UPDATE: AND THE WINNER OF SOUTHERN ITALIAN DESSERTS, CHOSEN BY THE MAGIC HAND OF MY 17-YEAR-OLD, IS DONNA! Congratulations ~ you will enjoy this book. Many thanks to all who read and who commented. I love hearing from you. Stay tuned for a new Dicembre Dolce post coming up this week.
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Welcome to the third annual Dicembre Dolce (Sweet December), in which I post recipes for my favorite Italian sweets. We’re kicking things off in style, with an interview with Rosetta Costantino, author of the newly released Southern Italian Desserts: Rediscovering the Sweet Traditions of Calabria, Campania, Basilicata, Puglia, and Sicily (co-written with Jennie Schacht and published by Ten Speed Press), plus a recipe for her Torta di Pistacchio (pistachio cake). I’m also giving away a copy of Rosetta’s new book (see below for rules).
Rosetta and I met a couple of years ago at a conference hosted by the National Italian American Foundation. We started talking about the food traditions of our respective regions (Calabria in her case, Abruzzo in mine) and we discovered that while the cuisines are different in many ways, they also have much in common, including a love for chili peppers (peperoncini). I loved Rosetta’s first book, My Calabria, and I can already tell I’m going to enjoy Southern Italian Desserts just as much. Recipes range from a three-ingredient nut cookie to a beautiful and elaborate layered torte of ricotta mousse and pistachio dacquoise.
Rosetta was born in Verbicaro, a small hill town near the Tyrrhenian Sea. She moved with her parents to California at age 14 to join her mother’s brothers, who had emigrated years before. She was once upon a time a Silicon Valley chemical engineer. She began to teach cooking classes as a hobby and the classes blossomed into a second career. Nowadays Roestta’s life toggles between Calabria, where she guides culinary tours, and California, where she continues to teach.
DM: Before we talk about your new book, let’s start with Calabria itself. It remains one of the lesser-known regions of Italy, in terms of U.S. tourism, travel and cuisine. Can you share a few defining characteristics of the place?
RC: I think the geography of Calabria defines its characteristics. It is a very narrow peninsula covered mainly by mountains, as you know the Apennines are the spine of Italy but when you get to Calabria being so narrow all you have are mountains. There are places along the Tyrrhenian coast that have dramatic cliffs, mountains that drop straight into the sea. Because of this terrain you have varied climate and agriculture. You go up to La Sila, that resembles Switzerland, you climb up to 4000 feet and then it is flat and they have cows (the only place to find cows and cheese made with cow’s milk like Caciocavallo Silano and butirro). Here you find snow and ski resorts. You go further south towards Sicily and it is always warm. Calabria has the longest coastline in Italy and you can still find pristine untouched beaches.
DM: In Southern Italian Desserts You focus on five regions: Calabria, Campania, Basilicata, Puglia, and Sicily. What do these regions share in common when it comes to desserts? What sets them apart?
RC: What I found as I was researching this book is that the traditional desserts, especially for Christmas, are very similar throughout the area. We all make a sweet dough and shape it in different ways and call it something else. It is pignolata in Sicily, cicirata in Calabria and struffoli in Campania, and purcidduzzi in Puglia but it is basically all the same ~ tiny little balls fried and coated with honey or most cotto (grape must syrup). I think this goes back to the days when Southern Italy was part of Magna Grecia and they all made this dessert, as I am sure we got it from the Greeks that settled in the area. A lot of the cookies are similar, as they all are simple and dry so they could be made and stored without refrigeration. If you look at the entire area being a poor area they used what they had: nuts, honey, mosto cotto, dried fruit, flour. Many traditional desserts use strutto (rendered pork fat) as butter didn’t exist in the South until later on.
What sets them apart? I guess in cities like Naples, Palermo or Lecce, where you had the influence of the aristocrats, you find the elaborate desserts. But the rest of the areas have a lot more in common.
DM: Southern Italian desserts have a history that stretches back centuries. Can you tell us a bit about some of the ancient influences?
RC: I guess we go back to the Greeks and a lot of desserts that are still found in the area date back to the Greeks, especially at Christmas time as I mentioned earlier with the sweet fried dough coated with honey. There was the influence of the Spanish bringing chocolate to the area. The Arabs get the credit for bringing sugar to Sicily and of course the citrus, pistachio and spices such as cinnamon and cloves. I think that’s the reason Sicilians have such a sweet tooth compared to the other regions of Southern Italy ~ they had sugar from the beginning.
