Sicily is a land where lemons are yellower and the living is easy (and people are astonishingly fine cooks by birth), where if you love someone you have to set them free – but not before having thrown a massive celebratory banquet in their honor. There, every nibble feels like a warm hug, or more specifically, it feels as if the whole family were smothering you with love. We were lucky enough to have a taste of that love at the event we held in Palermo with our favored Sicilian companion Mario Dell’Oglio, generous and gracious host. Though we’re not totally sure we’ll have the nerves and enough years of experience in the kitchen to reenact them, these are the most loved Palermo recipes that will have your guests plead you to move to their place as cook in chief. Buon appetito!
Arancine are heart-warming fried rice balls stuffed with ragu that go back to when the Arabs made Palermo their official holiday home. All experienced ancient vacationers’ sacred rule before locking up the house was packing up food and fridges to bring with them – or even more likely, many loads of salt, which is what they used instead of Boffi appliances. There, they would have fancy ambrosial banquets where several plates with rice, saffron, veggies and spices of all kind, strategically positioned in the middle of the table, were the real stars. The dining companions would then take some rice, shape it into a ball and feed themselves directly from their hands. Later, in the 12th century, Friedrik II moved to Palermo and fit in so well that decided to stuck around. The king, also known as Gertrude Stein of Sicily, was so through the roof about the Arabs’ rice that he started requesting it as packed lunch for his hunting jaunts. The person who came up with the brilliant idea of oil frying the rice balls so they could be carried around easily deserves a Nobel award. Alongside several dramas in history, these lovely fried rice balls had survived the drastic plunge of hunting, and were crowned Palermo’s most popular street food. Now go make some yourself!
Heat 4-6 spoons of extra virgin olive oil in a heavy-bottomed pot and brown the celery, onion and carrot (previously diced) and sweat over medium heat until the vegetables are soft and crunchy. Add 600 g of minced beef and cook over high heat, stirring to keep the meat from sticking together. Add the wine and later a pinch of salt pepper. Then, tip in the tomato paste and bay leaves.
Cover with hot water, mix well, put a lid on and let it simmer for 1 hour roughly. Leave to rest.
Place some olive oil and a nod of butter in a pan, then stir in the rice and add salted warm water and a spoonful of tomato paste or saffron. Let it cook for about 18 minutes, continuing to add water if until all the liquid has been absorbed by the rice- Add some grated parmesan cheese. Transfer to a tray and set aside.
While the rice and ragu are resting, prepare a bowl with breadcrumbs. When the rice and filling have cooled, place a couple of tablespoons of rice in the palm of your hand and start shaping into small balls, forming a hole in the middle. Fill the hole with ragu and cheese cubes and close the ball. Bind the arancina by rolling it in the breadcrumbs, making sure that the ball is completely covered.
Fry the arancine in hot oil until they’re golden brown. Eat until you can no longer move.
Cannoli are to Palermo what the Liberty Statue is to New York. A world-famous city’s landmark and the first thing tourists encounter upon their arrival – in fact, every taxi driver in Palermo is said to carry some spare cannoli in their vehicle. Just ask! The story of this highly cherished dessert is a sweet mystery, but it’s the Arabs who once again we have to call on. Legend has it that the wives of the emir, ever bored out of their mind, started dabbling in cooking and devoting themselves to the preparation of extra dishes for their darling hubbies (that was, of course, way before Berkeley feminists had had a say). One of these was a tube-shaped shell of fried pastry dough filled with a sweet, creamy filling containing ricotta that goes by the name of cannolo. Not surprisingly at all, this staggering sweet is known worldwide in the plural form, as no human being is known capable of having one without craving another ten.
The day before making the cannoli, drain the ricotta cheese overnight (24 hours for best results) in a nut milk bag or cheesecloth suspended over a bowl.
Combine the flour, sugar, cinnamon, and salt together in a food processor. Add the butter and pulse until it resembles small pebbles. Add the egg and cold wine and pulse until the dough just barely begins to hold together. Transfer the dough to a floured surface and knead until smooth, 3-4 minutes.
Wrap in plastic wrap and refrigerate for at least 1 hour. Lightly coat the dough with flour and roll it through a pasta machine set to the thickest setting. If you don’t have a pasta machine, use a rolling pin to roll the dough out as thin as possible on a lightly floured surface, to 1/8-inch thick.
Use a 4-inch, round cookie cutter to cut circles from the dough. Take one circle at a time and pull it into a 5-inch oval. Repeat with the excess dough, kneading it back together and cutting it until you have 12 ovals.
Place the egg white in a small bowl and set aside. In a wide pot with a heavy bottom, heat vegetable oil of your choice to between 350 and 380 degrees F. Line a large plate with paper towels. Wrap one oval of dough loosely lengthwise around a cannoli form or 1-inch-diameter wooden dowel. Brush one end of the dough with egg white, then pull the dry end over the top and press down to seal. Repeat with three more dough ovals.
