I am in Alsace and I have bought some Pain d’épices.
Apart from the Natural or original Pain d’épices , the Rum and Raisins, Figs and Orange and Cointreau varieties appealed to me.
My first choice was the one with Orange and Cointreau but it was too sweet. As you can see there were a few different flavoured Pain d’épices to choose from.
I finally settled for the one with figues – figs. Superbe!
Pain d’épices or pain d’épice is French for “spice bread” and it has been around for a very long time. According to Le Dictionnaire de l’Académie française (1694) it is made with rye flour, honey and spices – cinnamon, nutmeg, cloves, ginger, black pepper and aniseed. The perfume of the spices and the honey was pleasantly overwhelming.
It is sold by the slice and although this looks thin it is a fairly thick slice (otherwise the Pain d’épices would crumble).
We ate it with a runny French cheese. Say no more!
Pain d’épices is a specialty of Alsace and and I bought mine in Strasbourg. I saw other specialty vendors in Gertwiller, Roppenheim, Kaysersberg, Riquewihr and Colmar (were I am writing this post).
Wasn’t at all bad accompanied by some of the excellent white wines from Alsace.
There are many recipes I found on the web for Pain d’épices – honey seems to provide the moisture but I am pretty sure that the one I bought also has butter. The range of spices vary and some add coffee. I shall search for a recipe and make some Pain d’épices when I get back home – it does not appear to be difficult.
I quite often use jam (good ones, lots of fruit and not too sweet) in desserts and sometimes I use them as a base for sweet sauces to accompany cakes, crepes, fruit salads and puddings. This time I wanted to make a strong tasting citrus jam that I could use to make an ancient Sicilian dessert.
Sicily is the land of citrus.
I love honey and I frequently use it in the place of sugar and when I make jam I also often add some liqueurs or spirit. For example in this recipe I could easily have added a tablespoon of an orange or lemon flavoured liqueur – Cointreau or Grand Marnier.
4 citrus: I used 1 lemon, 1 Seville oranges, 1 tangello, 1 orange, 2 cups water, ½ – ¾ cup honey
I removed some of the peel from the tangelo and cut some of it very thinly. Peel /cut off all skin and white pith and discard.
Chop fruit roughly, discard seeds( these make the jam bitter).
Place pulp and water in a saucepan, cover, bring to the boil, reduce heat and simmer 20 minutes. Add honey, and boil it uncovered, without stirring, for about 20 minutes or until set (semisolid).
If adding liqueur add about 2 tablespoons towards the end of cooking or if making a sweet sauce add the liqueur to thin the jam.
I use honey when braising apples or pears for a tarte tatin – it adds a deep colour to the fruit and intensifies the flavour. For the same reason, I also like it when I slowly bake quinces and I like it drizzled over fresh figs which I bake and serve with ricotta whipped with honey and cinnamon. I prefer this to using plain fresh cream (the usual accompaniment to many desserts in Australia).
I like to make honey and cinnamon ice cream and sometimes I use honey instead of sugar when making panna cotta. I flavour rice puddings with it and soak candied citrus peel in water and honey with a dash of orange blossom flavoured water – the taste the honey imparts to the peel reminds me of Grand Manier. I frequently do the same with dessert recipes that require raisins or sultanas.
I always add honey when I make lemon drinks, either to drink cold (with a mint leaf) or to enjoy hot. When I have a sore throat I let the hot drink slide slowly over my throat.
I visited Tuscany and Umbria a couple of years ago and I was introduced to eating fresh pecorino cheese spread with honey – very enjoyable especially with miele i fiori d’arancio (orange honey) or miele di castagno (chestnut honey), and it is amazing how different these honeys taste from one another. It is just as easy to see the variation in colours and taste in Australian honey, for example honey from Iron bark is usually dark and highly flavoured, Acacia honey is clear and has a mild delicate floral taste and Leatherwood honey has a unique scent and strong floral flavour.
I am very lucky to have my very own honey supplier. Libby lives in Eden Hills in the Adelaide Hills of South Australia and has hives in her garden. The honey that she has given me over the years also varies in colour and taste; she expect her bees to be good pollinators for her garden as well as to travel far and wide so as to provide her with different tasting honeys. Her garden is full of nooks and the varieties of plants and trees are enormous. Libby’s honey is so good that she has won prizes at the Adelaide Royal Show and she very generously shares it with me.
Bee on echium
She is very passionate about her bees and bees in general and I remembered signing a petition that Libby had sent me some time ago to eradicate Asian Bees from Australia. Recently I read Richard Cornish’s article Sting in the tailin Epicure, The Age and sent it her.
