Artisan Baking at its best …

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It was such a pleasure to spend an afternoon assisting Renato Briffa produce an array of the most mouth-watering, utterly delicious traditional Maltese pastries and sweets.

Renato is a well known Pastry Chef specialising in Maltese confections. He was born and bred in Valletta and he is the third generation of a family of artisan bakers. He is one of 5 siblings and he spent most of his childhood watching and learning from his father who ran a small, very busy family-owned dolceria producing handmade Maltese pastries.

The bakery was established in 1955 and was based in the heart of the City in Old Mint Street. His brother and two sisters also learnt the tricks of the trade and all the family worked in the bakery. Renato explains that he never compromises on quality and he only uses premium organic ingredients sourced from the very best producers. For many locals, these are the sweets they would imagine eating when they were kids. These confections are truly from a bygone era, some forgotten by the younger generation brought up in a world of trendy cupcakes and red velvet.

Renato works effortlessly creating a selection of bespoke pastries oozing with goodness, some of which are hard to find in local confectionaries but they are still baked at home for family gatherings. He crafts each morsel by hand using minimal technology. There are no short cuts, no ready mixes, additives or substitutes. The recipes are well guarded secrets that have been handed down by his father and indeed the proof is in the pudding!

He grinds, whips, bakes, layers and pipes and within a few hours we are presented with a feast. An exquisite fragrant aroma of roasted almonds, rose water, oranges and honey lingers in the air. These are the pastries of dreams!

Renato speaks passionately about the history of these sweet delights and our tasting session becomes a cultural journey taking us back to the old Malta as each bite seems to have a story linked to local religious holidays and festas. I am encouraged to taste and eat….

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I feast my eyes on ‘Xkunvat’ which consists of swirls, ribbons and knots of aniseed pastry dripping with local honey and sprinkled with coloured vermicelli and delicate pastel sugar butterflies. A work of art in itself, it is nearly a pity to see it devoured so quickly!

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The ‘Kwarezimal’ is an out of the world experience. I say this as although I love making sweets, I am not a huge fan of eating them but this is irresistible. Freshly ground almonds, cinnamon, rose water and citrus peel are the main ingredients of these biscuits which are traditionally eaten during the forty days of lent. They are drizzled with Maltese honey and if eaten in moderation, this could be a healthy cookie or even a breakfast bar as they are fat free and contain no eggs!

Out comes the “Qubbajt” or nougat that is usually sold at villages stalls during a festa. Renato makes his own version – a mix of almonds, pistachios and cherries sunken in a luscious, soft, chewy marshmallow texture covered with Belgian chocolate. They are divine.

Then we have three show stoppers… A gorgeous, golden Hazlenut and Thyme Honey Tart bursting with flavour, topped with caramelized, plump red cherries; Strawberry and Almond Flan with large succulent strawberries that have been freshly picked in the morning from the agricultural village of Mgarr… and Marmurat Tart with home made candid peel from blood red Maltese oranges, vanilla extracted from its pod and even more almonds enveloped in Cuban Cocoa from Baracoa. This tart is always a hit in Malta but not so readily available. It was traditionally baked on a wedding day and nowadays it is made during the Christmas season.

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Then I taste a moist and soft chocolate bite, almost like a healthy brownie that has been transformed from local stale bread into the ‘Pudina tal Hobz’. This was traditionally baked on Mondays by frugal housewives, a perfect recipe to use up leftovers after a weekend. Made with cocoa, mixed spice and eggs, dredged with toasted freshly grated coconut, you can be creative and literally add any other sweet leftovers or larder supplies that take your fancy. It is so fresh and moreish that it is difficult to stop eating.

I try some slices of pastry rings filled with treacle and citrus peel, aniseed and orange flower water known as “Qaghaq ta’ l-Ghasel” or Honey Rings. This is probably the most commonly found pastry in local bakeries and is very popular during the Christmas Season.

