When it comes to Christmas baking, there needs to be chocolate, and we’ve reached the eighth recipe with only two appearance of the food of the gods. Well, there was a lot in those mendiants, but only a sprinkling in the Basler Brunsli, so in fact chocolate has really only popped up one-and-a-half times. Well, time to change that!
Today’s recipe is the mouthful that is mostaccioli napoletani. Try saying that quickly after three eggnogs, two mulled wines and glass of champagne! They are spicy little cookies that originate in the city of Naples. They are traditionally cut into diamond shapes before baking, and then dipped in chocolate. I was surprised to find something like this in Italian baking – they seem closer to German Lebkuchen, or spicy Aachner Printen.
These don’t seem to have made a big splash (yet?) in the English-language web, so I was doing my best to research them in Italy, and it is fair to say that a lot of Italians are making these things – lots of different spices, different techniques, some with candied peel, some with chocolate glaze rather than chocolate coating, but the diamond shape is ubiquitous.
I also found that pretty much all recipes use baker’s ammonia as the raising agent. I haven’t tried making them with baking powder or baking soda, so cannot be sure that the results are the same. However, you want the resulting cookies to be very light, and baker’s ammonia is certainly the only thing that can give you a really good lift. Just watch out for that puff of ammonia that comes out of the oven when you open the door. Harmless, but it will certainly wake you up!
Now, apparently the truly authentic recipes do not use any oil or fat, so that means olive oil is nowhere to be seen, and it’s out with all that lovely butter. This probably makes for a more authentic result, but it does mean that these sorts of biscuits can be on the dry side as the lack of fat means they don’t dry out and become crisp. They just go dry. Oops!
Now, if you’ve got lovely, soft cookies, since they will be dipped in chocolate, they won’t dry out, but it also means that they won’t get soft if they are too dry when you dip them. To avoid the risk that all your hard work results in a mouthful of chocolate-coated dust, we need to avoid them drying out before dipping. First, don’t (as I did) leave them out overnight. As soon as they are cool, pop them in an airtight tin with some soft bread. The cookies will soften and the bread will dry out. Repeat as needed, and this time will also allow the flavours of the spices to develop. I noticed that the clove flavour was much stronger after two days than straight after baking, so it might be worth being a little light-handed with some of the more robust spices. Once you have cookies that are sufficiently soft, you can dip them in the chocolate. If they are not softening fast enough, pop them on a wire race, and wave gently over a steam kettle or a pan of boiling water – the steam will help soften them, then allow to cool and pop back in the tin.
When I was making these, I chilled the dough to make it easier to roll out. The first 20 that I made were great and baked well, but I used a little flour on the worktop, which seemed to affect the second batch – they were lighter in colour and bit tougher. I would recommend just trying to keep the dough as cold as possible, and roll it out between two sheets of greaseproof paper to avoid working more flour into the dough. Normally I don’t worry about this and I’ve never had a problem, but I guess there is a first time for everything.
Now, if you like the idea of these cookies but think this all seems like far too much work, you can of course take a shortcut. Just take your favourite soft gingerbread recipe, bake a tray of the stuff, then cut that into diamonds. Then dip those in chocolate and smile sweetly when your guests ask you about them…ahm…
To make Mostaccioli Napoletani (makes around 25-30):
• 250g plain flour
• 150g caster sugar
• 1 teaspoon cinnamon
• 1 teaspoon ground coriander
• 1/4 teaspoon ground cloves
• 1/2 teaspoon nutmeg
• 50g of cocoa powder
• 75g ground almonds
• grated zest of 1 orange
• 50g honey
• 50g water
• 30g brown rum
• 1 teaspoon baker’s ammonia
• 300g dark chocolate, to dip
1. Put all the dry ingredients and orange zest in a bowl and mix. Put the honey, water and rum into a bowl, mix well, then add to the dry ingredients and combine – it should seem a bit dry. Dissolve the baker’s ammonia in an extra tablespoon of water, then add to the main mix. Work quickly to a soft dough – if too wet, add more cocoa powder and flour, if too dry, add more water or rum. Cover and leave to sit overnight in the fridge.
2. When ready to bake, preheat the oven to 180°C and line a baking sheet with greaseproof paper. Rub lightly with a dot of butter to prevent sticking.
3. Roll out the dough to 2/3 cm thick, and use a sharp knife to cut into diamonds. Transfer the diamonds to the baking sheet, leaving space for them to expand.
4. Bake the cookies for 8-10 minutes until puffed. Transfer the cookies to a rack and leave to cool completely. If needed, leave in an airtight tin with slices of bread to soften the cookies and allow the spice flavours to develop.
5. Dip cookies in tempered chocolate and leave to set. The best way to do this – chop your chocolate. Melt half in a double boiler above a pan of just-simmering water. When it gets to 55°C, remove from the heat. Add half of the remaining chocolate, and stir until melted. Add the rest of the chocolate, and stir again until melted. Allow the chocolate to cool to 28-29°C, then bring the temperature up to 31-32°C (either over a pan of warm water, or with 5-second blasts in the microwave). Use a thermometer, and while it takes a bit of time, it’s also dead simple!