My friend Rocca likes to bake cookies. Because she’s Italian and the women in her family have taught her well, she will stare at you something evil if you decline any of her food offerings. Most don’t dare say no. Those who oblige are always glad they did.
Rocca understands flavor and the dynamics at play when you combine lots of sugar, butter and chocolate. She’ll practice a recipe with the tenacity of a terrier until she gets it just right. Rocca’s chocolate almond biscotti and her sea salt, chocolate and pistachio sablés are unparalleled, in both taste and appearance.
Maybe she was Japanese in a past life, for Rocca cares about good packaging, nesting her deep brown cookies into turquoise tin boxes that show off these treats in signature fashion. Just a glimpse of a turquoise box starts most of us Rocca-cookie-lovers salivating. We’re the same ones who hasten to return her tins the moment they are empty, ever hopeful for a refill.
My late husband Don – not a baker – always said, “Food tastes better when someone else makes it.” He was a consummate sweet talker, a salesman even, and he inspired the bread baker in me. Don’s sage words were ringing in my ears today as I tested Rocca’s amaretti recipe.
It just didn’t taste as good as when Rocca made it.
Full disclosure: I have a thing for amaretti. They are classic among Italian sweets and like most classic things, vary wildly from cook to cook, region to region. I’d made it my calling to sample them all, be it fresh from a bakery or ripped out of a supermarket package. Yet all the recipes I’d baked were abysmal. I was resigned to never finding my dream amaretti recipe until that fateful day in Rocca’s kitchen.
“What? You’ve been hiding these?” I sputtered on a mouthful of hot espresso and frothy milk combined with crunchy-almond-amazingness. Seconds earlier, Rocca had pushed a plate of amaretti in my direction. This cookie was consummate: awash in almondy, chewy goodness here was a pudgy, crackled morsel crowned with a whole almond dimple.
“Aren’t these great? They’re my sister Lucy’s.”
“She made them?”
“Nope, it’s her recipe and I made them.”
I had to have The Recipe.
Rocca delivered it the next day in a text, taking a photo of Lucy’s typewritten recipe. It was short and sweet. Only five lines of ingredients and a very brief sentence of instruction below. The title read “Almond Cookies.”
But to this tried-and-true recipe tester and developer, it looked deceptively simple.
“Four eggs. No flour. And a whole lot of ground almonds. That’s it?” I asked. “No leavener?’
“Oh, throw in a teaspoon of baking powder,” said Rocca flippantly. Were these Puglian sisters in collusion?! What other ingredients were somehow missing in this recipe meant for mangiacake me?
“Be careful,” said Rocca, relieving my paranoia slightly. “The almond flour is not cheap. I was so shocked the first time I bought it: Fourteen dollars! And don’t buy blanched flour. Whole almond flour tastes best.”
Two more ingredients needed examination: cocoa powder and that entire bottle of almond extract. Suddenly it became apparent why Rocca’s father likes to carry a little snort of Grappa in a recycled extract bottle. Lucy must use dozens of these in the course of a baking year and rather than toss them into the garbage, they went the way of her father who likes to tuck one of these discreet yet convenient mickeys into his Speedo bathing suit when strolling the beach in Mexico.
As to the cocoa powder, the taste is negligible. The cookie batter is dark but bakes out into a light brown cookie. This single teaspoon seems to counter that entire bottle of extract.
But taste is a mysterious thing and a cookie infatuation can derange even the most reasonable of people. Like my friend Ling.
“I like them too much,” she admitted recently after I gave her a gift package of Lucy’s amaretti. “So I hid them.”
“Huh?” I wondered how that worked.
“My memory so bad,” she laughed, “Now I only eat five a day. When I can find them.”
I’ve cut Lucy’s recipe in half to reduce the sticker shock on the pricy almond flour. Plus, you’ll have some almond extract leftover for your next batch. This makes plenty!
3 large eggs, beaten
3/4 lb/ 12 oz almond flour, whole not blanched
2 tbsp almond extract
2/3 cup granulated sugar
1 tsp cocoa powder
1 tsp baking powder
Combine eggs, almond flour, almond extract, sugar, cocoa powder and baking powder into a batter. Scoop two teaspoons, dredge in a little icing sugar and roll into a small ball, place on a parchment paper lined cookie sheet and top with a whole, raw almond. Bake at 350 F for 8-10 min.