Christmas Pitta: Recreating a Lost Italian Pastry

Do you have a lost family Christmas recipe you're longing to taste again? I finally perfected my mom's "Scarcello Christmas Pitta," a rich Southern Italian pastry coiled like a snake and filled with walnuts and raisins, flavored with whiskey, red pepper flakes and a trace of orange rind. It can also be served at Easter.

My grandmother brought this recipe with her from Pedace, Italy, in Calabria. It's a speciality of the Sila, a beautiful forest in the hills above Pedace that I've visited several times with my Italian relatives. There it's called Pitta 'mpigliata. Pitta is from the Arabic and 'mpigliata from the Hebrew word for "crushed."

My Jewish husband loves this dish, which reminds him of his mother's apple strudel. Scholars trace it back to 1700 in San Giovanni in Fiore, practically next door to Pedace.

Mom and I made this raisin/nut delicacy during our last Christmas together,  three years ago. She didn't really want to do it, but I begged her to, because it was my favorite. She was stressed and claimed that she couldn't remember how, but finally she rolled out the dough, lined up the filling, wound the dough over it, and then twisted it. She demanded that I do the same "because I'm not going to show you again." My rolls weren't as pretty as hers, but they tasted great, just as she had predicted.

"You make these things and sometimes they just don't turn out right," she said of all Italian pastries. "You just have to try again."

Many Italians make the pitta by rolling out the dough, spreading the filling over it, and then rolling the whole thing up like a cinnamon roll. Our family folds the dough over the filling and then seals it, sort of like an enchilada. Then we coil it. 

Mom created one big roll per buttered pan, by making three or four snakes and then coiling them around each other. I had better luck with three small ones. You can freeze the pitta; so you may as well make a bunch.

This dish is so simple that you almost don't need a recipe. What's tricky is the pastry. Every family has a different version. Mom left us two different recipes. I tried the first one this Christmas, three years after her death,  and it flopped. It uses cooking oil. The dough was greasy and fell apart.  I needed Mom to show me what went wrong. I'm not as skilled with adding flour as she was. Notice that the portions are gigantic. Families were big in those days.

Traditional crust

6 eggs, beaten until foamy
½ cup sugar
1 tsp salt
1/12 cups oil
Two cups milk
½ tsp baking powder
One or two tsp of whiskey or rum
Mix with about 10 cups flour and knead to smoothness

Optional crust
I was so happy when I tried this second crust, which rolled out beautifully. Mom called it "Suzanne B’s pie/pastry crust" and said,  in a sweet way, "You may use it if you like."

I don't have a food processor, so I used a pastry cutter to get the butter and cream cheese mixed into the flour. Then I kneaded it by hand. It's a forgiving dough:

2 cubes butter
3 cups flour
8 oz. cream cheese
Process in food processor (or knead by hand) until smooth. Chill and roll thin.

Mom used half chopped walnuts, half raisins in her filling, but I prefer a higher proportion of nuts. If you add the orange rind, go easy; otherwise, the orange flavor will overwhelm the dish. This filling worked for me:

Two cups chopped walnuts and one cup raisins with honey or Karo syrup (about 2 tablespoons). Mix together and sprinkle with water and red pepper flakes (scant) and orange rind (optional). Be sure to add a tablespoon or two of whiskey or rum, because the liquor gives the mix its distinctive flavor.

Roll the dough into thin strips (6” by 16-20” lengthwise), about ¼ inch thick. Spread the filling across the dough strips. Roll up and seal the sides. Twist like a curled snake in a buttered cake pan. You can coil the "snakes" around each other to make one big one (Mom's beautiful technique).

Bake in a pie plate at 375 degrees until slightly brown. Check after 30-40 minutes. Do not overcook,  but make sure you have a nice firm crust. Cool. Store in an airtight tin (not plastic). When ready to serve, slice into small slices, and serve with coffee or tea.

Here is a version made with figs, flavored with Grand Marnier, sliced in a similar way. We don't frost our pitta or add the sprinkles on top, but as Mom would say, "Do what you like."

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Review: Four Seasons in a Day, by Deborah Jacobs, an escape to France

"Dressed in a Bretagne striped shirt, red apron and beret Basque, the vendor was waiting on other customers when I slid into the line behind them. I thought I had gone unnoticed. Then he interrupted his sales pitch, picked up a wheel of cheese from which he had cut a large wedge, held it close to my face and said, "Madame posez votre nez dans ce fromage!" (Put your nose in this cheese!)

So begins a delightful anecdote in Four Seasons in a Day: Travel, Transitions and Letting Go of the Place We Call HomeDeborah Jacobs' sensual real-life tale of escape from a nightmarish "Content Mill" job in New York to an Airbnb life fraught with misadventures in France's Loire Valley, the  Basque Country and Paris.  A how-to for anybody who dreams of funding a live-abroad life via the "sharing economy," this travel memoir recently made the Wall Street Journal's list of "Best Books About Healthy Aging."

If you fantasize about escape into the exotic but worry about language barriers, you'll be glad to know Deborah and her husband, Ken, aren't terribly skilled in French. Yet they are game, always game. They can't actually return home, since they've rented out their Brooklyn dwelling. For three months they battle passive-aggressive landladies, cleaners who don't clean, antiquated electrical systems that suddenly fail and door locks from hell.  I'm sure they would do it all over again.

