Southern Italian Desserts by Rosetta Costantino – A Book Review and a Giveaway
Zeppole di San Giuseppe
Rosetta Costantino, food writer, cooking teacher, and native of Calabria, gathered her husband and kids, and traveled through the Italian regions of Calabria, Campania, Basilicata, Puglia and Sicily to find the classic desserts of Southern Italy, a swath of territory known as the Mezzogiorno. From cookies, to cakes, cream-filled pastries and frozen desserts, she tried them all, developed recipes and now presents them here in Southern Italian Desserts, entry number three in my Suggestions for Christmas Giving. This book will whet your appetite for holiday baking and gift giving, while awakening memories of family gatherings and long lost recipes. It’s a dream come true, a sweet tour of southern Italy, and I’m glad to say that the publisher, Ten Speed Press, has provided a copy of the book to give to one lucky reader.
The book opens with a brief history of Southern Italy and a discussion of the many different cultural influences and their contributions to the cuisine. The chapter A Southern Italian Dessert Pantry lists the tools, pans and other items necessary along with descriptions of various Italian ingredients. Like the country itself, the recipes are divided by region, presented in unique chapters.
Italy produces some of the finest nuts in the world, and the country’s pastry chefs and bakers make ample and creative use of them. Almonds, hazelnuts, pine nuts, pistachios, and walnuts are all well represented here. Incidentally, a number of the book’s desserts, including many nut-centric ones, are gluten free, and are so noted for those who must be watchful.
I started with Dolci di Noci, a specialty of the region of Basilicata. Crispy and surprisingly light, with a slightly chewy center, these cookies are packed with walnut flavor. Granulated sugar and walnuts are ground together, mixed with an egg, formed into logs, cut and baked – fast, simple, and pop-in-your-mouth delicious. Click here to go to Rosetta’s site for the recipe and step-by-step directions.
Next I looked to Puglia for a trio of cookies. Pezzetti di Cannella are bite-size diamond shaped cookies flavored with dark, fragrant cocoa and cinnamon. For a final flourish these little jewels are tossed in a bowl of powdered sugar glaze and set on a rack to dry. Put these on a Christmas cookie platter and watch them disappear.
Biscotti di Ceglie are a specialty of Ceglie Messapica, one of the oldest towns in Puglia. They were new to me though, and as soon as I read the recipe, I was intrigued. Made of toasted chopped almonds flavored with honey and Limoncello, the dough is pressed into a block and a thin line of cherry preserves is spread across it. It is then rolled and cut, encasing a bite of cherry preserves in every cookie. This heirloom recipe also has a unique instruction: to prevent sticking and make assembly easy, the author recommends dampening one’s hands and work surface with Limoncello. With a hint of Limoncello, these crunchy almond and cherry cookies are a delight.
Perhaps the most unique of the Pugliese cookie triad are the Intorchiate. A fragrant butter dough enriched with olive oil and white wine is rolled into ropes, twisted, pressed into granulated sugar and dressed with blanched almonds. These beautiful cookies are delicious, slightly crisp and quite light.
A Sicilian classic, Biscotti Regina, are tiny balls of dough perfumed with orange and rolled in sesame seeds. Whether enjoyed with coffee, a bit of wine or grabbed by the kids as they zip through the kitchen, these crunchy cookies are perennial favorites.
These cookies and many others are unfussy, inexpensive, and easy to make. They are, however absolutely delightful to eat, prime examples of the genius of the Italian baker.
For a fancier goodie, try Biscotti Eureka, pastry pinwheels filled with a sweet-tart mixture of ground almonds, orange marmalade, honey and candied orange peel. The book’s detailed and specific directions make assembly simple. These are a beautiful accompaniment to a cup of tea or coffee.
If it is cakes you are after, there are plenty from which to choose. It seems that every family has a recipe for an apple cake. Rosetta’s Torta di Mele e Ricotta boasts a thick batter studded with diced apples, enriched with ricotta, and lightened with beaten egg whites. The torta is topped with sliced apples and finished with coarse sanding sugar for a jewel-like effect. Serve it warm with a small scoop of vanilla ice cream for an inviting and comforting dessert. This moist cake keeps well, and served unadorned is perfect for an afternoon snack.
Torta Caprese is here too. This moist cake from the island of Capri is made of ground almonds, dark chocolate, and a dash of Kahlua, its batter lightened with fluffy meringue. Dark and rich, yet not too sweet, this cake is a versatile dessert. Serve it with a dusting of confectioners’ sugar or dress it up a bit with a dollop of lightly sweetened whipped cream. Torta Caprese keeps well over several days. In fact, like so many nut desserts, it actually improves and can be made ahead, a plus in my book.
