Every Friday, gorgeous Italian Jewish women and men line up to buy this hideous dessert. What is the fuss all about? Recently I visited Rome and, like I do in every city I visit, I investigated the local dessert scene. When I saw 30 people waiting in line outside a tiny shop, I had to find out what was inside. When I saw the charred loaves, I thought that the people outside must be waiting for some other dessert. But no, everyone was buying the black lump. It was burnt to a crisp, with the raisins puffed and charred beyond recognition. It also had colorful candied fruit in it, which apparently some people like. There were pine nuts and almonds sticking out of it, some of them barely recognizable. It is essentially the dessert equivalent of cholent – a dish that one dumps everything into. I use cholent to clean out my cabinets before Passover and put every grain, bean and pasta I find into it. Now you have a dessert into which you can dump all the small amounts of nuts and dried fruit that are sitting, lonely, at the bottom of their bags and boxes.
It is called “Pizza Ebraica” and it is a Jewish Roman specialty. I finally tasted it while I enjoyed my coffee across the street. It was extremely crunchy. I liked the taste and aroma of the well-toasted nuts and, like a three-year-old, I picked out the candied fruit. I packed up the rest to take with me to meet our group in line for tickets for the Forum and Coliseum and gave out pieces to all. Our group of seven kids looked at it and went straight to the chewy chocolate cookies from El Mundo di Laura, another Kosher bakery in the Jewish Ghetto, around the corner from where I bought got the “pizza.” As the adults kept breaking off pieces of it, eventually the kids wanted to understand why we kept grabbing for more. It was absolutely addictive. I finally got the obsession.
I did some research on this Roman dessert and learned that Saveur magazine had done a story on it back in April 2010. Despite that, I had never seen it anywhere before. Really, why would anyone serve something that looks so unappetizing?
Upon returning, I decided to try baking it. I found a variety of recipes online and then developed my own, substituting dried cranberries, golden raisins and apricots for the evil candied fruits. The recipes also called for soaking the dark raisins in sweet wine but I was not sure whether to use red wine or Moscato. I went with the Manischewitz. Okay, so the dough came out a bit purple, but my family decided it was so much better than the version we had in Rome. I still felt it wasn’t crunchy enough and made a second version with more chazerai (Yiddish for junk) inside and less wine, but the troops liked the first batch better. Either way, it is the perfect dessert to have sitting on the counter during Shabbat, and I can virtually guarantee that folks will be picking off chunks as they pass on by. For the last two Shabbats before Passover, go ahead and clean out that pantry, bake this ugly dessert and then watch the pretty smiles on everyone’s faces.The shop, Pasticceria il Boccione, is on Via Del Portico d’Ottavia, the main street of the Jewish Ghetto.
Serves everyone, until it’s gone
You can use any nuts or dried fruit you like, just follow the amounts below. You do not need to bake it until it is charred, but well-browned results in a crunchier loaf.
¾ cup olive oil
1 egg white
4 cups all-purpose flour
½ teaspoon salt
1 cup sugar
1 cup almonds
¾ cup dark raisins soaked in 1 cup sweet wine for ten minutes
½ cup dried apricots, chopped
1/2 cup pine nuts
¼ cup dried cranberries, chopped
½ cup golden raisins
Preheat oven to 400°F. Cover a large cookie sheet with parchment paper. Set aside.
Place the olive oil, egg white, flour, salt and sugar into a large mixing bowl and beat. Add the almonds, raisins and wine, apricots, pine nuts, cranberries and golden raisins, and mix with your hands until combined. You will have a dry dough. Dump onto your prepared cookie sheet and shape into a large oval or rectangle, squishing in the nuts and fruit so that they remain inside the dough. Pat down the top.
Bake for 25-30 minutes, or until well-browned. Let cool. Store at room temperature for up to three days, if it lasts that long.