“You have to order iris,” the girl behind the counter at Pasticceria Catania tells me, before glancing up at the clock, then at the door, then back to me. “Great, good, excellent: I would like to order two,” I reply, apologising if she’s about to close. “And the filling?” she asks, while flipping to the right page of the order book, then smoothing it back like a wrinkle with her thumb. “Ricotta,” I say, pleased with myself that I know these fried brioche are filled with ricotta. Her eyes narrow: “Here [in Gela], the filling is either chocolate or pistachio; you need to order a minimum of four; leave a deposit – we are closed on Monday, so they will be ready at 9am on Tuesday.” Our conversion is in my adequate Italian and her Sicilian, except my compulsive enthusiasm and her last three words: “Is that excellent?”
As we walk back two days later, we pass the countless other bars that have filled our veins with short, dark coffee and cold lemon tea this summer; that have cooled us with iced granita, but disappointed with their breakfast buns. Many bars in Sicily, at least the ones we’ve found ourselves in, seem to buy in the cheapest, most anaemic breakfast things these days, and I write this as someone who is easily pleased – I am far from a yeasted bun snob. If only we had walked 300m farther along the corso (main street) sooner. If only we had found Bar e Pasticceria Catania in early July, we could have enjoyed six weeks of yeasted and fried bun delight with our morning caffeine.
Bars dispensing coffee, soft drinks, hard spirits, beer and snacks from early until late are a way of life in Sicily, as they are in most of Italy. Bars are everywhere, for everyone. Order at the cash desk, which may require an amount of single mindedness, and consume either at the bar or a table, and join in the everyday rhythm. Combine a bar with a Sicilian pasticceria, with its long, glass counter lined with soft almond biscuits, brioche, green, marzipan-draped confections and layered bricks of cream, sponge and custard, and you have a sugared, caffeinated nirvana.
Sicilian bar breakfasts are sweet. Most things seem to be called brioche, notably the brioscia col tuppo (round bun with a top knot), but also cornetti (croissant), ciambelle (ring doughnuts), fried ravioli and other cones and folds. Then there is the mythical iris, a UFO sphere of brioche dough filled with ricotta in Palermo, and chocolate or pistacchio in Gela, then deep-fried until darkest golden brown.
It is just after 9am when I arrive on Tuesday, and my iris are sitting ready on a golden tray like kings. The girl wraps them in a cocoon of paper, then I walk them back along the corso. At home, we marvel at the crack of the outside shell and improbable ratio of filling, which is a sort of thick chocolate pudding. I find the idea of a guilty pleasure a ridiculous and annoying one. When faced with something like iris, there is only pleasure, and possibly a blob of chocolate on your lap.
After all that, I am not ready to write about iris: next year. I am, though, ready to write about the ciambelle: another pleasure both to eat and make. I use a cutter for the doughnut rounds and then a liqueur glass to make a hole in the centre, creating a ring and, as Emiko Davies (whose recipe this is based on) notes, the leftover bocconcini (mouthfuls).
As well as sweet, this has been a truly fried column, for which I don’t apologise – but I do understand if it seems a pain. Be careful as you lift them out
The absence of egg in this recipe makes for soft, plump ciambelle that aren’t too sweet. You could, therefore, pipe some jam into the heart of the little bocconcini; alternatively, whipped ricotta, chocolate or custard are great, good and excellent.
Prep (including proving time 2 hr 30 min
Cook 30 min
Makes 8 x 5 inch rings
15g fresh yeast or 7g active dried yeast
80ml tepid water
200g strong plain flour
30g butter, melted
Zest of 1 lemon
Vegetable, sunflower or peanut oil, for frying and oiling the bowl
If you are using fresh yeast, crumble it into the water, stir and leave to sit for 10 minutes.
Put the flour, dried yeast (if using), 60g of the sugar, butter, lemon zest and a pinch of salt in a bowl and add the water/yeast – or simply water if using dried yeast. Knead into a soft, elastic dough, then transfer to an oiled bowl. Cover and leave in a warm, draught-free place for two hours.
On a floured surface, roll out the dough to about 1cm thick, then cut out discs with cutters or a sharp-edged glass. Then use a liqueur glass to make a hole in the centre.
In a small, deep pan, heat three inches of oil to 160C, or when a cube of bread dances and turns golden in 30 seconds. Fry the doughnuts in small batches for two minutes per side, or until golden. Lift out with a slotted spoon, blot, then, as soon as possible, roll each one in the remaining sugar.