A long sweet story

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This article is published in number 46 of Vanity Fair on newsstands until November 16, 2022

Among the temptations, sweets are the main culprits of capitulation. Even Francis of Assisi, known for fasting, according to biographer Bonaventura da Bagnoregio found cookies with chopped almonds, honey, pepper and cinnamon irresistible, in short, the precursors of mostaccioli. News, curiosities, recipes from top chefs of the past – today they would be great influencers – and photos that seem to have come out of the pages of time: it is a very pleasant story the book Sweets of Italy by Francesco Pruneddu, who combined his passions for art and cooking with that for photography to show the evolution of the best ancient Italian sweets, from the Middle Ages to the mid-twentieth century: “From the works of art studied at the university, I drew inspiration for my photographs: I tried to take inspiration from my favorite paintings to capture the right light, the best composition, play with the lights and, above all, with the darks. I became passionate about desserts because they have established themselves as the most colorful, artistic preparations, capable of arousing pure wonder. Favorite? The ancient ones, sometimes forgotten ».

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Sweets of Italy – The history of pastry from the Middle Ages to the twentieth centuryby Francesco Pruneddu (Ed. Solferino).

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The recipes are also enriched by historical anecdotes, concerning for example sugar, once a rare ingredient, used as a symbol of power and opulence: an emblematic case is the marriage of Ercole II d’Este with Renata di Francia, in 1528 in Ferrara, where the 104 guests in addition to celebrating with the 99 courses served, were able to admire the sugar figures that represented the labors of Hercules. Also for this ornament the banquet went down in history as the most impressive of the century. A curiosity: among the dishes were also proposed struffoli sweet, in combination with savory dishes.

Struffoli, small balls of soft dough, fried and sweetened, present in Renaissance banquets.

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But aside from these decorative sculptures created to arouse wonder, what were the pastries like? In the approximately one thousand often dark years of the Middle Ages they were decidedly different from the present ones; reserved for noble tables, they were combined with flower petals and dried fruit, as touches of perfume and color. The main ingredients were fruit sweetened with honey and flavored with spices, flour and almond milk, dates, cheese as a filling and rose water to perfume. And the dough? He was an ancestor of the shortcrust pastry. In the late Middle Ages, the first cookbooks also appear, such as the Libro de arte coquinaria by Martino de ‘Rossi, the greatest cook of his time: Pruneddu was inspired by his recipes to make Diriola, a festive dessert – a sort of crème caramel in crust -, the rice cake, one of the most common in epoch, and the White cake (see the recipe below), ancient version of the cheese cake.

The white cake

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In the Renaissance, sweets remain of medieval inspiration but evolve, with alse, jellies and greater use of sugar. Arousing astonishment was essential to realize the court banquets, prepared by chef stars so famous as to influence chefs from all over Europe: the best known was Bartolomeo Scappi, private cook of the popes for 30 years. Among his recipes, the marzipan cakealso presented to the pontifical court.

Marzipan cake

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With the passing of the centuries the use of spices decreases and the authentic flavors of the ingredients are discovered. With the advent of the bourgeoisie, food is no longer just ostentation, but a more intimate and familiar pleasure. In pastry, increasingly affordable for everyone, triumph pistachios, almonds, citrus peel, chocolate. “Long sellers” of the time are the castagnaccio, the bread pudding with pine nuts and raisins, the semolina pie (with its scent of memories) the heavenly Paradise cake of Pavia and the Duchess cake, typical sweet of Parma. And finally the English soup (very Italian): Pellegrino Artusi recommends alternating the ladyfingers soaked in alkermes with others soaked in rosolio, to create nuances of color and taste.

Semolina cake

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Duchess cake

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English soup

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Then we come to the sweet masterpieces of the twentieth century: the panna cotta, the caprese cakeborn by mistake without flour, the Mimosa (1960s) and the king of spoon desserts, the tiramisu, whose origin is at the center of a dispute between Veneto and Friuli. Shall we create another? It is said that the very French crêpes were born thanks to Pope Gelasius I, in the fifth century, and were called crespelle.
And finally, a tribute to famous foreign desserts: among all, the incomparable Pavlovameringue nest filled with cream and fruit, e the lemon Bundt cake, the most famous donut in America, soft, consistent, fragrant. Essential.

Panna Cotta

The recipe of the White Cake (Middle Ages)
For pasta: 250 g of flour, 125 g of butter, a pinch of salt, 2-3 tablespoons of cold water
For the stuffing: 300 g of sheep’s milk ricotta, 6 egg whites, 130 g of sugar, 100 g of ointment butter,
2 teaspoons of ginger, 100 ml of milk, 1 tablespoon of rose water

Method:
In a bowl, pour the flour and butter into cubes and work them with your fingertips, so that the mixture is sandy. Also add the salt and cold water. Compact the dough with your hands and let it rest in the fridge for 30 minutes, covered with plastic wrap. For the filling, mash the ricotta in a bowl, add the sugar, butter and ginger. In another bowl, lightly whisk the egg whites, incorporate them into the ricotta and add the milk slowly, until the mixture reaches a creamy consistency. Roll out the dough into a 22-24 cm diameter pan, greased and floured, pour the mixture, level it and bake at 200 ° for an hour. To ensure that the cake does not color very much, cover it with aluminum foil for 45 minutes. To finish it, spray it with rose water or sprinkle icing sugar.

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Source: Vanity Fair

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