Sfogliatelle riccie, Italian famous ‘lobster tail’ pastries are quite a tough cookie to make! But utterly delightful to eat, as attested by Tony Soprano.
The Sopranos’ pastries
Sfogliatelle are also known as lobster tails. They are the completely adorable pastries of Neapolitan origin whose fame was boosted by the iconic television programme, The Sopranos.
In Episode 8 of Season 1, Tony Soprano sends his nephew on a pastry run, to ‘get some sfogliatelle for the guys’. James Gandolfini’s pronunciation is a bit iffy so it probably took fans a while to get to the bottom of what pastry cost the poor baker’s boy a foot.
Pronunciation and origins
It should be pronounced ‘'sfohl-ya-TEL-leh'. The word means roughly something composed of leaves or layers and that’s exactly what sfogliatelle riccie are: layers upon layers of leaf-thin pastry baked into crunchy, crisp shell, not unlike a lobster’s tail indeed. The filling is a divine mixture flavoured with orange or lemon.
They originate from Campania, first created somewhere in a convent (the nuns clearly devoting their lives to exceedingly good deeds) and thence arrived in Naples.
From there, they went worldwide, or rather wherever Italian immigrants lay their heads and kneaded their dough. As many things though, only the Napoletani are claimed to be authentic.
Sfogliatelle must be one of the nicest things to have come out of Italy. I have not been fortunate enough to try the genuine ones made in Naples as I first tasted them in France – and I was instantly hooked. Sfogliatella and I – love at first sight.
It is such a good job there is a dearth of genuine Italian pasticcerias in my locality, otherwise my diet would definitely suffer from sugar overload.
What is sfogliatelle pastry like?
Sfogliatella – singular – is a pastry filled with custard-like mix. There are two types: frolla, made from typical Italian shortcrust pastry, smooth and shaped like an oversized clam shell, and riccia (curly), a devil to make and an angel to sample.
Sfogliatelle riccie are made from pastry that looks and tastes like a cross between layered filo and super-crisp puff. It is in fact simple and rough, slightly sweetened pasta dough rolled out to a paper thinness.
It is then liberally brushed with soft lard (none of that vegetarian nonsense in old Naples!) and rolled up and stretched, rolled up and stretched into a tight scroll.
After a spell in the fridge, the scroll is sliced into discs, and each disc is pressed, pushed, turned and worked with deft fingers in order to fan the greasy layers out in a shape of a cone.
What are sfogliatelle filled with?
The filling is made from cooked semolina beaten until smooth with ricotta and eggs.
The flavouring is vanilla, lemon, orange and cinnamon, all of those together or each featuring separately. It’s like frangipane or pastry cream as it can be stuffed into uncooked shells and baked as a whole.
How hard is it to make them?
Making the filling is a doddle; it’s the riccia pastry that is seriously challenging. The rolling out until it’s a mile-long, paper-thin tongue of pastry is infinitely helped by a pasta machine though I do not doubt the original nuns and innumerable later nonnas would spurn such device with a menacing shake of a rolling pin.
And then the shaping of a multi-layered disc of dough into a thin pocket is a bit like trying to unfurl a roll of ribbon into a tube without using glue. But even if the pastry is not perfectly flaky and layered, if it is a little clumpy, it will still taste incredibly good.
And the satisfaction of the achievement is as enormously blissful.
My recipe instruction is the result of scouring numerous YouTube videos, all of them making it look very easy. The pastry and filling recipe based is on an Australian Italian one by Claudio Ferrano. As I said, wherever the Italian émigré chefs set up their pastry boards…
More Italian pastry recipes
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Ricotta is a main player in these Italian biscuits, drizzled with icing and decorated with sprinkles.
For Christmas, but not necessarily only, spongata is a honey and nut-filled cake quite similar to an oversized mince pie, Italian style.
More filled pastry recipes
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Canadians do it with maple syrup: butter tarts, traditional pastries for Canada Day and Canadian Thanksgiving.
Jewish biscuits for Rosh Hashana are called hamantaschen. They are filled traditionally with poppy seeds, alternatively with jam and there is a lovely story attached to their origins.