Rosetta Cosentino at home making castagnelle. Photo: Deborah Grossman
Rosetta Costantino at home making castagnelle. Photo: Deborah Grossman

Rosetta Costantino rolls coffee-scented dough into thin ropes for castagnelle as if she’s made the cinnamon-almond cookies all her life. But the Italian-born cooking teacher and author didn’t finalize the recipe until she researched her second cookbook, Southern Italian Desserts, a few years ago.

Most of the 75 recipes in the book, which was recently published by Ten Speed Press, are documented for the first time. Costantino journeyed through Calabria, Puglia, Basilicata, Campania and Sicily, sampling desserts, questioning bakers at pasticerria (pastry shops) and befriending home cooks.

“I came home to Oakland with photos, tips and taste memories, but then I had to re-engineer the recipes,” said Costantino.

Cost_Southern Italian Desserts

“Re-engineering” recipes is uncommon cookbook author parlance, but a typical concept that Costantino used in her previous career as a director of engineering for a Silicon Valley high-tech firm. For 20 years, Costantino relied on her analytical right brain to engineer chemical process operations while meeting the specs of demanding customers.

“Now I approach teaching classes or writing a book like completing a project. Design the best way to produce it, get the necessary parts, explain it clearly, and do it,” said Costantino, adding that her left brain adds to the creative and artistic elements of cooking.

The most challenging recipe to re-engineer for the book, said Costantino, was sfogliatelle ricce, flaky pastry with a semolina and ricotta filing. To achieve consistency in the multi-layer dough, she re-engineered it by experimenting until her recipe testers gave her thumbs up.

Most of recipes such as castagnelle are easy to make. The vegan, dairy and fat free, crunchy cookies convey the appearance of chestnuts, hence their Italian name. Costantino learned about the addition of coffee to the traditional recipe while in Puglia. Festival and holiday recipes such as zeppole, family-favorite yeasted fritters, are also featured in the book.

Southern Italian Desserts was recently named in the New York Times notable “25 More Cookbooks” list for 2013. In April, Costantino will travel to New York City for a cookbook author’s rite of passage—holding classes at De Gustibus Cooking School at Macy’s and Eataly food emporium.

Costantino first tasted regional culinary notoriety 30 years ago when she won the top prize at the Hayward Zucchini Festival for her pasta with zucchini cream sauce. The recent UC Berkeley engineering graduate was then asked to appear in a cooking segment on a popular TV show at the time, “People are Talking” on KPIX.

Appearing on TV was a major accomplishment for Costantino. She had immigrated to Oakland with her parents only eight years earlier with no knowledge of English. After the show Costantino considered writing a cookbook called “1001 Ways to Cook Pasta.” But she was soon offered a high tech job and launched a successful career. By the late 1990s the corporate parent of her subsidiary was grooming her for an executive role.

By the early 2000s with two active children, Costantino began working from home on part-time projects. With her Oakland hills garden overflowing with zucchini and tomatoes, she spent lots of time cooking. When word of her culinary exploits reached the San Francisco Chronicle in 2004, food writer Janet Fletcher wrote an article about her entitled “Calabria from Scratch.”

“After the article I instantly had an email list of 250 people interested in Calabrian food,” said Costantino, who teaches two dozen classes a year in Emeryville and more at Draeger’s Market in Menlo Park. With no Calabrian cookbooks on the market, Costantino filled that void with her first cookbook about the region at the foot of Italy’s boot, My Calabria (W. W. Norton and Company, Inc., 2010).

Rosetta Costantino holding fried squash blossoms her students have just prepared during one of her "Cooking with Rosetta" classes in Emeryville. Photo: Deborah Grossmen
Rosetta Costantino holding fried squash blossoms her students have just prepared during one of her “Cooking with Rosetta” classes in Emeryville. Photo: Deborah Grossmen

Her “Cooking with Rosetta” classes quickly sold out, and Costantino contemplated leaving her job. Though her mother Maria was astonished she would leave her six-figure salary behind, Costantino knew a culinary career was her passion.

