Cornetti aren't croissants: Conjure memories of Italy at home

Chicago Tribune
Cookbook author recreates Italian treat she misses the most: Cornetti

Food friends traveling to Italy often ask me where to go for the best spaghetti alla carbonara in Rome, or where they might find the best pizza, or gelato.

I love all of those iconic Italian foods, but my favorite Italian treat is something else: cornetti, crescent-shaped pastries similar to French croissants.

For countless Italians, the breakfast duet of a cornetto and a cappuccino is a daily ritual, one that is usually performed standing up at the counter of the neighborhood bar (cafe). The cornetto, either vuoto (empty) or filled with jam, pastry cream, chocolate or Nutella (depending on what's in the display case) is held, wrapped in a paper napkin in one hand, and enjoyed bite by bite between swallows of cappuccino.

Since flights from the U.S. to Italy land rather conveniently in the morning, a cornetto is usually the first thing I eat when I deplane, and it is most definitely the treat I miss most when I get home.

Why? Because it's nearly impossible to get a cornetto in the United States. Croissants? Yes. You can get a croissant just about anywhere. It might be a stale supermarket croissant or a soggy fast food croissant or a delicate, flaky, buttery croissant from an artisanal bakery. Cornetti, however, are about as elusive as unicorns. Which brings me to my next point: a cornetto, although similar to the croissant, is not a croissant.

Both are said to have their origins in a pastry created by a Viennese baker to celebrate the city's liberation from the Turkish siege in 1683 — the crescent shape is a supposed reference to the crescent on the Turkish flag — though whether there is truth to this story is anyone's guess.

Both cornetti and croissants are buttery crescents, made with yeasted dough and sometimes filled with jam, almond paste, cream or chocolate. Both rely on a process called "lamination" — folding and rolling butter into the dough in several steps — to give them their flaky, layered quality. But that is where the similarity ends.

Croissants are ultra flaky and airy, in spite of all the butter worked into the dough. When you bite into one, shards fly like sparks into the air and into your lap. Cornetti are the croissant's richer, sweeter cousin. The dough is enriched with egg and sugar, and flavored with vanilla and fresh orange and lemon zest. These additions give cornetti a softer texture and a sweet citrus fragrance. In northern Italy they are sometimes called brioche, and in parts south, they are sometimes split open and stuffed with gelato. Take that, cold cereal.

In Italy, fresh cornetti are so beloved that people show up at bakeries in the wee hours of the morning to buy them still warm. (I did this years ago with friends in Naples, where you will find some of the best cornetti on the planet.) A few years ago, while vacationing in Puglia, my teenage son became obsessed with a particular cream-filled cornetto from an unassuming cafe in the piazza of a small town. For the rest of the week, we had to pack into our little car every morning and high-tail it to that cafe before they sold out of their daily ration of cornetti alla crema.

A couple of years ago, fed up with having to do without, I made my first batch of cornetti using the recipe from Carol Field's classic book, "The Italian Baker." The pastries were good, but they were more like croissants, more savory than sweet, and lacking that tender, pillowy texture and fragrance of my favorite Italian cornetti. So I set about tweaking the recipe a little at a time, first decreasing the amount of butter, then adding more sugar, and then a bit more, and finding the right balance of vanilla and citrus.

Finally, one recent day, I bit into a freshly baked cornetto and knew I had hit the sweet spot. The pastry was flaky but didn't burst into shards when I bit down. It was rich and sweet and infused with a gentle citrus flavor. It truly tasted like the quintessential cornetti del bar. My hard work had paid off.

Let me be honest: Baking a batch of cornetti is not like baking a batch of muffins. It takes time, technique and some elbow grease. The dough must be laminated with butter and then rolled and folded numerous times. In between rolling, it needs to rest. Then there's the cutting and shaping of the crescents, and a final rise before baking. But mastering the technique is not difficult and no special equipment is required. In fact, it makes for a great weekend baking project.

Are my cornetti perfect? No way; some are more tightly coiled than others, some are a little lopsided, some are big and some are small. But to me they are beautiful in their imperfection. When you pull your first batch fresh from the oven you'll feel the same way. There is much satisfaction to be had in a home-baked breakfast, in stretching your abilities as a baker, in channeling the sweet flavors of Italy in your own kitchen.

