When I was a child, this is the pastry my grandma from Apulia (Puglia in Italian) would make me every Easter. It’s traditional to that region but is prepared throughout the South of Italy. In times past, Scarcella was a treat that not only signaled the end of Lent in Apulia, but had deep significance, part Christian, part pagan. The eggs (or a single egg for the poorest) on top of the cake symbolized Christ, but also life, wealth and good luck. They are “imprisoned” by a grid of dough. The cake was carried during the Easter procession by the catechumens, who would receive baptism the same day. Their souls would then be freed from sins. It’s not clear where the word “scarcélla” or “scarcédda” comes from: some say it’s from “scarcerato,” to set free (the baptism would set you free from sins), others associate it to the dialect words “scarsella,” which means bag, or “ciambella,” meaning ring-shaped cake.
Usually the number of eggs would be odd – since odd numbers are considered the luckiest ones. Some like to decorate the eggs before using them.
There are many way of preparing this dessert. Some are simple and straightforward, like my grandma’s, others have a white icing on top, made with egg white, lemon juice and sugar. Others are filled with either jam (usually plum) or almond paste. Shapes also vary and depend on the creativity of the cook, but they usually play around Easter themes: lambs, doves, rings, chicks and hens, baskets (to carry the eggs), hearts… Not so much bunnies, which is an American symbol for Easter.
Now I know all of you are eager to be free of your sins, or perhaps just find some good luck, or maybe you just want to taste this delectable, shortbread-like cake that uses extra-virgin olive oil instead of butter (yay!!!). So here is my nonna’s recipe.
Ask your kids to help you… they will have a lot of fun!
Prep Time: 20 to 45 minutes, depending on the design you decide to make and how skilled you are in the “crafting” process
Baking time: again it depends on the design, it usually takes between 35 and 45 minutes
Estimated total time: 55 to 90 minutes
|Heat the oven to 360° F. In a large prep bowl, toss in the extra-virgin olive oil, the milk and one egg (save the rest for later). Add the sugar, flour, yeast and grated lemon peel. Mix with a spoon or your hands to form a firm ball of dough.|
|Sprinkle some flour on a surface and, with the help of a rolling pin, roll the dough out to ½-inch thickness.|
|Compose the design of your choice on top of the previously greased baking sheet (no grease needed if you use a non-stick baking sheet). The design can be large, using all the dough, or multiple small ones.|
|Place the 3 whole, washed raw eggs in the center of your cake and bind them to the dessert with a couple of strips of dough (the eggs will cook in the oven). You can use fewer or more eggs — 3 is just a suggestion for the amount of dough. Then complete the design.|
|Crack the remaining egg and separate out the yolk. As finishing touch, brush the yolk on top of your cake to give the scarcella its typical golden color, and dust with colored sprinkles.|
|Bake in the oven at 360° F, usually between 35 to 45 minutes. The top of the cake will be deep golden color. To test for doneness, you can also insert a toothpick in the thickest part of the cake — if it comes out clean, then the cake is likely ready.|