Using tongs, carefully lower the dough into the oil and fry until golden-brown, turning them as they fry, 2-3 minutes. Remove the shells with the tongs and transfer them to the paper towel-lined plate to cool.
When the shells are cool enough to touch, remove the molds and repeat with the remaining dough in batches until all shells have been fried.
Dip ends of cooled shells in melted chocolate if desired, and cool until dry. Fried shells can be stored in an airtight container for a few weeks.
Place the drained ricotta and powdered sugar in a large clean mixing bowl. Fold together gently with a rubber spatula until well combined. Add the zest and chips and fold until evenly distributed.
When ready to fill and serve the pastry, place the cream in a disposable pastry bag or zipper bag and cut a 1/2-inch diameter piece off the end/corner. Insert the tip into one end of a shell and pipe the cream in, filling it halfway, then pipe the rest in the other end. Repeat with the remaining shells. Dip the pastry shell in chocolate chips, crushed pistachios, and sliced almonds if desired, and dust the finished cannoli with powdered sugar before serving.
At this point, you can now understand how the Arabs need to be given credit for the most distinctively delicious culinary inventions. Here is another one. At the beginning, nobody would have bet on chickpea flour mixed with water and cooked on the stove, an unsavory go-to dish of the undemanding Arab soldiers (not a great attention is paid to lunchbreak on the battlefield, apparently), but that was the first stage of panelle. When, centuries later, our blessing in disguise was dipped in hot oil enthusiastically, the most wonderful chickpea fritters on all Earth were born. Panelle, eat them as you like them: au naturelle or between sliced of bread, like a sandwich.
To make the panelle batter, whisk together the chickpea flour and 1.2l of water in a bowl, making sure you remove all of the lumps (you could also use a hand blender).
Transfer to a saucepan, add salt and pepper and place over a medium heat, stirring continuously with a wooden spoon. When the water is all absorbed and the mixture becomes creamy, add the chopped parsley, stir well and turn off the heat.
Quickly spread the mixture onto flat baking trays with a wooden spoon. Make sure the sheet of chickpea batter is very thin (about 2mm or 3mm).
Allow the chickpea batter to cool and set completely, then cut each sheet with a knife into 6 slices. Place the panelle on a clean plate and keep them in the fridge until you are ready to fry them.
Cassata is a cake with a complicated past and overseas roots. Legend has it that one day a Sicilian fellow ran into an Arab guy and asked him what was the cheese dish he was preparing. Something got lost in translation and the shepherd’s answer was “quas’at” which in Arabic means “basin”. The Sicilian fellow came home that evening and created a new cake with candied fruit and ricotta cheese. Many centuries and incredible cooks later, what we get to indulge in when we are vacationing in Palermo and Sicilians feast on during the Easter period is a layered liquor-soaked sponge interspersed with sweetened ricotta, fruit preserves and jellies surrounded by marzipan and decorated with marzipan fruit and flowers. It is completely over the top and worth every single calorie.
Preheat the oven to 160 C. Grease and flour one 23 cm round spring form cake pan and line the base with baking parchment.
In a large bowl, beat the egg yolks with sugar, lemon zest and salt using an electric hand whisk until pale and fluffy. Add the boiling water. Gently add the sifted flour and starch. Whip the egg whites with the baking powder until stiff peaks form. Afterwards, fold them into the cake batter using a wooden spoon or a spatula.
Pour the mixture into the prepared cake tin. Level the top with the back of a spoon and bake in the center of the oven for 30-35 minutes. Allow the cake to stand in the tin for 5 minutes, then turn out onto a wire rack and leave to cool.
To make the filling sift the ricotta cheese. Stir in the sugar and vanilla essence (if the mixture is too hard to stir, you can add a little bit of milk). Add the candied orange peel chopped to tiny bits and the chocolate chips. Mix the ingredients until well combined. Melt the sugar in 300ml of hot water. Wait for it to cool down before adding the marsala. Set aside.
Take the same cake pan you have used to bake the cake and wrap the inside with a layer cling film. Cut the sponge cake vertically into slices one cm thick and carefully place them in the dish, covering the bottom as well as the sides. Spritz the sugar water over the sponge layer. Pour one third of the ricotta mixture over the sponge. Cover with another layer of cake slices. Spritz with the sugar water. Top up with the third and last layer of sponge cake. Place in the fridge for a few hours or overnight.
The next day, remove the cake from the fridge and carefully remove from the cake tin. Remove the cling film and place the cake on a cake stand.
Soften the marzipan with your hands then roll it to a 5mm layer using a rolling pin. Use the cake pan to cut out a round layer of marzipan and place it over the top of the cake. Cut out a long strip or small strips of marzipan to cover the sides.
To make the glaze, bring cold water and icing sugar to a boil. Turn the heat to low and stir constantly until the sugar is completely dissolved (3-5 minutes). The glaze should be thick but still runny. Immediately pour it over the cake and quickly spread it over the top and sides using a wet spatula.
Decorate the cassata with candied fruit of your choice.
– Andy Ferrario