to my cooking. Next Monday I will share with you her secret recipe for homemade gnocchi – you won’t want to miss it!
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