I've never been the best at presents. Neither for myself, not for others. Not because of a lack of generosity, memory, or time. Rather, for over-thinking the matter. I do my research, spend days browsing shops and opening tabs of online stores, bookmark things I find here and there, and promise myself to go back to this all after a much-needed break. The truth is, I then just become overwhelmed and unable to choose. Perhaps my problem is that I have always tried to pick the perfect object, the thing that will please as well as surprise, while being in perfect line with the personality of the receiver; something that would fit my budget without looking cheap; a gift that will impress both in creativity and in taste. You see how this can become a tad challenging.
Every year, I tell myself that I would sort out all the Christmas presents before the beginning of December, leaving the few weeks before Christmas for relaxing, home decor and reading rather than for last-second shopping madness. I have failed every year; until two years ago, when I decided to turn to food, and all of a sudden it all made sense.
Two years ago, we were in the process of moving from Bra into a new life together. Unable to find the time to go shopping for Christmas presents while moving and organising our little wedding, and with a small budget available, we decided to give everybody homemade, edible presents instead. My syllogistic thinking went this way: "Everybody likes food; cookies are food; everybody likes cookies. I can make cookies; I can make many kind of cookies; I'll make cookies for everybody." And so I did, and the response was as good as I could have ever hoped for. Giving good food that is made with an investment in time, care and thoughtfulness can really make people happy – often times more than any object that might or might not be ever used. Food can be enjoyed and cherished and shared in a way no object can.
This month, in line with the upcoming holidays, we are turning this episode of Italian Table Talk into a small exchange of edible presents. Under the Christmas tree, you'll find Emiko's wonderful torrone sardo, made with only egg whites, honey and almonds; Giula's calzoncelli, cookies from Basilicata; Jasmines gelées, soft jelly candies. And my sesame brittle. Christmas has to be sweet.
Sesame brittle, I said. Called croccante in Italian, it is a traditional Sicilian sweet, made especially during Christmas time. The name changes depending on the part of Sicily you stumble upon it: cubbaita in the East and giuggiulena in the West. I even found it to be called cubbaita di giuggiulena, combining the two words. Both are of Arabic origin (as Sicilian cuisine and culture has been deeply influenced by the Arabs): the former means 'brittle', the latter 'sesame'. It is not uncommon to find this brittle on the stall of candy vendors in local fairs throughout the whole country, together with candied almonds, and marzipan/pistachio cookies. In fact, it was in such occasion (a local fair) that I came across it for the first time. It was love at first (sticky, crunchy) bite.
Cubbaita or Giuggiulena
I have seen many different recipes for this sweet: with a higher sugar to honey ratio, for a harder version, or vice versa for a more chewy one; with only sesame, or with sesame and almonds; with orange zest (fresh or candied). I went for a medium-hard cubbaita, enriched with almonds like you would find in most places these days, but skipped the orange. I used this recipe as a reference.
100g light brown sugar
100g honey (thyme or other intensely aromatic variety)
250g sesame seeds
125g almonds with the skin, roughly chopped
Half a lemon
Before starting, line the surface where you will spread your brittle: it could be some marble (ideally), or a large baking tray with some parchment on it. If using marble, grease it lightly with some butter.
Now, heat the sugar and the honey together in a medium saucepan over low heat. When the sugar has melted, and the sauce is boiling, stir in the sesame, and quickly combine into the hot syrup. Keep stirring for five-six minutes, until the sesame is toasted and fragrant. At this point, incorporate the almonds and stir for one more minute.
Spread the sill hot (careful!) seed mixture over the lined surface. When flattened, place a sheet of parchment on top, and finish spreading using a rolling pin. You are aiming at 3-4mm thickness here.
Remove the parchment delicately. Fork the lemon half and use the cut part to shine the surface of your brittle.
Cut before it cools completely, as it will get harder and harder to do it. Wet the blade of a big chef knife and cut in diagonals. Once completely cooled, you can store the brittle squares in an air-tight container until ready to use (or pack and give to your friends and family).