Sicily: Campagna, Cannoli and Uninvited Company


 Sicilian Cannoli


The first time I went to Italy, my mother made an unusual request. "So far I haven’t placed any restrictions on you," she said to me over the phone, her voice sounding unusually tense, "but since you’re going to Italy, I have to ask for one thing. Please don’t go further south than Rome."

I was standing in a telephone booth somewhere in southern France, a week or so into my first backpacking trip around Europe, when she dropped this unexpected news on me.

"But why?" I protested, "why don’t you want me to go to southern Italy?"

She sighed. "Because I’ve heard it can be dangerous, particularly to a seventeen-year-old American girl traveling alone."

I laughed out loud. "Dangerous, like what, the mafia?"

"No, not the mafia," she replied, "it’s just that, well, the men there have a certain reputation. That’s all I’m going to say – please don’t go."

I argued feebly for a moment before giving in. It really wouldn’t be that much of a burden to comply – after all, most of what I really wanted to see in Italy was in the north: Florence, Venice, the Lakes, the Riviera. But I still thought the request was nonsense; after all, I had just spent a year as an exchange student in Spain – which, I assumed, had just as many hot-blooded Mediterranean men as Italy – and had lived to tell the tale. How different could Italy be?

As I was about to discover, very. From the instant I set foot on Italian soil, I seemed to be emitting a man magnet. I’d never been one to attract an undue amount of attention from the opposite sex, and on this trip in particular I assumed the grimy backpacker look would send any potential hasslers running the other way, but I couldn’t have been more mistaken. Young, old, suave, disheveled, English-speaking and not, they swarmed to me, stopping me on street corners, sidling up to me in museums, stalking me in supermarkets, softly murmuring "Ciao bella" and "Da dove vieni?". Despite the fact that I was on my feet all day, resting anywhere became a dicey prospect, as the instant I sat down some man would inevitably materialize out of nowhere (even in the middle of deserted countryside), plant himself uncomfortably close, and attempt to strike up a conversation. It didn’t matter if we could barely communicate – understanding each other was obviously not crucial to their plans. In fact I didn’t know what was crucial to their plans, but I usually nipped these encounters in the bud before I could find out. Venice, I recall, was particularly bad – I spent my entire three days there being hounded by one persistent man after another, who would follow me around pleading with me that all they wanted was to share a coffee and practice their English (and lest you think that all I had to do was pretend not to speak English, I tried… it still didn’t work). At first I went to great pains to politely make up excuses for why I couldn’t further our relationship (e.g. mysterious friends who were expecting me, a husband waiting back at the hotel, an imminent train to catch), but I soon realized nothing worked. By the time I crossed into Switzerland one month later, I had been hassled by more men than I dared to count – and I hadn’t even made it as far south as Rome. Who knew what would have been in store for me down south?

But I had fallen in love with Italy, despite the annoyances, and more than anything I wanted to see the south, particularly Sicily. That’s why three years later, when there was no one but me calling the shots, I flew into Rome, and took the first train south I could find. I traveled first to Naples, detoured for a couple of days to glamorous Capri, and then pushed southward, watching how the lush rolling hills gave way to rocky, arid landscapes, open-sided rock quarries and a punishing, relentless sun. The people who boarded the overnight train began to look poorer, more weatherbeaten, like the villages they came from, an impression that seemed to intensify the deeper down the boot we went. By the time we arrived in Sicily I had the feeling we had crossed over into another country altogether – the land, the language, even the people were different.

And this impression held as I traveled around Sicily, though in surprising ways. Although I had braced myself for the world-famous machismo, I couldn’t seem to find it anywhere. Every man I met was polite and reserved; walking around – even stopping to consult my map, the surest lure I knew in the north – I failed to attract even an untoward glance. Black-clad grandmothers would occasionally turn and eye me suspiciously, but no one dared to initiate a conversation; unless of course, there was business to be done, in which case there was plenty of arm-waving and pats on the back. Mostly, though, I found myself wandering the streets of gritty, edgy cities full of young unemployed Sicilian males and not even garnering a whistle, much less bench companions. It was unexpectedly, wonderfully liberating.

