With its roots deep in Italian history, perhaps from the time of the Romans when they were placed on temple alters as offerings to the Roman gods, the tradition of Mostaccioli was continued by 15th century Dominican monks. These shaped, edible works of art are very hard and long-lasting--just like gingerbread.
The name comes from the Latin mustacea, a cake made out of “must” (un-fermented, pressed grapes, including skins, seeds and stems) that has been made since at least 300 BC. In the 1st century AD, the ancient Roman philosopher, Cato, wrote about mustacea being made with rye flour, cheese, cumin, anise, cheese, eggs and wrapped in bay leaves. Modern recipes are very different from 2000 years ago, but Mostaccioli have been made throughout central and southern Italy for hundreds of years--maybe more. The recipes for creating the most intricate shapes contain no leavening and create a dough that can be shaped by sculpting tools or pressed into molds.
(NOTE: There are also recipes for a pasta called Mostaccioli, typically in a penne shape.)
The traditional shapes hearken back to temple offerings: a parma (the palm), a sirena (the siren), u panaru (the basket), u pisci spada (swordfish), and a grasta (the heart)... all real items that historically might have been left as an alter offering. The other shapes--saints, goats, roosters, horses, pigs, lambs and birds--reflect Roman Catholic holidays and the desire to please children around the holidays. Besides Christmas, Mostaccioli are also given as gifts at Easter, weddings and on special saint days. The intricate shapes are made even more decorative by the addition of colored foil "jewels".
Some of these cookies have been elevated to a fine art form and were the subject of a special exhibit at National Museum of Applied Arts in Rome with 36 ancient shapes being displayed.
The Preparation is straightforward and simple..... it takes only three ingredients...
Equal weights of flour and honey:
16 ounces of 00 Italian flour, or all-purpose flour
16 ounces honey
1 tablespoon lard (or shortening)
1/2 cup of either: grape must, Anisette, Sweet Marsala or white grape juice
- Combine ingredients in a bowl and mix into a rough dough ball, then allow to rest covered in plastic wrap for 15 minutes.
- Roll out the dough to a thickness of about half-inch then cut out shapes or sculpt/carve into shapes. You can use cake decorating tools to shape and sculpt your mostaccioli into animals or other shapes.
- Place on a greased baking sheet or on a sheet of silicone, and bake at 325 degrees Fahrenheit for 30 minutes.
- Cool well on a rack, then store in a tin box, or when perfectly dry, wrap in plastic wrap.
A more traditional method:
You can prepare the dough using one part water and three parts honey, heated in a double boiler while sifting flour slowly until a dough is formed. Let the resulting dough rest, covered overnight and then knead by hand.
Watch this video to see these Masters of the craft sculpt their Mostaccioli...