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Spongata di Natale – Italian Christmas cake

Spongata di Natale – Italian Christmas cake

PT5H

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Spongata di Natale is a round, flat, Italian Christmas cake with a thin, crunchy pastry coating, not dissimilar to a British mince pie. The sweet, sticky filling is deeply spiced and packed with nuts, honey and dried fruit. It is a speciality of the Emilia Romagna region, made in the cities and provinces that surround Parma, which is exactly where I first came across it – in the charming village of Calestano, a couple of hours south-west of the city. The earliest written recording of spongata was in 1454, though no doubt its history extends well beyond that. Every family has its own closely guarded recipe and this version is no exception. Local housewife/chef Adriana Salsi was kind enough to share hers with me, top-secret until now.

It is traditional to make many, many spongata and give them as gifts to friends and family, so this recipe makes fifteen cakes – but you can reduce the amounts as desired if you’re not quite ready for that commitment! This year Adriana made forty-six, but Silvana Ghillani, another remarkable woman I met in the Emilia Romagna region, told me her record was 200! If given as a gift, wrap the spongata in tinfoil to transport it. Otherwise they can be kept for a very long time at room temperature, covered with a cloth – up to two months. They can also be frozen, well wrapped, and stored for up to a year.

This recipe calls for citron, or cedro as it is also called, a beautifully fragrant citrus fruit that grows in the south of Italy. Strikingly yellow, it looks like a huge, lumpy lemon and is highly prized for its thick, sweet, tender rind, which unlike other citrus fruits is only very slightly bitter. In this recipe the fruit is used in candied form, which is also the easiest kind to find here in the UK. The nutty filling is sweetened with honey, and acacia honey is particularly well suited to this recipe – mild, delicate and floral, it has a uniquely fluid texture leaving the filling glossy and pleasingly chewy.

Typically eaten together with an espresso or two, it is also excellent with a fruity, aromatic dessert wine or lightly sweet sparkling white wine. Well it is Christmas.

image
Adriana Salsi in her kitchen
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Adriana's recipe book

Ingredients

1
Preheat an oven to 180°C/gas mark 4
2
Begin by making the filling. Arrange the breadcrumbs in an even layer on a baking sheet and toast in the oven until golden and very dry, for about 20 minutes. Cool and set aside – turn off the oven
3
Put the raisins in a medium bowl and add enough dry white wine to cover. Leave at room temperature for a few hours to rehydrate the raisins. If you would like to speed this process up, you can warm the wine first and soak the raisins for about 1 hour instead. Set aside
4
Grind the cinnamon stick and whole cloves to a powder in a coffee grinder or spice grinder. Finely grate the whole nutmeg. Set aside
5
Gently warm the honey to lukewarm in a saucepan over a low heat
6
Put the chopped nuts in a large bowl. Add the breadcrumbs and mix thoroughly with the nuts, kneading the mixture together so it is fully blended
7
Drain the raisins and use your hands to squeeze out any excess moisture, then add to the nut and breadcrumb mixture and mix very well as before
8
Add the rest of the filling ingredients, in the following order, kneading the mixture together after each addition: honey, pine nuts, candied citron, spices and salt. Taste the mixture and adjust the seasonings to taste
9
When ready, the mixture should be sticky and very thick. Cover and leave to rest at room temperature for 3–4 days to allow all the flavours to amalgamate
10
To make the dough, heap the flour into a pile on a large work surface and make a deep well in the middle
11
Pour in the sugar, sprinkle in the salt and add the softened butter. Start to knead the mixture together, gently pulling in flour from the sides of the well as you mix
12
When the mixture has come together start adding the wine, a little at a time, kneading as you go. Continue to knead until all the ingredients are fully blended and the dough is smooth, shiny and supple, for at least 10 minutes. Shape into a round, even ball – the dough does not need to rest
13
To assemble, divide the filling into 200g portions and roll each portion into a loose ball with your hands. Set aside
14
Slice off a piece of dough, as if you are cutting a loaf of bread, covering the remaining dough with cling film to stop it drying out. Lightly dust a clean work surface with flour and roll out the piece of dough 1–2mm thick
15
Cut out rounds of the dough, about 25cm wide – a metal saucepan lid is a good tool for this
16
Press 1 of the filling balls into a rough disc and lay in the middle of 1 dough round. Press out the filling into a flat, even circle that covers most of the dough, leaving a clear 3cm band around the edge
17
Cover with another dough round. Gently roll over the cake a couple of times with a rolling pin, evening it out and removing any bubbles. Use your fingers to seal the dough edge, pressing out any air. Using a fluted pastry wheel, cut around the edge, as close to the filling as possible without cutting through the dough seal. Pierce the top layer of dough several times with a fork
18
Lay the spongata on baking paper and loosely cover with cling film to stop it drying out as you make the rest of the cakes
19
Repeat with the rest of the dough and filling
20
When you're ready to bake, preheat the oven to 200°C/gas mark 5
21
Bake the spongata (you will have to cook them in batches) for 15–20 minutes, until lightly golden – any longer and the filling will become to dry
22
Cool on a wire rack. When the spongata have completely cooled, dust with icing sugar

Header image courtesy of John Holdship.

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