My intention was actually to post about a rich ricotta-filled baked good for Easter. Think Neapolitan pastiera, Sicilian cassata or Giovanni Goria’s crostata di seirass[i]. The resolve to make these wonderfully elaborate sweets disappeared fairly quickly though thanks in great part to my husband’s love of a simpler, dare I say it, ‘homier’ dessert requiring pasta frolla or sweet shortcrust pastry. Early last month, TP caught me dusting my kitchen work bench with flour. His automatic assumption – the sweet, buttery dough I was about to knead was for a jam tart or, as it is called in Italian, crostata di marmellata. I didn’t want to disappoint him. Luckily enough, there actually happened to be a jar of plum jam in our pantry. The ricotta I had especially bought was put to another (savoury) culinary use that evening.
This change of plans suited me just fine too. The crostata di marmellata is a thoroughly enjoyable sweet to make at home, once you’ve had some practice. It’s not hard to see why Italian bakers make a point of displaying these criss-crossed creations in their vetrine[ii] either. They are proud of their latticework. And, as someone who is content to just lay my pastry strips down one by one, I particularly admire the intricacy of crostate made with a top layer of interwoven strisce.[iii]
History buff that I am, I wasn’t disappointed either when it came to researching the crostata’s past, which appears to go back to the Renaissance. Bartolomeo Scappi, ‘secret’ cook to Pope Pius IV, included several recipes for pastry-based dishes in his 1570 cookbook Opera. Incidentally, Scappi’s seminal work is notable for, among many other things, being the first in depth look at pastry-making. He used the term crostata for a variety of flaky dough-encrusted preparations. Fillings included cheese, crabmeat, prawns, pork jowls, artichokes, cardoon hearts, truffles, sweetbreads, calf’s tongue, ‘the viscera[iv] of any sort of turtle’, plums, sour cherries, quinces and pears. Sugar and spices were liberally added to these ripieni or fillings, an inheritance of medieval culinary customs.
The plain friable dough that Scappi used to encase his fillings has since given way to the crumblier and sweeter pasta frolla. Essential to obtaining a good frolla is a half fat to flour ratio, the use of cold butter (or other cooking fat) and the thorough combination of these two with a finely ground sugar before adding any eggs. Artusi has three recipes for making it which all match these criteria. Since lard is rather difficult to come across these days (his first and third recipes include lard)[v], I’ve always used his second recipe which is made with butter. The addition of grated lemon zest is my own. Otherwise, everything else about the following crostata di marmellata recipe I owe to the avuncular and eccentric author of Science in the Kitchen and the Art of Eating Well.
- 250 g flour, sifted
- 125 g cold butter, chopped into small pieces
- 110 g caster or icing sugar
- 1 egg plus 1 egg yolk, lightly beaten (you could use the remaining egg white to brush the lattice for a shinier finish)
- zest of 1 lemon, grated
- 250-300 g jam
Place flour, sugar and chopped butter in a large bowl. Using your fingers, rub the butter into the flour and sugar until you have a mixture of fine crumbs and the butter is no longer visible. Add the grated lemon zest. Dust your hands and mix in the beaten egg until you have a smooth and elastic ball of pastry. Cover dough with cling film and leave dough to rest in the fridge for at least half an hour.[vi]
Remove dough from fridge. On a clean, flour-dusted work surface, roll out about two thirds of the ball to cover a greased and dusted baking dish (I used a dish with a 26 cm diameter and a depth of 3cm). The dough should be about 3mm thick. Use a pastry wheel or knife to remove any overhanging dough. Fill the crostata with jam. Roll out the remaining dough and, with a pastry wheel or knife, cut long strips with a width of 1.5cm. Place strips in a criss-crossed fashion on top to create the lattice.[vii] If you like, you may wish to try your hand at interweaving the strips like this clever lady here! Bake at 180 degrees Celsius for 30 minutes or until the crostata is golden brown and its crust has begun to pull away from the edges of the baking dish.
[i] Seirass is the name for a delicious Piedmontese variety of ricotta which has creamy, smooth consistency.
[ii] The Italian word for ‘window displays’.
[iii] The Italian word for ‘strips’.
[iv] an archaic word for the organs in an animal’s abdominal cavity. Scappi was a big fan of cooking offal and extremities. Stay tuned for a recipe and some reflections on nose-to-tail eating later on this month!
[v] Despite what many a ‘Mediterranean diet’ guru would have us believe, lard was the most commonly used cooking fat in Italy until the post WWII period. Olive oil was actually used very sparingly and reserved for lean days and periods (such as Lent) and butter was a luxury item.
[vi]Like Artusi, I’d recommend not being in a rush and waiting longer, overnight even!
[vii] I always find I have a little bit of leftover dough with the baking dish I use. Solution: I get my cookie cutters out and make biscuits (there’s usually enough for about four) with whatever remains!