A charming custom here is to give gifts of little cakes on your birthday to friends and co-workers. In the last month we have had several birthdays and numerous little plates or boxes have been delivered to the door – from cupcake-size pumpkin cheesecakes with a salted caramel topping to more traditional Greek phyllo and shredded kadaifi sweets wrapped around chopped nuts and soaked in a cinnamon scented syrup.
Well, the time came for me to reciprocate. Never mind the quantity (years I’ve been celebrating birthdays) I wanted to concentrate on quality (my offerings of ‘little cakes’). And, so began the saga.
I remembered that after testing out Carol Field’s The Italian Baker back in the summer for The Cookbook Guru, I had intended to try her almond biscuit – Pastine da Thé. But, in the usual way of things, it slid through the cracks and never got tested. Then I saw a similar, but slightly easier recipe in one of my all-time favourite cookbooks, Pastry by Richard Bertinet. What could be simpler? However, hubris, according to the ancients, is often meted out by the gods to those who are overly confident – just to remind us mere humans of their place in the grand scheme of things. Naturally, events did not go as planned.
First, I could not find fine ground almonds, so I ended up grinding whole almonds after they had been blanched – fresher, I though. But, we only have a small moulinex grinder that ground the nuts beautifully, but no matter how many pulses of the grinder, the almonds only achieved a small, though still coarse grind. They did not resemble the fine ground nuts (almost an almond meal) I get in the UK. What did it matter, I thought. Well…it did matter, affecting the absorbency of the almond dough which consisted of the ground almonds, icing (confectioner’s) sugar, egg whites and honey. What I end up with was a sticky mass.
Not being set back too much, I proceeded to try to bake the biscuits, including the step of dotting a little of my fig jam in the centre. Naturally, they spread thin and the first batch nearly became one solid biscuit, the individual biscuit pieces bleeding into each other on the baking tray. Next batch was a bit better, but they were still spread thin and quite big. So, halving them came next and attempting to constrain their speading by putting them into my mini madeline tins. Better, but prying them out of the tins was a nightmare.
Delicious, but for home consumption only. Gifts have to be special and, most importantly, look the part.
A trip to the ζαχαροπλαστείο (the pâtisserie) was in order. Luckily, there are any number of these type of shops around about (approximately 1 in every square city block in our neighbourhood). They are wonderful sources for morning buns, croissants or sometimes the traditional sesame studded kouloúri; light lunchtime pastries stuffed with cheese (tyropitas), spinach (spanokopitas) or other varieties of savoury ingredients encased in puff pastry or flaky phyllo. But, the showcase items in these shops are sweets – anything from the traditional Greek treats to chocolates and French inspired pastries. It is a place where larger sweets such as tarts and cakes can be purchased for serving at dinner parties. Many places also add luscious gelato to the menu, thus becoming a full service gelataria and pâtisserie.
So, I nipped around the corner from our home to a place that we like very much – a small, but exceeding good ζαχαροπλαστείο. Making the selection for the boxes among the variety on offer was the most difficult part of the exercise. In the end, I went with many chocolate confections and a few little tarts, plus mini-eclairs.
It was all packaged in lovely boxes. Plus, as we were leaving, we were presented with napkin wrapped, fresh-out-of-the-oven, savoiardi (inelegantly called sponge fingers in British English). We munched on these warm sweet sponges on the way back home with our bounty. Later that day the ζαχαροπλαστείο used the savoiardi as a base for tiramisu – something I think that would make an admirable birthday cake.
Now, if I can only master those almond biscuits. The taste alone warrants another try. First, however, I need to master grinding almonds.