Domenica Marchetti is a freelance food writer. She has written six cookbooks on Italian cooking, including her most recent, "Ciao Biscotti"(Chronicle, $18.95).

Italian cornetti

Prep: 2 1/2 hours

Rest: 5 hours, plus two overnights

Bake: 16 minutes

Makes: 20 cornetti

Make these crescent-shaped Italian pastries on the weekend, when you have time to properly prepare and shape the dough. Cornetti are a labor of love, for sure, but when you bite into one, you will swear you are back in Rome or Florence, sitting at your favorite outdoor cafe, you know, the one in the piazza across from that church…

For the dough:

4 teaspoons active dry yeast

1/2 cup warm water (105 degrees)

1/2 cup whole milk, at cool room temperature

6 tablespoons unsalted butter, at cool room temperature (return remaining 2 tablespoons to the refrigerator for later use in the recipe)

1 cup sugar

2 large eggs, at room temperature

1/4 teaspoon pure vanilla

2 1/4 cups (10 ounces) bread flour

2 1/4 cups (10 ounces) unbleached all-purpose flour, plus more for the work surface

2 teaspoons fine sea salt

Finely grated zest of one organic lemon

Finely grated zest of one organic orange

For the lamination:

3 sticks (12 ounces) cold unsalted butter, plus 2 tablespoons

3/4 cup (3 1/2 ounces) unbleached all-purpose flour

Optional fillings (about 1/2 cup is needed to fill 20 cornetti): Apricot or strawberry jam, or your favorite flavor, Nutella, almond paste, pastry cream

Egg wash: 1 egg beaten with 1 tablespoon milk

Day 1

1 Combine the yeast and water in the bowl of a stand mixer and let sit for 5 minutes, until the mixture is foamy. Using the paddle attachment, beat in the milk, butter, and sugar until combined; then beat in the eggs and vanilla extract.

2 In a separate bowl, mix together the flours, salt, and lemon and orange zests. With the mixer on low speed, stir in the flour mixture, one cup at a time, just until a soft, sticky dough forms. Scrape the dough out onto a lightly floured surface. It will be a shaggy mass. Flour your hands and gather it into a ball, using a dough scraper to help you keep it in check. Knead it lightly for a minute or two to smooth it out a bit; do not overknead. The dough will be very soft and tacky.

3 Coat the inside of a large ceramic or glass bowl with oil and put in the dough, turning it over to coat the surface lightly. Cover with plastic wrap and let rise in a warm spot until doubled in size, 1 1/2 to 2 hours.

4 Lightly flour the work surface and turn the dough out onto it. Knead briefly to deflate it without developing the gluten. Sprinkle the top with a little flour and place the dough in a zip-close plastic bag. Refrigerate overnight.

Day 2

1 Lamination: Cut the 3 sticks plus 2 tablespoons butter into 1/2-inch pieces and place them in the work bowl of a stand mixer fitted with the paddle attachment. Add the 3/4 cup flour and mix at low speed until combined. Turn the mixer to medium-high and mix until smooth. Scrape the mixture onto a piece of plastic wrap and form it into a 1/2-inch-thick rectangle about 12 inches long and 8 inches wide. Wrap tightly in plastic wrap and refrigerate 15 to 20 minutes, until cold but still pliable.

2 Remove the dough from the refrigerator and turn it out onto a lightly floured surface. Roll it into a 20-by-12-inch rectangle, about 1/4-inch thick, flouring the top lightly if necessary to keep it from sticking. Place the chilled butter slab on top of the rectangle. Gently pat and smear the butter out to cover 2/3 of the dough, leaving the top third unbuttered and a 1- to 2-inch border. Fold the top, unbuttered third of the dough over the center third, as though you were folding a business letter. Then fold the bottom third over that. Pinch the edges of the dough together to prevent butter from escaping. Gently roll the rolling pin over the dough to distribute the butter without stretching it.

