A Taste of Home Sweet Home
This post is dedicated to my Nonno Antonio Di Leo, who recently celebrated his 90th birthday.
Back in 2013, when I was researching for my thesis, I came across a profound quote, that “what we eat and like in our childhood, is what we remember with delight in our old age”. This quote really struck a chord with me, as I looked at my Nonni, who were in their 80’s and wondered about the treats and dishes they enjoyed in their childhood, and whether they were ever able to recreate them for themselves. It’s easy to follow a recipe, but were they ever able to make their childhood favourites as good as their “Mamma used to make”? I thought about my own life and journey, and how the taste, texture, and smell of a biscuit or plate of pasta, can reawaken so many memories and evoke so many feelings.
My Nonni were both born in Tortorici, a little town in the province of Messina, Sicily. Tortirici’s biggest claim to fame is that they are known as the town of bells (I believe there is a bell from Tortorici in the Vatican) and their abundance of hazelnut trees. Hazelnuts are also the main ingredient in their staple sweet, Pasta Reale di Tortorici. Unlike most Italian biscotti, Pasta Reale is not a delicate looking biscotto. Then again few of the wonderful things that come from Sicily are delicate. In a way, they resemble a flowing volcano with their bubbly shape, perhaps a bite-sized version of Sicily’s own Mount Etna.
While they might not appeal to the eye, they are absolutely delicious. Every trip to Sicily was not complete until we got our Pasta Reale fix, and we would always purchase a tray to take home as well. Relatives visiting from Italy would always bring some over and my Zio Carlo in Sicily would ensure every major milestone in mine and my brother’s lives included a tray of Pasta Reale. It’s just one of those treats, where the smell and taste instantly reminds me of my home away from home. Despite its popularity in my family, it was never a sweet we made, until now.
I actually stumbled upon a recipe for Pasta Reale earlier this year in New York City of all places. I was at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, browsing through the cookbook section (obviously) when I found a Sicilian recipe book. Tortorici is not very well known, so I was surprised to see that the recipe for these practically unheard of biscuits was finally in my grasp, and I had to go all the way to New York City to find it.
As my Nonno’s 90th approached, I thought what better gift is there to give than to recreate a classic biscotto from his childhood. Nothing was more rewarding than presenting Nonno with a tray of his childhood favourites in front of 80 of his closest family and friends on his 90th birthday. And judging by the smile on Nonno, Nonna, and their friend’s faces, I can confidently say I helped recreate the taste and memories of their childhood and their home away from home.
The Recipe for Pasta Reale is quite simple, but keep in mind they need at least 12 hours standing time, so make them well in advance. They will keep for a few weeks in an airtight container.
1 Kg (9 cups) of shelled hazelnuts
1.2 kg (6 cups) of caster sugar
Plain all purpose flour for dusting
Butter, for greasing
Icing sugar, for dusting
Preheat the oven to 180°. Spread the hazelnuts on a baking sheet and toast in the oven for 15-20 minutes. Remove them from the oven and place them onto a clean dish towel. Rub them with the towel to remove the skins, and roughly chop them or slightly blitz them in a food processor.
Place the chopped hazelnuts in a bowl and add the sugar. Add a little bit of water to moisten the mixture and make it easier to mix, but not too much.
Shape the mixture into golf-ball-size balls. Lightly dust one hand with flour, take the hazelnut ball and pinch it with the thumb, middle and index fingers of the other hand. Place the balls on a lightly floured dishtowel and let them rest for 12 hours.
Preheat the oven to 160°. Grease an ovenproof dish with butter and place the hazelnut balls in the dish in a single layer. Bake for roughly 20 minutes, until the biscuits, are browned and puffy in the centres. Leave quite a bit of space between the biscuits as the sugar will ooze out and the biscuit will expand. Don’t panic if they no longer are in their ball-shaped form, as they are not meant to be a perfect shaped biscuit, but rather a large biscuit that is traditionally broken into pieces and shared. Remove from the oven; let cool and then dust with icing sugar.