Tag Archives: easter

Maltese Easter figolli

Small figolli

I was introduced to figolli by friends down the road, Anoushka and Francis and their boys Alexander and Casper. Anoushka is half-Maltese, and they make these every Easter. They called them biscuits, but they’re more a pastry, almost an iced pie, consisting of two layers of pastry sandwiched with an almond paste, then iced and decorated.

Figolla cut in half

When I’m studying Italian recipes, there’s so much information online, and I can read some Italian, so I can usually work out the story. But Malta has a population of less than half a million, so its culture isn’t the most widely discussed thing online. And even my fairly reasonable collection of books about feast day foods doesn’t include any mentions of figolli. Which I deduce is the plural, with figolla the singular.

Some history
Francis told me that Malta has a complex history not unlike that of Sicily. It was Greek and Roman, with the Carthaginians and Phoenicians also having an influence. Like Sicily, it was subsequently Arab, then conquered by the Normans in 1091. The Norman reach in the 11th century always amazes me. Aragon and France followed. The Brits had a big influence during their imperial period, with the island famously a fortress port that suffered heavy bombing in the Second World War.

Anyway, so the language is complex and the culture is mixed. The presence of ground almonds and citrus flavourings in figolli would seem to indicate the Arab legacy, as similar ingredients are found in other recipes from Sicily and across the Eastern Mediterranean.

Francis gave me the recipe they use in their household, which I subsequently found online. It’s here. Its instructions aren’t the clearest, and its almond paste is fairly heavy duty. Watching videos of Maltese and Maltese emigrant cooks online, their paste is much lighter, more like frangipane than marzipan. So I’ve made some tweaks.

Not napping
This project has been a bit rushed. I was hoping to have it up sooner, but as you can see from the inactivity on my blog, I’m finding it hard to update it. Keeping the blog going with two pre-schoolers was always a challenge, but now they’re not really napping any more, I simply don’t have much time – or headspace. Researching, testing, photographing, sorting photos and writing up recipes is fairly demanding, and when I have a two year old and four year old also (yelling) their demands at me (bless ’em), it’s tricky. It’s especially tricky to be really satisfied with the results. So I’m not claiming this is a perfect recipe.

The Raver, aged 2, doing the decorating

As for the decoration of the figolli – that’s not exactly authentic or traditional. Fran and the kids took over for that bit. The kids do love sprinkles, and the opportunity to readily lick icing.

Figolli templates

The Maltese versions were traditionally shaped like men, women, fish and baskets. They would use large cutters. We don’t have any enormous cookie cutters, despite Fran’s somewhat obsessive collecting, so I drew shapes and made templates in cardboard. I went for a bunny, a heart and a fish. Other shapes are sheep, butterflies, and eggs – most of which are of course some kind of fertility symbol.

The quantities here are fairly substantial. We made three large ones and a dozen smaller ones. If you don’t want to get so carried away, halve it.

For the pastry
800g plain flour
400g butter
Zest of 1 lemon
320g caster sugar
4 egg yolks, beaten
Cold water

For the almond paste
300g caster sugar
300g icing sugar
600g ground almonds
Zest of 1 lemon
Juice of 1 lemon
3-4 egg whites, approx, lightly beaten
A few drops orange flower water (optional)
A few drops of almond essence (optional)
Orange juice or similar
Cold water

To finish
Confection eggs

1. Make the pastry by rubbing the butter into the flour until it resembles breadcrumbs, then stir in the sugar and lemon zest.
2. Add the egg yolks and enough cold water (but not too much) to form a dough. Knead briefly then wrap in plastic and rest in the fridge. You could use a food processor, but it would have to be a big one.
3. In a large bowl, make the almond paste by mixing the sugars, ground almonds and zest. Some recipes also include a little spice, such a cloves and cinnamon – so go for it if you like.
4. Lightly beat the egg whites, add the essences (if using) then start combining with the ground almond/sugar mix. I got in there with my hands. I added the lemon juice and even squeezed in some Clementine juice until it was reasonably soft, as noted above.
5. Cover the almond paste while prepare the shapes.

Cut out pastrySmear with paste
6. Roll out the pastry to about 6mm thick. Cut around your shapes, creating pairs – one for the bottom, one for the top.
7. Place the bottom pieces on baking sheets lined with parchment or silicon.
8. Cover the pastry shapes with a layer of the almond paste.
9. You can brush the edges of the lower piece of pastry with water, then put the top, and lightly press together. You don’t have to crimp firmly, as the filling isn’t that runny. Indeed, some of the pics online show the layers are barely pinched together at all. I tried both ways, and both were fine.
10. While you’re doing this, preheat your oven to 180C.
11. When you’ve filled all the shapes and topped them, put the baking sheets in the oven for around 20-25 minutes, until slightly browned.

