Italy's most beloved dolcetto.
It's birthday weekend in our house and what's the first thing on the breakfast table? La crostata - Italy's most beloved dolce.
To know la crostata, you must first know la frolla.
Frolla is Italy's standard sweet pastry used as a shortcrust base for an array of treats. If you step into an Italian pasticceria (patisserie) you'll find small crostatine filled with creams, custard and fruit, and larger crostate with Nutella, jams and spreads.
Some are made in trays and cut to the size you choose.
Frolla is a forgiving pastry that has a general ratio of flour-sugar-butter of 2-1-1 with enough egg to bind. Flavours like lemon zest or vanilla are often added to the crust but all-in-all it's a simple thing with the filling as the main feature.
Regional ingredients define crostata versions throughout Italy. In the warm, sunny south where citrus groves flourish, we find lemon and orange crostate, in the north we find spices and berries, let's look at a few of Italy's faves:
In Campania la Crostata Babbaiola, created by Rosa di Marechiaro who makes babbà in picturesque Posillipo, features beautiful, local lemons in a zesty crema and lemony crust - now a favourite near Naples.
In Alto Adige, la Torta Linzer takes its name from the city of Linz over the nearby Austrian border. Here cinnamon, cloves and cocoa combine with cranberry, almonds and hazelnuts for unmistakeable Alpine flavours.
La torta co bischeri from Pisa is an antique dolce once offered to pilgrims visiting the Tuscan city, filled with a rich cream of chocolate, rice, orange peel and pine nuts.
Where we live in Veneto, a birthday 'cake' is traditionally a fruit crostata. These are usually ordered from the local pasticceria according the number of people expected around the table, with the option of writing 'Tanti Auguri Nonna' or 'Buon Compleanno!' in swirly chocolate writing. The crostate are filled with a layer of crema pasticcera (Italian pastry cream) and decorated with sliced seasonal fruit in a colourful celebration glazed with a fine layer of jelly to preserve the fruit. Usually, whoever's picking up the birthday crostata grabs a couple of extra pasticcini while they're at the pasticceria, just in case there's not enough food you know...
Always expect a slice of crostata after eating at an agriturismo, malga or sagra, sometimes brought out with un caffè as a 'must'. If you're ever south of Milan in the province of Piacenza towards the end of May, look out along the roads for signs to the Sagra della Crostata in the town of Caorso. Besides, singing, dancing, a food extravaganza, local competitions and producers' stalls, the desserts are something else!
Our children love the simplest crostata with strawberry, raspberry or apricot jam - perhaps it reminds them of parties in the piazza or afternoon merenda in Nonna Lili's kitchen. Francesco's favourite is a version of ricotta and dark chocolate made traditionally at Easter. Those of you reading this who are also our customers, will recognise it immediately. We initially put this crostata on our menu so Francesco could eat the leftovers but now there hardly ever are any - it's become a favourite amongst you too! We could never take it off the menu now, we'd upset far too many fans! Che bello - this must be the best thing about having an Italian food business - introducing authentic cuisine which then becomes your favourite too.
If you don't live nearby and would love to know what all the fuss is about, here's the traditional recipe:
Crostata di Ricotta e Cioccolato Recipe
280g cake flour
120g softened butter
pinch of salt
500g beaten ricotta
1 teaspoon of vanilla essence
100g chopped dark chocolate (70%) or chocolate drops
To make la frolla:
Beat the sugar with the lemon zest and butter.
Add the flour and salt either in a mixer or rub the butter mixture in with your fingers.
Add the egg plus a yolk if more liquid is needed to bind the dough, it must not be too wet.
Shape into a ball and refrigerate for at least an hour.
In the meantime, make the filling:
Beat the ricotta until creamy and add the sugar and vanilla.
Add the chopped chocolate leaving out the finest bits (the chocolate must be in small chunks).
Let the filling stand at room temperature until the pastry is cold.
Roll the pastry to the shape of a 25cm diameter tin/dish, about half a centimeter thick.
Line the dish with baking paper and trim the edges.
Use a fork to poke holes in the base and fill the crust.
Roll out the remaining pastry and use cutters to form a lattice or shapes placed on top of the filling.
Bake at 180°C for 30minutes until the pastry is golden.
Try jam or Nutella for different versions.
Dust with icing sugar.