Flaky Times in a Flaky World
Quick: What looks like an oyster, but is crunchy and a little sweet?
And is related (in spirit) to custards in Macau (or any pie, for that matter) and baklava and strudel?
We’re talking sfogliatelle (say it with an Italian lilt: svohl-yah-TELL-eh), the crinkly, ricotta filled pastries from Naples which are, in my opinion, the crowning glory of Italian pastry.
What makes them so charming, in addition to being absolutely delicious, is that they look impossible to make, almost mysterious.
And what makes them part of a glorious international constellation of flakiness is the simple combination of flour and water and fat, folded or rolled to create countless layers.
Anywhere you go in the world, you will find a variation on this theme.
Travel to Ohio, and there’s good old American pie, best with a crust made of lard, sadly compromised with the invention of Crisco. The French call their pie crust Pate Brisee, and use butter. These are simply moistened flour tossed in butter then rolled. (Yes, DO try this at home.) The best custard tarts I have ever had were still hot from the oven in Macau (near Hong Kong), descendents of Portuguese cooks’ creations centuries ago.
On another level are the stretched doughs into which layers of fat, usually butter, are folded or rolled.
The French make their mille-feuille (thousand layer) through a rigorous process of rolling, smearing with butter, then folding, rolling, resting, folding, rolling, resting. “Napoleons”, by the way have nothing to do with the little emperor, rather the word is a bastardization of napolitan, referring to Naples, Italy.
Then there are the pastries which start with the creation of one vast sheet of dough – flour and a liquid – and a filling.
Strudel, baklava and sfogliatelle all have this in common. Everyone loves leafy phyllo, layers of crispness, honey, and nuts. Strudel starts the same way, and you can see yours being made at The Great Market Hall, the huge indoor market in Budapest, Hungary.
But sfogliatelle are the sexiest of all, and even TV stars.
“The Sopranos” producers were inundated with recipe requests every time the characters enjoyed them, even though real life Italian homemakers rarely make them (too time consuming and too easy to find at the neighborhood baker). Michele Scicolone (www.MicheleScicolone.com), co-author of The Sopranos Family Cookbook, answered this demand by creating a relatively easy, user friendly recipe.
Connecticut denizens have easy access to world class sfogliatelle at DiMare Bakery (Stamford and Riverside, www.dimarepastry.com ). Their minis (on the weekends) make this flaky indulgence even more irresistible.