Thursday, December 9, 2010

Sicilian Sweets for the Holidays

Since I started studying Italian, most of my formal “education” has been at the Istituto Italiano Scuola in San Francisco (now in its very attractive new quarters at Montgomery and Gold Streets). Recently, Diana Marano, one of the teachers from the school who is originally from Palermo and who loves cooking, has been arranging workshops to give students a chance to practice their Italian while learning something about Italian cuisine (is that a perfect class or what!!). Sadly I had missed the first two workshops that Diana had organized, so when I saw the announcement for a workshop to be held last Sunday focusing on holiday cookies, I immediately signed up.

I even stopped by Victoria Bakery in North Beach last week for some in depth pre-workshop biscotti reconnaissance.

The workshop was held at Diana’s apartment in North Beach which she and her husband, Salvo, generously opened up to the class for the afternoon. In addition to Diana and Salvo, Diletta Torlasco, the Scuola's Executive Director, joined us to provide additional support.

It appears that Sicilians really enjoy expressing themselves in the dolci area, perhaps in part because of the multitude of culinary traditions represented on the island as a result of the variety of groups from around the Mediterranean who controlled the island at one time or another. In particular the Arabs seem to have introduced some key ingredients and left a strong impression.

There may not be as many Sicilian biscotti and other dolci as there are stars in the sky, but the numbers must be pretty close, especially when you add in the special treats prepared in connection with the island's many religious festivals, including Christmas. Even the same type of biscotti seems to have innumerable variations from town to town (and perhaps from grandmother to grandmother within each town).

Upon our arrival at Diana’s place she gave us handouts with recipes based on guidance she had received from her grandmother in Palermo (in both Italian and English – plus a glossary of related culinary terms!) for the three biscotti we were going to be making that afternoon – namely:

~ Biscotti di Mandorle

We also found laid out on the serving board some beautiful examples of two of the biscotti we would prepare – the Biscotti di Mandorle and the Pasticciotti pictured below.

Diana had also baked a beautiful Buccellato – a pastry ring (ciambella) which is the “fullscale version” of the Buccellatini that we would be making.

The Biscotti di Mandorle (almond cookies) were the easiest of the three biscotti to make – a happy situation since it proved to be my favorite. It is basically ground almonds mixed with egg whites, sugar and flavorings. The only real chore was peeling the almonds before they were ground, a task made much easier by a trick Diana showed us to boil the nuts briefly to loosen the skins.

The Pasticciotti were basic cookies with an orange marmalade and chocolate filling. They seemed like they should be relatively simple, but turned out to be a bit more of a struggle to make.

The Buccellatini were also basic cookies with a long narrow shape and a very tasty filling of dried figs, nuts, raisins, marmalade, chocolate, Marsala and spices. They had the same filling as the Buccellato pictured above (Buccellatini being the diminutive form of Buccellato), although the Buccellato obviously takes considerably more work. Here is a
very good video (in Italian, but easily understandable) showing Giuseppe Deiana, a pastry chef in Palermo, making a Buccellato, including the crimping work (pizzicatura) needed to create the pattern (ricamo) in the dough.

After all the baking was done, we retired to the dining room where Diana and Diletta served the treats which we enjoyed with tea and coffee, as well as some
Hauner “Malvasia di Lipari Passito” from the Aeolian Islands off the northeast coast of Sicily:

Here is a shot of my plate showing the various sweets (and yes, I ate them all!).

It was a fun workshop, especially since we were speaking almost nothing but Italian for the entire time. Here is a shot of our very patient maestre, Diana (on the left) and Diletta.

I am looking forward to the next workshop in the new year. Diana said we may be making arancini, the very tasty Siclian fried riceballs stuffed with meat sauce! One of my favorite dishes.

Thanks again to Diana, Diletta and Salvo and, of course, Diana's nonna. Buon Natale to all!

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