GIUGGIULENA – SESAME SEED BRITTLE
Of all the various foods I have tasted, my favorite food group is dessert. I feel strongly that dessert accompanied with a good cup of coffee is nature’s perfect food combination. Traveling through Europe several times, I have tried as many pastries, candies, gelatos as I can find. Generally, the farther south you travel, the better the desserts get until you reach Italy where all the desserts are excellent. Then, in Italy, the farther south you travel, the desserts improve from excellent to extraordinary as you approach Sicily. That entire island is one pastry shop after another, one gelato shop and another … the absolute pinnacle of dessert variety and dessert perfection. Of course I am a neutral judge and completely unbiased. So please don’t try to tell me about your Aunt Emma’s Roly-Poly Peach Pie with the everlasting bottom crust.
Giuggiulena (pronounced joo-joo-LAY-nuh) What is it? It’s the best! It is the best Christmas sweet treat ever … made primarily of almonds, sesame seeds, sugar and honey. As children growing up in an Italian-American family, one of our favorite treats during the days of Christmastime was sesame seed candy. Sometimes we called it bird seed candy. The adults called it giuggiulena or sometimes simply giugg (pronounced jooge to rhyme with Scrooge). This candy was so treasured to us kids. It was just unreasonable how we loved it. It was more valued than … well, you get the picture.
The combination of toasted sesame seeds with honey probably originated with the Greek and Arab cultures and made its way into Sicily about 1000 AD. Sicilian cooking was influenced by the Greeks, Arabs, Spaniards, and just about any group that happened to sail near the island. Similar to the Roman habit of adopting the best parts of any culture it encountered, the Sicilians followed suit with almost any food from afar … adopt it, modify it, improve it and make it yours. Giuggiulena was one of the results and it is simultaneously a marvelous treat and a splendid food.
So now … it’s story time … personal story, true story. Giuggiulena was part of every Christmas of my entire childhood. My mom made it and so did several of our relatives. While it varied a bit from one batch to another, all of it was considered a gift from the heavens despite the generous amount of earthly labor that was required. At age 20, saying goodbye to New England and leaving our home in Connecticut, my new life in sunny Southern Arizona began (I’m still enjoying the sun more than a half century later). That first year there were no thoughts of sesame candy until late that September. In a phone call to my parents, carefully casual, I asked if my mother would be making sesame candy this coming season. Mom said “Sure”, adding it was a lot of work, but she would go ahead and do it and I said I couldn’t wait to taste it again. She probably thought “Anything for my son!” … after all … the only son in an Italian family…
Each year this phone call was repeated, with variations of course, and some follow-up calls in November and each year my mother would say “Yes” with a greater hesitation and increasingly intense descriptions of how much work was involved and further that she was getting older, etc. And each year I heaped praise on her efforts. One year, when I called, she said “No!” I reeled. A crisis! She said no? What is the world coming to? Suddenly, after twenty years, out of the blue, she says “No, I’m just too old and weak and I can’t do it any longer … unless … unless your sister can help me, but she’s pretty busy with her family.”
For the next two years, mother and daughter, my mother and my sister, provided that treasured treat. Then Mom could no longer do the sesame candy thing at all. The job was inherited by my kind and generous sister. And being forced into selfish, shameless, and desperate beggarhood, I began to call my sister toward the middle of November. And she said “Yes” for two years, along with the now familiar complaints about the efforts involved and the time it required. To myself … “It’s OK to whine and moan, just keeping sending the giugg.” And she did … for the two years.
And then … Disaster! The third year she said “No. Do you know much work it is?” Surely I said something truly clever like “Aw c’mon!” She repeated very clearly, “No.” I probably wept and said “Pleeeease!” and she might have heard my muffled sob. She said again “No, not this year, actually never again … but … I’ll send you the recipe.”
Though completely surprised by this offer, I recovered well … “Oh! Great! That’ll be fine. Thanks!” Never having considered actually making it myself, this had to regarded as a challenge. I would indeed try.
And try it I did indeed! First … understand this … I don’t like to cook “small.” When I cook lasagna it weighs 22 pounds (10 kilos). When I make an omelet or a frittata, I use 24 large eggs and when it’s time for giuggiulena, I make 11 pounds … it fits the pan and it fits the rolling board. Using the ratios of my sister’s hand-written recipe, I assembled the ingredients. Second … understand this … when I made that initial batch, I was a fairly tough guy, unlike today, an old cream puff guy. The instructions went like this…
(1) heat up the honey and sugar, constantly stirring, until “soft crack”
(2) add the seeds and nuts while continuing to stir
(3) pour the mixture out onto a board
(4) roll out mixture to one-half inch thickness
(5) cut into small pieces
No problem! Except … it was a problem, almost a big problem. The “batch” almost “got away from me.” Three … understand this … I made it through the US Army’s Basic Training, I worked construction for years, and I built my home of bricks (my own self-made adobe bricks weighing 60 pounds each) so I’m no slouch. But when I finished this first batch of precious giuggiulena, I was as physically exhausted as if I had run a marathon carrying an anvil. Now there was a great wave of appreciation and admiration for the efforts of my mother and sister and some remorse for having thought them to be wimpy. Now I’m the one to ask “Do you know how much work it is?”
Following the five easy steps above, here’s how the drama unfolded. Step (1) Heating the honey and sugar in a large stainless steel pot is easy, stirring and watching the candy thermometer until it says “Soft Crack … Go!” So … the first step was a lure. Step (2) requires adding nuts and seeds to the hot honey and sugar mix (135°C, 275°F, hot enough to give you a bad burn) at the same time as you stir. Quite a trick … and the mixture stiffens quickly and suddenly you need the strength of three men. You can’t linger or the almonds will burn and you stir until your arms are rubber and you don’t dare dally because Step (3) must be performed immediately. No resting or the whole mixture will solidify in that beautiful stainless steel pot. Now carry the precious eleven-pound cargo to the rolling board and try to pour it out, but that doesn’t work. You must scoop it out using a strong tool (I use a garden trowel) and now spread it out roughly over the oiled rolling board for Step (4). Using a 36-inch length of four inch diameter steel pipe, I try rolling out the mixture. Not heavy enough! So jump up on the table to add my weight to the pipe. Roll the mixture to compress it to the right thickness. And roll this way and that way and finally … Touchdown! Goooooal! The Gold Metal! I did it! Step 5 (cut into small pieces) can just wait … for two reasons. First … the mixture has cooled enough to insure that there will be no easy cutting. Second … I am almost immobile, except for a slight tremble in my arms and twitching in my shoulders, with not enough reserve strength to slice water. My throat is dry. I have a few burns on my hand and arm. Now is not cutting time … it is instead, collapsing time. But I am one happy man because this batch smells and tastes absolutely exquisite. I have made, in fact, one of the world’s best desserts! And that, my friends, is really something!
These past years I’ve made four or five batches each Christmas season. I’ve adjusted my recipe and methods to make the process easier … and more important … I always have a strong assistant to do the stirring, the scooping out, assist with hot work, and do all the cleanup work. So … I can still complain, but I truly enjoy the reactions of family and friends when they taste this genuinely wonderful treat from Sicily.
Aureleo Rosano Tucson, AZ 03/10/2014
NOTE: There’s a good recipe for giuggiulena at Website: www.allthingssicilianandmore.com. They mention the word “cubbaita” which I have never encountered. Under their “Top Posts and Pages” click on GIUGGIULENA, convert grams to ounces if you must, and start your journey to heaven.
Aureleo Rosano www.rosano.org