Malta's Beloved Figolla and How to Make Your Own
by Karl Azzopardi
The figolla - a national treasure that is much awaited by any local on Easter Sunday. After 40 days of self-imposed sugar deprivation during Lent, many are those who seek this sweet delight to celebrate their accomplishments. Yet, few are those who know of its origins and what makes a truly authentic figolla, despite the heated debates that erupt among locals each year on the biscuit to filling ratio or, worse, on whether you should cover it with icing or chocolate!
Sweet, Sweet History
The word figolla in itself comes from the Sicilian word figulina meaning 'figure', which calls back to its roots in 18th century Sicily. In fact, the first-ever documented visual representation of this delicacy dates back to 1762 in a painting by Pasquale Loretti who is believed to be a Sicilian Catholic painter. (Interestingly enough his name refers to the word 'Pasqua' meaning Easter in Italian - what are the odds!)
In his painting, we see the figolla's original form; a simple circular thin biscuit, covered and colourfully decorated with icing. Food historians have said that, much like today's tradition, this sweet treat was made to be consumed on Easter Sunday to celebrate Christ's resurrection. However, this tradition seems to have faded from Sicily as it dug its roots deeper and deeper into Maltese culture.
A Note on its Design
The figolla's Catholic ties are reflected in the different 'figures', shapes and symbols it took on over the years, most common of which being the lamb, fish or cross.
However, in the past few decades, the figolla started morphing into more modern and contemporary forms like the Easter bunny, butterflies and even cars! Don't be surprised if you see one in the shape of a pair of wireless headphones this year, it's 2022 after all. But its looks were not the only thing that changed over the years.
When sugar as a raw material started becoming more and more accessible, the figolla turned from a thin biscuit to a layered pastry with two crumbly, soft, thick biscuit layers sandwiching an even thicker layer of marzipan in between.
As for decorations, some prefer to stay true to the original and use icing sugar while others have started covering it with their chocolate of choice. And one must not forget the iconic egg placed front and centre which used to be a brightly painted, hardboiled egg, though it is more common for people to use beautifully wrapped chocolate eggs nowadays because who would say no to more sugar?
This is the figolla as we know it today.
Making The Figolla
This is where the tricky part comes in since everyone will say that nothing beats their mother or grandmother or even their grandmother's mother's recipe. Yet, the figolla has changed so much since its first debut that no one can be really sure if they are right or wrong. That is the beauty of figolli, everyone can make them in their own way and have full creative freedom over the end result - as long as the basic structure is there at least!
Here's what you will need:
- 800g self-raising flour
- 300g sugar
- 250g margarine
- 4 eggs
- 1tsp vanilla extract
- 2 lemons' worth of grated rind
- 500g ground almonds (use the fresh kind for optimum results!)
- 400g sugar
- 3 eggs
- 1tsp almond extract
- 1tbsp lemon juice
- 1 lemon's worth of grated rind
- Melting chocolate/ Icing sugar (or both!)
- Chocolate eggs
- Hundreds and thousands
- Rolling pin
- Baking tray
- Baking paper
- Large shape cutters of your choice
Once you have everything laid out, you're ready to start baking. Just put on some music, roll up your sleeves and maybe call a friend for help cause this process may take you through a rollercoaster of emotions.
Making the pastry
- Sift the flour into a blow.
- Cut the margarine into small cubes and massage it into flour till it is fully incorporated. Take your time with this cause it will determine the softness and crumbliness of your pastry!
- Beat the eggs in a separate bowl and mix in the sugar and vanilla extract.
- Grate the lemon rind and chop finely.
- Mix it all together and shape it into a ball.
- Chill in the fridge for an hour or two.
Making the filling
- Add the ground almonds to a bowl.
- In a separate bowl beat the eggs and mix in the sugar, almond extract and lemon juice.
- Grate the lemon rind and chop finely.
- Add everything to ground almonds.
- Mix it all together.
The stressful part
- Preheat the oven to 180 degrees.
- Put the chilled pastry on a lightly floured surface and roll it out. Don't roll it too thin or you'll have a hard time shaping it!
- Butter and lightly flour your baking tray.
- Use your preferred shape cutter to cut the dough. Make sure you have 2 cuttings of each shape, one for the bottom and the other for the top of the figolla.
- Carefully lift one of the cuttings and place it on the baking tray. Don't be disheartened if the dough breaks, it's quite normal. Just gently knead it back together and try again!
- Add a thick layer of filling on top of the pastry, leaving some space around the perimeter where the top layer can attach to the bottom one.
- Repeat for as many figolli your tray can take!
- Add a little bit of water around the perimeter of the bottom pastry you left uncovered.
- Carefully lift the corresponding top pastry, lay it over the filling and connect its perimeter with that of the bottom pastry to secure the filling.
- Place the baking tray in your preheated oven for 35 - 40 minutes until golden brown.
The FUN part
- Take out figolli from oven and let them cool until cold to the touch.
- Melt the chocolate or prepare the icing, and let your imagination take over! Just make sure you don't put any chocolate or icing on while the figolla is warm or else your masterpiece will simply melt off.
Once you're ready, just let everything harden and you're ready to have a proper Maltese Easter Sunday celebration!
Want to read more about some of Malta's traditional delicacies? Visit Yellow's Food & Drink section for more!