There is no kitchen on earth, I think, that treats almonds better than Sicily’s. Trapani’s pesto calls for almonds and parsley, and cooks on the Aeolian Islands sauce their pasta with a thick tomato and almond sauce; almonds are also ground and added to a veal and chocolate stuffing for savory pies, stirred into chicken stews, and scattered over salads.
As far as sweets go, almond paste is so important in Sicily that it goes by the name of pasta reale (royal paste). Sicilians are skilled at making marzipan pastries shaped like fruit painted in bold colors (a specialty of the nuns of the Martorana convent) and an abundance of almond cookies, macaroons, and cakes. The best time to enjoy all of these sweets is February, when almond trees are in bloom and islanders are busy celebrating spring with almond festivals that hark back to pagan days.
The cookies here are chewy, dense, and sweet, the sort of almond cookies every Sicilian bakery offers. They can be studded with pine nuts or enriched with chopped nuts. For best results, I suggest that you weigh the almonds and sugar rather than measuring by volume, as the amounts will be consistent every time. And when making this dough, remember not to add all of the egg whites; add only as much as needed for the dough to come together. If you add too much egg white, the dough will be too liquid, and the cookies will flatten and spread while baking; while they will still be delicious, they will be crisp rather than chewy. Since the cookies harden as they cool, don’t overbake them; once they are set and blistered (they will still be pale), they are done.
Makes 2 dozen cookies
- 8 ounces blanched almonds
- 8 ounces granulated sugar
- 1/8 teaspoon fine sea salt
- 1 and ½ teaspoons almond extract
- 1 tablespoon honey
- 2 large egg whites, beaten to blend
- ½ cup confectioner’s sugar
Preheat the oven to 325 degrees (preferably set on convection bake).
Line 2 baking sheets with parchment paper.
Place the almonds in a food processor. Add the sugar and salt, and process to a very fine powder, about 2 minutes.
In a small bowl, combine the honey and almond extract.
Place the ground almond mixture in a bowl. Stir in the honey mixture with a fork. Add just enough egg white to make a mixture that holds together when compressed firmly between your fingers. Do not add too much egg white or the cookies will flatten and lose their shape as they bake (even a teaspoon too much egg white will yield flat cookies, so be careful at this step).
Turn the dough out on a counter and knead for 1 to 2 minutes, forming a cohesive dough. Dust the counter with the confectioner’s sugar.
Working on top of the confectioner’s sugar, roll into a 2-inch-wide log. Cut into 1/2-inch pieces, roll each piece into a ball, and place 2 inches apart on the prepared baking sheet. Pinch the top of each cookie twice between your thumb and index finger, creating four small indentations.
(If making pine nut cookies, at this point you shjuld insert about 6 pine nuts into each cookie, pointy side down. Press gently to imbed the nuts into the cookies.)
Bake the cookies for 7 minutes, or until set and blistery and still white. Do not overbake: these cookies should be moist and chewy, not dry, and should not take on any color. (It is best to err on the side of underbaking; the cookies will dry as they cool.)
Cool on a rack. Store in airtight tins up to 2 weeks.