This Sicilian caponata is certainly different to the Christmas fare we are used to in Australia, but it makes a perfect antipasto or salad as an accompaniment to meat or fish .
Eggplants and peppers are summer vegetables and not in season in winter for Christmas, so this caponata is made with celery hearts, traditionally boiled first before being sautéed. In some parts of Sicily green, leafy winter vegetables (for example chicory, spinach, endives) are also used with the celery.
I do not pre-cook the celery; I prefer to slice it very finely and just sauté it till it is slightly softened.
It is a very unusual caponata with a combination of textures and flavours –sweet, salty, sour… soft and crunchy. This recipe is one of the many caponate in my first book Sicilian Seafood Cooking.
Sultanas or currants are both good to use. Muscatels and raisins are OK as well, but their size may not be as visually pleasing.
Sometimes I toast the almonds, sometimes I do not. I made this caponata in a friend’s kitchen and on this occasion I used whole almonds rather than chopped ( the was no food processor/ kitchen wizz). On other occasions I have used pine nuts.
I have paired this with meat and fish but I really like to eat it on by it self… especially at the start of a meal.
almonds, 1 cup, blanched, toasted and chopped
celery, 1 large, but remove the outer leaves and only use the centre, pale green stalks and some of the fine leaves
onion 1, large, chopped
sultanas or currants, ¾ cup, sun-ripened
capers, ½ cup, salted or in brine
green olives, ¾ cup , stoned, chopped
white vinegar, ½ glass
sugar, 3 tablespoons
extra virgin olive oil, ½ cup
salt and freshly ground pepper
These can be sprinkled on top when the caponata is ready to serve: Coarse Toasted Breadcrumbs, 2 tablespoons, made from good quality 1-2 day old bread and then toasted in a frypan with hot oil.
Slice the celery finely and chop the leaves.
Sauté the celery with the onion in a deep frypan until it has softened, add salt and cook for about 10 minutes.
Add the olives, sultanas and capers and cook for another 2 minutes.
Empty the cooked ingredients into a bowl.
Agro dolce sauce (sweet and sour sauce): To the frypan already coated with caramelised flavours, add the sugar and heat it very gently until it begins to melt and bubble. Add the vinegar and allow it to evaporate.
Add the vegetables to the sauce and some of the almonds, reserving some for decoration if you are not going to use the toasted breadcrumbs.
Leave the caponata in the fridge, at least overnight. Serve at Room temperature. Top with the rest of the almonds or breadcrumbs when ready to serve.
Caponata has evolved over the ages to become the dish, which personifies Sicilian cuisine and is a popular dish during festivities ( perfect for Christmas). As you’d expect, there are many regional variations and enrichments of what must have been a very humble dish, as well as the personal, innovative touches from the chefs of ancient, Sicilian aristocracy (called monzu, a corruption of the French word monseur).
In Sicilian cooking the melanzana (eggplant) is said to be the queen of vegetables, second only to the tomato and the principal ingredient in caponata is the eggplant.
If you eat caponata at my house you are likely to eat the version of caponata as made in Catania and it will include peppers as well as eggplant. This is because my mother was born in Catania and this is the caponata I grew up eating. The caponata which is common around Palermo has no peppers.
I prefer to keep my caponata di melanzane simple, but again, variations in the amounts of ingredients are endless. Some versions add garlic, some have oregano, several recipes include anchovies, others add sultanas and/or pine nuts or toasted almonds. These are all acceptable and authentic variations.
In keeping with the tradition of what is customary in Palermo, just before serving add a sprinkling of coarse breadcrumbs (toasted in a fry pan in a little hot extra virgin olive oil) or almonds — blanched, toasted and chopped.
For me, Peter Robb in his book Midnight in Sicily captures the essence of a Sicilian caponata, when he describes how very different the caponata he was savouring in Palermo was to the caponata he had been eating in Naples.
I realised caponata in Palermo was something very different. It was the colour that struck me first. The colour of darkness. A heap of cubes of that unmistakably luminescent dark, dark purply-reddish goldy richness, glimmerings from a baroque canvas, that comes from eggplant, black olives, tomato and olive oil densely cooked together, long and gently. The colour of southern Italian cooking. Caponata was one of the world’s great sweet and sour dishes, sweet, sour and savoury.
