June 20, 2009
Crostata di marmellata
There is something so simple about Italian desserts. If I come across a new "Italian" dessert cookbook and the recipes call for multi-stage cake baking or lots of hard-to-find ingredients I know it's not really Italian. Because in my experience, the Italians are fans of homemade, rustic desserts. The ones your nonna used to make. And those are the same ones that Italians repeat over and over at home, as well as the ones you will find in a good Italian pasticceria.
Now, don't get me wrong. There are regions in Italy where pastry is a tradition involving skill, artistry and technique, rivaling that of the French pastry tradition. These are mostly in the South - cities like Naples, Palermo and Siracusa in Sicily.
like this beautiful Sicilian cassata (image from www.on_sicily.com)
But in the rest of Italy, pastry is not an elevated tradition, but more a tradition of simplicity and seasonality.
crostata di marmellata and torta della nonna in a pastry shop window
pan di spagna (chocolate cream cake) made by Carla, my Tuscan friend/cook
That is why this 'torta di marmellata' speaks volumes to me about Italian desserts. It's not overly sweet, nor is it ostentations or decorative. If this were art history, it would be Medieval rather than Baroque. It says "anyone can make this," or "just use whatever fruit is growing in your backyard," or "give me an espresso and a piece of crostata and I will give you perfection.
getting a little fancier but still rustic crostate
So I first learned of the crostata (Italy's version of pie you could say) while hosting my good friend Betty Bottoni (yes, that's Betty Buttons) on her first visit to the U.S. to see me. We met in 1997 in Urbino where she was studying journalism and I was passing through after helping direct a study abroad program in Perugia. We became fast friends and she invited me and a few other straggling foreigners to her apartment for dinner that night where her mother, visiting from her town in Lazio near Rome, cooked what was probably a fabulous meal in the tiniest kitchen imaginable. Betty's mom is a wonderful Italian home cook. I have learned a lot from her over the years.
In fact, I am sure that Betty's crostata probably hails from her mother's kitchen, one in which there is always a jar or two of homemade jam left from the previous summer. (Right now I have a jar of grape-strawberry in the fridge and my favorite, fichi-cacao (chocolate fig) in my cupboard from the last visit to Rome. Betty's mother always sends me home with marmellata and various other jars of homemade goodies.
You get the idea. The real Italian sweets, the kind your mom makes, are made with whatever you have on hand, which is why so many of them involve seasonal fruit. And always, a short crust, or 'pasta frolla'- heavy on the butter, light on the sugar.
There are as many recipes for the pastry as there are for pie crust, varying only slightly, so go with what works in your kitchen. But here is one I return to again and again, given to me by Betty so many years ago. It's still written in Italian so forgive the estimations on equivalents. Like I said, it's not so much about precision as it is presentation. Take this to a party and people will think you're an expert baker.
La crostata di Betty
1 1/2 sticks (12 T) chilled unsalted butter
1/4 c sugar
1 egg and 1 yolk
2 cups a.p. flour
pinch of salt
2 T cold water
1 1/2 cups jam (or fresh fruit if available)
1 t finely grated lemon peel
1/2 t almond extract
powdered sugar for sprinkling on top (optional)
Mix as you would pie crust, divide in half, wrap in plastic and chill at least one hour, up to one day. Roll dough out on floured surface, transfer to 9-in tart pan, or whatever you have, and press into sides. Stir jam or (cooked fruit), lemon and almond extract in bowl to blend. Spoon filling into crust in pan. Roll out remaining dough and cut into strips. Arrange them on top any way you like. Seal strips to crust and trim edges. Bake tart at 350 until golden, about 50 min. Can be made a day ahead. Cover and serve at room temp.