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My rendition of gubana delle Valli del Natisone, as featured in Flavors of Friuli

While doing research for Flavors of Friuli, one of my most nagging questions was this: is there any difference between gubana and the similar-looking spiral pastries from Trieste, putizza and presnitz, or are they simply regional names for the same dessert? On one of my trips I spoke to a woman working at Pasticceria Ducale in Cividale del Friuli, and she gave me what was the clearest explanation I’d yet found.

Derived from the Slovene word guba, meaning “wrinkle” or “fold,” the name gubana is suggestive of the swirls and spirals in the pastry. While literary sources date similar recipes to the Middle Ages and perhaps even the Romans, the first document to mention gubana by name was written in 1576. There are two types of gubana: gubana delle Valli del Natisone and gubana Cividalese.

Putizza, photo courtesy of Pasticceria Penso

Gubana delle Valli del Natisone is a large spiral cake made with a yeast-based dough and filled with dried fruit, nuts, and spices. It appears very similar to putizza, the spiral cake from Trieste, which gets its name from the Slovenian pastry called potica. As it was explained to me at Pasticceria Ducale, putizza contains chocolate, while gubana delle Valli del Natisone typically does not; otherwise they are quite similar. Later, as I sampled multiple versions of both cakes, I discovered several other differences, notably that this type of gubana is baked as a free-form loaf, while putizza is baked in a round cake pan (or in some bakeries, a paper mold). As I began to test-bake recipes, I came to understand the reason for this. The dough for putizza is much softer and doesn’t hold its shape when filled, necessitating a pan to contain the spiral. In addition, putizza tends to have a higher filling-to-dough ratio, making it a richer, more decadent treat.

Gubana Cividalese, Pasticceria Ducale

Gubana Cividalese contains the same filling as the Valli del Natisone version but is prepared with puff pastry and rolled into a snake-like spiral. When gubana was first conceived, puff pastry required equipment and knowledge only available to the upper classes, making gubana Cividalese the aristocrat’s pastry of choice in the prominent city of Cividale, while gubana delle Valli del Natisone was the version typically prepared by peasants living in the valleys around the Natisone River.

Presnitz, photo courtesy of Pasticceria Penso

Like gubana Cividalese, presnitz, named after the Slovenian Easter cake called presnec, is made with puff pastry and contains a filling of dried fruit, nuts, and spices. In our conversation, the woman at Pasticceria Ducale asserted that gubana Cividalese and presnitz were entirely identical. Since then I have learned that, while this may be true for modern versions of the pastries, historically there is one significant difference. Because Trieste’s wealth during the Hapsburg era brought an increased availability of exotic imports such as spices, nuts, and liqueurs to the city, presnitz was considered a more refined pastry and typically comprised a much longer ingredient list than its counterpart from Cividale. Presnitz was first presented to the empress Elisabeth during a mid-19th century visit to Trieste.

Recipes for gubana delle Valli del Natisone, gubana Cividalese, putizza, and presnitz may be found in my book Flavors of Friuli: A Culinary Journey through Northeastern Italy.

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Latteria Sociale di CividaleAfter a late arrival in Udine the previous night, I awoke to the sound of rain pounding on my shutters. How I desperately longed to roll over, close my eyes, and sleep the morning away! Instead, I forced myself to change and head downstairs to Hotel Principe’s basement-level breakfast room, where the server, Luciana, greeted me like an old friend, even though it had been over a year since my last visit. The hotel’s breakfast buffet included a substantial array of choices: fresh rolls, croissants, and pastries; several types of cereal; the seemingly obligatory packaged toast; fresh fruit; orange and grapefruit juices; and my favorite brand of yogurt, appropriately called “Carnia,” my flavors of choice being frutti di bosco and albicocca.

