Italian Cookie Crumbs Create Byzantine Art in the Veneto

fregollata cookieA fregollata is a cookie from the Veneto region of Northern Italy with a crumbly, porous texture. In the Veneto, fregolotta comes from the local dialect word for crumb “fregola”. The combined ingredients create a mixture of large crumbs of dough (fregole) which you drop into the baking pan and press into larger “crumbs”creating one large oversized cookie.

A traditionally made fregollata is fairly hard and meant to be broken into bite sized pieces and shared at the table with a glass of passito wine or spirits. It is not overly sweet as is the case with many Italian cookies and desserts (saving the richer versions for special feasts and occasions). The fregollata has taken on mythical proportions partially due to its size and partially due to the number of variations in the making. Some versions use cornmeal, cake flour, eggs, cream and citrus zests.

Our chosen version of a fregollata is more biscuit-like, a giant Italian crumb cookie made with a shortbread dough filled with marmalata to create a jammy tart. A juxtaposition of crumbly dough, brilliantly colored jam and the sliced edges of sharp almonds – an Italian cookie mosaic influenced by the Byzantine art of the Veneto.

The stone mosaics on the floor of St. Mark's Cathedral in Venice.
The stone mosaics on the floor of St. Mark’s Cathedral in Venice.

Fregollata Tart (adapted from Food52)

12 tablespoons (6 ounces) unsalted butter, softened
1/2 cup (3 1/2 ounces) sugar
1/4 teaspoon pure almond extract
1 1/2 cups (7 1/2 ounces) unbleached all-purpose flour
1/8 teaspoon salt
1/4 cup (2 ounces) not too sweet apricot jam (or other jam of your choice)
1/3 cup (1 ounce) sliced natural almonds

1.  Heat the oven to 350 °F. Position an oven rack in the center of oven.
2.  Place the butter, and sugar in the bowl of an electric mixer fitted with the paddle attachment. Beat on medium speed until the mixture is very light in color, about 3 to 4 minutes. Use a rubber spatula to scrape down the sides of the bowl. Add the almond extract and blend well, another 30 seconds.
3.  In a separate bowl, whisk together the flour and salt. Add the dry ingredients to the butter mixture and combine on a low speed just until the dough is thoroughly combined, about 30 to 40 seconds. Measure out 1/2 cup of the dough and set it on a small plate, then place the plate in the freezer (this will chill the dough and make it easier to crumble).
4.  Press the remaining dough into a 9 or 9 1/2-inch tart pan in an even layer (the edges can be a little higher than the rest, just be careful that the center is not the thickest point). Traditional recipes advise dipping your fingers in a mixture of eggs and cream to moisten them so the dough does not stick or if the dough is too sticky, just chill it briefly.
5.  Use a small offset spatula or the back of a spoon to spread the jam in a thin, even layer over the surface of the dough, leaving a border of about 1-inch around the edges.
6 . Remove the reserved dough from the freezer and crumble it into small pieces over the layer of the jam, allowing some of the jam to peek through creating a mosaic like pattern. Sprinkle the sliced almonds evenly over the top of the tart.
7.  Bake for 40 to 50 minutes, or until the topping is golden brown. Remove from the oven and place on a rack to cool completely. If your tart pan has a removable bottom, to un mold, center the tart pan on top of a large can so that it balances midair as the rim of the tart pan falls to the counter. Leave the bottom of the pan under the tart for support, or run a large spatula between the crust and the pan, using the spatula to guide the tart onto a plate.