As a child I liked American cookies better than Italian ones. You know: chocolate chip, peanut butter criss-cross, brownies. Yawn. Eventually, I saw la luce and began to appreciate the incredible versatility and inventiveness of Italian cookies, from delicate, crumbly crescents to crunchy, dunkable biscotti.
Baci di Dama, aka ‘lady kisses,’ are my current Italian cookie crush. Like all Italian food, cookies are regional in character, and these baci ~ two buttery hazelnut buttons sealed with melted bittersweet chocolate ~ are a perfect expression of Piemonte.
This northern region that includes Alba, Asti, and Torino, is known the world over for its red wines, white truffles, and the round, fragrant hazelnuts known as ‘tonda gentile del Piemonte,’ which are cultivated in the soft, misty hills of the Langhe. Piemonte is also famous (as you probably know) for gianduja, that brilliant marriage of hazelnuts and chocolate, enjoyed by countless sweet tooths (sweet teeth?) in the form of Nutella.
There are differing stories about these cookies. They are said to have originated in the town of Tortona, near the Ligurian foothills, east of Torino. But there are also claims that they were invented in 1852 by a pastry chef in the House of Savoy for Vittorio Emanuele II. Some old recipes note that the cookies were originally made with ground almonds and that hazelnuts were substituted when almonds became too expensive. And other recipes claim the opposite.
In any case, recipes, like people, travel, and over the border in Liguria there is a variation called baci di Alassio that has a touch of cocoa in the dough. And across the way in Verona, setting for Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet, there are baci di Giulietta (Juliet’s kisses), and sospiri di Romeo (Romeo’s sighs). Both are made with a mix of hazelnuts and almonds, but the dough for baci di Giulietta also contains cocoa.
And now, I’ve given these baci my own little spin. I opted for hazelnuts over almonds, and rather than cocoa, I spiked my kisses with a little espresso powder because now that I am (much) older and wiser I know that hazelnuts + bittersweet chocolate + coffee = the perfect cookie.
Happy Valentine’s Day, amici.
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DOMENICA COOKS IN ITALY 2018: Please pass the following along to the Italy lover in your life. These tours and workshops are one-of-a-kind and I’d love to fill them!
- May 21-28: Join me for my inaugural Italian Riviera Culinary Tour, in collaboration with Beautiful Liguria. We still have three spots left for what promises to be a unique week. We will explore the undiscovered culinary and cultural treasures of this region.
- September 12-17: Come learn how to preserve the Italian way! I’m excited to be teaching my first Preserving Italy Workshop, in collaboration with Annette Joseph Style, at La Fortezza, Annette’s beautiful, restored fortress in the hills of northern Tuscany. This workshop is limited to 6 people.
- September 23-30: Four spots left for our fourth annual Abruzzo Presto-Domenica Cooks Culinary Tour! Spend a magical week with Nancy, Michael, and me as we explore food, wine and cooking and cultural tradtions from the Apennine Mountains to the Adriatic coast.
These elegant cookies from Piemonte require two things: patience in shaping the balls of dough uniformly and allowing them to chill before baking, and best-quality ingredients. You can find hazelnuts from Piemonte online at Gustiamo. Otherwise, in the U.S., look for hazelnuts from Oregon. As for the chocolate used to seal the 'kisses,' make sure it's bittersweet (65 to 70 percent cacao). Trader Joe's carries big blocks of good Belgian chocolate, which is what I used for these cookies.
- 1 rounded cup (140 g) toasted, peeled hazelnuts (see NOTE)
- 1/2 cup (100 g) sugar
- 2 teaspoons espresso powder or very finely ground espresso (optional)
- 1/8 teaspoon fine sea salt
- 1 cup plus 2 tablespoons (140 g) unbleached all-purpose flour
- 1/2 cup (1 stick; 115 g) unsalted butter, at cool room temperature, cut into cubes
- 2 ounces (57 g) bittersweet (65 to 70%) chocolate, coarsely chopped
Line two baking sheets with parchment paper and set aside.
Pour the nuts and sugar into the work bowl of a food processor and process until the nuts are finely ground (the mixture should look like sand). Add the espresso (if using) and salt and pulse to combine. Pulse in the flour until thoroughly combined. Distribute the butter around the work bowl and process until the dough starts to clump together.
Turn the dough out onto a clean, very lightly floured work surface and press it into a smooth disk. Pinch off marble-sized pieces of dough and roll them into balls. (Each little ball should weigh about 5 g or 1/8 ounce if you want to be precise.) Place them on the baking sheets, 1 to 2 inches apart. You should be able to fit 50 on each sheet. If not, use a third parchment-lined sheet.
Set the baking sheets in the freezer to chill while you preheat the oven to 325 F (160C). If you can't fit both sheets in the freezer, chill one and then chill the second while the first is in the oven. Chilling is an important step, as it will prevent the cookies from flattening out while they bake. You are aiming for beautifully domed little cookie buttons.
Bake the cookies, one sheet at a time, for 20 minutes, or until they are lightly browned and set. Transfer the baking sheets to cooling racks and let the cookies cool completely on the sheets. When they are cool, turn them bottom up.
Melt the chocolate in a small bowl or pan set over gently simmering water. Use a spoon to dollop a drop of melted chocolate onto the bottom of a cookie, and sandwich it to another cookie. Gently place the 'kiss' on a cooling rack or clean parchment-lined baking sheet and allow the chocolate to harden. The cookies will keep in an air-tight container for up to a week.
Enjoy these baci with espresso or a glass of Moscato d'Asti, made in the same area in which the hazelnuts are cultivated (thanks to my friend Angela for this suggestion).
To remove hazelnut skins and toast the nuts: Spread the shelled nuts on a rimmed baking sheet and bake at 400F (200C) until the skins begin to crack, about 10 minutes. Wrap the hot nuts in a clean kitchen towel and let sit for 1 minute. Roll the towel back and forth vigorously to remove the skins. Not all the skins will come off, which is fine. Discard the skins and let the nuts cool.