Growing up in Los Angeles, and this was many years ago, the closest I got to an Italian meal was opening a can of Chef Boyardee SpaghettiOs. Only when I moved to Providence to teach at Rhode Island College did I experience authentic Italian cuisine. Living close to Federal Hill, the historic center of the city’s Italian community, I had easy access to Italian delis that imported cheeses, pastas and charcuterie directly from Italy. Every block had a small bakery making cakes, pies, cookies, breads and pastries according to recipes handed down for generations.
I discovered cannoli filled with ricotta cheese studded with flakes of bittersweet chocolate. Twice baked biscotti with almonds. Pastry cream filled zeppole, a fat doughnut of sugared dough, baked or deep fried. I loved them all, but my favorite was a seashell shaped pastry, the deliciously crisp sfogliatella.
What makes this Tuscan pastry so famous is a crunchy flakiness outside and a sturdy, sweet ricotta cheese filling inside. Imagine the best croissant with a thick custardy filling. And, by the way, the “g” is silent, so sfogliatella is pronounced “sfo-li-a-tella.”
Some recipes are best saved for the holidays or special occasions when helping hands are available to join in the cooking. Making tamales on your own isn’t easy, but at holidays when you are joined by friends and family, the repetitive work becomes social and fun. The same for making Chinese dumplings filled with savory ground pork and spices.
For me, I’m making sfogliatelle with my family. Happily the pastry can be made in stages, so the work can be spread out over several days. The dough and ricotta filling can be made on separate days and refrigerated. Assembling the sfogliatelle can be saved for yet another day. And, the completed, unbaked pastries can be kept in the freezer for months, available on a moment’s notice to brighten an afternoon tea break or a weekend dinner party.
Executive Pastry Chef Federico Fernandez
For years I searched for an easy-to-follow recipe without success. When I was told that Chef Federico Fernandez of Bianca Bakery (Platform, 8850 Washington Blvd., Culver City California 90232) would demonstrate making sfogliatelle, I jumped at the opportunity.
Born in Buenos Aires, Fernandez is a worldly student of South American, French and Italian cuisine. His pastries have been served at some of the world’s most elegant hotels and restaurants, the Park Hyatt, the Marriott Plaza, the Fontainebleau, the Four Seasons and, now, Bianca Bakery. Before we met, I admired his work on Instagram. His elegantly beautiful pastries are amazing.
Making sfogliatelle requires patience, muscle work and an attention to details. Demonstrating how to make sfogliatelle for the YouTube video on Secrets of Restaurant Chefs, the very affable Fernandez showed how the process can be fun. I enjoyed the passion he puts into baking. He is an artist with a soul and a good sense of humor. While he worked, he filled my head with technical details about the art of baking and fed me samples that put me into culinary heaven.
All-purpose flour could be used, but that would be a mistake. Fernandez uses bread flour because its higher gluten strength gives the dough more elasticity. That allows the dough to be worked repeatedly to create sfogliatelle’s characteristic flaky layers.
In the video, Fernandez uses a recipe to make 50 sfogliatelle. Not that he bakes that many at one time. He freezes the unbaked pastries, taking out each morning only the number he needs for the hotel’s breakfast service. Freezing does not diminish the quality of the sfogliatella which are freshly baked before serving.
To make his sfogliatelle, Fernandez includes semolina flour in the dough to add color and texture. He also uses semolina in the filling because that is a traditional ingredient and because Semolina gives the filling density as well as its characteristic yellow color. By contrast, pastry cream which is not as dense would melt when the sfogliatelle are baked in a hot oven.
Fernandez uses a room-sized Rondomat sheeter machine to flatten and stretch the dough. “Little by little,” as he says in the video, the dough softens and thins. At home you will use a rolling pin and a lot of elbow grease. Have friends help with the process or take breaks. If you want to rest, place a damp kitchen towel over the dough.
Creating multiple layers gives the pastry its distinctive crispy, flaky quality. This is the most labor intensive part of the process. The result is worth the effort.
If you do not have a small rolling pin, pick up a ½ - ¾ ” dowel, 5-6” in length from a lumber yard or hardware store. When you get home, sand the dowel and treat with a light film of safflower oil. Dry and clean before using.
2 large, sturdy rolling pins
1 small rolling pin or ½ - ¾ ” dowel, 5-6” long
A large work surface
A heavy duty electric mixer
1 metal ring, 3 ½” – 4” in diameter, the ring of a small spring-form pan will do nicely
Parchment paper or Silpat sheets
Yield: 10 -12 sfogliatelle
Time: 4 hours + refrigeration overnight for the dough
Sfogliatelle are famous for being deliciously crisp. Three things create that wonderful quality, a dozen+ paper thin layers of dough with fat between the layers and using bread flour with more gluten to create thin, stretchable sheets of dough.
