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Lent, which begins Ash Wednesday (March 5 this year), was the start in Britain of a short period of carnival preceding the 40 days of the pre-Easter fast — abstention from good things including meat, eggs and butter.
As with carnival traditions everywhere, the festival traditionally was marked by egg games — some versions of which are still to be found as municipal events, particularly in the north of England — and involved competitive rituals and the license to behave badly by young people who had not yet acquired families of their own. Medieval market towns, ever on the lookout for trade, took the opportunity to throw rowdy entertainments such as greasing the pig, egg rolling, cockfighting, dancing on the village green, pancake feasts and general indulgence in as much socially unsuitable behavior as the community was prepared to tolerate. Sometimes the festival took the form of pelting rival gangs with raw eggs and flour bags, and there is mention in Victorian accounts of license granted to choirboys to chuck eggs at senior members of the clergy.
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Similar traditions still exist in the lands of the Mediterranean, where Shrove Tuesday’s specialties were — and sometimes still are — prepared by children and young people, those who do not normally cook, so the recipes had to be simple, and the ingredients, just to add to the general anarchy, had to be begged, borrowed or stolen.
As recently as the 1970s, my own four young children took part in just such a Shrove Tuesday ritual in Languedoc in southern France, disappearing with classmates for the whole day and well into the evening. Afterward they were very mysterious about what they had been up to, and it was not until several years later that they told me they had all gone around the village pinching supplies from unattended larders. Then they sneaked off to an isolated barn and cooked up a gigantic omelet in a huge iron pan. After the omelet had been torn up and eaten (no plates, knives or forks permitted), the event developed into wild, unruly games. And that was as much as they were prepared to explain.
Shrove Tuesday Omelet
This is really a fat egg pancake cooked up with bacon and fortified with potato and onion, though these can be omitted if unobtainable from the larder.
Serves 4 to 6
About 4 ounces slab bacon, diced
1 tablespoon unsalted butter
1 large mild onion, finely sliced
2 to 3 cooked potatoes (about 1 pound), diced
8 large eggs
Salt and pepper to taste
1. In a roomy frying pan or skillet, fry the bacon gently till the fat runs.
2. Add the butter and onion and fry until soft and golden but not browned.
3. Add the diced potato and let it feel the heat.
4. Fork the eggs together to blend. When the potatoes are ready, pour the eggs over and around them.
5. Stir over a gentle heat till most of the egg is set, then stop stirring and let the omelet brown a little on the base.
6. Serve in its pan, without turning it out.
Languedoc and Provence, France, like omelets cooked in the Spanish way, as a fat, juicy egg cake set in olive oil rather than the soft, rolled butter-cooked omelet of northern France. Only the leaves of chard are used — the stalks are too juicy and would make the omelets gray and damp as they cool to the right temperature for eating.
Serves 4 to 6
1 pound Swiss chard leaves (save the stalks to cook like asparagus)
4 ounces strong cheese (such as Cantal, Gruyère, Emmental, cheddar)
Salt and pepper to taste
Generous handful of chervil or flat-leaf parsley, amounting to 3 to 4 heaped tablespoons when chopped
4 to 5 tablespoons olive oil
1. Wash and dry the chard leaves and slice finely.
2. Grate the cheese and beat it into the eggs in a bowl. Season with salt and pepper.
3. Chop the herbs and then mix them in with the eggs.
4. Warm 3 tablespoons of the oil in a roomy frying pan or skillet. Stir in the chard leaves and turn them quickly in the oil till they wilt. (Don’t allow the greens to burn or they will taste bitter.)
5. Tip the contents of the pan into the eggs and stir all together.
6. Add the last tablespoon of oil to the pan. When it is quite hot but not burning, pour in the egg-chard mixture. Cover the pan and cook over a gentle heat until the eggs are set — 15 to 20 minutes should do the trick.
7. Turn the now-firm pancake out, reversing it as you do so the cooked side is uppermost, onto a plate. Slide it gently back into the hot pan (add a trickle more oil if necessary) and finish cooking uncovered on the other side — allow another 5 to 8 minutes. Notice that the cooking is very gentle, which is the style of an omelet in Languedoc and Provence, where culinary habits are closer to those of Catalonia, Spain.
