Friday, July 26, 2013

Sise Delle Monache


To regular readers of this blog, sorry for the long gap between posts, but a nasty bout with bronchitis kept me down and out for a while after my return from Italy. I'm back now, hopefully on a more regular basis, starting with this dessert that I'll bet very few of you have eaten, or even heard of unless you're from Abruzzo, or more specifically, a small town in that region of Italy. They're called "sise delle monache" and you'll find them only in Guardiagrele.
They kind of resemble three perky breasts sitting upright on a plate. In fact, the name translates to "the nun's breasts" because the word sise is slang for zizze, which is one way of saying "boobs" (although no one I know refers to them with that word). 
 "Wait a minute," you're thinking. "What nun has three boobs?" Good question. I'll get to that. 
But first other stories about the pastry's name, according to Mario Palmerio, of the eponymous pastry shop where they are made (as well as Lullo's on the same street - Via Roma). The pastry was originally named "three mountains" for obvious reasons, if you've ever seen this mountainous region. But the name apparently got changed to "sise delle monache" after the Guardiagrele poet Modesto della Porta (who died in 1938) remarked upon seeing them, "Madonna, they're so white, straight and pointy they seem like nun's boobs."  
Another legend is that a nun, upon trying to hide her ample bosom to appear more spiritual, stuffed some fabric between her breasts so that they would appear less prominent when she wrapped herself with bandage, and in doing so, she created a "third" breast.
More likely is the third explanation, that the pastry was simply a creation of nuns and someone with a mischievous sense of humor added the sise part.
They're really nothing more than sponge cake layered between pastry cream (occasionally a chocolate pastry cream) and dusted heavily with confectioner's sugar. They're made and consumed on the same day, since they get stale quite quickly. But I can tell you firsthand, that even waiting one day to eat them didn't diminish the delightful taste of my breakfast in Guardiagrele one morning.
Since we're already in Guardiagrele, let me show you around town. It's also known for its craftsmanship of hand-wrought iron and copper. Shops selling it are all around town:
And if you're looking for a pizzelle iron (called ferratelle here), this is the place to come.

The town has an inviting entry arch through which you can see some of the surrounding Maiella mountains:


Along one street is this salmon-colored building I couldn't resist photographing, decorated with flowers:


The short tour ends with the emblem of medieval Guardiagrele, the church of Santa Maria Maggiore, whose primitive foundation dates to the beginning of 1200, although its interior was completely rebuilt following an earthquake in the 18th century.


Sise Delle Monache
From a recipe on the website of the Abruzzo region. Click here to view the page

Printable Recipe here:

Ingredients for the dough:
12 eggs
300 grams (1 1/2 cups) of sugar, 
100 gr (1/2 cup) of (sifted) potato starch 
200 gr of (sifted) flour (2 cups minus 1 T) 

After preparing your own recipe for pastry custard (or use the one below), start to make the dough of the dessert.

 Beat the egg whites until stiff with 200 gr (1 cup) of sugar and then beat the yolks with 100 gr (1/2 cup) of sugar. Mix the two mixtures very slowly and add the sifted flour and the potato starch, until this mixture is soft. On a baking tray form three little pyramids with the mixture. Put in the oven for 10 – 15 minutes at 210° Celsius (410 degrees Fahrenheit). When everything is ready, wait until it cools down, cut in the middle to fill with the custard and then cover everything with custard... don't forget to sprinkle with icing sugar!

Pastry Cream
2 cups whole milk
zest of one lemon (if you prefer not to use lemon, scrape the seeds from one vanilla bean into the milk or add 1/4 t. almond extract)
4 large egg yolks
3/4 cup granulated sugar
1/4 cup all purpose flour

Put the lemon zest and the milk into a large, heavy saucepan and simmer over low heat for about 10 minutes.
In a large bowl or mixer, beat the egg yolks and sugar until thick and pale yellow. Add the flour and whisk until well combined.
Remove the lemon zest from the saucepan and slowly add the hot milk into the egg mixture, a tiny bit at a time. If you add them too quickly, you'll scramble the eggs. Then return the mixture to the saucepan and cook over low to medium heat, stirring constantly. Keep stirring until the mixture thickens and starts to boil. If it gets lumpy, use a whisk, or even a hand-held stick blender to smooth it out.
Transfer the mixture to a bowl and cover with plastic wrap, against the surface of the pastry cream, so it doesn't develop a "skin."Cool in refrigerator.




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Monday, July 8, 2013

Agretti

Agretti. Never heard of them? I'm not surprised, but they're worth seeking out. They're nearly impossible to find in the U.S., and even in Italy, lots of people have no idea what they are. The only place I've ever seen the vegetable for sale was in open air markets in Rome, and I've been hunting for the seeds ever since I first spotted them and ate them years ago. My relatives in Northern Italy were never able to locate the seeds either, but fortunately, Seeds From Italy was. I ordered a box of them earlier this year, sowing the seeds before I left on my latest trip to Italy nearly six weeks ago. What a welcome sight to see this sprouting up from the ground upon returning home: 
Agretti (plural of agretto - but who eats only one agretto I ask you?) are also known as roscano, salt wort, or barba di frate, which translates to the friar's beard. You can see why in this photo below -- they look kind of like hairy chives with side growth. The flavor doesn't taste like chives though - to me it tastes like swiss chard, one of my favorite veggies. The botanical name is salsola soda and it also grows in marshes. In the past, the ashes of agretti were an important source of soda ash for glassmaking and soap making.
 The sowing and growing season is narrow. Indeed the package says to plant within two months because the seeds have a short viability. I'll be sowing more in the next day or two, to hopefully get a second crop before summer's end. How to eat them? They need cooking, even though they look tender. Trim the hard ends, then boil them in water to tenderize. Drain and sauté
 them in a pan with some olive oil, minced garlic, salt and pepperoncino. They make a great side dish all by themselves, but imagine how good they'd be as a bed for a filet of fish -- or tossed with some pasta. You heard it here first folks - agretti will be the next big thing. Don't miss out on what is bound to be on the menus of trendy Italian restaurants in the near future. But don't do it for that reason - grow them because they taste good. An added benefit is that they provide a good source of vitamin A, iron and calcium. 
 Look what else I found in my garden upon my return home. Yes, that's a baby artichoke in the making. It's the first year I've ever grown them and right now, only one of my six plants has a little sprout. Hopefully the others will catch up to this one and I'll post a recipe for my home-grown artichokes once I harvest them (I'm optimistic). 

Agretti
Printable recipe here
one bunch of agretti
two cloves of garlic minced
1/4 cup olive oil
red pepper flakes
salt
1/2 lemon

Boil the agretti in water for about five minutes. Drain. Add the olive oil to a pan and sauté the garlic. Add the drained agretti, the red pepper flakes and season with salt. Place in a serving dish and squeeze lemon over the agretti before serving.
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