Siena is a beautiful city in Tuscany known to most foreigners for its palio – a colorful horse race that’s held each July and August in the city’s main square, or campo. I wasn’t there this year for the palio but I was happy to return to Siena earlier this month for many reasons.
One of them was meeting Patrizia, a blogger friend who writes “Andante Con Gusto” , and who spent some time with me and my son during our visit to Siena. A morning cappuccino was in order, so at Patrizia’s suggestion, we headed to Nannini, a historic cafe known for its delicious pastries.
And when you’re in Siena, you can’t talk about sweets and not try the city’s signature cookie– ricciarelli. They’re made with almonds, sugar, egg whites and orange zest, and you’ll find them in shops and bakeries all over town. Nannini’s version was about as perfect as you can get – crunchy on the outside with a coating of powdered sugar, yet soft on the inside and bursting with almond flavor. There’s a recipe for ricciarelli at the end of this post, but first a detour to Siena’s cathedral, one of the most beautiful in the world.
The cathedral dates back to the middle ages is a masterpiece of architecture and art, starting from the ornate marble exterior built in a combination of styles – Tuscan Romanesque on the lower part, and French Gothic above. Many of the features were added in later years, including the three glittering triangular mosaic panels made in Venice in 1878.
Inside the cathedral is so much artwork – from sculptures by a young Michaelangelo, to a magnificent marble pulpit by Nicola Pisano – that it would be easy to include dozens of photos on this post. But I’ll confine it to one photo of the stunning Piccolomini Library adjoining the cathedral. The library is surrounded on all four sides by breathtaking frescoes created by Pinturicchio, detailing the life of Siena’s favorite son – Cardinal Enea Silvio Piccolomini, who eventually became Pope Pius II in 1458.
OK, so I lied, there’s another photo inside the cathedral, but this was so funny I couldn’t help myself. This shows the massive black and white marble columns as well as yours truly dressed for the occasion. The similarity in architecture and sartorial dressing was purely accidental — honest!
Now on to the more important stuff — lunch! Patrizia guided us to a restaurant she said a lot of locals frequent, simply called “Osteria.”
Wild boar, or cinghiale, is common on menus at Tuscan restaurants. This plate of tagliatelle with a wild boar sauce was hard to beat.
But I tried. My eyes zoomed in on an unusual main course of cinghiale prepared in “dolce e forte” – translating to “sweet and strong.” The waiter told me that the recipe included chocolate, as well as vinegar, and it was heaped with almonds and raisins too. I was sold after he mentioned chocolate. Well, no surprise – I loved it and will try to recreate it when the cooler weather comes. Stay tuned for a post on it later this year.
Here’s another dish you might not be familiar with called “agretti” – plural for agretto. They’re sometimes called “barba di fratte” translating to “monk’s beard” for obvious reasons. Even in Italy, agretti are not all that common and I’ve had trouble finding seeds for them there too. But this year I discovered an online source and planted some in my garden. If you’re interested in growing agretti, you can buy seeds for them at “Seeds From Italy.” Mine are still a bit immature to pick, but I hope to write a post on them after they’re a little sturdier and ready for harvest. Let me know if you’ve ever eaten them.
They taste a little like swiss chard, even though they look like thick chives. I’ve usually eaten them boiled, then tossed with olive oil, garlic and lemon juice, but at Osteria, they were served with a pesto made from anchovies, capers, pistachios and olive oil – delicious, but a little went a long way.
Patrizia also suggested we stop for a late day snack at this place, which sells a lot of Tuscan products and also has a fresh bakery with some of the best flat breads I’ve ever eaten.
The flat bread was delicious in its own right, but also a relief from the typical bland Tuscan bread that’s made without salt and that hardens like a rock in no time. Legend has it that salt is omitted because of an ancient salt tax, but Tuscans will tell you it’s because the bread is a perfect accompaniment to their regional cuisine.
I would certainly eat it with these cinghiale sausages for instance (even though I’d prefer salted bread.)
But for dessert, forget about bread and dig into these ricciarelli instead – a true Tuscan treat.
3 cups (300g) almond flour (also called almond meal)*
1 1/3 cups (280g) granulated sugar
1 1/4 cups (150g) powdered sugar
1 teaspoon baking powder
grated zest of 1 small orange (I used a small orange, but could have used more)
2 egg whites
2 teaspoons almond extract
Line a baking sheet with parchment paper.**
Mix the almonds with the sugar, scant 1 cup of the powdered sugar, the baking powder and the orange zest in a bowl. In a clean bowl, beat the egg whites to soft peaks, then stir them into the almond mixture. Using a large spoon, mash the mixture to a wet, sticky mass. Stir in the almond extract.
Using an ice cream scoop (size #60), scoop dough into balls and form into oval shapes. Roll in the remaining powdered sugar, and flatten slightly. Put them onto the parchment-lined baking sheet, allowing room to spread slightly, and sift the remaining powdered sugar over the tops. Leave the cookies at room temperature for about 1 hour to dry a little before baking. (With my #60 scoop, I made 43 1/2 cookies exactly.)
Preheat the oven to 275 degrees F (140 degrees C). Bake the cookies for about 30 minutes (or less!), or until they are lightly golden and a little firm on the outside (the insides should still be soft). Cool completely and store in an airtight container. They keep for just over a week if you don’t constantly find another excuse to go to the kitchen and, say, wipe down the counters or check that the milk didn’t escape from the fridge, then sigh and pop open the cookie jar again to nibble.
* I bought my almond flour ready-made from Bob’s Red Mill. You can make your own from blanched almonds by grinding 1 tablespoon flour per 1 cup of almonds together in a food processor. The flour prevents the formation of almond butter. However, it also makes it a non-celiac friendly recipe.
** Tip from my testing: You don’t need the parchment, but it’s much better. Cooking directly on the baking sheet will cause the bottoms of the cookies to cook and brown more quickly and you’ll lose the wonderful chew and softness. I would invest in parchment or try to bake on a silicon mat and let me know how that works.
For another recipe and photos of ricciarelli, take a look here: