Every Tuesday, Italian local Emiko Davies is taking us on a grand tour of Italy, showing us how to make classic, fiercely regional dishes at home.
Today: Breakfast, La Dolce Vita style.
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“My Roman friends always get incredibly sentimental,” Rome-based food writer Rachel Roddy says of the maritozzi at her local café in her neighborhood of Testaccio. It's one of the few places in Rome that still make this nostalgic treat—a sweet, small yeasted bun studded with raisins (sometimes pine nuts and candied orange peel) and a lick of sugar syrup over the top. Before the ubiquitous cornetti (Italian croissants) took over, maritozzi were the favorite breakfast of the Romans, particularly in the 1950s and 1960s. And they go back much further than that: Supposedly they evolved from a spiced Lenten bread that dates back to the Middle Ages.
The origins of their unusual name is a sweet one (excuse the pun): Young grooms-to-be gave them to their fiancées, hence the name maritozzi, which means "almost husband," from the Italian word for husband, marito.
There are various little tweaks and changes to this recipe depending on where you look. Many Italian recipes specify baking them for a very short period—6 or 7 minutes at most—in a very hot oven so that the buns retain their softness. But modern recipes call for baking them in a moderate oven for 15 to 18 minutes, which I have found to be a bit more reliable (and they are still pillowy soft). Some include milk, some use just yolks, and most use a sponge (also known as a yeast starter). Although many of today's maritozzi are usually studded with just raisins, traditional recipes, such as the one from Roman cooking queen Ada Boni, also include pine nuts and candied orange peel. If you don't like candied fruit, use lemon or orange zest (or both) instead, as Carol Field does in her maritozzi recipe in The Italian Baker.(She also has a great use for the water used for soaking the raisins: Add it to the yeast starter.)
You could also skip the glossy syrup top and simply dust with confectioners' sugar before serving. Either way, if you're going to do it properly, the best way to enjoy these is to split them open from the top, leaving the bun attached at the bottom like a hot dog bun and then filling them generously with freshly whipped cream. And your Roman breakfast is ready.
This recipe is inspired partly by Ada Boni's maritozzi recipe in Il Talismano della Felicita and partly by Carol Field's recipe in The Italian Baker. Neither specify the use of whipped cream in the buns, but it is the way you popularly find them in Roman cafés and it is undoubtedly the best way to enjoy them.