The secret to making one of Italy's most loved pastries
When I worked in New Jersey, many moons ago, I often went to a local bakery that sold sfogliatella — an Italian layered, flaky pastry, that is shaped like a lobster tail and has a sweet filling. This was my number one mid-morning snack with tea. I am embarrassed to say that I ate it almost every day. I loved biting into the layers of the crisp pastry, to ultimately savour the soft filling.
After feeling intimidated all these years, it was only recently that I felt I could make sfogliatella myself. My first and second attempts at making this pastry resulted in delicious ones, but my third attempt really looked like the real thing. I learned that, when making it, you have to use exactly the same amount of water that is recommended, or even less is better. It makes the dough firm, but flaky at the same time.
Sfogliatella, which in Italian means small thin layers, comes from the region of Campania in southwestern Italy. It is believed that, roughly four centuries ago, the nuns from the Santa Rosa convent there invented this pastry. Apparently, in order to save wastage, semolina and ricotta cheese were combined to make a filling. Dough was kneaded and rolled out into the shape of a monk’s hood. Following that, the sweet filling was place inside and baked.
A hundred years later, a chef from Naples got hold of the recipe and made these delicious pastries. Once he offered them to his bakery customers, it spread to all of Italy and became world famous. Now sfogliatella is one of Italy’s iconic pastries.
Italy, which is in the south of Europe, is famous all over the world for its desserts and pastries. If you haven’t yet eaten tiramisu, Cassata Siciliana, Panna Cotta, Babà, Tartufo di Pizzo, biscotti, and gelato, you don’t know what you are missing.
A soft creamy filling with hints of oranges and dried fruit, that are reminiscent of the festive holiday season, is hidden inside layers and layers of crispy flaky pastry
These are only some of the names of numerous other sweet treats to explore and eat. Now, I’m sure, you can’t wait to try the recipe of this symbol of the city of Naples, for which you will need passion and skill. Best of luck and, as the Italians would say, mangia (eat)!
For the dough
2 cups of flour
1 pinch of salt
1 tablespoon of honey
175 ml water
150 grams of butter divided into four parts, plus a little extra
For the filling
1 cup semolina flour
450 ml of milk
1 cup ricotta cheese
1/2 cup sugar (use more or less as de sired)
1 pinch of salt
1/2 teaspoon of cinnamon
1/4 cup candied orange peel or zest
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
Parchment paper or aluminum foil
Baking pan, approximately 10 x 15 inches
Mix the honey, salt, and flour thoroughly with a fork. Now add water, little by little, and mix the ingredients with your hands to form a dough. At first the dough will be stiff, but after you knead for 5-10 minutes, it should be smooth but firm, and in the shape of a ball. You could also knead with an electric mixer that has a dough hook. Refrigerate the dough for an hour.
In the meantime, take butter out of the fridge so it can warm to room temperature and soften. Next, place the milk and sugar in a pot and bring to boil, and then lower the flame. Now add the semolina slowly, stirring all the while until it is smooth. Turn off the stove and add the remaining ingredients of the filling and mix thoroughly. Set the filling aside.
After an hour, bring the dough out of the fridge and divide it into four equal-sized balls. Start rolling out one of the pieces until you have reached at least 20 inches in length and 11 inches in breadth. The thinner the dough, the better. Butter the entire dough with your fingers or a brush, using the first portion of the butter.
From the shorter side, start rolling up the dough tightly all the way. Then, start rolling out the second piece of dough the same way, butter it, and roll it up tightly around the first piece. Do the same with the third and fourth pieces, until you have a thick cylinder of four sheets wrapped around each other. Gently stretch the entire cylinder from both ends until it is at least 2-3 inches longer. Apply the extra butter on top of the dough, wrap in cling wrap, and refrigerate overnight.
The next day, remove the cylinder from the fridge, and cut it into discs of half inch each. There should be ideally 16 discs in total. Stretch each disk with your fingers until they expand at least by 3 inches. Now place your finger in the centre and stretch the disc, preferably downwards, to shape a pocket or shell with a cavity in the centre. Grease the inside with butter, fill it with two to three tablespoons of the sweet filling. Shape and fill the other discs in the same way.
Pre-heat your oven to 375°F. Take your baking tray and fit it with parchment paper or aluminum foil. Place about 8 sfogliatella, two rows of 4 with space around each, on the tray and bake at 375°F for 30 minutes. It is best to bake one tray of pastries at a time, so bake the next 8 after the first are complete. When they are baked, dust with confectionary sugar and enjoy!
Originally published in Dawn, EOS, June 13th, 2021