The eggplant was the heart of caponata. The celery hearts were the most striking component: essential and surprising. Pieces of each were fried separately in olive oil until they were a fine golden colour and then added to a sauce made by cooking tomato, sugar and vinegar with a golden chopped onion in oil and adding Sicilian olives, capers …….
As Robb discovered: eggplant is the purple heart of Sicilian caponata – and it is the principal ingredient.
There are a variety of caponate (plural of caponata) and the variations and inclusions of different ingredients in the basic caponata recipe are many.
Some traditional recipes use tomato paste rather than chopped tomatoes, some add garlic, others include chocolate (or cocoa). Many recipes contain nuts – almonds or pine nuts or pistachio, fresh in some, in others they are toasted. In a few recipes the caponata is sprinkled with breadcrumbs and sometimes the breadcrumbs have been browned in oil beforehand. Frequently herbs are added – sometimes basil, at other times oregano or mint. Certain recipes also include raisins or currants and some fresh pears. Several include fish, singly or in combination and include canned tuna, prawns, octopus, salted anchovies and bottarga (tuna roe).
You will need a deep, large fry pan. If you use a non-stick frypan you may not need as much oil, but the surface will not be as conducive to allowing the residue juices to form and caramelise as in a regular pan. (After food has been sautéed, the juices caramelise – in culinary terms this is known as fond. Non-stick pans do not produce as much fond).
Although the vegetables are fried separately, they are all incorporated in the same pan at the end. When making large quantities I sometimes use a wok.
extra virgin olive oil, ¾ cup (depending how much the vegetables will absorb)
eggplants, 3-4 large, dark skinned variety
onion 1, large, chopped
red tomatoes, 2 medium size, peeled and chopped or 2 tablespoons of tomato paste and a little water or some canned tomatoes
capers, ½ cup, salted or in brine
green olives, ¾ cup, stoned, chopped
celery, 2-3 tender stalks and the pale green leaves (both from the centre of the celery)
white, wine vinegar, ½ cup
sugar, 2 tablespoons
salt and freshly ground pepper
Cut the eggplant into cubes (approx 30mm) – do not peel. Place the cubes into abundant water with about 1 tablespoon of salt. Leave for about 30 minutes – this will keep the flesh white and remove any bitter juices while you prepare the other ingredients. Although it is not always necessary to do this, the eggplant is said to absorb less oil if soaked previously.
Prepare the capers – if they are the salted variety, ensure that they have been rinsed thoroughly and then soaked for about 30 minutes before use, and then rinsed again.
Chop the onion.
Slice the celery into very fine slices and chop the green leaves.
Peel, and coarsely chop the tomatoes (or use tomato paste or canned tomatoes).
Drain the eggplants and squeeze them to remove as much water as possible – I use a clean tea towel.
Heat a large frypan over medium heat with ½ cup of the extra virgin olive oil.
Add eggplant cubes and sauté until soft and golden (about 10-12 minutes). Place the drained eggplants into a large bowl and set aside (all of the vegetables will be added to this same bowl).
Drain the oil from the eggplants back into the same frypan and re-use this oil to fry the next ingredients.
Add the celery and a little salt gently for 5-7 minutes, so that it retains some of its crispness (in more traditional recipes, the celery is always boiled until soft before being sautéed).
Remove the celery from the pan and add it to the eggplants.
Sauté the onion having added a little more oil to the frypan. Add a little salt and cook until translucent.
Add the tomatoes or the tomato paste (with a little water) to the onions, and allow their juice to evaporate.
Add the capers and olives. Allow these ingredients to cook gently for 1- 2 minutes.
Empty the contents of the frypan into the other cooked vegetables.
For the agro dolce sauce (sweet and sour sauce):
Add the sugar to the frypan (already coated with the caramelised flavours from the vegetables). Heat it very gently until it begins to melt and bubble. Add the vinegar and allow it to evaporate.
Incorporate the cooked vegetables into the frypan with the agro dolce sauce.
Add ground pepper, check for salt and add more if necessary.
Gently toss in all of the cooked ingredients over low heat for 2-3 minutes to blend the flavours.
Remove the caponata from the pan and cool before placing it into one or more containers. Store in the fridge till ready to use and remove it from the fridge about an hour before eating– it will keep well in the fridge for up to one week.
