Most of the Sicilian food that I cook and write about here is essentially Palermitan, or is ubiquitous to the whole of Sicily, and so is close to generic as you get on that often fractious island. I hardly know the east of Sicily – just from overnight stays as a tourist, sights out of hire car windows, a port to catch a ferry from. And Messina, at the furthest east, almost touching mainland Italy, I have never visited at all.
My only connection with that part of Sicily is via my friend Vincenzo, who somehow has a better English accent than most British people I know, and who allows me to practice my stumbling Italian on him in exchange for food.
This Christmas just gone, with no-one going anywhere, especially not back to Messina, Vincenzo was due to miss only his second Christmas with his family since he moved to the UK, 14 years ago. Whilst stoical, there was one aspect of those family reunions whose absence would be most keenly felt; the Christmas Eve pituni ritual! A gathering of all the women from the extended family, to assemble piles of savoury, deep fried semi circles of stuffed dough. Favourite fillings demanded, dreaded anchovies to be excluded in Vincenzo’s case.
‘Could I make him pituni?’
As you may have twigged, I like a challenge – so I said ‘sure’, knowing full well that scarole, the right cheese, even decent tomatoes, would be a tough find in Birmingham, in December. ‘Leave it with me’, I breezily replied, confident that in one of my 1.5 metres of Italian recipe books, there would be plenty written about such a strongly treasured part of Messina’s food culture.
Well how misplaced was that confidence? Nothing in Coria, nothing in Boni, not so much as whisper in Hazan. Artusi was silent, the nuns characteristically tight lipped. I found just one recipe, in the Mary Taylor Simeti’s incomparable Sicilian Food. I love this book, it’s definitely worth buying if you’re interested in Sicilian culture and food, but the recipes don’t always work out for me (the Chancellor’s Buttocks were far too lardy for my sometime vegetarian tastes), so I turned to the internet for additional advice.
As with imagined ailments, so with food you’re not sure of: never look on the Internet. My God! To say that people hold strong opinions on the subject of Pituni is like saying that Donald Trump’s hands are slightly on the small side. Anyone writing about food who is from Messina, or who has visited Messina, or has a relative from Messina, has the definitive recipe for what I thought was a ‘just’ street food. It must only be bought from this cafe, the dough must never contain yeast, the dough must always contain yeast. Include wine, don’t include wine. Without anchovies, it is inedible. But most importantly, ALL other versions are wrong.
I’m used to Italians forcefully expressing their opinions on food, but this was really taking the pituni. Keeping my northern European head down, I retreated to rethink my strategies.
My thoughts were that if Simeti, (an American who had almost accidentally landed in the midst of a Sicilian family) gave a recipe, she would have had it verified; the opprobrium that meets a misjudged recipe in Sicily can be too a strong risk to take.
Secondly I consulted Vincenzo, what did he actually want in them? ‘Oh you know, some cheese, some ham, some greens’.
‘So, it doesn’t have to be scarole’
“Or the proper cheese?’
‘Nooo! Any cheese – but you can use the cheese my mum sent, that’s what we use, Galbanino, I’ll bring some. BUT NO ANCHOVIES’
So, I made yeasty dough, as does Simeti, using semola rather than 00 flour, and substituted cime di rapa for failed Scarole, the cheese was not ‘authentic’ but it was completely true to one family’s tradition, chopped tomatoes and oodles of black pepper. We used a side plate to to make our circles, filled them, folded them, sealed them, and plunged them into hot, hot oil.
This is fun; dangerous, sometimes volcanic if the filling leaks out. The dough bubbles, the pituni are so buoyant they have to be held down, like the Duke of Clarence in his barrel of Malmsey.
Frying them individually, one assembling whilst the other watched the ferocious roiling oil, became exciting, raucous and entertaining; mixing up fillings, burning fingers and mouths as we were too impatient to let fresh pituni cool, eager to try the next combination and savour the sweet, bitter, crisp, melting combination.
They were delicious – the greens ever so slightly bitter, cheese sweet and stringy, tomatoes steamed from within. This was one of the most sociable things, one of the most enjoyable things I had ever cooked. I get why it is such an important tradition to Vincenzo’s family – scale it up to cousins, aunts, uncles, nieces and nephews, grandparents. It must be an impressive, vocal, wonderful cacophony.
So, the recipe, that I made, that is in no way the definitive recipe, but is now my recipe. It is not the pituni you can buy in Messina, I’m sure, or the one Vincenzo’s family celebrate Christmas Eve with. It is probably not close to Simeti’s version, and I know that there are some that would refuse to even allow me to call it pituni. But, it is pituni in spirit – because it brought people together, talking, eating, laughing and cooking. And in that sense, it is the perfect recipe.
For the dough
1 teaspoon dried yeast
280 ml of lukewarm water
500g semola flour
1 teaspoon salt
2 tablespoons of olive oil.
Dissolve the yeast in the water, and leave somewhere warm until a foam floats on the surface
Add all the other ingredients into bowl, and gradually add the water – you may not need it all.
I mix and knead the dough in my food mixer, using the dough hook for ten minutes.
Once the doughs smooth, stretchy and soft, put it into an oiled plastic bag and put it in the fridge overnight. This slow rising and pricing makes for a more flavoursome final dough.
The next day, take the dough out of the fridge, and let it come up to room temperature a few hours before you’re ready to start cooking.
For the Filling
(You can use your own imagination here; Simeti suggests anchovies, scarole and Tuma or primo sale cheese, but also an onion and caper filling, which didn’t work for me).
A good sized bunch of Cime di Rapa chopped roughly.
Diced cheese (we used Italian Galbanino – which is bland and sweet, but melts beautifully into pure white stringiness – the closest I could think to describe it, it Babybel)
Tomatoes; skinned, deseeded and chopped.
A lot, I mean, an awful lot, of freshly ground black pepper.
Vegetable oil for deep frying.
When you’re ready to cook, you’ll need at least two pairs of hands; one to assemble and one to cook.
Take some of the dough and roll it out as thin as you can (2-3mm). As this has been proving, the dough will be stretchy and springy and resist being told told what to do, but persevere. Too thick, and you’ll have raw dough on the inside.
Take a side plate as a template and cut a disc out of your rolled dough, placing a mix of the cheese, tomatoes and greens on one half (leaving a gap around the edge to allow you to seal the pituni.
Wet all round the edge with water, then fold in half and with your fingers, press the dough edges together to get a tight seal. If the pituni are not properly sealed, the steam and liquid from the filling will react explosively with the hot oil.
Have your oil heating, and doors and windows flung wide, and when the temperature has reached 190 degrees centigrade, add your first half moon. If you don’t have a thermometer, take a tiny ball of dough and drop it into to oil, if it fizzes and floats, the oil is hot enough.
Frying needs constant attention, the pituni balloon up as they expand, so will float on the surface of the hot oil; don’t be afraid to dunk them to ensure they’re fully cooked. When one side is golden brown, flip them over and repeat.
Drain onto kitchen paper, and continue with the next one.
Now, these are best eaten just at the moment when they’re still almost too hot to touch – but you can let them cool, and reheat them in the oven, if you want to be more formal, and less sociable in your consumption.