Spiced saba, raisin and nut biscuits

Something about Italian sweets intrigues me. Sometimes the flavor combinations are unexpected and delicious, and other times the appeal is obvious like gelato. I was happily transferred to Italy and specifically to Sardinia with some recipes while reading my review copy La Vita e Dolce: Italian-inspired desserts by Letitia Clark. Clark and English pastry chef wrote this book from her home in Sardinia when the pandemic was just beginning. She writes that she “wanted to hold onto and celebrate those moments of sweet, everyday fun.” Making sweet treats at home is an easy way to add and share a little bit of joy every day. And I especially enjoy making and sharing Italian sweets. I’ve written before about my deep affection for anginetti biscuits, which are lemony, little round delights, and I’ve been blown away by pezzetti di cannella, which combine cocoa, cinnamon, and lemon zest in one fabulous, glazed biscuit. And of course, the savory-sweet combination of grapes and rosemary in Schiacciata all’uva is divine. So I couldn’t wait to read through this new book. It includes cookies, tarts, cakes, spoonables, yeast and fried treats, gelato and candy gift giving. The recipes have all been created in a very accessible way for the home cook. I could seriously spend time alone with the gelato chapter. From sparkling lemon sorbetto to ricotta and fig ripple gelato, there are tips for best results and anecdotes about ice cream shops in Italy. Stuck in the gift chapter, I wanted to try the chocolate, hazelnut and sour cherry salad and realized I’ve never made panforte. As I read through the book, I decided that I needed more torta della nonna in my life, as well as crostata de marmellata. I quickly became jealous when Clark described the quality of the fruit available in Sardinia. Still, I want to try the Citrus, Campari, and Yoghurt Upside-Down Cake with what I can get here. First, however, the pabassinus biscuits, or spiced saba, raisin and nut biscuits, had my full attention. The mixture of cinnamon, cloves, anise and lemon zest with saba and the nuts and raisins sounded like a combo I had to try. The fact that the cookies are traditionally decorated with sprinkles made me even more interested in them.

The top note explains that the name of the biscuits comes from the Sardinian word for raisin “pabassa”. Step one was getting Saba, and that was easy with an online order. To start the cookie dough, slivers of almonds and walnuts were toasted and then chopped. The anise was roasted in a dry pan and then crushed with a mortar and pestle. The raisins were soaked to bulk them up and I used orange juice for this. The prepared nuts, aniseed, and drained raisins were mixed with flour, sugar, softened butter, egg, salt, baking powder, cinnamon, ground cloves, saba, and lemon zest to form a dough. After cooling the dough for 30 minutes, it was rolled and cut into diagonal shapes. The sliced ​​cookies were baked, cooled, and dipped in icing sugar before being topped with sprinkles.

How can sprinkles not make you happy? The idea of ​​this book was to spread joy, and these cookies definitely did that. I loved the flavor blend of the spices, the brightness of the citrus zest, and the tangy sweetness of the saba. It will be fun to have even more Italian sweets to enjoy at home and share with others.


Spiced saba, raisin and nut biscuits

These small diamond-shaped biscuits can be found all over Sardinia, with recipes varying from region to region. Pabassinus, derived from the Sardinian word pabassa, meaning ‘raisins’, are traditionally made for All Saints’ Day (November 1st), with spices, citrus peel and a large quantity of dried fruits and nuts being the edible features of religious festivals. Crumbly, nutty, and wonderfully tangy, they’re so inextricably linked to the pre-Ognissanti era that when I asked a friend to make them for me in September, I flatly declined. I first made them with a friend’s aunt, who measured everything by eye (‘quanto basta!’) and baked them in a wood-fired oven as she has done on the same day every year her entire life. Many Sardinian homes still have these stoves, which are lit on special occasions. Traditionally, bread is baked first, then when the temperature cools down, the dolci are baked afterwards. Saba or Sapa is a dark, richly flavored syrup made from cooked grape must. Traditionally, this was also made in Sardinia from prickly pears (Fichi d’India), which grow wild all over the country. They were collected with sticks and then boiled down with water to form a thick, dark syrup, which was then used as a sweetener. Few people make this syrup today, but grape sapa is still used in many traditional dolci. If you can’t find sapa, dark honey, black syrup, or date molasses are good substitutes. The cookies are usually topped with a simple white ice cream icing and colorful sprinkles (Sardinians love sprinkles), but they’re also delicious without the icing or sprinkles. They will keep for a few days in an airtight container.

Makes 30 larger cookies or 40 smaller ones – enough for a festa

100 g blanched almonds

70 g (2 1⁄2 oz) walnuts 2 tsp anise

120 grams of raisins

270 g (10 oz/2 1⁄4 cup) 00 or plain (all-purpose) flour, plus extra for dusting

140 g (4 1⁄2 oz/2 2⁄3 cups) sugar

120 g butter or lard at room temperature

1 egg and 1 yolk

1⁄2 tsp salt

1 teaspoon Baking powder

Pinch of cinnamon

Pinch of ground cloves (optional)

1 tbsp saba

zest of 1 lemon

zest of 1 orange

For the icing

130 g powdered sugar (powdered sugar).

2 tbsp lemon juice (juice from 1 lemon, coarse)

sprinkles (optional)

Preheat oven to 180oC (350oF/Gas 4). Spread the almonds on the bottom of a baking sheet (pan) and toast in the oven until lightly golden brown, about 8-10 minutes. Remove from the oven and cut the almonds lengthways into nibs. Roughly chop the walnuts.

Toast the aniseed in a dry, shallow pan for 1-2 minutes or until it starts to smell nice. Remove the seeds and gently beat them in a pestle and mortar or in a deep bowl with the bottom of a rolling pin. Soak the raisins in boiling water (or tea or coffee or anything hot you have on hand – fennel tea would be nice too) until tender (about 3 minutes). Drain well in a colander and squeeze to remove excess liquid.

In a bowl, mix the chopped nuts, crushed anise, and soaked raisins with the remaining ingredients using your hands (messy but filling) or a wooden spoon until a smooth batter forms. Wrap the dough in cling film (plastic wrap) and let it rest in the fridge while you clean it up. After resting for 30 minutes, roll out the dough on a floured work surface. Roll out to 1cm thick, then cut diagonally into large diamonds, roll again and trim off all edges until all of the dough is used.

Place on a parchment-lined baking sheet and bake for 12-15 minutes (watch them closely as they burn quickly). Take out and let cool.

For the glaze, mix the powdered sugar with the lemon juice in a small bowl until just a pourable consistency is reached. Decorate the cookies with the icing and sprinkles, if using.

Note: these are almost always made into rough diagonals here in Sardinia, but if you prefer to use your favorite cookie cutter you’re welcome to do so. They would also make very good Christmas cookies.

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