Let’s be honest: lard isn’t a popular ingredient. It’s not fashionable, even in this era of nose-to-tail eating. Even when the media, from Britain’s Daily Bile Mail to the US Huffington Post, is running articles on lard’s virtues. It’s still got an image problem.
And yet, it’s a fat we cooked with for centuries, especially here in northern Europe, where we can’t grow olive groves and peasants may have had a pig but were less likely to have had dairy. Look at any collection of older – say pre-WW2 – British recipes and lard is ubiquitous. Not just as a fat for frying, but also as the main fat for making pastries and baked goods. The only legacy of this tradition most Brits are aware of these days is lardy cake. I talked about this subject back in April 2014, when making lardy johns, an ostensibly old Sussex recipe that’s a cousin to the scone.
Back then, I couldn’t get my hands on any decent lard. As Marwood Yeatman says in The Last Food of England, “A modern porker has little fat and therefore little lard, so most of it is imported”. The only stuff I could get hold of was from Ireland. Last week on a Sunday market here in Lewes, I was pleased to see Beal’s Farm, our favourite supplier of locally produced charcuterie and salumi, whose pancetta was a joyful discovery when we moved home from Rome, has started selling their own lard. Indeed, I wasn’t just pleased, I was excited! Quality lard! I’d been making a lot of game pies with a hot water crust, and this pastry is best made with lard.
Yes, even in the Mediterranean diet
It’s not just northern European foods that are traditionally made with lard though. The past month or so I’ve been researching and developing products for my Italian-oriented biscuit stall. I wanted to focus on Christmas and festive products last week, and one product I made was papassini.
Also called pabassini, pabassinas, pabassinos and papassinos in various Sardinian dialects, these are biscuits made for not just Christmas but also Ognissanti (All Saints, 1 November) and that other principal Christian festival, Easter. Pretty much all the Italian (nay Sardinian) recipes I read used strutto – lard. Only a few used butter.
I made my first batch with Beal’s lard, and they were great. The mix is pretty much a pastry, enriched with fat, sugar, spices and some fruit – sultanas or raisins. The name papassino, according to Italian Wikipedia, comes from papassa or pabassa, Sardinian for uva sultanina, a type of grape, that is dried to become sultanas1 . The lard gave them a nice fairly delicate crumb. I also made them using Trex, hardened vegetable oil. Where vegetable means palm.
This is the sort of ethical conundrum we face in modern life – eat a meat byproduct from local, well-husbanded pigs or eat a veggie alternative made from an ingredient that’s most likely grown in a corporate plantation that required the destruction of rainforest. The results weren’t as good either.
So I experimented with butter versions too, notably for the market, where I didn’t want to have to worry about repeatedly explaining why certain products weren’t vegetarian. Which seems faintly daft, but we live in complex times for food. In many ways, industrialisation and intensification have thoroughly messed up our relationship with food, resulting in innumerable dietary inclinations, phobias, rampant orthorexia nervosa, intolerances, allergies and imagined allergies. A whole slew of first world worries.
Anyway, butter was pretty good too. I mean, I love butter. I would say the result was similarly crumbly, slightly sweeter. But then all the biscuits were sweet once I’d iced them. I just iced them with a basic water or glacé icing – that is, icing sugar2 and water, or lemon juice. More “authentic” recipes would be topped with an Italian meringue glaze, but that wasn’t entirely practical for me.
Another note on “authenticity” – the grapiness of these biscuits would also have been enhanced with sapa/saba. This is a kind of grape syrup, also known as vino cotto (“cooked wine”) and mosto cotto (“cooked grape must“). It’s an ingredient that has been made for millennia. Imagine a grape cordial, or a kind of sweet cousin to balsamic vinegar. You can produce a semblance by simmering grape juice to thicken it, but frankly almost none of the papassini recipes I researched used it so I didn’t bother.
So yes, these are in no way authentic, but I’m not Sardinian. That said, as with any Italian recipe, every family or baker or pasticcere would have differences of opinion and ingredients, so I would like to think mine are just another variation on a theme. Ideally made with quality Sussex lard.
250g plain flour
6g baking powder
80g ground almonds
100g caster sugar
120g lard or butter
50g walnuts, chopped fairly finely
80g sultanas or raisins
Zest of half a lemon
Zest of half an orange
2 eggs, lightly beaten, QB3 (about 120g)
4g fennel seeds
Icing sugar, sieved
Water or lemon juice
1. Soak the sultanas or raisins in hot water for about 10 minutes then drain and squeeze out any excess water.
2. Sieve together the flour and BP.
3. Dice the fat and rub it into the flour, or blitz in a food processor, until the mixture is crumb-like.
4. Add the ground almonds, sugar, walnuts, sultanas and zest.
5. Add the egg and bring the mixture a dough. If it’s too dry, add a little more egg or some milk.
6. Form into a disc or slab then wrap in plastic and leave to rest for at least half an hour.
7. Preheat the oven to 180C.
8. Roll out the dough to about 10mm thick.
9. Cut diamond shapes.
10. Reform the offcuts and keep cutting more diamonds.
11. Bake for about 10-12 minutes.
12. Cool on a rack, then ice. If you’re doing the easy option like me, just sieve icing sugar and add a little water or icing sugar to form a smooth mixture, not too runny. Dip each biscuit in the icing, then sprinkle with hundreds and thousands.
1. I think; I never really got my head around English-Italian translations for sultana, raisin, etc. I believe a raisin is uva passa – literally “past” or “spent” grape. I’m more confused by uva sultanina, which may be both the grape and the sultana. I’m not sure, and I can’t go to an Italian dry goods store or supermarket or market to check very easily from here in Lewes. Hope to get back to Roma after Christmas, so I’ll have to try and remember to see if I can work it out then. Heck, all this confuses me, even in English. Until embarrassingly recently, I though currants were dried black- or red-currants, when they’re actually also dried grapes too. I suspect the Italian words are often fairly generic – so uvetta (literally “little grape”) can be used for currant or raisin, or people use different words in different regions.
2. Powdered sugar, confectioner’s sugar, zucchero a velo.
3. Quanto basta, “how much is enough”. Ie you may not need all of it, just enough to achieve the desired consistency.
8 responses to “Papassini biscuits – and lard”
Good piece. It’s easy to render your own lard… http://siberiafood.com/2015/03/18/lard-boy/
Yes. Though then I’d have to source the pig fat and do the extra work. Plus, well, a lard-rendering incident resulting in my setting fire to my friend Nadia’s house in NZ in 1994, so I’m a bit wary! (Really not entirely my fault!)
Any half-decent butcher will be happy if a customer wants the fat. Hope Nadia’s house, and, of course, Nadia, are ok.
Luckily the sink was full of dirty dishwater, so I used that to put the fire out. And the fire brigade happened to be passing as a storm has washed out the road, so they came and checked it out. A few scars from splashed boiling fat, but otherwise, all good.
Sardinia is a region I don’t know at all. Lovely to learn about a new recipe from this region from you.
You make a good point too about how much lard and animal fats were and still are actually used in many parts of Italy for cooking and baking. My nonno, who was from a village in a mountainous part of Calabria (La Sila), grew up using lard in his cooking as his village was too high up for the cultivation of olive trees. “Mediterranean diet” me thinks not!
Could you please give us some more recipes and photos from your Italian Christmas bakery stall?
Quite a lot of the recipes I’m using are already on here, or versions of similar things, as I’m always tweaking. Didn’t really get any good pics. Maybe next year!