Since it was raining and I still suffered from jet lag, I decided on a simple excursion to Cividale to ease me into my five-week-long stay. A quick train ride away, the town was by now quite familiar to me, but this time I had a brand new objective: to visit the Latteria Sociale di Cividale, located a short distance across the Ponte del Diavolo in an area I had not yet explored.

The Latteria Sociale is a dairy cooperative, founded in 1924. Members provide a daily supply of milk, from which the latteria produces a number of different cheeses, including the famous Montasio. I had emailed them in advance of my visit but, to my disappointment, received no reply. Unfortunately, the shop was packed with customers when I arrived, and no one was available to speak to me about their cheese production.

Back on the other side of the bridge, however, I stumbled upon a true gem called La Bottega del Gusto. A gourmet’s paradise, this tiny shop was filled to the brim with cheese, salumi, wine, and other artisanal products—not just from Friuli but from all over Italy. The shop owner was thrilled to hear of my interest in his region’s cuisine and offered me some samples. First, I tasted a bite of formadi frant, a cheese made from mixing cheeses of various stages of maturation. It had a golden hue and a salty, pungent flavor. Next, I tried a paper-thin slice of petti d’oca (goose salami), sweet and rosy with a wide border of fat. Another cured meat that I had read much about was pitina; while there were no samples to taste that morning, the shop did carry pitina, and so I bought one to try later.

strucchiMy next stop was the nearby Panificio Cattarossi, where I purchased a gubana Cividalese and a package of cookies called strucchi. Of Friuli’s famous spiral confections, I had so far tried putizza and presnitz in Trieste, and gubana delle Valli del Natisone in Cividale. The differences between the spiral cakes putizza and gubana delle Valli del Natisone were easily determined—for starters, I found that putizza contained chocolate and was baked in a cake pan—but whether there was any significant difference between the puff pastry spirals presnitz and gubana Cividalese remained an unresolved question. I asked the clerk, and although she did emphasize dried fruit in the gubana, her answer was predictably vague.

Ristorante Al MonasteroFor lunch, I returned to the restaurant where I had eaten on my last visit to Cividale: Ristorante Al Monastero. I was lured by the presence of two dishes from my master list—asparagi gratinati and gnocchi di ricotta—on their menu posted outside, but, as so often happened in my travels, those items were not on the actual menu inside. So instead, I ordered the antipasti misti, which included crêpe spirals filled with ricotta and an assortment of salumi—of which the prosciutto d’agnello (cured lamb) was the most unusual. To keep things on the light side, in anticipation of more than a month’s worth of culinary indulgences, I next ordered a plain bowl of minestrone. This meal was healthier than many, and the soup hit the spot on such a rainy day. To complete my meal, and in lieu of dessert, I savored a glass of Picolit wine—sweet and golden with notes of honey, fruit, and caramel.

pitinaBack in my hotel room that afternoon, I opened up my box of pitina—inside was a round hunk of meat, about the size of a tennis ball. Since the early 19th century, pitina (also called peta and petuccia) has been prepared in the mountainous areas of Val Tramontina and Val Cellina in the northern part of Pordenone province. Like all cured meats, pitina was originally created as a way of preserving the meat, in this case mutton, goat, or game such as chamois or venison. The conventional method of sausage-making, which involved stuffing pig intestines with ground meat, was impractical due to the scarcity of swine in these hills. So instead, the meat was seasoned with salt, pepper, garlic, herbs, and red wine, then rolled into balls and dredged in cornmeal. Once prepared, these meatballs were placed above a fogolâr (fireplace) to smoke for several days, typically using juniper wood to give the pitina its distinctive smoky flavor. They were then relocated to a cool, dry place to age for several months. Today, only a few artisans still prepare pitina from wild game. This particular brand was made with a combination of pork, beef, and lamb and tasted like smoky salami.

