A recipe for a classic Roman cream-filled bun
The month of June will always be maritozzo season for me. It was just around this time every year—the third week of June—that my mom, my sister and I arrived in Italy for the summer (our dad would join us in July). Most of our long, languorous (and, let’s face it, completely undeserved, at least on my part) vacation was spent at the beach on the Adriatic coast of Abruzzo, but it was always bookended with a few days’ stay at my aunts’ apartment near Villa Ada, in Rome.
The days were hot, though not unbearably so. We kept the windows open for the breeze and the wooden persiane (blinds) partially lowered to block out the heat. Our street, Via Fogliano, was lined with big, lush flowering trees with broad leaves (I wish I knew what kind!) and blooms that had a rich, slightly cloying honey perfume. I have a distinct memory—it must have been the summer of 1972—of breathing in their scent one afternoon as someone walked past the window, whistling the theme song to The Godfather.
Those were halcyon days for sure, my mother happily reunited with her three older sisters for the entire summer, my sister, Maria, and I basking in the attention and affection of four Tomassoni women (our mom was the only one who was married with kids so our aunts really spoiled us).
One of our annual rituals was a visit to Pasticceria Marinari, my aunts’ favorite bakery, in Piazza Sant’Emerenziana. In the 1970s, the pasticceria had a large, bright green sign with gold lettering and two big display cases filled with butter cookies and all kinds of cream-filled cakes and opulent sugar-dusted sweets (the sign is now red and the interior has been completely redone but the pastries are still as fresh and indulgent as ever). Maria and I always, always chose the same thing: two giant tooth-achingly sweet meringues sandwiched with piped whipped cream and gilded with a dark chocolate drizzle. Our mother, however, needed to have her maritozzo fix. She adored this Roman classic, a sweet, soft, oval-shaped yeasted bun split open and lavishly stuffed with fresh whipped cream. So she walked a few steps down the street to Bar Romoli.
I can hear her voice clear as the blue June sky, even though it’s been many years: “Ooooh, i maritozziiiiii!” as if the buns had appeared in the display case by chance the moment she walked in the door. They are, in fact, a long Roman tradition, once a Lenten indulgence (oxymoron alert!) but now commonly enjoyed for breakfast or an afternoon snack. The name “maritozzo” comes from the word “marito,” which means husband. In generations past, the story goes, husbands would present their wives with a maritozzo every Friday of Lent, though in some versions it was the wives who gifted the pastry to their husbands. (“Maritozzo” was also my mom’s preferred term of endearment for my dad.)
Like so many Italian foods that have achieved iconic status, maritozzi have become popular beyond the walls of the Eternal City. The other day I came across an article from a popular food magazine about “the big Italian cream buns” sweeping across America and, apparently, TikTok (which I am not on and don’t follow). What makes them so special? It is a combination of things: the perfect balance of citrus and vanilla that gives the dough its quintessential “Italian” flavor (at least that’s how I think of it); the softness of the butter- and egg-enriched bun, which is just the right texture to cradle an abundance of airy whipped cream; and the cream itself, which must be rigorosamente fresh. Also, their gorgeous simplicity and the way the cream is meticulously smoothed out to be flush with the top of the bun. And the fact that, in spite of their richness, maritozzi are impossibly light. Nowadays there are lots of riffs and variations (including savory) but none beats the classic.
I tried to make them when my kids were young, using Carol Field’s recipe in “The Italian Baker.” I blame my lack of bread baking experience for the lackluster result. The buns were dry and bland; I think I added too much flour as I tried to handle to soft dough. Some things, I figured, are best left to the professionals. I was curious when, last week, a DC restaurant posted an enticing photo of a filled maritozzo, so I made brunch reservations for the family for two days later, only to be told when we got there that maritozzi had been replaced on the menu by strawberry focaccia. What?! By now I had a craving that would not be quelled.
So I made them again, this time using a recipe from a favorite Italian blog, and they turned out beautifully, as good as any I’ve had from a pasticceria, tasting of citrus and butter and cream and serene summer days.
RECIPE: Maritozzi con la Panna
Making maritozzi from scratch is a great weekend project. A few things to keep in mind, especially if you are not an experienced baker:
1. Make the aromatic mix for the dough the night before. It really makes a difference in the flavor of the buns.
2. The dough (including the sponge) needs to go through several rises, so plan accordingly. This takes a total of 5 to 6 hours, but it’s hands-off, so you don’t have to hover around the kitchen the entire time.
3. Use a scale for measuring, as it is much more accurate than measuring by volume. The dough is soft and somewhat sticky, but resist adding more flour. A sturdy stand mixer is really helpful in kneading the dough to the proper consistency—smooth and elastic—without having to add extra flour.
4. Don’t be intimidated. The dough is probably easier to handle than you’re imagining. And it feels great in your hands. Roll up your sleeves and enjoy the process.
5. Many recipes for maritozzi call for raisins in the dough, which is traditional. I’ve left them out, a personal preference. See the Baker’s Notes below if you’d like to add raisins to your dough.