When ready to eat, sprinkle with either toasted almonds or toasted breadcrumbs. I like to add fresh basil or mint leaves.
CAPONATA DI MELANZANE CON CIOCCOLATA (Caponata with chocolate)
In Sicilian cuisine there are a number of recipes, which include chocolate to enrich the flavour of a dish (see HARE or RABBIT COOKED IN CHOCOLATE) and chocolate in eggplant caponata is a common variation in certain parts of Sicily.
In the early 1500s, the Spanish conquistadors discovered a variety of unknown foods in the New World.Among these was xocolatl, (chocolate) obtained from ground cacao seeds. Spanish nobility arrived in Sicily during the 15th and 16th centuries and they brought their exotic ingredients from the New World to the island. This was also an ostentatious period of splendour and opulence for the clergy and the Sicilian aristocracy.
Although many traditional Sicilian dishes are said to be Spanish legacies, it is more accurate to say that some Sicilian cuisine incorporated both Sicilian and Spanish traditions.
Follow the recipe for eggplant caponata above and add cocoa or good quality, dark chocolate.
Cocoa: The majority of the recipes for caponata enriched with chocolate suggest the use of cocoa powder (about 2 tablespoons of cocoa to 2 tablespoons of sugar dissolved in a little water to form a thick paste). Add this mixture to the pan after you have made the agro dolce sauce and before you add the cooked vegetables.
Dark Chocolate: My most favoured alternative is to use 50g of dark, extra fine chocolate (organic, high cocoa content – 70%). Add the chocolate pieces into the agro dolce sauce and stir it gently as it melts, and then I add the cooked vegetables. This results into a much smoother and more luscious caponata.
In a modern Sicilian restaurant with a young chef, I was presented with an eggplant caponata where the chocolate was grated on top, much like grated cheese on pasta.
In my first book, Sicilian Seafood Cooking there is whole chapter devoted to caponata. I have also written other posts with recipes on the blog :
Panettone’s popularity round the world keeps on growing and I have seen various packages of imported Italian Panettone in select shops. Panettone is traditionally eaten during the Christmas and New Year holiday period in Italy. Christmas is close.
Panettone was made famous and affordable when it was commercially produced (from the 1920’s) and railed all over Italy and now in many parts of the world.
The cheaper versions of light textured Panettoni (plural of Panettone) that you may be familiar are made with commercial yeast. The artisan and much more expensive varieties of Panettone are made with natural yeasts using the same traditional principles as making bread by the sourdough method.
When I first started playing around making bread at home I used commercial yeast (called lievito di birra in Italian) and my father used to remind me of how his mother made bread – she always saved a bit of uncooked dough from the loaf she was shaping, keep it in a jar with a lid and use it in the next batch of dough. He said that she never used commercial yeast. He was Sicilian and full of stories. He used to tell me about companion plantings and the effects of lunar cycles on plant germination, growth, and development.
But thinking myself a modern woman, most of the time I doubted the folk lore. It was only years later that I learned about natural leavening and how my grandmother was using lievito madre, ‘mother’ or a ‘starter’ in her baking – this is the wild yeast mixture that develops bacterial and lactic ferments that promote natural leavening. It is what imparts the bubbles in the texture of the dough and contributes to the characteristic aroma and flavour found in sour dough bread.
I like artisan breads – handmade and hand-shaped sourdough breads made with quality ingredients and integrity in bakeries like Zeally Bay Bakery. It is based in Torquay, but there are stockists in Melbourne and in some parts of regional Victoria.
‘Like many great things, sourdough requires time, skill and patience’
The above quote is from Zeally Bay’s website. John and Jan Farnan began making quality sourdough breads on a small scale in 2007. John, his son and a team of dedicated bakers have continued to develop an entire range of baked goods using Australian, certified, biodynamic and organic ingredients and applying traditional methods for making sourdough. The long fermentation process used in sourdough breads has many health benefits. Of interest is that the bakery is using the natural leaven culture that was began in 1981.
The reason that I mention Zealy Bay is that I have been privileged over time to try a whole range of their breads including their brioche and Easter buns and recently the Panettone that the bakery has been perfecting in time for Christmas… and it is great.