There is even more, Sweet ‘Qassatat’, Christening Biscuits, Sesame Rings and piped Almond Macaroons or ‘Biskuttini tal- Lewz’…

Sweets make people happy and the enticingly rich and beautiful nutty flavours of the Mediterranean have welcomed me this afternoon. Baking is fun and this has been an inspirational experience. Malta is an island steeped in history with a rich cultural heritage and these pastries reflect the deep rooted generosity and goodwill of the Maltese, their warm and friendly spirit. These pastries have been baked and prepared from the heart.

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This article appeared in the June 2013 issue of Bizzilla, Air Malta’s inflight magazine.
Photography : James Bianchi

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Cherry Pastini ……. a special treat for a local feast !

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Another beautiful bright and happy Mediterranean day, the church bells ringing and there is an air of celebration as St Peter and St Paul are remembered on the island !

It is one of the holiday highlights of the year…. I am excited today as I have always admired these beautiful almond soft bakes with their glistening cherries but have never attempted to make them.

A few days ago, I asked Renato to provide me with his recipe for Cherry Pastini. He is always willing to share his vast knowledge of local sweets and pastries and I am surprised as this is such an easy recipe with very few ingredients.

I have just taken them out of the oven …. they not only look so inviting but the smell is divine and I am now eating some with a lovely espresso as I write. Citrus, almonds, a moist soft texture with a fine crispy crust….. They are so easy to make and although I have piped them, you can also make them without using a piping bag and simply roll them in some ground almonds. There is nothing like home baking and the taste is far superior to the shop bought ones.

This recipe yields 35 to 40 Pastini.
Preheat oven to 160 C

You will need:

250g ground almonds
250g caster sugar
Grated zest of 1/2 lemon
3 drops good vanilla extract
2 egg whites
40 g glacé cherries

I have also added the grated zest of half an orange in mine as I love the flavor of local oranges.
You will also need a piping bag with a star nozzle but this is optional.

In a large bowl mix the ground almonds, sugar, lemon zest and vanilla. Gradually add the egg whites one by one until you achieve a dropping consistency. If necessary add another egg white.

If you are using a piping bag, prepare it with a star nozzle. Line a baking tray with baking paper and pipe the Pastini onto the baking sheet

If you are not using a piping bag, dust your hands with ground almonds and using a small cookie scoop roll into balls and place onto the baking sheet.

Cut the cherries into quarters and decorate each Pastina with a cherry.

Bake for 15 minutes.

Leave to cool on baking tray.

These Pastini will last for up to a month in an air tight container.

Click here for the recipe in Maltese

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Rabbit Loin with Crushed Fennel Seeds and Thyme Honey

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Rabbit is one of the healthiest meats with low cholesterol, low salt and a lower calorific value than most other meats. This recipe was passed on to me by Andrew Borg at Black Pig in Valletta.

Each rabbit loin weighs around 200g so you will need to allow one loin per person.

This very light dish is so different to the more traditional rabbit stews It is lovely with a leaf and tomato salad. It can also be served warm with potatoes and vegetable sides.

You will need:

1 deboned rabbit loin, ask the butcher to prepare it for you
20g olive oil
1 teaspoon honey. I like the flavor of local thyme honey but any honey will do
10g fresh thyme, finely chopped. If this is not available used the dry herb.
2 g crushed fennel seeds
Maldon salt

Rub the rabbit loin with salt and half of the olive oil.
Wrap tightly in cling film.
Poach in simmering water for 12 minutes and cool down quickly in ice cold water.
Prepare a glaze by mixing the honey, thyme and crushed fennel seeds.
Heat a non stick pan with the remaining olive oil and brown the rabbit on all sides.
Pour the honey mixture into the the pan and glaze the rabbit all over.
Serve warm or cool down and serve with a salad.

A straightforward and simple recipe requiring very little prep time. Thank you Andrew !

Apple Galette with cinnamon and honey … super easy…

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I always like to use up my left over pastry immediately as when I leave in the fridge with the good intention of using it ‘one day soon’ it rarely ever happens and I am never organized enough to defrost pastry on time if I freeze it.

