Tales from an Italian kitchen
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.