Large heart figolla ready to bakeLarge heart etc baked

Small heart figolli ready to bakeSmall heart figolli baked
12. Allow the figolli to cool on the trays. I tried to move one too soon and it cracked badly.
13. When cool, transfer to a rack or tray for decorating.
14. You can decorate with elaborate royal icing piping and suchlike, but we just used a simple glacé icing – that is, icing sugar, water and colourings.* As well as eggs and sprinkles. It seems commonplace to include small chocolate eggs or half-eggs in their foil, but I couldn’t find any that suited, so we used candied mini eggs.

Misc figolli, decorated

Happy Easter!


* It amuses me that natural blue food colouring these days is made with spirulina. About 20 plus years ago, I remember spirulina, a green-blue algae, being the superfood du jour, but it’s decidedly out of fashion these days.


Filed under Baking, Biscuits, cookies, Feasts, Pies & tarts, Recipes

Pizza cresciuta di Pasqua… Sort of.

Pizza cresciuta di Pasqua, sliced

You could say pizza cresciuta is an Easter (Pasqua*) equivalent of the traditional north Italian Christmas cake panettone. Pizza cresciuta is one the many distinctive Italian baked products I saw during our two years in Rome. I mentioned it last year in a round-up of Easter baked goods and baking, saying that the verb crescere means “to rise”, as in the word crescendo. I also mentioned that the word pizza means a lot more than just a topped dough disc in Italy. So this is a “risen pizza” (it’s also called pizza ricresciuta – “re-risen pizza”). I believe a cresciuta is also term for what we’d call a sponge or pre-ferment – yeast, water and some of the recipe’s flour mixed ahead of time to get the leavening going nicely. It’s a term that’s also applied, in Naples I think, for a yeasted batter. Anyone with more knowledge about this, please do comment!

In shape the pizza cresciuta di Pasqua I saw in Rome was more like a tall round cake – that is, like panettone. Except when it’s savoury. Looking at recipes online, most of them are an enriched dough with some spices, but there are even recipes online in Italian for cheesy versions.

As the ones I’d seen in Rome were always sweet, I wanted to try that this Easter. Though I’ll say now that this is one of those experiments that didn’t really quite exactly work. Blogging it anyway, as a record. If I do try to perfect it, I don’t think it’ll be until next Easter.

A lot of the recipes I found used spices – notably anise seed and cinnamon. Most of them also used some liquor, notably spiced or herbal liquers like Alchermes (aka Alkermes) and Strega. One recipe I saw even contained 100ml each of rum, vermouth, alchermes, cognac, and cointreau! But I thought this much strong liquor was sure to bugger things up with the yeast (I note now that that recipe uses “lievito paneangeli” – I think this is a kind of vanilla flavoured baking powder).

I couldn’t hope to get Alchermes and Strega, but was able to source a bottle of the latter from TwentyOne Wines in Brighton (thanks Philip, who opened up for me during his Easter holiday last week). I was also finally able to track down some aniseed – something I’ve not been able to source in smalltown Lewes, and really want for several other Italian recipes, notably aniseed-flavoured ciambelline al vino (ring biscuits often eaten with a digestivo after dinner).

So here’s my recipe. Tweaked slightly from the weekend’s effort, but to really work I think it’ll need more tweaking. If you do have a try yourself, or have a better recipe, again, please let me know.

Some ingredients

50g Strega
2 t aniseed

Sponge / pre-ferment, or cresciuta
100g strong white flour
100g water
10g fresh yeast

250g strong white flour
300g plain, all-purpose or type ‘0’ flour
6g salt
Zest of one lemon
Zest of one orange
1 t cinnamon
1/2 t nutmeg
5 medium eggs
2 t vanilla
300g caster sugar (seems a lot but vabé)
50g lard
50g butter

Aniseed in Strega

1. Put the aniseed in the liqeur and leave to macerate for at least 4 hours, preferably overnight.
2. Make a sponge with the yeast, the water and 100g of the the strong white flour.