Ristorante Al VaporeLater that evening, I found myself at Ristorante Al Vapore for dinner. Since my last visit three years earlier, the restaurant had renovated and was under new management. The morning showers had gradually tapered off, and I was seated in their outdoor patio area under a red awning. The air was muggy and filled with mosquitoes. I started with one of Friuli’s traditional dishes, toç in braide: a mound of piping hot, creamy polenta topped by a sauce of thinned ricotta, drizzled with a bit of toasted cornmeal in browned butter, and garnished by a ring of sautéed porcini mushrooms. The polenta was so filling that I chose a light dish of trota affumicata (smoked trout) for my second course. This rosy fillet of trota salmonata (salmon trout) was delicately smoked and served on a bed of mixed greens, radicchio, carrots, and zucchini. As I ate, I perused the rest of the menu, intrigued by the lengthy list of salads, particularly the one dubbed the “Equilibrio”—meaning “balance,” this happens to be the name of my publishing imprint!

Back in my hotel room, I cut myself a slice of gubana for dessert. Shaped into a snake-like spiral, flaky puff pastry enveloped a dense filling of raisins, walnuts, and spices. As far as I could tell, it was practically identical to the presnitz I had tasted in Trieste (although a side-by-side taste test would perhaps have yielded a clearer comparison).

strucchiI also sampled a couple of the strucchi. Named for the Slovenian dumplings called štruklji, these small rectangular cookies were made with the same filling as the gubana, deep-fried, and dusted with sugar. Here is my version of the recipe. It makes about 10 to 11 dozen cookies.

DOUGH:
6 cups all-purpose flour
6 tablespoons sugar
1 tablespoon freshly grated lemon peel
1 teaspoon salt
2 cups (4 sticks) unsalted butter, cut into cubes
4 eggs
2 teaspoons vanilla extract

In a large bowl, combine the flour, sugar, lemon peel, and salt. Blend in the butter, a little at a time, until crumbly. Add the eggs and vanilla extract; mix until the dough forms a solid mass. Refrigerate for 1 hour.

FILLING:
1 cup raisins
1/2 cup grappa or rum
1 cup coarsely chopped walnuts
1/2 cup blanched slivered almonds
3/4 cup finely crushed biscotti or amaretti cookies
1/2 cup diced candied orange peel
1/4 cup pine nuts
4 tablespoons unsalted butter, melted
3 tablespoons sugar
1-1/2 teaspoons ground cinnamon
1 egg

1. Place the raisins in a large bowl; add the grappa and let soak for 30 minutes.

2. Finely grind the walnuts and almonds in a food processor; add to the bowl of raisins. Stir in the crushed biscotti, candied orange peel, pine nuts, melted butter, sugar, cinnamon, and egg.

TO PREPARE:
Vegetable oil
Sugar

1. Working in batches, roll the dough on a sheet of waxed paper to 1/8-inch thickness. Cut the dough into 1 by 1-1/2 inch rectangles. Place 1/2 teaspoon filling in the center of one rectangle; cover with another rectangle, sealing the edges tightly. (Keep the unused dough refrigerated until ready to use.)

2. Pour 1-1/2 inches of vegetable oil into a large pot. Heat the oil to 365°F. Working in batches, carefully place the strucchi in the hot oil; fry until golden brown, about 1–2 minutes. Remove from oil; drain on paper towels. Sprinkle with sugar.

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Cividale's Ponte del DiavoloWhen traveling, there is almost no feeling worse than that of waking up sick. This was my fate one chilly winter morning in Udine. Always being prepared for the worst, I was well stocked with cold meds. I grabbed a lozenge for my sore throat, rolled over in my hotel bed, and went back to sleep. When I awoke several hours later, I determined that I didn’t have the flu, just a cold, and so decided to venture out anyway. I chose the easiest, quickest day trip from Udine: Cividale del Friuli, a delightful medieval town on the banks of the Natisone River.

