Guilt-free pastizzi might sound like an unachievable nirvana to all foodies who despair that the calorie and fat content make it impossible for them to this traditional speciality. But Gourmet Pastizzi, a home-made brand created by Marilu Vella, achieves just that.
Piping warm pastizzi (Maltese savoury cheesecakes) are one of my go-to comfort food, preferably the ricotta kind with the flakey pastry. Sadly I rarely ever get to enjoy them, mostly because the lard/fat/calorie content can never be justified and I can practically hear my cholesterol level shooting up right while I’m supposed to be enjoying my treat. Not to mention the rolls of fat manifesting magically on my hips.
You can imagine the glee with which I greeted the news that someone had come up with a relatively guilt-free version called Pastizzi Gourmet. Now I have to admit that I’m not a big fan of “healthifying” dishes that are meant to be sinful. Somehow, the result is never as delicious. The calories are there for a purpose, after all and the purpose is called flavour. Moreover, supposedly healthier versions of any given recipe are renowned for using less than healthy substitutes in the form of preservatives and artificial sugaring. Not for me, thank you.
Then, slowly word started spreading about Marilu’s Pastizzi Gourmet. People at the office were raving about them. I started to suspect that my misgivings might have been, as it were, misplaced. Then Marilu held what was supposed to be a “quiet” Homebakes event at the Coach & Horses in B’Kara. To say that she was swamped with order would be an understatement. I resolved to meet up with the lady and get myself a slice of the action the very next day.
And so I did. As soon as I enter Marilu’s kitchen, the smell of baking fills my nostrils. It’s nine in the morning and Marilu whips out a plateful of assorted pastizzi for myself and the photographer. Just in time for breakfast… I look around me and I’m amazed at just how homemade these Pastizzi Gourmet are. Marilu is literally baking away from the family kitchen. It’s a one-woman operation, with family members chipping in to help occasionally when the orders get to be too much. Which is happening on a semi-regular basis.
“I really didn’t expect that sort of response at Coach & Horses. By eleven all my ingredients were finished, I had to stop taking orders,” she tells me with an incredulous tone.
While I’m munching I think to myself that I can very well taste why. Gourmet Pastizzi came to be almost by chance, when Marilu decided to leave her post as teacher at a private school.
The in-between jobs experiment soon became the full-time employment, with Marilu continuously improving on and adding to the basic recipe that was first taught to her by her grandmother.
“I really wish she was here to see me actually. She started it all, she came up with this healthy version for pastizzi and I’m sure she’d be happy to see how far it’s gone now. I have always been into cooking. When I was a child I spent a lot of time with my granny and my aunt in the kitchen. She’d give me some spare dough and I’d start shaping up the pastizzi.”
Eventually Marilu went to study in the UK and this is when she started missing the taste of home. Her friends also missed their beloved Maltese pastizzi and so Marilu took to baking once more. But it was only last October that the full-time enterprise kicked off. Why pastizzi, I ask.
“I think it is because I grew up baking them. Also, there is a lack of anything similar that is healthy. Mind you, they are not what you would call ‘dieting staples’. But still, they are a lot more healthy than the mainstream alternative. To be blunt, I was never too fond of pies and pastry because sometimes you can actually taste the fat. But not with these. Maybe that is why I like them.”
The pastry, she tells me is totally lard free and prepared using an alternative based on seed oils. The fat is mostly saturated and the margarine is the vegetarian sort.
“The lack of animal fat makes it healthier. Fast food outlets like to use animal fat because the taste is quite addictive but it’s also very high in chemical content. Usually it’s this that causes the infamous heartburn that Maltese pastizzi sometimes leave you with,” she tells me.
The current recipe being used is what can be called third-generation. As explained before, the mix originated from Marilu’s grandmother. It was perfected by her aunt and now, it is up to Marilu to continue with the evolution of this tradition.
“My family were quite surprised when I decided to take it to a commercial level. At first they were worried because it’s quite a gamble, however they were immediately supportive. Now they’re used to the idea of me baking away,” she says with a laugh.
What distinguishes the pastizzi from store-bought ones is not just the health aspect. The fillings go a step further than the traditional ones. There are the well-loved and eternally popular ricotta and pea/corned beef fillings that we are all familiar with, of course. But then there is also a highly intriguing ricotta/spinach variant, ricotta cranberry, anchovies, sausage roll filling, apple pie and various others that also depend on the season.
“For Valentine’s week I had made some strawberry and chocolate ones. They disappeared so fast…. The Gozo cheeselets filling is also extremely popular. I get the cheeselets from a farm in Gozo, they do weekly deliveries just for me.”
For lent and Easter, Marilu came up with a special banana and carob filling, with no added sugars. Lenten sacrifice suddenly sounds tremendously intriguing. Explaining about how she sources her ingredients, Marilu says that most of the vegetables are home-grown by her father.
“I am looking into checking the exact calorific and nutritional aspect now. In truth, you can take any recipe and tweak it into a genuinely healthier version. I’ve had some people tell me ‘but they’re not real pastizzi’. Some believe that to qualify, you need the fat and the lard. But I don’t believe in that: recipes evolve according to our lifestyle. Can you imagine if the person who came up with the first cake stopped there? We’d only have one variety of cake!”
Of course, as jobs go it’s quite a time-consuming one. The pastry takes quite a while to prepare: Marilu rolls it three times and lets it stand for thirty minutes. The length of time it takes to prepare the whole batch also depends on the filling: the ricotta filling is straightforward enough, vegetable curry filling takes a lot of messing about, strawberries and chocolate equally so. So how many pastizzi a day does she eat! With a laugh, she replies that it’s less than I’d think, mainly because when you spend your day baking you tend to be quite fed up of the actual food by the end of it.
The question begs itself: does she have any plans to expand into other goodies?
“I’ve thought about it. I’ve always wanted to run my own tea-house, for instance. Of course, getting the capital is the issue. I’d need a proper place, some human resources… I’ll expand at home first, I’m already planning on adding pies and ravjul next. Though I have to say that it’s already tough enough baking all day long without adding on to the list. I’m usually in the kitchen all day long and I carry out deliveries towards the end of day. When it’s a particularly busy period, such as Christmas and Valentine’s day for instance, there were times when I ended up delivering stuff after midnight. That’s no joke.”
The pastizzi can be kept frozen long-term and are baked from frozen for about eight minutes on high heat, depending on the oven. Marilu usually prepares about nine dozen pastizzi of every filling, sometimes more. All are pre-ordered. Sometimes she manages to prepare a couple of extra bags for “walk-ins”. These always disappear – and it’s easy to see why, I think to myself as I polish off the rest of what she has prepared.