Sfratto, the singular of sfratti, has two meanings in Italian: “stick” and “eviction notice.” It refers to the rods that landlords used in Renaissance Italy to beat delinquent tenants out of their homes. The same sfratti were used to kick Jews out of town and send them roaming for a safe haven. In 1555, that safe haven was Pitigliano.
A little background: Renaissance Rome was ruled by the Pope, absolute monarch of the Papal States that spanned Central Italy. Living in Rome meant following Papal Law, which, like Soviet Rule or Shariah Law, was basically fascist. Starting in 1555, for over three-hundred years all Jews in the Papal States were ordered to live in ghettos, adhere to curfews, give up their right to own land, and practice only certain professions. Jews were also required to attend Catholic Mass, where they would insert earplugs to stop the “light of Jesus” from entering their brains.
To escape this oppression, Jews traveled to Tuscany, outside of the Papal States, and many settled in Pitigliano, a hilltop town protected from malaria by its altitude and from raiding warlords by its sheer rock walls. Here, they thrived. There weren’t that many of them—only 200—but life was good. Many were moneylenders, a profession that the Church forbade Christians to practice but encouraged for Jews. (Note to future Popes: if you want to oppress a group, don’t force them into finance.) Others became radiologists or wrote sitcoms.
Their adopted city was nicknamed La Piccola Gerusalemme (Little Jerusalem) not only for its golden landscape, which recalls the Holy City, but also because this small town, ruled by the lenient Orsini family, boasted a synagogue, a mikvah (ceremonial bath), a kosher bakery for matzoh and challah, and a school. Even after the famous Medici family took over southern Tuscany and forced its Jews back into ghettos, the Pitigliano community was granted unspoken immunity from certain legal restrictions, because they were so integral to the survival of the city.
Centuries ago, the Jews of Pitigliano reclaimed the sfratto by making a dessert in its honor. Before they’re cut up, these delicious, traditional nut-and-honey-filled Rosh Hashanah treats look a little like sticks. You can’t beat anyone with them, but they will beat your tastebuds into happy submission.
Today, even though only a few Jews remain in Pitigliano, as modern jobs enticed them to larger cities, the synagogue remains, as do historic remnants of the mikvah and bakery. However, the true living legacy of the Jews of Pitigliano is the sfratto: made famous by Pitigliano’s renowned Jewess cookbook author, Edda Servi Machlin, and sold to tourists by a non-Jewish bakery in the old ghetto. This recipe is a gluten-free, much less sugary version of Servi Machlin’s recipe.
For the Pastry:
- 3 ⅓ cups all-purpose or gluten-free flour
- ⅓ cup extra-virgin olive oil
- ½ cup brown or white sugar
- ¾ cup white wine
- ¼ cup whisky, cognac, or vin santo
- A pinch of salt
For the Filling:
- ¾ cup raw honey
- 3 cups of walnuts, chopped
- Zest of 2 to 3 oranges
- ⅓ teaspoon cinnamon
- ⅓ teaspoon ground cloves
- ⅓ whole nutmeg, grated
- 20 grinds of the pepper mill
- Extra-virgin olive oil
Make the Pastry:
- Place the flour, olive oil, sugar, white wine, whisky, and salt in a food processor, and pulse until the ingredients just come together.
- Remove the dough from the food processor, grease it with a little olive oil, and cover with plastic wrap.
- Put it in the refrigerator for a good hour or overnight.
Make the Filling:
- Pour the honey in a small saucepan over medium heat and let it “melt” for 3 minutes.
- Add the walnuts, zest, cinnamon, cloves, nutmeg, and pepper. Stir and cook for another 5 minutes.
- Transfer the filling to a small mixing bowl, and let it cool.
Assemble and Bake:
- Preheat the oven to 350°F and line a baking sheet with parchment paper.
- Form the pastry dough into 4 equal-sized balls.
- Using a rolling pin or a makeshift rolling pin (such as a tall, strong drinking glass), flatten each ball of dough one at a time to make an 11 x 4-inch rectangle. Use extra flour as needed to prevent sticking.
- Roll the filling into 4 ropes, about 1-inch in diameter, and place in the center of each rectangle. Gather the sides of the dough and pinch together to form a smooth seam over the filling. Be sure to close up the ends of the log as well. Place on the prepared baking sheet. Don’t worry if it looks ugly. It’s rustic, and you’re cutting them later!
- Bake the sfratti on the prepared baking sheet in the center of the oven for 20 minutes. Let cool and cut into 1-inch “sticks.”
- Enjoy with good coffee, vin santo, or whiskey, and share the story of sfratti to anyone willing to listen.
- Store in the freezer.
Author Elana Horwich has been featured in The Daily Meal, The Jewish Journal, Real Simple, Women’s Health, HuffPo Taste, Prevention and more! The second edition of Meal and a Spiel: How to be a Badass in the Kitchen will be out October 15th.