Almond lovers unite: this is the recipe! ::::
When living in Cambridge, England as a child for almost two years, my good friend Elizabeth often invited me over to her home for dinner. Her mother, directly from Verona, Italy was an unforgettable cook. We had pastas, fish, beef, and colorful salads that I still remember well. Unfortunately, I was young enough to remember the food but not care about the names of anything, not realizing as an adult, this would be terribly disappointing to not be able to eat those meals again. When you’re a kid, you think you know everything. Like rice krispie treats could have been a perfectly marvelous dinner, if your mum let you eat that kind of stuff.
I do remember one named dessert: Monte Cristo. In Italian, it means “Mountain of Christ,” which you’d agree if you ever make the dessert, it is quite an undertaking. Montecristo is also a small, remote Italian islet, that is the tip of a volcano, also an apt description of the dessert’s topography. Elizabeth almost always requested it for birthdays instead of cake. Imagine a rich, towering custard with a core of crushed amaretti cookies, topped with chocolate flakes. It is still etched in my mind as one of the most pleasing desserts I have ever had. The recipe for this dessert remains elusive today. My mother had a copy of the recipe (after much badgering from me to have her badger Elizabeth’s mother for it) many years ago, now missing. I have lost contact with Elizabeth and I have yet to find the recipe in the expanse of the Internet. I’m constantly questioning my memory. Was it really called Monte Cristo? Like the sandwich? Did Elizabeth make up the name? Is it bastardized Italian language? Was it really just store-bought pudding?
Since I have yet to relive my Monte Cristo experience, the closest I can get to creating a part of that dessert are the almond-flavored cookies. The amaretti cookies Elizabeth’s mother used for the dessert came boxed in our British markets, mostly crunchy and perfect with tea. Ricciarelli are a softer, pillowy cousin to my amaretti memories, and much more satisfying to me. Ricciarelli are soft and chewy, lighter than air, a specialty of the Tuscan town of Siena. If you like marzipan, you will love these. This is a very sweet cookie. Obviously, they must be offset with a nice black cup of coffee or tea.
The original recipe formed dough into 2 1/2-inch long ovals, which I thought sounded too large. I used a #60 ice cream scoop to make approximately 1-inch diameter balls to shape and flatten. I aimed for small ovals and still ended up with mostly round, but cute, cookies after they were baked. I also dried the cookies, as recommended by the recipe, but did so for only one hour (instead of two or three) since I made smaller cookies than the recipe recommended. Watch the cookies carefully while they bake: you want them to be just barely kissed with gold from the oven. If the bottoms or tops are even remotely brown, the chew and softness in bite will be lost.
ricciarelli (sienese almond cookies)
Author: story of a kitchen (gently adapted from Twelve by Tessa Kiros)
Recipe type: dessert
- 3 cups (300g) almond flour (also called almond meal)*
- 1⅓ cups (280g) granulated sugar
- 1¼ 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
- pinch salt
- 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 43½ 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.