So yesterday the leftovers of my almond and walnut tart ended up as a great success. I lined the base of a large pie dish with the left over sweet pastry and using up whatever I had available resulted in a delicious Apple Galette with cinnamon and honey. The great thing about it is that it takes under 10 minutes of prep time but looks impressive. It is also a lightish dessert or tea time treat.

You will need:
A large pie dish or cake tin, you are only covering the bottom, this has no sides.
Left over pastry, any kind, also fine with puff
As many apples as you need, I used 4, thinly sliced, skin on
Nutella or any kind of spread like honey or jam
Cinnamon
Honey
2 tablespoons Caster sugar
Lemon juice if you do not intend to bake this straight away, otherwise you do not need it
A knob of butter

Preheat oven to 175 C

Grease dish and line the bottom only with your left over pastry.
Dock it all over with a fork.
Bake in oven for 10 minutes
Take it out and leave to cool
Lightly spread with jam, honey, caramel or Nutella, very thinly like you are spreading butter on toast. I used Nutella in mine but whatever your preference is.
Thinly slice the apples skin on and arrange neatly on pastry. I like to overlap them.
Melt the knob of butter and trickle it all over the apples.
Mix the cinnamon with the caster sugar. I used heaped tablespoons but you may not like such a strong flavor so simply reduce it. Distribute it over the apples. Do not worry if it is not evenly distributed.
Drizzle on the honey all over and place in the oven for about 25 minutes.

This is super easy to make, tastes fabulous, the pastry base soaks up the juices while baking and the flavors are wonderful and work so well together.

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A Sunday bake … Cherry Cinnamon Almond Tart

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I like to bake something in the weekend. Not only do I find it therapeutic but I like the idea of additive free fresh home baking. Today I have made this tart which is very similar to the strawberry one I posted earlier this week and I have taken out the spices and increased the cinnamon as the combination of cherries, almonds and cinnamon is going to be a winner. I have just taken it out of the oven and it smells divine. The glossy red cherries on the custard filing looks decadent and makes my mouth water just looking at it …

For ease of reference below is the recipe as it is far easier than having to search for the ingredients on the other posting:

Cherry Cinnamon Almond Tart

I use a deep 12 inch tart dish
Heat the oven to 175 C

    For the Sweet Pastry:
    320g flour
    100 g Butter or Margarine
    5g Baking Powder
    80 g Sugar
    70g Water
    Few drops Vanilla Extract
    1 teaspoon ground Cinnamon
    Zest of an 1/2 orange and 1/2 lemon

Sieve flour and baking powder. Rub in butter until mixture is like fine breadcrumbs.
Add vanilla extract, citrus zest, cinnamon and mix in well.
Dissolve the sugar into the cold water. Make well in the middle of the dry ingredients and bring together. Place in cling film in fridge for at least half an hour.
Grease the tart dish and I usually dust it lightly with flour. Roll out pastry and line the bottom of the dish. Dock the pastry with a fork and place in fridge again for at least 15 minutes.
Bake the pastry case blind for about 10 minutes to give it more texture. For a quick way to bake blind without the hassle, look up my posting on baking blind.

    For Almond filling:
    200g Pure Ground Almonds
    150g Sugar
    3 Eggs
    Zest of half a lemon and half an orange
    Few Drops Vanilla Extract
    1 teaspoon Cinnamon Powder

Combine all the dry ingredients and mix in the eggs with a spoon. You want a dropping consistency. Add another egg if necessary. Spread the mixture on the bottom of the tart dish and bake for 15 minutes at 175 C. Leave to cool for two minutes then press the top of tart gently with a metal spoon and allow to cool completely before adding the custard mix.

