I hate to break it to you, but there’s no such thing as Italian cuisine…
Ok, perhaps that’s a bit of a stretch, but let me clarify with a recipe that will make ripples in the fabric of space-time: piconi ascolani, brought to you by theoretical physicist Giuseppe D’Ambrosi (with a gravitational waves topping).
When I invited Giuseppe to cook for As Soup As Possible, he suggested he could make piconi. Despite being born and raised in Italy, where I have lived and eaten all along for over 30 years, I had to confess my ignorance to him, and turned to Google for pictures of these mysterious piconi. They turned out to be cute little parcels of pastry filled with a mix of cheese and eggs, which in fact made total sense to me, once I considered their origin.
Giuseppe and his piconi both come from Ascoli Piceno, a medieval town in the Marche region, central Italy.
Along with the confining region of Abruzzo, Marche has a long lived tradition of free-range sheep herding. Even nowadays, as you drive through these charming mountain areas, you can end up stuck in a sheep traffic jam.
For obvious reasons, pecorino cheese – aged cheese made of 100% sheep milk, as the name suggests (pecora=sheep) – has been a praised specialty here since Roman times.
Most likely, different types of pecorino from different villages were bartered by sheep-herders moving their flocks during the traditional transumanza (transhumance).
I like to imagine that piconi were born in this scenario: lots of pecorino cheese travelling into the villages from mountain pastures, traded with other goods by herders passing by. This would happen in the rising of spring, and probably inspired some local cook to create these lovely little cushions, that in time grew to become synonym with Easter holidays in Ascoli Piceno.
As I was trying to suggest in the beginning, the twenty regions of Italy are culinary and cultural worlds of their own, and exploring Italian regional cuisine won’t cease to surprise you, even after decades, and far beyond classic pizza, lasagne and tiramisu.
In places like Italy, where a dense and diverse landscape has been the setting to all kinds of human events – countless invasions and intestine wars within limited territories, trades with far fetched lands, merges and divisions – food embodies a big deal of history, relationships and meaning, and is key to understanding local culture beyond stereotypes.
I love to delve into tastes and meanings, and in fact tend to believe that contemplating food from a merely aesthetic standpoint, exploring its manifestations as collection items deprived of their context, is a bit like watching wild animals in a zoo.
So welcome to Marche and to the unknown planet of piconi!
This simple (although quite time-consuming) recipe was a revelation to me, and it’s appropriately delivered by Giuseppe in combination with a simple explanation of gravitational waves.
Just a couple of weeks before the production of this video, scientists announced the first detection of gravitational waves, a discovery long awaited by theoretical physicists like our home cook from Ascoli Piceno, as well as astronomers all around the world.
This breakthrough promises unprecedented possibilities in the investigation of the universe and its history, allowing the study of cosmic events that were only theoretically analysed before, through the observation of their consequences.
This video recipe is in Italian, with English subtitles. Enjoy!
Cooking time: 45′ preparation + 15-25′ baking.
Ingredients for about 40 middle-sized piconi:
For the pastry:
extra virgin olive oil (about 1/4 of a glass)
enough flour to make a firm and even ball
1/2 teaspoon baking powder
a pinch of salt
- Make the filling, by mixing eggs and pecorino cheese into a firm mass (if you stick a fork into it, it will need to stay in place).
- Knead the pastry dough, adding flour (about 500 g or more), until it gets to a smooth and firm, yet elastic globe.
- Roll the pastry out into very thin stripes.
- Place spoonfuls of filling onto the stripes, making sure to leave space them properly and to leave enough room to fold the stripe.
- Cover the filling by folding the stripe on its long side, press the dough all around the filling, cut out your piconi with a wheel cutter and place them on a baking tray.
- Pre-heat the oven to 180 °C.
- Brush your piconi with watered down yolk and cut their bumpy top part with scissors, making a cross-shaped cut.
- Bake for about 20 minutes, or until they are nicely browned and the filling is slightly popping out.
Piconi are best eaten warm and make perfect finger food for parties, aperitivo and brunches.
You can make them in different sizes, according to taste or serving purpose.
They can be baked in large batches, deep frozen and stored for weeks.
This recipe was generously shared via Giuseppe by his nonna.
Grazie mille, signora!
Giuseppe D’Ambrosi grew up in a country house in Ascoli Piceno, with his family and a loud little dog.
He only picked up cooking after moving to Amsterdam to continue his studies in the field of General Relativity with a PhD in Theoretical Physics.
Giuseppe is about to defend his thesis. I asked him for its title, I am sure readers will appreciate: Dynamics of Extreme-Mass-Ratio binaries. Extraction of gravitational waves beyond Last Stable Orbit and introduction of spin in the particle limit.