I first learned about Zaletti from Thomas Halik, the proprietor of Not Just Rugalach, which has stands at various Greenmarkets around the city. (See my Maven’s Diary entry called Jury Duty Eats.) Zaletti are cornmeal biscotti with raisins from Venice.
Thomas actually thought they were from Tuscany. “You know how those Tuscans love cornmeal,” he said. Actually, I told Thomas, Tuscans don’t love cornmeal. But Americans nowadays think that anything good from Italy must be Tuscan, which is far, far, far from the truth.
Cornmeal is a popular food of the Veneto, I continued to lecture, the northeastern Italian region of which Venice is the main city. Think polenta, which is the cornmeal mush much beloved of the Venetians.
“I’ll bet any amount of money that Zaletti are from the Veneto,” I told Thomas. Sure enough, they are. I found recipes in several Italian cookbooks, English language and Italian language, and, along with the recipe that Thomas uses and sent me, which he got from the Newark Star Ledger, I tried them all. Following is the best of the lot, which I got from one of my most reliable sources, Michele Scicolone, who has written many books on Italian cooking.
I mentioned Zaletti to Gianni Scappin, a chef and Culinary Institute of America consultant whose restaurant, GiGi Trattoria, will be opening on Montgomery St. in Rhinebeck, N.Y., this summer. He is from the Bassano del Grappa, in the Veneto, and he told me, confirming Michele’s information, that the word Zaletti, which is also spelled Zaleti, comes from the word giallo, obviously because cornmeal is yellow.
“The real word should be Gialletti,” says Gianni, “meaning ‘little yellow things,’ but Venetians are very lazy speakers and they avoid double consonants and extra vowels, so it became Zaleti in dialect.”
The dough is essentially what Italians would call pasta frolla and we would call short pastry. In Anglo terms, Zaleti are very much like shortbread made with a portion of cornmeal. Some recipes do not include raisins, but Gianni says that raisins are a must and that they should be soaked in grappa. “And why not put the extra grappa in the cookies. Or drink it!”
With a few inconsequential changes in the directions (you know I can’t help put my two cents into everything), this is the formula for Zaletti from my friend Michele Scicolone’s book, La Dolce Vita, which was recently re-issued in paperback I find the book invaluable for Italian dessert recipes, and now at only $13.60 through Amazon (just click on the underlined title, just mentioned) you will find it well-worth the investment.
3/4 cup golden raisins
1/4 cup grappa or brandy
1 1/2 cups al-purpose flour
1 cup fine yellow cornmeal
1/2 teaspoon salt
12 tablespoons (1 1/2 sticks) unsalted butter, softened
2/3 cup sugar
1 large egg
1 1/2 teaspoons grated lemon zest
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
In a small bowl, soak the raisins in the grappa until plump, at least 1 hour.
Preheat the oven to 375 degrees.
Combine the flour, cornmeal and salt.
In a large bowl, beat together the butter and sugar. Beat in the egg, lemon zest, and vanilla until well blended. Stir in the dry ingredients. Add the raisins and grappa (or brandy) and still until combined. Cover and chill for at least 1 hour, or until firm enough to handle. (The dough may be made and refrigerated for several days. Return to a workable, but cold temperature before proceeding.)
On a lightly floured surface, roll out the dough to a 1/4-inch thickness. Cut the dough into diamond shapes, about 1 1/2 to 2 inches long and about 3/4-inch wide. Place the cookies on two baking sheets. There is no need to butter, flour or prepare the pans in any way, although, if you want, you can use baking parchment to cover the pans.
Bake on the middle shelf of the preheated oven for 12 to 15 minutes, perhaps up to a minute longer, or until the zaletti are lightly browned around the edges. They will also be lightly browned on the bottoms. Transfer to a wire rack to cool completely.
When completely cool, store in a tin. If the cookies get a little soft in storage, arrange them on a plate a few hours before serving and they will crisp up. These are not soft cookies.
Although Michele’s recipe does not specify this, in Italy, these are always sprinkled with confectioners’ sugar. Do it just before serving.
Arthur’s ingredient note: I used Goya’s fine cornmeal, which is widely sold in the metro New York area. It comes in plastic bags. You can use a coarser cornmeal, but be aware that the texture of the cookies will then by much grainier.