Lively sponge
3. Leave the sponge to ferment, covered, in a cool, draft-free place overnight.
4. Lightly beat together the eggs, vanilla, zests, sugar, booze and other spices.
6. Melt together the lard and butter then allow to cool.
7. Add the melted fat to the egg and liqeur mix.
5. Put the rest of the flour in a large bowl, along with the salt, then add the wet mixture.

Slightly strange sticky pizza cresciuta dough action shot
6. Make a dough – a nice soft, wet, tricky-to-handle dough.
8. Give the dough three short kneads every 10 minutes over half an hour or so, forming a ball, returning it to the bowl and covering between each knead. (This is the very handy Dan Lepard method.)
9. After the final knead, put the ball back in the bowl, cover again, then leave to prove until doubled in size.
10. Form a ball and allow to rest for 10 minutes.
11. Tighten up the ball, then put it in a tall, deep tin (it could be an old food tin, which is what I did when I made panettone, though note – not one with plastic lining), or in a paper panettone case. I used the latter, which are available from Bakery Bits.
12. Leave to prove up again. Ideally you want it to double in size and feel nicely inflated. Hm. See discussion below.
13. Preheat the oven to 220C (200C fan oven).
14. Brush the top of the dough beaten egg. I didn’t bother as, frankly, my dough didn’t look great.
15. Bake the pizza for about 20 minutes, then turn down the oven by 20C.
16. Test to see if it’s done with a knock on the bottom. Hm. See discussion below.
17. Allow to cool completely on a wire rack.

Pizza cresciuta di Pasqua. Sort of.

Eat for your Easter Sunday breakfast. In Rome, the pizza cresciuta is eaten for Easter Sunday breakfast with corallina salami. We had this one for breakfast, even though I was disappointed with the results. And couldn’t get corallina.

I knew it was going wrong when the dough seemed sluggish for the final prove. There was some (very irregular) oven spring, but I knew it was going even wronger when I first took it out of the oven – it just felt hefty, not light like a panettone. I had the oven set too low originally, and it baked too slowly, and ended up both dense and thick-crusted.

Easter Sunday breakfast - Pizza cresciuta di Pasqua

The taste was interesting though, thanks to the Strega, which features saffron, mint and fennel among its many ingredients, and the aniseed. Though I do wonder about the Strega. Certainly yeast produces alcohol alongside CO2 when it’s active in the dough, but not too much alcohol, or the presence of strong alcohol retards the action. Scratching my head about this today, I found one comment at Delia Online (here) that says “Baker’s yeast is tolerant to alcohol to about 3%. That’s 3% C2H5OH [ethanol] by mass. Brandy is about 40% C2H5OH.” I’m not sure my 50g Strega could really retard the yeast quite so much, but clearly something was awry. My proving times were quite possibly problematic too. And  I suspect all that sugar might have been a factor in affecting the activity of the yeast too.

Anyway, next time I try it, I might adapt my attempt at panettone a few years ago, which was much more successful, and go easier on the strong liquor too. Fun experiment anyway even if the result is slighty heavy duty. We had a load more for Easter Monday breakfast earlier, and it was pretty good toasted.




* While the English word for Easter comes from the name of a pagan goddesses – the Anglo-Saxon Ēostre – the Italian word relates to the word Passover, which comes from Pesach and the Hebrew pesah and pasah.






Filed under Baking, Other food, Pizza, Recipes, Rome

Hot cross buns, Easter 2014

Hot cross buns 2014

It’s Good Friday, and there’s a very interesting story in our local paper today. I’ve eaten hot cross buns on and off all my life but learned a few new facts from Kevin Gordon’s piece in the Sussex Express. These sweet, fruity buns, with their cross-shape commemorating the crucifixion of Jesus were traditionally baked “in preparation for the end of Lent on Easter Saturday.” Okay, that I knew, despite how much crass British supermarkets might start promoting them pretty much straight after Christmas these days.

Gordon continues though: “It was often a tradition that one bun would be saved until the following Easter for good luck. A hot cross bun hung up in your home would protect if from fire until the following year. It was thought that hot cross buns baked on Good Friday would never go mouldy.”

Note – this is quite a sticky dough, something that can intimidate less experienced bakers. I recommend you read my tips for handling sticky doughs here.

