Spoiler alert: ‘spongata di natale’ means Christmas sponge. I suppose we would still love it even if it were called ‘Christmas onion’.
What does ‘spongata’ mean?
I’m always intrigues by names of foods in languages I have limited knowledge of. Plus you can rely on Italians to give their dishes imaginative names with a flourish. Please note: I’ve made the cake, researched the recipe, written up mine but as I write this, I don’t have a clue what ‘spongata’ might mean. Surely it can’t be to do with ‘sponge’? The pastry is nothing even remotely like sponge cakes. Let us see now!
It is to do with ‘sponge’ after all. How awfully boring. The name is derived from the little holes that are pierced in the pastry to let out steam, and from the uneven appearance of the cake when it’s out of the oven and before being iced.
Well then, dear friends, I give you – Christmas sponge.
Whatever the name and whether I like it or not, it’s a splendid Christmas creation. It’s like a giant Italian mince pie, inverted and with more nuts than fruit.
Where does spongata come from?
Spongata is a traditional Christmas cake from Italian regions of Emilia and Tuscany. It’s an old tradition of baking those oversized mince pies; originally gifted to Duke of Milan by Jewish merchants in 14th century according to some sources; based on an ancient Roman recipe according to others.
It is truly a pie: rich fruited and nutted filling wrapped in a thin layer of shortcrust pastry. It is served cut into tiny wedges which shows us up, us who gobble whole mince pies in one bite. It is a nice gift, wrapped in parchment, tied with a ribbon, because it lasts exceedingly well. Another one of those confections that the Italians start baking in the middle of November.
How to make spongata pastry
Very easily. It is a simple pasta frolla, short crust, made with flour, butter and sugar but the binding liquid isn’t egg or water – it’s white wine. Some recipes instruct to boil it with sugar into a syrup and then knead into flour but it’s unnecessary faff. Rubbing the butter into flour and sugar, adding wine to bind and hey! presto – sponge pastry.
If you use a mixer to stir the butter into flour and start adding the wine, it will look for a good while like it’s never going to come together – but it will, with the last drop of wine, so don’t be tempted to add more (just drink it instead).
The pastry does not need to rest or chill but can be used straight away, once you have the filling ready.
How to make spongata filling
It is not dissimilar from English mincemeat, a combination of dried fruit (except soaked in wine), nuts (and pine nuts, unusual in mincemeat), spices and honey. All that is bound together with breadcrumbs which is an ingenious trick.
The filling, once made, is supposed to mature for three days to let the flavours amalgamate but it’s plenty flavoursome anyway without the wait. Some Tuscan master bakers shape the filling into balls and wrap thinly rolled pastry all around it, so there is no top or bottom pastry, or an unsightly seam.
I am not one of the Tuscan master bakers, so my recipe says: roll out base and lid, spoon filling and cover.
When it comes out of the oven, spongata is not very impressive, like a very flat pie with bumpy top. But, as I always say, icing sugar covers a multitude of faults and once dusted, the Christmas sponges look pretty. And taste fantastic.
Recipe comes from Great Italian Chefs.