I’ve never been the best at presents, but I have, in time, become pretty skilled at edible presents, among which, this sesame brittle is one of the most popular.
Called croccante in Italian, it is a traditional Sicilian sweet, made especially during Christmas time. The name changes depending on the part of Sicily you stumble upon it: cubbaita in the East and giuggiulena in the West. I even found it to be called cubbaita di giuggiulena, combining the two words. Both are of Arabic origin (as Sicilian cuisine and culture have been deeply influenced by the Arabs): the former means ‘brittle’, the latter ‘sesame’. It is not uncommon to find this brittle on the stall of candy vendors in local fairs throughout the whole country, together with candied almonds, and marzipan/pistachio cookies. In fact, it was in such occasion (a local fair) that I came across it for the first time. It was love at first (sticky, crunchy) bite.
September is an exciting time of the year in Italy. The season is turning, the heat is less sweltering, and everywhere you’ll find festivals celebrating all sorts of products. Among these, the festivals of the vendemmia (grape harvest) are the most famous, widespread and fun.
Veneto has a time-honoured winemaking tradition that involves pretty much the entire region. However, in the area where I grew up, which hasn’t a particular vocation for wine, lesser varieties were planted and then turned into simple wines for everyday consumption.
In the past, the grape harvest used to employ large parts of the peasant workforce. Seasonal workers would break their back for little money, but they would at least be able to take home some bunches of grapes, perhaps the damaged ones, to eat and cook. From these grapes, thrifty countryside women (including those in my family) would then pull out a sweet pudding called sugoli – a thick, sugar laden sweet treat that was perfect to boost the energy levels of the vendemmiatori. They were what one would call a poor man’s feast.
The name sùgoli comes from the word sugo (juice). It is, in its essence, nothing more than a grape juice pudding. The recipe is as easy as it sounds: just grapes, flour and, perhaps, some sugar. The only thing you’ll need is a fine masher or, better still, a food mill. The rest will come along in no time.
Last week, I found some punnets of ruby-red, ripe, local strawberries at the market, and I couldn’t help myself being carried away (six punnets? why not). We have been feasting on them ever since – some straight from the bowl, others simply roasted, and others again in form of cake.
This crumble is rustic, crunchy, deeply comforting, and not too sweet. Make it while rhubarb season lasts – it really lets the rhubarb flavour shine through.
I love figs to bits, and one of the things I’ve been missing about home is having the freedom to go out in the yard and pick them at will. So when I went home to Veneto a few weeks ago, one of the first things was exactly that – picking figs eating them while still warm. I baked quite a lot of fig cakes, too, and the easy fig cake recipe below is the result of a few attempts.
It’s an unfussy cake. It’s not too sweet and it’s very light due to the lack of butter or oil. It makes for a lovely breakfast or afternoon snack.