Then one day at the end of my Sicilian travels, I visited the cliff-top town of Taormina on Sicily’s east coast. Settled on a hill of the Monte Tauro (just north of Mount Etna), Taormina dominates two grand, sweeping bays and a breathtaking view over almost one hundred miles of Mediterranean sea. It was very different to most of the Sicily I had seen so far – it was clean and well kept; there were tourists, boutiques, lush greenery and fountains gracing a lovely clifftop promenade above the sea. The back streets of the town’s small center were chock-full of interesting little shops, and it was while meandering these that I stopped to admire a window display of pastries. I was particularly fixated on the tower of cannolis with their pistachio-flecked innards spilling out of golden shells – I hadn’t, after all, yet managed to try this most iconic of Sicilian delicacies – when I heard a voice at my shoulder.

"Ciao, bella," it said, "do you speak English?" I whirled around and found a little man, at least a foot shorter than me, probably in his late-fifties, balding, plump, and sporting a business shirt and sneakers. He was grinning a little too widely for my taste. I shook my head. "Français? Deutsch? Español?"

Damn, I thought, he had all the bases covered. I sighed heavily. "English."

His eyes lit up. "Oh good, English is best for me! I am Vittorio." He bowed stiffly and reached out for my hand, starting to raise it to his lips. I snatched it away and took a step backward. Instantly I felt the old evasive maneuvers coming back.

"I’m terribly sorry, but I’m really in a hurry," I said.

"Oh, but I thought we could speak a bit. You see I would like to practice my English…"

I didn’t even give him a chance to finish his thought before turning around and half-running down the street, calling, "sorry, I really have to go," over my shoulder. I didn’t slow down until I was nearly on the other side of town. I guess Sicily has them too, I thought, shaking my head in despair, I knew it was too good to be true. I felt the uncomfortable realization that I would constantly have to be on my guard now. My heart slightly heavier, I resumed my window shopping, looking at leather purses and postcards and Taormina t-shirts.

A sh
ort while later I had stepped inside a pottery shop and was admiring a lavishly painted espresso set when I heard the dreaded voice at my shoulder. "Hello again."

I didn’t have to turn around this time to see who it was. "You are admiring the Sicilian ceramics, no? They are very beautiful." Vittorio picked up a cup from the set I had been looking at. "Maybe I can buy you a little souvenir of Taormina? Something to take home?"

I shook my head vehemently. The last thing I wanted was be indebted to this strange, annoying man. "No, I wouldn’t have space for it anyway," I said, slowly starting to back towards the door of the shop. He put the cup down and followed me.

"Well, then, maybe something you don’t have to take with you? Come, I will invite you to lunch."

Again I shook my head. "I’m sorry, I’ve already eaten," I lied.

"Well then coffee," he said calmly, the smile never leaving his lips. "Come on, no obligation, just a little bit of coffee and a little bit of conversation."

My heart was racing – I honestly couldn’t imagine a worse way to spend my afternoon than having to make small talk with this man half my height and three times my age. I started looking helplessly around at people passing us on the street, but no one seemed to take notice.

"I’m sorry, but I really can’t do that. I have to catch my train in twenty minutes. I can’t be late," I said finally, seeing my only way out. His smile faded, but I barely saw it as I was already halfway down the street.

I took great pains to avoid him for the rest of the afternoon. I tried some delicious Sicilian gelato, had an alfresco picnic under one of the town’s sparkling public fountains, and admired the many gorgeous views of the impossibly blue sea, but never without looking over my shoulder first. Though Taormina was in many ways much less Sicilian than elsewhere on the island, I had to admit this was one of the most stunningly beautiful places I had ever visited, and I was sorry I had left it until the end. I was also sorry that I’d had my streak of hassle-free travel broken here, but I didn’t dwell on that too much – after all, there was still cannoli to be eaten. By the end of the afternoon I realized I’d waited long enough to do exactly that, and navigated the town’s narrow back streets to the pastry shop where I’d seen that mouthwatering window display earlier in the day. Luckily they were still open, Vittorio was nowhere to be seen, and the friendly woman behind the counter was happy to wrap up two cannolis for me in a sheet of greaseproof paper.

