Italian pastries get no love in the US—our palate caters more to the nauseatingly sweet (cupcakes, doughnuts, butter cookies, etc.) than the subtle. Dessert is a fix, not a conversation. And while France garners all the haute pastry prestige, Italy has its own robust baking culture. Unlike its cream and custard counterparts, Italian pastries are more likely to include cheese fats (mascarpone, ricotta) and are often infused with anise or almond flavors.
My grandmother usually served pizzelles that she made herself, which look roughly like a dough doily and had a licoricey undercurrent. Amaretti, or stone-like amaretto macaroons, were usually present in their distinctive red tin. When the holidays rolled around, we would usually have a panettone, which resembles a bundt cake and tastes like wonderbread with raisins. My father is quite partial to sfogliatelle, which is sort of like a mille feuille with an orange-ricotta filling. Mostly unavailable in the states until recently, sfogliatelle once gave him food poisoning when he packed it in his suitcase in Florence, and ate it when he returned to the states.
Those are the more common desserts, but today we will look at more distinctive incarnations of Italian sweets, and a couple Italian-American bastardizations as well. A couple of bake shops in my neighborhood have freaks in their windows. It’s ‘bout time I found out the constitution of these vaguely modernist items.
Our first, Ossa dei Morti, the “Bones of the Dead” cookie.
Made with sugar and water in celebration of All Soul’s Day, this Venetian cookie smells faintly of anise and is chalky to the touch. Imagine stale corn flakes compressed into a brick. These are perilous pucks; my jaw hates me. The cookie’s chemistry reveals itself when dipped in coffee—it self-destructs.
The second is pretty unimaginative: the “S-shaped cookie.”
It’s indigenous to Brooklyn but inspired by Italian pastry treatment—the almond paste is very present. Still a little hard for me, even after the coffee immersion.
The third and last pastry is perplexingly named a “St. Martin’s Biscuit.” (If my memory serves me, St. Martin was militaristic Hungarian.)
A little like biscotti in texture, I appreciated the whole anise seeds in the batter. ‘Twas rather difficult to bite, though, since it has a concrete texture and a larger round shape. I can’t seem to locate provenance, so perhaps it was a house special.
Other Italian Specialty Sweets: