Semolina (or semolino, if you’re Italian) gets too much of a bad press in these sun-forgotten islands. The reality is that there’s so much more to it than semolina pudding. Coarsely ground durum wheat is what gets turned into the unappealing semolina pudding, and it’s also what I’ve used in this koch. Durum wheat can also be finely ground. The result is what Italians call semola and is used to make gnocchi, bread, pizza and pasta. As soon as my mum sent me this recipe from Italy, I asked myself why I had waited this long to make this cake again. Although I couldn’t even remember the last time I ate it, I could still taste it through the memories it brought back. There are two puddings which mean home to me, and this is one of them. I hear what you’re saying: “Koch? That really does not sound Italian to me!”. And you’d be right. Koch (also sometimes spelt coch) is not an Italian name, nor an Italian cake. Its origins date back to the Austro-Hungarian empire, who ruled North Eastern Italy for a good while. The language we’re dealing with here is German. In Trieste, this pudding is still sometimes called koch di griess instead of koch di semolino. Griess is German for semolina, whilst koch simply is the root word for cooking. That’s right, the name of this cake simply means cooked semolina.
Yet, it is the furthest you could imagine from the blandness of semolina pudding. It’s got eggs, which make the batter rise fiercely in the oven just like a soufflè. It’s got lemon zest, and I honestly still haven’t found a cake which doesn’t benefit from a bif of lemon thrown in the mixture. Except perhaps chocolate cake. Isn’t it funny how chocolate and orange are a tried and tested combination, yet chocolate and lemon are not? But I degress. The preparation is simple, but the rewards great. If you’ve read so far, yet find yourself flinching at the thought of cooking with semolina, I promise you won’t be disappointed. Flavours aside, this is Italian cooking at its best: based on simple ingredients, even simpler techniques and highly regional. This recipe comes from an old cookbook by Maria Stelvio, La cucina triestina, a staple in any self-respecting kitchen in both Trieste and neighbouring Gorizia for a long, long time. I can’t remember when it was published for the first time, but I’m pretty sure it was before 1900, and it has been re-printed ever since. I infused the milk with tea leaves and star anise (anyone else spotting a theme here?) for a slightly more grown-up version, but you could easily leave them out and get the same old fashioned, delicious treat. For an authentic koch di semolino effect, use a bundt tin.
Preheat the oven to 180°C/165°C fan. Grease your cake tin with butter and cover in caster or granulated sugar. In a bowl, whisk the egg whites until stiff peaks form. Set aside. In a pan, bring the milk to the boil, then infuse with the tea and the star anise for about 8 minutes. Sieve the milk into a jub, then pour it back into the pan. Add the semolina, salt and lemon zest to the milk and put back on over a low heat, stirring until the mixture has thickened a bit more (about 3 minutes). Turn the heat off and leave the mixure to cool down for a minute or so. Then pour the 50 grams of sugar and butter in and stir until dissolved. Add one egg yolk at a time, mixing well after each addition. Finally, add the egg whites: quickly mix in about half of the egg whites, then gently fold in the rest. Pour the mixture in the tin and bake for about 30/40 minutes, until the surface is golden. As soon as you take it out of the oven, sprinkle the surface with the remaining tablespoon of sugar. The baking time time will depend on your tin and on your oven. The cake will rise, a bit like a soufflè, and then shrink back on itself once it cools down. Be patient: this koch is best eaten at room temperature and gets better on the second day.