Clutching my little pastry parcel to my chest, I stepped back out into the bright sunshine to find a place to enjoy it.

"Oh hello!" a dreadedly familiar voice called out. My heart sank – Vittorio was running down the street toward me. "Oh, I’m glad you haven’t left yet," he gushed. I rolled my eyes and cast a glance to my cannolis, quickly beginning to wilt in the late afternoon heat. "I have to catch my train now, but I would like to give you my address so that maybe we can meet someday if you ever make it to Milano."

My eyes widened as I looked at the address on the scrap of paper he was handing me. "What – Milano?" I sputtered. "You’re from Milano?"

"Why yes, I’m just down here in Sicily for my holidays." He looked slightly confused as to why this should matter. "But I have been here a week and tomorrow I have to go back to work," he said sadly, and suddenly I noticed the large suitcase he was carrying. Before I could even respond, he was bowing in his awkward way, reaching out to kiss my hand, hauling up his suitcase and hurrying off in the direction of the train station.

I stood there for a minute, stunned, watching him recede into the distance. A tourist from the north, I should have guessed. I didn’t know whether to laugh or cry. Instead, I walked across the promenade to a bench with a nice view of the ocean below, carefully unwrapped my cannolis, took a bite, and marvelled at how good it felt just to be left completely, blissfully alone.

(Dear readers, I’m sorry to report that this will most likely the last post I’ll be able to put up for a while, as I’ll be taking time off from everything – including cooking and blogging – for the next month or so to work intensively on my PhD. Curse these real life obligations! Don’t ask me how I’m going to survive, but assuming I do, you’ll find me back here in mid to late May. Wish me luck!)

Sicilian Cannoli

Yield: 20-24 cannolis
Source: adapted from La Cucina Siciliana di Gangivecchio by Wanda and Giovanna Tornabene
Notes: Ever since trying cannoli that first time in Taormina, I’ve wanted to make my own, but somehow never got around to it until now. I was amazed at how easy they actually are, but you do need the tools of the trade, namely metal cannoli tubes, easily available from kitchen shops or online. I also took this opportunity to try my hand at making my own ricotta, which I hoped would better approximate the incredibly flavorful ricotta filling of those first Sicilian cannoli. While it may not have quite lived up to the memory, it was very good, and remarkably easy (I also loved the richness added by the heavy cream), and I won’t hesitate to make it again whenever I need a superior quality ricotta. If you don’t feel like making your own, however, Wanda and Giovanna Tornabene (whose wonderful book above I highly recommend as an introduction to Sicilian cuisine) suggest taking normal supermarket ricotta and draining it overnight in a cheesecloth-lined strainer to more approximate the thick, dense ricotta they use. As for the exact proportions of the filling ingredients, let taste be your guide – the Tornabenes only flavor their ricotta with sugar and a bit of vanilla, but I love the combination of chocolate, orange, citron and pistachio that seems to embody the quintessential flavors of Sicily in every bite.

For cannoli shells:
2 cups (280g) all-purpose flour
1/3 cup (70g) sugar
1/2 teaspoon salt
1/3 cup (80ml) lard, melted and cooled, or vegetable oil, plus more for frying
red wine vinegar, as needed
1 egg white

For rich homemade ricotta:
1 gallon (4 liters) whole milk
2 cups (500ml) heavy/double cream
4 cups (1 liter) buttermilk
1/2 tsp salt
1/2 tsp sugar

For filling:
3 cups (about 750g) thick, well-drained homemade ricotta (or 4 cups (1kg) commercial ricotta drained in a cheesecloth overnight)
1 cup (220g) sugar, more or less to taste
2 teaspoons vanilla
finely grated zest of 2 oranges

chopped dark chocolate, to taste
chopped candied citron, to taste
1/2 cup (50g) unsalted shelled pistachios, chopped 

