If your house is like mine, cookie baking is in high gear as the holidays approach. One of my favorites is this recipe from my friend Lilli. Originally from Salerno, Italy, Lilli is a terrific cook who can throw together a delicious meal on autopilot. That goes for sweets too. Her biscotti recipe here is the best around. It’s my go-to recipe whenever I get the urge for cookies. These almond paste cookies are another great example of a classic recipe I got from her years ago.
I’m lucky enough to be a recipient of her baking prowess on many occasions, but especially as Christmas approaches. I’ve made these almond paste cookies many times, but Lilli’s are always better than mine, even though I use her recipe. They’re made with just three ingredients – egg whites, sugar and almond paste. But after so many years of making them, she’s got the right “touch.” I called her before posting this recipe to find out any special “tricks” in getting these cookies just right — and there are several that she shared with me, and that now you’ll be privy to as well if you follow the recipe at the end.
Unless you’ve got a Lilli in your life, try making them yourself. You can top them with an almond, with pine nuts, or with candied red or green cherries in the Christmas spirit. They’re really easy to whip together in your food processor and will taste great, even if they’re not as perfect as Lilli’s.
1/4 cup egg whites (not quite two large egg whites, but more than one)
1 scant cup sugar (take out two tablespoons)
1 heaping cup almond paste (more like a cup and a few tablespoons)
The consistency of the dough for this recipe can vary according to the almond paste you buy. Some brands are softer than others, affecting the final results. In any event, make sure the almond paste is at room temperature. Cut it into thin slices, so that when you mix it with the other ingredients, it will blend well and not leave any large pieces in the dough.
Put the egg whites into a food processor and whir for a few seconds until they start to turn white and lose their transparency. Keeping the machine running, add the sugar, then the almond paste, a small amount at a time, until the dough becomes a solid mass. Remove the dough from the food processor, and with a spatula, feel around to make sure there are no unblended pieces of dough. Cover and refrigerate for a few hours or overnight.
Roll the dough into small balls and place on a parchment paper lined cookie sheet. With the heel of your hand press down a bit to squash them a little. Decorate either with an almond, pine nuts, or a half of a candied cherry pressed into the center. Bake at 350 for 20 to 25 minutes, watching closely so they don’t become too browned.
These cookies harden in a few days, even when left in a tin. They freeze beautifully, so if you don’t plan to consume them right away, freeze them and thaw them before serving to maintain the freshness and softness.
I don’t normally start my day eating tarts filled with freshly made ricotta cheese and topped with amaretti cookies. My weekday breakfast also doesn’t typically include a crostata made with fruit jams, marble cake, apple cake or any other number of sweet treats either.
Ditto for prosciutto, salami, pecorino cheese and practically still warm-from-the-cow giuncata cheese.
I’m usually not lucky enough to have Emanuele asking me every morning if I’d like to have a freshly made frittata either.
But for one week in June I was. These were all part of the daily breakfasts served in a cavernous room called the “cantinone” (big cellar) that could have doubled as a backdrop for a movie set in the Middle Ages.
It’s also where I popped in occasionally before dinner for a glass of Montepulciano D’Abruzzo and some munchies.
I wasn’t alone during the week. I was one of a group of five writers from California, New York, New Jersey and Puerto Rico taking part in a workshop in Santo Stefano di Sessanio called “Italy In Other Words.” The group was led by Kathryn Abajian and Helen Free, two gifted teachers who helped us find our writing voice and discover the treasures and traditions of Abruzzo.
Kathryn conducted the writing classes each day, focusing on first person writing. Although I had worked as a journalist for decades, and write a food blog now, memoir writing is an entirely different genre and I had a lot to learn. Kathryn gave me the tools and the kick start I needed to get me moving in the right direction, in a teaching style that was both firm and generous at the same time. Sadly, she lives on the opposite coast from me. Otherwise, I’d be signing up for any classes she teaches. Listening to the other women’s own stories and receiving their feedback was an invaluable part of the week as well.
Top row, Julie and Lori and Cynthia. Seated, Linda, Kathryn and Diane
Helen instructed the group on Abruzzese traditions that link us with our past, regardless of nationality.
We read the words of Italian writers such as Ignazio Silone, who wrote about the long-ago struggles of peasants in Abruzzo, struggles that are still relevant around the world today. We walked in the footsteps of shepherds who led their flocks in a twice-yearly migration over hundreds of miles of rocky, mountainous paths in search of warmer climes, a custom known as “transumanza.”
Near the Gran Sasso mountains we ran for shelter as the rain fell, while the cow nearby didn’t budge:
We returned on a sunnier day to climb higher on the path through the town of Calascio.
Lori, Diane, Juli, Linda, Helen and Cynthia
Until we reached the ruins of a fortress built in the 10th century, once owned by the Medici family.
Nearby in isolation overlooking the mountains stands an octagonal church erected between the 16th and 17th centuries, on a site where legend has it, locals fought and won a skirmish with brigands.
Santa Maria della Pieta
We also had time to think, in a place with few tourists, and no television or telephones in our rooms. We had time to roam the village and reflect on its quiet beauty and on our purpose for being there.
Time to explore the mysterious narrow streets and pathways.
Time to wonder who lived in houses like these:
And wonder how long ago someone rode this old motorcycle.