Top illustration: A woman feeding hens. Credit: Elisabeth Luard
The spirit of revolution is still alive in rural France and takes the form of the buffet dinatoire. This is a new-old way of coming to table in the farmhouses of France’s Massif Centrale, which allows the cook to join the guests, something of breakthrough for the usually formal French hostess, reports Jo Mills, my neighbor in the remote uplands of west Wales.
Mills was born and raised in the wilds of Lorraine, a region where the frontiers drift back and forth, depending on whether France or Germany has the political upper hand. Politics make little difference to the way the country people live, Mills says. As a child, she and her siblings did what French countryfolk have always done: gathered what can be defined as small game from the wild. While the adults hunted deer and boar — her husband, Terry, is a keen huntsman like her father — the children were in charge of snails and frogs.
Buffet dinatoire a more casual approach
Mills and her family, including grandchildren, spend the post-Christmas boar-hunting season in the uplands of southern France, at their forested property on the edge of the Massif Central. This year she reports a change in the way people eat, at least in rural regions. “They call it a ‘buffet dinatoire,’ dining buffet.” This means, she says, that rather than the usual procession of savory and sweet courses — or worse, fancy restaurant-style plating — all the dishes are placed on the table at the beginning of the meal for people to help themselves. As with tapas or meze, this new-old way of family-style eating allows the hostess to relax and enjoy the company of her guests, Mills says.
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While gleanings such as snails and frogs are no longer permissible in France, at least by commercial gatherers — not that country people are inclined to follow rules — Mills’ memories of childhood include night hunts for frogs with torches. “It was easy. You shone the torch down the stream bank and you could see their eyes and the shapes where they were. They didn’t move, and all you had to do was pick them up and pop them in a canvas bucket and take them home.”
Preparation thereafter was simple. “Maman picked up the frogs one by one and whacked their heads on the kitchen table, so that was the end of that. Then papa snipped off the legs just below the waist and pulled off the skin. Like this they were left in pairs and salted and left overnight to shrink and firm. Then we cooked them in two different ways. For the adults, they were dusted through flour, fried in butter and finished with white wine and cream, which is what we do in Lorraine. For the children, they were fried in the same way but finished in an omelet — whisked-up egg poured into the pan and allowed to set like a pancake.
“We children took all our meals with the grownups and we had to know how to behave at table,” she added. “You had to make sure you didn’t take too much of anything. And my mother always transferred the food to serving dishes which were handed round from person to person. This is more formal than the buffet dinatoire, when everything is on the table, and if you’ve cooked a daube, it’s permissible to serve it in its cooking pot.”
During the hunting season, when Mills’ table is always crowded, she serves the products of la chasse, mostly wild boar – or marcassin – scourge of the farmer’s crops. A single well-grown boar will feed a large household for a month, so Mills fills the freezer with slow-cooked casseroles, the perfect centerpiece of the buffet dinatoire.
Whether this way of eating is a revival of the laden tables of the old formal tradition of service a la française — replaced mid-19th century by the labor-intensive service a la russe, which demands that each course be presented separately — or a new tradition designed to challenge the restaurant-dictated tyranny of art-on-a-plate served in a succession of tiny courses, an informal way of serving ensures the cook has a chance to enjoy the meal in the company of the guests.
A return to conviviality at table is long overdue. Roll on the buffet dinatoire — you have nothing to lose but your toque.
Marcassin en Daube
The boar meat can be replaced with venison or anything else from the hunter’s bag. The only unusual ingredient is serpolet, a particularly fragrant mountain thyme favored with wild meat in France.
Serves 4 to 6
About 3 pounds wild boar or venison, cubed
Salt and pepper to taste
2 to 3 tablespoons all-purpose flour
4 to 5 tablespoons olive oil
5 to 6 garlic cloves, unskinned
8 ounces pork-belly or fat-back bacon, diced
1 bottle of robust red wine
1 to 2 ounces dried cepes or other dried mushrooms, roughly torn
1 curl of dried or fresh orange zest
1 to 2 sprigs serpolet (or ordinary thyme)
2 to 3 cloves
A short length of cinnamon or cassia bark
½ teaspoon crushed black peppercorns
3 to 4 anchovy fillets
1 to 2 tablespoons black olives, stoned or not (as you please)
1. Dust the meat with a little flour seasoned with salt and pepper and fry in the olive oil until it browns a little. Wild meat is drier and firmer than farmed, so it takes less time to caramelize. Remove and reserve.