Special equipment: cheesecloth, candy thermometer, metal cannoli tubes 

Begin making the ricotta one day in advance. Put all the ingredients in a large pot and put it on medium heat. Let it heat, uncovered, stirring occasionally, until it is hot and little bubbles form on the surface. This will take about 8 to 10 minutes. Then let it bubble for about 5 minutes without stirring. You’ll see curds start to form. Let the temperture rise to 175F or 80C. Turn off the heat, and let the pot sit there, undisturbed, for 10 minutes. Using a skimmer or a large slotted spoon transfer the curds into a large strainer or colander lined with cheesecloth, gently scraping the bottom
of the pan to loosen any stuck-on ricotta. When the draining has slowed to an occasional drip, set the strainer over a bowl and refrigerate (fold the ends of the cheesecloth over the top of the ricotta so it doesn’t dry out too much). Let it drain until all the whey runs off and the cheese is quite thick, about 24 hours.

For the cannoli shells, put the flour, sugar and salt into a large bowl. Make a well in the center and add the eggs and melted lard or oil. Mix together, adding enough vinegar, little by little, until you have a very smooth, soft dough (I used about 1.5 tablespoons, I think). Knead the dough on a board for a few minutes and work into a ball. The dough should be soft and elastic. Let the dough rest, wrapped in plastic, at room temperature for 2 to 3 hours. It can be prepared a day in advance and kept wrapped in plastic at room temperature.

Roll the dough out into a thin, large circle (about 1/8 inch/2mm thick).  You can also halve or quarter the dough, and roll each piece out into smaller circles. Cut the dough into perfect 4-inch (10cm) circles (find something round in your kitchen with this diameter to work as a guide). Using a rolling pin, make one or two passes over each circle to create more of an oval shape, trying to keep an even thickness throughout.  Wrap each piece of dough around an oiled cannoli tube so that the longer sides overlap in the middle. Dab a bit of egg white where the dough overlaps and press to secure it well. Ready as many tubes as you have available.

Heat about 3 inches of lard or vegetable oil in a deep frying pan until hot but not smoking. A scrap of dough should start frying the instant it hits the oil. Fry two or three shells at a time, pressing them down if necessary to keep them submerged, until golden brown all over. This will happen quickly – possibly in less than a minute. Remove with a slotted spoon and drain on paper towels. Knock one end of the tube to loosen it from the shell, then remove it from the shell while it is still hot. Allow the tubes to cool before using them for the next batch. The shells are best used within a couple of hours, but will keep in an airtight container for a few days. Fill them just before serving.

For the filling, mix together the drained ricotta with everything except the pistachios. Taste and adjust the level of sweetness – some people like it sweeter than others. Using a teaspoon or a pastry bag or even your fingers, fill the cooled shells with the mixture. Decorate the ends with chopped pistachios and serve at once. 


Salty, Sweet, Sublime: Bisteeya

Moroccan Bisteeya with Chicken 


It could be mistaken for one of the hottest culinary concepts of our time, enshrined à la Fat Duck or El Bulli in cutting-edge gastronomic whimsies like sardine-on-toast sorbet, seaweed nougat or white chocolate and caviar; even high-class pastry chefs are getting in on the act with dessert menus full of things like chocolate mousse bathed in olive oil and fleur de sel. These days, the dishes top chefs seem to get maximum mileage from are those that taunt our minds and thwart our expectations, playfully rearranging our preconceptions of good taste as we experience sweet and savory together in ever more daring forms. Now I’m no psychologist, and admittedly my exposure to cutting-edge cuisine is limited, but even so another possibility occurs to me. It seems to me perfectly plausible that the reason this particular combination of flavors manages to succeed so well on big-league menus is not a result of the novelty, surprise or confusion they elicit, but rather because of their effect on a completely different region of the head: simply put, sweet and savory just taste good together.

