Sweets and cakes
The sweets of the Marches region are sober, the fruit of prudence and caution, and are prepared using the raw materials of the territory in an equilibrium which avoids excessively strong flavours. They usually contain little sugar because, in fact, this was once a precious commodity to be used sparingly, and so honey was given the task of enriching the desserts. They were made for Carnival, religious festivals and for the occasions linked to the different seasons.
Also called becut, these are little loaves of sweet bread with a base of corn flour, dotted with pine nuts and sultanas.
Known by this name in the areas around Ancona and Ascoli, in the area around Macerata, they are called piconi. They are a singular example of the union between sweet and savoury: home-made cakes made with bread dough which is rolled out into a thin sheet, to be then divided into large ravioli which are filled with fresh and matured pecorino (sheep’s) cheese, egg yolks, sugar and grated lemon rind. Before being baked in the oven, a cross-shape is cut on the top from which the cheese will ooze out during cooking, and they are brushed with beaten egg.
In the same provinces, another version is also prepared, of which the outside casing is made from a sweet dough, and which has a mixed filling of ricotta cheese, egg yolk, sugar, grated chocolate, cinnamon and almonds.
The «caciunitti», however, are smaller caciuni which, in the place of the egg yolks and ricotta, have a purée of chick peas. Instead of being baked, they are fried.
GRAPE MUST CIAMBELLE (ring-shaped cakes)
Also called ciambelle di magro, these are a speciality from Ascoli Piceno.
Prepared during the period of the grape harvest, they are made with white flour, aniseed, oil, sugar and the grape must from grapes which have just been pressed, all mixed together with yeast.
This is a cake which is typical of the Carnival period and has ancient origins. Traditionally a family product, it has passed to artisan production and today can be found in all the pastry shops. The most typical area for the cicerchiata is, however, in the provinces of Macerata and Ascoli Piceno. It is flour mixed up with eggs, a little sugar and a drop of mistrà, the characteristic aniseed flavoured Marches liqueur. The mixture is rolled into small balls which are then fried in oil or lard, mixed with honey and put together in a flat ring-shape which may then be sprinkled with pine nuts.
Or frustenga, or pistingo, or frostenga, is a typical cake which has many variations not only in flavour, but also in its name. It would seem that the name derives from “frusto”, or ‘poor’, even though we are faced with an imaginative invention, starting from simple, everyday ingredients. It is a winter cake which is tied to the Christmas festival and unites wholemeal flour with a list of ingredients which varies from one recipe to another, but there are always walnuts, almonds, dried figs, candied citrus peel, orange juice, lemon rind, sultanas, olive oil, cinnamon, rum, cocoa, coffee, dry white wine and cooked grape must.
The «bostrengo», or frustengolo are related, widely diffused in the Pesaro area, and linked to the festival of the Madonna di Loreto. These use many ingredients similar to the frustingo, but the flour is a mix of wheat, corn and apples, pears and rice are added.
FUNGHETTI (little mushrooms)
Characteristic of Offida, these were once a home-made product like the cicerchiata cake but which can now be found in the pastry shops. The mixture, of almost equal quantities of sugar and flour, flavoured with aniseed, is formed into little balls which are then left for a few days to dry out. Next, collected together in the special moulds, they are baked in the oven. While they are being cooked, the inside, which is softer, oozes out and seals the balls together, leaving them white in colour, on a brownish coloured background. And thus, the cake which is very crunchy with an agreeable fragrance of aniseed, takes on the appearance of a collection of little mushrooms sprouting up from the ground.
Traditionally made at Easter time, it is now actually made all the year round and can be found throughout the whole region. It is very similar to the same traditional product from Perugia. At one time, when it was made in the home, it assumed the shape of the cake tin which was used to bake the mixture of flour, eggs and sugar. Today, when prepared in the bakery workshops, the paper mould which is also used in the making of panettoni (traditional Christmas cakes) is more likely to be used, and this makes the shape a little taller. There is also a savoury version of the Easter pizza which contains no sugar, but is made with cheese. The mixture is obtained with the use of grated Parmesan cheese and, above all in the areas between Macerata and Ancona, also with small, whole pieces of Fontina or Emmenthal cheese.
This is a cake which encloses the very essence of the Marches, with two ingredients which tell of the farming history of the region: aniseed and sapa, concentrated cooked grape must. And enriching the flavour, dried figs, walnuts and almonds. It is a poorman’s cake which was prepared at the end of the summer for consumption in the winter since it did not pose preservation problems, and was usually given to children as a gift for Epiphany.
This cake is composed of peeled figs which are dried in the sun, a few finely chopped almonds and walnuts, a glass of sapa and a glass of mistrà (aniseed flavoured liqueur). The figs are chopped up finely with the other ingredients and pressed into the shape of a small salami which is then wrapped in fig leaves, tied up like a salami and preserved in a cool cellar. One version foresees compressing the whole figs with a press: in this case, it is called «panetto di fichi».
Similar to the «attorta» from Umbria, this cake is a tradition of the mountainous area around Macerata. The mixture of almonds, sugar, egg whites and butter is rolled up and twisted around upon itself and then placed on a sheet of Host wafer and cooked in the oven with a covering of chocolate or a sugar icing.