There’s something about Italian sweets that fascinates me. Sometimes the flavor combinations are unexpected and delicious, and sometimes the draw is obvious as with gelato. I was happily transported to Italy and specifically with some recipes to Sardinia while reading my review copy of La Vita e Dolce: Italian–Inspired Desserts by Letitia Clark. Clark, and English pastry chef, wrote this book from her home in Sardinia just as the pandemic was getting started. She writes that she wanted to “cling to and celebrate those moments of sweet, everyday pleasure.” Making sweet treats at home is a simple way to experience and share a bit of joy each day. And for me, making and sharing Italian sweets is particularly enjoyable. I’ve posted before about my deep affection for anginetti cookies which are lemony, little round delights, and I was thrilled with pezzetti di cannella that bring together cocoa, cinnamon, and lemon zest in a fabulous, glazed cookie. And, of course, the savory-sweet combination of grapes and rosemary in schiacciata all’uva is divine. So, I couldn’t wait to peruse this new book. It includes cookies, tarts, cakes, spoonable sweets, yeasted and fried treats, gelato, and sweets to give as gifts. The recipes were all created in a very approachable manner for the home cook. I could spend serious time with the gelato chapter alone. From the Sparkling Lemon Sorbetto to the Ricotta and Fig Ripple Gelato, there are tips for best results and anecdotes about gelato shops in Italy. I got stuck in the Gifts chapter wanting to try the Chocolate, Hazelnut, and Sour Cherry Salame and realizing I’ve never made Panforte, yet. As I read through the book, I decided I need more Torta della Nonna in my life as well as Crostata de Marmellata. I quickly became jealous as Clark described the quality of the fruit available in Sardinia. Still, I want to try the Citrus, Campari, and Yoghurt Upside-Down Cake with what I can get here. First, though, the Pabassinus cookies or Spiced Saba, Raisin, and Nut Cookies had my full attention. The mix of cinnamon, cloves, aniseed, and lemon zest with saba and the nuts and raisins sounded like a combination I had to taste. The fact that the cookies are traditionally decorated with sprinkles just reinforced my interest in them.
In the head note, it’s explained that the cookies’ name comes from the Sardinian word for raisin which is “pabassa.” Step one was procuring some saba, and that was easy enough with an online order. To begin the cookie dough, slivered almonds and walnuts were toasted and then chopped. The aniseed was toasted in a dry skillet and then crushed with a mortar and pestle. The raisins were soaked to plump them, and I used orange juice for that. The prepped nuts, aniseed, and drained raisins were mixed with flour, sugar, softened butter, egg, salt, baking powder, cinnamon, ground cloves, saba, and lemon zest to form a dough. After chilling the dough for 30 minutes, it was rolled and cut into diagonal shapes. The cut cookies were baked, cooled, and dipped into confectioner’s sugar glaze before being showered with sprinkles.
How can sprinkles not make you happy? The idea of this book was to spread joy, and these cookies most definitely did that. I loved the mix of flavors from the spices, the brightness of the citrus zest, and the tangy sweetness of the saba. It’s going to be fun to have even more Italian sweet treats to enjoy at home and to share with others.
Spiced Saba, Raisin, and Nut Cookies
These little diamond-shaped biscuits are found all over Sardinia, with recipes differing from region to region. Pabassinus, deriving their name from the Sardinian word pabassa, which means ‘raisin’, are traditionally made for All Saints’ Day (1 November), the addition of spices, citrus zest and a large quantity of dried fruit and nuts being the edible markers of religious festivals. Crumbly, nutty and wonderfully spicy, they are so inseparable from the period leading up to Ognissanti that when I asked a friend if she would make them with me in September, she point-blank refused. I first made these with a friend’s aunt, who measured everything by eye (‘quanto basta!’) and baked them in a wood-fired oven as she had done on the same day every year for her entire life. Many households in Sardinia still have these ovens, which are lit for special occasions. Traditionally bread is baked first, then, as the temperature cools, the dolci are baked afterwards.
Saba, or sapa is a dark, richly flavoured syrup made from cooked grape must. Traditionally in Sardinia this was also made from prickly pears (fichi d’India), which grow wild all over the countryside. They were gathered with canes and then boiled down with water to produce a thick, dusky syrup which was then used as a sweetener. Few people make this syrup now, but sapa made from grapes is still used for many traditional dolci. If you can’t find sapa, then a dark honey, black treacle or date molasses are all good substitutes.
The biscuits are usually decorated with a simple white glacé icing and multi-coloured sprinkles (Sardinians are inordinately fond of sprinkles) but they are also very good un-iced and unsprinkled. They keep well in an airtight container for a few days.
Makes 30 larger or 40 smaller cookies – enough for a festa
100 g (3 1⁄2 oz) blanched almonds
70 g (2 1⁄2 oz) walnuts 2 tsp aniseed
120 g (4 oz) raisins
270 g (10 oz/2 1⁄4 cups) 00 or plain (all-purpose) flour, plus extra to dust
140 g (4 1⁄2 oz/2 2⁄3 cups) sugar
120 g (4 oz) butter or lard, at room temperature
1 egg and 1 egg yolk
1⁄2 tsp salt
1 tsp baking powder
pinch of cinnamon
pinch of ground cloves (optional)
1 tbsp saba
zest of 1 lemon
zest of 1 orange
For the icing
130 g (4 oz/1 cup) icing (confectioner’s) sugar
2 tbsp lemon juice (juice of 1 lemon, roughly)
Preheat the oven to 180oC (350oF/Gas 4). Arrange the almonds over the base of a baking tray (pan) and roast in the oven until just lightly golden, about 8–10 minutes.
Remove from the oven and chop the almonds lengthways into nibs. Chop the walnuts roughly.
Toast the aniseed in a dry shallow pan for 1–2 minutes or until it begins to smell good. Remove and bash the seeds gently in a pestle and mortar, or in a deep bowl using the bottom of a rolling pin.
Soak the raisins in boiling water (or tea or coffee or anything hot you have to hand – fennel tea would also be nice) until softened (around 3 minutes). Drain them well in a sieve, squeezing to remove any excess liquid.
In a bowl, mix together the chopped nuts, bashed aniseed and soaked raisins with the rest of the ingredients using your hands (messy but satisfying) or using a wooden spoon until you have a smooth dough. Wrap the dough in clingfilm (plastic wrap) and leave to rest in the fridge while you clean up.
Once the dough has rested for 30 minutes, roll it out on a work surface dusted with flour. Roll out to 1 cm (1⁄2 in) thickness, then cut diagonally into large-ish diamond shapes, re-rolling and cutting any edges until you have used all of the dough.
Place on a baking sheet lined with baking parchment and bake for 12–15 minutes (keep a close eye on them as they burn fast). Remove and leave to cool.
To make the icing, mix the icing sugar with the lemon juice in a small bowl until just at pouring consistency. Decorate the biscuits with the icing and sprinkles, if using.
Note: These are almost always made into rough diagonals here in Sardinia, but if you prefer to use your favorite cookie cutter then feel free to do so. They’d make very good Christmas cookies too.
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