Helen+G++Mary+T+Simeti+232
 Mary Taylor Simeti talking with Helen Greenwood

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).

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).

Cubbaita

They are:
Cubbaita (my relatives call it giuggiulena), gello di mellone, nucateli, riso nero (also called riso amauticato).

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).

INGREDIENTS
honey 1kg,
almonds, 500g blanched and roughly chopped into large pieces
candied orange peel, 400 g chopped finely,
cinnamon, ½ teaspoon (optional).

PROCESSES
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.

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I use Alchermes  (or Alkermes) to make the famous Italian dessert zuppa inglese (literally translated is English soup). This is the Italian version of the English trifle made with sponge cake, moistened with fruit syrup or/and sweet sherry, layered with cream/and or custard, jam and red coloured jelly made with jelly crystals.

Trifle is still being made in Britain and countries like Australia (that initially inherited much of the British cuisine). Over time there have been some little variations to the recipe, for example I have often eaten trifle in Australian homes that included preserved fruit – particularly canned peaches. Recently fresh fruit has become a popular edition, particularly strawberries, which in Australia can be purchased cheaply and all year round (unfortunately).

There are many stories about how this English dessert came to be part of Italian cuisine. Some say that perhaps Italian diplomats tasted trifle on a visit to London and this may have been their interpretation of this dessert. Others say that it probably eventuated in the kitchens of the well-off English; there were many living in Florence in the late 1800’s till the lead up of the Second World War.  Most of them employed Italian staff; perhaps some signori inglesi missed some of their cooking from home and this was what their Italian kitchen maids prepared as trifle. They had to use Italian ingredients – savoiardi (sponge fingers mostly used in layered Italian desserts) and Alchermes the ancient Florentine, red liqueur commonly used to moisten and flavour cakes. Fresh cream was (and is) rarely used in cakes in Italy, but pastry cream called crema pasticcera (also crema inglesecrème anglaise) is very common. And it is easy to see how this sloppy mess could be calledsoup”(zuppa).

I have seen modern Italian versions of recipes for zuppa inglese, which include red fruit (like berries) and many include chocolate. My mother’s version sometimes included grated dark chocolate on the top; I think that this was partly for decoration, but chocolate was never part of the dessert. Other modern versions may have a sprinkling of coffee beans and I wonder if the makers are getting confused with tiramisu, which because it contains coffee is often decorated with coffee beans.

I too often make zuppa inglese especially when I am stuck for ideas, or have little time to prepare a dessert; it is so easy to prepare and never fails to impress.

I still use the traditional way to make it. I always assemble it in layers: sponge fingers moistened with Alchermes (either homemade or purchased at a good wine shop), cover these with crema pasticcera, repeat x 2-3 layers finishing with a layer of sponge fingers.

I use a large glass bowl to assemble the layers of ingredients (it is a pretty dessert) and keep the zuppa inglese, in the fridge for at least four hours or overnight before I intend to present it – it gives the dessert time to settle and the flavous to develop.  I finally cover it with a layer or tuffs of panna montata (literally meaning cream made into mountains – isn’t the Italian language marvellous!). it is also known as Chantilly cream, whipped cream with a little caster sugar flavoured with vanilla bean –Italians would never think about using plain cream in cakes.

At some stage during my research about Alchermes I found out that the name is likely to have been derived from the Arabic “al” (a) and “qirmiz” (worm). This is because it contains cochineal, which gives the liqueur its red colour. Cochineal used to be made with a particular insect which was crushed and dried, this produced a rich, red dye.

In the photo I have included a bottle of purchased Alchermes (32% volume). I also make my own and there is a recipe on a previous post. I usually purchase the savoiardi but in the photo are savoiardi courtesy of a friend’s neighbour (her version as the shop bought variety are not usually ribbed) .The only recipe for this dessert is for the crema pasticcera:

INGREDIENTS
3 egg yolks, 3 tablespoons caster sugar infused with a vanilla bean, a pinch of salt 3 tablespoons of cornflour, 1 litre of milk, rind of 1 lemon, and a cinnamon stick.
PROCESSES
In a saucepan, mix the egg yolks with the sugar and slowly add the flour, salt and a little milk to make a smooth paste – a whisk could be useful. If you do not have sugar that has been infused with a vanilla bean, use a little vanilla (not artificial).
Add the rest of the milk and incorporate to dilute the mixture evenly.
Using a vegetable peeler remove the rind in one piece from ½ lemon. Add this to the milk mixture. Add the cinnamon stick.
Use low – medium heat, stir it constantly with a whisk or a wooden spoon and slowly bring it to the boil- the custard should have thickened. Cool before using. To prevent a skin from forming, I place a piece of baking paper or butter paper on its surface.