It was fragrant and had complex flavours, a result of using high-quality, natural ingredients and a long fermentation process. I could taste the natural flavours of the yeast, flour, eggs, butter and the fruit. Panettone made with sourdough if wrapped well, will remain fresh for days and just like in good bread, the flavours will mature and develop.
Being certified organic is a guarantee that the ingredients do not contain GMO’s, chemical pesticides or result in land degradation.
So, if you plan to have Panettone for Christmas it is worth considering if you will buy a local or imported one or make one at home?
The more affordable and commercially produced Panettone made by large production companies is bound to have preservatives and artificial flavours. If it is imported, you will have no way of knowing when it was baked and how it was transported.
The more expensive range of imported Panettoni are very likely to taste better than the cheaper versions. They are also more likely to have been made using the sourdough method – the older and more traditional method of making Panettone. Panettone is no longer just made in Milan. There are regional varieties made by artisans using local variations – for example some may have saffron, chestnuts, chocolate, figs rather than sultanas. The Sicilian versions are likely to contain higher amounts of citrus fruit, (this is grown extensively in Sicily). The artisan Panettoni may have been baked not as long ago as the more commercial ones and their expense may also reflect the cost of having been transported in faster and better climate-controlled conditions.
Few Italians bake Panettone at home and this is not surprising. Making Panettone at home requires patience and is a laborious process. It requires quite long leavening times over several days and three consecutive stages of mixing and kneading. You need good quality, gluten-rich flour to “support” such a rich dough.
The ‘mother’ or ‘starter’ has to be made well ahead of time and has to be mature, in strength, with the right degree of acidity. The bacteria contained in it must be nourished for fermentation, so every 3-4 days it is necessary to “refresh” the mother’s yeast and add some flour and water.
Ideally while it cools, the Panettone should be hung upside down to stretch and form a dome. Knitting needles are inserted all the way through the bottom half of the panettone between two objects of equal height or over a large saucepan and left to stretch at least six hours.
Christmas for me is not just cooking for Christmas eve (as is more traditional in my household) or Christmas day. It is more to do about having a range of simple ingredients on hand so that I can prepare the odd meal quickly, just in case I end up feeding some one. It is the festive season after all but whatever happens during this very silly season in the year, I like to be in control.
In my first book, Sicilian Seafood Cooking, I have written:
Every cook and professional chef has a way of doing things. It is said that you don’t leave your life behind, you take it with you. My mother’s surname is Leone. Often daughters acquire some of their knowledge and skills in the kitchen from watching their mothers and, like the Sicilian proverb, I am a leone (a lion) in control of my kitchen.
In this post I want to revisit an easy chicken dish that is Vitello Tonnato but not made with vitello (veal) but chicken. The word tonnato comes from the word tonno (tuna).
This recipe could keep you sane and will gain you many compliments.
Chicken fillets, capers and a tin of good tuna in oil are easy to get and these are likely to be ingredients that you have in your pantry. Mayonnaise can be made in no time with eggs and extra virgin olive oil. Anchovies taste good in this dish but not everyone likes anchovies so I did not use them on this occasion.
This dish is so simple to make, but it will be very much appreciated and enjoyed. Great for summer (as in Australia) or any season. It can be – but it also makes an impressive antipasto at any time.
Your guest could be familiar with Vitello Tonnato, but they are not likely to be familiar with Pollo alla Messinese – the word pollo or gallina is chicken and alla Messinese is as prepared by the Sicilians from Messina.
I have written this recipe before so I will just include some photos as I have made this many times (for recipe see link below).
On this occasion I wanted to make some chicken broth (another staple in my fridge) so I used a whole chicken and two chicken breasts. Then removed the breast from the whole chicken and used it with the two other breasts to make Pollo alla Messinese for six people. I cooked the chicken and when it was nearly cooked I added the chicken breasts whole. I then cooked it for an extra five minutes and then switched off the heat. The residual heat will cook the fillets.
Photo: tuna, capers and mayonnaise.
Photo: breasts are sliced, tuna sauce has been blended but because it was too thick I added more mayonnaise.
One layer of mayonnaise on the bottom, one layer of breasts. Three layers in all, topped with the sauce last and a sprinkling of capers. Pink peppercorns also have visual impact.
It always seems a time for scacce in Sicily, but particularly at Easter.
I have already written about scacce (focaccia-like stuffed pastries) and for suggestions of fillings and the recipe and ways to fold the pastry, see the post called: Scacce (Focaccia-like Stuffed Bread).
