Southern Italian treats for Tu Bishvat

Sicilian Fig and Nut Ring – Buccellato.

Sicilian Fig and Nut Ring (photo credit: Yakir Levy)
Sicilian Fig and Nut Ring
(photo credit: Yakir Levy)
A fig-and-nut-filled pastry that we enjoyed at a party at the Italian Cultural Institute in Los Angeles reminded us that Tu Bishvat is coming soon.
The pastry was baked by Giorgio Lo Verde of Il Fornaio restaurant in Coronado, California, who had just won an Ospitalità Italiana award, given by the Italian government to restaurants in countries around the world – including Israel – for their role as “ambassadors of authentic Italian quality.”
Lo Verde, who was born in Palermo, Sicily, told us that the fig pastry is a Sicilian specialty called buccellato. To make it he cooked dried figs, almonds, walnuts and pistachios with fig jam and Marsala wine; next he added a small amount of chopped chocolate to the cooled mixture. He enclosed the filling in biscotti dough, which he made without sugar. For the awards celebration he baked the buccellato in the shape of a Q, the symbol of the award.
Buccellato means bracelet, wrote Victoria Granof, author of Sweet Sicily, and noted that these cakes are popular in Palermo’s pastry shops. “Clues to centuries of foreign domination on Sicilian shores are evident in the spicy complexity of their filling – figs and walnuts from the Greeks, cooked grape must syrup... from the Romans, lemons from the Arabs and chocolate from the Spanish.”
Granof flavors her fig and nut filling with cinnamon, cloves, melted chocolate, grated lemon zest, apricot jam, honey, and grape must syrup. She bakes the mixture in sweet pastry dough, brushes it with powdered sugar icing and decorates it with colored candy sprinkles and chopped pistachios.
In buccellato recipes, “sun-dried figs are the one constant,” wrote Clarissa Hyman, author of Cucina Siciliana, “although... figs were once only for the poor – the rich used raisins. Figs grow in abundance in Sicily, but the vines needed for raisins were scarce.”
To flavor her fig and nut filling, Hyman uses Marsala or rum, orange juice and zest, cinnamon, nutmeg and grated chocolate. She bakes the buccellato as a large ring, or as individual turnovers with a garnish of pistachios and candied fruit (see recipe).
Dried fruits, especially figs, are popular around southern Italy. Fig syrup, also known as fig molasses, is “used throughout southern Italy to sweeten and flavor desserts in place of sugar or honey,” wrote Rosetta Costantino in her new book, Southern Italian Desserts. To prepare the syrup, Costantino uses a procedure similar to that for making silan from dates: She cooks dried figs in water, squeezes out their juice through cheesecloth, and cooks the juice until it thickens.
Almonds, the signature Tu Bishvat ingredient, symbolize spring in Sicily, too. The fertile land also provides pistachios and hazelnuts in abundance, and bakers turn the nuts into a variety of treats. “One look in the window of a Sicilian pasticceria shakes the foundations of the so-called Mediterranean diet,” wrote Hyman. “The sweetness of the nuts and sugar, marzipan and ricotta cream seems to waft in the air.”
Almonds flavor Sicilian riso nero, or black rice, a rice pudding that Hyman makes by cooking rice in milk with sugar, lemon peel strips and a cinnamon stick, and stirring in cocoa, grated chocolate, chopped toasted almonds and strong espresso, so the rice grains turn a mahogany color. Lastly, the rice is enriched with butter, garnished with chopped candied fruit and accompanied by whipped cream.
Blanched whole almonds are used in Granof’s tangerine-liqueur-flavored cookies, and in her crunchy spiced spiral cookies flavored with chopped candied orange peel, orange blossom honey, cloves and black pepper. She pairs chocolate with ground toasted almonds to make clove-scented chocolate cookies, and immerses the baked cookies in sweet chocolate glaze.
For a sweet of almonds, dried figs and chocolate, Costantino makes chocolate-dipped stuffed figs. She stuffs each fig with a whole almond and a piece of candied orange peel and bakes them. When they have cooled, she dips the stuffed figs in tempered dark chocolate.
A surprising Sicilian sweet is made from almonds, chocolate and eggplant. For these turnovers, Granof uses a buttery dough flavored with sweet wine and a filling of almond butter, chopped unsweetened chocolate, sugar, thyme honey, cinnamon, vanilla and pureed roasted eggplant halves.