Makes 12 maritozzi
Zest of 1 organic lemon (about 1 tablespoon)
Zest of 1 small organic orange (about 1 tablespoon)
1 tablespoon runny honey
1 teaspoon pure vanilla extract or vanilla bean paste
Sponge and dough:
250 g (2 cups) bread flour
250 g (2 cups) unbleached all-purpose flour
120 g (1/2 cup + 1 1/2 tablespoons) sugar
100 g (scant 1/2 cup) water, at room temperature
4 g (1 teaspoon) instant yeast
150 g (scant 2/3 cup) whole milk, plus 1 tablespoon for brushing
2 large eggs, plus 1 yolk for brushing
90 g (6 tablespoons / 3/4 stick) unsalted butter, at room temperature
8 g (1 full teaspoon) fine salt
1 tablespoon sunflower or vegetable oil, for greasing a bowl
3 to 4 cups (720 g to 960 g) heavy whipping cream, the freshest you can find (see Baker’s Note)
4 to 6 tablespoons (27 g to 42 g) confectioners’ sugar
Stand mixer with paddle and dough hook attachments
Two 11-by-17-inch (28-by-40-cm) rimmed baking sheets
1. The night before you plan to make your maritozzi, make the aromatic mix. Combine the zests, honey, and vanilla in a small bowl and mix thoroughly. Cover tightly and let sit overnight. This step unifies the various flavors and really improves the overall flavor of the baked maritozzi.
2. Make the sponge: Combine 50 g (rounded 1/3 cup) of the bread flour and 50 g (rounded 1/3 cup) of the all-purpose flour in a bowl. Stir in 5 g (1 teaspoon) of the sugar, all of the water (100 g), and the yeast. Cover tightly and let it rise for 60 to 90 minutes, until doubled in volume and small bubbles have formed throughout.
3. Combine the remaining flour in the bowl of a stand mixer fitted with the paddle attachment. Scrape in the sponge and add the 150 g (scant 2/3 cup) whole milk. Stir first with a spatula to combine the wet and dry ingredients (this will prevent the flour and milk from kicking up when you use the paddle). Then paddle on low speed to combine them thoroughly. Scrape in the aromatic mixture and mix on medium to form a shaggy, sticky mass. Add the whole eggs, one at a time, mixing until each is thoroughly incorporated and scraping down the bowl as needed. Switch to the dough hook, and with the mixer on medium-low, add the butter, 1/2 tablespoon at a time, mixing until each piece is incorporated. Finally, mix in the salt. Continue to knead on medium-low to medium speed until the dough becomes smooth and glossy and pulls away from the sides of the bowl. This might take anywhere from 5 to 10 minutes. To check if the dough is ready, do the “windowpane” test. Pinch a piece of dough and stretch it out into a square with both hands to create a thin, almost see-through panel. You should be able to see light through it. If you are able to do that without tearing the dough, it is ready. If not, continue to knead a minute or two longer until you are able to stretch a bit of dough to a thin pane.
4. Scrape the dough onto a very lightly flour-dusted clean surface. Be careful not to add too much flour; the dough should be soft, elastic, and stringy, almost putty-like. Form it into a ball and place it in a lightly oiled bowl (I use sunflower oil), turning the dough to lightly coat its surface. Cover tightly with plastic or reusable wrap and let rise at room temperature until tripled in size, about 3 hours (the exact time will depend on how cool or warm it is in your kitchen).
5. Turn the dough out onto a clean work surface and divide it into 12 equal pieces. If you want to be meticulous, you can weigh the entire piece of dough, divide the weight by 12, and weigh the pieces (they should each weigh about 3 ounces/85 g, give or take a few grams). Roll each piece into a tight ball, and then roll it out slightly to create an oval shaped bun. Set the buns on parchment-lined baking sheets, 6 per sheet. Cover with clean kitchen towels or plastic wrap and let rise about 1 hour, until puffed to about 1 1/2 times their unrisen size.
6. Heat the oven to 375° F (190° C). In a small bowl, beat together the egg yolk and 1 tablespoon milk to make an egg wash. Brush the wash evenly over the surface of the buns on one baking sheet. Bake for 15 to 18 minutes, until puffed, golden-brown, and shiny. Transfer the baking sheet to a rack to cool. Brush the buns on the second sheet with egg wash and bake. Let the buns cool on the baking sheets (set on racks) for about 30 minutes. Then gently pry them off the parchment and let them cool completely on racks. (See Baker’s Note for storing instructions.)
7. Make the whipped cream: Chill a metal bowl and whisk attachment (or the beaters for a hand mixer) in the freezer for 20 minutes. Make sure your cream is cold. Beat the cream until it starts to thicken; then add the sugar and continue to beat to medium-stiff peaks (the cream should not be droopy). Split open a bun vertically down the center with a serrated knife, taking care not to go all the way through the bun. Pry it open and fill it generously with whipped cream. Use a small, angled spatula to smooth out the cream. Fill only as many buns as you plan to serve/eat. Set them on a platter or plates and enjoy.
Baker’s Notes: If you want to add raisins to your maritozzi, soak about 1 cup raisins in room temperature water for 30 minutes to soften them; then drain well. Knead them into the dough (with the mixer or by hand) after you’ve incorporated the butter and salt.
Buns can be stored in a plastic zipper-lock bag at room temperature for 3 days. For longer keeping, place them in a zipper-lock freezer bag and freeze for up to 1 month. Defrost at room temperature before slicing and filling with whipped cream.
You don’t need to make the full amount of whipped cream if you don’t plan to fill all the buns at once. You will need about 1/4 cup whipping cream (1/2 cup whipped) per bun, depending on how much you want to pack into them. For the true maritozzo experience, be generous.
Have you ever had a maritozzo? What’s your favorite Italian pastry?
PICTURE ITALY: Rome, 2019
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