One of the most difficult things if you are a novice at making the traditional shaped scacce is the folding of the pastry. So, why not try just forming them into these shapes below instead. Use the same fillings and pastry as described in the post Scacce ( Focaccia- like Stuffed Bread) above.
This scaccia (singular of scacce and not a misspelling) in the photo below is round and pie shaped. The filling is made from lamb and ricotta.
The braised greens on the side could also be used in a filling – spinach or chicory or broccoli- softened/ wilted and then sautéed in garlic, chili and extra virgin olive oil (but drain well).
There is a post for impanate with a lamb filling – a typical dish for Easter.
The photos for these scacce (and pizza) are from a small eatery in Catania. The filling is made from slices of fried eggplant, a little bit of tomato salsa and a little bit of caciocavallo ( Sicilian cheese) – you could try provolone (cheese) instead.
Or you could try small pasty shapes as in the photo below (circle of dough = filling on one side= fold over to make a half moon). The pastries in the photo below are cooling on the racks in Dolcetti pasticceria (pastry shop in Victoria Street Melbourne). Marianna is the pastry chef and her mum is Lidia – and she is all Sicilian. Lidia visits Dolcetti each Saturday to make these pastries. She calls her pastries impanate. They are fabulous and she uses a variety of fillings.
What about just a pizza ….. These pizzas (in the photo below) are from Pizza D’Asporto (Rifle Range Shopping Centre, Williamstown). They are made by Sicilians and are very good – worth a visit.
I first wrote about cassata in Dec 2009. I have revisited the post and added new photos. I keep on making cassata for special occasions and in cooking classes and this recipe is successful every time.
It is perfect for Christmas.
Many believe that a cassata is an ice cream cake made out of assembled layers of ice cream. But no Sicilian believes this. The Sicilian cassata is made with ricotta.
In the early 19th century, the ice cream makers of Naples were famous for making moulded, opulent, ice cream layered cakes and these were called cassate.
Cassata was once more popular at Easter (when the ricotta is at its best – the cows are feeding on lush green pastures in spring), but cassata is now eaten at any festive occasion in Sicily including Christmas.
Some people differentiate between the two cassate by referring to the one made with ice cream as Neapolitancassata – this may be because it is very much like Neapolitan ice cream composed of three different layers of contrasting colours and flavours: one of chocolate, a pink which sometimes can taste like strawberry and a vanilla one that is usually mixed with glace fruit (usually red and green glace cherries).
In Australia there is a particular ice confectionery called a cassata that is sold in individual portions. It has a pink layer in the centre that is made of cake soaked and flavoured with a pink cordial like essence (Alchermes essence).
The Sicilian cassata, has much older roots than the ice cream cakes popular with the Neapolitans.
The Sicilian cassata is a round, moulded cake shaped in a bowl lined with layers of sponge cake, the chief ingredients are sheep’s milk ricotta (it is sweeter and more delicate than ricotta made with cows milk), mixed with sugar, small bits of dark chocolate and candied citrus and zuccata (candied pumpkin). Within Sicily there are some variations which vary by location and family tradition, for example some recipes include an additional layer of sponge cake in the centre as well as the casing.
Some say that the word cassata may have come from the Roman name for cheese, caseus (the Sicilian word for cheese is casu or caseata).
Many believe that its origins are Arabic – the Arabs occupied Sicily for several hundred years – the invasion began in 827 AD and they conquered Sicily in 902 AD. They introduced the cultivation of sugar, very sweet desserts and the use of nuts and dried fruit in pastries. It is also likely that the name cassata may have come from Arab word qas’ah, a deep terra-cotta bowl; that may even have been used to shape the cake.
The sponge cake is called pan di spagna in Italian (bread from Spain) and may have been a Spanish addition – the Spanish ruled Sicily intermittently for may years (Angevins, Aragonese, Viceroys and Bourbons from 1282 until the end of the reign of Ferdinand the second in 1859).
Usually Sicilians order their cassata from a pasticceria – it is left to the experts to make, mainly because cassate are usually elaborately decorated by pasticceri. There are baked versions of Sicilian casssate and these are often made at home. The uncooked version of cassata can also be made at home successfully but will not look as elabarate. Some of the cassate in pasticcerie are often very baroque and white and green striped fondant is used. They are then decorated with ribbons of zuccata (candied pumpkins) and are often sprinkled with silver sugar balls.
