Prinjolata: What Makes This Maltese Carnival Delicacy A National Favourite?
by Karl Azzopardi
Streets are blowing up with colour, farmhouses in Gozo are fully booked and party shop sales are shooting through the roof. You know what that means — CARNIVAL IS HERE!
But aside from the glamorous costumes and chillingly grotesque masks, there is something much more important that emerges this time of year, which is the manifestation of Carnival in dessert form; the Prinjolata.
This decadent national treasure is a Carnival staple. It embodies the explosive and whimsical energy of Carnival season from the hodgepodge of toppings on the outside to the indulgent mixture of sugary and cakey goodness on the inside. In this article, we'll delve into the inspirations behind this beloved dessert, detail its different components and finally give you the perfect prinjolata recipe to make one for yourself at home!
The Prinjolata's Obscure Origins
The prinjolata is considered to be one of the (if not THE) very first national desserts dating back to the 16th century during the time of the Knights of St John, who loved to throw balls and masquerades around this time of year. Carnival celebrations in Malta and Gozo have changed quite drastically since then, but the prinjolata has withstood the test of time. However, some have debated the prinjolata's true origins saying that it might be influenced by another Mediterranean Carnival delicacy, hailing from Sicily — the pignoccata.
During their Carnival season, Sicilians enjoy lots of sweet and fried food and the pignoccata offers the best of both worlds, consisting of small balls of fried dough piled up together and covered with syrup, almonds and sprinkles. While the finished product is a far cry from our prinjolata, we won't completely exclude the possibility of this statement, considering Malta's history of taking inspiration from Sicilian recipes such as our beloved figolla. In fact, some prinjolata recipes follow a similar method of constructing the base of this national delight.
Inside A Prinjolata
Before we dig deeper into the prinjolata, we must first make a disclaimer that there is no one way of making it as everyone has their own preferences and method of making it. Just pay a visit to different confectioneries in Malta and Gozo, we guarantee that no prinjolata will taste like another. Having said that, there seems to be a general agreement on its basic components, though ratios may vary depending on taste and style.
The prinjolata's base usually consists of biscuits or sponge cake (or both) mixed with a cocktail of ingredients that give it its distinct taste. This usually includes vermouth, whisky or brandy, candied cherries, condensed milk and pine nuts ('prinjoli' in Maltese) — with many modern versions containing roasted nuts. Some recipes also make use of buttercream, especially ones that use the pignoccata method of piling balls of dough on top of each other to achieve the prinjolata's iconic dome shape.
Such recipes involve baking ball-shaped biscuits or choux buns and piling them on top of each other in a cone-like fashion, binding them together with a thick creamy layer of buttercream. However, this method of construction is not a popular one. Most recipes you'll find involve crushing sponges and biscuits (either store-bought or freshly baked) and mixing in all the ingredients mentioned earlier. This mixture is then placed into a bowl, pressed down and set in a fridge overnight so that it keeps its shape once you flip it over the next day and get it ready for the exciting part — decorating!
The Perfect Prinjolata Aesthetic
This title is misleading as there is no such thing as a perfect prinjolata since the whole point is to get it as messy as possible in true Carnival fashion. This doesn't mean you should throw on everything in your pantry as there are some fundamental ingredients you should stick to in order to stay true to tradition.
First, you must start by laying a generous velvety layer of white frosting (or meringue if you're feeling fancy) that will serve as the glue for all the other toppings that follow. These usually include a mix of crushed or flaked roasted nuts of your liking, candied cherries to give it some colour and a drizzle of melted dark chocolate all over the cake. However, this is where you can really be creative and add on or substitute whatever you like, it's Carnival after all — GO CRAZY!
Making A Prinjolata
While there is an infinite number of confectioneries from where you can buy incredibly delicious prinjolata, there's nothing like getting your hands dirty and making your own monstrous creation. So roll up your sleeves, put the national Carnival anthem on loop and get ready to make a mess out of your kitchen. Here's our homemade prinjolata recipe (fair warning — it's a long one, but seriously worth the hassle)!
- 6 eggs
- 225g caster sugar
- 1 tsp vanilla extract
- 225g self-raising flour
- Rind of 1 lemon
Alternatively, store-bought maderia cake will do just fine too if you're tight on time.
- 4 tbsp vermouth
- 150g roasted pine nuts
- 150g roasted hazelnuts
- 150g roasted almonds
- 150g candied cherries (cut in quarters)
- 375g room temperature butter
- 7 tbsp icing sugar
- 400ml condensed milk
- 2 tbsp whisky/brandy
- 600g sugar
- 225ml water
- 6 egg whites
- 3 tsp vanilla extract
- 50g pine nuts
- 50g flaked almonds
- 50g candied cherries (cut in half)
- 50g melted dark chocolate
Baking the sponge
- Preheat your oven to 180°C
- In a mixing bowl whisk together the eggs
- Slowly add the sugar and vanilla extract, and keep whisking until creamy
- Sieve the flour and baking powder, and gently fold them into the egg mixture together with the lemon rind
- Pour the batter into a lined baking tray, and place in the oven for 30 minutes
- Remove the sponge from the oven and let it cool off completely
Making the buttercream
- Cut the butter into cubes and add to a mixing bowl
- Using an electric mixer, beat the butter together with the icing sugar until smooth
- Gradually add the condensed milk, vanilla extract and whiskey/brandy to the mix until stiff peaks form
Creating the base
- Break up the cooled sponge in a large bowl
- Add in the vermouth making sure it's evenly distributed
- Add in the roasted pine nuts, hazelnuts and almonds, and quartered candied cherries
- Add in the buttercream and mix till a thick batter-like consistency is formed
- Wrap the inside of three small bowls in foil or clingfilm, divide the mixture among them and leave in the fridge overnight
Making the frosting
- Place egg whites into a mixing bowl and whisk until stiff peaks are formed
- Place a small saucepan on low heat and melt the sugar in the water until it starts to boil and turns into a transparent syrup
- Gradually beat in the syrup and vanilla extract into the egg whites until it takes the shape of a creamy white frosting
- Set aside to cool
FINALLY! It's decoration time
- Take out the bowls from the fridge and flip them over onto a plate to reveal the dome-shaped prinjolata base
- Apply a generous amount of frosting to the outside of each prinjolata using a spatula until fully covered
- Top it with the pine nuts, flaked almonds and halved candied cherries
- Drizzle on the melted dark chocolate (don't hold back, go for it!)
Now go and have a ball in your kitchen, just make sure you eat responsibly. Or don't… you can always make up for it during Lent anyway.