Makes 16

140g strong white flour
18g fresh yeast (so about 9g ADY, 6g easy-blend yeast)
150g water

320g strong white flour
6g salt
55g light soft brown sugar or light muscovado
55g butter, melted
1 egg, beaten [approx 58g beaten egg]
125g milk
3 t mixed spices – cinnamon, nutmeg, mace, allspice, ginger. Whatever you like
85g peel
85g currants, sultanas or raisins

For the crosses:
60g plain flour
40g water
10g veg oil
Pinch of baking powder

1. Combine the 140g flour, yeast and 150g of water to make a starter, sponge or pre-ferment. Leave to ferment overnight in a cool place or the fridge (but take it out in plenty of time the next morning). Alternatively, leave it in a warm place for a few hours.
2. When the sponge is nice and bubbly, get started on the rest. Mix flour together the flour and salt.
3. Melt the butter.
4. Warm the milk to about body temperature. You can infuse it with Earl Grey tea if you like. If you’re using tea bags, don’t forget to remove them!
5. Add the sponge to the flour and salt.
4. Mix together the melted butter, milk, sugar, beaten egg and spices then add this to the flour too.
5. Bring the mixture to a dough. Turn out the dough and knead for a few minutes. Once you’ve formed a ball, put it back in the bowl, cover and leave to rest for 10 minutes.
6. Stretch out the ball, add the fruit, then fold over the dough, and knead it again to mix in. Form another ball, then cover and leave to rest for another 10 minutes.
7. Give the dough another brief knead. Rest for another 10 minutes then do a final knead.
8. Put in a clean bowl, covered, and leave to prove until doubled in size – perhaps two-three hours, depending on your room temperature.
9. When it’s proved, weigh it. It should be about 1100g. If it’s not, either I’ve cocked up or you have.
10. Divide the dough into 16 equal pieces, weighing about 70g each. Or go larger, 13 at about 85g (a baker’s dozen).
11. Form the pieces into neat, tight balls.
12. Place the balls on baking sheets lined with parchment then cover and leave for a final prove. Again, this will maybe take two hours, depending on ambient temperature.
13. Preheat the oven to 200C.

Piping crosses

14. Mix the cross batter; you want a fairly thick gunk. When the buns are proved, pipe crosses onto them. Mine were a bit messy this time… Hey, it’s artisan, rustic…
15. Bake for 12-15 minutes, or until nicely browned – this will depend on your oven.
16. Optional: while still warm, glaze with stock syrup – made from half/half water and caster sugar, about 50g each, heated to dissolve.

Enjoy for a Good Friday afternoon tea, or similar. The in-laws have arrived and we scoffed several for afternoon tea. Not sure if any will survive long enough to test the theory about them never going mouldy.

Bakers’ percentages

Note – the total flour is 460g, 140 in the sponge, 320 more in the dough, that is 30% and 70%.

Ingredient Percentage Quantity (g)
Flour (sponge) 30% 140
Flour (dough) 70% 320
Water 33% 150
Milk 27% 125
Egg 13% 58
Yeast (fresh) 4% 18
Salt 1.5% 6
Sugar 12% 55
Spice 2.5% 12
Butter 12% 55
Peel 18.5% 85
Currants 18.5% 85
TOTAL 242 1109


Filed under Baking, Cakes (yeasted), Recipes

Easter in Rome – colomba, casatiello, seasonal pizzas and the like

If you like baked goodies (and considering you’re visiting a blog named Bread, Cakes and Ale, I have to conclude that you do), Easter is a great time to be living in Rome. Sure, the Spring might be making half-hearted attempts to arrive, and sure the mild + damp has resulted in my first 5am mosquito strafing (damn them), and sure the city council might have decided to move my favourite farmers market out of walking distance (from Testaccio’s Ex-Mattatoio to Garbatella – *weep*. End of an era) BUT the bakeries the past week of so have been full of seasonal specialities. Which compensates nicely.

This is my, um, second Easter in Rome, and I vowed I’d try and make X or Y after seeing, buying, consuming and enjoying them last year. But you know what, I can’t get that really nice light airy crumb on an enriched dough in my domestic oven, and I’m working long hours, so I thought stuff it, I’ll just buy an X. In this case the X refers to colomba.

Colomba di Pasqua

Colomba means dove in Italian, so this is an Easter dove cake. No doves are used in the bake though. Instead, Colomba is basically the same kind of enriched dough as used in a Panettone, just baked in a different form. Indeed, it’s shaped like an X, appropriately enough for Easter and considering my phrasing above. Though the X isn’t supposed to represent a cross, it’s supposed to represent the shape of a bird, in flight. You know, wings outstretched on either side, head, tail. Ta da.

