Celli Ripieni: Jam biscuits and little birds
I love these little biscuits for so many reasons. First because they are basically little dumplings, filled with goodness. I love dumplings and I love cookies, so this is just a match made in heaven for me. Another reason I love these is that they are called “stuffed birds” because in one of the many traditional forms of these cookies from Abruzzo, they are made in the shape of little birds for the Festival of St Antonino in Aquila. Did I mention I love little birds too?
Yet another reason I love these is that they are traditionally made with a homemade grape jam that is not so much a recipe but something that, until recently anyway, the women of Abruzzese households seemed to learn how to do without notes or measurements. Just a way of life. This jam, known in dialect as scurchjiata or scrucchiata, is made from the local Montepulciano d’Abruzzo grapes and is not as sweet as a store-bought jam. I could not resist including a recipe for the jam, which I think should be treasured and passed around to those who have a passion for tradition! I have roughly translated from this beautiful post by a true casalinga from Abruzzo, which is the first time that any of the women in her family have ever written down their jam recipe.
The cookies are made with a filling of the scurchjiata, chopped walnuts and almonds, then flavoured with orange or lemon peel and sometimes even dark chocolate. Some recipes include a puree of chestnuts, or in the absence of it, chickpeas, and the addition of breadcrumbs, dried figs, coffee, cinnamon… each household have their own favourite combination of flavours.
This filling is then hidden inside a beautiful pastry of flour, white wine, extra virgin olive oil, sugar and eggs, and the whole things are baked and then covered in icing sugar.
They’re not meant to be too sweet, so taste and adjust a little to your liking but if the filling begins to taste a little sweet, you can add a squeeze of lemon juice to the mixture.
Just as traditions go, there are many variations on this recipe, but here’s a basic one that I like to use that I think allows just enough of the flavours to be brought out without being overwhelming:
For the scurchjiata:
- Montepulciano d’Abruzzo grapes
For the pastry:
- 500 grams flour
- 140 ml extra virgin olive oil
- 140 ml dry white wine
- 2-3 tablespoons caster sugar
- pinch of salt
For the filling:
- 400 grams grape jam (preferably homemade)
- 100 grams chopped, peeled almonds
- orange or lemon rind (even both), grated
- 5-6 dry, crushed plain biscuits
For the jam: there are no strict measurements here. One important thing you must do though is weigh the heavy-bottomed pot you’ll use to cook the jam in; you’ll see why later. Take your Montepulciano grapes, washed and picked, and (preferably in company with someone to chat with) separate the skins from the pulp. The skins can go directly into the pot while the pulp together with the seeds goes into a separate bowl.
The pulp at this point needs to be separated from the seeds and one of the best ways to do this is to push it through a sieve, adding the pulp then to the skins as you go. Heat the grapes until they begin to boil then lower the heat to a simmer until the volume of the jam is halved. Take off the heat and allow to cool completely (ideally, do this step at night and the next step the next morning).
Now re-weigh your pot with the jam in it to calculate the weight of the jam. You will need ¼ of the weight of the jam in sugar to add to the cooked grapes. If your grapes are already very sweet, you can add less, but the important thing is to use the ratio of the cooked grapes, not the uncooked grapes.
Return the pot to a boil and then turn the heat down to a simmer until the jam has halved in volume again. It’s now ready to use – spread it on bread or continue on to make the celli ripieni!
For the biscuits: Preheat the oven to 180 degrees Celcius. For the pastry, mix all the ingredients together until you get a smooth, elastic dough. It’s a beautifully velvety pastry. Don’t over work it; when it comes together nicely just wrap it in some plastic wrap and let it rest while you prepare the filling.
Prepare all the ingredients for the filling, including chopping finely the nuts, crushing the biscuits and grating the citrus rinds. Warm the jam (if you’re using it cold) in a small saucepan on low heat and add it to all the other ingredients you’re using for the filling, except for the crushed biscuits. The biscuits (some like to use breadcrumbs instead or even in addition to the biscuits) are for adding to the mixture to make it firmer and thicker, in the case that the jam mixture is too liquid. You want to be able to take spoonfuls of it that don’t slide off the spoon.
Roll out the pastry to a few millimetres thick and cut it into squares of about 10cm each side. Place a teaspoonful of the jam mixture into the centre of each pastry square and fold over the pastry to create a triangle, then bring the two outer angles together to create a horseshoe-type shape, pressing down on the edges to seal them – essentially these are made like tortellini or wontons. The pastry tends to shrink when it bakes so make sure you have plenty of pastry (don’t fill them too much!) and that you seal them well so they don’t open while cooking.
Arrange them on a cookie sheet, greased and covered with baking paper, and bake until they are lightly golden. When they are cool, dust them with icing sugar and eat them with a nice little cup of espresso!