Zaeti … Venetian Polenta Biscottini

My favourite city in the world is Venezia.  I love her air of mystery, uniqueness, her astonishingly beautiful art, culture and history, and always that lingering sense of an undiscovered dark side to La Serenissma that you’ve just missed by turning a corner.   No wonder Carnevale masks are a symbol of the city.  The freedom to be anyone or anything in complete anonymity.  😉

I used to manage a stop-over there on every trip to Europe.  I haven’t been back since 2000.     *sound of my heart breaking*            I did spent three whole weeks there, though, just hanging out like a local.   My soul feels at home there.   The only souvenirs I ever brought home are watercolours by a local artist and hand-made traditional Carnevale masks … the one in the photo is a traditional papier-maché mask with pressed flowers.  Isn’t it fabulous?  I’d love to travel back to Venice in the 1700s … just imagine.

Cities and regions of Italy each have their own signature pastries and Venice is no exception.  Every panificio and pasticceria has its own fugaxxa (fu-gahs-sah), a sweet yeast bread not dissimilar to pandoro but less rich.   Many of the biscuits and cakes are quite rustic, full of dried fruit and nuts or spices like the pan dei pescatori (fisherman’s bread).  My favourites are the more delicate biscuits that you find in pastry shops around the city and that you won’t find anywhere else in Italy.   The best?  Zaeti (ZAH-EH-TI).  It’s Venetian dialect for “little yellow ones”.   You might find them referred to as Zaleti but no true Veneto would ever pronounce the “l” 😉

Polenta, tangy lemon, vanilla, and plump sultanas.  Bake a batch and the house smells like your very own pasticceria Veneta.  Makes me feel like I’m back in Venice again, at least for a while.

Oh!  Anyone heading to Venice should visit the Pasticceria Marchini.  No way you can pass by and not stop to buy a pastry, biscuits or their fabulous chocolates.  Amazing.

I have found that using instant polenta produces a better result, avoiding that “uncooked maize” flavour.  I use an Italian brand, Squisito, that’s readily available in Melbourne.   I get consistently good results with that.  When using ordinary polenta, I pulse it in the food processor if it is a little too coarse.  Don’t be tempted to buy polenta “flour” as it is too fine and the recipe won’t produce a good result.  You need that little crunchiness from the polenta!

This recipe was first published in The Age Epicure.  Yep, it’s mine.  Took ages to get them close enough to the ones you find in Venice …

Makes: 36 biscuits

225 grams (1 ½ cups) yellow cornmeal (polenta)
225 grams (1 ½ cups) unbleached plain white flour*
100 grams (½ cup) sugar
1 teaspoon baking powder
¼ teaspoon salt
185 grams (¾ cup) unsalted butter, chilled
1 lemon or small orange
2 eggs
1 tablespoon pure vanilla bean paste
110 grams (¾ cup) sultanas or raisins

icing sugar to serve

*For a gluten-free version, replace the plain flour with a 50/50 mixture of white rice flour and cornflour.  I used to make this version for the Journal Café in Melbourne.  Make sure you use gluten-free baking powder.

Instructions are given here for mixing the dough in a food processor, making the process easier.   Because the dough is essentially a type of shortbread, be careful not to over-work the dough in the food processor or it will heat the dough and melt the butter, resulting in a heavier biscuit.  If using a food processor, knead in the sultanas by hand at the end or they will be chopped in the food processor.  Sometimes I just add them in with the eggs, to the food processor bowl.  Lazy 😉

You can, of course, mix the dough in a large mixing bowl.  In that case, rub the butter into the dry ingredients, followed by the liquid ingredients, bringing the dough together with your hands.

Preheat the oven to 180°C (175°C in a fan-forced oven).  Line two baking trays with non-stick baking paper or silpat sheets.

Place the dry ingredients in the bowl of a food processor and pulse once or twice to combine.  Add the lemon zest and butter, cut into pieces, and pulse again just until the mixture is like fine breadcrumbs.

Beat the eggs with the lemon juice and vanilla.  Add to the flour mixture in the food processor.  Pulse until the mixture just comes together. The dough will be a little crumbly.

Turn the dough out on to a lightly floured surface.  Add the sultanas.  Working quickly, knead in the sultanas and bring the dough together until it holds its shape.

Cut the dough into 4 equal pieces.

Roll each piece into a log, based on the measurements given in the diagram below, and flatten slightly.  The log should measure about 3 x 36 centimetres.  Cut logs diagonally into 4 cm lengths.  Each log will yield 9 pieces.  If you have trimmings from the ends of the logs, shape into extra biscuits.

Place the zaeti on the baking sheets, leaving a little room for spreading, and bake for about 15 – 20 minutes, until they are light golden in colour.

Cool on wire racks and dust with icing sugar to serve.

Store in an airtight container, at room temperature, for up to 10 days.

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