Lampedusa is a tiny sliver of a rock situated south of Sicily, a last outpost before reaching Africa, virtually a stone’s throw away. Famous for its pristine waters and its lack of amenities, it gained some popularity amongst that jet set who likes to boast about undiscovered gems. Lately, Lampedusa has been in the news mainly for being the first port of arrival for all those illegal North African immigrants who charter iffy boats and board them dreaming of a better future. Those who are intercepted or, more often, who get stranded at sea, are taken to Lampedusa, where they receive basic first aid, food and shelter until the Italian government processes them one way or another.
At heart, Lampedusa hasn’t changed much in the last century – hard to get to, with few modern conveniences and an aging population, it’s essentially still a fishermen’s community of welcoming islanders, true to their Sicilian hospitality. My sister just came back from a summer vacation in Lampedusa, with tales of, yes, pristine waters, of the freshest and cheapest seafood in the Western world and of croissants filled with pistachio cream. That one caught my attention.
“Tell me more”
“Well, they are regular flaky butter croissants filled with a pistachio pastry cream that sounds gross when you say it (not really) but it’s delicious and not too sweet”.
“Not too sweet”, to my sister’s and my palate, is the highest compliment we can pay to anything, ahem, sweet. Six thousand miles away, this merited some investigating.
Pistachios are used and abused in Sicilian desserts, mainly because, together with Iran and California, Sicily is one of the biggest world producers. I don’t know about Iran but, unlike California, in Sicily all the pistachio farms are no bigger than an hectare, hence privately owned by families who have most likely been tilling that land for generations.
Sicilian pistachios are fragrant, tasty and crunchy and are a popular addition to cassatas, canolis, ice creams and granitas. They actually pop up a bit too often in the Sicilian pastry repertoire for my taste. I abhor pistachio ice-cream but probably because it’s mostly made with pistachio pastes artificially flavored and colored.
I started to love pistachio late in life, after two days spent at the American Embassy in Naples, having my body probed and injected and answering questions while waiting for the seal of approval on my Green Card. During this humiliating process, I came to know an elderly Iranian couple who relied both on my English and my Italian to see them through what must have been a Herculean ordeal to them (the Naples Embassy serves Iranian citizens in all American matters).
After whizzing through the city in rickety taxis to reach doctors’ offices and spending idle hours on uncomfortable benches in the Embassy’s unwelcoming corridors, we knew everything there was to know about each other, and then some, communicated in basic English, hand gestures and facial expressions. A peculiar friendship ensued, once back in Los Angeles, one that introduced me to Persian cuisine and, on the train back to Rome, to a bag of Iranian pistachios that the couple pressed into my hands before alighting, together with a tiny envelope of the best saffron I have ever encountered.
But Californian pistachios are nothing to sneer at, especially the ones from the Central Valley that can easily be found at various Farmer’s Markets around the city.
Most recipes for pistachio pastry cream seemd to call for pistachio paste that can indeed be bought, maybe not everywhere, but definitely on-line or at stores specializing in pastry products. The real pistachio paste is not dissimilar from almond butter and can be made at home, just by throwing shelled pistachios in a mixer and grinding them extremely fine, until the oil is released and you obtain a paste. It will not be the bright green you might expect but it is the real thing.
A few recipes unearthed here and there called for a pistachio praline instead, essentially a caramel to which nuts are added and then ground once cooled. To my mind, that would have meant adding too much sugar to the pastry cream and, even adjusting the sugar in the cream recipe, the overall sweetness of the praline would have taken away from the bright pistachio flavor I was looking for. By now you know – not too sweet. And then I came upon a site for the Bronte pistachios, Bronte being the area where most Sicilian pistachios are farmed. Amongst the hundreds of suggestions for pistachio uses, I found a pastry cream recipe that called for making your own paste in the mixer and adding it to the flour (or cornstarch) and sugar you would be using for your pastry cream. Much more my cup of tea.
I used my personal pastry cream recipe (Check mine here) and I adapted their suggestion. The result? A light green pistachio flavored custard that is miraculously delicious and left me wondering “Why did I never think of it?”. Inject it in home-made or store-bought croissants, use it for a crostata base or to fill a cake.
Sis, I owe you one.