Sicilian classics abound here – from the island’s iconic Cannoli, to the deliciously dark Nero all’arancia, a rich gelato made with cocoa and dark chocolate. This creamy frozen treat is generously flavored with orange extract and dotted with candied orange peel. As is typical of Sicilian gelati, cornstarch, rather than egg yolks, lends body. If you thought gelato was only for the summer months, consider this one as a finish to a Christmas dinner.
Gelato Bianco Variegato al Pistacchio is a creamy rich white chocolate gelato swirled through with luxurious sweet crema di pistacchio (pistachio cream.) This is gelato at its most elegant.
Bocconotti (little mouthfuls) are found across Italy, and are especially popular during the Christmas season. Short-crust pastry is pressed into mini-brioche molds or tiny tart pans and a sweet filling is added. Sometimes these pastries sport a top crust, but they can also be left open. In the version pictured here the pastries are filled with a chocolate and almond mixture, although the book provides a variety of fillings. Click for my post and a link to the recipe. This is, by the way, my most repinned item on Pinterest. They are that good.
Sfogliatelle Frolle, half-moon shaped pastries with a satiny cream filling are one of Naples’ most famous creations. A bit of baking powder adds lift to the short-crust pastry, and the filling of sweetened ricotta, semolina and candied orange peel is scented with vanilla and cinnamon. Dusted with confectioners’ sugar and eaten warm from the oven, the light crust yields to the bite as the creamy center fills your mouth. You will swoon. And then you’ll ask for another. These pastries can be assembled ahead of time and frozen, ready to pop into the oven for breakfast or as a welcome for surprise guests.
Creamy Zabaione al Limoncello is a modern take on one of Italy’s most ethereal desserts. Egg yolks and sugar are beaten over simmering water until satiny and thick, and the mixture is often spiked with Marsala. I favor it with other, stronger liquors, and here Limoncello adds the refreshing tang of lemon. The zabaione, once cooled, is lightened with whipped cream and served over berries that have been macerated (soaked and softened) in Limoncello and sugar. I wound up (quite by accident) reversing the dessert – putting the berries on top, rather than cloaking them in the custard, and it was delicious. There’s a lesson here. Be flexible in the kitchen. Be calm in the face of errors. If something does not look perfect, or if you get the directions a little wrong, don’t fret. Sit down, laugh a little, and then enjoy the fruits of your labor. This dessert would be an exceptional cap to a New Year’s Eve meal – upside down or right side up.
I always loved baking with my grandmothers and my mom, but I was left guessing by directions like “Add enough water to make a thick paste” or “Bake in a fast oven until done.” I have always wanted answers, and Southern Italian Desserts provides them with detailed directions that take the guesswork out of dessert-making. Measurements are given in volume (cups, teaspoons, etc.) and in grams.
A section of basic recipes includes pasta frolla (sweet short-crust pastry), pan di Spagna (sponge cake), crema pasticcera (pastry cream), ricotta fresca (fresh ricotta), and many other building blocks of the Italian pastry tradition. Recipes for the staples of the Italian pantry such as nut pastes and scorze d’arance candite (candied orange peel) are here too. Sources for ingredients and tools along with a metric conversion chart and bibliography are included. The photography by Sara Remington beautifully captures the spirit of the land and its tempting desserts.
From cookies so simple a child could make them to more complex creations, there is something here for every skill level. To the beginning bakers out there – work your way through this book, and by the time you have made six or seven desserts, you’ll find your confidence has increased, and you’ll move on to the more complex offerings. Soon enough you’ll invite a few friends over to make Cartellate, ribbons of sweet dough rolled into rosettes, deep fried and drenched in sweet mosto cotto. Start a family tradition of gathering to make Napoli’s famous Sfogliatelle Ricce, layers of flaky pastry brimming with creamy ricotta and semolina filling. With friends, good cheer, and a copy of this book you will produce a buffet table covered with delightful sweets, keeping tradition alive in the process. Southern Italian Desserts will take you on a tour of some of the most beautiful spots on earth, and you’ll enjoy every bite along the way, becoming a real Italian baker in the process. Guaranteed.
Photograph by Sara Remington
Reprinted with permission from:
Southern Italian Desserts: Rediscovering the Sweet Traditions of Calabria, Campania, Basilicata, Puglia, and Sicily
by Rosetta Costantino with Jennie Schacht
Ten Speed Press, © 2013 (October 8, 2013)
Photo Credit, Zeppole di San Giuseppe, Rosetta Costantino: Sara Remington
Hardcover: 224 pages
Visit the author’s website at Cooking with Rosetta
Domenica Marchetti talks with Rosetta Costantino at DomenicaCooks.com
Note: You can click on any picture for a larger image, and see a slide show!
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