Happy new-ish year! Hope you had some lovely, peaceful, restful, glass-clinking, food-filled holidays. Ours were unusual: we spent a big chunk of them at the beach eating avocado on toast in true Aussie spirit while humming Frank Sinatra’s Christmas songs. Surreal.
And now, without even noticing, the holiday season is almonds gone. It was all so understated this year, I barely realised that today is 6th January. In Italy, we celebrated Epifania, the day when the three kings show up on the nativity scene, and also, the day when the Befana – the old witch who used to bring gifts to Italian kids before the whole Santa thing came up – descends into people’s fireplaces to fill up stockings. In my sock, I would find the simplest things –mandarins or clementines, a few sweets, perhaps colour pencils. It wasn’t as big of a deal as Christmas, but we all liked to keep the tradition alive.
Folklorist rituals happen across Italy on this day, mostly linked to old traditions both Christian and pagan. Pits resembling effigies of the old witch are build in the various villages and then burnt down at dusk for good luck in sight of the year that has just started. People gather around the pit, sipping mulled wine or hot chocolate and eating traditional, regional sweets. In the village where I grew up, the whole burning thing (called brusavecia in dialect) was a social event to which everybody took part – baking something for the buffet, helping to make mulled wine, serving people or making sure that the pit stayed under control. It was fun and ultimately, it was one last occasion to celebrate before the holiday season was officially over.
Many traditional sweets accompany Epifania celebrations, either for filling stockings or just for closing yet another big meal. All across Veneto, many make a special kind of cake called pinza. The name is a generic term to describe a cake of humble origins, usually made with day-old bread or polenta loaded with fresh and dry fruits, spices and nuts. Depending on the area of Veneto and the time of the year, it could also contain pumpkin or sweet potato, or even chestnuts.
For Epifania, though, the classic pinza entails cornmeal (a true Venetian staple) cooked in milk, then sprinkled with fennel seeds (the key ingredient) and as many dry fruits and nuts as one can find – almonds, walnuts, pine nuts, hazelnuts, dry figs, citrus, raisins, and so on. It sounds fancy, it isn’t. In fact, it’s the best example of a poor man’s cake, apt at filling and satisfying with modest ingredients. The texture is soft and flan-like, played off nicely by the crunchiness of the nuts and the slight chewiness of the of the dried fruit. Fennel seeds give it a pleasant anise note, present but not overpowering while the polenta makes it quintessentially rustic and wholesome. Of course, like many Italian popular recipes, you’ll find that there are as many versions of this pinza as there are households. This is just the one I settled on after a few attempts. It doesn’t get much more Venetian than this.
Pinza de la Marantega
Polenta Fruit Cake
Soak the raisins with grappa and leave to macerate for 30 minutes. Preheat the oven to 180°C.
In a small bowl, combine the cornmeal with the flour and salt. Bring the milk to a simmer in a large pot, and when hot, slowly add the flours, whisking constantly to avoid clumps. Set the heat to medium-low and cook the flours for 15 minutes, until you have a thick polenta. Remove from the heat and add the melted butter and the sugar. Stir to combine. Now, add the rest of the ingredients, including the raisins and their soaking liquid.
Transfer to a large rectangular tray greased with butter. Spread the mixture to 1-inch thick, using your fingers to even out the surface. Bake as it is for 30 minutes, then cover with foil and carry on cooking for 30 more minutes. The cake is done when the surface becomes slightly wrinkly and the edges detach from the sides of the pan.
Let cool completely before serving. It is traditionally paired with mulled wine or grappa, though it goes nicely with any dessert wine, as well as with coffee and tea.