This week I have been imagining Christmas in the Northern hemisphere. There is nothing as lovely as December evenings, when you are all wrapped in a coat and a warm scarf, walking the narrow streets of your favourite Italian town. The air is cold and the main piazza has a Christmas tree, decorated with baubles and tinsel. Lights frame the facade of the church and the smell of chestnuts roasting fills the air.
I have spent a total of five Christmases in the North, the last one was three years ago, when I travelled the length of Italy during December researching Italian Street Food and spent Christmas in Monfalcone. I have very fond memories of that trip, not just because I excited about the research, but of Christmas Day with my aunts and uncles – mamma’s family. One sweet memory is of breakfast on Christmas Day, zio Mario suggested I cut the Pandoro horizontally instead of vertically. I laughed at him, thinking he had no idea what he was talking about, but eventually gave in to humour him. I had no idea it is something that a lot of people do, a lovely star-shape and a reminder of my zio who left us in 2016. There are so many other little family memories that I will hold on to.
There are many food memories from those weeks in December 2015; so many foods that I tasted that ended up as recipes in Italian Street Food. There were focaccia Barese and Rustici Leccesi in Puglia, rum baba and pizza al portafoglio in Naples, panelle and cannoli in Palermo, fiadoni and torcinelli in Pescara and gnocco fritto and tigelle in Bologna. Bologna was especially lovely, with shop after shop in the narrow streets of the centro storico selling filled pasta, cured meats, cheeses. Bologna is where I discovered raviole (the sweet variety), so not be confused with ravioli (savoury). The pastry shops and coffee shops had them on their counters, semicircular pastry bites that were delicious with a coffee, and easily eaten standing at the bar (hence fitting in to the broader definition of Italian Street Food). Though traditionally eaten for the feast of San Giuseppe, they were plentiful at Christmas time and filled with a jam made with mustard fruits. For my book I made them with plum jam, but this time, I thought I’d create a Christmas-inspired filling with figs, almonds, chocolate and warming spices like cinnamon and nutmeg.
The pastry is quite soft and works well if you roll it thin. I made a couple of cuts on the top of the pastry (the original raviole didn’t have this feature). When I posted a photo of this on Instagram during the week, a couple of people said that they looked like cagiunita or tarteluch from Abruzzo . And they probably do! I love how there are so many variations and different names names for food that is similar (or looks similar) across the regions.
Today I will be running my last cooking class for the year. It has been a wonderful wonderful year for classes, food tours in Italy and books (as Adriatico was published in September). I thank each and every one of you who came to a class, or bought one of my books, came to one of my book launch events or interacted with me on social media. And I would especially like to thank the wonderful people who came to Trieste with me in September. Without you all, Italy on my mind wouldn’t be half as much fun or satisfying on a personal level. So THANK YOU xx
I hope you enjoy the last week and a half before Christmas. I probably won’t put up a post until after then, so I wish you and your families a safe, happy and delicious holiday season. Buon natale a tutti.
fig and almond raviole
275g plain flour
30g caster sugar
1 tsp baking powder
a good pinch of salt
100g unsalted butter, diced/grated and cold from the fridge
1 egg, lightly beaten
1/4 tsp almond essence
a few tablespoons of cold milk for brushing
240g dried figs, chopped
40g brown sugar
3 tablespoons roasted almonds, ground
1/2 tsp allspice
1/2 tsp cinnamon
1/4 tsp ginger
1/4 tsp nutmeg
zest of 1/2 small orange
2 tsps bitter cocoa powder
1/4 tsp balsamic vinegar
1 tablespoon brandy
Start by making the filling. Place the figs, sugar and brandy with 275ml water in a small saucepan. bring to the boil, reduce heat then simmer for about 30 minutes, stirring occasionally until the mixture is syrupy and the figs are glossy. Remove from the heat and allow to cool completely.
To make the pastry, place the flour, sugar, salt and baking powder in a large bowl. Whisk briefly to remove any lumps and combine. Scatter in the cold butter and work it into the dry ingredients with your finger tips until it resembles wet sand. Drop in the egg and the almond essence and mix in using a wooden spoon then with your hands. You may need a bit of chilled water to help bring the pastry together. Knead briefly on a lightly floured surface then flatten with the palm of your hand until it is shaped like a disc. Wrap and place in the fridge for an hour.
Place the cooled fig mixture in a food processor and process until a pasta forms. Scrape into a bowl and stir in the remaining ingredients. Taste and make sure it is to your liking. You might like to balance the balsamic vinegar, bitter cocoa or one of the ground spices until they are to your taste. Place in the fridge until ready to use.
Roll out the pastry on a well-floured surface, so that it is 2-3mm thick. I tend to roll the pastry between two sheets of baking paper so it does not stick to the rolling pin. Cut out circles with a 9cm diameter cookie cutter. As I cut the circles, I place them onto a tray lined with baking paper. I then cover the tray and place it in the fridge, so that the circles of dough remain cool as I cut out the rest. You will need to re-roll the scraps of dough to obtain the 18-20 circles required.
Preheat the oven to 170C. Line a couple of trays with baking paper. Place heaped teaspoons of filling onto the circle, to one side of the centre. brush the edges with a bit of cold milk then fold the circle in half to enclose the filling. Seal the edges using the tines of a fork and make three cuts on the top of the pastry using a sharp knife. Brush the top of the pastry with a bit more cold milk. Repeat until you have used up all the dough and filling (if you have filling left over, you can eat it like I did – it was delicious). Bake, in batches if needed, for 15-20 minutes until the pastry is golden. Allow to cook on a wire rack and eat when they are room temperature.
The raviole will last for 3-4 days in an airtight container.