”It is tradition when you serve a fregolotta, you bring it whole to the table at the end of the meal, and either the youngest or your guest of honour gets to break it. And the way that is done, a handful of almonds underneath and then they get to press down… and they get to pick the first piece!” says chef Michael Bonacini, talking about the deliciously crumbly, cake-sized biscuit from Italy's Veneto region.
“Cracking it over an almond is a classic, but a fist or a kitchen knife or anything that would atomise the cake into irregular chunks also does the trick - my family would use the tip of a large kitchen knife. As long as it’s not sliced neatly. It is true that, if it’s a family gathering, it’s something young children would usually do (not with a knife but with their fist, in this case), mostly because it’s fun and a bit messy!” says Valeria Necchio when SBS Food chats to the Venetian-born Italian food writer (if you’re feeling like coronavirus restrictions will never end, this post on Neccio’s Instagram account is a beautifully written piece of encouragement)
As Necchio explains when sharing her fregolotta recipe, this buttery snack, with a texture a little like shortbread, is traditionally from the area around the Venetian city of Treviso, and is said to have risen to fame in the town of Salvarosa di Castelfranco Veneto. That original version was made using flour, sugar, butter and cream.
“The recipe is fairly standardised, save for small, variations: more butter and less cream, or just butter and no cream at all. Some would dust granulated sugar all over the surface as you’d do with sbrisolona. I’ve seen some versions with hazelnuts, too, though this would be considered unorthodox,” Necchio tells us when we ask how much the original recipe varies.
The sbrisolona she mentions is another Italian biscuit-meets-cake.
Australian-Italian food writer and photographer, Emiko Davies, who has called Italy home for more than a decade, explains: “Torta fregolotta is a speciality from the city of Treviso in the Veneto and is very similar to the better-known sbrisolona, a cake from the city of Mantua in neighbouring Lombardy (it is only a two-hour drive away, so it’s not too far to imagine these two cakes were perhaps born of the same tradition).
“Even their names give a clue — fregolotta comes from fregola, which means ‘crumb’ in Venetian dialect and sbrisolona comes from ‘briciola’ which means crumb too. They’re both a very crumbly cake, as you can imagine, so they look similar but the main difference is in the flours used - sbrisolona is made with a mixture of flour, almonds and polenta, where fregolotta is just made with regular flour,” she tells us from Florence (visit her Instagram account to see how she and her family been cooking their way through Italy’s lockdown, from pasta and biscuits to sourdough schiacciata).
While Vecchio’s simple recipe for fregolotta is made with plain flour, sugar and butter, with whole almonds pressed into the flattened dough before baking, the recipe Michael Bonacini shares in Bonacini’s Italy (get the recipe here) uses almond meal in the dough, toasting whole blanched almond in a pan and then grinding them in a food processor. “whenever you do that to nuts, it really brings them alive. The flavours just intensify immediately,” he says. He also adds vanilla and almond extracts, and an egg.
Recipes for sbrisolona vary too.
This torta sbrisolona recipe from Stefano Manfredi, made with flour, polenta, polenta, caster sugar and egg yolk, includes lemon juice and grated lemon, adding a wonderful citrus note to the buttery-crumbly result. (His recipe also uses a mix of butter and duck fat; we’ve made it using all butter and it works just fine.)
Vecchio’s recipe, which she included in her book Veneto: Recipes from an Italian County Kitchen, has a dough made from flour, polenta, sugar, lemon zest, butter and egg yolks, with whole almonds or a mixture of almonds and hazelnuts added in at the end. Hazelnuts, she explains in the book, were included in the original recipe, but modern adaptations usually call for almonds.
And this version, from the Feast magazine archives, takes a little from both camps; the polenta, flour and butter dough includes both caster sugar and brown sugar, along with cinnamon and almond essence, and the recipe fancies up the final look with a layer of chopped almonds, brown sugar and cinnamon scattered over the dough before baking.
What they all have in common is that oversized appeal and buttery crumbly texture – perfect for breaking into pieces and devouring with a coffee.
Fregolotta and sbrisolona are usually served at the end of a meal – lunch or dinner, and especially Sunday lunch, Necchio tells us. But we love her other way of eating this crumbly treat.
“If there are any leftovers or it’s gone a little stale, I love having it for breakfast, just crumbled in milk — it makes for a very delicious breakfast “cereal”!”
Watch Bonacini's Italy Sundays at 7pm on SBS Food. See him making fregolotta and other recipes from the Veneto on Sunday, May 10 and then on SBS On Demand.
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