Sicily smells of sesame seeds. Not the actual island, but the Sicily of my memory. I close my eyes, I whisper "Sicilia" and I smell toasted sesame seeds. The same thing happens if I read about Sicily: I open one of my Montalbano books and my nose smiles.
My first visit to Sicily, the summer before I turned 18, overloaded all of my senses in a joyous way: the beauty of churches and other buildings in Palermo, the sticky smell of the hot July days, the pleasant coolness of the sea, the sound of the dialect (of which I learned a few words), the taste of new foods. Of all the novelties my senses encountered, the smell of sesame seeds (semi di sesamo) is the one with highest emotional content. I had never tasted sesame seeds before, not even set my eyes on them. I only knew the name and that they were small.
First, I ate bread with the surface sprinkled with sesame seeds and I was amazed at the amount of flavor the small seeds packed. So, when I saw reginelle, cookies covered with sesame seeds, I did not need any special encouragement to pick one up (gently, to avoid seed loss) and bring it to my mouth. As each bite crumbled in my mouth, sesame seeds were scattered around. The cookie softened but retained a bit of crunch and the seeds teased my teeth into chasing them. A light swetness supported the pleasure without distracting the taste buds. One reginella was a dose of pure and simple pleasure, the memory of which lasted a long time.
I have vivid memories of other foods I tasted during that vacation, from rich gelato eaten in a soft, sweet bun, to fresh fish, from light mini cannoli to intense cheeses, but it's reginelle that feed my nostalgia. When I visited Palermo with my husband a few years ago, I carefully chose the bakery in which to purchase reginelle: I wanted the very best. A bite, stolen when hardly out of the store, sent me back to that summer of many years before, when I first discovered the pleasure these cookies provide.
Until recently, I had never tried to bake them at home, afraid, I suspect, of taking out of the oven something so different from the original that the disappointment would be crushing. Reading again The Shape of Water by Andrea Camilleri (1994), the first of the novels that have as protagonitst police inspector Salvo Montalbano, brought me back to my first visit to Sicily and back to the yearning for reginelle, so this time I didn't skirt their calling and set about to make them. First, a note on vocabulary. In Sicilian dialect, sesame seeds are called cimino or giuggiulena. Just let this word tingle your ears: giuggiulena. It comes from from Arabic جلجلا (juljulān, "sesame").
I made several batches, trying a slightly different combination of ingredients each time, in search of the elusive bite of recognition. As I expected, none were exactly the same, and some were further from the archetype than others. The recipe I settled on is good: it makes reginelle that are a pleasure to eat and that have already made a couple of converts to their cause.
- 200 g all-purpose flour
- 50 g whole-wheat pastry flour or 50 g all-purpose flour
- 70 g ultrafine sugar
- a pinch of salt
- 2 g baking ammonia
- 40 g cold unsalted butter, cut into small pieces
- 20 g cold strutto (rendered pork fat) or 20 g cold unsalted butter, cut into small pieces
- 1 large egg (possibly from pastured poultry), lightly beaten to mix white and yolk
- 1-2 tablespoons milk
- flavoring of choice: a pinch (1/16 teaspoon) saffron powder + grated zest of 1/4 Meyer lemon; or vanilla sugar + 1/4 teaspoon vanilla extract (see Notes)
- plenty of sesame seeds (I used unhulled ones)
- The whole-wheat pastry flour is my way of making cookies a bit more nutricious.
- I had my homemade strutto and pretty much finished it due to all the batches of reginelle I baked. It makes the cookies friabili (crumbly), but it also has a bit of a flavor and that is why I mixed it with butter. You can use all butter.
- Based upon my reading, baking ammonia is the leavening agent traditionally used in reginelle. I have some I bought in Italy, where it is easy to find it in grocery stores. As you can read on this page, baking ammonia has advantages over baking powder when used in baked goods like cookies.
- The recipes I read used various flavorings, from saffron powder to lemon zest to vanilla. In my first batch I used a small amount of saffron powder (1/16 teaspoon) I had and liked the result, but then I could not find more in the store and using saffron threads did not give me the same result. I then used a combination vanilla and lemon zest and was not happy, so I removed the lemon zest and used my vanilla sugar plus a bit of vanilla extract.
- If using saffron powder, dissolve it in a tablespoon of warm milk.
- Put flours, sugar (vanilla sugar, if using), salt, and baking ammonia in the food processor and pulse a few times to mix.
- Add butter and strutto, and pulse a few times, until the mixture has the consistency of coarse meal.
- Empty food processor's bowl onto your work surface.
- Make a well in the center of the mounded flour and butter mixture and pour the beaten eggs into it.
- Add the vanilla extract or lemon zest (whichever using) to the well.
- Add 1 tablespoon of milk or the milk and saffron powder mix (if using).
- Use a fork to incorporate the liquid into the solid ingredients, and then use your fingertips.
- Knead lightly just until the dough comes together into a ball. Add a bit more milk, if necessary.
- Shape the dough into a flat ellipse and wrap in plastic wrap. Place the dough in the refrigerator and chill while you get ready for the next phase.
Take a kitchen towel, spread it on your working surface and pour some water over it, so about half of it gets wet, but there is no pool of water. Take a round cake pan and pour sesame seeds in it so you have a nice layer. Preheat the oven to 400 F (or 350 F, see below). Line a baking sheet with a silicone baking mat.
Halve the dough and keep one half in the fridge. The following is how I decided to shape the reginelle and to roll them in the sesame seeds. Place dough on your working surface and pushing on its surface with the rolling pin, flatten it slightly (about 1/2 inch / 1.25 cm thick). With the bench scraper, cut strips (3/4 inch / 2 cm wide) and then cut each strip into pieces (1.5 inch / 4 cm long).
Place a piece of dough on the towel and lightly roll it with the palm of your hand so its surface becomes slightly damp, then deposit it on the sesame seeds. Shake the pan so the dough rolls around and covers itself with seeds. Gently pick up the seeded piece of dough and place it on the lined baking sheet. Leave at least an inch (2.5 cm) of space all around each reginella. When you become comfortable with the process, you can work with a few pieces of dough at a time. And of course, you can come up with your own version of how to do all this.
I have read two schools of thought in terms of baking: one starts at high temperature (400 F) and then drops to lower 10 minutes after the start and one uses the same temperature (350 F) throughout. I think I prefer the result of the first version, while my husband prefers the result of the second: you can be your own judge. Either way, I follow the advice of leaving the oven door slightly ajar (1/8 inch / 3 mm) to let the ammonia escape but without letting too much heat dissipate.
- If starting at 400 F, 10 minutes after the start, lower temperature to 320 F
- If starting at 350 F, keep the same temperature throughout
Either way, check the reginelle after 20 minutes from the beginning and estimate the amount of time still needed. The reginelle are ready when the surface is golden. Check the bottom as well: it should be brown but not dark brown. Take the baking sheet out of the oven and move the reginelle to a rack to cool. While the first batch is baking, prepare the second batch as above.
Store reginelle in an airtight container and enjoy. You probably won't think about Sicily when you bite on one, but you should still have a pleasant, crunchy experience.
Final note: reginelle shed sesame seeds throughout their life cycle. I have been collecting them and used them for a second time: the second baking did not affect their flavor, in part, I think, because I used unhulled seeds. I will not use them a third time for reginelle, but I have already used them as toasted sesame seeds on salads.
I have not visited Porto Empedocle Vigata, where the novels are set, but years ago, I spent a month working at the Club Med Kamarina and have been to Ragusa, Vittoria and other places in the area, so I have a sense of the landscape Camilleri describes in his Montalbano novels.
It was interesting to read again the first one of the series. We meet Montalbano and see his charming human touch at work. For example, he lies about his identity to the mother of a young man he wants to question to avoid alarming her. He understands immediately that Ingegner Luparello's wife is a smart woman and the two of them develop a mutual esteem. He may be a bit rough, but his first instinct is to try and connect to the person he is dealing with.
The most memorable part of the novel is probably the improbable friendship that blossoms between Montalbano and Ingrid, a beautiful Swedish woman accidentally married to an absent Sicilian. The story moves forward to reach the solution. We never doubt that Montalbano will figure out what happened. But the process of uncovering the truth includes also making sure that innocent Ingrid is not dragged into the mud, that the Luparello widow's wish is respected, that Saro gets some money to cure his little boy, in sum, that the chaos of the world in general and of that corner of Sicily in particular, for at least a brief time, is organized in a sort of just order that allows Montalbano a few hours of quiet sleep or a long swim in the sea in front of his house in Marinella.
In an interview (in Italian), Camilleri says (my translation of the transcription):
I wrote the first, then the second [The Terra-Cotta Dog], and said: the end. I wrote the second to better define the character, but then what happened happened.
"What happened" was that The Terra-Cotta Dog was a huge success. Nineteen years after the publication of The Shape of Water, readers around the world still wait impatiently for the next Montalbano to come out. Long live Andrea Camilleri.
This post contains the roundup of the event.
This is also my contribution to the current edition of Cook the Books, hosted by Rachel of The Crispy Cook. You can find the guidelines for participating in the event here, and here is the announcement.
This post contains the roundup of the event.
Click on the button to hear me pronounce the Italian words mentioned in the post:
or launch the reginelle audio file [mp3].
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