During most of the year, I’m an advocate of breakfast at home. I can toast my home-baked sourdough bread until slightly charred on the edges, wait until it’s just barely warm, then top it with what I fancy the most that day: almond butter and jam, scrambled eggs, smoked salmon, cucumbers.
Along with my toast, I take a steaming cup of tea in winter, or a sip of espresso during the summer. It’s my breakfast, my rules, my time.
So for me, breakfast at a café immediately feels like a holiday. Even more so if, from my table perched on the sidewalk, I can watch the port life of a Mediterranean town unfurl in front of my eyes.
Since I met my husband, Tommaso, eight years ago, we’ve spent a few days every summer visiting his maternal family in Porto Cesareo, a coastal town in Salento, Puglia, on the heel of the boot that is the Italian peninsula. Having breakfast in a café—always the same one, approved by his aunt for the quality of coffee and choice of pastries—has been a ritual since my first visit to Salento, a moment I look forward to for the whole year.
This can be attributed to my equal love for two local specialties: pasticciotti and caffé in ghiaccio.
When in Salento
In the summer, you can just as easily find iced coffee here in Tuscany, where I live, in the form of caffè shakerato, which is shaken with ice cubes and strained. But this is far from the kind of iced coffee you’ll find in Salento.
Ask for a caffè in ghiaccio con latte di mandorla—coffee over ice with almond syrup, also known outside of the region as caffè leccese—and you’ll be brought a glass with precisely five ice cubes and a shot of milky almond syrup on the bottom. Along with it will come a properly brewed espresso, to pour over the ice cubes once you’re ready to enjoy it. Pour, stir with a spoon, and drink—the potent flavor of the coffee is the first to hit your senses, then the sweetness of the syrup with its notes of amaretto, and finally the chill of the ice cubes, which rest on your lips and send shivers down your spine. It’s a guaranteed instant wake-up.
The drink appeared for the first time in Lecce, the main town of Salento, in the 1950s. At the time, when refrigerators and freezers were extremely rare, Don Antonio Quarta was an ice reseller. During the sultry Apulian summers, he would treat his customers to a cup of iced espresso, sweetened with a shot of almond milk. It became so popular that he soon opened his own coffee shop and turned his business into a small coffee roastery, Caffè Quarta, the same company that provides the coffee we still use now at home.
Breakfast in Salento calls for something sweet along with your caffè in ghiaccio. That could be bite-sized almond paste cookies, pillowy brioche col tuppo (just like the Sicilian brioche usually paired with coffee granita), or, my usual choice, pasticciotti. These palm-sized pastries have a crumbly shortcrust shell, rich with lard, and a filling of thick pastry cream, with a barely detectable hint of Strega, a southern Italian herbal liqueur. Sometimes, a single sour cherry in syrup is placed in the center. Served slightly warm, they are the perfect contrast to iced coffee.
When I miss those carefree breakfasts in Salento, especially now that summer is winding down, I make an exception to my typical breakfast rules and try to recreate that cafe experience at home. I bake a batch of pasticciotti, brew a fresh espresso, and prepare a glass with ice cubes—exactly five—and a drop of almond syrup. The only thing missing is the view.
The traditional pasticciotto, oval-shaped, with a glossy shortcrust shell and a thick pastry cream filling, was born in the town of Galatina, in the Salento region of southern Italy. Now, it has become one of the most iconic products of the entire region.
Many variations have been created over the years. In the local pasticciotterie, pastry shops, the list of flavors is almost endless: chocolate, gianduia cream, jam, lemon, ricotta and berry, pistachio, mascarpone … sometimes even savory options are offered. Nothing beats the classic one, though, the best complement to the local iced coffee.
Recipe Notes: If you are not a fan of the flavor of lard, you can substitute it with the same amount of butter, softened but still cold. If it is hard to get a hold of Strega liqueur, use yellow Chartreuse or sambuca instead.
Pasticciotti are traditionally baked in oval 4-by-2-inch tart pans. If you can’t find the right pans, you can use 3-inch muffin molds (1 1/4-inch deep).
Makes 10 pasticciotti
For the Shortcrust Dough (Pasta Frolla)
- 2 1/3 cups (300 grams) all-purpose flour
- 3/4 cup (150 grams) sugar
- 1/4 teaspoon fine sea salt
- Grated zest of 1/2 organic lemon
- 3/4 cup (150 grams) lard (or softened, cold butter)
- 1 egg plus 1 egg yolk, beaten together
- 1 egg yolk, beaten, for the egg wash
For the Filling
- 2 cups plus 2 tablespoons (500 ml) fresh whole milk
- Peeled zest of 1/2 organic lemon
- 3 egg yolks
- 3/4 cup (150 grams) sugar
- 1/3 cup (45 grams) cornstarch
- 1 tablespoon vanilla extract
- 1 tablespoon Strega liqueur
Make the shortcrust: In a large bowl or on a wooden board, mix the flour, sugar, salt, and grated lemon zest. Next, add the lard and use your fingertips to rub it into the other ingredients until they form fine crumbs, similar to grated Parmigiano Reggiano. You can also use a stand mixer fitted with the paddle attachment to do this.
Add the beaten egg and egg yolk, and use your hands to quickly incorporate all the ingredients until the dough just comes together. It will still be slightly sticky and not entirely homogeneous, but the flour should all be incorporated. Flatten the dough into a disc, wrap it in plastic wrap, then stash it in the fridge to rest for a few hours, or better, until the next day.
Make the pastry cream: Pour the milk into a saucepan. Peel the lemon and collect the strips, tying them with a piece of kitchen string; it will help you fish them out from the pastry cream at the end. Add the lemon peels to the milk.
Heat the milk over medium heat, and remove it from the heat as soon as it starts simmering.
In another saucepan, whisk the egg yolks with the sugar and the cornstarch until there are no lumps. Slowly pour the hot milk in a thin stream over the egg yolks, stirring constantly with a whisk to prevent scrambled eggs. Add the lemon peel, too.
Put the saucepan over medium-low heat and stir constantly with a whisk. As soon as you spot the first bubbles and it starts to thicken into pastry cream, remove it from the heat, fish out the lemon peel, stir in the vanilla extract and the Strega liqueur, then pour it into a bowl. Cover with plastic wrap and let it cool down completely. Store in the fridge until time to use it.
Assemble the pasticciotti: Remove the dough from the fridge and leave it at room temperature for about 20 minutes. This will make it easier to work with it.
Preheat the oven to 350 degrees F. Butter 10 (4-by-2-inch) oval tart pans.
On a floured surface, take 2/3 of the dough and roll it out with a rolling pin into a 1/4-inch-thick round. Cut out discs slightly bigger than the tart pans and lay them into the pans. Use your fingers to press the dough into the pans and about 1/2 inch up the edges. Trim the excess dough with a sharp knife, saving the scraps. Knead any leftover dough scraps together, roll it out again, and cut out more discs. You should be able to line 10 tart pans.
Fill the tartlets shells with the pastry cream, and smooth the surfaces.
Knead any remaining dough scraps into the reserved 1/3 of the dough. Roll it out to a 1/4-inch thickness, then cut into ovals big enough to cover the pasticciotti.
Gently lift the dough ovals and place them on top of the pastry cream. Use your fingers to seal the edges together. Brush the tops of the pasticciotti with the beaten egg yolk.
Bake the pasticciotti for 25 to 30 minutes, until golden brown. Let cool before serving.