    For the custard topping:
    1 large can Evaporated Milk
    500 g water
    200 g sugar
    Rind of half an orange and half a lemon
    Pinch of Cinnamon
    Separately, 100 g cornflour mixed in 150 g water
    And of course the cherries, one punnet will do, halved and remove the stone

Gently heat the first four ingredients and bring to a gentle boil stirring with a wooden spoon. Add the cornflour mix and stir while bringing to a gentle boil. Remove from heat immediately and carry on stirring. Pour over the almond filling in the tart and leave it to cool down slightly.

Decorate with halved cherries before the custard cools down completely so that they will set in the tart. Place in fridge. To serve you can either dust lightly with icing sugar or leave without. The glossy cherries are beautiful enough without the sugar…..

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Cherry Cinnamon Almond Tart with a light dusting of icing sugar.

Easiest ever slow cooked Roast Leg of Lamb for Sunday Lunch ….

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This is a good quick recipe and so easy to make. I am just marinating a leg of lamb for one of our abundant Sunday lunches. It is getting very hot here and I would like to cook something substantial to feed the big appetites without spending too much time in the kitchen. On the island we are blessed with fresh produce and the local fresh lamb is of a premium quality but if you wish to be more economical we can also find excellent frozen lamb from New Zealand which you can leave to defrost overnight before marinating.

With the lamb I am serving simple roast potatoes and a Mediterranean Green leaf and tomato salad.

You will need:

A leg of lamb or two, we are big eaters so one medium leg usually serves 4
3 to 4 lemons, zest grated and lemons squeezed
Olive Oil
Garlic
A mix of fresh or dry herbs of your choice
Fresh Rosemary
Sweet Smoked Paprika
2 onions
Freshly ground pepper and Maldon Salt

Mix the lemon juice and zest, olive oil some finely chopped garlic and a mix of finely chopped fresh and dried herbs of your choice. Add a spoon of sweet smoked paprika. Place the lamb on a large piece of foil and rub the marinade all over. Roughly chop up the onions and spread all over the lamb. Season and if available roughly cut up sprigs of fresh rosemary and put over the lamb. Wrap the leg in foil and leave in fridge at least overnight. I cook mine in a slow oven at 150 C covered for 4 hours and then uncovered for the last 30 minutes. The result is tender, moist delicious lamb that will literally melt in your mouth. Apart from roasting some potatoes, I will serve a simple Mediterranean Tomato and Leaf Salad. I like to leave it to rest before serving and I garnis it with more fresh rosemary. i prefer to take it as it is to the table or side buffet table on a large platter surrounded by The roast potatoes with a huge bowl of salad by its side and everyone can help themselves. What I call stress free cooking !

And a simple salad to accompany any meal… Healthy fresh ingredients with a low calorific value!
You will need:
Ripe cherry tomatoes
green leaves, I love lambs lettuce at the moment but you can also use arugula
Fresh basil
Capers
Black olives (optional)
Seasoning, freshly ground pepper and Maldon Salt
Olive Oil
Juice of freshly squeezed half lemon
Few drops balsamic vinegar

Cut up cherry tomatoes and arrange on bed of lambs lettuce. tear up fresh basil leaves and sprinkle on top of tomatoes. add some capers, season, and just before serving add a drizzle of olive oil all over and some freshly squeezes lemon juice. Do not over do it with the dressing. Add a few drops of good quality balsamic vinegar and garnish with some whole black olives if you wish. this is a simple, traditional salad on the island and is specially delicious with lamb ….

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Renato’s strawberry and almond tart

Renato's strawberry tart

Renato’s strawberry tart [Photo: James Bianchi]

Renato’s luscious tart has a crispy biscuit base spread with an almond paste and topped with a layer of old fashioned custard and lots of fresh strawberries. Watch out for Strawberry Festival next weekend.

