Food: Just desserts

Pannacotta, sabbiosa, spumone ... just saying the names of these classic Italian puddings will make your tastebuds tingle in anticipation
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Indy Lifestyle Online
In the summer of 1986, during one of the best holidays I can remember, I went for dinner at Albergo del Sole, in the small town of Maleo, Lombardy, about 60km south-east of Milan. The restaurant had been recommended to me by my friend Johnny Apple, bureau chief of The New York Times, in Washington, who also happens to be a "scribbler gourmand" of great repute and knows pretty much all the very best places to eat throughout the world.

Franco Colombani, the late and sadly missed proprietor of Albergo del Sole, was a champion of traditional Lombardy cooking, producing authentic and regional dishes with an almost evangelical zeal. The beamed dining room of the restaurant also encouraged an atmosphere of convivial eating; like-minded folk mingling around generously large tables, where dishes were presented as naturally as if given to you by your mother - albeit magically transformed into a gifted Italian one on this occasion. The prettily tiled kitchen, taking up one corner of the room, hummed with the steady stirrings of risotti, accompanied, perhaps, by the murmuring of a simple veal braise.

Here are a few words from Carol Field on Franco Colombani, taken from her Lombardy essay for Robert Freson's remarkable book Savouring Italy (Pavillion, 1992).

"Franco Colombani, the owner of this singular inn and country restaurant, has a library of books and documents from which he researches regional dishes. With great respect for tradition, he keeps the culinary culture of Lombardy alive while carefully re-interpreting it with a modern sensibility. He makes balsamic vinegar in his own acetaia and gets cheese and produce from the finest sources in the surrounding countryside (including such proud locals as the old man I saw arriving one morning with a still-thrashing 18lb pike in his satchel)."

I think you get the drift. And yet of all the memorable dishes from that dinner some 14 years ago, the one that stood out above all others was the extraordinary sabbiosa con crema di mascarpone. Sabbiosa loosely translates as "sand cake"; of similar summary is the French word sable, referring to a "sandy" textured golden pastry (the words "les sablons" are often attached to beachside properties in France). The extraordinary Colombani sabbiosa, when whittled away with nothing more than a blunt fork, showed less resistance than would an envious red plastic spade through the perfect sandcastle.

Now then, in the translation of Colombani's recipe for the sabbiosa in Freson's book, it turned out that the most important ingredient of all was quite, quite wrong. In fact the recipes in this and his other book, The Taste of France (Webb & Bower 1983), may occasionally let you down. This was deeply annoying, as I had long given up all hope of ever being able to emulate the original - until May last, that is, when once more I had the great pleasure to take lunch at Dal Pescatore, the restaurant of Nadia and Antonio Santini, equidistant between Mantua and Cremona.

You may recall that I wrote about Nadia Santini's impeccable cooking a few years ago on these very pages (nothing much has changed in that department and lunch was even longer this time ... ) But as we were leaving, I asked Antonio Santini how Albergo del Sole was doing these days.

"Well ... of course, it has never been quite the same since Franco ... but, you know, it is still a good place ... We knew Franco very, very well indeed. He was a special man ... "

"My God! The sabbiosa!" I muttered to myself, somewhat irreverently. "Urrrm, Nadia ... you wouldn't, I don't suppose, by any chance, happen to have the recipe for his wonderful sabbiosa cake, would you?"

"Why yes! Of course! I shall go and get it for you right away!"

So it's potato flour, not corn flour! I should have known that the translation from an Italian recipe to an all-American one - you know, all the measurements are in cups, sticks and whatnot - would have found difficulty with something called fecola (as before, the French is almost the same: fecule).

Mystery solved, I moved to embrace Nadia Santini with joy, only to be met with one of her very own home-made salumi, together with some of her mother-in-law's mostarda di frutta (watermelon, in this case). A privileged and humble man was I that day.

Sabbiosa con crema di mascarpone

serves about 10

Potato flour is not, typically, the easiest thing to find in British shops. In London, I eventually found mine at the excellent Planet Organic (42 Westbourne Grove, London W2, 0171-221 7171), but other health food shops or inspired grocers and delicatessens should be able to find some for you.