 

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I am partial to a cup of rose flavoured tea, add rose water in some of my cooking and I particularly like my Sirop de roses (Rose syrup, mine is made in Lebanon) which I sometimes use to give a pink tinge and rose flavour to some of my desserts: home made ice creams, panna cotta, stewed fruit compotes (especially rhubarb or figs, or pears) or fresh fruit salads.

The Old Foodie has been writing about rosewater again this week and this has reminded me about a recipe for making a rose flavoured liqueur.

I too am a lover of rose flavoured foods.

Rosolio di rose (Rosoliu in Sicilian) dates back to the 15th century and was a popular cordial, originally made from rose petals. By the 18th century it had progressively became an alcoholic drink and lemon become more favoured over rose as flavouring. The pink colour was likely to have been enhanced with cochineal.Many of the ancient Sicilian recipes use rosoliu as the generic name for liqueur, several of which are made with oranges, mandarins or lemons and some are sometimes flavoured and coloured with a little saffron.

There are recipes for making Liquore Di Rose (Rose Liqueur) - this has been popular in other parts of Italy and in other countries. Some of the recipes include other flavourings for example lemon peel, cloves or orange blossoms.

My zia Niluzza (who lives in Ragusa, Sicily) gave me this recipe for Rosoliu, a long time ago.

For extra flavour I use ½ cup of rose water (as part of the 2 cups of water) and a dash of rose syrup (coloured pink and it is sweet, therefore reduce the amount of sugar and a little cochineal. I will need to wait for a generous friend and the right season before I make my next batch, but I have thought about adding a little grated beetroot with the petals rather than using cochineal.

INGREDIENTS
4 cups of rose petals from a highly scented rose (I used a black rose for mine)
2 cups very strong vodka or grappa (we cannot buy 95° spirit in Australia as they do in Italy)
2 cups sugar
2 cups of water
PROCESSES
Place rose petals a clean jar, add alcohol, close and keep in a cool dark place for at least 2 weeks.
Prepare the sugar syrup: boil water and sugar. Cool.
Filter the alcohol mixture and add syrup. Keep it for least 3 months before using.
Glass of filtered  Rosoliu, bottle of Sirop de roses and the jar I use to make the Rosoliu.

 

In some recipes the petals are left in the alcohol/syrup mixture and then strained at the time of serving. I left some petals in my last batch of rose liqueur and the petals partly dissolve and this is why you may notice a layer of sediment in the jar in the photo.

This is not the only liqueur I make. See my recipe for making Alchermes (or Alkermes) that I use to make the famous Italian dessert Zuppa Inglese.

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A short time ago I became a member of an organisation called Ristoworld. This is an organisation that was first formed in Sicily, under the direction of Chef Andrea Finocchiaro who is based in Catania.

This is different to my other posts and I wish to explain why I am doing this.

Originally the group wanted to promote mainly Sicilian food&beverage – managers, sommelier, chefs and all staff involved in the trade as well as Sicilian produce. This group and its network have recently expanded. Andrea is still the President and he is working with Mario Principi, a group of advisers, representatives from all regions of Italy and from other parts of the world.

The initial concept of promotion Sicily has become the promotion of all things related to food&beverage of Italy – ‘all made in Italy’.

Recently I posted a message on their face book site (in Italian) about Mary Taylor Simeti. Mary is a leading Sicilian food writer living in Sicily who is coming to the Sydney International Food Festival– she is participating in a session is on October 9th.

Andrea has since asked me to publicize this photo on my site and I have agreed to do so – reciprocal thanks.

In summary, the photo is an idea of Andrea’s to demonstrate how culinary art and fashion can be linked (the sweetness of the chocolate with the beauty of the models). Michele Crimi, a Sicilian photographer of note is responsible for the photo; Lucia Russo, Angela Viola e Selene Eulalia Cabrabas are the models. It has been photographed in the scenic restaurant  Falconiera di Acireale, located the beautiful coastal city of Acireale in the north-east of the province of Catania, Sicily. The decorated chocolate centerpiece has been produced in collaboration with the ancient and famous Pasticceria Michelangelo Spina di Misterbianco. Although this is not mentioned in the article I was given to work from, there is promotion for the beauty of Sicily (Acireale and this restaurant) and the craft of the people involved in making this photo possible including the pastry cook.