For the fat, unsalted butter can be used, but Fernandez recommends an equal mix of unsalted butter and Sweetex Z or Crisco because butter melts too easily. Please note that Sweetex is an artificially sweetened fat. Fernandez uses a different product, Sweetex Z which has zero trans fats.
Even though fat is essential to making the sfogliatelle's layers crisp, in the heat of a 400F oven, the fat all but disappears.
Even though fat is essential to making the sfogliatelle's layers crisp, in the heat of a 400F oven, the fat all but disappears.
Ingredients for dough
4 cups bread flour
2 cups semolina flour
3 teaspoons kosher salt
1 ½ tablespoons honey
1 cup + 1 tablespoon water
4 cups unsalted butter, room temperature or 2 cups unsalted butter + 2 cups Crisco or Sweetex Z
½ cup all-purpose flour for dredging when assembling the sfogliatelle
¼ cup powdered sugar for dusting before serving
Ingredients for ricotta filling
2 ½ cups whole milk
½ rounded tablespoon fresh orange zest, avoiding all the bitter white pith
1 ½ cups white sugar
1 ½ cups semolina
5 egg yolks
1 ¾ cups cow’s milk ricotta cheese
Before making the dough, whip the unsalted butter or unsalted butter and Crisco or Sweetex Z in a mixer for ten minutes using the paddle attachment so it is very soft and fluffy. Use at room temperature.
Making dough with layers using a “simple fold”
In a mixer fitted with a hook, combine the two flours, salt and honey. Blend on a low speed to mix well, then slowly add water. Continue blending on a low speed about 10 minutes. Increase the speed and blend another 2 minutes.
Touch the dough in the bowl of the mixer. If it feels too dry, add a small amount of water. Turn on the mixer and incorporate the water. Be careful not to add too much water. If the dough becomes soggy, you cannot add more flour.
Transfer the dough from the mixing bowl to a work surface. Work the dough with your fingers until it is in the shape of a fat log. Wrap the dough with plastic wrap and let rest 10 minutes on the counter. Do not refrigerate.
After resting, remove the plastic wrap. Dust the work surface with bread flour and position the log in front of you, the long way. Use the rolling pin to roll the dough away from your body. The log of dough will flatten and elongate.
To create layers, fold 1/3 of the dough from the end closest to you onto the middle. Fold the other 1/3 from the opposite end on top of the first fold. This is called a “simple fold.”
Roll out the dough. Flip the dough over and rotate it clockwise a quarter turn. Press down on the folded dough with your hands. Roll out the dough again. Allow the dough to relax a minute or two before making the next simple fold.
After folding, rolling out, flipping and rotating the dough 15 times, you will have created dozens and dozens of delicate layers. Cover the dough with a damp kitchen towel. The dough needs to rest and so do you. Take 10 minutes and have a cup of tea.
Making fat dough thin
Now that you have created layers and made the dough softer, the dough needs to become thinner.
Fernandez uses a Rondomat dough sheeter. He can handle a large recipe because the mechanical rollers do the physical work of rolling out the dough into a sheet almost thirty feet long. In your kitchen, you will use a rolling pin and a lot of upper body strength. But even though you are using a smaller recipe, your sheet will still be quite large. As you roll and thin the dough, it will spread in length and width so clear your counter for this step. You will need the space.
Sprinkle bread flour on the work surface. Make a simple fold one time, then roll out the dough. Because the sheet will become too large for the work space, you will wrap the dough around the second rolling pin.
Once you have rolled out all the dough and accumulated it on the second rolling pin, check the thickness. If it is not yet paper thin, roll the dough out again. You may have to do this step several times until the dough is paper thin. Once all of the paper thin dough has accumulated on the second rolling pin, you are ready for the next step.
Adding fat for crispness
In order to create croissant-like flaky layers, a fat is required. Using your hands, apply a thin film of room temperature butter or the mixture of butter-Crisco or Sweetex Z on the work surface.
Place the rolling pin with the sheet of dough on the back of the work area.
Keeping the sheet attached to the rolling pin, pull forward on the dough and lay a length of the unbuttered sheet on the work surface. Use a sharp knife to trim off and discard the rounded end of the dough so the edge facing you is square.
Spread a thin layer of fat onto the sheet of dough on the work surface.
Start a new roll. As Fernandez shows in the video, use your fingers to lift the end of the buttered dough off the work surface and roll it away from you.
To unwind another length of dough from the rolling pin, lift the roll of buttered dough and bring it back toward you.
