We spoke with Liliana Battle, about the cultural influences of her dessert recipes her latest book The Sweet Life.
Your latest cookbook is all about Italian style sweet treats, are many of these recipes you’ve learnt from members of your family?
All my cooking has been influenced by my family, and my book The Sweet Life contains many recipes that have been cooked by members of my family and passed to me, or recipes I have developed inspired by family memories.
Is there a recipe in the book that is particularly important or special to you and why?
Sweet food somehow seems that little bit more special because it is generally made to celebrate something like a special day or time of the year, so this book is filled with recipes that mean a great deal to me because they evoke memories of loved ones and can transport me back to special days.
The Lemon Biscuits and Nonna’s Honey Biscuits were a staple treat my Nonna kept in an old green Tupperware container, ready to hand out whenever someone visited. Somehow that container was never empty! The Pignolata was also Nonna’s specialty and my absolute favourite sweet. She only made it at Christmas time, so I looked forward to when Nonna deemed it late enough in the year to start making it.
Pignolatais often made in a large wreath to be placed as a centrepiece on the table at Christmas time for the family to dig in for dessert, but Nonna knew how much my cousins and I loved it so she would make little single serves in cupcake cases so we could have one every time we visited throughout December. It is so simple, fried balls of sweet dough tossed through a toffee-like sticky honey syrup with almonds.
I can’t eat Pignolata without thinking of my Nonna and all the wonderful meals she cooked for her family. She is 96 today and no longer cooking, but her legacy lives on through her food.
Your family is from the Italian region of Calabria, are there any notable differences in cooking techniques or specific desserts or other recipes from that region?
All the regions of Italy have their specialities, even though you will find similar desserts all over the country. Calabrian sweets use a lot of honey, nuts and spices – showing the Arabian influence on the south of Italy. There is also an abundant use of citrus, lemons and oranges, which grow so well in the south. We also like to fry our desserts – sweet dough fried can be turned into many delectable treats from Bomboloni, to Pignolata and Canoli.
Some of the recipes are ‘modern day twists on the classics’, what is your process in experimenting with foods and recipes?
All recipes begin with a foundation recipe. I am a big believer in having good foundation recipes in your repertoire that you can tweak to suit your tastes or utilise whatever ingredients you have on hand. For example, if you know how to make a sweet tart base, you can use whatever jam, fruit or other ingredients you have on hand to fill it. Pastry and dough, such as a good brioche dough (the one in my book is very easy) are foundation recipes that can be turned it into many sweet treats.
For my book I wanted to create many different sweet treats based on foundation recipes. For example, with the addition of different ingredients and a variation of technique, the brioche dough is transformed into Fig and Walnut Swirls, Cinnamon Brioche Bread with Lemon Mascarpone Glaze, Cartocci (like a fried doughnut canoli), Gelato filled Brioche rolls, Doughnuts with Lemon and Raspberry Mascarpone and Caramel and Almond Wreath. There is also a sponge cake recipe that comes from my mother’s kitchen that is foolproof. I can remember sitting on the kitchen bench helping her make that very same recipe years ago and is the only sponge cake I still make today. But it can be transformed into many different cakes, filled with custard or cream, topped with whatever fruit is in season, or chopped up and turned into a trifle. This is the secret to good cooking – perfecting the foundation recipes and then let your creativity guide you from there.
In your experimenting with recipes, would you say you’ve picked up any new flavours and techniques just from the diverse culture in Australia?
We are so lucky to live in such a melting pot of cuisines that expose us to flavours that are different to our own heritage. I love to use different spices and ingredients to spin a twist on my recipes. I particularly love some of the indigenous ingredients like lemon myrtle and finger limes which have such intense flavours that can really give an exotic twist to a recipe. I am also a big fan of middle eastern flavours like pomegranate molasses and rosewater. When it comes to savoury dishes, I add Moroccan and Spanish flavours into my Italian dishes for a little more oomph!
Are you more a sweets person or a savoury person?
I definitely eat more savoury food, but when the occasion arises, I love something sweet. For me, baking is when cooking becomes more than simply feeding a family. No one needsto eat a cake, or something sweet. This is food simply for pleasure and I find making something sweet can be incredibly therapeutic gives me just as much pleasure as eating it.
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Liliana Battleis a food writer, author and chef, whose mission is to share her love of Italian food, and continue the legacy of her family’s recipes. You can purchase her latest book The Sweet Life by visiting her website.