I took the 10:30 train and arrived within 20 minutes. A short walk from the station brought me to Piazza Alberto Picco and the town’s most revered bakery, Pasticceria Ducale. The display counters were brimming with chocolate-glazed, fruit-filled, and sugar-dusted pastries, but I chose instead to buy the town’s signature dessert, gubana—a large, spiral cake filled with dried fruit, nuts, and spices. (I should say, to be more accurate, “gubana delle Valli del Natisone,” since there are two types of gubana, the other being “gubana Cividalese.”) While much gubana is nowadays mass-produced, such as the popular Vogrig brand, Pasticceria Ducale is one of the few bakeries still baking it the old-fashioned way.

gubana cividaleseWhile making my purchase, I explained my project to the signora and asked one of my most nagging questions: Is there any difference between gubana and the similar-looking pastries from Trieste, putizza and presnitz, or are they simply regional names for the same dessert? She explained that Trieste’s putizza contains chocolate, while gubana delle Valli del Natisone does not; otherwise they are very much the same. She also believed that gubana Cividalese and presnitz were identical, being made with puff pastry instead of yeast dough. (Since then I have learned that, while this may be true for modern versions of the pastries, historically there is one important difference. Because Trieste’s wealth during the Hapsburg era brought an increased availability of exotic imports such as spices, nuts, and liqueurs, presnitz was considered a more refined pastry and typically comprised a significantly longer ingredient list than gubana.)

Dulcis in FundoWhen I timidly made my standard request for a recipe, she stepped into the back room and brought out a beautiful cookbook that featured their bakery’s version of gubana. Called Dulcis in Fundo (a play on words that means literally “sweet at the bottom” and figuratively “to save the best for last”), the book was a compilation of recipes from Friuli’s most prestigious bakeries. Divided into four sections corresponding to the region’s four provinces, it was filled with gorgeous color photos and thorough information on the culinary history of Friuli’s desserts. To my surprise, she proceeded to give me the book as a gift! So far, this was one of the nicest gestures anyone had shown me and truly demonstrates the inherent kindness of the Friulian people. To this day, I treasure this cookbook as one of my favorites.

Since I had previously been to many of the town’s main sights—Museo Archeologico Nazionale, Tempietto Longobardo, Duomo di Santa Maria Assunta, Ipogeo Celtico—this visit I was more interested in the town’s bakeries. I next strolled to Panificio Cattarossi, located near the entrance to the Ponte del Diavolo. There I sampled a tiny gubanetta Cividalese, a palm-sized spiral of puff pastry prepared with the same ingredients as the larger, snake-like gubana Cividalese.

Ristorante Al MonasteroThe sky was overcast and threatened snow. I shivered inside my down-filled jacket, longing for something to warm me up—perhaps a hearty stew. Just as the clock struck noon, I turned into Ristorante Al Monastero. Instantly, I was warmed by the fire in the fogolâr (fireplace) in one of the cozy back rooms. A chubby Bacchus peered down from a fresco set amid wooden panels in the ceiling. Grape-motif plates and yellow tablecloths completed the elegantly rustic picture.

To start, I ordered cjalsòns, which had become a must-have for me in any restaurant. I was determined to try as many varieties as possible. These were three rather large half-moons, made with potato-based dough and stuffed with spinach, raisins, and pinenuts. Instead of the usual butter, these were served in a cream sauce, but did come with the typical topping of cinnamon and ricotta affumicata (smoked ricotta cheese). Overall, they were a bit heavy and not as flavorful as the cjalsòns that had enchanted me several years earlier. I was learning that I prefer a lighter pasta dough to this doughy, gnocchi-like version.

Next, I satisfied my craving for stew with a generous plate of goulasch. Tender chunks of beef were simmered in a rich, spicy sauce redolent of red wine and paprika and served with grilled polenta, roasted potatoes, and veggies. Although goulasch, or “gulyas,” is Hungarian by origin, it has become a staple in restaurants throughout Friuli-Venezia Giulia, since the region was once a part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire.

