I first heard of the famous pistachio couscous of Agrigento from
The abbess, Madre Ildegarde Pirrone, and the prioress, Madre Mafalda Pascucci, received us in a simply furnished parlor separated from the cloister by a thin, waist-high partition. The corridor of the cloister — off-limits to all — was clearly visible behind them, and I longed for a glimpse of their pastry shop. They described their great specialty, the cuscusu di pistacchi, made from a secret monastery recipe. An early noble abbess supposedly had an Arab servant who first cooked the couscous in the monastery, and it has remained a delicacy there since the end of the thirteenth century.
Unfortunately, none of the couscous had been prepared recently, and there were no leftovers for us to taste. Since the minimum order was twenty kilos and the nuns needed a week’s advance notice, we decided to forgo a special order, though we were able to taste all the biscotti and confections made in the convent. You will find the recipe for their pistachio confection, Bocconcini di Dama,, as well as their Paste Nuove,.
We chatted about antique Sicilian pastries, and at a certain point I asked Madre Mafalda to what religious order they belonged. She explained that they were Cistercians (also called Trappists), and I asked if she had ever heard of Thomas Merton, the famous American Cistercian monk whose devotional works were popular when I was growing up. This was the link needed to bridge the enormous cultural gap that lay between us, and after that both nuns gave us liberal descriptions of their pastries and the couscous, but no recipes, since they are maintained in the strictest secrecy.
I vowed to return to taste the couscous, and I did so a year later with my friends
On the appointed day, Professore
The version that follows is partly based on
First prepare the pan for steaming the couscous. For the sealing dough, mix the flour and water together in a bowl and scrape out onto a floured work surface. Knead briefly to form a rough, sticky dough, adding
While the water is coming to a boil, prepare the couscous to be cooked: place the grain in a bowl and add the water. Swish the water through the grain with the fingers of one hand splayed apart, raking through it. Tilt the bowl and drain away any excess water. Set aside for 5 minutes.
Line the couscousière or colander with a dampened napkin or piece of cheesecloth and add the grain. Cover and steam for 15 minutes.
While the grain is cooking, prepare the flavoring. Half fill a saucepan with water and add the pistachios. Bring to a boil and drain in a strainer. Pour the pistachios onto a towel, fold the towel over them, and rub to loosen the skins. Separate the pistachios from the skins, going over them carefully.
Combine the freshly blanched pistachios, almond extract, and cinnamon in the bowl of a food processor fitted with the metal blade and process for 2 or 3 minutes, until very finely ground and beginning to become pasty. Add the oil
After the couscous has steamed for 15 minutes, remove it from the couscousière or colander in the cheesecloth and place it in a large nonreactive roasting pan. Spread it out with a fork and allow it to cool. Combine the water and salt and work into the cooled couscous, raking through with one hand. Add the pistachio paste in 3 or 4 additions, rubbing it and the couscous together with your fingertips.
Return the water in the bottom pan to a simmer and line the couscousière or colander with the dampened cheesecloth. Add the seasoned couscous to the couscousière or colander, cover, and steam for 15 minutes. Remove the couscous to the roasting pan, spread out with a fork, without compressing the mixture, and leave uncovered until cool.
Bring the sugar and water to a boil, stirring to dissolve all the sugar granules, and cool the syrup. Work the cooled couscous between the palms of your hands to separate the grains, and add the syrup in 5 or 6 additions, fluffing the couscous with a fork. Allow the couscous to dry uncovered for several hours in a cool place, fluffing it with a fork occasionally until all the grains are separate. For advance preparation, cover tightly with plastic wrap and refrigerate up to several days.
To finish, fluff up the couscous with a fork so that the grains separate well, and mound on a platter. Sprinkle the couscous evenly with the grated chocolate, then the confectioners’ sugar, and decorate with no more than
© 1990 Nick Malgieri. All rights reserved.