Tales from an Ital­ian kitchen

The Guardian - Feast - - Feast - Rachel Roddy

Al­mond and apri­cot tart

Ap­par­ently it was King Fer­di­nand I of Naples who in­tro­duced but­ter to Si­cily. Hav­ing fled to Palermo on Nel­son’s HMS Van­guard when French Rev­o­lu­tion­ary troops in­vaded Naples in 1798, and en­cour­aged by his Aus­trian-born wife Queen Maria Carolina, King F con­structed a crown dairy in the Palermo com­mune of Par­tinico. Ac­cord­ing to the writer and food his­to­rian Mary Tay­lor Simeti, this daily sup­ply of cream and but­ter was vi­tal when the rest of Fer­di­nand’s court, with its as­pi­ra­tions to French style, ar­rived in Si­cily. They turned their backs on tra­di­tional Si­cil­ian cook­ing, send­ing to Paris for their chefs, who be­came known as monzù – a cor­rup­tion of mon­sieur.

Bechamel, brioche, mousses, glazes, sauces, pas­try en­riched with but­ter and cream: the food of the ex­tremely rich had vir­tu­ally no in­flu­ence on the food of most of the pop­u­la­tion, who were, for the most part, des­per­ately poor. In time, though, even when the fash­ion for French cook­ing faded and the monzùs turned their at­ten­tion to elab­o­rat­ing on tra­di­tional Si­cil­ian recipes, cer­tain dishes and habits per­sisted and seeped into popular cook­ing.

Now, in much the same way as Si­cil­ian di­alect and proverbs are speck­led with re­minders of the Greek, Arab, Span­ish and French lega­cies, mod­ern Si­cil­ian cui­sine is, too. Olive oil and opaque pork fat may rule supreme, but pas­try, the brioche filled with gelato in Cata­nia, and the bechamel my oliveoil-lov­ing Si­cil­ian mother-in-law spreads cau­tiously in baked pasta are all but­tery re­minders of the French culi­nary in­flu­ence.

In her book Si­cil­ian Food, Simeti notes Denti di Pi­ra­jno’s elab­o­rate recipe for pas­tic­cio di

sostanza – roughly trans­lated as “pie of sub­stance” – a rich pas­try crust stuffed with chicken, giblets, mince and sausage with red wine and spices, the very sub­stan­tial grand­fa­ther of mod­ern and popular pas­tic­cio.

She also has a (shorter) recipe for a straight­for­ward crostata di

man­dorle – al­mond tart – that I like to make. The pas­try is made from 250g plain flour, 175g cold, diced but­ter (rubbed in), a pinch of salt and an egg; I also add a whis­per (40g) of ic­ing su­gar. It is a del­i­cate pas­try, so needs chill­ing for at least an hour be­fore rolling and press­ing into a shal­low 28cm tin. On this base you spread apri­cot jam, as thinly or thickly as you like, then a mix­ture of 250g ground al­monds, 200g su­gar and two large eggs, then level off with a knife dipped in hot wa­ter.

There is but­ter in the pas­try but not the fill­ing, which means it isn’t as rich as the de rigueur frangi­pane. It is lovely, though – a jam tart with a thick blan­ket of egg-en­riched marzi­pan, which, when baked at 180C/350F/gas 4 for 30 min­utes takes on a light golden crust, but – be­cause of al­mond’s nat­u­ral oils – re­mains soft and slightly gooey un­der­neath. You could use a fresh fruit com­pote, or press fruit into the top, and any fruit jam would work, but plain, not-too-sweet apri­cot jam works par­tic­u­larly well in pas­try that has a French ac­cent and an al­mond top that speaks Si­cil­ian.

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