Udine's Casa VenezianaAfter my leisurely lunch, the weather had turned even nippier. Seeing as all the shops were closed for the afternoon, I took the train back to Udine right away. Once there, I embarked on a two-hour passeggiata that circled past Udine’s main sights in the Venetian-styled Piazza della Libertà, over the hill to the vast, round Piazza Primo Maggio, along the murky canal on Via Zanon, and winding up in Piazza XX Settembre to see the stately Casa Veneziana. Originally built several blocks away on Via Rialto, this immense, stone palazzo was reconstructed here in 1929 to make way for a new municipal building. Its dull, grayish-pink façade is marked by arched Gothic-style windows, Udine’s coat of arms, and a crest of the winged lion. (Having served as a parking lot for many years, Piazza XX Settembre was renovated in 2010 as a pedestrian area with farmers’ markets, free Wi-Fi, and a book-exchange program.)

By this time, my cold was progressing, and I couldn’t face the thought of braving the elements later that evening. So instead of planning a dinner out, I stopped by a market on Via Roma for some prosciutto di Sauris, Montasio cheese and grilled zucchini. After a light picnic in my room—and a slice of that gubana for dessert—I was fast asleep by 8:30pm. Dulcis in fundo!

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There was a chill in the air as I left Hotel Principe the next morning and crossed the street once again to the train station. Fortunately, this time, there were no strikes, and I was able to take the train to Cividale del Friuli. Located about ten miles northeast of Udine, Cividale is a delightful town straddling the banks of the Natisone River.

The train ride was only about 20 minutes, and so I arrived in Cividale by 9:00am. The town center was just a short walk from the train station, and I headed first to the Museo Archeologico Nazionale. Cividale was founded by Julius Caesar in 50 BC and was one of the region’s principal towns during several centuries of Roman rule. During the 6th century AD, the town was occupied by the Lombards, who had arrived from across central Europe on a fierce conquering spree. The museum contains relics from both Roman and Lombard civilizations, including a coin collection, eating utensils, swords and other weaponry, ivory ornaments, gold brooches, jeweled necklaces, and most famously, the sarcophagus of Cividale’s first duke, Gisulfo.

Next I visited the 8th-century Duomo di Santa Maria Assunta. This stark church houses the Museo Cristiano, whose most notable treasures are the altar of the Lombard duke Ratchis and the octagonal baptistery built for Patriarch Callisto.

My next destination was the Ipogeo Celtico, an underground series of caves that may once have been used for burial purposes. My guidebook had instructed to request the key at the nearby Bar All’Ipogeo. The key would then unlock an unmarked door around the corner. It was pitch black inside, and the light switch was not working. I returned to the bar for help, and the owner came with me to flip the breaker switch back on. The lights came on to reveal a set of steep stairs leading down into a dark cavern. As I descended, the sound of dripping water echoed against the rough, stone walls.

Back above ground, I took some time to wander through Cividale’s narrow cobblestone streets before proceeding to the next sights on my agenda. The sky was gray and cloudy, and the smell of burning wood hung in the air. Following the street signs (which were written in both Italian and Furlan, Friuli’s native language), I made my way along ancient winding alleys until I reached the Tempietto Longobardo. Perched on a cliff above the emerald green Natisone River, this temple is Cividale’s most significant Lombard monument. Inside the tiny church were faded frescoes, intricately carved wooden choir stalls, and six female saints in high relief poised above a grapevine-motif arch.

From the Tempietto, I walked to the Ponte del Diavolo. This “Devil’s Bridge” was named after a popular legend in which the townspeople of Cividale made a pact with the Devil. The Devil agreed to build the bridge overnight in exchange for the first soul to cross it. The next day, however, the townspeople outwitted the Devil by sending across a cat instead of a human.

The narrow bridge allowed only one lane of traffic, and pedestrians had to squeeze through on the side. To the immediate left after crossing the bridge was the Belvedere Panoramico with scenic views of the town’s church towers across the river. A set of dilapidated, mossy steps led down to a sandy bank along the water.