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Affogato means drowned or smothered or choked in Italian, and which ever way you look at it, in this recipe the cauliflower has been killed off in red wine.

My grandmother Maria was born in Catania and this was one of her ways of cooking cauliflower (called VRUOCCULI AFFUCATI in Sicilian)

The cauliflower is cut into thin slices and assembled in layers: cauliflower, sprinkled with a layer of slivers of pecorino, thinly sliced onion and anchovies. Some recipes also include stoned black olives.

Although the coloured cauliflowers or broccoli can also be used for this recipe, I like the white cauliflower because it becomes rose- tinted by the red wine.

I compress the assembled ingredients, cover it with a circle of baking paper, an ovenproof plate and then put a weight on top (see photo).

It is cooked slowly until all the liquid evaporates and then it can be turned out and sliced like a cake. You may also like to use a non- stick saucepan or as I often do, place a circle of baking paper at the bottom of the pan to ensure that the “cake” does not stick to the bottom. Many recipes add water as the cauliflower is cooking to prevent it from burning, but if you cook it on very gentle heat and in a good quality saucepan with a heavy base, it may not be necessary.

VRUOCCULI AFFUCATI are especially suitable as an accompaniment to a strong tasting dish. Usually it is presented at room temperature or cold (I can remember the left over cauliflower being particularly satisfying as a stuffing for a panino).

INGREDIENTS
cauliflower or broccoli, 1kg
onion, 1large, sliced thinly
pecorino, 50 -100g, sliced thinly
anchovies, 4-5 or more
red wine, 1 glass
extra virgin olive oil, ¾ cup
salt and freshly ground black pepper to taste
PROCESSES
Place some olive oil in a deep saucepan (the ingredients are layered).
Add a layer of the cauliflower.
Top with the pecorino cheese, anchovies, ground pepper and onion slices (salt to taste).
Add another layer of the cauliflower and more oil.
Continue with more layers but finish off with a layer of cauliflower on top. Press down the layers with your hands.
Top with more oil and add the wine.
Cover the contents first with either a piece of baking paper or foil cut to size and slightly loose. Put a weight on the top so as to keep all of the layers compressed (see above). There should e a gap around the weight and the saucepan to allow the steam to escape.
Cook on very slow heat for about 40-60 minutes and when the liquid has evaporated, you should also hear the cauliflower sizzle in the oil.

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In Sicily, spring is the celebration of life, which in cultural and religious terms is expressed in Easter; Primavera (Spring) and Pasqua (Easter) are synonymous – a fusion of nature, culture, family and food.

When it is spring in Australia, it is autumn in Sicily.

A popular spring meat and Easter Sunday lunch treat is kid or lamb, commonly roasted or braised, and all depending on how one’s mother cooked it.

My relatives in Ragusa traditionally eat mpanata ri agnieddu a focaccia type pie made with very young lamb (complete with bones) and enveloped with a bread dough crust, and this is because it is what my grandmother made at Easter and probably her mother before her.

Saanen goat

I do not like using my oven all that much, I prefer to eat kid is braised. (In Australia the meat I buy is likely be considered as goat in Italy.)

The kid recipe I have chosen to write about is a variation of capretto con le mandorle (kid with almonds), a recipe from the north western area of Sicily which includes Trapani, Marsala and Mazara del Vallo. It is from the book La Cucina Tradizionale Siciliana by Anna Pomar, published in 1984. The book was given to me by Rosetta my cousin on one of the many occasions when I visited her home in Ragusa – this was her own copy and has her scribbles all over it.

I always like to make recipes my own and modify them to my tastes. To this recipe I add more onion, bay leaves, stock rather than water and dry Marsala. Is it still the same recipe?

