The Historical Regional Cuisines Of Italy - Campania: Part VIII
Neapolitan culinary tradition includes a wide variety of desserts and is, along with that of Sicily, among the best in Italy if not all of Europe. Personally, I'd much rather be enjoying a sfogliatella for an Euro from any of the finer specialty dessert bakeries in Naples than be sitting on the Champs Elysees shelling out ten times that amount for some overwrought fancy French creation.
The sfogliatella, which comes in both a curly and a frollo or biscuit-like variety, was first conceived in the eighteenth century in the monastery of Santa Rosa in Conca dei Marini near Amalfi. This amazing pastry which only tastes right when made in Naples contains a filling of creamy ricotta, semolina, vanilla and candied citrus peel. Among the more modern variations are the Santa Rosa, which is considerably larger and complemented by cream and cherries, and the Coda D'aragosta or Lobster Tail, stuffed with various types of cream. However, the traditionalist Neapolitan sweet enthusiast will only ever have the basic curly variety, and will swear up and down that it and only it is the real Neapolitan sfogliatella.
Although many will tell you that sfogliatella is the ultimate expression of the Neapolitan dessert art, the variety of typical dessert sweets available everywhere in the region is virtually endless, but some of the more popular types include the baba, a Neapolitan variant of a rum soaked individual cake that most likely has Polish origins; and the St. Joseph's zeppole, which are fried or baked hole-less donuts, and are covered with cream and cherries. Easter calls for the famous pastiera, which is a thick, heavy, substantial pie filled with boiled wheat and candied citrus peel. It sounds rather unappetizing, but it is actually sweet, delightful, and fragrant from the rose water that is used in its preparation.
Christmas Eve dinner is the highlight of the holidays and is almost always tied to a menu of spaghetti with clams, followed by fried eels and cod, accompanied by the so-called insalata di rinforzo (reinforcement salad) that is prepared with boiled cauliflower, sweet peppers, spicy pickles (the pupaccelle), olives and anchovies. However, the reason for the season has to be to enjoy the specialty desserts which are only available during the holidays:
- The rococo, a hard ring-shaped biscuit with almonds.
- The mustacciuoli, a biscuit covered with chocolate.
- The raffiuoli, a sweet sponge cake coated with a crusty white icing sugar frosting.
- The susamielli, almond biscuits in the form of an S.
The eve of the dinner of Christmas Eve is not complete without the Ciociola, which is oven baked nuts (walnuts, hazelnuts and almonds), dried figs and chestnuts, but most important are the Struffoli: This dessert of ancient Greek origin is little dough balls fried in oil, then coated in honey and stacked to make a pyramid shape of gooey goodness. The bigger the pyramid, the more prosperous the household.
Campanian cuisine is certainly not only the most unique, varied and savory in all of Italy, but most of it forms the basis for what people in almost every country in the world classify as "Italian." That's exceptionally funny especially when we consider that most Neapolitans, a century and a half after the unification of Italy, still consider themselves as the capital region of an entirely separate country that has almost nothing in common with those strange, tall, incomprehensible Germanic people of the foggy Padana Valley, the financial, industrial and commercial heartland of Italy. A common saying sums up the Neapolitan attitude towards the northerners: "God created the world in six days... on the seventh day he created fog, so he'd never have to see the Padana Valley ever again."
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