3 First turns: Give the dough a quarter-turn (90 degrees). Sprinkle the dough and the work surface with a little flour, if necessary, and once again roll it out into a 20-by-12-inch rectangle about 1/4-inch thick. Fold the top third down over the center, and then fold the bottom third up over the center. Pinch the edges to seal and gently roll the pin over the dough to distribute the butter. Give the dough another quarter-turn. Roll it out once more into a 20-by-12-inch rectangle and again fold into thirds. Pinch the edges to seal. Wrap the dough tightly in plastic; refrigerate, 1 hour.

4 Second turns: Lightly flour the work surface and the top of the dough. Roll it out into a 20-by-12-inch rectangle and, as before, fold into thirds as you would a business letter. Pinch the edges to seal; give the dough a quarter-turn. Lightly flour and roll out again into a 20-by-12-inch rectangle. Fold into thirds and pinch the edges to seal. Wrap the dough tightly in plastic wrap and put it in a zip-close bag. Refrigerate overnight. (If the dough starts to rise, set a tray on top of it and weight it down with a heavy object.)

Day 3

1 Cutting and shaping the cornetti: Remove the dough from the refrigerator and place it on a lightly floured work surface. Cut it in half crosswise, re-wrap one half and return it to the refrigerator.

2 Lightly flour the remaining piece of dough and roll it out into a large rectangle, about 26 inches long by 8 inches wide, positioning it so that one of the long edges is in front of you. This takes some elbow grease, as the butter in the dough is cold. Take care not to over-flour the work surface; otherwise your cornetti will have a gritty coating on them when baked.

3 Shape the rectangle into a parallelogram: Starting in the middle of the dough, roll diagonally to the upper left edge to stretch the corner. Then roll from the middle to the lower right edge to stretch that corner. This shaping maneuver will allow you to cut triangles for 10 cornetti. Trim the edges to make them straight and sharp.

4 Using a ruler or yardstick to measure, and a straight-edge pastry cutter, make four notches in the dough at 5-inch intervals on both the top and the bottom long edges. Starting at the bottom left, cut diagonally up to the first notch at the top edge. This will give you your first triangle. Now cut diagonally down to the first notch on the bottom edge to create a second triangle. Continue to cut the dough in this zigzag pattern to yield 10 triangles.

5 Carefully lift one of the triangles and gently pull it to elongate it slightly. Ideally, you want a triangle that is about 10 inches long and 6 to 7 inches wide. It won't be perfect, but that is fine. Lay the triangle down and spoon about 2 teaspoons of jam or another filling about 1-inch in from the base. Don't overfill or the filling will leak as the cornetti bake. Begin rolling the base up toward the tip, enclosing the filling and lightly stretching the dough as you roll. Finish with the point secured underneath. Now curve the two edges inward to make the classic crescent shape. This is your first cornetto. Set it on a parchment-lined baking sheet. Fill and shape the remaining 9 cornetti in the same way and place them on the baking sheet so that they are not touching. (They will puff up during the final rise and will also rise during baking). If you are using two fillings and want to be able to tell the difference, make those with one filling curved and leave the others straight.

6 Remove the remaining piece of dough from the refrigerator and cut, fill, and shape the remaining cornetti in the same way (or leave some empty, if you like). Cover all the cornetti loosely with plastic wrap and let rise in a warm spot until puffed and nearly doubled in size, at least 2 hours. (Don't put them directly under a light or too close to a source of heat, or the butter will melt.) By the time they're done rising, you should be able to see layers of dough when you view the cornetti from the side.

7 Heat the oven to 425 degrees. Once the cornetti rise, given them a professional shine by gently brushing them with the egg wash.

8 Bake the cornetti for 6 minutes; reduce the temperature to 375 and bake for 10 to 15 minutes more, until they are beautifully browned. Set the baking sheets on racks to cool.

Note: Cornetti are best served fresh, still warm. But they do keep well. Store them in the refrigerator for up to 5 days. Heat them in a 300-degree oven for 10 minutes before serving. Or freeze in zip-close bags for up to 3 months. Let the cornetti thaw for 30 minutes before warming them in the oven.

Nutrition information per serving: 348 calories, 18 g fat, 11 g saturated fat, 74 mg cholesterol, 40 g carbohydrates, 6 g protein, 189 mg sodium, 1 g fiber

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