Strawberry and Almond Tart

I use a deep 12 inch tart dish
Heat the oven to 175 C

For the Sweet Pastry:
320g flour
100 g Butter or Margarine
5g Baking Powder
80 g Sugar
70g Water
Few drops Vanilla Extract
Pinch of Cinnamon
Pinch Ground Cloves
Zest of an orange and lemon
Sieve flour and baking powder. Rub in butter until mixture is like fine breadcrumbs.
Add vanilla extract, citrus zest, ground cinnamon and cloves and mix in well.
Dissolve the sugar into the cold water. Make well in the middle of the dry ingredients and bring together. Place in cling film in fridge for at least half an hour.
Grease the tart dish and I usually dust it lightly with flour. Roll out pastry and line the bottom of the dish. Dock the pastry with a fork and place in fridge again for at least 15 minutes.
I usually like to bake the pastry case blind for about 10 minutes to give it more texture. Renato skips this stage for his tart. It is just a matter of preference.

For Almond filling:
I like a thick almond layer at the base of my tart, however if you prefer a thinner layer, reduce the ingredients by half and you will have enough mixture to spread at the bottom and give the same flavour.
200g Pure Ground Almonds
150g Sugar
3 Eggs
Zest of half a lemon and half an orange
Few Drops Vanilla Extract
Pinch Cinnamon Powder
Pinch Cloves
Combine all the dry ingredients and mix in the eggs with a spoon. Spread the mixture on the bottom of the tart dish and bake for 10 to 15 minutes at 175 C. Leave to cool for two minutes then press the top of tart gently with a metal spoon and allow to cool completely before adding the custard mix.

For the custard topping:
1 large can Evaporated Milk
500 g water
200 g sugar
Rind of half an orange and half a lemon
Separately, 100 g cornflour mixed in 150 g water
And of course the strawberries, as many or as few as you like
Gently heat the first four ingredients and bring to a gentle boil stirring with a wooden spoon. Add the cornflour mix and stir while bringing to a gentle boil. Remove from heat immediately and carry on stirring. Pour over the almond filling in the tart and leave it to cool down slightly.

Decorate with strawberries before it cools down completely so that they will set in the tart. Place in fridge. To serve you can either dust lightly with icing sugar for a more rustic look or for Renato’s finish brush with an apricot glaze made up of 100g Apricot Jam, 20 g Water and 15 g sugar.

Infused Water: Orange, Rose Peppercorn and Basil

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One of the many beautiful churches in the Capital of this small island at dawn today …

When I returned home after my very early walk in the Capital City this morning, I drank a couple of glasses of refreshing infused water which I make daily and refrigerate overnight. I use lidded glass spaghetti jars as they fit perfectly in the shelf of the fridge door… This is a totallly natural drink if you are a fan of flavored waters.

To make this, you will need:

Two oranges, I used blood red ones but if not available the regular ones are fine
Rose peppercorns
Fresh basil leaves
A large bottle of still mineral water

Squeeze one of the oranges and chop the other one into small segments with the skin on. Crush a few rosé peppercorns to extract the full flavor and leave a few of them whole. On the island they grow abundantly but you can find them in most stores. Tear a few basil leaves roughly, do not chop up with a knife as they will discolor. Fill up jar with mineral water and stir everything into it. Cover with lid and put in the fridge overnight if possible, or at least for 6 to 8 hours. I usually top up the jar twice during the day with water and keep two jars in the fridge at any one time so that I always have the infusion available to drink.

Thirst quenching, full of flavor and a natural source of Vitamin C.
I stopped drinking carbonated and low calorie artificial drinks a year ago and limit them to a treat once in a while ….

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Quick weekday meal: Roasted Vegetables …

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This is a good quick healthy weekday meal ideal after a weekend of richer foods…. I like to use fresh vegetables but you can combine with frozen if it suits you … Apart from the chopping, preparation time is minimal…

ROASTED VEGETABLES

You will need

An onion
Garlic, optional and quantity according to your taste
Olive oil
Seasoning, I always use freshly ground pepper and Maldon Salt
Fresh Herbs, again optional and whatever is available
A few drops of balsamic vinegar or if you do not like the taste you can use Worcester Sauce
Squeeze of fresh lemon

A variety of vegetables, allow 500g per person but you can make more and reuse the next day in a number of different ways

Vegetables could include peppers, I prefer red or yellow for this dish as they are sweeter and more tender than the green variety, courgettes, aubergines, tomatoes, squash, butternut squash, pumpkin, fennel, mushrooms …. If you decide to use carrots, broccoli or cauliflower, blanch them in hot water for a few minutes before adding them to the other ingredients)

Wash and chop the vegetables and mix them all together in a large bowl.