DM: I was surprised to learn that a wave of Swiss immigrants settled in southern Italy in the late 1800s. How did they influence or change the types of desserts and the way they were made?
RC: They were the ones that brought the butter and the cream to the South, along with their fancy desserts. Prior to this, nuns made the fancy desserts or you made the simple cookies or Christmas desserts if you were a peasant. All the fancy tartlets and puff pastries that you find in the pastry shops were introduced by the Swiss. If you go to Palermo you will still find signs that say “Pasticceria Svizzera” all over town.
DM: You mention the nuns. That’s another fascinating tradition ~ the elaborate confections created by nuns in convents. How did that tradition develop? Are there still convents that specialize in making sweets?
RC: This tradition started in the convents (as Mary Tyler Simeti told me ) by the nuns as a means to raise money. The young ladies who were in the convents were already familiar with fancy desserts, as they tended to be the second daughters of aristocrats (most families could only afford to marry off the first daughter and pass on the land; if they married off more daughters they would have to split the land and would lose their holdings). To please their priests and higher ups, the nuns would outdo each other in competitions, and that is also the reason their recipes would be kept as a secret. The nuns also had the time to make fancy desserts, like the Martorana (marzipan shaped like fruit, named after La Martorana convent in Palermo). There are still some convents that make and sell desserts but most of them are closed. In Puglia, I have been told that there is a convent in Lecce that still makes a traditional Christmas and Easter dessert (shaped like a fish for Christmas and a lamb for Easter) filled with faldacchiera (a mixture of cream and preserved pears).
DM: Your book contains recipes for lavish desserts, some of them complicated. But it also has recipes for simple, rustic desserts. Tell us about one of your favorite fancy desserts and one of your favorite rustic desserts.
RC: One of the fancy desserts would be the Torta Gattopardo (ricotta and pistachio mousse cake) or Torta Ricotta e Pere (ricotta and pear cake). Rustic, I would have say the simplest cookie in the book, Dolci di Noci (walnut cookies). They are simple but addictive.
DM: So…I want to try to make the Sfogliatelle Ricce (traditional Neapolitan fan-shaped pastries made with homemade puff pastry) in your book. Am I crazy?
RC: You are not crazy but it takes practice to learn how to shape them. Once you learn the technique they are not that difficult. You can’t buy anything like them. Even the ones they sell in Naples are so commercialized that they don’t taste like the ones I included in the book. You can find amazing ones in Naples but you have to look for them.
DM: Many thanks Rosetta. Buon Natale!
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FOR THE GIVEAWAY: I’m giving away a copy of Rosetta’s book to one lucky reader. To enter, simply leave a comment in the comments section below telling me what your favorite Italian dessert is and why you love it. Be sure to include your email address (which will not be posted) so I can contact you if you are the winner. A winner will be chosen at random (and by that I mean I will write all entrants’ names on slips of papers, put them into a hat, blindfold one of my kids and let him or her retrieve the winning name). The winner will be announced on the blog on Monday, December 9, 2013, so check this post for an update.
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There are plenty of recipes from Southern Italian Desserts that I hope to get around to making sooner or later (as my friend Adri did recently), but facing a number of deadlines, I chose one of the simpler ones that caught my eye ~ Torta di Pistacchio, from the Sicily chapter. It’s made from finely ground pistachios, eggs, salt, sugar, and grated lemon zest. Just the sort of cake I love. I’m sure you’ll enjoy it, too. A note about pistachios: I had a tough time finding the raw pistachios called for in the recipe–roasted in the shell or dry roasted were the only kinds I could find in the grocery stores and gourmet shops near my house. I finally found them online at Gustiamo, a New York-based purveyor of high-quality Italian food products. Gustiamo stocks vacuum sealed pistachios from Bronte, Sicily. The trees grow in the volcanic soil near Mt. Etna and are not fertilized or irrigated. Their yield is low, which is why they are expensive, and nuts are harvested every other year between August and September (2013 was a harvest year). If you love pistachios as much as I do, it is worth the occasional splurge to buy these precious nuts from Sicily. When peeled, the nuts are bright green, and their flavor is rich and robust.