You just know Deborah will put her nose in that cheese--and be all the better for it. "Apparently it didn't bother the customers ahead of me. They bought half the cheese. Then I bought what had become my usual amount, which was "une petite tranche" (a small slice)."

When she returns home, Ken asks why she needs yet more sheep's milk cheese, when she has six other chunks at the house. She says it's for the same reason he keeps tasting Gauteaux Basque, the local cake. Because they're in France, not Brooklyn. Because they can.

I treasure the priceless encounters with the landladies, the desperate phone calls, the times when everything goes wrong and Ken and Deborah must rely only on themselves. I love the fact that they didn't settle in Provence but in areas less discovered by foreigners.  I enjoyed seeing these newer landscapes through their eyes and was happy for them when they fled the disappointing "winemaker's cottage" in the Loire and found a charming, drama-laden home in the Pyrenees, with easy access to those fabulous cheeses and cakes.

They return home with far too much baggage, including a two-handled griddle, a French Press and other new essentials, to discover that their Brooklyn home is a bit worse for wear. But whose house is not? They've learned how to make a cepe (mushroom) omelet, decipher obscure French phrases via Google translator, use GPS to explore the beaches of Biarritz, San Sebastian and St.Jean-de-Luz. They know that boulangeries close for two hours at lunchtime, that canned foods can be spectacular, that the French will appreciate your faulty attempts to speak their language. 

Back in her Brooklyn house, where she is sorting out home repair problems, Jacobs writes nostalgically of the welcome her landlady Laurence gave in a white-washed manor house of the Basque style near the village of Sare:

 "We took another lap around the apartment to soak up the details. There was cross-stitchery everywhere from the family monogram on the lampshades and window shades to the hand towel in the W.C. Laurence had left us a jar of homemade pate, a basket of walnuts (the tree in front of the house was dropping its fruit) and a bottle of 2008 Bordeaux. She had stocked the refrigerator with bread, butter, juice and jam for our first breakfast."

I'm happy to report that Deborah never returns to "The Content Mill."

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Eclipse over Yellowstone Park (Video)

"An eerie light and a growing chill enveloped Mammoth Hot Springs during Eclipse2017.mthen, in the blink of an eye, the day returned. My favorite total eclipse video from yesterday's once in a century sensation. I saw it from Seattle and was awed. We experienced the chill but the sky stayed lit. What did you see?
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Tiger, Tiger: Caught by Surprise (Video) in India

Some people think I lead a charmed life, because I'm often on the road. I seldom write of biting insects, brutal heat, Verizon overcharges, boredom, dust, homesickness, insults, personal slights. I am not charmed. I've learned patience. The most powerful moments happen when you abandon hope. A Royal Benghal tiger in India taught me that.

When I was invited to explore Bhopal (in Madya Paresh), the center of this vast, churning country last fall,  I entered the sub-continent for the first time. I would go back again just to hang out with the warm-hearted, fascinating people and eat the fabulous cuisine (idlis, rice cakes with sambar being a favorite). But the big draw was the chance to see tigers in nearby Bandhavgarh National Park. Like many American children, I'd been brought up on adventure books by Kipling and studied William Blake's immortal lines: "Tiger, tiger burning bright/in the forests of the night."

Alas, tigers are elusive. Kipling spoke of "night" for good reason. Tigers are nocturnal. When I hopped into a giant safari vehicle in Bandhavgarh, I was warned that the tigers were savvy. They seemed to know that the park gates close at five p.m. and that humans must get out. In other words: Tigers, too, are patient. We knew they were somewhere in the park, because we could see their tracks in the road.

So we drove for hours through a dusty forest of drab trees and burned grass,  in a giant safari vehicle, very wide, filled with charming tourists from India. We had a lot of fun. But as the light started to dim in late afternoon, we wearied of our safari vehicle. Welost faith in our guide. We didn't believe him when he told us that the tigers would be out soon. He said he was sure, because they'd want to eat the spotted deer that suddenly seemed to be everywhere.

Another 45 minutes crawled by. I took a photo of a dead scorpion. I asked the women sitting next to me to teach me how to tie an Indian scarf.

"I wish I was in South Africa," she said. "I was there last year. They know how to do safaris!"

By this time, we had turned around and were racing toward the gates. Suddenly, we ground to a halt. "Tiger!" I heard our guide say. And there he was, watching us, from the center of the road. A huge, vibrant, gorgeous animal, blocking our way to the gate. He yawned. He got up and slowly, yes, like royalty, strolled around our vehicle. I felt like I could reach out my hand and touch him. It was worth the long flight from my home in Seattle, the heat, the dust, the insect bits. Check out this tiger. He will not disappoint:

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The Beauty of Hobbity New Zealand

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Persian horses gallop over sands of Iran

Today's escape: Abbas Azizpour, Twitter. "My land Darehshar, west of Iran."
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Secret of Madrid's beloved rearing horse statue

First-ever statue of a horse rearing up on two legs, Madrid's beloved artwork from 1640. See the pigeon perched by the ears? Birds perch on this baroque masterpiece all day. What keeps it from toppling over? Michelangelo couldn't solve this riddle but Galileo did the math and artist Pietro Tacca weighted it properly. Felipe IV is the rider.
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