Italians and Almonds
Perhaps it's the Italian in me, but I would argue that even just a touch of almond can elevate a baked good in much the same way that vanilla or cardamom can. Vanilla is, of course, used profusely in baking (mostly in the form of an extract, but the whole bean is really where it's at). Cardamom, although one of the most ancient spices, has become only recently popular due to its wide use in Scandinavian cuisine (admittedly, I have also fallen for it). Almond, on the other hand, is comparatively underrated. This is surprising because it has an especially unique ability to deliver both bitter and sweet notes. Much like my move across the world... well, more on that another day.
That bittersweet note, of the almonds, is reminiscent of a myriad of cookie spreads at any Italian house or event (wedding, baptism, etc.) that I've ever been to. Fresh almonds, roasted almonds, blanched almonds, almond extract, almond flour, almond paste, amaretto -- these are just a few of the ways that you can expect to see almonds manifested in baked goods from all regions of the country. It's no wonder that, as a child, a favourite cookie of mine were amaretti ("little bitters", cookies made of almond and sugar). I remember being shocked to see my Nonna use half a bottle of almond extract in a recipe, but as they say, with age comes wisdom. Wisdom, in this case, is the preservation of traditions passed through generations. Traditions that are adapting, but not succumbing, to the pressures of the modern world. The flavour of almond, to me, is the flavour of Italy -- and one that I do not wish to fade away.
Almond Sugar Cookies (Valentine Hearts)
- 150 g flour
- 50 g almond flour
- 125 g butter, in small pieces
- 125 g sugar
- 1/2 tsp sea salt
- 35 g (or 2) egg yolks
- 2 tsp almond extract
- 50 g dark chocolate
- 50 g white chocolate
- 25 g sliced almonds, crumbled
- 25 g coconut, shredded
Cream the butter with the sugar and salt, until well combined. Don't incorporate too much air. It should take about 2 minutes.
Add the flours and mix until sandy in texture (similar to making a pie dough).
Lightly beat the egg yolks with the almond extract. Add to the mixture and stir until just combined.
Roll out the dough until about 5 mm thick. It's easiest to roll it in between two sheets of parchment paper.
Place in the fridge to cool for 1 hour. Remember to preheat the oven to 160°C before the hour is up. A low temperature is necessary to ensure that the cookies hold their shape and don't brown.
Take the dough from the fridge and cut out the hearts using a cookie cutter. Place them on a lined baking sheet.
Bake for 12 to 14 minutes, until just set but not golden in colour. Wait for a minute or so before transferring to a wire rack.
To decorate them, melt both chocolates separately over a bain marie (pot of simmering water). Using a small spoon, spread some chocolate on the cookie and then sprinkle with either the almonds or coconut. Let the chocolate set (they can be placed in the fridge, uncovered, to speed up the process).
These would be great with espresso, tasting very much like caffè corretto with amaretto liqueur, but in this case the bittersweet almond flavour comes from the cookies. Share with a loved one -- perhaps for Valentine's day?