Venice in a Cookie

A basket of “zaletti” and other traditional Venetian biscotti greets guests on the Eolo. Credit: Copyright Paolo Destefanis, www.paolodestefanis.com for Veneto: Authentic Recipes From Venice and the Italian Northeast, by Julia della Croce

A basket of “zaletti” and other traditional Venetian biscotti greets guests on the Eolo. Credit: Copyright Paolo Destefanis, www.paolodestefanis.com for Veneto: Authentic Recipes From Venice and the Italian Northeast, by Julia della Croce

My idea of supper in Venice is eating at a finely set table on-board a flat-bottom boat enjoying the calm, cool quiet of the lagoon after a day of sailing its secret estuaries and hopping its tiny islands with their colorful houses and Byzantine cathedrals, glass blowers and lace makers, vineyards and busting fish markets, and paths leading to nowhere.
 
The Eolo, a broad-beamed historic fishing vessel lovingly restored by its owner, Mauro Stoppa, is such a boat sailing in such a place. In fact, it is one of few of its kind and the only vessel for hire that comes equipped with an expert native seaman and first-rate chef rolled into one who will dream up a multiple-course meal for you from the flora and fauna of the fairy vision before your eyes.  
 Authentic Recipes From Venice and the Italian Northeast, by Julia della CroceHost Mauro Stoppa on board his beloved Eolo in the harbor. | Credit: Copyright Paolo Destefanis, www.paolodestefanis.com for Veneto: Authentic Recipes From Venice and the Italian Northeast, by Julia della Croce
If I love the fish, so fresh and flavorful it seems as though the sea has washed it right onto our plates; the floppy squash blossoms that Mauro dips in batter and fries; the purple artichokes; the succulent peaches and suede-pink pomegranates that we buy from the islands’ farmers in the morning, I love Mauro’s “zaletti,” sugary maize biscotti even more. This is because, as he puts it, “They are Venice in a cookie.” The reasons are a function of history.   
 
After the discovery by the Crusaders of cane sugar in the East, Venice became a portal for its distribution throughout Europe. Venetian merchants began to import it for their own use and to sell it to other parts of Italy and Europe. Crystallized white sugar made greater refinement in baking possible, and the wealth of the Venetian gentry soon guaranteed its lavish use in the making sweets. The result is an astonishing variety of pastries, cookies, cakes and other confections, as anyone acquainted with the pasticcerie of Venice can attest. 
 
As for polenta, the discoveries of Columbus brought corn to the Veneto. The Italian south was too hot and the mountain areas were too cold, but in the flatlands of the Veneto, maize was happy. It was soon discovered that the dried kernel produced a tasty porridge, or polenta. More economical than bread and less laborious to prepare, it became the food of the people, ubiquitous in their everyday meals and holiday cooking alike.  
 
The patrician class basked in their sweet luxuries but coexisted with a strong popular tradition of rustic desserts and cookies that could be stored for long periods and that kept well under sail. Among the oldest and most common of these durable cookies are “zaletti.”  
 
If you want to have yourself a taste of Venice, come join us on the Eolo or at the least, go make yourself some “zaletti.” 
 “Zaletti” in a dipping sauce of zibibbo grapes on-board the Eolo. (Ditto link to the URL connected to my ad/banner for the Venice cruise)  | Credit: Copyright Paolo Destefanis, www.paolodestefanis.com for Veneto: Authentic Recipes From Venice and the Italian Northeast, by Julia della Croce. “Zaletti” in a dipping sauce of zibibbo grapes on-board the Eolo. | Credit: Copyright Paolo Destefanis, www.paolodestefanis.com for Veneto: Authentic Recipes From Venice and the Italian Northeast, by Julia della Croce. 

“Zaletti" (Gialletti)

Venice’s Golden Cookies

Makes about 4 dozen cookies

Adapted from Veneto: Authentic Recipes From Venice and the Italian Northeast, by Julia della Croce

A glass of prosecco and a basket of traditional Venetian cookies greet everyone who comes on board the Eolo, Mauro Stoppa’s historical sailboat. One of my favorites are zaletti, whose name derives from giallo, Italian for “yellow;” gialletti, or “little golden ones” becomes “zaleti” or “zaletti” in Venetian dialect. Made from a mixture of finely ground polenta and wheat flour, they are pleasantly grainy, ideal for dunking into prosecco, espresso, or a fruit puree like the one Mauro makes using grapes. 

