Every Easter, for as long as I can remember, there has been a selection of enormous biscuits, stuffed with marzipan, iced and topped with a creme egg, that do the rounds in our family. As far as I know, my Grandma made one for everyone in the family every single year from when they moved here in the 1950s, until she became ill a couple of years ago.
These giant biccies are figolli (one figolla, two figolli), and they are basically the Maltese version of an Easter Egg – ie, everyone has at least one each! They are a soft biscuit, cut into a range of shapes (figolla has the same roots as the word ‘figure’) with some religious, Easter-y significance. The most traditional is the lamb-shape, but you can buy cutters in lots of shapes – I have a butterfly, a duck, a heart, a basket and a fish, which I guess have vague overtones of new life and re-birth.
About 7 or 8 years ago, I was in Malta for Easter, and we went to Birgu on Easter morning to watch the statue of the risen Christ being run up the hill (this is more crazy that it sounds – the statue is MASSIVE, heavy and on a huge wooden stand that has to be carried by a lot of men). There were loads of children waiting to hold their Figolli up to be blessed by the Priests following the statue.
The same year, a few days before, we had visited my Auntie Ginny (Grandma’s little sister). She looks the spitting image of Grandma, and their mannerisms and little ways are so similar – down to the blue plastic bowls that are plonked in the middle of the table after a meal, filled with water so you can wash your fruit before peeling it (I have even seen grapes being peeled!). Auntie Ginny must have been over 80 at this point, but she was making a dozen or so figolli for her children and grandchildren, just as Grandma was doing the same back in the UK.
I managed to coax the recipe off Auntie Ginny – Grandma Lola had always been very reluctant to hand over her family recipes (no idea why not – a determination never to give up the roll of chief family cook?), though she has since relented, and given me an envelope full of hand-written notes.
Naturally, I then hit the shops on Merchant Street in Valletta, and stocked up on the cutters, and went home and set-to making my first batch. There were a few years when Grandma and I both made them – I mostly found friends to palm them off on, rather than inflicting two giant biscuits on everyone in my family! Since she’s been ill, it’s just been me baking them – a tradition I hope to keep up as long as she did.
I think my figolli cutters are actually ‘medium-shaped’, but I think the finished biscuits are probably a good 18cm across. The large ones must be huge! I think Grandma must have had larger ones (or maybe she actually had a cardboard shape she cut around?) – I remember thinking they were the biggest sweet things I had ever seen when I was little. “Do you want a duck, a fish or a basket?” she would always ask (the options were a bit more limited then!).
I’m taking Grandma’s figolla over to her on Easter Monday. It’s a bright red heart, runnily iced to say Grandma – I think she’ll like the fact that the tradition’s been passed on, and no-one in our family will be wanting for a giant, almond-stuffed biscuit any Easter soon!
Maltese Figolli – Easter biscuits – makes 11/12
Ingredients for pasta frolla:
800g plain flour
400g caster sugar
400g butter, fridge cold and chopped or grated
4 or 5 egg yolks
Ingredients for filling:
200g ground almonds
200g chopped almonds (toasted)
400g caster sugar
1 tablespoon mixed spice
zest of two oranges
2 teaspoons almond extract
3 tablespoons orange juice, or orange blossom water
3 medium eggs
2 packets royal icing sugar, made up according to instructions
Creme eggs (essential – one year my mother gave me my figolla without a creme egg, and claimed that was how it had come from Grandma – needless to say I quickly identified the creme egg culprit!!)
1. Make the dough by rubbing the fat into the flour, until it has the appearance of fine breadcrumbs. I cheated this year, by grating the butter in, then giving it a 1-minute whallop on full blast in the kitchen aid with the dough hook. It seemed to work, and (other than a lot of flour on the work surface) was a lot quicker than doing it by hand. Lazy me!
2. Add the sugar to the floury breadcrumbs, and mix it through. Now add the egg yolks, one at a time, until it holds together. I find that the kind of flour, and size of eggs, can make quite a difference here – sometimes only 3 yolks are needed, sometimes 5, so see how it feels. Once it’s binding, use your hands to shape it into a huge disc, wrap in clingfilm, and refrigerate for at least an hour.
3. While the dough’s resting in the fridge, make the filling. This bit’s nice and easy.Put dry ingredients in a bowl. Add the wet ones. Mix. Actually, if the eggs are a bit big, it can get a bit wet, so I would advise adding the eggs bit by bit, and stopping when it’s a thick paste that will drop off a spoon. If it’s a bit wet, it doesn’t matter too much, as it will thicken a bit if you leave it out, uncovered, while the dough finishes resting, but if it’s very wet it risks leaking out of the figolli in the oven.
4. Pre-heat the oven to about 170 Celsius, and grease a big, flat (no raised edges if possible) cookie tray. The bigger the better, so you can bake 3 at a time, or the baking could take a while….
5. After dusting the work surface with a little flour, cut off about a quarter of the pasta frolla, and roll it out to about 7mm thickness. Cut out the shapes with your cutters (or cut round shapes if you are using a template. Obviously, you will need at least two of each shape! Lay the bottom layer of each on your baking sheet.
6. Using a teaspoon (and no doubt your fingers) pop little blobs of your filling on the base, leaving about 1.5cm around the edges. I usually pile the blobs of filling quite deep, as they do spread and even out a bit thinner in the oven.
7. Dab a little water around the edges of the bottom layer. Take your top layer, and (after it’s been cut) roll it out a tiny bit more, so it’s slightly bigger than the bottom layer (to fit over the filling). Drape it over the bottom shape, and press down firmly at the edges to seal it. The world won’t end if it leaks a tiny bit in the oven, as you can tidy it up with a knife, but try to seal it as much as possible.
8. Leave a decent space between the figolli, as they spread a lot in the oven. Bake for 15-20 minutes – the edges should be starting to go brown, and the centre should look cooked, and not damp and doughy. Remove from the oven, and leave on the tray to cool for 10 minutes or so, while you roll out the next batch. They are very fragile when warm, and really need this time to cool and set a bit – otherwise they can just break up. Once cooled sufficiently, move to a wire rack, while you finish baking the rest.
9. Once completely cool, ice thickly in bright colours, and top with a creme egg. THIS IS COMPULSORY. Ideally, bake the figolli on Maundy Thursday, as I find they improve in texture after a few days.
Happy Easter all.