For the cake

400g softened, best-quality butter (if you choose unsalted butter, it's best to add a pinch of salt

400g caster sugar

400g potato flour

2 heaped tsp baking powder

4 large eggs

3tbsp Cognac

a little extra softened butter

2-3tbsp fine, dry breadcrumbs

For the mascarpone cream (contains raw eggs)

5 eggs, separated

5tbsp golden caster sugar

500g mascarpone

3tbsp white rum

Preheat the oven to 350F/ 180C/gas mark 4. Beat together the butter and sugar until light, white and very fluffy. Meanwhile, sift together the potato flour and baking powder into a bowl. Continuing to beat, introduce the flour mixture into the butter and sugar, alternating, from time to time, with an egg. Once both eggs and flour have been incorporated, gently beat in the Cognac. Generously butter a large (preferably non-stick) cake tin, measuring about 30cm across by 5cm deep. Tip in the breadcrumbs, shake around the interior until thoroughly coated and shake out the excess. Spoon in the mixture, level it off with a large spoon (dip the spoon into hot water, which will stop it sticking to the cake mix), making more of a dip in the centre than usual; this will allow the cake to end up with more of a level surface. Slide into the oven and bake for 1-11/2 hours. Check after 40 minutes or so and if the surface looks to be browning too quickly, cover with a sheet of foil and drop the temperature a little. The cake is cooked when a thin skewer inserted into its middle emerges clean as a whistle. Remove the cake now, leave to cool for at least 30 minutes and then turn out on to a cake rack to cool completely.

While the sabbiosa cooks, make the mascarpone cream. Beat the egg yolks with three tablespoons of the sugar until thick and pale yellow. Add the mascarpone and further beat until thick. In another bowl, whisk the egg whites until stiff and then incorporate the remaining two tablespoons of sugar until all is glossy. Fold this into the egg yolk mixture, together with the rum, until the cream is voluptuous in the extreme; the French describe this sort of consistency as lisse, which, for me, sounds just right: smooth, polished, glossy.

To serve, cut generous wedges of the cake and then smother with the cream. Eat with your bluntest fork.

Spumone Don Taruschio (not pictured)

serves 6

Another Franco now. Yes, you've guessed it, that one in the Welsh Marches, yet again: "Don" Taruschio of Llandewi Skirrid. When I was a young chap with a small restaurant in Fishguard, also in Wales, and having known Franco for a few years, I thought nothing of ringing him to ask how he made this dish or that dish, which I had enjoyed when eating at his, and his wife Ann's, Walnut Tree Inn.

In retrospect - on many sweaty moments ever since - I have said to myself, "My word Hoppy, the very cheek of it!" But Franco, as ever, would be diplomatic to a tee, mumbling a response down the telephone line which addressed the vague gist of my passionate request. One recipe in particular that I was quite mad for then was his spumone: a frozen zabaglione mousse, in essence.

Now, it so happens that a new compilation recipe book called Classic Cooks (Weidenfeld & Nicolson) has recently been published, which includes Franco's semifreddo allo zabaione. It seems that he pours this into a tin mould these days, freezes it and then cuts it into slices. Well, I'm absolutely sure this is the very same number that used to go under the name of spumone, in my days of blatant plagiarism. What's more, it used to be served up frozen in small wine glasses, with a spoonful of rich Jersey cream poured over the top. It was bliss, was that. Here is my (very slightly messed with) version of it, back in those little wine glasses where, as far as I am concerned, it belongs.

7 (small) egg yolks

175g golden caster sugar

200ml dry Marsala wine

400ml double cream, very cold

Fill a large saucepan 3/4 full of water and put to boil. Put the egg yolks and caster sugar into a large mixing bowl and whisk them well together - preferably electrically - until thickened and white. Add the Marsala a tablespoon at a time, whisking well in after each addition. Transfer the bowl to the pan of boiling water, place over it and turn the heat down to a mere trickle. Continue to whisk the mixture until mousse-like, lighter in texture and sort of fluffy thick - which will take longer than you think.

Once you think you have arrived at this moment, scrape out into a clean bowl and leave to cool, stirring from time to time. Loosely whip the cream in (yet) another bowl - which should be well chilled - and carefully fold into the eggy mousse until thoroughly amalgamated. Spoon into six medium- sized wineglasses - leaving a little more than 1cm of space below the rim - and put on to a shelf in the freezer for at least six to eight hours (overnight, for once, may be just a little too long). Serve with a spoonful of Jersey cream poured over the surface, together with a sprinkling of crushed amaretti biscuits.

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