Pasta Con La Mollica
San Giuseppe, husband to Mary, patron saint of orphans, unwed mothers, the needy, the homeless, and all things family, both good and unfortunate, is one of the most important saints in Italy and in the Catholic world. He is a patron saint of Southern Italy and of Sicily in particular, having, through the peoples’s prayer, saved the island from a serious drought in the Middle Ages. His feast day, March 19, is known as La Tavola di San Giuseppe and is celebrated with enormous banquets. Every conceivable type of food is offered, and churches’ altars are festooned with decorative breads, sweet and savory, in honor not only of him but also of the spring solstice and the ancient tradition of celebrating the renewed fertility of the earth. The breads are shaped into fish, lambs, fruits, flowers, and just about any other of God’s creations.
San Giuseppe is also the patron of pastry cooks, so sweets play a big part in the celebration. Sfinci—deep-fried cream puffs filled with ricotta or custard—are the best-known pastries made in St. Joseph’s honor. You can find them in Palermo and in Brooklyn and in Philadelphia. In Naples they make the unfilled versoin called zeppole. Cassateddi, a sweet ricotta-filled ravioli, is a beautiful creation you’ll find on the St. Joseph’s Day table in many Sicilian homes. The sweet theme even extends to pasta. One of my favorite Saint Joseph’s Day dishes is pasta con la mollica. Mollica means soft bread crumbs in Italian, but the dish, probably from the Renaissance, also includes sugar, cinnamon, and a little garlic. The bread crumbs symbolize the sawdust that would have covered the floor of Joseph’s manger. The combination of flavors might sound odd, but they make a beautiful and strangely appealing dish worth tasting. Serve it in small portions as a first course, or even as a dessert.
Pasta Con La Mollica for San Giuseppe
(Serves 6 as a first course)
Extra-virgin olive oil
1/2 cup homemade bread crumbs, not too finely ground
1 tablespoon sugar
⅛ teaspoon ground cinnamon
1 pound spaghetti
3 tablespoons unsalted butter
3 garlic cloves, peeled
Freshly ground black pepper
¼ cup dry Marsala
A handful of lightly toasted slivered almonds
In a medium-size sauté pan, heat a tablespoon of olive oil over medium flame. Add the bread crumbs, and season with a pinch of salt. Sauté until lightly golden and crisp. Pull the pan from the heat, and add the sugar and the cinnamon, stirring them in to the breadcrumbs.
Set up a large pot of pasta cooking water, and bring it to a boil. Add a generous amount of salt, and drop in the spaghetti.
In a large skillet, heat 2 tablespoons of olive oil with the butter over low heat. Add the garlic, and sauté slowly, just until it turns lightly golden, about 4 minutes. Add the Marsala, and let it boil for about a minute, leaving some liquid in the skillet. Take out the garlic.
When the spaghetti is al dente, drain it, leaving some water clinging to its strands, and add it to the skillet, along with the almonds. Toss gently over low heat until the spaghetti is well coated with the garlic oil. Add salt and a generous amount of freshly ground black pepper, and add more olive oil if needed to coat the pasta.
Pour the spaghetti into a warmed large serving bowl. Sprinkle on the bread crumbs, and give it all a gentle toss. Serve right away.
Dining with the Saints is written by Erica De Mane. This will be a regular feature of this blog. Erica is the author of several books on Italian cooking. She also has an Italian cooking blog at http://www.ericademane.com