Continue that process, pulling dough from the rolling pin onto the work surface, spreading on fat and adding that length to the buttered roll, until you have buttered all the dough.
As you create the buttered roll, the ends will become untidy. No worries. You will trim those later.
When you have applied fat to all of the dough, the roll will be in the shape of a large log. Give the entire log a final coat of fat, seal with plastic wrap and refrigerate overnight.
You can make the sweetened ricotta filling and refrigerate in an air-tight container for up to three days until you are ready to assemble the sfogliatelle.
Combine whole milk and white sugar in a pan over low heat. Whisk to combine. Add orange zest. Increase the heat.
When the mixture boils, add semolina all at once and whisk well. The mixture will thicken quickly. Cook 2-3 minutes, stirring frequently to combine. Avoid burning.
Switch to a wooden spoon when the filling becomes paste-like. Continue stirring. Reduce heat. Cook another 3-4 minutes. Remove from heat.
Use a spatula to transfer the thickened mixture into the mixer bowl. Be certain to scrape off all of the batter that has accumulated on the sides and bottom. Allow to cool for a minute.
On the mixer, use the paddle attachment to aerate the filling. Run the mixer at a low speed for a minute. Increase the speed and run for another 2 minutes.
To prevent splattering, before adding the egg yolks, stop the mixer and lower the bowl. Add yolks. Change the mixer speed to low. Mix for a minute. Increase the speed and run another 2 minutes.
Once the filling is creamy, use a spatula to scrape the sides of the bowl and incorporate all of the mixture. Run the mixer again at higher speed.
Add ricotta using the low speed and, once incorporated, increase the mixer speed to high. Scrape the sides of the bowl and mix again for 10 minutes on medium to aerate the filling.
Once the filling is creamy, allow to cool. If not using immediately, place in an air-tight container and refrigerate for up to three days.
When you make the individual sfogliatella, work in batches of four. Plastic wrap and refrigerate the other sfogliatelle so the fat doesn’t soften.
Organize an assembly line on the counter with the four sfogliatelle rounds, the bowl of ricotta filling, the small rolling pin, the metal ring, a large spoon and all-purpose flour in a bowl.
The mini-rolling pin makes flattening out the dough faster and easier but if one is not available, use your fingers to stretch out the dough.
Directions for assembly
Preheat oven to 400F.
Remove the buttered dough from the refrigerator and unwrap.
Lightly flour the work surface. Use your hands to press, stretch, roll and reshape the log. Roll the log back and forth and squeeze with your hands, keeping the shape round until the diameter is reduced to 2 ½”.
Using a sharp chefs knife, remove 1” of the uneven dough on both ends and discard. Cut the log into ½” thick rounds. At this point, the slices can be plastic wrapped, refrigerated and stored for a day or two.
Working with one piece at a time, shape the dough into a round with your fingers and lightly dredge in the all-purpose flour.
Place the dough on the work surface. Use the small rolling pin to flatten the dough until it is half again as large as it was. If the layers come apart, press them back together.
Adding the filling is easy. Use your fingers to soften and slightly stretch the middle of the dough. Make a circle with your thumb and index finger. Lay the thin round of dough over the opening between your thumb and finger. Create a cone shape by gently pressing the center of the dough into that opening.
Spoon two large tablespoons of ricotta filling into the cone and center of the dough. Fold the dough over the filling. Press the edges of the dough together and create a conch-shell shape. Lay the sfogliatella on the work surface.
Use the metal ring to trim the ragged front edge of the dough.
Line a sheet pan with a piece of parchment paper or a Silpat sheet. Place the sfogliatelle on the sheet pan with ½” spacing between them.
If you want to save any of the sfogliatelle for later use, refrigerate or freeze them as described below.
Directions for baking
If serving right away, place the parchment paper covered sheet pan in the preheated 400F oven and bake 35 minutes, checking that the sfogliatelle brown but do not burn.
Allow to cool. Dust with powdered sugar before serving.
Refrigerating and Freezing
If reserving for use within 72 hours, keep the sfogliatelle on the parchment paper covered sheet pan. Lay another parchment paper on top and seal the sheet pan in a plastic bag. Place in refrigerator. Remove before serving and bake as directed above.
If reserving for even later use, place the plastic bag covered tray with sfogliatelle into the freezer. Once frozen, remove the sheet pan. Put the frozen sfogliatella into an airtight bag. They will keep up to six months in the freezer.
Baking After Freezing
Remove from the freezer the number of sfogliatelle you want to bake.
Place on a parchment paper lined sheet pan, cover with parchment paper and seal in a plastic bag. Refrigerate for one day so the sfogliatelle defrost slowly.
The next day, bake as described above.