INGREDIENTS
goat, the younger the better, compete with some bones, 3k
onions, finely sliced, 2
bay leaves, 3-4
extra virgin olive oil, ¾ cup
Marsala Fina (dry version, if not substitute with white wine) ½ cup
tomatoes, 3 large ripe ones, peeled and chopped (or cannned)
almonds, blanched and ground to powder, 300g
broth/ stock, stock cube (approx. 3 cups of liquid)
salt and pepper to taste
PROCESSES
Cut the goat into medium sized pieces (so that you have to use a knife and fork to cut it on your plate). Trim off access fat and wipe the meat dry.
Heat the oil, add the goat and the onion and brown it lightly.
Add the marsala and deglaze the contents in the pan.
Add the tomatoes, herbs, 1 cup of broth and seasoning.
Cover and cook on low heat and until meat pulls off the bone. Pomar’s recipe suggests cooking it for 45 minutes, my goat (rather than kid) can take up to 2 hours of cooking.
Add the almond meal and reheat gently. If the sauce is too dense, add a little more broth.
Although Sicilians and Italians tend to eat their food lukewarm, the recipe states to eat it hot.

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My father used to grow matovilc in his garden in Adelaide.  Some may know this salad green as lamb’s lettuce or mâche as it is known in France. I have also found references to it being called corn salad, apparently because it grows wild in cultivated fields in temperate climates.

I know this salad green well and ate it regularly in Trieste where I lived as a child. You are probably thinking that matovilc does not sound very much like an Italian word, and you are correct – it is Sloveniac/Croatian where it is more commonly known as matovilac.

Those of you who have travelled to France may recognise it, but unless you have been to Trieste you are unlikely to find it anywhere else in Italy. One of my father’s acquaintances smuggled a few seeds out from Trieste to Adelaide; you no longer have to break the law, seeds can be found.

The top photo is what I bought in Brisbane from the Powerhouse Farmers’ Market. I was there last weekend and it was sold as whole heads in the form of rosettes. In Trieste we also purchased it in the market, the leaves were sold loose by the handful and were very small.

I always get excited when I see this salad green, it is not easily found for sale in the state where I live and is generally cultivated at home. My father picked the matovilc growing in his garden leaf by leaf (as he did all his salad greens); it is very easy to grow and is at its best in spring. It goes to seed quickly in warm climates.

As a simple salad (dressed with a wine vinegar, salt pepper and extra virgin olive oil) it is particularly appreciated in Trieste when accompanied with fried sardines (first dipped in a little flour and salt and the fried in very hot extra virgin olive oil). The contrasts of the almost sweet, delicate taste of the leaves and the strong taste of the sardines works well together.

In France, I ate a lot of mâche as part of the numerous salade composée, which seem very much part of café food offered at lunchtime. It seems to be an excellent way to present smallgoods or use up left-overs. In fact in Brisbane my friend and I used the left over pancetta (cooked it), pecans, a dressing made with raspberry vinegar and extra virgin olive oil and some brie that were all left over from the meal from the night before. This also tasted excellent and gave both of us much pleasure in using up left over ingredients creatively.

This photo is Salade de Pigeon Landaise, vinaigrette de son jus. It was taken in Paris at Le Cordon Bleu Academie D’Art Culinaire and was one of the dishes cooked by Monsieur Le Chef (as the students seem to refer to him respectfully).
I watched the chef cook and sampled the following:
CUISINE LE SUD-OUEST, LES LANDES / THE SOUTH-WEST, LANDES
·      Salade de pigeon landaise, vinaigrette de son jus / Roasted squab salad, squab jus vinaigrette
·      Salmis de canard en cabouillade / Roasted duck “salmis”
·      Biscuit roulé fourré à la ricotta et mandarines / Swiss roll filled with ricotta and mandarins.
 
 

This photo is of the simple salad my friend and I prepared when we stayed in the converted barn at La Vieille Grange in Mercadiol (a small hamlet) in the South West of France. It is the same restored barn that Stephanie Alexander stayed (with Maggie Beer and Colin her husband) when she researched material for her book Cooking & Travelling in the South-West France. We travelled to many open air markets and bought local produce – that particular morning we found some mâche, beautiful radishes and local fresh trout, come home and had a good time preparing lunch – the mushrooms were sautéed in local extra virgin olive oil with parsley and garlic. The local bread, pate, sausisson (sausage) and cheeses which we also ate at the same repast are missing from the photo.

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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’s 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, more photos below

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.

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I love the Italian language – polpettine, polpette, polpettone, much better than small meatballs, meatballs and meatloaf. (Polpette from polpa, meaning flesh). The Sicilian word for meatballs is purpetti, and even better.

I had bought some beef mince (my butcher selects the meat, shows it to me and then puts it through his mincing machine in front of me – no additives, no preservatives) and I was going to use it to make a fausu magro – a large braciola stuffed with hard boiled egg, mortadella and cheese and braised in tomato passata).

