I developed this recipe for what I am calling a Crostata Stellata, for a Ci Piace Cucinare Christmas menu. It all started after our summer trip to Abruzzo, when I started researching traditional sweets for a Lunch in Abruzzo story. I stumbled across a recipe for Sfogliatelle Abruzzese, a kind of cousin of Neopolitan sfogliatelle, perhaps one of the greatest sweets ever created, on par with Baclava, Tarte Tatin and the strawberry cream puffs my Grandma loved from Patterson’s Cake Shop.
The Sfogliatelle Abruzzese were a revelation, partly because the pasta riccia was much easier than expected, and partly because the traditional filling of grape jam mixed with chopped nuts, and enriched with a choice of candied citrus, dark chocolate and/or spices reminded me of mince pie filling. Grape jam, a bit fiddly if you pick the seeded grapes from the garden pergola, but totally delicious and a fresh version of soaked and cooked sultanas, being the same thing really, just via different routes.
When Ci Piace asked for a Christmas menu I did try to get actual mince tarts in (along with a double cooked and glazed Gammon) but they weren’t chosen, a shame because English Christmas dishes really are the arena in which we Anglo Saxons can stand an inch taller and tell the Italians just how wonderful roast turkey with two different stuffings, gravy, a medley of roast vegetables, various sauces and then plum pudding with more sauces and perhaps a scoop of rich vanilla icecream really is.
The result being that I presented a very Italian looking crostata, with a very Italian filling, a version of the aforementioned grape composto from Abruzzo, but that with its heady fruitiness and wafts of spices tastes almost exactly like a mince pie, minus the suet if you want to be finicky. (I freely admit to having never made mincemeat, which you can read about here along with a super recipe for mince pie pastry with lard.)
If you don’t have fresh grapes to hand – in Italy it is normal to find them in the markets until December – substitute with a large jar of grape jam or sultanas soaked in tepid water or white wine. I like making shortcrust pastry with a mix of flours but straight plain flour works too.
For a tart tin of roughly 22 cm
150 g plain flour (farina 00)
150 g fine ground semola flour (farina di semola rimacinata)
100 g icing sugar
1 pinch salt
Zest of half an untreated orange (or lemon)
150 g butter – cold and cubed
2 small-medium eggs
900 g unseeded grapes – can be any colour – and if they have seeds split and deseed first
3 small pears
300 g sugar
100 g brown sugar
80-100 g hazelnuts and/or walnuts
60 g candied orange
Juice of a small lemon
1/4 teaspoon of ground cinammon
1/4 teaspoon of ground cloves
The pastry can be made by hand or stand mixer or food processor. It can also be made in advance and keeps well for a couple of days in the fridge and can be frozen for up to 3 months.
Mix all of the dry ingredients and citrus zest together, then add the chilled butter cut into small pieces. Rub the butter into the flour using the tips of your fingers and once mixture has the consistency of breadcrumbs add two smallish eggs, beaten, and mix well until the mixture comes together in a ball. If the pastry is still dry add a teaspoon of water.
Turn out onto a well floured surface, knead until it has a uniform consistency, and cut into two almost halves, with one half slightly larger, which will be for the base. Form each into a disk shaped piece, cover with baking paper or plastic wrap and refrigerate for at least an hour before using.
The grape jam is a somewhat lengthy process so this could be done a day, or even days, before. Wash the grapes well, remove from stalks, and put into a large saucepan and cook over a low heat for 40 to 60 minutes, bashing with a wooden spoon once every so often so that the grapes burst and start to collapse. Peel and chop the pears, eliminating cores and adding to the mix about half way though. How long it takes to get to the stage when the fruit is soft and mushy will depend on the fruit so keep an eye on things.
Once the fruit is soft, drain off a couple of tablespoons of liquid, add the sugar and lemon juice and cook over a menium heat for another 25-30 minutes until the jam is dense and sticky. Allow it to cool a little before folding in the chopped nuts, spices and finely diced citrus peel.
Preheat the oven to 180°C.
On a clean and lightly floured surface roll out the larger piece of the chilled pastry and fit into a tart tin with a removable base. Press into the tin well, trim the edges using the back side of a fine butter knife and prick the base with a fork. Fill the tart with the sticky, scented filling and roll out the top piece. Use a stencil or a giant star cutter (which I didn’t have) to cut a star from the top and position over the base, which has been brushed with a little water to help bind the two pieces. Trim the edges by pressing in to the tin, and crimp with the back of a fork.
I baked mine for 50 minutes in a fan forced 180°C oven. Dust with icing sugar while still slightly warm so that it melts into the jam mixture.