Gina DePalma and Copulettas – Half-moon pastries from Sardinia
Greetings to all. It’s been months since you have heard from me. Life and my home remodel have conspired to keep me out of the kitchen and away from my computer. This post, however is not about me. It is about Gina DePalma. Gina, for those of you unfamiliar with her, is one of the stars of the Italian pastry world. She was the pastry chef at Babbo and Enoteca restaurants in New York for many years, and she is the author of numerous articles and Dolce Italiano, one of my favorite collections of Italian desserts.
Gina was diagnosed with ovarian cancer in 2007, and in the ensuing years she has waged a fierce battle with the disease. My return to blogging comes in the form of a paean to her – both her skill at the oven and stove, and her courage in the face of a terrible adversary. She summed it up this way.
…This second recurrence of my ovarian cancer began in February of 2012. I’ve been on continuous chemotherapy since then, which is a very, very long time. My situation has mostly gone downhill and it has taken a toll. Although I was doing well for most of last year, the bottom line is that the cancer isn’t going away and I’m not responding to the drugs anymore.
I have reunited with my doctor at Mount Sinai, where I was treated from 2007 to 2013, and he strongly believes that this surgery is the best course of action for me…
On September 28, 2015 Gina underwent her second cancer surgery. She will recuperate in Yonkers at the home of her mother, her beloved felines at her side.
To support Gina, please send her your best wishes by posting on her website, Facebook page, or Twitter. If you’ve got a bit of extra time, make this or another of her recipes and post a shot on Facebook or Twitter.
Gina’s book, Dolce Italiano, is available from Amazon.
Each of Italy’s twenty regions has its own specialty pastries, cookies, and treats. Sardegna (Sardinia) is no exception. Copulettas are mezzelune (half-moon shaped) pastry pockets of sweet dough filled with ground toasted almonds, almond paste, orange marmalade, honey, and saba. They are often served at special occasions such as baptisms and weddings. Here is Gina’s recipe, with a few added notes and some alternate techniques. I have also included excerpts from her headnote. Grazie, Gina, and I wish you the best!
Sardinia is the second great Italian island of the Mediterranean, known as the “island of the sun.” Situated 100 miles off the coast of Italy, Sardinia posses a particular beauty. The island’s 1800 kilometers of coastline alternates between rugged, rocky cliffs and soft, sandy, white beaches; both met by the crystal clear blue waters of the sea.
Sardinians like their pastries sweet and flavorful, and the variations differ from region to region, and even from town to town. Many feature almonds, which are harvested in Sardinia, and candied orange peel or lemon zest, as well honey.
Copulettas are a specialty of the wine-making region of Gallura, and I think they are interesting and delicious. To make them, you will need a bottle of saba, which is cooked grape must. The acidity of the saba balances the sweetness of the almond paste, and is essential to the flavor of the filling. I also recommend using an orange marmalade that is not too sweet, but full of intense orange flavor; I hate to sound like a nag, but an Italian brand, such as Il Forteto, will best satisfy that criteria. The dough is very easy to work with and roll out, and making it by hand is an extremely satisfying endeavor. Do not roll it too thin or the filling will burst through. Sprinkles are a must to add that extra festive touch on these pastries, which burst with the special flavors of Sardenga.
For the dough:
2 cups unbleached all-purpose flour, OR 00 flour, plus additional for rolling
½ cup granulated sugar
½ teaspoon fine sea salt
2 large eggs
2 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil
1 tablespoon unsalted butter, melted
For the filling:
½ cup blanched, sliced almonds, toasted and cooled
4 ounces almond paste
2 heaping tablespoons orange marmalade
1 tablespoon Sardinian honey
2 tablespoons saba
1 large egg white
1 large egg
For the icing:
2 cups confectioners’ sugar
1 pasteurized egg white* – see food safety note below
2 cups confectioners’ sugar
2 tablespoons plus 1 teaspoon water
To make the dough by hand: combine the flour, sugar, and salt, and make a pile on your work surface. With your fingers, create a deep well; make sure the sides are high enough to support it. Beat the eggs lightly with a fork in a small bowl, add them to the well along with the olive oil and the melted butter. As with pasta dough, gradually incorporate the flour into eggs, using your fingers or a fork, forming a rough dough. Knead the dough until it is smooth and homogenous. Divide the dough in half, and wrap each half in plastic wrap. Refrigerate for 30 minutes.