Drizzle very lightly with olive oil, season and add some finely chopped herbs, keeping some for garnish. Squeeze some lemon.

Spread onto an oven tray and trash in a hot oven for 30 to 40 minutes. The idea is to have a slightly charred finish and retain the crunch.

Drizzle with a few drops of balsamic vinegar. Do not overuse as you want to taste all the different flavours. Garnish with fresh herbs.

If you do not have any fresh herbs available, a safe addition is dried oregano and you can mix this in pre roasting.

This can be served hot or cold. In fact it’s also delicious refrigerated and served on arugula as a salad. It can also be a good side with almost any meal.

A good healthy option !

Muffins … A healthier version packed with goodness …

I have started making muffins regularly with a variety of fresh fruit…. They are ideal for breakfast or a light lunch with a pot of fresh yoghurt. I cut down the sugar content and I add a different fresh fruit combination each time I bake.

This is the standard recipe I use and add fruit, nuts and other flavours:

Ingredients
60 g unsalted butter
280 g self raising flour
1 teaspoon baking powder
50 g honey
1 egg
250g (ml) skimmed milk

This makes 12 muffins.

Preheat oven to 180 C

Melt butter on low heat and put aside. Beat the egg in a separate bowl.
Sift the flour and baking into a large bowl.
Stir in the sugar
Add the milk to the melted butter and mix into the flour mixture.
Add the egg. Draw in the dry ingredients without overmixing.
Place muffin cases in muffin tin and put in a spoon of batter in each case.
Spoon in the fruit of your choice and see below for instructions and finished photos.
Top up with plain batter mix and sprinkle with more of the fruit mix.
Bake for about 20 minutes.
The muffins will be quite soft when you take them out of the oven because of the fresh fruit but they will firm up when they cool down.

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Apple and Cinnamon Muffins. Finely chop up two apples with the skin on. Squeeze some fresh lemon and add a teaspoon of cinnamon. When they are cooked garnish with some thin apple slides. I griddle mine while I am waiting for the muffins to cook as I think they look very attractive.

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Lemon and Sesame Seed Muffins. Add the grated rind of a lemon and two tablespoons of toasted sesame seeds into the standard muffin mix. Grate the rind of another lemon and mix with another tablespoon of toasted sesame seeds. Sprinkle half of this misted pre baking and keep the other half for garnishing after you take them out of the oven.

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Strawberry Muffins. You will need a large tub of strawberries. Keep 6 aside for garnish and chop up the rest into small pieces. Add to the muffin mix and bake. When cool, cut the remaining strawberries in half and use to garnish the muffin. I like to keep the stem on for garnishing…

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Peach and Vanilla Muffins. Chop up two peaches with skin on into small pieces. Add to muffin mix, add a few drops of vanilla extract and bake. Keep aside a third peach for garnish and shop into thin slices and arrange on muffin after it cools down.

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Orange and Pistachio Muffins. Grate the rind of two oranges. Remove rind and segment the oranges. Chop roughly. Add half to the muffin mix together with the grated rind and finely chopped pre baking add the rest of the mix on top. Garnish with orange segments and a light sprinkle of finely chopped pistachios.

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Almond and Cranberry Muffins. Add two spoons of ground almonds and two spoons of dried cranberries to the muffin mix. Sprinkle some roasted slivered almonds pre baking.

Optional for all muffins. You can lightly dust with some icing sugar before serving…..

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It’s sunny and glorious today on this beautiful island in the Mediterranean …