Even time to let Federica, who lives in the village, have a go at painting with my travel watercolor set.
We had time to walk below the town where poppies bloomed beside a church boarded up since the 2009 earthquake:
Where fields of yellow mustard greens swayed in the wind beside stalks of wheat and more poppies.
Where road signs indicated the distance it took to ride between towns on horseback:
We had time to transfix our gaze on the broad, open views to other hill towns in the distance.
Naturally, we had time to eat too – from restaurants where the atmosphere was funky-
and the food traditional like these gnocchi:
To restaurants that were more formal –
And that served modern interpretations of food, like these veal cheeks and potatoes with citrus flavors:
“Italy, In Other Words,” gave us time to slow down, to appreciate all the beautiful sights, sounds and tastes around us, and to write about what was important to us. Thank you to Helen and Kathryn, and to all the friendly townspeople of Santo Stefano and to the employees of Sextantio, the hotel where we lodged, including Gabriella, who offered me the recipe for the luscious torta shown at the top of this post.
Arrivederci Santo Stefano di Sessanio. Alla prossima!
This recipe was enough for a very large pan – probably 10 to 12 inches in diameter.
for the dough:
2 1/4 cups flour
2 sticks butter
1/2 cup sugar
1 T. baking powder
For the filling:
4 egg yolks
3/4 cup sugar
1/2 cup flour
2 cups milk
grated peel from one lemon
1/2 cup to 1 cup ricotta, depending on taste
amaretti cookies crumbled on top – about 1 cup or so
Blend the flour, sugar and baking powder together in a bowl. Add the softened butter by hand or put everything in a food processor until it forms a ball. Roll out and place into a buttered 10 to 12-inch baking dish or tart pan.
For the filling:
Bring the milk to a boil with the lemon peel. Meanwhile, beat together the eggs, sugar and flour. Slowly add the mixture to the hot milk, stirring together for two or three minutes until it is thick and amalgamated. Let it cool slightly, then add the ricotta, using as little or as much as you like. Crumble the amaretti cookies on top. Bake at 350 degrees for 25 minutes
Procedimento: Impastare il tutto e intanto preparare il ripieno:
per il ripieno:
150 grammi zucchero
75 grammi farina
buccia di limone
500 ml latte
100-150 grammi ricotta
Procedimento: Far bollire il latte con il limone e intanto sbattere le uova, lo zucchero e la farina.
Stendere la pasta e metterci la crema e la ricotta. Sbriciolarci gli amaretti sopra. Cuocere a 180 gradi per 25 minuti.
I must be channeling a lot of other bloggers unconsciously since I made this cake the same week that Tuesdays With Dorie bakers chose chocolate amaretti cake as their project. Even though we use the same ingredients, the proportions for mine are different, with more chocolate, more amaretti and more almonds. This is one case where more is more.
I also serve it with whipped cream or vanilla ice cream, rather than a chocolate frosting. Just mention the word cream and I’m in. Plus I like the contrast of vanilla and chocolate.
You don’t have to use those expensive, individually wrapped amaretti that come in a red tin. Just buy the kind you find in bags in the cookie aisle at the supermarket.
You’ll understand why this cake is worth blogging about once you try it. It’s rich with chocolate flavor, it’s elegant, and it’s ridiculously easy to make. I’ve been baking this for years for my Italian chit-chat group and by now many of them have adopted this recipe too.
This cake reminds me of the time we were living in a fully furnished apartment in Rome and I offered to contribute this cake to a dinner at a friend’s home. Trouble was we had no mixer. The kitchen was large but the batterie of pots, pans and other kitchen equipment was rather deficient to put it kindly. I asked the landlord if he could get us a mixer, a toaster and a corkscrew, and he did come through with the toaster and the corkscrew. But instead of a mixer, he brought over a stick blender – the kind you use to make pureed soups.
Something definitely got lost in the translation.
Oh well, you make the best with what you’re given and I managed to turn out a pretty terrific chocolate amaretti cake using the stick blender. Hopefully you have a real mixer in your kitchen. Chocolate Amaretti Cake
6 ounces semi-sweet or dark chocolate
1 cup almonds
1 cup amaretti cookies
1/2 cup unsalted butter, softened to room temperature
1/2 cup sugar
Preheat the oven to 350 degrees.
Butter a 9 inch round cake pan all around and line the bottom with parchment paper. Butter the paper and dust the pan with flour.
Melt the chocolate, either in a double boiler or in the microwave.
Put the almonds and amaretti cookies in a food processor and grind until it resembles sand.
Put the butter and sugar in a mixer and mix until smooth. Add the eggs, one at a time, scraping the bowl occasionally.
To the mixing bowl, add the nut and amaretti mixture and the melted chocolate.
Pour into the prepared pan and bake for about 30 minutes.
Let it cool and flip onto a serving platter. Remove the parchment paper and decorate with powdered sugar, using a paper doily as a pattern. I have also baked this in a pretty ceramic dish and served it without flipping it. Just be aware that the top may be a little crunchy and cracked if you serve it this way. You can still decorate with powdered sugar, which hides a lot of defects.
Serve with plain whipped cream, or whipped cream flavored with a little bit of coffee liqueur or instant coffee dissolved in a little liqueur, or with ice cream.
Hurry up. Get going. I know you’ll want to chomp down on this: