Imagine perusing your local supermarket…
Take it slow. Picture the store shelves. Visualize the recent, never ending line of “pumpkin EVERYTHING”. The flavored coffee, pumpkin bread and cake mix, pumpkin butter, pumpkin granola, pumpkin yogurt, pumpkin pie…People, with all of this seasonal food CRACK, somehow, something is missing.
Where’s the pumpkin jam? The preserves? The L-O-V-E?
Finding freshly canned pumpkin marmalade at the local farm is easy, but unless you stock up, most major supermarkets will disappoint.
Marmalade Moguls if you happen to be reading this, then please, enlighten me. How can we have seasonal beer, yet not a lick of pumpkin jam? Are there not enough gourds to feed the hoards?
Rather than waste my time pouting through the aisles, I decided to make my own pumpkin marmalade. Why all the trouble?
It all started when I recalled a recipe for marmellata di zucca that my mother-in-law makes as filling for her famous pasticiotti di zucca— a true Sicilian holiday cookie.
Just so you know, the zucca or gourd she uses is not the classic American varietal you would imagine. As you will see here (it’s hard to miss), this is a tropical, native Mexican plant, a rather prickly beast that I affectionately call “Baby Zilla”. It’s also referred to as the “vegetable pear”. Sounds sweet, but still manages to look like hell.
And just like Lucifer, it has countless names. In the area of Patti, Messina, locals call it “cucuzza di sett’anni”, the seven year pumpkin, referring to its longevity. Scientifically this is Sechium Edule, sechio in italian, or maybe (take a deep breath) zucca centenaria, zucchina spinosa, patata spinosa, melanzana spinosa, melanzana americana, lingua di lupo (wolf’s tongue… how scrumptious) and so on. Since Baby Zilla is Aztec by birth, we’ll use the Spanish name, chayote (in Aztec —chayutli).
Being in the northeast, I did my homework online before driving all over the tri-state. Turns out, I saved a lot on gas. These critters are cultivated in Florida, California, and Louisiana, and generally sold at Latino grocery stores. I was out of luck folks. Interesting thing is, you probably wouldn’t recognize them. Chayote found in the US have a smooth green surface—brings a whole new meaning to waxed fruit doesn’t it? (Don’t leave me laughing alone.)
So when it came time to consider purchasing Baby Zilla on Ebay, I opted for a lovely sugar pumpkin at my local market. Granted, this was pre-Thanksgiving and we all know December pumpkins are scarce, but there is hope—ACORN SQUASH! Hold on to that tidbit…
As we move along from the filling to this decadent cookie’s outer shell, things get even more interesting. Call me a fool, but I expected ingredients similar to pasta frolla, a classic Italian cookie dough.
I turned to my mother-in-law, the Queen of Pasticiotti, for some wisdom. As she rattled off the ingredients, I heard a word that forced me to politely interrupt— “Sugna?” She found my reaction amusing, but it’s a word I never thought I would hear, never mind use in a recipe.
“Sugna”, pronounced soon-yah, is italian for “lard”. Now before you get all worked up, understand there are many misconceptions about lard. It was the primary baking fat available to our ancestors. But did you know it’s significantly lower in saturated fat and cholesterol than butter? Here’s the breakdown: 40% saturated, 50% monounsaturated, and 10% polyunsaturated fatty acids. Yes my friends, it is actually better for you than butter. The best lard, known as “leaf” lard, consists of fat from around the kidneys of a pig. In fact, if you really wanted to keep things authentic, make your own! All you need are pork trimmings, a pot and some heat. Need your Vitamin D? It’s a great source for that too, so long as it comes from pastured pigs– all the more reason to visit your local farm!
By the way, lard isn’t just wonderful in pasticiotti. It works miracles in biscuits, pie crusts and gives that special taste to DOUGNUTS— you know, the one you crave.
If you still feel uneasy about lard, just remember this—it’s a holiday cookie. Once a year— in moderation, is totally survivable.
So without further adieu, try something new! Here’s some Pumpkin Pasticiotti!
Happy Holidays Everyone!