Like just about everything else in Puglia, the holiday season arrives in exactly the same way it always has. From l’Immacolata (December 8th) to the vigilia (the night before Christmas) to Christmas Day itself, the growing excitement is palpable. Christmas markets in town squares are erected seemingly overnight, municipalities organize fanciful light displays and shops are open—gasp!—on Sundays to facilitate holiday gift buying. But unlike the U.S., the holiday spirit doesn’t flag on December 26th. In Italy, there is Santo Stefano (December 26th), San Silvestro (New Year’s Eve) and l’Epifania (the Epiphany, or more colloquially, la Befana) on January 6th still to celebrate. It’s an embarrassment of riches, particularly at the table.
In Puglia, the passage of time is measured in culinary tradition. In the same way that most Americans avoid any suggestion of menu innovation at Thanksgiving, Pugliese families cherish the familiar on these revered feast days. So at every table here on December 24th, you’ll find a dizzying array of seafood on offer as families observe la vigilia—the long, meatless wait in honor of the arrival of the baby Jesus. On Christmas Day, there is slightly more variation at the table depending upon family tradition. Some families always serve tortellini in brodo first (stuffed pasta shapes in rich turkey or capon broth), but this is a northern Italian incursion that isn’t strictly typical here. More common is zuppetta, a kind of layered soup with bread, cheese, broth, maybe cured meat and, if you’re lucky, tiny meatballs. It’s finished in the oven, developing an irresistable aroma and a bubbling, cheesy crust. Second courses almost always involve the much-loved braciole (stuffed rolls of veal or pork) in ragù (long-simmered, rich tomato sauce flavored with pork and veal ribs) and polpette (meatballs), without which no important Pugliese meal is complete. Vegetables like cardoons, artichokes, wild mushrooms and bitter, often foraged greens are served as antipasti or accompany the main course. And then there are the desserts.
Pugliese holiday sweets are an essential component of Pugliese identity at Christmas. Every grandmother has a cherished tradition learned at her grandmother’s side and opinions are strong about ingredients, technique and embellishment. Christmas without the key players is simply unthinkable and I don’t mean panettone, the yeasty, slightly sweet Christmas cake from Milan. In Puglia, it’s all about the cartellate (thin pieces of paper), the purceddhruzzi (piglets) and in Martina Franca, the ever-popular budella dei vecchi (old people’s intestines). Yes, there is really a dessert called old people’s intestines, an appropriately-named dish if there ever was one.
There is fierce debate around here about some of the finer points of each of these desserts. Do you bathe your cartellate in orange peel-scented honey or vincotto, the syrupy reduction of Puglia’s primitivo red wine that traditionally took the place of sugar or honey in country homes? Do you decorate your purceddhruzzi with colored sprinkles or do you favor an unadorned presentation? Then there are the mostaccioli, those rock-hard biscotti flavored with cinnamon and cloves that pair so perfectly with morning coffee and the last digestivi of the evening. And the copeta—sticky, deeply caramelized honey or sugar concealing toasted almonds, pistachios or hazelnuts—a precursor to the more refined torrone, is often prepared all’aperto at Christmas fairs to the delight of the passers-by, who can’t take their eyes away as the liquid gold is spread on marble slabs to cool. In Puglia, you’re spoiled for choice in the Christmas dessert department.
Even if you try hard, it’s almost impossible to avoid at least one encounter with these holiday sweets. They’re shared around the neighborhood, among friends and at the table. They’re not difficult to master, but some of them are a little fiddly, requiring many hands and lots of extra counter space. But like a friend told me recently, “ . . . le tradizioni di famiglia hanno il profumo e il sapore inconfondibile dell’amore . . . “ (“ . . . these family traditions have the unmistakable aroma and taste of love . . .”). So I’m sharing a time-honored recipe for cartellate, which will impress your friends and bring any Pugliese visitors to tears. Take your time, enlist some willing helpers and consider accompanying the process with a lovely glass of prosecco. It is the holiday season, after all.
Like all traditional recipes, there are endless variations on the central theme. I’ve given you the recipe I learned from a friend’s mother, who has been making cartellate for more years than I’ve been alive. Other variations involve the use of yeast or eggs, which don’t seem especially traditional to me. Vincotto is the most traditional topping, but honey is gaining fast in popular opinion. Both are heavenly, so you could prepare some of each and fully immerse yourself in Pugliese holiday dessert heaven.
Cartellate—Little Paper-Thin Roses
3-2/3 cups (850 grams) all-purpose flour
1/3 cup (75 grams) durum wheat (semolina) flour
2 tsp. (10 grams) sea salt
1 scant cup (200 ml) extra virgin olive oil
200 ml (1 scant cup) white wine at room temperature
2-3 Tbsp. (40 grams) water, if needed
Olive oil for frying
Honey or Vincotto (see note)
Put the extra virgin olive oil in a small saucepan and drop the orange rind into it. Heat the oil and orange rind until the oil is hot, but not smoking. Turn off the heat and let the oil cool until just slightly warm. Heat the white wine in another saucepan until it is slightly warm, too.
Place the flour and salt on a work surface, and make a well in the middle. Add the olive oil and wine at room temperature and work them into the dough, kneading until the dough is smooth. If necessary, add a little water to achieve homogenous dough. If the whole process of mixing the dough right on the work surface makes you terribly nervous, it’s fine to use a large mixing bowl, but it’s a fun technique that enables you to learn how the dough is transformed from a raggedy mess into a smooth ball. You also don’t have enough room to work very effectively in a mixing bowl.
Divide the dough into four balls.
Using a hand cranked pasta machine (Imperia and Atlas are good brands), pass the dough through the machine, moving the setting up to make thinner and thinner sheets of pasta. When you’ve reached the next to last roller on your pasta machine, lay out the strips on a your well-floured work surface.
With a fluted edge pasta cutter, cut each piece of thin dough into strips that are about 1-½ inches wide and 6 or 7 inches long. Here’s the fiddly part: Pinch the dough together on the long side every inch or so. Then, starting at one end, start to curl the pinched piece of dough together on one side, curling and pinching as you go, so that the finished cartellata resembles a rose. Look at the photos for more detail, or watch this video. It’s in Italian, but pay attention to the technique involved in forming the cartellate roses, which is self-explanatory.
Let the cartellate rest while you heat the oil.
Meanwhile, bring a large pot of mild olive oil to the boil. While heating the oil, drop another piece of orange rind in the oil to flavor it, removing it when the oil just reaches a boil. Carefully drop the roses into the oil, allowing them to turn golden. Drain on paper towels and let cool.
Bring a small pot of vincotto or honey to boil. Remember that both will liquefy considerably as they heat, so start with no more than a cup and a half or so. Submerge each cartellata into the hot vincotto or honey, making sure that each rose is completely covered. You can also decorate the cartellate with tiny colored balls, gold or silver dragés or toasted almonds. Remove, place on a tray and store flat in a sealed tin. They should keep for a week to ten days.
Note: Vincotto is a dark, sweet and dense condiment produced traditionally in the Pugliese countryside. It’s made by slowly cooking non-fermented grape must until it has been reduced to about one fifth of its original volume and the sugars present have caramelized. In Puglia, it’s typically made from primitivo or negroamaro grapes that are harvested only after being allowed to wither naturally on the vine for about 30 days. Good sources of vincotto in the U.S are Chef’s Warehouse or iGourmet, or you can make your own if you have some fresh grape must lying around.