It’s probably fair to say that Italian cuisine isn’t most famous for its desserts and puddings. Sure, tiramisu has an internation reputation, but generally the desserts aren’t really up there with Italy’s other great, world-dominating culinary exports (you know, pizza, pasta, that kind of thing).
Italian pastries, biscuits and cakes are great, but they’re not typically desserts. Pastries like cornetti (the sweet Italian equivalent of a croissant) and maritozzi con la panna (sweet cream buns) are typically eaten for breakfast. Cakes and enriched breads are often used to celebrate feast days (like panettone at Christmas, colomba or pizza cresciuta at Easter). And biscuits, such as the famed hard biscotti di Prato / cantuccini (and similar) and ciambelline al vino, are generally eaten with a glass of strong digestivo liquor after dinner.
The Roman pasticcerie we frequented would sell small pastries and cakes – described with the French name mignon (dainty). These could be bought by weight on trays, neatly wrapped and used as gifts when visiting friends or family. I never quite got my head around what time of day they’d be consumed, but the one time we did an English afternoon tea party for friends in Rome, many of the Italians were very confused to be faced by sweet baked goods, dolci, mid-afternoon.
Having said all that, one Italian dessert, very much offered by restaurants in Rome after you’d eaten your primo and/or secondo piatto (pasta and meat/fish courses), was sbriciolata di millefoglie. I have very affectionate memories of eating it at Trattoria da Bucatino in Testaccio.
The name sbriciolata di millefoglie means something like “crumbled up mille-feuille” – that is, a kind of rough, deconstructed take on the Italian version (millefoglie) or the French mille-feuille, that pastry whose name means “thousand leaves” in both languages and refers to the layering of puff pastry with a filling of cream or custard, specifically thick pastry custard, crema pasticcera in Italian, or crème pâtissière1 in French. (Note, in Italian, custard is just called crema, while cream is panna.) So a sbriciolata di millefoglie could simply be described as a bowl of custard with broken puff pastry on top.
And yet it’s so good. I made a weird onme a while back after I’d made frappe. Italians would say non si fa (it’s just not done), but I had some broken frappe, and fancied some custard, and the result was good. I then thought I should try it again with a proper, non-deep-fried pastry, puff, or at least a rough puff, pastry.
So I did. Then Fran’s camera broke and I didn’t get any photos of the finished desert. Plus, well, we had lots of guests over the bank holiday weekend so scrabbling around with cameras and crude attempts at food styling might have been a bit antisocial and broken the flow of the very important business of eating. (And boy did we eat a lot.)
For the custard just find yourself a recipe for crème pâtissière or similar thick custard. Dan Lepard has a good one called Extra thick vanilla cream custard in ‘Short and Sweet’, or you could use something like this. (I may revisit this at some point and find a more specifically Italian custard recipe.)
For the pastry, I used a lovely Italian pasta sfoglia2 veloce – quick rough puff pastry – made with butter and ricotta.
250g plain (all-purpose) flour
125g butter, coarsely grated
1/2 t salt
1. In a bowl, mash together the ricotta and grated butter with a fork. You could also do this with a zizzer – aka hand blende. But don’t overdo it, as you don’t want to heat up the mixture too much.
2. Add the flour and salt and keep mashing together, hen bring together a dough with your hands.
3. Wrap the dough in plastic and leave to rest for a few hours, or even overnight.
4. Roll out the dough to form a rectangle about 20 by 35cm (or 8 by 14 inches for you 19th century types) and give it a letter fold, that is folding up one third, then folding the other third down over the top.
5. Roll out and repeat the folding process. Repeat this once more. Try to strech the corners a bit to neaten up the rectangles if you like, but it’s not essential – this is rough form of pastry lamination after all.
7. Roll out the dough to few milimetres thick and cut into required shapes. I just wanted crumbled scraps for my sbriciolata so didn’t do them very reguarly, but if you were doing, say, Italian-style millefoglie, cut them into regular rectangles about 4 by 10cm.
To assemble a sbriciolata di millefoglie, fill individual bowls with the thick custard, or do one large family bowl. Break up your pieces of pastry roughly, and sprinkle the pieces onto the custard. Before serving, dust with icing (powdered) sugar.
1 Can I just say, it’s pronounced “crem pa-teess-i-air” ([patisjɛːʁ]), not “crem pa-teess-er-ree” ([pɑtisʁi]) as so many people seem to say on Great British Bake Off etc. A “pa-teess-er-ree” is a pâtisserie, the shop where you buy the sweet pastries and cakes that may or may not be made with crème pâtissière.
2 So while millefoglia means “thousand leaves”, with foglia the Italian for leaf (feuille in French), sfoglia is the Italian for a leaf or layer of filo or puff pastry. Foglio, meanwhile, means sheet or leaf of paper, or indeed the English folio. It all relates to or is derived from from the Latin folium (plural folia), leaf.