Once the cassata is turned out of the mould it is left to set and it is spread with apricot jam. It can then be covered with a sugar fondant (this is often coloured pale green. Cassata is often covered with striped covering – green and white ). My preferred option is to cover it with marzipan and candied fruits and I have no trouble making the marzipan.
I first made cassata using Ada Boni’s recipe from Italian Regional Cooking – this is a very fine and old publication which has been out of print for some time. My cassata recipe, through the ages, has developed to the following and it always seems to taste good, even if it is not as professionally decorated as the imagesabove.
I always buy the solid ricotta, usually sold in large rounds – vendors slice it to the required weight. I never buy the ricotta sold in the tub – it is far too watery (and often tasteless). If this is the only ricotta that you can purchase, it is a good idea to drain it overnight.
fresh ricotta, 700g and a little bit of fresh cream to make beating easier
caster sugar, 120 g
dark chocolate, 60g
pistachio nuts, 100g chopped
candied citrus peel, 60g (of good quality and if possible lemon, orange and cedro – candied citron)
vanilla, 1/4 teaspoon (I use vanilla bean paste)
cinnamon, 1/4 teaspoon
liqueur, 1/2- 3/4 cup to taste. I have used one of the orange (Cointreau or Grand Marnier) or mandarin flavoured ones.
marzipan to cover the cassata (see earlier post)
glace fruits for decoration
apricot jam, 1/2 cup
sponge cake, approx 250 g (if bought).
If you make a sponge cake:
Use 5 eggs, 120 g of sugar, 100 g of sifted flour, grated lemon peel and/or vanilla (I use vanilla bean paste or flavour my sugar with vanilla pods) and butter to grease the cake tin.
Process: Beat egg yolks with sugar until creamy. Fold in beaten egg whites (until very firm). Slowly fold in the flour, then add vanilla. Bake sponge cake in moderate oven for approx. 40 minutes.
Line a deep round mould with layers of foil or plastic wrap or baking paper.
Cut the sponge into thin layers. Use them to line the sides of the mould. Leave enough sponge to cover the top of the cassata.
Sprinkle the sponge with liqueur to moisten.
Blend the ricotta with the sugar (some use a syrup made with sugar dissolved over heat in a little water, allow the syrup to cool before using.) You may need to add some cream to make blending easier. Slowly stir in the vanilla, cinnamon and a dash of liqueur.
Fold in the nuts, small pieces of chocolate and candied peel.
Press the ricotta mixture into the lined mould, smooth the top and cover with a layer of sponge cake. Sprinkle with more liqueur. I usually refrigerate the cassata overnight (to set) and cover it with marzipan about 2-3 hours before I serve it.
Make the marzipan and roll it out into a thin round shape.
Turn the cassata out of the mould (when it is ready to cover) and spread the outer with a thin layer of apricot jam.
Cover with the marzipan and decorate it with the fruit.
It is Christmas at Dolcetti; these photos speak for themselves (see link at the end of this post).
Marianna from Dolcetti is making so many traditional sweets for Christmas. There are too many to mention in this post but here are a few photos of what you can purchase from her Pasticceria (Italian for Patisserie) in Melbourne.
There are torroni ( plural of torrone) in various colours and flavours: almond chocolate, vanilla rosepetal, strawberries and white chocolate, chocolate baci, vanilla, roast almond and orange blossom, pistachio and almond……Marianna is famous for her hand made sweet things. f Some of you who live in Australia may have seen her on TV, Italian Food Safari (SBS) making her torrone (nougat). There is also a book of the series published by Hardie Grant.
Giuggiulena (also called Cubbaita) is also classed as a torrone. Click on link to see earlier post for description and recipe:
Also particularly Sicilian is the Buccellato (in dialect “cucciddatu”); This is made in the shape of ring and is stuffed with nuts and dried fruit. Photo of Giuggiulena and Buccellato above.
Panforte is one of the oldest sweets in Italy; it is very popular in Siena and Pisa but is now found in most places in Italy and overseas .This is heavily scented and flavoured with medieval spices. Marianna makes both the dark and light version
(different ingredients) in various shapes and sizes. It’s served in thin slices like torrone and keeps very well.