Rosetta suggests slicing the cake in half and filling it with crema di pistacchio (pistachio cream). This, too, is expensive so instead I whipped up some ricotta cream. It complemented the delicate flavor and simplicity of the cake nicely.
This simple dessert is essentially a pistachio pan di spagna (sponge cake). Rosetta Costantino suggests cutting the cake in half and filling it with crema di pistacchio (pistachio cream). If you are unable to find pistachio cream (or unwilling to pay the steep price ~ it's from Sicily and expensive!) consider filling the cake with ricotta cream, as I did here. You can also make this cake with hazelnuts or walnuts in place of the pistachios. Although the recipe doesn't call for it, next time I make this I will take the extra step of peeling the thin red skin off the pistachios (see NOTE at the end of the recipe) to bring out the nuts' vibrant green color and remove any intrusive bitter bits of skin. (Cake recipe from Southern Italian Desserts, by Rosetta Constantino, with Jennie Schact; 2013 Ten Speed Press)
- For the cake
- 1 2/3 cups raw shelled pistachios (see NOTE)
- 6 large eggs, separated, at room temperature
- Pinch of kosher or sea salt
- 3/4 cup granulated sugar
- Finely grated zest of 1 lemon
- Confectioners' sugar, for dusting
- For the ricotta cream
- 1 packed cup well-drained whole milk ricotta, patted dry
- 2/3 cup heavy cream
- 1/2 cup mascarpone (optional; add 1/2 cup more ricotta if not using)
- 1/4 to 1/3 cup confectioners' sugar
- 1/2 teaspoon vanilla paste or pure vanilla extract
Make the cake
Preheat the oven to 325 degrees F with a rack in the center. Butter the bottom and sides of a 9-inch springform pan with at least 2 3/4-inch-high sides.
Process the pistachios in a food processor in two batches until they are the texture of fine cornmeal, with only a few slightly larger pieces. Set aside. [My note: take care to process them finely and not coarsely, as coarsely ground nuts will affect the delicate texture of the cake.]
Using a stand mixer fitted with the whisk attachment, beat the egg whites and salt at low speed to break them up, then raise the speed to medium and beat until they hold soft peaks. Increase the speed to medium-high and gradually add 6 tablespoons of the granulated sugar, then continue to beat until medium-firm peaks form that are not at all dry. (Alternatively, use a handheld mixer.) Set aside.
In a separate bowl, beat the yolks with the remaining 6 tablespoons granulated sugar at medium speed until they are thick and pale, about 4 minutes. Mix in the lemon zest. Use a large spatula to gently fold the egg yolk mixture into the whites. Gently fold in the ground pistachios in three additions, folding each time just until the nuts are incorporated.
Spread the batter evenly in the prepared pan. Bake until the cake is golden and firm to the touch and pulls away from the sides of the pan, about 40 minutes. A toothpick inserted near the center should come out clean. Cool the cam in the pan or on a wire rack for 20 minutes, then remove the sides of the pan and let cool completely. Transfer the cooled cake on its base to a serving platter, or carefully run an angled metal spatula under the cake and slide it directly onto the platter.
Make the ricotta cream
Using a handheld mixer or a stand mixer fitted with the whisk attachment, briefly beat the ricotta on medium speed until creamy. Add the heavy cream, mascarpone, 1/4 cup confectioners' sugar, and vanilla paste (or extract) and beat briefly on low to combine the ingredients. Increase the speed to medium-high and beat until the mixture begins to thicken. Taste and add the rest of the confectioners' sugar, if you like. Beat until just stiff.
Assemble the cake
Using a serrated bread knife, slice the cake horizontally into two layers and set aside the top layer. Spread the ricotta cream over the bottom layer. Place the top layer over the filling. Dust with confectioners' sugar and serve.
NOTE To peel the shelled pistachios, place them in a heatproof bowl and pour 2 cups boiling water over them. Let sit for 2 minutes, then drain. Wrap the nuts up in a clean kitchen towel and rub vigorously to loosen the skins. You'll still have to peel some of the skins off with your fingers. This is tedious work but (if you have the time and the patience) well worth it to expose the nuts' beautiful green color and get rid of any bitter bits of skin. The pistachios tend to soften in the boiling water so don't let them sit for longer than 2 minutes. If you like, you can dry them out briefly in a 300 degree oven, but don't let them brown.