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Saturday, 8 December 2018

Sicily, where being spoilt with sweets is the norm

Sweets are one of my greatest five loves. It has always been like that.
I remember baking with my two grandmothers, indulging in the flavours recreated by them, and being filled with joy at the sight of several plates of krémes/cremşnit – their signature dish and my childhood’s favourite cake.
Something stayed with me – a secret wish to honour the talent of these two women and to preserve the heritage that had been passed on to me.
There are delicious sweets all over the world. Yes, there are certain cultures that are more prone to cooking desserts, but I have always disregarded this fact and still started my quest to find the most special sweets out there.
I even started baking and one of my biggest dreams is to make people smile in my own bakery. One day.

If we go back to the third paragraph, there is one note to make – that for me, in terms of desserts, there is no other place like Sicily. The greatest bakers I’ve ever encountered are found there. The epitome of sweets is found there.
So, how did Sicily charm me? /and I revisited it this year to make sure I wasn’t dreaming/
Well, first, there are the quality ingredients.
Then, there’s passion.
And finally, there’s a mix of dessert traditions that could make every other contender jealous.

Cannoli
They are world-famous. They are served with various fillings (e.g. pistachio), but only ricotta makes cannoli decadent.
I had great expectations. In the end, I fell harder than I thought: the crunchy/creamy combination is what I search in all desserts, so cannoli blew me away.
I even got myself rolls to start baking them and I used this recipe to complete the process. Opinions? Easy, but finesse is needed while shaping the shells. Practice makes perfect.
Tip: Nothing tastes better than cannoli filled on the spot: express-style.

Brioche
(pictured in the following two combinations)
Some of the puffiest pastries that I’ve ever tasted. Light and sweet – but not overwhelmingly –, so more sugary items can be served along.
I am determined to bake them on my own and to obtain the softness that I remember from Sicily.

Granita
To my surprise, not all places sell granita throughout the year. Some do.
However, getting the perfect texture of this splendid summer treat happens with the first heat wave of the island.
Incredible granita alle mandorle heightens your senses.
Granita al caffé is said to be best in Milazzo. It was indeed a big wow, even for a non-coffee drinker, like me.
If there’s a drink to drive away degrees, it’s granita.
P.S. If you wish to go totally local, have a granita and a brioche for breakfast.

Gelato
The most flavourful and the creamiest gelati of my life were served in Sicily, on various occasions.
My first brioche con gelato was savoured in a delightful restaurant overlooking the sea, on Stromboli. The brioches were so good that Marcel bought two for our Stromboli summit trek, feeding me one and saving the other for one hungry dog. That’s how much he loves animals!
I missed brioches con gelato so much, that this year, in Favignana, off-season (beginning of April) and without many of the desserts that I knew on offer [everyone asked replied that they were waiting for the summer], Marcel got creative: he went to the bakery of the island capital, bought brioches, and asked the kind owner of a gelato parlour to fill them up. We felt the summer get closer. 

Cassata
The most celebrated pastry chef in Trapani taught me that every region, every town, and even every family has a slightly different version of cassata. Of other desserts, too, but this specific dessert is special.
He didn’t roll his eyes when I bought a plateful of treats for… breakfast. J
The sweet marzipan coating doesn’t prepare you for the scrumptious ricotta filling bursting out through the cracks deliberately made by the spoon (this is what I experienced in Noto).
Talking of variations – cassate al forno are über-delicious, I’ve baked them with Marcel and I recommend Paul Hollywood’s recipe from all my heart.    

Latte di mandorla
The best I ever tasted was in Noto, on a hot early-October morning. It was delicate, yet fresh, designed to surely quench your thirst. A surprise. …now that’s surprising, considering that the city’s the source of the best almonds on the island. It is perfect with a cassata.
We brought some home, soaked them, and prepared almond milk the following morning, but it didn’t quite taste the same.

Setteveli
The classical birthday cakes of Palermo. Chocolate glaze, chocolate mousse, hazelnut cream, and so on… until you count to seven. Sicilians are very proud of this dessert. Its crunchiness rivals its smoothness and you perceive the flavours fully as the layers melt in your mouth… 

And then, you’ve got all sorts of
crostate di mandorle

cestini di frutta

crostatine di fragola [and variations]

, and all sorts of traditional cakes where ricotta is the star… and the filling. There is so much delicacy in the way this cheese is processed and transformed… that even the legends according to which tiramisus would have been invented by the Sicilians could ring true [I’m sure that they master mascarpone the same way]. Aaah, and they even have their very own artisan chocolates. In Modica.  

Readapting the words of Fellini, ‘La vita è una combinazione di magia e dolci.
I am happy that sweets exists. They can make us smile when all other methods fail.
As for me, I am on a hunt for another airfare deal to Palermo, or Catania, or Trapani… well, it doesn’t really matter as long as it’s Sicilia.