The recipe: Italian Almond Cookies
Why you should bake: Anyone who loves almonds – and loves Italy – needs this recipe in their repertoire. That they’re gluten-free is a holiday bonus.
Degree of difficulty: A snap. The toughest part can be tracking down almond flour. Find a primer here.
What we didn’t tell you: Overbake at your peril. We outlined this in the original story, but it’s a tip that cannot be overemphasized. "You have to watch them," said baker William Teresa. "When the cracks start to form, and you see the very slightest hint that they're turning brown, that's when you pull them out of the oven. Otherwise, they'll turn rock hard an hour later." Another suggestion: Enjoy them quickly. These cookies are beyond glorious the day they’re baked, but their appeal dwindles with each passing day.
Fun fact: This recipe has easily the contest’s most romantic backstory. During a college study-abroad year at the Università di Bologna, Teresa dated a fellow student. The couple would frequently jump on a train and visit her family in Cesena, a small city in Emilia-Romagna, happily immersing themselves in the cooking lives of his girlfriend's parents and grandparents. "They were so lovely," Teresa said. "I learned to make pasta with them. We'd spend hours making dough, and laughing. It was wonderful to be in a place where food is so rooted in tradition and place, and to encounter something that has always been made by the same people, with little variation."
One of the grandmothers baked a chewy-crispy and outrageously rich almond cookie, which the family enjoyed with espresso. Teresa was instantly smitten. Unfortunately, the cookie's recipe didn't return to the United States with him. "She was wary of sharing a family recipe," he said. "That's their pride."
After doing his research, Teresa stumbled upon a similar-sounding sweet. "Ricciarelli," he said [pronounced REACH-a-RELL-ee]. "They're from Siena, in Tuscany, and not that far from Bologna." He began to tweak the formula (less sugar, for starters), and as each iteration inched closer to the unassuming-looking cookie of his memory, he became confident that he'd hit replication pay dirt. "Since then, I've probably made them a hundred times," he said. "They're not like any other American cookie. Maybe that's why so many people ask me for the recipe."
Teresa's treasured time abroad confirmed a quietly harbored suspicion. "I'm a quarter Italian; the rest is a mishmash," he said with a laugh. "But that's the part that I definitely connect with. There are some people who feel that they are a man born in a woman's body, or a woman born in a man's body. Sometimes I feel like I'm an Italian born in an American's body."
ITALIAN ALMOND COOKIES
Makes about 2 dozen cookies.
Note: This 2014 winner is from William Teresa of Minneapolis.
1 egg white
2 1/4 c. almond flour
3/4 c. granulated sugar
Zest of 1 large lemon
1/2 tsp. honey
1 tsp. almond extract
1 tsp. vanilla extract
Powdered sugar, for coating
Preheat oven to 350 degrees and line baking sheets with parchment paper.
In a bowl of an electric mixer on medium-high speed (or using a whisk and beating by hand), beat egg white until soft peaks form.
In a medium bowl, whisk together almond flour, granulated sugar and lemon zest. Stir in beaten egg white, honey, almond extract and vanilla extract, and knead into a ball of dough (dough will be slightly sticky). Roll dough into a 1-inch thick log. Using a sharp knife, cut log at 1/2-inch intervals and form dough into egg-shaped cookies.
Fill a shallow bowl with powdered sugar. Roll cookies in powdered sugar, coating all sides and gently tapping off excess powdered sugar.
Place cookies 1 inch apart on prepared baking sheets (cookies spread only slightly) and bake until only slightly browned with a cracked exterior, about 15 to 20 minutes. Do not overbake. Remove from oven and cool 5 minutes before transferring cookies to a wire rack to cool completely.