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Some may think that cannoli is the ultimate Italian pastry, but for me it is sfogliatelle. I have traveled long and far to purchase them. When studying Italian in Bologna, there was a pasticceria across the street from the apartment I rented. Every morning they make them fresh, and I was there when they came out of the oven to enjoy a warm sfogliatelle for breakfast – I still dream of those mornings.
One Easter on our way to Genoa we stopped at an Agip highway restaurant for an espresso and they were giving them out free for Easter, what a wonderful surprise.
In Genoa they had stalls in the outdoor market selling them in huge quantities filled with variety of fillings. We bought several as I wanted to try all the assortments, but I still prefer the traditional sfogliatelle.
The Villa Crespi is a magnificent Middle Eastern style, 4 star luxury hotel with a 2 star Michelin rated restaurant overlooking Lago di Orta. A merchant who traded in Iraq built the Moorish style villa. You can have a massage in your huge room beautifully appointed with antiques or relax in the garden on lounge chairs with views of the lake. It is a short walk to the village where you can visit the shops or take a boat to the island. Visit the many vineyards of the Piedmonte region where you can taste wines such as Barbaresco, Baarolo, Muscato and Asti Spumante . Nebbiolo is the main grape grown here in the Piedmonte, which is one of Italy’s largest wine growing regions.
The chef, Antonio Cannavacciuolo runs the hotel and elegant restaurant serving creative, artistically presented cuisine that is a dream to eat. The chef made sfogliatelle every afternoon and served them with espresso for a late afternoon delight. They were smaller then the typical ones you find in the bakery and light. Filled with the traditional ricotta filling, I was there in the garden waiting every day during our relaxing visit.
Orta is a small picturesque village along the lake in the Piedmonte west of Lago Maggiore. It is one of the smallest and least known towns along the lakes. If you have spent your vacation visiting the Lakes region and want a few days of relaxation before returning home, spend them at the unique Villa Crespi. The hotel is only 45 minutes from Milan’s Malpensa International airport and a perfect hotel to wind down.
This recipe was taken from one of the chef’s antique cookbooks and I translated it into English.
Prep time: 1 hour
Cook time: 15 minutes @ 400º F, 15 minutes @ 350º F, 5-10 minutes @ 250º F
Yield: 16 large or 32 small pastries
8 cups all-purpose flour, sifted
2 cups suet or lard
1 3/4 cups cold water, more if needed
2 tablespoons fine salt
1/2 cup honey
2 cups semolina
1 3/4 cups whole milk ricotta
2 cups confectionary sugar
2 large eggs
3/4 cup candied fruit, chopped
3 teaspoons vanilla extract
2 pinches cinnamon
7 oz. distilled water, as needed
Salt to taste
1 egg, beaten with the water
1 tablespoons water
Other things needed
Melt the honey with water.
Put the flour into a food processor and add the suet, salt and mix until it crumbles. Add the honey/water mixture a little at a time until the dough forms into a ball. Knead the dough until it is smooth and elastic.
If making the dough by hand, put the flour in a large bowl or on a wooden board. Make a well in the middle and add the suet, salt, honey and water. Mix with your hands until you form a ball. Knead the dough until it is smooth and elastic. Wrap the dough in plastic wrap and store it in the refrigerator until you are ready to use it.
Roll out thin strips of the dough in the pasta machine. Make several equal strips in length of at least 40”. The strip should be the thickness of 1/16” or less.
With care, lightly but lavishly brush the suet onto each strip. In doing this, you must be very careful that the strips are not stretched or torn. Never use flour.
Place 3 of the greased strips on top of each other. Tightly roll up the strips toward you. You will find that the fat will begin to melt. Continue with this process until you have rolled up all the strips.
You will then have a coil of approximately 12” in length and 3” in diameter; you will find that the suet has melted somewhat. Cover the cylinder with plastic wrap. Put it in the refrigerator for 24 hours.
If using a pasta machine your strips are not going to be the same size, they will be the width of the pasta machine. This is not a problem; just follow the recipe directions in the same way.
The following day proceed with filling and baking them. Remove the cylinder from the refrigerator. Cut the cylinders into slices the thickness of 1”.
You must transform the slice into sfogliatelle flakes. On the cut side, using your fingers, gently push in the folds from the center inwards. Making the inverse movement on the outside, from the edge towards the larger end. Gently spread the larger end outwards, so that it looks like a clamshell with grooves.
Continue with the same treatment for the other slices. Then, maneuvering delicately and flattening them to take the shape again working in the shape of a clamshell with a point on top and wide at the base creating what looks like a shell; finally the sfogliatelle is ready to be filled.
Another possibility is to take each 1” slice and sprinkle a little flour on a board and a little on the slice. With a rolling pin, roll from the center out to the right and the left. Again place the rolling pin in the middle of the oval and roll down forming an oval shape. Pick up the oval and fill with the filling in the middle. Seal the wide part of the oval and place on a cookie sheet covered with parchment paper.
