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.