2. Add the garlic and diced pork to the pan drippings and fry for a few minutes. Add the reserved meat and wine and bubble up to evaporate the alcohol.
3. Turn down the heat, add the mushrooms and aromatics — orange zest, thyme, cloves, cinnamon and peppercorns — and enough water to just submerge the meat. Bubble up again, cover tightly and leave to simmer gently for at least an hour, or as long as it takes for the meat to be tender enough to cut with a spoon. Add more boiling water if it looks as if it’s drying out.
4. When you’re ready to serve, mash the anchovies and olives into a spoonful of the hot juices and stir this into the daube. Taste and add salt if necessary and serve in its cooking pot. Serve with a potato gratin and a salad of bitter leaves — endive, chicory, dandelion — and set bread and cheese and an apple tart on the table and let the good times roll.
Top illustration: A French dinner party. Credit: Elisabeth Luard
by: Elisabeth Luard
For good fortune and happiness through the next 12 months, eat up your mince pies, one for every day of the 12 days of Christmas. The mincemeat pie, as it was known in its earliest incarnation, is as traditional to the English Christmas as, well, Christmas pudding and Stilton cheese.
English mince pies as currently prepared are round, fist-sized double-crust tarts filled with a sort of spicy fruit jam that may or may not include suet but certainly lacks meat. They are eaten as a snack at any time of day rather than at the festive meal itself. To deliver prosperity, one must be consumed each day between Christmas and Jan. 6, when the Three Kings (fragrant with Eastern spices just like the pies) arrive at the stable in Bethlehem and good Catholic children receive their presents. After that, it’s over till next year.
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As with so many traditional festival foods, the origins of the mincemeat pie are the usual mishmash of history and convenience. It is generally accepted, however, that English mincemeat, or “shred,” pies were first mentioned as seasonal at Christmas by Thomas Tusser in 1557, though he doesn’t supply a recipe. However, the original pie was not small and round but large and oval like a baby’s crib — sometimes topped out by a model of the infant Jesus — and thereby associated with anthropomorphic breads of Catholic Europe outlawed by Lord Protector Cromwell, the man who took the fun out of the 17th-century Christmas.
Mince pies have evolved through the years
As good things are wont to do, the pies reappeared thereafter in more or less the shape they take today. As for the filling, there is no exact moment when the mincemeat pie (mostly meat) turned into the mince pie (mostly fruit) because both recipes exist simultaneously, often following one another in the same cookbook.
In 1604, when Lady Fettiplace recorded her household “receipts,” her mincemeat pie called for equal quantities of boiled mutton, raisins and suet along with the usual spicing. When the manuscript saw the light of day in 1986 under the editorship of literary biographer Hilary Spurling, the mincemeat recipe delivered unexpected results when tested for publication: “They turned out,” Spurling reports, “to be little savory pies, rich and fruity but not at all sweet and quite unsuited to tea time … more like the dry, mildly spiced meat pasties of the Middle East.” She suggests that the filling, because it is flavored with Turkish rosewater rather than Christian alcohol, would be suitable for enclosing in filo pastry like boreki.
Fifty years later, Sir Kenelm Digby’s “Closet Open’d” of 1668 includes sherry or “sack” along with the usual meat and dried fruits, but because a third of the book (posthumously published by Sir Kenelm’s valet to compensate for unpaid wages) is devoted to the art of brewing and distilling, this isn’t surprising. When Isabella Beeton joins the gastronomic gang in 1841, her “Ordinary Mincemeat” calls for a pound of lean beef and a pint of brandy, while her “Excellent Mincemeat” omits the meat in favor of suet and dried vine fruits. Meanwhile, Charles Francatelli, chef to Queen Victoria, provides four price-based mincemeats for the poor in “A Plain Cookery Book for the Working Classes” in 1861; the cheapest is made with tripe.
