What a fantastic adventure this was! Kate Quinn, author of several historical fiction novels, rounded up a number of food bloggers for a sort of virtual potluck, where we all made a dish from her newest book, The Serpent and the Pearl. It’s a book that chronicles the rise of the Borgia family in Rome through the eyes of three different characters, one of whom is a cook.
Obviously, she was my favorite.
A fiery no-nonsense cook, Carmellina is a fierce matriarch of the kitchen. Happy to whack apprentices with wooden spoons until they mind her, she finally finds one with real promise. The author of the book, Kate Quinn, has written in Bartolomeo Scappi, one of the real-world late medieval food gurus, as one of those gawky apprentices. His cookbook is one of my favorites, as it’s bursting with recipes and combinations of ingredients that I’d never have considered on my own. I discovered the cookbook this summer at a medieval food lab, where I pretty much read the book instead of getting around to cooking anything. But I’m making up for it now.
For this virtual potluck, I made three dishes: Roasted Duck, Peach Crostata, and Milk Snow. I’ve included the middle recipe below, but the others will follow soon. For now, I’ll talk about the deliciously spiced Peach Crostata.
As soon as I read this recipe, I was intrigued. A twist of dough around the pastry crust? I had to know more. I looked through the rest of Scappi’s recipes, and found a section that described the process of making these “twists”. That raised round edge of the crust, in this tart, is essentially a cinnamon roll, while the rest of the crust is not unlike the thin bottom of a modern fruit pie. (As a delectable sidenote, Scappi also mentions that one can make a similar crust with a sort of mince filling or savory meat filling; the possibilities are endless!) I experimented with a couple of methods before finding the one that worked best, and the resulting fruit tart is wonderful.
The dough, part pastry and part bread, is soft and light, providing a neutral basis for the spiced fruit filling. The peaches that are hard before baking soften but do not lose their shape. The flavors are brought to the forefront by the mixture of warm spices. Here and there a bite includes the tart burst of a cherry, which provides a flavorful aesthetic counterpart to the peaches. The most distinctive flavor of the dish is the mixture of spices, which is delightfully reminiscent of mulled wine. Add to that the beautiful colors of peaches and cherries, and you’ve got yourself a showpiece dessert.
While you’re hungry, definitely check out the other delectable dishes in our potluck. These talented ladies have all produced dishes from Scappi that are positively mouthwatering:
Hot Sops with Cherries – Kate Quinn, author
Fresh Cheese & Onion Tourte – Island Vittles
Capon with Garlic, Coriander & White Wine, Baked Apples – Little White Apron
Sugared Biscotti & Elderflower Frittelle – Taking on Magazines
Roasted Shoulder of Boar – Deana, at Lost Past Remembered
Asparagus Zuppa and Zabaglione – Heather Webb, author
Late Medieval Peach Crostata
“To prepare a peach, apricot, or plum crostata. Get a peach that is not too ripe; if it is hard it will do quite a bit better than if not. Peel it and cut it into slices. Have a tourte pan ready, lined with its three sheets of dough and its twist around it, greased with butter or rendered fat, and sprinkled with pepper, cloves, cinnamon, nutmeg and sugar, and with raisins and crumbled Neapolitan mostaccioli. On all that set out the peach slices and on top of them put the same ingredients as are under them. Cover the pan over with three thin sheets of dough, with rendered fat or butter brushed between each; sprinkle that with sugar and cinnamon. Bake it in an oven or braise it; it does not take too much cooking because it would disintigrate into a broth. Serve it hot, dressed with sugar and rosewater. With those ingredients you can also add in provatura or grated cheese.” -The Opera of Bartolomeo Scappi, c. 1570
Cook’s Notes: I mostly followed the original recipe for this, although I found that I needed more than a single peach. The dough recipe comes from Scappi as well, but the proportions are tweaked. I scoured all over Boston for fennel pollen, which I have been meaning to try, but without success. I’ll get some soon, and update the recipe review accordingly.
- 2 cups flour
- pinch of salt
- 3 Tbs. butter, plus more for spreading onto dough
- 2 egg yolks (save the whites for Milk Snow… recipe forthcoming)
- 1 tsp. rosewater
- 1 tsp. dry yeast
- 3 peaches
- 1/4 cup crumbled cookies (any shortbread-like cookie will do, but experiment!)
- pinch of fennel pollen (optional)
- 1/4 tsp. each pepper, cloves, and nutmeg
- 2 Tbs. cinnamon sugar
- ~1/4 cup dried cherries
Preheat the oven to 350F. In 1/4 cup warm water, add the yeast and let sit until foamy. Mix the flour and salt, then rub in the butter. Add the egg yolks, followed by the yeast and water. Stir to combine, adding extra water as needed until the dough comes together into a nice pliable texture. Divide the dough in half.
To form the twist: Pull one section of dough into a long rope, about a foot or so in length. Place it on a floured surface, and begin to roll out lengthwise until you have a long, flat strip of dough about 3 inches wide. Spread softened butter across the whole strip, then sprinkle liberally with cinnamon sugar. Gently roll this strip up so that it resembles a tiny cinnamon roll tube. Lay this twist aside.
Roll out the other piece of dough into a roughly round shape that is approximately 1/4″ thick, and about 10-12″ across. Gently lay this round on a baking sheet lined with parchment paper. Take the twisted dough that you made earlier and place it in a large circle around the flat dough. It shouldn’t reach the outer edge, but rather sit a little inside the edge. Gently fold the flat edge up over the twist toward the middle of the pastry shell, until the whole twist has been incorporated; trim off any excess dough as needed.
Mix together the crumbled cookies, fennel pollen, spices, and cinnamon sugar.
Sprinkle the inside of the tart shell with half of the spiced cookie crumbs, then layer the slices of peach in the shell, starting on the outside and working your way in and overlapping the slices until the whole tart is finished, and resembles a large flower. Place dried cherries in any gaps, which will add to the appearance and flavor. Sprinkle the remaining crumb mixture over top. Brush the outer crust with water and sprinkle with coarse sugar. If you like, lightly slice the outer crust to make a more decorative shape.
Bake at 350 for 25-30 minutes, until the crust is golden brown.