Jacqui Challinor has spent almost a decade at the helm of lauded Sydney restaurant Nomad, but that experience doesn't stop her from getting nervous whenever she tries to replicate the traditional Maltese food of which her mum has mastered.
"My family are the biggest critics whenever I cook Maltese food," she tells SBS Food. "I think it's because nothing ever tastes as good as mum's, and there are so many memories and emotions attached to the food, my creations never match up."
It doesn't help that the chef tries to put a sophisticated spin on the food. "Maltese food is peasant food, so when I try to fancy it up or use different or better-quality ingredients, it's just not like mum's, and I hear about it."
Long before Challinor was a chef, she was a girl who begged to lick mixing bowls and got in the way in her family kitchen.
Although Challinor's mum arrived in Australia when Challinor was just five, Maltese culture, including its food, continued as strong influences. Now as an adult, she celebrates her heritage when cooking for her own family.
"Nanna and nannu brought the food, tradition and culture with them, so that's the way they continued to eat. Mum always told me how she was teased at school for eating tomato paste and salami sandwiches, but to her, that was normal and Vegemite was the strange thing. Growing up with it, it's only natural that's the food she wanted to cook for us."
Alongside the Australian fare that her South Sydney-born Australian dad brought to the table, Challinor grew up eating some quintessentially Maltese dishes, like pastizzi, qarabaghli (white zucchini stuffed with pork mince), imqarrun il-forn (baked macaroni), and gbejniet (sheep's milk cheese served fresh or coated in black pepper and aged). "The smell of garlic hitting hot olive oil is always something that reminds me of mum cooking those dishes," she says.
"I remember going to nanna and nannu's place. Everyone was always telling us, 'Eat, eat!'. There was mortadella, olives and a chunk of cheese on the table, and a pot of something bubbling away on the stove. Dad worked late on Thursday nights, so that was mum and daughter time, when we would eat all the good stuff like pastizzi that didn't fit into dad's healthy food regime."
Challinor's father's influence on her palate was an important one too. She describes him as an "adventurous, experimental cook".
But he also has a traditional side. "I reckon I could quite comfortably crown him Australia's number one pie connoisseur. If you rattle off the name of a place, he'll tell you where to find the closest and best pie. And he was also a master of campfire cooking: chorizo on sticks, Monaco Bars on the beach."
Challinor's background makes her family events a metaphor for the melting pot of culture and food that is Australia.
"Family gatherings were a blend of all the cultures. One of my aunts is the curry and roast potato master, another makes the most incredible hummus and baba ganoush, another does meatballs and biscuits. One of my uncles is Italian, so he brings the pasta. My dad does the barbecued meats, and mum makes these cauliflower fritters that no family celebration is complete without."
"I remember going to nanna and nannu's place. Everyone was always telling us, 'Eat, eat!'."
Because she's trained as a chef, Challinor has tried to write menus, or find common themes when organising food for their family events, but she's decided it's impossible. "I always concede defeat. It's a melting pot of all kinds of flavours, and that's exactly what brings it together."
Although the family gets together and eats, pastizz (its plural form is pastizzi) is one labour-intensive, traditional Maltese food that skipped her mum's generation. "My mum never made pastizzi from scratch for us. Her mum used to make them, but I don't think the recipe was ever passed down, which is a shame. Now that I've got a recipe, maybe it'll become a thing where we all make it together."
The pastizzi pastry requires a little skill to mix, rest and stretch the dough as thin as possible before it's rolled into a length of rope and refrigerated overnight in a spiral shape. Two-inch lengths of dough are cut, then pressed out by hand until the fine layers begin to spread. A seasoned mixture of ricotta and egg is spooned onto the dough, and it's sealed and pinched shut with a narrow slit left at the top before baking or freezing a batch.
The pastizzi Challinor grew up eating came frozen from the supermarket, but the ritual of eating them with her mum is still an important memory that pays homage to their Maltese heritage.
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Photographs by Jacqui Challinor.
- 450 g all-purpose flour
- 15 g sea salt flakes
- 65 ml vegetable oil
- 255 g cold water
- 255 g lard, room temperature
- 85 g unsalted butter, room temperature
- 700 g ricotta
- 2 eggs
- Pinch of salt
- Freshly ground black pepper
1. Combine the flour and salt in the bowl of a stand mixer with the dough hook attachment.
2. Mix the oil and cold water together and starting on low speed, gradually add the liquid to the flour.
3. Once the liquid is incorporated increase the speed and mix for approximately 10-15 minutes or until the dough is smooth, glossy and elastic.
4. Refrigerate the dough and allow it to rest for a minimum of one hour.
5. Combine the butter and lard, mix well to evenly combine and divide in half.
6. Once rested, remove the dough from the fridge and prepare yourself some space to work, you'll need a large amount of clean bench space to stretch the dough.
7. Cut the dough into two even portions and set one aside.
8. Using a rolling pin, roll the dough into a long, narrow length, then evenly spread one half of the lard and butter mix over the dough.
9. From here on, you'll need to use your hands to stretch the dough out as thin as possible, trying to maintain the consistent rectangle shape so that when it comes to rolling you've got even layering.
10. Once the pastry is as thin as you can possibly stretch it towards the ends, you can begin to roll it from the widest length, stretching as you go.
11. You should end up with a long, rope-like length of dough and from here you can roll into a spiral shape.
12. Brush with a little of the lard, cover and refrigerate overnight to rest.
13. To prepare the filling, combine the ricotta, eggs, salt, pepper and mix well to combine.
14. Preheat your oven to 180c
15. To form the pastizzi, take the end of the dough spiral and cut off a 2-inch piece. Turn the dough so that the cut end is facing you and begin to press it out with your fingers, you should be able to see the ridges and layers of pastry forming.
16. Stretch to about 4 inches in diameter and put a spoonful of ricotta in the middle.
17. Fold the dough over to form a parcel and then turn up so the sealed end is facing up, pinch the edges to secure and you should be left with a small split on the top of the pastizzi. Repeat with the rest of the dough.
18. At this stage, you can freeze them if you like or bake them straight away. They're a very handy snack to keep around! 19. If you're baking straight away, place on an oiled tray and cook for approximately 20 minutes or until golden brown.
20. If you'd like to freeze some to have on hand for later, place on a flat tray lined with baking paper, making sure they’re not touching. Freeze overnight and store in an airtight container.