By the first half of the 20th century, Florence White in “Good Things in England” loses the meat or innards but keeps the suet with two recipes, one of which relies for bulk on apples and the other on lemons boiled to a pulp. Fifty years later, in 1981, Mary Norwak in “English Puddings” considers it unnecessary to provide recipes for either mincemeat or pastry because both, she points out, are easily available ready-made. In 2003, however, in “Favourite British Recipes,” chef Brian Turner gets back to basics with his own mincemeat recipe suitable for one large pie or 12 small ones: 4 ounces suet (still there), 4 ounces dried fruits (sultanas, raisins, peel), two apples (finely chopped), 6 ounces demerara sugar, citrus zest, mixed spice with extra nutmeg, rum and brandy (both). Store it in a jar in a cool place for a week to develop the flavors just in time for the 12 days of Christmas.
Elinor Fettiplace’s Savory Mincemeat
Lady Fettiplace’s “receipt,” as edited by Hilary Spurling combines leftover cooked meat, so it is for immediate use, possibly in little filo pastries — delicious! Makes 1 large or 48 tiny pies.
8 ounces cooked meat, finely chopped
8 ounces beef suet, shredded
8 ounces dried currants (small black raisins)
8 ounces raisins
1 level teaspoon powdered ginger
1 level teaspoon powdered mace
1 level teaspoon powdered cinnamon
½ teaspoon grated nutmeg
1 teaspoon salt
2 teaspoons sugar
1 small orange, finely grated peel
3 tablespoons distilled rosewater diluted with 3 tablespoons of water
Combine all the above ingredients thoroughly and use immediately to fill your pies.
Mrs. Beeton’s Excellent Mincemeat
A mixture of cooked fresh fruit and dried vine fruits, this recipe appears in the 1861 edition of “Household Management,” though somewhat modernized for ease of use. To prepare your own suet, you’ll need beef or veal kidney fat chilled to firm and shredded finely with a sharp knife (discard any obvious membrane).
Makes about 4 pounds
3 lemons, scrubbed
3 green apples
1 pound seedless raisins
1 pound dried currants
1 pound shredded suet
2 pound soft brown sugar
1 ounce each candied citron and orange peel
½ pint brandy
2 tablespoons orange marmalade
1. Grate the lemon zest and reserve. Squeeze the juice from the lemons, put it in a pan with the chunked lemon pulp and cook till soft and mashable, then chop thoroughly and reserve.
2. Bake the apples for 30 to 40 minutes at 350 F (180 Celsius or Gas 4) till soft, then remove the skin and core and mash the apple flesh with the chopped, pulped lemons.
3. Mix the apple and lemon mixture with the reserved lemon zest and the rest of the ingredients very thoroughly. Ready for use immediately.
Top illustration: The three kings. Credit: Elisabeth Luard
My first serious cookbook, “European Peasant Cookery,” published in the United Kingdom in 1984 and still in print with Grub Street, was published in the U.S. the next year as “The Old World Kitchen.” Now, it is again available in the U.S. in print, in a splendid new edition from Melville House.
Initial research, a matter of filling gaps because I’d already been collecting raw material for years, was conducted among the shelves of London Library’s Topography section. (I’d already exhausted Cookery.) There, I quickly discovered that the only authors of 19th- and early-20th-century travel books — the glory days of the genre — who can be relied on for details of the domestic — meals as well as interiors — are vicars and women.
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That said, it can generally be assumed that travel writers, men and women, fall into two categories: those who tell you what they eat and those who don’t. And complaints can be just as interesting as praise. Among those who share their dinner is Mark Twain, whose low opinion of the European breakfast is set against lyrical memories of the same meal in his native land: “A man accustomed to American food and American domestic cookery,” he explains sorrowfully, “would not starve to death suddenly in Europe, but I think he would gradually waste away and eventually die.” This was true enough at a time when the hungry hordes were emigrating in droves to the New World: “Imagine,” he continues dreamily, “an angel suddenly sweeping down out of a better land and setting before him a mighty porter-house steak an inch and a half thick, hot and spluttering from the griddle; dusted with fragrant pepper; enriched with little melting bits of butter of the most unimpeachable freshness and genuineness; the precious juices of the meat trickling out and joining the gravy; archipelagoed with mushrooms; a township or two of tender yellowish fat …” and so forth till the hungry reader could eat a horse. And did, in those more omnivorous times.
