Sunday, 18 August 2013

Expecting the Unexpected

Little Sweet Sicilian Pies with Chocolate, Spice & Beef

One of the things I learned on my travels around the island home of my ancestors, Sicily last year, was that there is seemingly no end to how unusual some of the ingredients, flavors and combinations thereof can be in this land of such varied ethnic backgrounds. Whether Arabic, African, French, Spanish, or of course Italian, each of these cultures- and many more besides, have left their marks in the country's history...

And sure- you are all used to strange crations such as "vitello tonnato" which is now a staple and a favorite at that at most Italian restaurants- which is veal with a creamy tuna sauce, served up with capers... which is pretty crazy stuff when you think about it! (as well as being delicious!) But the chances are that you DON'T think about it- you just accept it and you try it, eat it and enjoy it. End of.

So how about a little sweet chocolate pastry with ground beef in it? Think you can handle that? Trust me... you can! 

In the beautiful town of Modica, set in a deep valley in the hills of Sicily's south, I was offered one of these at breakfast time by a lovely sales girl who had been explaining to us some of the various types of chocolate that are produced there- chocolate being the towns great claim to fame and its pride and joy.. And oh yes, I was surprised indeed when I was told that the filling was indeed made of chocolate, mixed with dried fruits, almonds, cinnamon and spice... and ground meat! I might possibly have said "eeew!" had I been told that first... but I was too much in heaven to be too shocked at the time... I was simply THRILLED!

The traditional recipe was invented by nuns, back in days of yore, when the first cocoa beans were being brought over to Europe by the Spaniards and they were originally used for medicinal purposes. The nuns discovered that adding the cocoa beans to their meagre rations of meat would keep it from spoiling so quickly. And as people began to experiment with the beans and use them in a sweet rather than savory way to make chocolate, for some crazy reason, those crazy nuns decided to try sweetening the meat "empanadas" that the Spaniards made. And thus were born the "mpannatigghi"- and a good thing it was that they were too!

There are numerous recipes and methods to be found in books and online- all very similar- but all slightly different... as these things tend to be. So I decided to make my own based on what I had read and my own personal taste. That is what I call cooking! You gotta go out on a limb a little and do your own thing!

For the pastry, I made a basic "pasta frolla" dough, the traditional Italian pie and cookie favorite. Basically this was 4 egg yolks, 200g of sugar, 250g of butter and 500g of flour. I whizzed these together until they came together in a light, crumbly mass and kneaded it gently together for a minute or so... not too much! Just work it enough for it to become smooth but don't stress the dough or the pastry will stress you! Wrap it in cling-film and refrigerate it for at least an hour... then roll it out and cut it into rounds using a cookie cutter, ready to be filled... so in the hours time that the dough is resting in the fridge, you can get that filling ready!

For the filling, I just went out on a limb and followed my instincts. Yay! They hardly ever let me down :-) And today, they were on my side again.

In a dry frying pan, I gently fried a handful of ground beef- just a hamburger's worth. I let it sizzle until it had all become brown and was mostly cooked through. 
The next ingredient was the same amount in raisins as I had beef. And after that, the same amount of finely chopped almonds. And the same of pine nuts. But only half as much of candied orange peel ;-) I didn't want to make it TOO easy to remember- haha!

Next came the spices- the most important part of of this recipe! I ground up about 1/4 of a star anis, the seeds of 2 cardomom pods, 3 cloves and 1/2 teaspoon of coriander. I ground these together using a mortar and pestle and then added 1 tablespoon of cinnamon, a pinch of black pepper and a light grating of nutmeg... crazy!

As soon as the meat had cooled off, I chopped all of these ingredients and the meat finely until they became a stiff, paste. I then added 2 of the left-over egg whites and a splash of Marsala... and stirred these all briskly together. You could use a blender, but if you do, make sure not to grind things up too fine. Next came about 1 espresso cupful of finely chopped dark chocolate, the finely ground spices... and last, but not least, cocoa, which I added and stirred-in continually, until the chocolate/meat mass had become firm enough to spoon out in portions to fill my little pies. 

I tasted my filling as it was and decided it needed no further sugar added- the dried fruit added enough sweetness for my taste- but if not for you- this is the time to do it! I filled the pies with a teaspoonful of the spicy mixture and folded them shut into half moons- very simple. and then I made a little cut, using scissors, into each an every one of them- this would allow steam to escape whilst baking and also to stop the pies bursting as the filling expanded!

I baked them in a pre-heated oven at 300°F for around 20 minutes, until they were gently golden brown. Once they were cooled off, I gave them a sprinkle of powdered sugar.. and didn't wait too long to try them! And let me just say this... if you try making these, once you smell them... you will not hesitate for long either!

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