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Easter lambs The origins of almond paste can be traced through the centuries as far back as the Etruscans and the Ancient Romans.
During the Easter festivities it takes the shape of lambs, a tradition that derives from the Christian religion by Dario Ersetti
Almond paste lamb, a typically Apulian sweet for the Easter festivities. Photo by Dario Ersetti
The difference between almond paste and marzipan is that the former is raw and the latter is cooked, although there is a lot of confusion on the subject.
Some claim that the invention of almond paste can be attributed to a nun from Lecce, Anna Fumarola, who wrote down the recipe in 1680:
“In three pounds of julep matured with lemon juice and water of white cinnamon, cook on a slow flame three pounds of crushed sweet almonds, being careful to smash them well with a wooden spoon so as to obtain a mash. Then pour the mixture into a bowl to let it cool and mould it into a pleasing shape.”
The nun was a Benedictine from the convent of St. John the Evangelist in Lecce, which is still famous for its production of sweets made of almond paste and which over the centuries has inspired all the most famous patisseries in Lecce. The nuns devoted to St. Theresa, in Bari, were competitors, however, and asserted their claim to the invention.
Actually, Bartolomeo Scappi, chef to Pope Pius V, and one of the first authors of a “modern” recipe book, in his work entitled Opera dell’arte di cucinare (Tramezzino, Venezia) written in 1570, carries a recipe which is almost exactly the same, and 100 years previously, in 1467, we find a similar recipe in De honesta voluptate et valetudine written by Bartolomeo Sacchi, nicknamed Platina, who was inspired by the manuscript of 1450, Libro de Arte Coquinaria by Maestro Martino da Como, personal chef to the patriarch of Aquileia.
At this point another question must be answered: isn’t such a sweet “sweet” a little reminiscent of Arabian cooking? And in fact there is a manuscript from 1226 written by Mohammad bin al-Hasan bin Muham-mad bin al-Karim al-Katib al-Baghdadi that goes by the title Kitab al-tabikh, in which we find Faludhaj, the real “mother” of all almond pastes.
Let’s stop there, even though we could go even further back, since even the Etruscans and the Ancient Romans had a kind of almond paste.
In Puglia, for Easter, almond paste cakes are made in the shape of lambs, a tradition that derives from the Old Testament: “… The Lord said to Moses and to Aaron in Egypt: each man is to procure a lamb for their family … After having sacrificed it, this is how you should eat it: with girded hips, sandals on your feet and stick in hand; you will eat it quickly. It is the Easter of the Lord! ...” Then in the New Testament, the sacrificial lamb symbolizes the son of God himself: “Here is the lamb of God, here is he who takes on himself all the sins of the world”. And that is why the almond paste lambs are decorated with a cross and a banner.
The use of the lamb as a paschal symbol is particularly widespread in the south of Italy (perhaps the most famous is that of Favara, in the province of Agrigento, with its filling of pistachio cream) while at Christmas time the custom is to mould it into a fish shape, and the fish, too, are filled with pear jelly and faldacchiera.
You can find the moulds made of metal or chalk of varying dimensions at any street market.
Quantities for a lamb weighing 2.5 kilos:
- 1 kg peeled almonds reduced to a flour
- 1 kg icing sugar
- 2 bitter almonds peeled and chopped
- 100 g of glucose
- about 200 ml of water
For the FILLING:
- faldacchiera (egg yolks and sugar in equal weight)
- pear jelly (pears and sugar)
To make the almond paste mix all the ingredients cold, adjusting the density by adding water.
Place part of the mixture in the mould covered in cling film, put in the filling and cover it with the rest of the paste.
The faldacchiera is a zabaglione made of egg yolks and sugar (a spoonful of sugar for each yolk).
Beat the yolks and the sugar until you obtain a foamy consistency. Cook in bain-marie, with the addition of rose-water or the grated peel of citrus fruits, and bring the mixture to a density similar to mayonnaise.
The pear jelly is a very dense, typically Apulian conserve which is similar to quince jelly. It is best when made from the local, small, semi-wild Apulian pears. Proceed as per the quince jelly (see our recipe from November 2011 in the “Apulian cooking” archive).
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