TYPICAL CHRISTMAS SWEETS, THE MOSTACCIOLI: HISTORY, PREPARATION, AND RECIPE
The mostaccioli are typical Christmas sweets, and you can find them throughout Italy. Here for you their (very old) history, the original recipe, and preparation
For many people in Italy, Christmas would not be the same without the mostaccioli.
They are widespread throughout southern Italy and on the islands (the Sardinian version is quite famous), while many are getting to know them in the North. Their story, then, is incredibly long and elaborate.
The word mostaccioli derives from the Latin “mustaceum”: a Roman focaccia that was composed of grape must, cooked on laurel leaves.
The actual diffusion of the mostaccioli, really widespread, derives from this very long tradition, which, we will soon talk about, is interwoven with exceptional figures of Roman history like Cato.
Ancient mostaccioli, in fact, were offered when a relative or a friend was leaving, as a sign of attention and good luck.
It was Catone himself who handed down the recipe for the “mustacei” in the “De Agricoltura”: «Mix a bushel of flour with the must, add anise, cumin, two pounds of fat, a pound of cheese and laurel bark. Once mixed and given the right shape, cook some bay leaves on top».
Also Juvenal and Cicero talk about it. The latter, protagonist of the Cesarean era, even uses them in his very famous motto “laureolam in mustaceo quaerere” meaning “seek glory in trivia.”
To understand the importance of the ancient mostaccioli for the Romans, consider that the wedding cake was called “mustaceus”: it was prepared with must, a lot of cinnamon (an imported spice and therefore prerogative of the rich who, in fact, used it in more solemn moments) and of course flour.
Over the centuries, of course, the recipe for this type of sweets has changed and has been enriched with numerous variations. In the 1700s, Vincenzo Corrado (in his book “The Gallant Chef”) even gave three different versions, and it is perhaps also for this reason that, currently, each Italian region has its own mostaccioli.
Compared to the old Roman sweets, then, the main difference with the modern ones is linked to the addition of chocolate, absolutely not present in the ancient recipe because it was discovered in America.
If, in our days, we wanted to find a type of mostacciolo more similar to those of the ancient Roman recipe, instead, those to choose would be the mostaccioli of the Abruzzo region, made with honey, flour, and cooked must. The Apulian recipe has cooked figs instead of the must, while the “mustazzola” from Ragusa are similar to those of the Abruzzo, with the addition of chopped almonds.
The current mostaccioli have the good fortune to last very long, and this has always been the case. This was, perhaps, the secret of their longevity, in addition to being a simple to make and even poor biscuit, taken from the few condiments that could be found in the countryside even in remote times such as those related to the Empire or to the Caesars Republic.
The personal cook of Pius V, Bartolomeo Scappi, speaks of their longevity in his sixteenth-century cookbook: “They get better day by day – says Scappi – and last a month in their perfection.”
The rhomboid shape is also the symbol of the Neapolitan mostacciolo, while the consistency derives from different choices and schools: there are those who want them softer and those more compact, almost hard (in the days to come) such as nougat.
The ingredients and the recipe
The ingredients are quite simple and easy to find in local markets or supermarkets. Of course, there are many, and each version has its own.
Flour, almonds, orange peel, water, sugar or honey and pisto (spice mix with cinnamon, pepper, nutmeg, cloves, star anise) are the main ingredients together with dark chocolate, which will form an external glaze (today, milk can be substituted with dark chocolate or white chocolate). In the dough of mostaccioli, then, you can find candied fruit or directly jam, perhaps of apricot.
Finally, here is the recipe of the mostaccioli made by Laura Vitale:
In short, whether they are Neapolitan or Lombard, whether they are called mustazzola, mustacciule, mastazzola, mostacin, mostazzolos or mustazzol, these famous sweets mean only one thing for all Italians: Christmas.
This post is also available in: Italiano (Italian)