Libby loves bees so much that she has stencil and painted bees, swarming down one of the walls in her house.
Honey from the Iblei Mountains in Sicily is highly prized – when it is collected in July and August it has the taste and aroma of thyme and in September of calamintha (mint family). as for other Sicilian honey, Sortino (Syracuse) has a honey festival each October, the Agadi and Madonie Islands are also recognized for honey production as is Agrigento.
I was in Sydney where I attended some sessions of the Sydney International Food Festival. The World Chef Showcase on Saturday focused strongly on the cuisine of the Middle East and Mediterranean –this was the program that interested me the most.
The Festival list of Australian and overseas guests was very impressive and included: Musa Dagdeviren (Istanbul), Yotam Ottolenghi (London), Mary Taylor Simeti (Sicily, food history), Joe Barza (Lebanon) and Kamal Mouzawak (founder of Beirut’s Souk el Tayeb – a weekly market farmers’ produce and Lebanese food), Anissa Helou (London), Ozden Ozsabuncuoglu (Turkish food authority) and Mehmet Gurs (Istanbul).
Those of you who like Middle Eastern food and live in Melbourne will almost certainly know the names Ismail Tosun (Gigibaba) and Greg and Lucy Malouf (cookbook collaborators and Mo Mo Restaurant), also Abla Amad (Abla’s Restaurant). Sydney readers may recognise Somer Sivrioglu (Efendy Restaurant in Balmain).
Abla Amad was accompanied by Yotam Ottolenghi who was relatively unknown in Australia at the time and i was one of the first to hear him at Abla’s session.
There is an obvious and powerful connection between Middle Eastern and Sicilian cuisine – the Arabs ruled Sicily for two centuries (in medieval times they were sometimes called “Saracens” or “Moors”). The Arabs contributed to the development of Sicilian culture, agriculture and architecture and had a profound influence on the cuisine of Sicily.
The food that was prepared and discussed by the participating Festival guests featured many of the distinctive ingredients of Middle Eastern food – the rich spices (especially saffron and cinnamon), rice and grains, nuts and seeds (especially pine nuts, almonds, pistachio, sesame), sugar, and the typical fruits (citrus, figs, pomegranate) and vegetables and flowers (orange, jasmine, rose flower waters) of the Mediterranean.
The ‘Arab’ ingredients and flavours are not unique to Sicily. They are present in other countries of the Mediterranean, for example the cuisine of Spain and France.
A post on my blog is not the venue to discuss this topic at length. However I have already written about some recipes of sweets that could be attributed to the co-Arab and Sicilian association (for they cannot be attributed just to the Arabs).
Here is a similar recipe to cubbaita (giuggiulena) and it is called petrafennula, (also called petramennula depending on the Sicilian locality).
All my Sicilian relatives and friends keep a selection of these small homemade sweets at home just in case someone visits unannounced.
PETRAFENNULA – PIETRA DI MIELE (Rock made of honey).
almonds, 500g blanched and roughly chopped into large pieces
candied orange peel, 400 g chopped finely,
cinnamon, ½ teaspoon (optional).
Place the honey in a saucepan.
Add the peel.
Allow the mixture to simmer gently and stir from time to time until it begins to solidify.
Take the mixture off the stove and work quickly
Add the almonds and the cinnamon and stir gently to incorporate.
Pour the mixture on to baking paper placed on a cold surface – such as a marble slab or a baking tray (traditionally this is done without paper on an oiled marble slab).
Break it into pieces when it is cold. When my mother made this, she sometimes used to drop dollops of the mixture (about a tablespoon in size) on to a cold surface to form small odd shapes – more like pebbles than sharp rocks. This seemed easier than shaping it into one large slab, which then needs to be broken into smaller pieces.
I have a friend in Adelaide who has the most wonderful garden and beehives. She used her honey to make giuggiulena and the petrafennula and both resulted into slightly softer versions of candy. We discussed this and think that it must be due to the varying levels of moisture in different types of honey and from the various locations. I have used a variety of honey including leatherwood (definitely not Sicilian) and other organic honey from a variety of Australian locations and have achieved the required results.
Ancient writers (Greek and Latin) referred to honey from the Iblean Mountains (south eastern Sicily) as the best they had ever tasted; honey from this area of Sicily has maintained its merits throughout the centuries.
This is a very old Sicilian Honey Press, now in the Buscemi Museum (south eastern Sicily).
Lately I have been using (and eating) some very good miele (Italian for honey) given to me by my friend Libby, who has a magnificent garden in Eden Hills, a suburb of Adelaide. On an acre of land she has two traditional, white, bee boxes and a wild hive in the trunk of a grey box tree.