We bought ours from Pasticceria Nonna Nani, Via Giacinto Carini 35, Monteverde Vecchio. It was made with a natural leaven though it had no trace of a sour sourdough flavour, presumably thanks to the generous presence of sugar, eggs and candied peel. Very nice.


While buying the Colomba I also spied Nonna Nani’s Casatiello. I’ve seen these a lot in Roman bakeries the past two Easters, though apparently they’re not Roman traditionally, they’re Neopolitan. Indeed, a Neopolitan lady who was giving me Italian classes last year gave me some.

This bread is most notable for the presence of eggs placed in the dough before baking, whole, intact and intero, including the shell. The dough is made with lard, and also contains cheese(s) and cured meats. This recipe on the Giallo Zafferano site includes pancetta and salami, but the Italian Wikipedia entry says it should contain cicoli. Otherwise known as ciccioli. In the ‘Pig’s Fat’ entry of Gillian Riley’s Oxford Companion to Italian Food, she says “Strutto is the name of lard: fat from all parts of the carcass, internal and external, rendered down – the delicious crispy bits left over are called ciccioli.”

So now you know.

Now, I’m not much of a meat fiend, so I’ve never really been that drawn to Casatiello, though my wife Fran is a meataholic, and was keen to bake something meatily traditional this Easter. It’s the end of Lent, so a blow-out is kinda traditional I suppose. As I was researching Italian Easter baked goods, sweet and savoury, I came across pizza gaina/pizzagaina, also known as pizza chiena.

Pizza gaina, aka pizza chiena

This seems to be a type of pizza rustica or pizza ripiena that’s made for Easter. Before you say, “eh, pizza?”, note that the word doesn’t just refer to flat bread discs with stuff smeared on top here in Italy. Pizza rustica, for example, is a generic term for things that are basically rustic pies – though rather than being made with a pastry crust, they’re made with a yeasted pizza dough crust. Pizza ripiena, meanwhile, literally just means stuffed or filled pizza. No one really seems to be that in agreement about the origins of the word pizza, so I’m not going to go on an etymology ramble. If you read Riley, or John Dickie’s Delizia!, the term seems to have had many and varied uses.

Oddly, I can’t really get a handle on where pizza gaina/chiena is from. I’ve not actually seen it in bakeries here in Rome and most of the recipes online seem to be American, or Italian-American, rather than Italian. And even Britain’s own Nigella Lawson has a version, though she makes no mention of Easter, and simply calls it Pizza rustica. Indeed, it’s quite a natural fit with British food, as it’s really not unlike a ham and egg pie.

The version Fran did was basically just an excuse for a meat (and cheese) fest. She made a basic white dough and used it to line a springform cake tin. She then filled the case with various strata of cheese and meat. Vegetarians – look away! Vegans – look away and weep!

In this pic (above) you can see the freshly baked pizza gaina, still cooling in its springform tin. Alongside is a wholemeal farro loaf.

Pizza ricresciuta (or cresciuta) di Pasqua

Another type of Easer pizza I have seen in Rome is the pizza ricresciuta. This is even more unlike your familiar disc-shaped pizzas because it’s tall, round loaf or cake eaten for Easter breakfast. Indeed, it seems to come in sweet and savoury versions, though I’ve mostly seen cheesey ones in the windows of Roman bakeries. Crescere, btw, means to grow, to grow up, to increase, so I guess you could imagine it as a pizza dough that’s been left to expand, to shake off the shackles of disc-like flatness.

And finally

Look, I know the Simnel Cake is the traditional British Easter cake, but I really don’t much like dense fruit cakes, okay? In our family, we’ve always just made a lemon sponge decorated with lemon butter icing and Mini Eggs. So that’s just what I did. Annoyingly, I didn’t really get to thinking about it until Easter Sunday then made it Easter Monday. What I really thought would be a nice Italian twist would be to put a layer of mascarpone in the middle, along with a layer of lemon curd (maybe that bit’s not quite so Italian), then maybe just a sprinkle of icing sugar on top. None of that happened though. I noobed my lemon curd, and we couldn’t get any Mini Eggs, so instead went with those sugar-coated chocolate eggs that resemble real eggs. And are really hard on the teeth.

Then I forgot to take a proper photo, which is a shame as it was cute. All I’ve got is this crop, with the cake nestled among many wine bottles. We were  doing a sensible, sophisticated wine tasting, honest.

Wine and Easter cake

Anyway, Happy Easter, belatedly.

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Filed under Breads, Cakes (yeasted)