If American Samuel Clemens (aka Mark Twain) didn’t think much to what came out of the Old World kitchen in the 1880s, English travel writer Patrick Leigh Fermor (read all about him in Artemis Cooper’s fine new biography) appreciated the asceticism of supper with the Benedictines of St. Wandrille-en-Fontanelle near Rouen in northern France in the 1950s: “As the monks tucked their napkins into their collars with simultaneous and uniform gesture … the guest-master and a host of aproned monks waited at the tables, putting tureens of vegetable soup in front of us and dropping into our plates two boiled eggs, which were followed by a dish or potatoes and lentils, then by an endive salad, and finally by disks of camembert, to be eaten with excellent bread from the Abbey bakery.” Sounds pretty good to me.
The monks of the Benedictine Abbey of Maredsous in southern Belgium — half an hour as the crow flies from St. Wandrille — keep the roof on their beautiful medieval buildings by providing monastic rations of potage du jour with their own good bread and cheese to tourists by the busload, myself among them. What goes into the pot depends on season and availability, as was always the way for the independent peasantry on whose good will and labor the monasteries depended. More such down-to-earth recipes are included in “The Old World Kitchen.”
For the soup:
8 ounces (250 grams) mushrooms (wild or cultivated)
2 ounces (50 grams) butter, divided
2 shallots or 1 onion, diced
Salt to taste
1 celery head, finely sliced with leaves
2 large leeks, sliced including both white and green parts
1 to 2 mature carrots, scraped and diced
1 bay leaf
1 sprig of thyme
½ teaspoon grated nutmeg
2 pints (1 liter) water
Pepper to taste
1 pound (500 grams) potatoes, peeled and diced
A generous handful parsley, finely chopped
1. Pick over the mushrooms, trim and dice.
2. Melt half the butter in a roomy pan over a gentle heat. Add the chopped onion or shallots, salt lightly and fry gently till golden and soft — allow at least 10 minutes.
3. Add the rest of the butter. Wait till it melts before stirring in the mushrooms. Continue frying till the mushrooms release their water and begin to caramelize a little.
4. Add the celery, leeks, carrots, bay leaf, thyme and nutmeg and stir in the oily oniony juices over the heat for a minute or two.
5. Add the water to the pan, then add salt and pepper to taste.
6. Bring to the boil, turn down the heat, cover loosely and leave to simmer for about 20 minutes, till the vegetables are soft and the broth well-flavored.
7. Add the diced potato and continue to cook gently for another 10 to 15 minutes, till the potato is soft enough to mash a little to thicken the broth. Taste and correct the seasoning.
8. Stir in the parsley and ladle into bowls. Accompany with a bowl of radishes, thick slices of sourdough bread and soft-boiled eggs or your local cheese.
Illustration: The interior of the abbey. Credit: Elisabeth Luard
This is a story of carobs and cocoa. At Dolceria Bonajuto in Modica, Italy, the longest-established chocolate factory in Sicily, they make chocolate bars the old way, at a low temperature and without conching, the process by which the cocoa butter is separated from the solids and reblended to make smooth-textured and solid eating chocolate as prepared commercially.
At Dolceria Bonajuto, the raw cocoa nibs are crushed by hand using a stone rolling pin on a metate, a curved stone shelf supported by two narrower base stones placed at either end, a combination favored for the same purpose by the Aztecs. None of the usual additions — butter, milk derivatives, lecithin — are permitted.
The result of the Modica way of doing things is a solid bar of very dark chocolate with a satisfactorily reddish tinge, a good bark-like break and an unusual, rather Mexican purity of flavor. The main difference is an interestingly gritty texture mostly but not entirely derived from undissolved sugar.
The first cocoa beans arrived on the island some time after the Spanish conquest of Mexico through Sicily’s association with Spain’s Levante region, particularly Alicante, home of Spain’s marzipan and turron industry, where chocolate is prepared in similar fashion. Because Sicily was under Spanish rule from the end of the 13th century to the beginning of the 18th, this is scarcely surprising.
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Chocolate as a refreshment was first introduced to the islanders by traveling salesmen who went from household to household, preparing the drink by hand using portable equipment. However, it’s fair to assume that a taste for a cocoa-like product was present on the island long before the ships of Christopher Columbus sailed toward the sunset, returning with news, among other botanical surprises, of a miraculous bean that could be transformed into the raw material of a coffee-like drink with miraculously restorative properties.
