At times, I have the world’s biggest sweet tooth. But other times, I like to turn down the sugar amp a tad. That is why I especially adore Italian desserts, because they satisfy more subtly. With their additions of nuts, olive oil, ricotta or other cheese, and fresh or dried fruit, they provide especially flavorful yet tempered endings to a fine meal.
One of my favorite new cookbooks is “Dolce Italiano (W.W. Norton & Company, 2007, $35) by Gina DePalma, the pastry chef at Babbo in Manhattan. It is filled with Italian desserts just like this.
Leafing through the pages, I stopped at the recipe for “Calcioni.’’ DePalma calls it her favorite baked pastry ever. So how could I resist?
These are small half-moon shaped pastries. The dough has a whisper of sweetness from granulated sugar and vanilla extract, while the filling is salty Percorino Romano. At first bite, you think you’re eating a cookie. Then, at second bite, you expect a filling of sweet jam of some sort. But surprise, surprise! Your taste buds are hit with the rich umami and saltiness of sheep’s milk cheese.
I love the unexpectedness of these pastries. And so did my former officemates, who couldn’t get enough of them.
Serve them as an appetizer, snack, or part of a cheese course at the end of a meal, along with a glass of sparkling wine or almost any still wine, especially full-bodied reds such as Cabarnet Sauvignon. Then wait for it, wait for it — the pleasurable look of surprise on the faces of your guests.
(makes 24 to 28 cookies)
For the dough:
3 large eggs
½ cup granulated sugar
¼ teaspoon kosher salt
4 tablespoons (1/2 stick) unsalted butter, melted and cooled
½ teaspoon pure vanilla extract
2 to 21/4 cups unbleached all-purpose flour, plus more for rolling
For the filling:
2 large eggs
1 cup grated Percorino Romano, or any hard, aged sheep’s milk cheese
Freshly grated black pepper
1 egg, lightly beaten, for glaze
To make dough: In the bowl of an electric mixer, use the paddle attachment on medium speed to beat eggs, sugar, and salt together until combined. Add melted butter and vanilla extract, and beat for a few more seconds. Add 2 cups flour and beat on low speed to form a soft, smooth dough that does not stick to your fingers; if necessary, add 1 to 2 tablespoons more flour, but take care not to make dough too stiff. Cover bowl with plastic wrap and chill dough in the refrigerator for 1 hour.
To make filling: Just before taking dough out of refrigerator to roll, beat eggs together well with a fork in a small bowl and then stir in grated cheese and a few grinds of black pepper. The filling should be moist but not runny; you are basically moistening the cheese with the eggs.
Preheat oven to 350 degrees and position a rack in the center. Prepare two baking sheets by brushing them lightly with olive oil or spraying them with nonstick cooking spray.
Remove dough from refrigerator. On a well-floured work surface, roll dough to a thickness of about 1/16 inch. Using a 31/2- to 4-inch round cutter, cut circles as close together as possible; discard scraps. (If your work surface is small, divide dough into 2 pieces and cut circles in 2 batches).
Place a heaping teaspoon of filling slightly off-center on each circle and fold dough over to form a half-moon shape, pressing the dough together at the edges to seal. Bend ends toward each other to form a crescent. Using a toothpick, poke 2 tiny holes at the base of the filling mound; this will allow air to escape and prevent the crescents from exploding. For a decorative effect, press tines of a fork around the border to create a pattern. Place calcioni on the baking sheets, ½ inch apart. Use a small pastry brush to glaze each one with beaten egg.
Bake calcioni for 12 to 14 minutes, or until they are lightly golden brown; rotate baking sheets after 7 or 8 minutes to ensure even browning. Using a spatula, transfer calcioni from baking sheets to a cooling rack.
The calcioni are delicious served warm or may be cooled and stored in an airtight container for up to 3 days.
Note: Calcioni can be assembled ahead and frozen. Roll out dough, fill as described above, and poke holes at the base of each filling mound. Place crescents in a single layer on a plate or cookie sheet in the freezer until they are firm. At this point, the crescents can be stored together in a plastic freezer bag.
When ready to serve, remove calcinoi from freezer. Place them on cookie sheets, brush with egg wash, then bake as indicated, though you may have to allow an extra minute or two to brown.