Making vastedduzzi is not for the faint-hearted. It requires strength, endurance, attention to detail and most importantly, a giant heart filled with an abundance of love.
It is a gastronomic art form that can easily intimidate any aspiring pastry cook. Filled with mandarin infused almond paste, each biscuit is uniquely shaped and exquisitely decorated by pinching, snipping and pricking the exterior pastry creating spectacular results as delicate and artistic as an embroidered piece of silk. Looking at them, one might even hesitate to break open the delicate pastry shell and dare sample the sticky sweet interior. They really do look too good to eat but fortunately also, too good to resist.
Vastedduzzi hold a special place in my heart. Ever since I could remember, my Nonna Maria Scafidi miraculously conjured these biscuits each Christmas. I say miraculously because they always turned up in a box that she had posted from Sydney to our home in Horsham, Victoria. My mother would carefully open the box and remove the tissue paper packed to protect the fragile biscuits. One by one, she removed the first letter of each of our names and placed them reverently on a plate before us. My mother told us that this was the tradition of Christmas gift giving as was practiced on the island she came from, Salina. ‘In those days,’ she said, ‘there wasn’t money for presents so mothers made a beautifully decorated biscuit for each of their children.’ Then, out came other marvelous shapes – flowers, hearts, crescents, flourishes, birds and even fish. They were so wonderful that it seemed logical that they had been made by magic. It was only years later when I witnessed the incredible skill that I understood the dedication required. But now that my Nonna had passed away, how was I ever going to learn the fine art of making vastedduzzi?
Fortunately, I found the perfect substitute maestra di dolci – master of all things sweet, delicious and remarkable – in the humble town of Lingua, Salina. Born in 1959 to her parents Adelina Scafidi from Quattropani and Vittorio Benenati from Lingua, Rosalba Benenati had all the prerequisites – she has a reputation for preparing sweets and pastries that precedes her, strong and solid arms for kneading, incredible patience and surprisingly delicate fingers and most critically, an enormous love for her family and community. Upon meeting Rosabla, I warmed to her immediately. So generous in spirit and passionate about the recipes she has perfected over the years. Childless herself, it was Rosalba’s favourite niece that introduced us. It seems that Rosalba holds high hopes for Marzia’s culinary future made evident by the beautiful scrapbook of recipes she has created for her niece to record and carry on the mastery of the family’s traditional dolci. It was my dream to make some vastedduzzi under her expert tuition and like any good fairy godmother, Rosalba gladly granted my wish.
Marzia and I arrived early the next morning, ready for action. Rosalba had spent the day before preparing the almonds by blanching and peeling them before leaving them out to dry overnight. She had also soaked the mandarin peel in a large bowl of water to release their fragrant oils. Earlier that morning, Rosalba ground the almonds to a flour, added the sugar, cinnamon and mixed in enough mandarin water to create a paste that was homogenous and workable, not unlike a marzipan. When we entered her kitchen, the table was well prepared. The artist’s utensils were splayed out before us – the pizzacarolo (a purposely made serrated edged tweezer), serrated pastry cutters of various sizes, a small pair of scissors and a few embroidery needles. The dough that Rosalba had already worked until it was smooth and elastic, rested patiently under a towel placed next to the pasta machine. This, we were told, would be Marzia’s job – to roll out paper-thin sheets of pastry at a rate we could work with. Sleeves rolled up, hands washed, the toil of love began.
To start with, I thought it best to watch the master at work before attempting my own. Rosalba took a sheet of pastry and placed it on the board in front of her. Next, she took a walnut sized piece of almond paste and rolled it in her hands and formed a heart shape, laying it on the pastry sheet. With a finger dipped in the remaining mandarin water, she traced the shape to slightly moisten the pastry. This, I was told, was to ensure that the top sheet of pastry stuck to the bottom as it is important to seal the filling within the pastry. Then, Rosalba skillfully laid another sheet of pastry over the top, gently pressing out any air pockets. Using a serrated pastry cutter, Rosalba cut out the shape leaving a border of pastry of around 1 cm and removed the excess pastry from her workspace. Now the real artistry began and I moved in to pay full attention. Not unlike an artist with her pencil, Rosalba swiftly pinched, pierced and snipped the form producing an awe-inspiring work of art. She made it look so easy, as any master does.
The time came to attempt my own. Under Rosalba’s watchful eye, I followed her example, be it at a much slower pace. An illustrator myself, it seemed I had the necessary skill and produced my first vastedduzzi to a standard that at least satisfied Rosalba. The morning progressed slowly but joyfully. In all, we had 60 biscuits to create (Rosalba had halved her quantities for my demonstration). Amidst, the chatter and family stories, I thought of my Nonna Maria. Was she looking down on me, brimming with pride? I hoped so. Rosalba had told me that these biscuits were traditionally made by groups of women during the week before Christmas and for the feast of St Joseph. Often, the women were related and it was a time that cemented the bonds of family and community. Sadly, not so many of the younger generation are interested enough to devote an entire day to the painstaking process of making vastedduzzi and Rosalba fears that some of these traditions might actual cease one day. But not if she can help it, she tells me and darts a look towards Marzia who sweats a smile in return. It seemed that Marzia realized that she has very high hopes to live up to!
I’d like to extend a very warm thank you to Marzia and Rosalba for providing me with one of the most extraordinary and enjoyable days on Salina.
To get Rosalba’s recipe for making vastedduzzi, click on the button below. Good luck!