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Scappi’s Mostaccioli & Easter Biscotti

Having scanned Scappi for an exciting Easter dish (seeing as there are plenty of recipes for Lent I thought Easter dishes would be a given), hoping for an early version of Pastiera or Pane di Pasqua, to my great disappointment I have been unable to find a single one! So I have settled instead for a modern biscotti made with orange, inspired by the signature flavours of Pastiera to compare with Scappi’s mostaccioli, an early example of the ‘twice-baked’ biscotti. Scappi recommends these are served at the beginning of a feast as a credenza alongside other sweet morsels and accompanied by wine to stimulate the appetite and includes them crumbled in a number of sweet dishes, as with the plum torte.

Mostacciolo are among the most ancient of Italian confectionary and modern versions retain many of the characteristics of those served in medieval and Renaissance Italy which were twice-baked, heavily spiced, sweet treats served at banquets and festive occasions. The name mostaciollo comes from the Italian grape must most which was reduced to form a syrup used as a sweetener.  The recipe is thought to have originated from a type of Roman cake called mustacea ‘must cake’, described by Cato the Elder in De Agri Cultura, where the ingredients flour, lard, cheese, grape must, anise and cumin were combined and baked wrapped in bay leaves…a future recipe for The Hungry Historians, methinks, so watch this space!

mostacciola 300g

Neopolitan mostaccioli

In Sicily today mostaciollo are biscuits spiced with cinnamon and cloves, commonly served with dessert wine for dipping, as well as being made with orange and sesame seeds as a festival speciality on All Souls’ Day. Perhaps the most recognisable modern example comes in the form of diamond-shaped spiced biscuits covered in chocolate from Napoli, which are typically eaten at Christmas and weddings, but each region has its own version.

Scappi’s mostaccioli are therefore the link between these ancient and modern recipes. However, unlike the typically spiced biscuits, Scappi’s Milanese version only calls for aniseed and musk, representing a refined recipe tailored for the elite: a deliberate move away from the earlier heavily spiced versions and more closely resembling biscotti. This un-spiced version may sound a little dull, but it is important to remember this biscuit was intended to be served with various sweet accompaniments and a good wine. As such (and because it’s Easter!) I will serve them alongside a modern chocolate and orange biscotti with hot mocha dipping sauce (fabulous recipe courtesy of the Silver Fox himself, Paul Hollywood) and whatever wine I happen to find open at the time.

To prepare dainty morsels – that is, Milanese-style mostaccioli Get fifteen fresh eggs, beat them in a casserole pot and strain them with two and a half pounds of fine, powdered sugar, half an ounce of raw aniseed or else ground coriander, and a grain or two of fine musk; with that put two and a half pounds of flour… Then have greased sheets of paper ready, made like lamps, or else high-sided torte pans with, on the bottom, then put the batter into the lamps or torte pans, filling them no more than the thickness of a finger. Sprinkle them immediately with sugar and put into a hot oven…When that batter has risen up and thoroughly dried out and is rather firm take it out of the torte pan or lamp. Right away with a broad, sharp knife cut them up into slices two fingers wide and as long as you like, and put them back into the oven on sheets of paper to bake again like biscuits, turning them over often. 

 – The Opera of Bartolomeo Scappi, Book VI, Recipe 142

Biscotti IngredientsIngredients

3 eggs
250g caster sugar
250g plain flour
1/2 teaspoon aniseed
1 teaspoon grape must/ concentrated grape juice

Method

  • Preheat the oven to 160°C
  • Combine all the ingredients together in a bowl and mix to form a dough, turn onto a floured surface
  • Roll the dough into a log shape, place on a greased baking tray and sprinkle with sugarBiscotti Dough
  • Bake for 25 minutes until dry and firm
  • Leave to cool and when only slightly warm cut into 2cm slicesSlicing
  • Place the slices back on the baking tray, bake for 15 mins, then turn over and bake on the other side for a further 15 mins until golden brown on both sidesTwice Baked
  • Serve after dinner with dipping sauce and digestivi – the perfect way to end a meal

Final BiscottiIn case you were wondering, these biscotti really do taste as plain as they look, which makes them perfect for nibbling on after an indulgent dinner (of which I have had far too many over this Easter period) along with a digestivi to help wash it all down. The aniseed taste is very subtle and you only get a subtle hint of the flavour and I have to say the concentrated grape juice I used as a substitute for the grape must was completely lost on me, but presumably added a little to the sweetness. Compared with modern biscotti, there wasn’t a huge amount of difference in taste and this could be used as a base recipe for biscotti to which you can add whatever flavorings you want, although I’d recommend adding a bit of baking powder as I had to roll it up in the oven to keep its shape for the first 10 minutes of baking.