Usually this dish is made with a large slice of beef topside, (a lean cut of beef I buy in Australia) but some Sicilians use mince and I wanted to see what amount of stuffing the mince would tolerate without falling apart in the cooking.  My mother used to cook a large unstuffed meatloaf which was partly based on the cuisine from Trieste where we lived. She called it a polpettone (Italian name for meatloaf) and rightly so because sometimes she braised or baked it using a little white wine and some stock for moisture rather than using tomatoes.

Then a friend arrived unexpectedly from interstate and I had no time to prepare the fausu magru so I made large meatballs instead. It only took about 15 minutes to make the meatballs – they were great.

If you look at recipes for making meatballs, they are always sealed (sautéed in hot extra virgin olive oil) before the braising liquid is added (passata or tomato paste and water) but not this time. A Sicilian friend of my mother’s once told her that where she came from (Agrigento) meatballs were dropped unsealed in the hot tomato based sauce – this results in a much lighter dish. The other thing I did was to add cinnamon sticks and bay leaves to the braising liquid.

As a teenager I had a friend who was from Calabria and her mother would always add sultanas to her polpette. For a short time I also lived next door to a family from Naples. The signora added sultanas and cinnamon to her mixture – my mother was even more horrified about this – obviously this was not part of the Sicilian cuisine that my grandmother knew (my grandmother was born in Catania, on the east coast of Sicily). Both the Calabrese and Napoletana women seemed to add a large proportion of bread to their mixture, much more than I was used to in my mother’s kitchen.

I have checked my many resources and there are Sicilian recipes that list ground cinnamon, dried grapes (currants or raisins or sultanas) and pine nuts in the meatball mixture, as well as the usual ingredients used to make meatballs all over Italy: breadcrumbs (usually soaked in water or milk beforehand and squeezed dry), grated cheese (parmesan or pecorino, depending which part of Italy you come from), salt, pepper, nutmeg, raw egg and a little chopped parsley.

I even found a version in Giuseppe Coria’s Profumi Di Sicilia which lists amaretti biscuits, whole pine nuts and ground pistachio nuts, cinnamon and sultanas as part of the meatball mixture (I can see more meatballs coming!)

Meatballs, of course, were eaten throughout Italy way back in time, and in many other parts of the world, too (maybe not always shaped like a ball) – think of the Greek (sometimes with powdered cloves) and the Middle Eastern lamb variations with coriander and cumin; Swedish meatballs with a cream gravy (tomato-less and much like my mother’s version of polpettone); Vietnemese meatballs with pork mince, water chestnuts and fish sauce; or the Chinese lion head and the oversized pork meatballs from Shanghai cooked in a clay pot. (I could go on, but it is not appropriate for a blog.)

INGREDIENTS
minced beef, 600g
eggs, 2
fresh bread crumbs (from 2 slices good quality sourdough white bread, crusts removed)
cinnamon sticks, 2
grated pecorino cheese, a small handful
salt and pepper
nutmeg, grated, a pinch
parsley, 1-2 tablespoons, sliced finely
bay leaves, 2-3
sun dried sultanas, a small handful
pine nuts, a small handful
extra virgin olive oil, a good splash
passata, 1-2 bottles( or tomato paste and water or tinned tomato)
garlic, 1-2 large cloves, whole
oregano, dried, a pinch
PROCESSES
Mix minced meat, cheese, eggs, bread, parsley, salt and pepper and nutmeg together, add pine nuts and sultanas and shape into balls (mine were large- tennis ball size – I was in a hurry).
Place passata, oil and garlic, a little salt and pepper, cinnamon sticks, bay leaves and oregano (or fresh basil which I try to do without in winter) in a pan and bring to the boil.
Drop the balls in gently, turn down the heat and do not stir or turn them over for at least 10 minutes (prevent breakage). I like to have the meatballs completely covered with liquid.
Poach them on low heat until cooked (approx. 30mins).

They smell good too and unsurprisingly, the sauce can be used to dress the pasta, the meatballs are presented as second course.

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A braciola generally is a cutlet in Italian, but in the south of Italy (and In Sicily) a braciola is also a slice of fish or meat usually rolled around a stuffing. The smaller in size bracioli (Sicilian and plural) are sometimes referred to as braciulini and braciulittini. The most common cooking method is to braise them in a tomato salsa.