I accomplished all this in 3-1/2 hours, and it was time for lunch. I crossed back over the bridge and found myself at Osteria Alla Terrazza. With my glass of Tocai wine, the waitress served a complimentary slice of bruschetta topped with prosciutto and gorgonzola. I ordered the cjarsons alle erbe, tiny pasta half-moons that were filled with aromatic herbs, biscotti, apples, cinnamon, and cherry preserves, and then topped with melted butter, fresh sage, and smoked ricotta cheese. A ring of prosciutto encircled the plate as garnish. For dessert, I enjoyed a plate of struki (rectangular, bite-size turnovers filled with dried fruit and nuts) accompanied by a glass of honey-colored Picolit, the region’s widely acclaimed—though unfortunately low-yielding—dessert wine.

On my way back to the train station, I stopped at a bakery to buy a gubana, Friuli’s signature pastry. There are two types of gubana, and this one was the yeast dough variety, filled with dried fruit, nuts, and spices—it would make a nice treat back in my hotel room! Here is my version of the recipe:

FILLING:
1 cup raisins
1/2 cup grappa or rum
1 cup coarsely chopped walnuts
1/2 cup blanched slivered almonds
3/4 cup finely crushed biscotti or amaretti cookies
1/2 cup diced candied orange peel
1/4 cup pine nuts
4 tablespoons unsalted butter, melted
3 tablespoons sugar
1-1/2 teaspoons ground cinnamon
1 egg

1. Place the raisins in a large bowl; add the grappa and let soak for 30 minutes.

2. Finely grind the walnuts and almonds in a food processor; add to the bowl of raisins. Stir in the crushed biscotti, candied orange peel, pine nuts, melted butter, sugar, cinnamon, and egg.

DOUGH:
3-1/2 teaspoons active dry yeast, divided
1/3 cup sugar, divided
1/2 cup warm water (100° to 110°F), divided
2-2/3 cups all-purpose flour, divided
1 egg
1 egg yolk
4 tablespoons unsalted butter, diced and softened
1 teaspoon salt
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
• • •
1 teaspoon sugar

1. In a small bowl, dissolve 2 teaspoons yeast and a pinch of sugar in 1/4 cup warm water. Let rest until foamy, about 10 minutes. Stir in 1/2 cup flour. Cover and let rise for 30 minutes.

2. Transfer the mixture to a large bowl. Stir in 1 cup flour, 1 tablespoon sugar, the egg, and egg yolk. Cover and let rise for 1 hour.

3. In a small bowl, dissolve the remaining 1-1/2 teaspoons yeast and a pinch of sugar in the remaining 1/4 cup warm water. Let rest until foamy, about 10 minutes. Add to the bowl of risen dough, along with the remaining flour and sugar, butter, salt, and vanilla extract; mix well. Using a mixer with a dough hook attachment, knead for 10 minutes. (It may be necessary to occasionally scrape the ball of dough off the hook.) Transfer the dough to a lightly floured surface; knead briefly by hand. (The dough should be smooth and elastic.) Form the dough into a ball; cover loosely with plastic wrap or a kitchen towel and let rise for 1-1/2 hours.

4. Preheat oven to 350°F, placing a pan filled with water on the bottom rack to create steam. On a lightly floured surface, roll the dough to a 14- by 20-inch rectangle. Spread the filling over the dough, leaving a 1-inch border on all but one short side. (The filling will be sparse in places; just cover the dough as evenly as possible.) Starting with one long side, roll up jelly roll style. Place the roll seam-side down on a sheet of parchment paper. Beginning with the end that has the filling spread to the edge, form the roll into a spiral. Transfer the spiral, along with the parchment paper, to a baking sheet. Cover loosely with plastic wrap or a kitchen towel and let rise for 30 minutes.

5. Sprinkle the top of the spiral with 1 teaspoon sugar. Bake until golden brown, about 45 minutes.

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