This was scarcely news in Sicily, where the naturally sweet seeds produced by the carob tree, dried and ground to a flour, had long been an important food source for both people and cattle. The seed pods of the carob tree, a North African native long established throughout the northern shores of the Mediterranean, are highly nutritious and full of vitamins, virtues not lost on those with a close association with the land. The trees are still found everywhere on the island, though the crop is mostly now either left to lie where it falls or gathered to prepare as silage for cattle fodder.
Carob still treasured in Sicily
Nevertheless, the beans, when ripe and dried and ground to a fine powder, are still valued on the island in the preparation of caramel-based sweets and cookies. Their texture is gritty, much like that of Modica’s distinctive chocolate, with a flavor that’s nutty and a little spicy. That no doubt explains their continued popularity in Modica’s Dolceria Bonajuto, proud of its establishment as purveyor of sweet things to the affluent of the town.
Carob remains very much a part of a Sicilian childhood. You’ll see carob sweets — along with licorice-root chewing sticks that once served as toothbrushes — for sale by the piece to schoolchildren at the checkout counter in small-town supermarkets, where the old flavors are still remembered with affection. Although the beans can be eaten fresh from the pods when ripe and brown — Sicilian carobs are particularly sweet and pleasantly chewy, like dried dates — the beans are of more general use in storable form as a flour milled either from raw or roasted beans. The flavor is caramel with a touch of cinnamon, but the bean, well endowed with tannins but lacking both fat and caffeine, cannot deliver the complexity and addictive qualities of its lookalike. Nevertheless, color, texture and cooking properties are alike enough to make carob flour a worthy substitute for cocoa in baking.
Sicilian Carob Macaroons
Almonds and pistachios are important crops in Sicily, as indeed was the old trade in cane sugar. Both nuts and sugar were and continue to be used in the sophisticated confectionary prepared on the island, including the beautiful painted marzipan fruits prepared for All Souls and other important church festivals, and now exported all over the world. The best pistachios (no argument allowed) are those grown on the volcanic slopes of Mount Etna.
Makes 15 to 20 macaroons
14 ounces unskinned almonds or pistachios, powdered
6 ounces carob flour
Whites of 3 large eggs
14 ounces powdered sugar
15 to 20 whole blanched almonds or pistachios
1. Preheat oven to 350 F (180 C or Gas 4).
2. Mix the ground almonds or pistachios with the carob flour in a bowl.
3. Whisk the egg whites till light and firm and whisk in the sugar gradually, maintaining the volume.
4. Fold the flour mixture into the egg mixture till you have a soft and slightly sticky dough.
5. With damp hands, scoop out walnut-sized bits of the dough and form them into little balls.
6. Arrange the balls on a baking tray — nonstick or lined with baking parchment — and make a little dip in each little ball with a wet thumb and push in a nut.
7. Bake till brown and firm.
8. Transfer to a baking rack to cool. They’ll stay fresh in an airtight tin for a month, or freeze if you want to keep them for longer. For a simple dessert, serve with a little cup of very strong coffee, a Sicilian lemon granite or a little glass of very cold limoncello or sweet wine, vin santo, for dipping. Crumbled, they make a sophisticated biscuit base for cheesecake.
Top illustration: Carob beans on the leaves of a carob tree. Credit: Elisabeth Luard
Certainly there will be other places where you can get the real thing, but for the authentic cannoli experience, head for the Pasticceria Gelateria Cortina, Via Genuardi 10, just behind the marketplace in Porto Empedocle, where the boats come in for Syracuse, Sicily’s most graceful city port.
You’ll know you’ve found the right place when there are no cannoli visible in the refrigerated glass-fronted display case where the fancy cream cakes are set out for admiration. Italians, particularly Sicilians, adore their dolci, a source of happiness to be taken at any time in the day or night, standing up by a cool counter or at a cafe table in the shade with a glass of water to cut the sugariness.
Cannoli are the quintessential Sicilian dessert
Cannoli, however, are not just any old dolci; they’re a statement of what it means to be Sicilian, a declaration of regional (actually national) identity. Nor are they simply a ladies’ treat, as are so many of the Mediterranean’s sugary little mouthfuls, descendants of the convent sweets prepared by nuns who had the recipes from the pastry cooks of the sultan’s seraglio.
