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Prinjolata: the mountain at the heart of Maltese carnival celebrations

This article first appeared in The Circle on Sunday 3 March, 2019.

Photos by Rachel Zammit Cutajar


Carnival is a time of revelry as Catholics indulge for a few days before the forty days of fasting during Lent. During these few days the streets of Valletta come alive with the bright colours of floats and costumes.

Carnival has many traditions some of which have disappeared with time. The kukkanja was a custom started by Grand Master Marc ’Antonio Zondari in 1721. A ‘mountain’ or pyramid of beams covered with leafy branches was erected in the palace square in Valletta, hiding all sorts of prizes. Competitors would climb the mountain and claim the prizes as they reached them. This custom originated from the Sicilian custom when the same competition took place and reference was made to the ‘Land of Cuccagna’ – an utopia where the Italian peasants believed a mountain of endless pasta could be eaten!

Another mountain or pyramid that appears in Carnival, is the sweet Prinjolata, named for pine nuts, which is one of the main ingredients. This also originated from Sicily and Mary Taylor Simeti, author of Pomp and Sustenance –Twenty-Five Centuries of Sicilian Food tells us that in Messina, a ‘Pignoccata’ is made at Christmas time. “The little balls, made of elaborate dough, are baked and then heaped into one large pyramid, which is then iced, with chocolate on one side and a white sugar glaze on the other”.

The Maltese prinjolata resembles this but has changed slightly and is eaten during Carnival not at Christmas. This is my tried and tested recipe.

Prinjolata

Ingredients

Kourambiedes

· 200g lard

· 500g self-raising flour

· 100g almonds, roasted till turning pink them very finely chopped

· 2 tbsp orange blossom water (ilma zahar)

· ½ tsp mixed spice

· ½ tsp baking powder

· 75g (3oz) icing sugar

Butter cream

· 225g unsalted butter at room temperature

· 300g icing sugar

· A few drops of brandy

· ½ tsp vanilla essence

· A little tinned (evaporated) milk

· 50g pine nuts

· 50g almonds, roasted and finely chopped

· 50g candied peel, finely chopped

American frosting

· 200g sugar

· 75ml water

· 2 egg whites

· 1 tsp vanilla extract

· 150g green and red glace cherries

· 50g unsalted shelled pistachios or 50g roasted chopped almonds

· 50g pine nuts

· 50g dark chocolate

Method

1. To make the kourambiedes, melt lard in a medium sized pot (do not boil).

2. Mix in icing sugar, baking powder, orange blossom water and mixed spice, stir with a wooden spoon.

3. Add chopped almonds and flour slowly.

4. When you cannot stir with the spoon anymore, turn off heat and mix with your hands (having allowed to cool for a minute or so).

5. When the mixture does not stick to your hand anymore, shape into balls the size of a golf ball (this dose makes approx 24 balls) and put on a baking tray.

6. Bake in a slow oven – 150°sC till just turning brown. Take out of oven and allow to cool. Set aside.

7. If you are cooking these biscuits and not using them for the ‘prinjolata’ –they are very good on their own - roll them in sifted icing sugar.

8. To make the butter cream, beat butter and icing sugar till pale and fluffy.

9. Add brandy and vanilla essence.

10. Continue beating, adding a little tinned milk to make a smoother and lighter cream.

11. Into this cream, mix in the pine nuts, candied peel and the roasted chopped almonds. Set aside.

12. To make the American frosting whisk egg whites till stiff.

13. Meanwhile, melt sugar in water over heat and boil until a transparent syrup forms (this is called the soft boil stage, when a tsp of the mixture forms a ball when dropped into a glass of cold water, or a blob sticks to your finger when put onto marble).

14. Add this syrup very slowly to the beaten egg whites, together with the vanilla extract, and continue beating till a white frosting is made. Allow to cool.

15. To assemble prinjolata, prepare a flat cake plate. Build up tiers of your Greek biscuits starting with about five and ending with one at the top and bonding all the tiers together with the prepared butter cream.

16. Carefully cover the assembled biscuits with all the butter cream.

17. When firm, cover the mound with the American frosting using a spatula to smooth the sides.

18. Allow to dry slightly.

19. Chop the glace cherries into halves and place all over the ‘mountain’. Next throw on the remaining pine nuts and the pistachios all over the frosted surface.

20. Finally either grate the dark chocolate over the prinjolata, or alternatively melt the chocolate and when melted, pour over the mountain in thin lines.

21. Allow the prinjolata to set and dry before carefully cutting and serving.