The chocolate, almond and eggplant trio also figures in melanzane al cioccolato, a dessert from Campania, the region of Naples. To make it, Costantino fries eggplant slices in extra virgin olive oil, coats them with cinnamon and sugar and uses them to line the base and sides of a baking dish. She fills the dish with sweetened ricotta mixed with chopped toasted almonds, amaretti cookies and candied orange peel, drizzles it with chocolate sauce and adds more layers of fried eggplant and of the ricotta mixture. After baking and cooling the dessert, she serves it with warm chocolate sauce.
In describing the sweets of Sicily, Hyman writes: “Arabic yearnings for comfits of almond and sugar, cinnamon and nutmeg marry with the flamboyant excess of Spanish Baroque... The Arabs left their mark with pastries such as... soft fig cookies... marzipan, candied fruits, quince paste.”
Those who enjoy Mediterranean flavor combinations will find that Sicilian treats can enhance their Tu Bishvat table.
Faye Levy is the author of Fresh from France: Dessert Sensations and, in Hebrew, of Sefer Hakinuhim (The Book of Desserts), published by R. Sirkis.
Sicilian Fig and Nut Ring – Buccellato
This recipe is from Cucina Siciliana.
“This rich...sweet pastry cake comes in many shapes, sizes and variations,” wrote author Clarissa Hyman. The wine most often used is sweet Marsala; you can substitute another sweet wine. Note that the fruit and wine mixture needs to stand overnight.
To make small pastries, see the variation.
Makes 1 large cake, about 8 to 10 servings
❖ 1 cup ready-to-eat dried figs ❖ ¼ cup raisins ❖ ¼ cup currants ❖ ½ cup plus 2 Tbsp. Marsala or rum ❖ Juice and zest of 1 orange ❖ 1 tsp. ground cinnamon ❖ A little grated nutmeg ❖ ½ cup plus 1½ Tbsp. orange-blossom honey❖ 2/3 cup almonds, chopped❖ 1 cup walnuts, chopped ❖ 55 gr. (2 ounces) baking chocolate (bittersweet), grated ❖ Sweet Pastry (see next recipe) ❖ 1 egg white ❖ 2 eggs, beaten ❖ Chopped pistachio nuts (for garnish) ❖ Candied fruit in thin pieces (for garnish)
Finely chop the figs, raisins and currants, or whizz them briefly in a food processor. Put the mixture in a jar. Add the Marsala, orange juice and zest, cinnamon and nutmeg. Cover and leave overnight.
The next day, combine fruit mixture with honey in a saucepan and simmer over low heat until sticky and toffee-like. Mix in almonds and walnuts and let cool. Add grated chocolate and set aside.
Make the pastry (see next recipe).
Flatten the chilled pastry log slightly and spoon the filling along the center, leaving a gap of at least 1.25 cm (½ inch) on either side.
Beat the egg white and use it to moisten the edges of the pastry. Fold the pastry over, pressing the sides together so that they form a long sausage shape. Using a knife, make several diagonal slashes on the top of the pastry, slitting about halfway through to show the filling and to mark the pastry into portions.
Ease the ends of the sausage shape around to join together in a circle. Alternatively, curl into a horseshoe shape or leave as a log.
Glaze the pastry with some of the beaten egg, reserving the rest; chill the pastry for 30 minutes.
Meanwhile, heat the oven to 160ºC (325ºF).
Bake for 20 to 25 minutes until puffed and golden but not hard. Remove from the oven and brush with more of the beaten egg. Press the chopped pistachios and candied fruit over the surface and return to the oven for a few minutes, until the pastry is firm.
Serve warm or at room temperature.
Variation: For buccellatini, or individual turnovers, roll the dough into a sheet 6 mm. (¼ inch) thick and cut into small circles with a pastry cutter. Moisten the edges with beaten egg white; then put some filling in the middle of each circle. Fold over to form half moons, brush with beaten egg and place 5 cm. (2 inches) apart on a greased baking sheet. Bake for 25 to 30 minutes at 160ºC (325ºF). Cool on a wire rack. Dust the pastries with powdered sugar before serving, if desired.
Sweet Pastry (from Cucina Siciliana)
❖ 31/3 cups flour ❖ 1¼ cups powdered sugar ❖ 170 gr. (6 ounces or 12 Tbsp.) butter, cubed ❖ 3 egg yolks ❖ Grated zest of 1 lemon ❖ Pinch of salt
Sift flour into a bowl and stir in the sugar.
Make a well in the center and add butter, egg yolks, lemon zest and salt. Work together with your fingertips to make a soft dough; then knead until it forms a soft ball.
Place pastry on a baking sheet lined with parchment paper and roll into a log about 46 cm. (18 inches) long. Cover and chill for 1 to 2 hours.