While I love gelato, pastries have never been at the top of my favorites list. I would much rather order an extra antipasto or plate of pasta, than ‘save room’ for desert. Maybe that is why it’s taken me so long to appreciate Italian pastries.
Italy isn’t really known for it’s pastries. Sure, there is tiramisu and cannoli that everyone knows and loves. But it’s not as if they are competing with France or anything. Yet Italians do have a sweet tooth. If you’ve ever spent time here you know that there is entire industry devoted to ‘breakfast’ cookies and cakes.
And Italy really does pull out all the stops in the sweet department when it comes to the holidays. At this point everyone has eaten Panetone, and even the eggier Pandoro. But things get a lot more complicated when you go from region to region, and holiday to holiday. There are some pastries that are available only for a few short days, in a few small towns.
We are spending Christmas in Bari this year, and a big part of the festivities include the platters of various pastries that Zia Tetta brings over. These used to be made by Zia Filippa, but her feet are hurting too much these days to bake anymore, so we now get our pastry-fix from Zia Tetta’s maid’s sister. (family relationships down here always get real complicated)
The pastry platters are numerous and always huge, and everyone has their favorites. But the centerpiece, the raison-d’etre if you will, are the cartellate.
It took me a very very long time to appreciate cartellate. These are strips of dough, rolled out paper-thin (this is where the name comes from: carta = paper) The pastry is then cut into thin strips, with a zig-zag edge. The strips are then manipulated into elaborate rose-shaped pastries, which are then deep fried in oil. Drained, they are drenched in vincotto, a cooked- down, wine-based syrup.
What do cartellate taste like? Well, imagine fried dough soaked in wine syrup. They are definitely weird. And do I have to add, heavy? I remember when I first tried one, I took a bite as my husbands entire family watched. “Mmm, yum. I’ll just save the rest for later.” They then gave me a ‘starter’ cartellate, one that had been dipped in honey instead of vincotto, which I have to admit I liked. Fried dough in honey. What’s not to like?
But I didn’t give up with the traditional version. Each year I’d try again, if only to help in the family effort to get through Zia Tetta’s platters. And now I can actually say that I love them. The fried dough is just the right foil for the slightly musty, not-too-sweet vincotto.
Today is the 26th, so it’s bye bye to the cartellate until next year. But carnevale is coming up soon, so it’s not as if I’ll be going into fried-pastry withdrawal any time soon.
Here is a traditional recipe for Cartellate, if you want to have a go at it yourself. I, of course, have never made them, since we receive industrial quantities from Zia Tetta each year.
1 kilo of flour
40 gr yeast (cake type), disolved in a bit of water
200 ml olive oil
2 glasses of white wine
1 tsp salt
Olive oil for frying
Vincotto or Honey
Place the flour on a work surface, and make a well in the middle. Add the olive oil, wine and yeast and work it into the dough, kneading utill the dough is soft and elastic, (kind of like pizza)
Let it rise for a couple of hours, then punch it down. Divide into small balls.
Roll out each ball as thin as possible. With a zig-zagged edge pasta cutter (the rolling kind) cut strips that are 4 cm wide and 20-30 cm long. Fold each strip in two, length wise, so that the long edges are touching each other. Pinch the dough together with your fingers every 4-5 cm. Then roll the strip up, to form a kind of rose.
Heat a large pot of oil, and fry the roses until golden. Drain and let cool, on paper towels.
Bring a small pot of vincotto (or honey) to boil. Gently dip in each cartellate, swirling and pushing it under, so that it absorbs the vin cotto. Place on platter.
Once made, these will keep a couple of weeks.