One of my favourites are the dried figs filled with nougat and dipped in dark chocolate; a version of these are also a popular Christmas sweet in Calabria and usually stuffed with almonds or walnuts and candied orange peel.
There are also Italian Christmas cakes – moist, light in colour and laden with rum and marsala. (No images)
Pignolata is a typical sweet of Sicily and Calabria that is popular at Christmas and during Carnival festivities. These are balls of fried dough (they look like large chickpeas) and covered with warmed honey.
She is also highly respected for her different almond biscuits (she is of Sicilian heritage after all) and of these you will find many varieties, however she also makes similar ones with pistachio; one these are the Pistachio Shortbread Biscuits. This is Marianna’s recipe.
Pistachio Shortbread Biscuits
250g unsalted butter, softened to room temperature
160g pure icing sugar, sifted
2 tbs fine rice flour
2 tbs corn flour
90g almond meal
225g plain flour
1/3 cup unsalted pistachio nuts, very finely ground (like the almond meal)
Combine butter and icing sugar. If using an electric mixer it is important that you do not overbeat the butter and sugar as this will add too much air to the mixture. Another way to view this is that the butter must remain yellow and not the pale colour that results when butter and sugar is beaten for a considerable amount of time.
Add ground nuts, and then the flours last of all and mix until mixture comes together. Once again, do not overwork it; being short breads using your fingers to rub in the flours may work best.
Turn onto a lightly floured surface and with a sharp knife or biscuit cutter cut into preferred shapes; Marianna has cut hers into Christmas trees.
Place the biscuits on oven trays lined with baking paper. Space them about 2cm apart.
Bake in 180°C oven for 10 -15 mins or until lightly golden (but being short breads they must still be pale in colour).
When they are still warm sprinkle with crushed pistachio nuts.
Cool and store in a tin.
There are other pastries and sweets that can be made to order in various sizes. Some ideal ones for Christmas are: Fresh Fruit tart – think of Australian summer fruit! Troncodi Natale is a Christmas log (Bûche de Noël), a popular Christmas dessert in many countries of Northern Europe. Millefoglie, (the French call Mille-Feuille – flaky puff pastry interlayered with a rich chocolate crema in the bottom half and chantilly cream on top. Photo clink on link below:
Photo by Patrick Varney, Raglan Images for Italianicious ( magazine) Nov- Dec 2010
CHRISTMAS IN SICILY
You are probably wondering what Sicilians eat for Christmas in Sicily.
When the respected writer Mary Taylor Simeti (a famous food writer and expert on Sicilian Food),. She is an historian and a an expatriate American, married to a Sicilian organic wine maker and farmer) visited Melbourne recently, she and I and pastry cook Marianna De Bartoli, who owns Dolcetti, a pasticceria in North Melbourne, were all asked this same question during an interview for Italianicious Magazine (Nov-Dec issue 2010).
We all gave the same answer, which is that there is no one answer since the cuisine and traditional food of Sicily is very regional. Sicily may be a small island, but the food is very localised and very different from region to region.
The three of us also agreed that Christmas Eve was more important than Christmas day – it is a meatless occasion and fish is the first choice. In some places Sicilians eat stoccofisso (stockfish) or baccala, where in others they eat eel. Usually families wait up and go to midnight Mass. And for those that do, Christmas lunch will often begin with a light first course. For example, chicken broth with maybe some pastina (small pasta suitable for broth) or polpettine (small meatballs) made with shredded cooked chicken meat, egg, a little fresh bread and grated cheese.
In Ragusa, where my father’s family comes they tend to eat the same foods as they do at Easter: scacceand large ravioli stuffed with ricotta dressed with a strong ragu (meat sauce) made with tomato conserva (tomato paste) and pork meat. These are followed by some small sweets like cotognata (quince paste), nucateliand giuggiulena (sesame seed torrone).
In other parts of the island gallina ripiena (stuffed chicken cooked in broth) is popular, while others may eat a baked pasta dish, for example: anelletti al forno. timballo di maccheroni or lasagne made with a very rich, strong meat ragu. This may be followed by capretto (kid) either roasted or braised. There may be cassataor cannoli for dessert or the wreath shaped buccellato made with dried figs, almonds, walnuts, sultanas and spices (from Latin buccellatum meaning ring or wreath).