All in all, a lovely and simple accompaniment to chocolatey/ boozy dips!

Buona Pasqua a tutti!

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Flavouring the Garden: Plums Part 2 – Preserved Plum Torte

LambsFor me, two things have heralded the arrival of spring this year: Victoria plums and lambing – and this was a weekend of both! Growing up in North Devon you know spring has arrived when the fields start to fill with gamboling lambs, their white wooly coats speckling the view of the landscape for miles around. Having lots of farming friends meant that from a young age, every year come spring my sisters and I would help with the lambing at a friend’s sheep farm up on Exmoor called Ovis (Classicists will no doubt appreciate the name!). Unfortunately I haven’t been able to help for many years now since leaving home, but as I was at home this weekend and asked if I wanted to see how this year’s lambing was going on Ovis Farm, I couldn’t resist a visit and getting stuck in!Curious

Whilst the day was filled with lambing, in the evening my mind turned to my preserved plums and the delicious spring dessert they would make! I’ve been looking forward to making this all week and it hasn’t been a disappointment, but turned out to be a wonderfully bright and sunshiny spring torte…

 To prepare visciola cherry tourte without cheese.
Get visciola cherries, cook them in a little butter over a low fire and strain the thickest part of them. Have ground marzipan paste ready, fresh eggs yolks and mostaccioli, the amount of each at your discretion. When the filling is made up, have a tourte pan lined with a sheet of dough made from egg yolk, butter, sugar, rosewater, salt and fine flower, put the filling into it with a similar sheet of dough on top. The same can be done with plums.

 – The Opera of Bartolomeo Scappi, Book VI, Recipe 128

Plum IngredientsIngredients

800g preserved plums (see Plums Part 1 – Preserved Plums)
500g shortcrust pastry
250g marzipan
250g biscotti/ cantucci

Method

  • Pre-heat the oven to 180°C and lightly grease a 23cm tart tin
  • Roll the pastry out to about 3mm thickness on a lightly floured surface, then line the tin and prick the base with a fork
  • Fill with baking beans and bake for 15 minutes until golden, then allow the pastry shell to cool completely before adding the filling
  • Roll the marzipan out to about 6mm thickness and cut to size and place in the base of the pastry shellMarzipan Base
  • Crumble the biscotti/ cantucci (put into plastic bag and bash with a rolling pin – very therapeutic!) and sprinkle over marzipanBiscotti Base
  • Drain the liquid from the preserved plums and cut each plum into segments and starting from the centre, arrange over the top of the torte, starting from the centre and working your way out

Plum TartThis torte had just the kind of taste that appeals to me, not too sugary, but with a natural sweetness that comes from the fruit as the pervasive taste, much like the apple crostata of a few weeks ago. The first bite is wonderfully unexpected, too: the soft, yielding fruit just melts in the mouth whilst the crunchiness of the cantucci hidden beneath and the smoothness of the marzipan offers a perfect compliment of textures. The fruit was a little too soft for my taste, I’d have liked a little more bite so I will simmer them for a little less time in future, but they were still firm enough to keep their shape once sliced, so I’m happy with the outcome.

As for aesthetics, I think this makes such a marvelous-looking spring dessert, like a burst of sunshine or a flower unfurled. Whilst this recipe was made with Victoria plums, I’m now curious to try it with different varieties to see what other colourful creations they would make – mirabelles would give this even more vibrant a yellow and combined with damsons with their purple skins still on would look fabulous. I also quite like the idea of damsons and greengages for a more interesting colour combination, which certainly wouldn’t look out of place at a Mad Hatter’s Tea Party…