Saturday, April 24, 2010

Pignolatti and the St. Joseph Altar

OK, so it's taking me a little longer than I thought to finish documenting the St. Joseph Altar. Sorry about that. I do feel it is important to document the traditions of the past, so these recipes WILL get posted - eventually. And if you're interested, I created an entire photobook of the Altar. I have lots of pictures of the food and some recipes, but in the case of something like the Pignolatti, my few pictures don't do it justice. This post will be much more comprehensive. So, here we go.

These Sicilian cookies are so named because they resemble pinecones when they are finished. They are meant to symbolize the pinecones that Jesus played with as a child. I've seen it spelled Pignolatti and Pignolata, and it is pronounced pee-nyoh-LAH-tah. These are different from the Pinolate cookies you might be thinking about, but those can be included on the Altar, too. These are deep fried, hard, crunchy, sugar-coated piles of goodness.

There are two main parts to this recipe - the cookies, and then the coating and shaping of the cookies. The cookies themselves can be made a few days in advance if necessary, and must be completely cooled before moving to the next step. This recipe is HUGE and created a few of gallons worth of cookies (pictured to the right and in step 3 below), but you will be surprised at how fast you can go through the cookies once you start coating and shaping them. The cookies are pretty neutral flavored and you could certainly eat them just as they are - they are not sugary or sweet and just give you a taste of mild, comforting homemade goodness.

And this is definitely a recipe where you can't have too many cooks in the kitchen. You simply can't do this recipe with one or two people. Three, maybe. Four to six, even better.

The next step is when the fun comes in. You'll need a little extra equipment as I've listed below - the most important being a marble or granite slab - or something completely heat proof that the very hot sugar will not melt or radiate through. You'll be dumping hot, melted sugar straight onto it.

1. Melt the sugar until it is light golden brown and very liquid.

2. Pour cookies into melted sugar and remove from heat. Stir cookies until all coated.

3. Pour cookies onto oil-coated marble slab.

4. Begin to work quickly separating cookies into small piles. You can see that each person used two spoons to pull the cookies away and then push them into small piles. The sugar is still too hot at this point to use your hands.

5. Dip your hands in ice cold water and use your hands to begin shaping the piles of cookies into small pyramids - squeezing them together so the sugar will hold them together. Or use a metal funnel and stack the cookies inside. If the sugar starts burning your hands, quickly dip them back in the cold water and then start shaping again. (Try to dry your hands a little bit because too much water will keep the sugar from sticking together.)

6. Top with sprinkles before the sugar hardens.

7. You'll probably need to wash your hands and hopefully they didn't get too burned.

5 cups all-purpose flour
9 eggs
Shortening for deep frying

2 cups sugar (several times over, at least 5)
Candy sprinkles

Large slab of marble or granite
Bowls of ice and water for hands
Spoons to separate dough
Metal funnels for shaping

Add beaten eggs to flour. Work with hands until a stiff, smooth dough is formed. Cut off small portions of dough and roll into pencil-like rolls. Cut into 1/4 inch pieces and fry in shortening until golden brown. Drain on paper towels and allow to cool completely. These can be made ahead of time and stored in airtight container.

Coat marble and inside of funnels with thin layer of oil. Melt sugar on low heat in very heavy pan (like cast iron, preferably not non-stick). Stir constantly so it doesn't burn. Cook until sugar is dissolved and has reached "string" stage. (Sugar will be liquid and turn medium-brown.) Remove from heat and quickly place two cups of fried dough into sugar and stir well until all pieces are coated.

Pour dough onto marble slab. Quickly use spoons to pull several pieces of dough together. Use funnels or hands to shape pieces into a pyramid shape. SUGAR IS VERY HOT. Dip hands in cold water frequently , but try to avoid wetting the dough too much because the pieces will not stick to each other. Sprinkle with candy sprinkles before sugar hardens. Move cookies to a parchment-covered cookie sheet for cooling.

A special thanks to my mom (Cheryl), her friends - Diane, Teeda, and Cheryl - and their spouses for inviting me to be part of this cookie-making tradition!!


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