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You might think, wandering into a pasticceria in a Sicilian town square, that what the white-shirted lawyer or banker or businessman is holding in a little square of paper is a savory snack, something suitably fortifying for a man such as he — perhaps arancini, the cone-shaped rice fritters that are the quintessential Sicilian fast food. No, what the man of affairs is eating so carefully from one end to the other, taking care not to spill a single crumb on the lapels of his impeccable jacket or mark the gleaming white shirt with a dribble from the crystallized cherry, is a hollow roll of fresh egg-enriched pasta dough slightly longer than a man’s hand, deep fried and filled, just before consumption, with sweetened ricotta.
I had already inspected the array, ordered a coffee and settled on an almond cookie flavored with aniseed before I noticed the gentlemen in dark suits eating what I had hoped to find in the cabinet.
Could I have what the signori were having?
Indeed I could.
The young woman behind the bar disappeared through a bead curtain. A few minutes later she reappeared.
“Va bene cosî?” (Is it OK like this?)
The cannoli, carefully cocooned in its little paper nest, was offered across the counter in her hand. The audience of dark-suited gentlemen nodded approvingly. Cannoli must be eaten from the hand, was the general consensus. And they must be freshly prepared and consumed standing up.
And furthermore, the audience continued, I should know that the distinctive shape achieved by wrapping a circular piece of dough around an aluminum tube before lowering it into the frying oil was derived from the original mold. This was a Sicilian marsh reed identical to Egyptian papyrus — though some might dispute this. I could judge for myself as the reeds were still grown and harvested for roofing, matting and providing shade for commercially grown tomato plants. This same reed, split at the thick end and woven into a cup shape, also once served as a draining basket for ricotta.
And if I wanted to taste fresh ricotta made in the old way, there was a contadino who made it most evenings at Donnafugata, a little hamlet below the famous castle, a tourist attraction whose popularity allowed the enterprise to make enough money from demonstrations and sales to support a precious herd of red-coated cattle of the old Sicilian breed, big-boned beasts whose milk yield was sustained through the summer on carob pods harvested from trees planted by the Arabs.
In addition, should I care to pay the ricotta maker a visit and put forward my request, his neighbor Carla — family name unknown — would show me how to prepare cannoli. Which indeed is what she did.
These were the Sunday treat in Sicilian farmhouses for those who made ricotta fresh Saturdays, said Carla, as everyone did in the old days with the whey from the cheesemaking. And to fill a batch of cannoli for a party, she added, you need plenty. If you don’t have the proper molds, you may cut the pasta into any shape you please and fry as cookies to eat with ice cream. Either way, the dough makes very good crisp cookies that keep well in a tin.
Makes 24 cannoli (or thereabouts)
For the pastry:
1 kilogram (2 pounds) double zero pasta flour
100 grams (4 ounces) finely pounded cane sugar
100 grams (4 ounces) unsalted butter (or pork lard)
About 100 milliliters (¼ pint) marsala wine
For the filling:
2 kilograms (4 pounds) fresh ricotta, drained
400 grams (7 ounces) icing sugar
1 egg, beaten (also a fingertip of egg for the pastry)
1. Heap the flour onto a board and mix in the sugar.
2. Work in the butter or lard cut in small bits and add enough wine to make a softish dough.
3. Roll out like pasta dough using a pasta roller or a long, thin rolling pin. The result should be a little thicker than homemade pasta.
4. Make a template with paper by rolling it around an aluminum cannoli mold and cut out a cardboard template to match.
5. Brush the molds with melted lard or butter or oil (not as effective).
6. Use the template to cut the paste to the right-sized oval, wrap it around the mold and stick the overlap together with a fingertip of egg.
7. Drop the whole thing into boiling oil; wait till the pasta is puffed and brown, then remove with draining spoon to kitchen paper.
8. Wait till a little cooled before slipping off the mold. You need at least 4 molds to avoid going crazy. Continue till all the mixture is used up.
9. Sieve the well-drained ricotta, mix in the sugar, then sieve again. (Or beat with a whisk as for whipping cream till glossy.) Use this to stuff the cannoli just before serving or they’ll be soggy.
Optional embellishments: Dip the ends in crushed pistachios, of which the best are grown on the volcanic slopes of Mount Etna, or finish with a crystallized cherry at one end and a sliver of candied quince at the other.
Top photo: Cannoli. Credit: Elisabeth Luard