The Italian Approach to Dessert

Malgieri is a cookbook author

No matter how many times I visit Italy, I am always amazed at the profusion of produce, especially fruit, available throughout the year.

In late summer, especially, the glory of local produce is everywhere in evidence. From Bolzano's Obstmarkt far in the north, to Rome's Campo dei Fiori to Palermo's famous Vucciria (dubbed "the Noisy Place"), markets offer the most beautiful and flavorful fruit available anywhere.

It is common to see several varieties of cherries. The red ones, called amarene or visciole , are sour and are usually used for jam; large black cherries, like our Bings, are called duroni ("hard ones") and vie in sweetness with crisp, aromatic, white (really yellow) cherries called montanari ("from the mountains").

Berries abound: lamponi (large sweet raspberries); fragole (deep purplish-red strawberries), and fragolini (tiny, pointed, bright red strawberries no more than one-half-inch long).

Occasionally, there are also more. Blackberries are found in purple/black, red and white varieties. Loquats ( nespoli ) of several varieties appear a little later, along with tiny sweet melons, peaches, apricots, plums and watermelons.

With the enormous variety available, most Italians choose to eat fruit in the simplest way possible. In homes and simple restaurants, a bowl or basket of fruit, often accompanied by a bowl of ice water for rinsing, comes to the table at the end of every meal.

Fruit desserts such as tarts, creams and fritters are found mostly in fancy restaurants, pastry shops and only are eaten in the home for important occasions. Though the preparations are imaginative, for the most part they are simple, allowing the freshness and flavor of the fruit to shine.

In Pesche alla Piemontese , Baked Peaches From the Piemonte, peach halves are baked with a filling made from macaroons, emphasizing the affinity of their slightly bitter almond flavor for the peaches.

The unusual Gelo di Melone , a Sicilian watermelon pudding, is traditionally made in Palermo for the Ferragosto or Aug. 15 celebration. Originally a religious holiday, Ferragosto has become the celebration of summer's height throughout southern Europe.

Finally, Crostata di Fichi e Lamponi , Fig and Raspberry Tart, is typical of the pastry shops of Rome, such as Bernasconi, where all the desserts and pastries are assembled with architectural precision.

Try this with white peaches, if available, for a subtle variation on the original.

PESCHE ALLA PIEMONTESE (Baked Peaches From the Piemonte)

6 ripe peaches (about 3 pounds total)

1/3 cup sugar

8 Italian macaroons, such as Amaretti do Saronno, crushed

1 egg yolk

1/4 cup unsalted butter, melted

Rinse, halve and pit peaches. Puree 2 peach halves in food processor. Place puree in bowl and stir in sugar, crushed macaroons and egg yolk. Spoon filling into each peach half and place peaches in buttered baking dish.

Sprinkle remaining butter over peaches. Bake at 350 degrees on middle rack about 30 minutes, or until peaches are baked through and filling is deep golden color. Serve hot or at room temperature. Makes 4 servings.

Though the Sicilians like to make the mixture dense enough to unmold, I prefer to go easy on the starch and serve the ice-cold watermelon pudding from a bowl. Some add a drop or two of jasmine flavor to the mixture. Make sure to choose a really ripe watermelon for this dessert or you will wind up with a pink cucumber pudding.

GELO DI MELONE (Sicilian Watermelon Pudding)

1/4 of ripe watermelon (about 3 pounds)

2/3 cup sugar

1/2 cup cornstarch

1 teaspoon vanilla

2 tablespoons chopped blanched pistachios

1/2 ounce semisweet chocolate, coarsely grated

3 tablespoons rinsed and chopped candied citron

Ground cinnamon

Spoon flesh away from rind of melon into large bowl. Remove seeds and liquefy melon in food processor or blender.

Combine sugar and cornstarch in 3-quart non-reactive saucepan and gradually whisk in watermelon juice. Place over low heat and bring to boil, stirring constantly with flat-edged wooden spatula. Continue cooking about 5 minutes, stirring constantly, over lowest heat.

Remove from heat. Stir in vanilla. Pour mixture into mixing bowl. Cool to room temperature, stirring occasionally to prevent skin from forming on surface.

Stir in pistachios, chocolate and citron. Pour pudding into glass serving bowl and chill. To serve, spoon into dessert bowls and sprinkle with cinnamon at table. Makes 6 servings.

Baking the almond filling and the crust together dries the filling slightly--it will soften as it absorbs the juices from the fruit, keeping the bottom crust from becoming soggy.

CROSTATA DI FICHI E LAMPONI (Fig and Raspberry Tart)

1/4 pound almond paste

1/4 cup granulated sugar

1 egg yolk

1/4 cup butter, softened

1 egg

3 tablespoons flour

Simple Sweet Dough (Pasta Frolla Semplice )

12 ripe figs, peeled and quartered

1/2 pint raspberries

Powdered sugar

Combine almond paste, granulated sugar and egg yolk in mixing bowl. Beat until smooth. Beat in butter. Scrape bowl and beaters and then beat in egg. Continue beating until mixture is light. Stir in flour.

Roll out Simple Sweet Dough on floured surface and ease into 10-inch tart pan. Spread filling evenly in pan. Bake at 350 degrees about 40 minutes, until crust and filling are baked through. Cool on rack.

Arrange fig quarters, cut-side up, in concentric rows on baked almond filling. Lace raspberries here and there between figs and in center of tart. Just before serving, dust with powdered sugar. Makes 6 servings.

Simple Sweet Dough (Pasta Frolla Semplice)

1 cup flour

1/4 cup granulated sugar

Dash salt

1/4 teaspoon baking powder

1/4 cup butter

1 egg

Combine flour, sugar, salt and baking powder in bowl of food processor. Pulse several times to mix. Cut butter into 8 pieces and distribute evenly over dry ingredients in work bowl. Pulse until very finely powdered. Add egg and continue to pulse until dough forms ball that revolves on blade. Remove dough and press into disc. Wrap and chill.

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