Wednesday was a sweltering day. Not just sunny, not just hot, the air felt like hot porridge when I step out of the air conditioned office. Aussie summer arrived with a vengeance, just in time for our annual Christmas + New Year + January + Summer + because I want to sit and read on the beach all day holiday period.
What does a gal do on a day like that? Fired up the oven of course. I made a Sicilian-esque mince pie tart, in a pasta frolla crust.
Yep, a mince pie in a tart. Other, more worthy souls, have the patience to make cute little mince pie crusts and cut out tweensy stars for the top, but I had reached the ‘let’s do something low fuss’ stage of Christmas preparations.
Sicilian mince pie?
Remember I said I didn’t like Manu’s Buccellato filling as much as the Cuccidati filling from SBS? A little voice in the back of my head kept nagging: “What if you just didn’t make it right? Do you really want to reject Manu’s family heirloom recipe after one flimsy trial?”
That inner voice is usually pretty good on work matters. Seems it can also give advice on food.
I made Manu’s recipe again, paying more attention to small things, like how finely I chopped the fruit and nuts, how fresh each spice is and whether I should add a little more or a little less.
Turns out, I really like the Buccellato filling, especially with an extra splash of brandy. The first batch was a bit overwhelmed by cloves (because I had an ultra-fresh, ultra-pungent bag). For the second batch, I used less cloves and bumped up the cinnamon. The result was richly spiced but balanced.
The Buccellato filling had me thinking, this could be a Sicilian take on mince pies?
Pasta frolla is a shortcrust pastry that seems to be a staple in almost infinite forms of Italian baking, sweet, savoury, tarts, and of course crostata. When I thought of a Sicilian mince pie-tart, I immediately thought of pasta frolla crust.
The most commonly cited recipe seems to be the one written by Pellegrino Artusi in his seminal work, The Science of Eating and Art of Fine Dining. Artusi gave us the basic ingredients, in precise proportions. While I didn’t use his exact recipe, it’s worth listing here:
250 grams flour
125 grams cold butter
110 grams sugar (icing sugar is the best, or fine castor sugar should be ok)
1 egg plus 1 egg yolk
zest of 1 lemon
The website La Cucina Italiana also gives variations on the basic recipe. For example, add egg whites if you want a crispier pastry; add more fat and sugar for a crumblier pastry. I also saw a recipe that uses baking powder, for a puffier pastry, but not sure if that would have Signor Artusi’s stamp of approval.
My current go-to recipe for pasta frolla is a bit of a rebel, from Mary Simetti’s book, Sicilian Food: recipes from Italy’s abundant isle. It uses egg white and lard, as well as butter; it’s extra egg-y; there is less butter/fat, but a little extra splash of white wine helps to bring the dough together.
I love this recipe. The pastry can be rolled out or pressed into a pan, holds its shape, doesn’t seem to need blind baking when using dry-ish filling, and retains a flaky texture even after my manhandling. By adjusting the amount of sugar slightly, I have used it for sweet (like here) and savoury (like generous hand pies with zucchini, caramelised onion and goat cheese filling). A low fuss but showy pastry.
Probably because of the addition of lard, it doesn’t brown as easily as other shortcrust pastries. but brushing the pastry with egg wash or syrup will give you a beautifully browned top.
This time, I topped the tart with random pastry rounds and clumsily hand-cut pastry stars. About 30 minutes later we had a mince pie tart. A tart, from my oven-light-less oven!!
If only the rest of Christmas cooking was as easy.
Sicilian mince pie, in tart form
(Recipe – if you can call it that – by moi. The filling came from Manu’s Menu, and the pasta frolla from Mary Simetti’s Sicilian Food: recipes from Italy’s abundant isle)
Pasta frolla (makes twice as much pastry as I needed)
425 grams or 15 oz flour (I used 390 grams plain flour and 35 grams cornflour)
2 tbsp castor or icing sugar (adjust and use more or less depending on the filling)
pinch of salt
125 grams / 4 f butter
75 grams / 3 oz lard
1 egg plus 1 egg yolk (reserve the egg white for glazing the pastry)
125 mL / 4 fl oz whit wine
Optional: a generous pinch of cinnamon, inspired by the description of an amazing macaroni pie in The Leopard, by Giuseppe Tomasi di Lampedusa….)
Filling (makes much more than needed, but who’s complaining?)
500 grams / 17 oz dried figs, chopped
250 grams / 8.5 oz apricot or fig jam
100 grams / 3.5 oz almonds, chopped
100 grams / 3.5 oz hazelnuts, chopped
50 grams walnuts / 1.75 oz, chopped
50 grams pistachios / 1.75 oz, chopped
200 grams candied cherries, chopped
100 grams / 3.5 oz raisins
100 grams / 3.5 oz candied orange zests, chopped
100 grams / 3.5 oz dark chocolate, chopped (or chocolate chips)
1 tsp vanilla extract
Zest of 1 lemon, grated
1 tsp cinnamon
1/2 tsp clove powder
1 espresso shot
100 ml / 3.5 oz Marsala or Muscat wine (I found that twice the wine produced a looser, more liquid filling, which was best for the tart as opposed to the Buccellato)
125 grams / 4.4 oz honey
Optional: a splash of brandy (1-2 tablespoons)
1. For the filling: start the day before or up to a few days ahead. Toast and chop all the nuts. Chop the dried figs and candied fruits. For this tart, I found I preferred more finely chopped nuts and dried fruit, as it gave a smoother filling and allowed the flavours to meld together better.
2. Put all the ingredients, except for the chocolate chips and brandy, in a pot, cook over low heat for 5 minutes. Stir well and make sure the wine has moistened all chopped fruit. Let it cool down completely, then add the chocolate and optional splash of brandy. Stir well to mix and keep it aside.
3. For the pasta frolla: start at least an hour before baking, or up to a few days ahead. Sift together the flour, salt and sugar. Use a cool knife, ‘cut’ the butter and lard into the flour, until you get a texture of a coarse meal.
4. Stir in egg and egg yolk. Add just enough wine to bring the dough together. I usually find I use most of the wine. Gather the dough together and place in fridge for at least 30 minutes, and up to a few days ahead (the longest I’ve left the dough in the fridge is 3 days). You can knead the dough for a minute before placing in the fridge, but I find not kneading the dough at this stage reduces the likelihood of over-working the dough when I come to roll it out.
5. To assemble the tart: Preheat the oven to 350F / 175C. Butter a rectangular loose based tart pan. Either roll out the pasta frolla and press into the tart pan, or take chunks of the pasta frolla and press into the pan. Chill for about 30 minutes for the pastry to firm up. I pressed the dough directly into the pan as it saved rolling and was a little easier on a weeknight. It was less perfect but still looked fine.
6. Spoon the Buccellato filling into the tart pan, smooth the top of the filling as well as you can, using a fork or the back of a spoon.
7. With the remaining pastry, cut out rounds of pastry, or make random shapes of pastry. Add to the top of the filling, press down slightly. Whisk the leftover egg white slightly and glaze the pastry.
8. Bake for approximately 25 minutes, but start checking after 15 minutes. Serve warm or cold.