This process does not create the typical shell shape but is acceptable.
Place all the ingredients in a bowl except for the water. Beat by hand until you have blended all the ingredients. Begin to add a little water at a time beating it in until the filling is just a little fluid. This is a thick filling and you just want to add enough water to make it smooth.
Hold the shell in the hollow of your hand, put a spoon full of filling inside the center; seal the edges, but don’t pinch them together. Carefully lay them down on your cookie sheet lined with parchment paper. Brush each one with an egg wash or melted suet or lard whatever you choose to use.
Prepare all the sfogliatelle. Bake in a 400º F oven for 15 minutes. Brush with the lard and reduce the heat to 350º F and cook for another 15 minutes. Brush with an egg wash and cook for another 5-10 minutes at 250º F. When they are a beautifully golden in color, remove them from the oven.
Sprinkle them with a veil of powdered sugar when they are hot out of the oven, and serve them warm if possible.
NOTE: A special machine is used in bakeries to form the pastry and this can’t be effectively reproduced at home even when using a pasta machine. They are delicious even though the pastry isn’t as fine.
NOTE: Sfogliatelle do not stay well. It is best to make the dough and rolls the day before and the next day bake and serve them.
My grandmother would make biscotti for days before Christmas and hide them in an armoire in her front hall under lock and key. If she allowed any of us to get close to them, they would have disappeared long before Christmas. But if we asked her nicely, she never said no. She took the key out of her apron pocket and unlocked that treasure chest filled with sweet, spiced biscotti and handed you some of your favorites.
She had a small white sideboard with a roll-down top. Here she made all her biscotti and that sideboard was our first stop when we entered her kitchen. We could never understand how so many wonderful desserts could be prepared on such a small surface. When I was young I remember her cooking on a black iron stove and blocks of ice being delivered for her wooden icebox. She was in her element even through she wore herself out during holidays. Her family showed their appreciation by filling her home with all their kids in a flurry of noise feasting on all her specialties made with a strong dash of pride. The variety of cookies, cakes, stuffed artichokes, pasta and breads, that came from that kitchen was like being in Grandma’s Christmas Wonderland. We all loved and looked forward to these holiday reunions.
The tradition continues with members of our family preparing their favorite biscotti for events such as wedding, showers and holidays. Every child in our family begins to take part in this tradition at an early age. You don’t have to encourage them, as they can’t wait to get their little hands in all of that dough. It is a way to bond with the kids and make them part of a family tradition. We know that future generations will enjoy these recipes and get to know a little about Grandma and our heritage.
An Italian family can have many versions of the same biscotti and every person takes great pride in their recipe. Pizzetts are a family recipe that is used on almost every tray we make. Pizzette are a double chocolate biscotti scented with spices, roasted almonds, orange zest, expresso and chocolate chips. They are the star attractions on our cookie trays for Christmas and every special event. You can make these cookies in advance and freeze them for up to 2 months unfrosted.
My Christmas greeting to all my readers and let me know if pizzettes are on your Christmas dessert table.
Prep Time: 35 minutes
Cook Time: 8-10 minutes @ 375ºF
Yield: 4 Dozen
4 cups flour
2 cups sugar
1 cup roasted almonds, cut in half
4 oz. Semi-sweet chocolate. chopped
1 teaspoon cinnamon
1 teaspoon ground clove
2 teaspoons baking powder
Zest of one orange
1/4 cup cocoa powder
1/2 cup warm water, orange juice or coffee
1/2 cup vegetable oil
12 oz. of semi-sweet chocolate chips
1/2 cup unsalted butter
1 tablespoon light corn sryup
2-3 tablespoons Brandy or Cointreau, Grand Marnier or tablespoon Kahlua
Mix the cocoa powder into the water or juice. Place all the dry ingredients in a large bowl including the nuts, add orange zest, almonds and chocolate chips. Make a well in the center and add the eggs and the water cocoa mixture. Slightly beat the liquid while in the center well and begin to bring in the dry ingredients (you may have to add a little more liquid if it is too dry). Gradually add vegetable oil to form the dough. You may need to wet your hands with oil. The Dough will be thick and will have an oily glaze. Place the dough in the refrigerator for 1 hour.
Place the dough on a lightly floured surface. Cut small portions and roll out the dough in the form of a cylinder. Pat down the top and cut into 1” slices on a diagonal to form a diamond shape. Place the cookies on a cookie sheet lined with parchment paper.
Bake 375º F for 8-10 minutes. Do not over-bake the cookies as they will be become dry and hard.
Melt the chocolate with the butter over a double boiler or in a microwave oven. Add the liquor a little at a time. Taste and add more if needed. The original recipe did not include liquor and is fantastic just with the chocolate, butter and a little syrup.
Frost the cookies when they are completely cool.