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Le Feste

Cartellate, the iconic Pugliese Christmas sweet, is everywhere we look these days. And it's very, very hard to resist.
Cartellate, the iconic Pugliese Christmas sweet, is everywhere we look these days. And it's very, very hard to resist.

Cartellate, the iconic Pugliese Christmas sweet, is everywhere we look these days. And it’s very, very hard to resist.

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.

Fish is on the menu for Christmas Eve in southern Italy. Seven different kinds, to be precise, or even thirteen, if tradition is observed. Some say that the number seven represents the seven sacraments (or could it be the cardinal sins?) and thirteen to represent the apostles. In any event, it's a lot of fish, which Puglia offers in abundance.

Fish is on the menu for Christmas Eve in southern Italy. Seven different kinds, to be precise, or even thirteen, if tradition is observed. Some say that the number seven represents the seven sacraments (or could it be the cardinal sins?) and thirteen to represent the apostles. In any event, it’s a lot of fish, which Puglia offers in abundance.

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.

Much-loved purceddhruzzi make their appearance from December 8th through Christmas. Simple and deeply satisfying in a sticky, gooey lick-your-fingers way, it's a good thing they're not around all year.

Much-loved purceddhruzzi make their appearance from December 8th through Christmas. Simple and deeply satisfying in a sticky, gooey lick-your-fingers way, it’s a good thing they’re not around all year (Photo credit: http://www.nonsolosalento.it).

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.

Copeta is one of the best sweet "street food" treats in southern Italy. With just sugar and toasted almonds, magic happens when the sticky, caramelized mass is spread on oiled marble.

Copeta is one of the best sweet “street food” treats in southern Italy. With just sugar and toasted almonds, magic happens when the sticky, caramelized mass is spread on oiled marble.

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.

The cenone di Natale (big Christmas lunch) is always a family affair . . . and a few extra guests, too.

The cenone di Natale (big Christmas lunch) is always a family affair . . . along with a few extra guests, too.

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.

Our friend Vito helps his mother make cartellate with a hand-cranked pasta machine and a lot of fiddly pinching.

Our friend Vito helps his mother make cartellate with a hand-cranked pasta machine and a lot of fiddly pinching. Note the other grandmother supervising the operation from afar.

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

Ingredients:

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

Orange rind

Honey or Vincotto (see note)

Method:

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 dry ingredients on a wooden surface and shape them into the form of a volcano with a crater about 4-5 inches wide at the top.

Place the dry ingredients on a wooden surface and shape them into the form of a volcano with a crater about 4-5 inches wide at the top.

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.

Add the room temperature olive oil and wine to the crater's mouth and begin mixing the wet ingredients with the dry ingredients little by little, using your fingers to pull the flour into the center of the crater.

Add the room temperature olive oil and wine to the crater’s mouth and begin mixing the wet ingredients with the dry ingredients little by little, using your fingers to pull the flour into the center of the crater.

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.

Knead the dough well, pushing against the wooden surface with the palm of your hand, then gathering the dough together into a ball before pushing it again.

Knead the dough well, pushing against the wooden surface with the palm of your hand, then gathering the dough together into a ball before pushing it again.

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.

Use a pastry wheel to cut strips of dough from the thin pasta strips than emerged from the pasta machine.

Use a pastry wheel to cut strips of dough from the thin pasta strips than emerged from the pasta machine.

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.

PInch the rectangle together at 1-inch intervals before forming the cartellate's rose shape.

Pinch the rectangle together at 1-inch intervals before forming the cartellate’s rose shape.

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.

Finished cartellate look like little roses. They're joined together by pinching the inside of one of the little envelopes you made earlier to another envelope as you work around the circle.

Finished cartellate look like little roses. They’re joined together by pinching the inside of one of the little envelopes you made earlier to another envelope as you work around the circle.

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.

Cartellate just out of the oil are golden and crispy. After draining on paper towels, submerge them a few at a time in bubbling hot honey or vincotto until well coated. Drain them on over the hot liquid one at a time, then plate them decoratively. They're perfect for traveling and keep well once finished (if you can resist them long enough).

Cartellate just out of the oil are golden and crispy. After draining on paper towels, submerge them a few at a time in bubbling hot honey or vincotto until well coated. Drain them on over the hot liquid one at a time, then plate them decoratively. They’re perfect for traveling and keep well once finished (if you can resist them long enough).U.S. are iGourmet and Chef’s Warehouse. It’s an acquired taste, but one that is deeply appreciated in Puglia.

 

 

 

4 Comments Post a comment
  1. Gil #

    Still can’t figure out why eating fish instead of meat is a sacrifice! Rather eat: shrimp, clams, muscles, lobster, etc any day before a piece of meat.

    December 19, 2014
  2. Gil, I couldn’t agree with you more. You can’t imagine the depth and breadth of the seafood offerings here. We are truly spoiled for choice. And the flavors and textures are so varied in comparison to the fairly static flavor and texture of a piece of meat. Give me the “fast” dinner anytime!

    December 19, 2014
  3. Jacqueline Defendis #

    Your photos of cartellate brought back memories of my mother’s kitchen around the holidays. We called them “carteddatt”, a rendition of the dialect from Bisceglie. I can almost smell the bittersweet vincotto heating in the pot, made from the wine my father produced in our back yard.
    Thank you for sharing the recipe.

    December 31, 2014
    • Hi Jacqueline–So glad the “carteddhate” pugliese recipe brought back such great memories. And if you were here right now, you could make another classic specialty: vincotto con la neve! It has been snowing here continuously since yesterday afternoon and we’ve got more than two feet of snow in the center of Martina Franca. Our elderly neighbor scooped some up, poured some vincotto over the top and served it to her visiting grandchildren “come una volta” (like we used to do). It’s magic! Thanks for reading (and commenting)!

      December 31, 2014

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