PANFORTE or PANETTONE FOR CHRISTMAS
Both panettone and panforte are popular Christmas sweets in Italy.
In recent years panforte has become popular in Australia, but you are probably more familiar with panettone. This may be because there are so many different brands of panettone available and they are exported to many parts of the world, especially in countries where Italians have migrated.
Italians are very happy to buy both of these Christmas sweets and the big brands are of excellent quality. Generally Italians where ever they live would rather buy these than make them at home. I have never tried to make panettone but I have made panforte several times very successfully.
This Christmas sweet bread is now popular not just in northern Italy where it originated.
It is said that the early version of pane ttone (bread big) was not the light textured, yeast perfumed, fruit bread we are familiar with, before it was made common by industrial production. It was a type of heavy, enriched, Milanese fruit bread baked at home and not just eaten at Christmas time. Panettone was made famous and affordable when it was commercially produced (from the 1920’s) and railed all over Italy. As a child growing up in Trieste the most famous panettone was the Motta brand (and still a well known brand in Italy) and part of the charm was opening the box and releasing the fragrance.
Popular brand of Panforte
Panforte is from Siena (within Tuscany) and contains exotic spices of ancient times. It is made with dry fruit and nuts – candied orange peel, citron, chopped almonds, spices, honey, butter and sugar and very little flour to bind the ingredients; it has no yeast, has a very solid texture and is shaped like a disc. Panforte (from pane forte) means strong bread and in earlier times it may have been derived from the Tuscan pane pepato (peppered bread), meaning strongly peppered with spices.
Just like panettone there are some excellent varieties of imported panforte. I like Panforte Margherita (the light coloured version developed in honour Queen Margaret of Savoy’s visit to Siena). Panforte Nero is the dark variety made with dark chocolate.
Being a purist (or as my daughter used to refer to me as a food fascist) I cringe when I see ”gourmet” versions of panforte for sale, some of these contain glace cherries, or glace ginger; I even hesitate at the inclusion of pistachio or macadamia, not the norm, but could be more acceptable.
My favourite recipe is from The Italian Baker by Carol Field (recipe below).
In spite of writing recipes, I am not one for following recipes closely. I always improvise and adapt amounts of ingredients to suit my taste. For example I double the amount of pepper, nutmeg and coriander. On occasions I have also included walnuts and pine nuts which were included in panpepato, a predesessor.
If I make Panforte Nero I add unsweetened cocoa (Dutch cocoa powder about 2-3 tablespoons) and some bittersweet chocolate.
1 cup whole hazelnuts,
1 cup blanched almonds
1 cup candied orange peel and citron, coarsely chopped
1 teaspoon lemon zest
½ cup unbleached all purpose flour
1 teaspoon cinnamon, ground
¼ teaspoon coriander
¼ teaspoon cloves, ground
¼ teaspoon fresh nutmeg, ground
½ teaspoon black pepper, ground
¾ cup sugar
¾ cup honey
2 tablespoon unsalted butter
Heat the oven to 180c.
Toast the hazelnuts on a baking sheet until the skins pop and blister, 10 to 15 minutes. Rub the skins from the hazelnuts in a kitchen towel. Toast the almonds on a baking sheet until very pale golden, about 10 to 15 minutes. Chop the almonds and hazelnuts very coarsely. Mix the nuts, orange peel, citron, lemon zest, flour, cinnamon, coriander, cloves, nutmeg and pepper together thoroughly in a large mixing bowl.
Use a 9 inch spring form pan; line the bottom and sides with baking paper Heat the sugar, honey, and butter in a large heavy saucepan over low heat, stirring constantly, until the syrup registers 242 to 248 on a candy thermometer (a little of the mixture will form a ball when dropped into cold water). Immediately pour the syrup into the nut mixture and stir quickly until thoroughly blended. Pour immediately into the prepared pan and smooth the top with a spatula. The batter will become stiff and sticky very quickly so you must work fast.
Bake about 30 to 40 minutes. The panforte won’t colour or seem very firm even when ready, but it will harden as it cools. Cool on a rack until the cake is firm to the touch. Remove the side of the pan and invert the cake onto a sheet of paper. Peel off the baking paper. Dust heavily with confectioners’ sugar.