When I was travelling, or rather, roaming around Sicily on my slightly demented and not very grand tour, I became quite besotted with, amongst other edible things, the little, soft, almond biscuits, the pasticcini di mandorle you find in almost every bakery (forno) or pasticceria. For about a month, everyday at about 5 o’clock, as the shops began to roll back their shutters and unlock their doors after the long lunch break and the hottest hours of the day, I would seek out and then purchase my daily dose of almond. Clutching my small paper bag, I’d go and buy myself an almond granita before finding the nearest wall, ledge, bench to perch on, and inhale my double almond merenda. I then discovered cannoli and my affections shifted, but that’s another post.
The shape and texture of the Pasticcini di mandorle varied from place to place, oven to oven. Some were smaller and sticky, a marzipan sweet really, others more of a biscuit. But most pasticcini di mandorle I ate, were slightly crisp and cracked on the outside, then inside soft and dense giving way to a sticky and almost chewy heart.
The basic recipe for most Pasticcini di mandorle is simple, it’s really an almond marzipan; ground almonds and fine sugar bound with egg. This soft dough is then moulded or piped into balls, or shapes and then baked. Then around this basic recipe are lots of variations. Every so often I would try, and fail to read something written in Italian pinned to the shop wall behind the counter. I think it’s safe to assume it was boasting a long family tradition, the best pasticcini in the village and probably hinted at the closely guarded, secret ingredient. Or maybe it was just a notice about health and safety.
I became a part-time Pasticcini di mandorle detective, sitting on walls then pounding the streets trying to distract myself from my very odd situation – you may remember I’d fled – by analysing that days purchase. There was often a hint of lemon or orange zest, sometimes the scent of orange flower water or vanilla. Some certainly contained a dash of something alcoholic, maybe limoncello or almond wine, or tiny bits of very finely chopped candied fruit. I tasted some, near Taormina I think, where the dough was mixed with powdered chocolate, an odd colour it must be said, but really quite nice even if they weren’t my kind of thing. Many pasticcini I saw were studded with a rather unnaturally red glace cherry or whole almond, others sprinkled with chopped nuts. Some were dipped in chocolate.
After much consideration, pounding and perching on various walls, I decided my favourite were the very simplest.
I’m not sure why it’s taken me so long to get around to making Pasticcini di mandorle. I may no longer be an almond junkie who needs a fix everyday at 5 o’clock, but I’m extremely partial to one or two every now and then. With a cup of coffee, at this time of year iced coffee, or maybe best of all, with a very bitter Amaro after dinner.
It may be a simple recipe, but this being Italy, and what with all the mamma’s and nonna’s and all the secret and not so secret recipes, there are endless variations and opinion about the quantities for Pasticcini di mandorle. The fiercest debate seems to be about the egg. Should you use just the yolk, just the white or the whole egg ? The second most passionately argued point the proportions of almond flour to sugar. At one point I had 11 pages open on the computer and seven books all telling me different things and a throbbing headache.
We ended up making three small batches of Pasticcini di mandorle, one with egg yolks, one with egg whites and one using whole eggs. We then ate a lot of pasticcini, on different days I hasten to add, and voted with our stomachs. All three batches were modest successes. I probably liked the ones made with egg white least, they were just too sticky even though I’d overcooked them. The ones made with just egg yolk seemed too rich and we missed the crisp lightness of the crust. Pasticcini di mandorle made with the whole egg however, were just right, crisp, cracked and toasted on the outside and inside, very soft, dense and just a bit chewy. What’s more the whole egg dough/paste was by far the easiest to work with.
Our favourites were made following a recipe from Puglia, the heel of Italy’s boot. I didn’t visit Puglia during my demented not very grand tour, but we have visited many times in the last few years and eaten almond pasticcini very bit as delicious as those I had in Sicily. My parents did a terrific cooking and wine course near Lecce back in May and this was the recipe they learned there. It includes a zest of a whole unwaxed lemon which we both appreciated. Next time I am going to try adding a few drops of orange flower water. I fear I’ve picked up the 5 o’clock habit once again.
The key to making balls from the sticky mixture is dusting your hands and the ball with lots and lots of icing sugar.
Pasticcini di mandorle (little, soft, almond biscuits)
makes about 15 – 20
- 300g ground almonds
- 200g icing sugar (plus extra for dusting)
- the zest of a large unwaxed lemon
- 2 medium-sized eggs gently beaten with a fork
Mix the ground almonds, icing sugar and lemon zest in a large bowl. Add the beaten egg and then using a fork or your fingers, bring the mixture together into a soft sticky dough.
Dust your hands with icing sugar and then scoop out walnut sized lump of dough, gently shape and then roll it between your palms into a ball. Dust the ball with more icing sugar and then put it on a baking tray lined with 2 layer of greaseproof paper. Continue making the rest of the balls. The balls should be well spaced as they swell as they cook.
Make an indentation into the center of each ball so they cook evenly.
Bake at 180° for about 20 minutes or when they are golden brown underneath and cracked, crisp and very pale gold on top.
Allow to cool. They will keep in an airtight tin for up to a month. At this time of year I like one with unsweetened iced coffee or after dinner with a glass of bitter amaro.