During the class two dozen students prepare six dishes under the watchful eye of Costantino and Maria. Yet snippets of her engineering background still appear. She begins with a safety orientation on equipment and demonstrates recipes with easy-to-grasp basics of the chemistry and physics underlying the procedures.

Attendees then sit down to a generously portioned, family style meal where BYO wine and conversation flows. Costantino has also trained professionals such as the cooks at Bottega in Yountville. Though owner Michael Chiarello is of Calabrian heritage, he leaned on her to teach his staff about the techniques and ingredients of Calabria.

The new book caught the eye of Alice Medrich, Berkeley-based dessert cookbook writer and chocolate expert. “I love how Rosetta brought the authenticity of the region to us. I regularly make her fig syrup, and I’ve adapted her simple and delicious walnut cookies, dolci di noci, for an American version with pecans in my upcoming cookbook.”

Writing Southern Italian Desserts was especially rewarding to Costantino because she broadened her scope beyond Calabria. But it was a challenge for because she doesn’t consider herself a pastry chef or a writer.

“Writing a recipe is easy and logical—step 1, then 2, then 3. But when I write the stories behind the recipes, they sound like black and white engineering reports. My co-authors make the prose sing,” said Costantino, referring to first co-author Janet Fletcher and now Jennie Schacht.

Costantino reaps many rewards from her new-found customer base hungry for Southern Italian cuisine. “People tell me they can finally make their grandmother’s desserts or recreate what they ate in Calabria or Naples. Americans can get to know more Italian desserts than tiramisu.”

(crunchy cinnamon-almond cookies. From Southern Italian Desserts)

Makes about 60 small cookies

The Italian word for chestnut is castagna, and indeed, these Pugliese cookies resemble little chestnuts, though they contain none. These rustic cookies have none of the usual rich ingredients: not eggs, nor butter, nor even milk. In fact, the simplest version is made with water, though coffee adds flavor and the characteristic chestnut color.

These cookies go by castagnedde in the local Pugliese dialect. A similar cookie found in Basilicata is known as pizzicannelli, or little pieces of cinnamon, which are sometimes covered with a chocolate glaze.

2 cups (264 g) all-purpose flour

1 1/3 cups (267 g) granulated sugar

1 2/3 cup (250 g) almonds, toasted and coarsely chopped

2 tablespoons unsweetened Dutch-processed cocoa powder

2 teaspoons baking powder

1 teaspoon ground cinnamon

Finely grated zest of 1 lemon

1/2 cup plus 2 tablespoons (150 ml) brewed espresso, strong coffee, or water

Confectioners’ sugar, for finishing

Preheat the oven to 350°F (177°C) with racks in the upper and lower thirds of the oven. Line two baking sheets with parchment paper or silicone baking mats.

Stir together the flour, granulated sugar, almonds, cocoa, baking powder, cinnamon, and lemon zest in a large bowl. Make a well in the center and add the espresso, then mix into the dry ingredients until it is evenly incorporated. Continue to knead the dough with your hands in the bowl to make a stiff dough the texture of modeling clay. Divide the dough into quarters.

Using a bit of flour, if needed, roll a piece of dough into a rope about 20 inches long and 1 inch wide. Press down to slightly flatten the rope, then use a sharp knife or bench scraper to cut the rope on the diagonal into 11/4 inch diamonds. As you make them, arrange the cookies on the prepared baking sheets, leaving at least 1/2 inch between them. Repeat with the remaining dough.

Bake until the cookies feel set but are still somewhat soft, about 15 minutes. The tops will crack but the cookies will not darken any further. Transfer the baking sheets to wire racks to cool. When they are cool enough to handle, transfer the cookies directly to the racks to cool completely. Sift confectioners’ sugar generously over the cookies. Store the cookies in an airtight container for up to 2 weeks.

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Deborah Grossman is a San Francisco Bay Area food, drink and travel journalist who writes about people and places with a special emphasis on life at the table. Deborah finds the behind the scenes stories...