You don’t have to look far to find that many cuisines value the interplay of sweet and savory elements. Some seem to court love affairs with the combination but restrict its appearance to a few choice staples – just look at the American penchant for ketchup, baked beans, and sticky barbecue, or the British love of Branston sandwich pickle and Colemans mint sauce. For others, eating this way conforms to a long-established tradition. In much of Southeast Asia, and Thailand in particular, a dish of perfect proportions is said to encompass the four essential tastes, namely sweet, sour, salty and spicy, while in Indian Ayurveda, there are six (sweet, salty, sour, astringent, bitter, and pungent) believed to create harmony in the body and spirit. The idea of balancing opposing tastes is a fundamental of Zoroastrian belief as well, which is why modern Persian cuisine boasts so many sweet and savory delights. Among all the cultures that venerate this particular taste dynamic, however, to my mind none can compete with Morocco, where some of the most innovative and delicious sweet and savory cuisine in the world finds its home.

Moroccan cuisine is justifiably hailed as the most sophisticated in all of Africa. Despite its peripheral location on the northwest coast of the continent, it has been shaped by centuries of invasion, colonization and cross-migration between Europe and the Middle East, all of which has left a unique and profound culinary legacy. There are elements from the indigenous Berbers, the conquering Arabs, the colonizing Europeans, and the Moors, who fled from Spain at the time of the Inquisition, bringing back with them the myriad flavors of Iberia. You’ll find oranges, almonds, saffron and peppers rubbing shoulders with ginger, cumin, quinces, cilantro and dates; you’ll find decadent, mind-blowingly opulent feasts (often encompassing up to twenty different courses), a world-famous tradition of hospitality and a culture of kitchen artistry where secret recipes are passed down from generation to generation like priceless family treasures. And though you’ll find fierce regionalism and a loyalty to the particular foodways of one’s home soil, it seems that just about anyone you ask will agree on what the true crown jewel of Moroccan cuisine is: a flaky, sugar-dusted meat pastry called bisteeya.

Paula Wolfert has some very interesting theories on the origin of bisteeya (also commonly – and confusingly – written b’steeya, b’stilla, pastilla, or any variation therein). Rejecting the theory that it came back with the Moors when they left Spain in the fifteenth century (which is what current wisdom holds, pointing out the similarity of bisteeya to the Spanish word for pastry, pastel), she believes it stems from an old Berber word for a dish of chicken cooked in saffron, bestila, to which a pastry innovation from the Chinese was applied. Moroccan warka pastry, she claims, instead of emerging as a variation on other European thin pastry such as filo or strudel, made its way to Morocco from China via Persian and Arab traders. She may have a point there as unlike European pastry, which is always rolled, warka is more pancake-like, made by dabbing a ball of wet dough over a hot griddle until a thin sheet can be peeled off, much the same as Chinese spring roll wrappers. The idea that these disparate techniques met on Moroccan soil for the first time seems perfectly logical to me – after all, nowhere else in the world, and particularly not in Spain, will you find anything remotely resembling bisteeya.

Whatever its exact origins, bisteeya is an extravagant and magical dish, almost as much an event as it is sustenance. Imagine crisp, gossamer-thin pastry encasing layers of spiced chicken, lemony eggs, tangy onion sauce and butter-fried almonds, baked until golden and then liberally dusted with cinnamon and sugar. Though the combination may sound peculiar, the taste is anything but – a single bite encompasses everything from spicy to herbal, sour to pungent, nutty to creamy, salty to sweet. While it is traditionally eaten as a first course of a large celebration meal, a huge communal pastry laid out for everyone to tear into with their fingers, it is hearty and filling enough to serve as the pièce de résistance of a considerably smaller affair. But whether you serve it as part of a no-holds-barred feast or a simple dinner with mint tea and a salad, it is a truly spectacular dish, and one I daresay would beat the pants off all the sardine sorbet in the world.

Moroccan Bisteeya
Serves: 6-8
Source: Adapted from several sources, including Wolfert’s Couscous and Other Good Foods from Morocco, and Claudia Roden’s New Book of Middle Eastern Food
Notes: True bisteeya is made with warka pastry, not filo, so if you have a source for it, by all means use it instead. Alternatively, Wolfert gives a technique for making it yourself in her book. Also, though bisteeya in Morocco is usually served with pigeon meat, this recipe uses more commonly available chicken – however if you can find pigeon or squab, feel free to use it instead, substituting two whole birds for the chicken thighs.

