Layer cake

Rachel Roddy’s Si­cil­ian bake

The Guardian - Cook - - Front Page - Rachel Roddy Rachel Roddy is a food writer based in Rome and won the Guild of Food Writ­ers food writer and cook­ery writer awards for this col­umn. Her new book, Two Kitchens (Head­line Home) is out now; @rachelal­iceroddy

By the time I ar­rived, Gisella, along with her sis­ter and mother, had al­ready peeled 30 ki­los of toma­toes, which were drain­ing in large sieves, steadily de­posit­ing pale red drips into the bowls be­neath. Tem­per­a­tures have re­mained doggedly around 45C (113F) in Si­cily this last week, so steady too were the drips of sweat run­ning down the sides and napes of ev­ery­one’s necks. “It’s the hottest 8 Au­gust since 1800,” noted Gisella’s hus­band Rodolfo, who was stand­ing in the street, just out­side the garage door.

“Do you want to watch or help?” Gisella asked. “Help,” I said, at which point an of­fice chair on wheels was rolled from the work­bench up to a large, blue plas­tic tub in the mid­dle of the garage. At first glance, it seemed the tub was full of soupy sauce. I soon re­alised it was sim­ply water stained red with seeds, skin and juice. The toma­toes – a round, fluted va­ri­ety were bob­bing at the bot­tom of the tub and needed fish­ing out.

I watched and copied, peel­ing away the skin, then open­ing up the flesh to shove out the seeds and gouge out the hard core, both of which fell back in the water. I have known Gisella, a lo­cal baker, for three years, which means she is now al­lowed to be in­ex­orably cu­ri­ous about my fam­ily tree. It is re­cip­ro­cal though: while we peel an­other 25 ki­los I am filled in on the do­mes­tic de­tails of Gisella and Rodolfo’s com­bined 15 sib­lings, the ma­jor­ity of whom still live in Gela, many near enough to smell the bread as it comes out of the oven.

Once peeled and strained, the re­main­ing flesh of the toma­toes will be cooked with olive oil, onion and basil, in a pan the size of a car tyre, set up on a gas ring in the cor­ner of the garage. This is to be a fin­ished and sea­soned sauce or salsa, which will be bot­tled, ready to be tipped on to the pizza Gisella makes at the bak­ery. There are a great num­ber of piz­zas to be made for Fer­ragosto on 15 Au­gust, a na­tional hol­i­day, when fam­i­lies go en masse to the beach with deep trays of pizza and also wa­ter­mel­ons the size of fat ba­bies.

Oh, to be knee-deep in cool sand ... the heat in the garage was al­most un­bear­able by the time the onion, siz­zling in oil in the pan, was deemed ready (be­cause it smelled and looked right). As if to prove it, an­other sis­ter came into the garage, nose-first, cu­ri­ous about what was go­ing on. The toma­toes were tipped into the pan, and the basil added too. As it sim­mered, the sauce was watched, and tasted, salt added, and its acid­ity dis­cussed.

Two streets away, at our house, my aubergine sum­mer con­tin­ues, and I make Richard Ol­ney’s gratin again. In many ways, Ol­ney’s de­tailed recipes, like beau­ti­ful tech­ni­cal draw­ings, couldn’t be fur­ther from Gisella’s sketched “pinch of this, litre of that”. On the other hand, the two have much in com­mon – the same deep ap­pre­ci­a­tion and un­der­stand­ing of ba­sic kitchen alchemy, such as how toma­toes be­come a sauce. Also, an aubergine, tomato and ri­cotta gratin is as at home in this part of Si­cily as it is in Ol­ney’s France. Ol­ney is very clear: the aubergine should be fried in a gen­er­ous amount of olive oil – aubergines ab­sorb like sponges, so let it be de­li­cious stuff – un­til they are ten­der and golden; that the toma­toes should be peeled and cooked un­til enough water has gone that they are prop­erly saucy; and that the ri­cotta cream mix­ture is the con­sis­tency of thick pour­ing cream, the basil ripped into lit­tle pieces, and the parmesan sprin­kled be­fore the sauce.

The siren scent of fried aubergine and tomato sauce meld hap­pily un­der a cus­tardy top­ping, which swells and puts on golden spots. It is rav­ish­ing. Sure enough, Vin­cenzo’s cousin Elio puts his nose through the win­dow. Next thing, he is sit­ting at the ta­ble – fork in one hand, a chunk of Gisella’s bread in the other – at the ready.

The cus­tardy top­ping swells and puts on golden spots. It is rav­ish­ing.

Richard Ol­ney’s aubergine, tomato and ri­cotta gratin Serves 4

800g aubergine (ide­ally, the small elon­gated va­ri­ety)

Olive oil, for fry­ing

1 medium onion, diced

1 gar­lic clove, peeled and chopped

500g ripe toma­toes, peeled and chopped

Salt and black pep­per

Sugar (op­tional)

250g ri­cotta

1 large egg, beaten

150ml dou­ble cream or mas­car­pone

60g parmesan, grated, plus more for top­ping

A splash of milk (op­tional)

A small hand­ful of basil leaves

1 Cut the aubergine into 3mm thick slices length­ways. If you wish, salt the slices. Pour oil into a fry­ing pan un­til it reaches 25mm up the sides, then set over a medium heat. Once hot, fry the slices in batches un­til golden on both sides, then lift from the pan and blot on plenty of kitchen towel. You may need more oil; don’t let it get too hot.

2 Dis­pose of the oil and wipe the pan. Re­turn it to the heat and add 3 tbsp of fresh oil. Fry the onion un­til soft and translu­cent. Add the gar­lic, toma­toes and a pinch of salt. Cook un­til most of the water has evap­o­rated and the toma­toes are thick and saucy – usu­ally about 15 min­utes. Taste for sweet­ness and add a lit­tle sugar, if you like

3 Mash the ri­cotta. Add the egg, cream, a pinch of salt and half the parmesan. Beat into a thick cream – it should pour slowly, so if it is too thick, add a lit­tle milk. Taste and add salt, as needed.

4 Set the oven to 200C/400F/gas 6. Line the bot­tom of a small, deep gratin or bak­ing dish with the aubergine, sea­son with pep­per, rip over some tiny pieces of basil, sprin­kle with the re­main­ing parmesan, then add half the sauce. Re­peat. Fin­ish with a layer of aubergine. Spoon on the cream and dust with parmesan. Bake for 10 min­utes, then re­duce the heat to 190C/375F/gas 5 for an­other 15 min­utes, or un­til the sur­face is set and golden. Rest for 15 min­utes be­fore serv­ing.

Cook’s tip If you have left­over olive oil from fry­ing the slices, it can be fil­tered and used again

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