Extracting honey is hard work and she does it in her kitchen; she has won prizes for her honey at the Royal Adelaide Show.
Honey is used in many Sicilian pastries and I have been reading about nucatuli (or nucatuli, nucatula and in Syracuse saschitedda).
I bought these three types of biscuits (photo below) in Modica from Antica Dolceria Bonajuto. Modica is in the south east part of Sicily and only 20-30 minutes drive from Ragusa where my relatives live. A dolceria sells (and usually manufactures) sweets; a pasticceria has cakes, biscuits and may have sweets as well.
A visit to Modica is always a treat – the small city is dived into two parts: Modica Alta (Upper Modica), and Modica Bassa (Lower Modica). It is fringed by hills (part of Iblean Mountains), has many beautiful baroque buildings, narrow streets, interesting shops, churches and palazzi, pasticcerie and restaurants. And besides, it is a good way to stir up the emotions of my relatives; Modica is the rival of Ragusa.
Did I know that Modica become more famous than Ragusa because during fascist times Mussolini was friendly with a statesman from Modica? And the ravioli made in Ragusa are much better than the ones made in Modica; had I not noticed this when I ate them at that particular restaurant in Modica?
Modica in the evening
In the Antica Dolceria Bonajuto, chocolate is made using the original methods in the style of the Aztecs and brought by the Spaniards in the 16th century – the Spaniards ruled Sicily at various times and foods from the “New World” (including cocoa beans) were introduced.
The biscuits with the white lattice are most commonly known as nucatuli and I chose to write about them because they include honey.
Finding any information about nucatuli in my Italian resources was not easy. In the recipes I found there were many variations in the ingredients and very few recipes had quantities or clear instructions – this is not very surprising in a country that cooks “al’ occhio”, by using one’s eyes, that means by the senses: sight, taste, smell, feel (including textures on the tongue) and hearing.
I am not sure if I will get around to ever making nucateli but I have certainly gathered some interesting information about these little biscuits that I have eaten often in Sicily.
The name is thought to have derived either from the Latin nucatus (nuts) or perhaps from the Arab word naqal (dry fruit). Apparently they were first made in the fifteenth century in the Santa Elizabetta Monastery in Palermo. Nucatuli were once usually associated as a Christmas pastry.
The outer case or pastry is made only from flour and warmed honey; the two ingredients are kneaded into a smooth paste which is left to rest for about five hours. In some variations of the recipe and as made in Messina, flour, lard, sugar and egg yolks are used and moistened with rose water or sweet white wine. (The ratio of flour is 1k, 150g of sugar and 150g of lard, 2 egg yolks).
The filling is made of ground walnuts and hazelnuts (lightly toasted) honey, orange peel and cinnamon – all the ingredients are combined, slowly cooked in a saucepan and stirred constantly. And like when making polenta, the filling is not removed from the heat until the contents detach from the sides of the saucepan.
Some recipes include ground almonds or a mixture of hazelnuts and almonds, but no walnuts. I have seen some variations that also include some finely chopped, dried figs in the mixture.
The filling is allowed to cool and then spooned onto rectangular strips of the paste – this has been rolled out thinly and most recipes suggest the size to be 3-4 cm wide and 6-7cm long.
The filling is placed to one side of the pastry, rather than in the centre. The pastry casing should cover the entire filling and from the pictures I have seen in books and from my memory, it is pinched together on one side of the biscuit. Once the filling is covered, the biscuits are formed into an S shape.
Usually the biscuits are decorated with a coating of a soft paste made with cocoa thickened with a little flour and hot water and then baked on a well-greased baking sheet in a moderate oven for about 15 minutes; they should only be lightly coloured. In those recipes that give temperatures, anything from 200C – 250C is suggested.
As you can see in the photo these nucatuli bought from Antica Dolceria Bonajuto have an extra squiggle on top and as far as I could tell (by using my senses!) it was likely to be egg white and sugar (like a meringue made by whisking egg white till firm, then adding about 1 cup of caster sugar and a few drops of lemon juice).
Dot it on each biscuit (or pipe it in a squiggle as they did in Modica) then re bake them for another 5 minutes at 250C. One recipe suggested returning them to a very low oven until the frosting dried out.
One day, when I have more time and am in the mood, I will make them – I am pretty good at using recipes without weights and measures or relying on memory, (I may wait until I return to Modica). In the meantime I will continue to enjoy my friend’s honey. My favourite way is to beat some honey lightly into ricotta and to present this with thin, almond biscotti – guests can spread the cream on their biscuits if they wish.