For the chicken:
4 tablespoons (60g) butter
2 medium onions, peeled and finely chopped
3 cups (750ml) chicken stock
8 chicken thighs, bone-in
4 cloves garlic, peeled and chopped
knob of fresh ginger (about 1/2 inch/1 cm long), peeled and minced

pinch saffron threads, crumbled
1/2 teaspoon salt, or to taste (depends on your stock)
1 teaspoon cinnamon
1 teaspoon black pepper
1/2 teaspoon ground ginger
1/4 teaspoon cayenne pepper (or to taste) 

For the eggs:
small bunch flat-leaf parsley, chopped (about 1/2 cup)
small bunch cilantro/coriander, chopped (about 1/2 cup)
2 tablespoons lemon juice
8 large eggs

For the almonds:
2 tablespoons (30g) butter
1/2 lb. (225g) blanched almonds
1/2 cup (50g) powdered/icing sugar, sifted
2 teaspoons ground cinnamon

To assemble:
1 lb. (450g) filo dough, defrosted if frozen
8 tablespoons (125g) butter, melted
3-4 tablespoons powdered sugar
1 teaspoon cinnamon
flaked toasted almonds, for decoration (optional)

Melt the butter in a
large, heavy pot and saute the onions over medium-low heat, stirring frequently, until they are soft and golden and beginning to fall apart, about 25-30 minutes. Add the chicken and the rest of the ingredients for the chicken (keep in mind that the sauce will be reduced later, so add salt accordingly), bring to a boil, cover, lower heat, and simmer gently for an hour and a half, until the chicken is falling off the bone. If you have the time, allow the chicken to cool completely in the broth – this will really improve its flavor and succulence. If not, remove it from the cooking liquid and let it cool enough to handle. When it has, shred the meat into bite-sized pieces, discarding bones and skin. Set aside.

Meanwhile, boil the cooking liquid until it has reduced to about 1 cup (250ml). Add the lemon juice and simmer a couple of minutes. Taste for salt and add more if needed – the reduced broth should be very well seasoned but not overly salty. Beat the eggs with the parsley and cilantro. Slowly add the beaten eggs to the reduced sauce and stir constantly with a wooden spoon until the eggs have congealed into a thick curd and most of the liquid has evaporated. Cool.

For the almonds, melt the butter in a skillet over medium heat and sauté the almonds until lightly browned. Remove, drain on paper towels, chop them finely, and combine with the sugar and cinnamon.

About an hour before eating, preheat the oven to 400F/200C.

Unroll the filo and put the leaves under a damp towel to keep them moist while you are working. Brush the bottom of a pizza pan, paella pan, or very large cake pan with the melted butter. Layer the bottom of the pan with leaves of filo until the entire surface is covered and the filo extends about 2 inches outside the pan in all directions. Brush each layer of the filo generously with butter. Layer the filo up 4 sheets deep, brushing the top with butter. Sprinkle half of the almond-sugar mixture evenly over the surface. Continue layering another 4 layers of buttered filo over the almonds, again brushing the top layer with butter.

Spread the shredded chicken evenly over the surface. Cover with the egg mixture. Fold the overhanging edges in to cover the egg layer and brush with butter. Add another 4 layers of filo, tucking them down around the sides like bedsheets. Sprinkle the top with the remaining almond-sugar mixture, finishing up with a final 4 layers of filo. Trim any edges of filo that can’t be neatly tucked underneath. Brush the top liberally with butter.

Bake for 20 or 25 minutes until the top leaves are golden. Remove the pan from the oven, carefully invert onto a large buttered baking sheet, brush with any remaining butter, and bake 10 minutes more.

Dust the top with powdered sugar and cinnamon and sprinkle with flaked almonds, if desired. Serve immediately.