Some of you may be more familiar with the Sicilian, large, stuffed, beef roll called farsumagru (falsomagro, in Italian meaning false lean and probably a corruption of farce maigre in French]. Farsumagru is really a large braciola cooked in a tomato salsa and presented sliced.

In the rest of Italy slices of meat or fish rolled around a filling are more commonly known as involtini – made with veal and stuffed with cheese, ham and sage and then fried in a little butter or oil and deglazed with a little white wine. You may know them as saltimbocca or salti in bocca (literally – jump in the mouth). Sometimes involtini are called ucelletti or ucellini and both words mean little birds in Italian (as a child growing up in Trieste, it was common to eat  real little birds on polenta!) .

It is fascinating how words are adapted from one nation to another – in French, rolled beef with a stuffing are also known as birds: oiseax sans têtes (headless birds).

The English (and hence Australians who inherited a predominately an English cuisine) called them olives, or beef olives (to differentiate them from olives from a tree). These were usually stuffed with herbs, a little onion and breadcrumbs as indeed Lynette, my  Anglo-Adelaide-Australian sister-in-law remembers her mother making.

A lark

Food historian and food writer Janet Clarkson (The Old Foodie) says:

The name seems to be an example of folk etymology – the process by which a word is adapted to another use because of some confusion of pronunciation and meaning. In old manuscripts the same dish is called alowes (or aloes or some other attempt at interpreting a word phonetically) – which comes from the French for small birds (alouette is a lark). After some time in England the word became heard as olives, which are also small, round, and stuffed – and there you have it. The idea also explains why they are also called ‘beef birds’ or oiseaux sans têtes (headless birds).

To confuse the matter even further, small flat pieces of meat (or fish) rolled around a filling are also called paupiettes (poupiettes, polpettes etc) – derived from the Italian polpa for flesh, or turbans, which is self-explanatory.

It would appear that thin slices of pounded veal or beefsteaks rolled around a stuffing are part of many cuisines. For example the Germans have rouladen, the Maltese have braġjoli, and the Argentinians prepare matambre arrollado.

What you see in the photos are one version of braciole, (plural form of braciola). These little parcels are made with what is called ‘veal’ in Australia, but as you can see the meat is a darker red than what is called veal in Italy (animal is still milk fed and pale in colour). In Australia I have also heard it called ‘yearling’ – not a calf and not quite fully-grown to be called ‘beef.’

There are many regional variations to stuff braciole, the two most common are hard-boiled eggs, sausage mince or preserved meats and the other is a mixture of breadcrumbs mixed with herbs, grated cheese and raw eggs. In Messina (north east coast of Sicily) pine nuts and currants are often included in the bread mixture. I like to add grated lemon peel to this version.

These braciole in the photos have a fairly common stuffing of ham, cheese and hard-boiled egg and they and braised in a simple tomato sauce.

The photos were taken in Lynette’s kitchen; we used the tomato sauce to dress the pasta and presented the braciole as a main course (with salad). The parcels may not appear to be wrapped as beautifully as they could have been; we had eleven for lunch on Sunday and after stuffing artichokes we prepared the eleven braciole in a big hurry. Each should look like a mini torpedo with one row of string along the longest part first and the trussed laterally. But this did not matter, they tasted good and the filling was secure. Cut the string and remove it before you bring it to the table; surprisingly they do not fall apart.

INGREDIENTS
Veal or beef (topside, flank) trimmed and pounded thinly – 1 per person.
1 slice of either: prosciutto cotto (cooked ham), mortadella, or thin salame.
1 hard-boiled egg (whole)
1-2 cheese slices: (caciocavallo would be used in some parts of Sicily), pecorino or provola.
Extra virgin olive oil, dry red wine, tomato passata, oregano or basil, salt and black pepper.
PROCESSES
Pound the steaks to about 5mm thick.
Place one slice of prosciutto cotto over each steak, follow with cheese and lastly with the egg. Roll up to enclose the filling and secure with string (some use toothpicks).
Place the olive oil in a large frypan and over medium-high heat sauté the rolls for 3-4 minutes, turning them, until lightly browned on all sides. Remove them from the pan.
Add wine to hot pan and evaporate for a few minutes.
Add the passata, bring to the boil and add braciole. Reduce heat and cook gently for about 30-40 minutes.
Stuffed artichokes, see recipe

 

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