Disclosure: no payment has been or will be received for this post. All recommendations my own.
“So there were four Swiss pastry chefs …”
It’s a rainy Wednesday afternoon and I’m in Dulcissima, a tiny pastry shop and café on a side street in Catania, talking to executive chef Silvana Ballistreri and her son Davide about rame di Napoli, among other things. (Don’t worry: we’ll get back to those pastry chefs in a little bit …)
Rame di Napoli are a Catanese speciality, eaten traditionally on All Saints Day, 1 November. Nowadays, you can find them in bakeries and supermarkets from around the beginning of October, and on well into November. There are a few stories behind their origins. The most pervasive of these – and the one which Davide recounts to me as being the most likely true, in his opinion – dates from the years after the Kingdoms of Naples and of Sicily had been joined together. A new currency, made of copper (rame) alloy had just been coined to replace more expensive alloys of gold and silver. Rame di Napoli (Naples coppers) were therefore created and named for the new money.
Rame di Napoli, in most pasticcerie, are palm-sized, chocolate sponges with an orange marmalade centre, covered with a thick layer of chocolate icing and sprinkled with nuts to decorate. They tend to be on the dry side and I’m not usually a big fan. Over the years most pasticcerie in Catania have taken to adding plentiful amounts of cinnamon and cloves to the sponge, as well as offering Nutella as an alternative to marmalade in the centre. They also come in a version with white chocolate icing.
Davide assures me that Silvana’s version is nothing like the others.
He’s right. For a start, they’re half the size, shaped into fat, finger-sized rectangles. Secondly, the sponge is tender, moist and cocoa-flavoured. No dryness or cinnamon here. My pleased surprise shows on my face; Silvana explains why they’re so different. She wasn’t happy with the fact that the spices overpower the natural flavour of the cocoa in so many recipes, so she went back to basics, searching for an original recipe and then working with the balance of ingredients until she had it just right. Her final procedure involves mixing chocolate sponge (made with fresh cocoa) with cream and syrup, before forming the rame and covering them with apricot jam and dark chocolate icing sprinkled with chopped hazelnuts. Word to the wise: they’re delicious.
Part of the secret of Silvana’s success is that she appreciates the credo ‘everything in moderation‘. At the start of her career she studied under the artisan gelato maker, Maestro Luca Caviezel. He’s the son of one of the aforementioned Swiss pastry chefs (told you we’d get back to them!), and from him she learnt the value of measuring accurately and scientifically in recipes. It’s a theme to which she returns time and again as we talk: the Maestro, and the importance of balance. Not too much, not too little, but just right.
The next thing Silvana gives us to try is a cake of her own creation, which she’s dubbed ‘Torta Divina‘ (divine cake). It’s delicious – similar to lemon meringue pie without the meringue, and with an almondy undertone to the baked lemon cream in the centre. Again, the careful balance of flavours that came through with the rame di Napoli is evident, and Silvana tells me that she’s inundated with requests for the recipe. “Do people do that in bakeries in England? Ask for the baker’s recipes?” she asks. I shake my head. “Wouldn’t think so, no.” She nods, satisfied. “No! Well, they do here.” She shakes her head in laughing disbelief. She’s happy to reveal ingredients (flour, sugar, butter and milk in the pastry; sugar, eggs, lemon juice, almonds, butter and lemon zest in the cream), but as to the recipe – well, that’s her secret to keep.
The final sweet on the menu today is the ubiquitous cannolo siciliano. Silvana’s is, as ever, just that little bit different from the standard. For a start, she uses Marsala wine (“…but only the good stuff!”) rather than vinegar in the pastry for the shell, along with chopped almonds to give it a good crunch. She laughs as she tells us about the Marsala that she uses. She comes from Trapani originally, and she’s affectionately scathing about the inferior wine that the Catanese drink, while still calling it Marsala.
When it comes to procedure, she tells us – with a little regret in her voice – about how she uses metal forms to shape the shells before frying them in hot oil. In days gone by, apparently, they used to be formed around sections of bamboo. “You can’t do that now, though – it’s not hygienic.” She shrugs and smiles.
As for the filling, it’s always ricotta, sourced locally like most of her ingredients; in this case it comes from Cesarò, a little town near Bronte. Once again, she’s less liberal with the sugar than some others might be, which makes sense from both a taste and a consistency point of view. Sugar liquefies when added to ricotta, so when there’s less of it the cheese remains firmer and – even better – tastes of itself, rather than sugar. As a final garnish, she dips the ends in either candied peel or chopped pistacchio. Simple, elegant, traditional.
Well, that’s my Christmas shopping sorted.
Pasticceria & Gelateria Dulcissima
Via Dalmazia, 81
Photo credits: Davide Cusenza