To make the dough in the food processor: place the flour, sugar, and salt in the workbowl of a food processor fitted with the metal blade. Pulse twice to combine. Place the eggs, olive oil, and melted butter in a small measuring cup, and use a small whisk or fork to combine, breaking up the eggs well. With the processor running, add the wet ingredients and process until the dough just comes together. Turn the dough out onto a clean counter and knead briefly. Divide the dough in half, and wrap each piece in plastic wrap. Refrigerate for 30 minutes.
In the meantime, make the filling: to toast the almonds, preheat the oven to 350 degrees F., and adjust the rack to the center level. Spread the almonds on a rimmed baking sheet, and toast for 10 to 12 minutes, until fragrant and just starting to color. Set the almonds aside to cool. Grind the cooled almonds in the workbowl of a food processor fitted with the metal blade. Transfer them to a medium bowl. Break the almond paste into small pieces with your fingers, and add it to the bowl with the ground almonds. Add the marmalade, honey, and saba to the bowl, and with a fork, mash all the ingredients together until thoroughly combined.
Roll out the dough: preheat the oven to 350 degrees F. Place the egg white in a small bowl and beat it lightly with a fork. Roll out half of the dough on a lightly floured board. The dough should be slightly thinner than tart dough. Using a three-inch round cutter, cut 12 circles, re-rolling the scraps as necessary.
Assemble the copulettas: lightly brush the dough circles with the beaten egg white. With slightly dampened hands place a scant teaspoon of filling slightly off center of each circle, and flatten it slightly.
Fold one side of the dough over the filling to make a crescent shape.
Press the dough around the filling and seal the edges of the dough. Use a fluted cutter to trim the dough and give it a scalloped edge. Repeat with the other half of the dough.
Arrange the copulettas on a parchment-lined sheet tray, evenly spaced. Lightly beat the whole egg in a bowl and use a pastry brush to glaze the pastries. Using a toothpick, prick each copuletta at the base of the mound of filling, to release any air and prevent them from bursting. Bake them for 18 to 20 minutes, or until they are firm and lightly golden brown. Remove the copulettas from the oven and allow them to cool completely.
Finish the copulettas: make the icing by placing the confectioner’s sugar in a small bowl. Add the egg white (or water if using the alternate recipe) and stir until the icing is smooth, but very stiff. Add a few drops of water as needed.
To decorate the copulettas, spread the icing generously over the entire surface of each pastry, and decorate with a few sprinkles. Let the copulettas dry for 1 hour.
* Food Safety:
The CDC recommends that consumption of raw eggs be avoided by the elderly, infants, and those with impaired immune systems. If you make the first version of the icing, use a pasteurized egg white to eliminate the risk of salmonellosis. The bacteria that causes the illness, salmonella, can be present on both the outside and inside of eggs that appear to be normal, and if the eggs are eaten raw or lightly cooked, illness can ensue. I suggest Safest Choice pasteurized eggs from Davidson’s.
To market, to market…
Saba is an ancient condiment made from grape must that is slowly cooked and reduced to about a third of its original volume, resulting in a luxuriously thick syrup with multiple layers of rich flavor. It is available at Amazon and many Italian delis. If you can not find saba, you can substitute Vino Cotto, available at most Italian delis and Amazon.
I urge you to try Sardinian honey from Luigi Manias. These organic honeys are luxuriously rich and uniquely flavorful. The Millefiori or Asphodel honeys would be perfect in these little pastries, but I used Manias’ Corbezzolo honey. This stellar honey is a combination of bitter and sweet with what I can only describe as notes of tobacco. It offered an intriguing counterpoint to the almonds, sweet orange marmalade, and saba in the filling. Luigi Manias honeys are available at Amazon, Olio2go, and Gustiamo. Try any of these honeys once, and you’ll be hooked.
Gina suggests using an Italian orange marmalade such as Il Forteto. Il Forteto can be difficult to find, and so I suggest substituting the extraordinarily rich and flavorful marmalades from Marchesi San Giuliano, available at Amazon and Olio2go or those from Caffe Sicilia, available at Amazon and Gustiamo. These fine marmalades made from fruit nurtured by the bright Sicilian sun infuse the pastries with intense citrus flavor and a heady richness born of the age-old craft of preserving.
For the olive oil in the dough feel free to use a fine Sardinian oil, but I have found that California Olive Ranch Extra Virgin Olive Oil is a delight for many baking needs, especially here where a small amount is called for. I have used their oils in cakes, cookies, and pastry doughs with great success. California Olive Ranch oils are sold in supermarkets and are quite affordable.
To Gina I say, “Rock on, amica. We’re all pulling for you. You are the Queen of Italian desserts.”
Note: You can click on any picture for a slide show!
I have no affiliation with any product, manufacturer, or site mentioned in this article.
Gina DePalma photograph, W. W. Norton & Company