Cuscusu di Pistacchi, Monastero di Santo Spirito D’agrigento

Pistachio Couscous from the Santo Spirito Monastery, Agrigento

I first heard of the famous pistachio couscous of Agrigento from Paula Wolfert, shortly before leaving on a trip through Italy with my friend Sandy Leonard in May 1988 to look for unusual recipes. Soon after Sandy and I arrived in Sicily, Paula’s friend Pasqualino Giudice put me in touch with the dean of Agrigento’s chefs, Professore Salvatore Schifano of the Favara Hotel School. Professore Schifano immediately offered to take us to the Santo Spirito Monastery to meet the abbess and prioress and to taste the pastries they make.

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 Miriam and Lester Brickman. This time I phoned ahead to Professore Schifano before leaving New York and asked him to order the twenty-kilo batch of couscous. Our friend Anna Teresa Callen would be bringing a tour group to Agrigento the day we were to pick up the longed-for dessert, and her group would be able to help us consume the enormous quantity.

On the appointed day, Professore Schifano again accompanied us to the monastery, and we were ushered into the same parlor. This time the couscous was ready, on little plates. The first taste was indescribably delightful. Deep green in color, with each grain of the couscous totally intact and separate, the dessert had a rich flavor combining pistachio and bitter almond, with a sweetness that was intense but not cloying. The platter of couscous was garnished with candied cherries and tangerines, and sprinkled all over with grated chocolate and confectioners’ sugar. Suora Benedetta, the actual maker of the couscous, made an appearance and graciously answered my scores of questions, cautioning me to listen only to her, since she and not the others actually prepared it. She added with a smile that a bit of intelligence was only needed to reproduce it.

The version that follows is partly based on Paula Wolfert’s method of cooking couscous in her magnificent book Couscous and Other Good Food from Morocco and on specific information about Sicilian couscous from Giuseppe Coria’s Profumi di Sicilia (Flavors of Sicily). To cook the couscous you will need a couscousière, a perforated pan that sits in another larger pan, usually available at stores that carry imported cookware. Or you can improvise with a colander or steamer basket. For best results, buy couscous loose in a health food store and follow the instructions in the recipe exactly.

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Ingredients

    Sealing Dough

  • 1 cup all-purpose flour
  • ½ cup water

    Couscous

  • 1 cup couscous (NOT instant)
  • 3 cups water

    Flavoring for Second Steaming

  • cups unsalted, shelled, very green pistachios
  • 1 teaspoon almond extract
  • 1 teaspoon ground cinnamon
  • ¼ cup almond oil or mild vegetable oil
  • 1 tablespoon water
  • ½ teaspoon salt
  • ½ cup sugar
  • 2 tablespoons water
  • 1 ounce semisweet chocolate, finely grated; ¼ cup confectioners’ sugar; and candied cherries, or other candied fruit, for finishing

Method

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 1 or 2 tablespoons of flour if necessary. Roll into a rope as long as the circumference of the bottom pan and apply the dough to the rim of the pan. Add water to the pan to a point below the bottom of the couscousière or colander and press the couscousière or colander into place. Bring the water to a boil on high heat, until steam is escaping freely through the perforations, then lower to a simmer in which the steam escapes very gently.

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 1 tablespoon at a time and continue processing the mixture until it forms a smooth paste, stopping the machine and scraping the inside of the work bowl 3 or 4 times. Reserve the pistachio paste.

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 5 or 6 pieces of the candied fruit.