Judith’s Italian West Virginian pastry.
Pitta ‘Mpigliata, ‘Tallie Style
I’ve just discovered your website and have learned so much in just a few minutes! What a wonderful find after a very fruitless search . . .
My great-grandmother was from Reggio-Calabria, and she passed on to us the practice of making a cake we knew only as ‘Tallie Cake (it was okay if to call them that!). These cakes were made only at Christmas.
I was the first great-granddaughter to be taught how to make these cakes, my mother being the only granddaughter who cared to learn. Now, in my mid-fifties, I am receiving numerous requests from aunts and cousins for the recipe and how-to’s of our cakes. (Several got the recipe ingredients from my grandmother but were not trained in how to put the ingredients together in the traditional Mediterranean fashion. And it is a task.) I’m now curious about finding the correct name, origin, etc., of our cakes. I’m sure some of the ingredients may have been “translated” to that which could be obtained in rural southern West Virginia from the 1900s to the 1960s.
As far as the term “‘Tallie” goes, it was a nickname. Southern West Virginia was a mecca for Italian immigrant coal miners. In the coal camps, the Italians were referred to as ‘Tallies. That is how they referred to themselves-when they were among other Italians. I guess that is why I’m searching for a “more esteemed” name for this wonderful cake!
Here is a brief description of the cake: A basic sweet yeast dough, containing warmed coffee and wine, is made. When ready, circles of the dough are rolled out, topped with a brushing of oil, sugar, and cinnamon, and then spread with a filling of raisins and chopped walnuts mixed with sugar and spices. It is rolled (cinnamon roll fashion) and cut just like cinnamon rolls. About 7 to 9 of the rolls are then placed on another circle of the rolled-out dough, which has been brushed with oil and sprinkled with sugar and the spices. The sides of the circle are then brought up over the rolls. A piece of crochet thread or kitchen string is tied around the circle at the level of the top of the rolls, and the excess of the dough circle is cut away. (It has the look of a little open pouch of cinnamon rolls.) The cakes are allowed to rise again, the tops sprinkled with oil, baked, and given a healthy top coating of honey before they completely cool. (They are WONDERFUL with a cup of black coffee!)
Is this something with which you are familiar? Can you help me?
Thank you for the gift of your time.
Rock Hill, S.C.
Rereading your e-mail yesterday, I think I understood what your Calabrian pastry is. There’s something called a pitta ‘mpigliata made for Christmas. I remember buying it in the old Balducci’s store in Manhattan years ago, made I believe by a woman in Brooklyn. It looked like a big cinnamon bun, not the cluster of buns you describe, but I think your ‘Tallie must be a variation on that classic pastry. I don’t remember any of the ones I’ve eaten ever having a coffee taste, but that may have been a personal touch your family added. I’m also not sure the ones I’m familiar with were yeast cakes, they may have been more like a short pastry rolled and filled to look like a cinnamon bun. Is this or is this not the same cake? Doesn’t really sound like it does it? But my hunch is yes. In any case, I’m going to look into this. Let me see what I can find out.
Erica De Mane
After some very fruitful research (which I discuss below in my essay beneath the e-mail exchanges) and a first attempt at baking this cake, here’s what I wrote to Judith:
I worked out a recipe for your ‘Tallie (pitta ‘mpigliata) and tested it. The thing cooked up outrageously delicious, but when I tried to fashion it according to your description, pulling up the sides to form the pouch for the rolls, it puffed out during baking like a flower. My question to you is, do you remember anything being done to hold the pouch dough in place, something like securing it with string or using some kind of ring mold? What I did was pull the dough up all the way to the center, closing the dough, and then I cut the top portion off, not with string as you remembered (this somehow I couldn’t get to work), but with scissors. But you can see from the photo [which was attached to the e-mail] what happened during baking. I have to say, though, that the taste is excellent. I added the coffee and white wine you mentioned and then took ingredients from other recipes I found and added a few of those as well.
I’d love to put this up on my site, but I want to get it right first. I’d be grateful for any additional info you can give me. And thanks for the recipe idea. This is really a lovely thing.
What a beautiful ‘Tallie cake! It looks like what I’m talking about, but definitely the most beautiful I’ve seen, even with the flower effect. I’ll bet it was delicious.
To get the sides to stay up, cut a ribbon of dough and wrap it around the sides of the outer rolls (set on the big circle of dough), tucking it under to secure it. This helps keep the rolls in place as you work the pouch dough up and over.
Your process of bringing the sides up like a pouch sounds right. However, the string is to keep the dough in place. Tie the string around the pouch at about 1/8 to 1/4 inch below the level of the tops of the rolls. (It is difficult to do and a tricky process. I sometimes still have problems getting the string too tight, and it pulls and tears the pouch during the second rising.
When you have the string tied on the cake and cut from the ball of string, take your kitchen shears and cut away the excess pouch dough about 1/2 inch above the string. It now looks like a bowl or open pouch of buns.
I hope this helps. I probably oversimplified my description and made two steps (tie on string; cut excess dough off with scissors) sound like one step. I’m sorry. However, you have definitely translated my description into the real thing!
I am so excited. Thank you so much for taking such an interest in my search.
I wasn’t completely sure Judith’s ‘Tallie cake was a version of the Calabrian Christmas pastry pitta ‘mpigliata I was familiar with, but I was pretty sure. What else could it be? When I began hunting around, I found no recipes in English anywhere, but I did find several in Italian. I saw photos and recipes for the type of cake I remembered, the one big cinnamon bun made with a sweet pasta frolla, but then I saw photos of cakes that were obviously yeast risen. Some had the one big bun look, but others were fashioned into clusters of buns, either just baked together or baked in a little pouch like Judith describes. So I knew I had my cake. But as Judith also stated, it is a task. That it was, but a really fun and ultimately extremely rewarding one.
