As it turns out, pastry making is quite a bit more difficult than baking the muffins, cakes and quick breads I have begun to master lately. Patience is required. I tend to get ahead of myself and spaz around in the kitchen, which is not conducive to perfect pastry. But I enjoyed the effort. It was a morning of trial and error in the From Away kitchen and I thought I would share the highs and lows of dough as I learned for myself today.
When I was a junior in college I worked in an Italian bakery and cafe. I tossed together wiggly squid and octopus salad at nine am on post partying Saturday mornings. I filled cannoli shells with sweet cheese and only broke a few dozen a day, and endured every cliched demonstration of machismo from whistles to cheek pinching and butt swatting all to earn roughly $7 dollars an hour. In their tiny Orange Street kitchen I observed the basics of pizza, pasta and pastry. And though I still can’t pronounce the name of this shell-shaped cream-filled concoction, I remember how pleasing they were to package into little white boxes tied up with string. Today I tried my hand at the tricky sfogliatelle.
And I’m not sure I’d do it again. This is labor intensive. And hard! There will be moments of doubt, confusion, and panic. There will also be shortening. I did find a recipe or two that used butter, but of all the many that I referred to, 90% employed the white greasy stuff over dairy. So I conceded. Many recipes were consulted for ingredients, technique, and alternate methods. I largely disregarded Epicurious and Mario Batali on the basis of way too crazy overcomplication and poor reviews. This is how I did it:
For the filling:
- 1 cup milk
- 1/4 cup semolina flour
- 1 cup ricotta cheese
- 1 egg, beaten
- 1/4 cup sugar
- 1 tablespoon grated orange zest
- 1/4 teaspoon cinnamon
- 1/4 teaspoon vanilla extract
For the dough:
- 3 cups AP flour
- 1/2 teaspoon salt
- 3/4 cup shortening
- 1/2 cup water
- 1/2 cup melted shortening
For the filling:
Add semolina to boiling milk, slowly and stirring. Simmer for three or four minutes before transferring to a bowl. When mixture is cool, incorporate the ricotta, which has (ideally) been pressed through a sieve, along with the other ingredients. Blend well and set aside.
For the dough:
Combine sifted flour and salt, then cut in solid shortening until a mealy consistency is achieved. Add water and knead to combine, working for a few minutes. Form into a ball and chill in the refrigerator for thirty minutes. Using half of the dough, roll as thinly as humanly possible, on a worksurface lightly dusted with flour, into a sheet approximately 16 x 23 inches. (I was able to see the counter through the dough at this point.) I then halved this, because it seemed easier to confront. I began brushing on the melted shortening onto the dough, in three parts, and rolling it up like a jelly roll. Cut into one inch pieces. In the palm of your hand, plant the rolled dough and begin shaping with your thumb, sort of like a pinch pot or collapsable travel cup, gently pulling up the dough.This will make more sense as you do it. The open end should be twice as large as the bottom, like a cone. On a parchment lined baking sheet, fill the pastry and pinch to close, so they resemble seashells. Brush with melted shortening and bake at 425 for fifteen minutes.
The big question is, how do they taste? And the answer is: they taste okay. The pastry is a teensy bit dry, flaky but somewhat crumblesome (it’s a word). The filling is tasty, creamy, playful. The overall effect is less than spectacular though. Maybe a combination of butter and Crisco, as in the pie crust that turned out so lovely, would improve the texture? I flubbed the filling by not reading the recipe all the way though, combining everything in a bowl like a ham-handed Morlock rather than following the simple steps. My solution? I popped it all in the microwave to thicken and it worked, much to my surprise and delight! But obviously had I taken my time…I do think the cream was sufficiently salvaged. It has great flavor and consistency. I would recreate that portion of the dessert. Maybe.
The pastry is the glaring failure here. Maybe it’s overworked? Not rolled thin enough? Cooked too long because every time I peeked they didn’t seem truly golden? Should I have brushed with egg white and sprinkled with granulated sugar before baking? I’m afraid I’m left wondering, with more uncertainties than conclusions. I would love to hear from you, if you have any experience with this style of rather more sophisticated baking than I am used to. I would love to know how to improve.
If you’re wondering what the point is of this exercise, so am I. I wanted to challenge myself. Do something that I wasn’t sure of. I had an inkling that the process would be more satisfying than the result, and I was right! And I think there’s a lesson here. And I think we all know what that is. As much as we like being able to recreate our favorite things from other places, this one is not yet a success. The next time we want Italian pastries, I think we’ll drive the four hours south to Libby’s on Wooster Street.