Currants or raisins and sometimes, pine nuts stud the dough, but you can use any dried fruit or nut you like as long as they are chopped into small pieces to make a neat business of slicing the cookie dough. To duplicate the polenta used in Venice for these cookies, use the finely ground variety. Some original versions of zaletti call for a dough using both lard and butter in a ratio of 1:2, though modern recipes typically use butter alone. While their texture is naturally somewhat “al dente,"zaletti are meant to be chewy as well. Take care not to over-bake and you’ll have the perfect cookie for eating directly or dunking. 

4 ounces (3/4 cup) dried currants or chopped raisins

2 tablespoons flour (dip into flour container and level) + 1-1/2 cups (7 ounces) unbleached all-purpose flour, spooned into dry measuring cups to overflowing and sweeping off excess to level) 

11 tablespoons (1 stick + 3 tablespoons, or 5-1/2 ounces) unsalted butter at room temperature

1/2 cup granulated white sugar

2 large eggs, at room temperature

2 tablespoons rum or Cognac

1 cup fine polenta, instant or traditional

2 teaspoons baking powder

3/4 teaspoon fine salt

confectioners’ sugar for dusting (optional)

Method:

1. In a small bowl, toss together the currants or chopped raisins with the 2 tablespoons of flour and set aside.

2. In the bowl of a stand mixer or in an ample mixing bowl using a portable electric mixer, beat the butter and sugar together until smooth, 1-2 minutes. If using a stand mixer use the flat beater. Break in the eggs one at a time and beat each in thoroughly with the flat beater. Switch to the whip attachment and slowly drizzle in the alcohol while beating on medium speed. Beat until smooth and fully combined.

3. In a separate bowl, whisk together thoroughly the 1-1/2 cups flour, polenta, baking powder, and salt.

4. By hand, using a wooden spoon, or on low speed with the flat beater, stir in the dry ingredients and the dried fruit into the beaten butter mixture until well incorporated. The dough will be thick and wet.

5. Scrape the dough onto a lightly floured work surface and toss around to coat lightly with flour. Pat the dough into a 6-inch square and divide the dough into four equal sections. Each will weigh about 7.5 ounces.  Roll each section into cylinders about 7 inches long and 1-inch in diameter. Wrap each well in plastic film. Set the rolls on a baking sheet and refrigerate for about 1 hour or until the dough is firm enough to slice easily. Alternatively, you can refrigerate the dough cylinders overnight or for up to 1 week, or freeze them for up to 2 months. If freezing, when you are ready to bake, thaw the rolls until they are firm enough to slice neatly.

6. When you are ready to bake, adjust an oven rack to the center position and preheat the oven to 375 degrees F. Line two large baking sheets (17 x 12 x 2-inches) or cookie sheets (14 x 17-inches) with bakers’ parchment.

7. Slice each cylinder into fourteen 1/2-inch rounds; place them, about 2 inches apart, on the prepared baking sheets, and press on them gently with two fingers to flatten them to a thickness of about 1/4-inch. I put 24 cookies on a large cookie sheet. 

8. Bake one sheet at a time until the cookies are golden on top and cooked through, about 15 minutes, rotating the pan halfway through to bake them evenly. Remove the cookies from the oven at once and transfer them to a wire rack to cool.

9. Serve warm or at room temperature, first dusted with confectioners’ sugar, if you like.

Note: If you slice 56 cookies, you’ll have 8 extra to bake separately. Zaletti are best if stored in an airtight container in the refrigerator for up to two weeks. 

 

Julia della Croce is a food writer and James Beard award-winning cookbook author and recipe developer based in New York. She is presently incubating a book about her family's ancestral region, Sardegna. Visit her website, www.juliadellacroce.com and blog, http://juliadellacroce.com/forktales1/, connect on Facebook: Julia della Croce - chef & foodwriter, Twitter: @juliadellacroce and Instagram: juliadellacroce.

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