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"This is a traditional tart eaten in Naples at Easter," says Ingram. "The legend goes that a mermaid called Parthenope in the Gulf of Napoli would sing to celebrate the arrival of spring each year. One year, to say thank you, the Neapolitans offered her gifts of ricotta, flour, eggs, wheat, perfumed orange flowers and spices. She took them to her kingdom under the sea, where the gods made them into a cake. I love to add nibs of chocolate to Parthenope cake because I think it marries nicely with the candied orange and sultanas, but, really, do you need an excuse to add chocolate to anything?" Start this recipe a day ahead to prepare the pastry and soak the sultanas.
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The mix of candied apple and dried apple combined with a sticky cinnamon glaze provides a new twist on an old favourite. These buns are equally good served warm on the day of baking, or several days later, toasted, with lashings of butter.
This layered dessert is deceptively light, despite the creamy chocolate filling. It would also be beautiful with raspberries scattered over the chocolate creme for a burst of freshness.
One may suppose Catalonia gave birth to this custardy treat, but its provincial origins, and even its national identity (but more on that later), are unclear.
Traditionally, crema Catalana or crema de Sant Josep, as it is parochially referred to, was made by grandmothers and maiden aunts and served in a shallow earthenware dish only on Saint Joseph’s day on 19 March, the Spanish equivalent of Father’s Day. Today, the dessert is enjoyed year round in Spain, and its preparation is no longer the sole domain of grandmas and single aunties. There are many commercial powdered custard preparations on the market but, as many a chef will argue, there is no substitute for an old-fashioned stove-top custard.
Both the French and British also lay claim to the origins of similar, better-known, versions of the dessert, crème brûlée and burnt cream respectively. Anecdotal evidence suggests that the Catalan cream predates the French and British versions, which both make an appearance in literature during the 17th century. The main difference between the Spanish recipe and that of the French and Brits is that crema Catalana is made from a mixture of milk and cream with a distinctive spicing of citrus peel and cinnamon and the custard is set by chilling, while crème brûlée and burnt cream are made from cream alone and set by baking in a bain-marie.
Regardless of the dish’s etymology, the key to all three is to set the custard in a shallow enough dish to ensure an even ratio of crackly burnt sugar to gooey custard.
It’s all about the extras when it comes to Bodega’s softly spiced crema Catalana. 216 Commonwealth St, Surry Hills, NSW, (02) 9212 7766.
Chef Simon Arkless jazzes up the trad crema Catalana with a pinch of fennel seeds. 7 Alfred Pl, Melbourne, Vic, (03) 9631 4000.
The espresso-spiked crema Catalana at Mesa Lunga is somewhat of a cheeky revamp of the original recipe. 140 Gouger St, Adelaide, SA, (08) 8410 7617.