Several things go by the name of pitta in Calabria, and they are all round, but they can be round and sweet or round and savory, or round, sweet, and puffy, like Judith’s ‘tallie, or round and flat, like a classic pizza (one Calabrian recipe I found for an artichoke topped pitta sounded especially wonderful). The word pitta is a variation on pizza, and both words are no doubt related to the Arab word pita, which means pie or cake. Impigliata means entangled, and that is the perfect description for these little spiral buns all trapped together in this lovely pastry. My first goal was to work out a coherent recipe for this sweet pitta from the pile of Italian ones I had rounded up. They were all a little different. Judith mentioned her grandmother’s cake being flavored with spices, black coffee, and wine. I didn’t find one that incorporated coffee, but considering all the varying flavorings I did find, I figured this might be a localized Italian village version or even a West Virginia variation. In any case, I knew I had to include the coffee.
The wine and booze options were numerous. Some recipes just instructed the cook to include “liquore a piacere,” but booze is definitely a definite. I found recipes that included one or more of the following: sambuca, white vermouth, grappa, dry white wine, moscato (sweet white wine), Strega, whiskey, manderino (orange liqueur), and Marsala. I settled on dry Marsala and Strega, which I thought went well with the espresso I knew I’d be adding.
There are many other flavors in this thing, making for a decidedly Southern Italian tasting pastry, definitely more intense than an American cinnamon bun and really lovely with a glass of moscato or vin santo, or black coffee, as Judith suggests. Cinnamon, cloves, walnuts (or pine nuts), raisins (or currants), and honey were always present, so I included all those things. Instead of the orange zest or juice that was included in many versions, I used lemon zest, which is nice with espresso too. I added all this to an olive oil and egg yeast dough, which is what most of the recipes instructed me to do.
It took me a few shots to get the thing under control. The technique Judith describes her grandmother using, involving holding the thing together with string, just didn’t work for me. After a few tries and a few more e-mails describing my travails to Judith, I gave up on that and just decided to cook the pitta ‘mpigliata in a spring form pan. The results are a little tidier, less rustico than I would have wanted, but the frustration it saved was enormous. The cake was incredibly delicious, not too sweet and not too gooey, but with a fascinating flavor that really sums up for me what is unique about Southern Italian cooking.
I was interested in the Italian West Virginia coal mining connection to the name ‘tallie cake. I had never heard that term before, and when I researched it, I came up with no references to it at all. But it occurred to me that maybe the addition of coffee is to indicate coal, similar to the way the carbonara aspect of pasta carbonara refers to the copious amount of coal-mimicking black pepper used in the dish. Just a thought.
Pitta ‘Mpigliata, ‘Tallie Style
For the filling:
1 cup currants
1 cup chopped walnuts
1/4 cup dry Marsala
1 tablespoon Strega
1/4 cup olive oil
1 cup sugar
1 teaspoon ground cinnamon
1/2 teaspoon ground clove
The grated zest from 1 large lemon
For the dough:
4 1/2 cups all-purpose flour, plus extra for kneading
1/2 cup sugar, plus extra for sprinkling
2 packages active dry yeast
A generous pinch of salt
3/4 cup whole milk
1/4 cup olive oil, plus extra for brushing the dough
2 large eggs, plus 1 egg yolk
1/4 cup espresso, cooled
1/4 cup dry Marsala
1 tablespoon Strega
1 teaspoon ground cinnamon
1/4 teaspoon ground clove
The grated zest from 1 large lemon
1/4 cup honey
In a large bowl, combine all the ingredients for the filling, and set the result aside while you proceed with the recipe (this will allow the booze to soften the currants and let all the flavors blend).
Combine 1 cup of the flour, the sugar, yeast, and salt in a large bowl. Give it a stir. Pour the milk and olive oil into a small saucepan and heat gently (just until warmed). Pour this into the bowl and beat gently with an electric mixer on low speed. Add the eggs, another cup of flour, espresso, Marsala, and Strega. Beat until incorporated. Sprinkle on the cinnamon, clove, and lemon zest, and add 2 more cups of flour. Now mix with a wooden spoon until you have a soft dough. If the dough is very sticky, add additional flour, up to about 1/2 cup.
Turn the dough out onto a floured surface, and knead until it’s smooth and elastic (about 5 minutes), adding sprinklings of flour as necessary to prevent sticking.
Place the dough in an oiled bowl, turning it over so the top is oiled. Cover with a kitchen towel, and let rise until doubled in size, about 2 hours.
Generously oil a 10-inch spring form pan with olive oil.
Punch down the dough and cut it in half. Roll one half into an approximately 13-inch circle. Place the dough in the pan, letting it drape slightly over the edge to help it stay in place. Brush the inside of the dough with oil, and sprinkle with sugar.
Roll the other piece of dough into a rectangle, approximately 8 by 12 inches. Spoon the filling onto the rectangle, leaving a little room at the edges, and roll it lengthwise like a jelly roll. Cut off a little at each end and then cut the dough into 2-inch slices (just like you would for cinnamon buns). You should have 8 or 9 rolls. Place one roll in the center of the spring form pan, and circle the remaining rolls around it, so it looks like a big flower. Fold the overhang into the pan to cover the edges of the rolls, trimming it with scissors to neaten it up (it should look like a pouch full of cinnamon rolls). Brush lightly with oil, and sprinkle with sugar. Cover with a kitchen cloth, and let it rise again, just until nice and puffy, about 45 minutes.
Preheat the oven to 350 degrees.
Bake until golden and fragrant, about 40 minutes.
Let the cake cool for about 20 minutes, and then release the spring form, leaving the cake on the pan base. Warm the honey gently and drizzle it over the top. Serve warm or at room temperature.