by Gina Depalma
Sardinia is the second great Italian island of the Mediterranean, known as the “island of the sun.” Situated 100 miles off the coast of Italy, Sardinia possesses a particular beauty. The island’s 1800 kilometers of coastline alternates between rugged, rocky cliffs and soft, sandy, white beaches, both met by the crystal clear blue waters of the sea. As with all of the regions of Italy we have explored thus far, Sardinia, or Sardegna, has a unique culinary profile, formed through the passage of time, historical events and distinctive geographical characteristics. Much like Sicily, Sardinia shares a history of conquest, occupation and isolation, and since the 1950’s it has enjoyed an increasing popularity among tourists from across the globe.
Sardinians like their pastries sweet and flavorful, and the variations differ from region to region, and even from town to town. Many feature almonds, which are harvested in Sardinia, and candied orange peel or lemon zest, as well honey. Corbelozzo honey is a product unique to Sardinia, made from bees that travel amongst the abundant growth of wild arbutus, or tree strawberry, found throughout the island. Only slightly sweet, with a hint of bitterness and almost mentholated flavor, it is often served with sebadas, a puff-type pastry dough, made with lard instead of butter and stuffed with fresh, sweet sheep’s milk cheese and fried. Speaking of sheep’s milk cheeses, Sardinia’s rank amongst the finest in Italy. Fiore Sardo is the region’s excellent DOP pecorino.
Pirrichitus are sweet, puffed balls of egg-y dough, flavored with orange flower water and rolled in a sugary coating. Bianchittos are snowy-white meringues, flavored with lemon peel and dried until they are crisp and chewy. Amaretti are a beloved treat here, made with both bitter and sweet almonds with a touch of lemon peel. They are served at important occasions such as marriages, baptisms and confirmations. Almonds are also featured in torrone, fluffy white nougat candy that is made in every region of the island. You will also find numerous pastries made with sweet almond paste, often in combination with saba, or cooked grape must. Saba, or sapa, is also featured in Pane e’ sapa, which are essential globs of bread dough baked with grapes, sapa and nuts. Candelaus are very thin sheets of dough flavored with almond and orange flower water, coated in with a glassy icing, a specialty of the capital province of Cagliari. I could go on, and on, and on–Sardinian pastries are numerous, with a seemingly endless list of variations.
Copulettas are a specialty of the wine-making region of Gallura, and I think they are interesting and delicious. To make them, you will need a bottle of saba, or cooked grape must. The acidity of the saba balances the sweetness of the almond paste, and is essential to the flavor of the filling. Our friends at the fantastic Zingerman’s deli in Ann Arbor, Michigan is an easy source. If you can’t find saba, try Vincotto, which may be easier to find at your local Italian specialty shop. I also recommend using an orange marmalade that is not too sweet, but full of intense orange flavor. I hate to sound like a nag, but an Italian brand, such as Il Forteto, will best satisfy that criteria. The dough is very easy to work with and roll out, and making it by hand is an extremely satisfying endeavor. Do not roll it too thin or the filling will burst through. Sprinkles are a must to add that extra festive touch on these pastries, which burst with the special flavors of Sardenga.
To make the dough, combine the flour, sugar and salt, and make a pile on your work surface. With your fingers, create a deep well and make sure the sides are high enough to support it. Beat the eggs lightly with a fork in a small bowl, add them to the well along with the olive oil and the melted butter. As with pasta dough, gradually incorporate the flour into eggs, using your fingers or a fork, forming a rough dough. Knead the dough until it is smooth and homogenous. Wrap the dough in plastic and let it chill for 30 minutes.
In the meantime, make the filling. Grind the almonds finely in a food processor and transfer them to a medium bowl. Break the almond paste into small pieces with your fingers. Add the marmalade, honey and saba to the bowl, and with a fork, mash all the ingredients together until they are thoroughly combined.
Preheat the oven to 350 F degrees. Place the egg white in a small bowl and beat it lightly with a fork. Divide the dough in half as you will only work with one half of the dough at a time. Roll out half of the dough on a lightly floured board. The dough should be slightly thinner than tart dough. Using a three-inch round cutter, cut 12 circles, re-rolling the scraps as necessary.
Lightly brush the dough circles with the beaten egg white. Place a scant teaspoon of filling slightly off center of each circle, and fold one side over the filling to make a crescent shape. Press the dough around the filling and seal the end of the dough. Use a fluted cutter to trim the dough and give it a scalloped edge.
Repeat with the other half of the dough. Arrange the copulettas on a parchment-lined sheet tray, evenly spaced. Lightly beat the whole egg in a bowl and use a pastry brush to glaze the pastries. Using a toothpick, prick each copuletta at the base of the mound of filling, to release any air and prevent them from bursting. Bake them for 18 to 20 minutes, or until they are firm and lightly golden brown. Remove the copulettas from the oven and allow them to cool completely.
Make the icing by placing the confectioner’s sugar in a small bowl. Add the egg white and stir until the icing is smooth, but very stiff. Add a few drops of water as needed. To decorate the copulettas, spread the icing generously over the entire surface of each pastry, and decorate with a few spinkles.