For my eleventh post this year, I decided that I had to make something with chocolate. When I look back at my bakes so far in the 2019 edition of the 12 Bakes of Christmas, I was struck by the fact I’ve only used chocolate once, and I’m not sure that the other recipe with just cocoa really counts.
To rectify this I decided to attempt baci di dama – these are two little hazelnut biscuits sandwiched together with a little dark chocolate. Their name means “lady’s kisses” as they resemble a pair of plump puckered lips ready to lavish romance on someone fortunate. I’ve seen these cookies described as a symbol of sensuality.
Something I am also very curious about is what you think of the pictures I took of these cookies. I tried a few different setups to set a festive mood, some using tinsel, some using ribbon and some with a textured cloth. But none of them quite hit the mark for me, and I felt that I was going to have to resign myself to using shots I was not completely in love with. Then, as I was packing up, I noticed how they were reflected on the white surface and I thought that was the way to capture how they look – a sort of stripped-back, wintery look as if they are reflected in ice. Lady’s kisses, but that lady happens to be the White Queen of Narnia!
I have to be honest and declare that these are not really Christmas cookies per se, it just happens that they look adorable and they have flavours that seem very festive. They were created around a century ago in the city of Tortona in Piedmont, an area famed for its hazelnuts. One story says that they were the creation of a pastry chef in the employ of the House of Savoy, who was asked by Prince Vittorio Emanuele II to create something new. The chef could only use what he had to hand – nuts, sugar, butter and chocolate – and so baci were born. The other story is that they were born of fierce competition between two pastry chefs in Tortona. One created a version using hazelnuts and the other using almonds, and they both sought to obtain protection for their own special creations. Passion and rivalry seem somehow fitting for a cookie symbolising sensuality, not?
I started to do a little bit of digging for the “authentic” way to make these, and they all seem to be a bit of a variation on a theme – ground nuts, butter, flour and sugar in various quantities. But the recipe that really piqued my interest was this recipe from David Leibowitz using rice flour, and I decided to stop there and try that recipe. I liked the idea of using the rice flour as I expected it to provide a particular crispness and slight crunch to the cookies after baking in a way that plain old flour would not.
In following his recipe, I did find that the dough does seem to be very dry when you’re working it. He does recognise this and suggests you just keep working it until it does come together. I kept going and while I definitely noticed that the heat from my hands did help the mixture become more cohesive as I kept kneading, I also knew that I had gone way past the point I would have gone with a recipe using just flour. Ultimately I gave in and added tiny extra amounts of butter to get the dough to form. I didn’t need much, so when I say tiny, I mean tiny. The other option he suggests is adding a tiny amount of water, but this one I was really dubious about. That approach might work if you didn’t need to do too much with the dough, but I was concerned that given all the shaping and rolling of lots of small cookies that the rice flour would absorb the water and the texture would be affected (and that the dough would probably turn crumbly again and be impossible to work when you’re rolling the last of the cookies). The choice is yours, but this is basically a nutty shortbread. I’m Scottish, we’re shortbread experts, and would never add water when making shortbread!
For the hazelnuts, you have a few choices. You can use whole hazelnuts, and gently toast them in the oven until the skins start to come off. You then remove them from the oven, roll them in a teatowel, then carefully pick out the nuts as you try to avoid spreading the pieces of nut skin around your kitchen like brown confetti. I mean it – keep doors closed, as otherwise the slightest puff of wind and you’ll be finding bits of hazelnut skin for months. Otherwise you can use the cheat’s method and use ground hazelnuts, and just spread them on a piece of greaseproof paper on a baking sheet – bake at around 150°C (300°F), checking every few minutes until they are toasted. While less rustic than grinding your own hazelnuts, it does make life a lot simpler!
You don’t need to limit yourself to hazelnuts, although the flavour is delicious and combines wonderfully with the dark chocolate – the success of Nutella alone testifies to a winning combination. However, I think toasted ground almonds would also be good perhaps paired with some milk chocolate, and you could get very creative and use ground pistachios and white chocolate to create a little festive selection.
And in case you’re wondering, what does that rice flour do? It means when they come out of the oven the cookies are utterly fragile – I accidentally brushed against one and it collapsed. But they do firm up and go hard if you leave them, so patience if useful here. The texture is very crisp, and the rice flour and the hazelnuts give them an almost gritty texture (think breadstick rolled in polenta). I really liked it makes for a more interesting biscuit. However, in the interests of science, I also made a few using plain flour. The texture is closer to what you would expect from a nutty shortbread, so if you prefer to keep them classical, go with that. They are both, of course, delicious and they’ve been one of the most popular cookies I’ve made this year. They are wonderful with coffee, and their dainty size means you can easily nibble your way through a few of them without the feeling that you have over-indulged. I mean, you probably have, but you just don’t feel that way!
To make Baci di Dama (makes 40-50) – recipe by David Leibowitz (here)
For the dough
• 140g ground toasted hazelnuts
• 140g rice flour
• 100g unsalted butter, plus more if needed
• 100g white caster sugar
• pinch of salt
For the filling
• 60g dark chocolate
1. Put the ground hazelnuts, rice flour, sugar and salt in a bowl. Add the butter and use your hands to work it until you have a dough. Keep kneading it as the heat from your hands will soften the butter. If you find you’re really struggling to get it to come together, add a tiny amound more butter and keep going.
2. Preheat the oven to 160°C (325°F) and line a baking sheet with greaseproof paper.
3. Divide the dough into 4 pieces. Take the first piece and roll to a long sausage – I did mine 22cm, as I worked out that this would give me pieces of 5g each. Then use a knife and cut into equal pieces. I lined my dough up against the ruler and cut into 1cm pieces – they came out very even.
4. Take each piece of dough and roll into a ball. I found it easiest to press the dough into as round as shape as possible, then to work the dough quickly between my palms to get a perfect sphere. Place each ball on the baking sheet, leaving some room for them to expand. Repeat until you’ve used up all the dough. Do the same with the remaining 3 chunks of dough.
5. Bake the cookies for around 12-14 minutes until they look slightly golden – they will have puffed up ever so slightly, formed little dome shapes, and have slight cracking. Remove from the oven and allow to cool – they are extremely fragile when they come out of the oven, but they will become firm when cool. When they have stabilised, transfer them to a wire rack to cool completely.
6. Once the cookies are completely cool, match them up in pairs of the same size. I recommend you then line them up in rows, one row with the base facing upwards, and its partner immediately above it.
7. Melt and temper the chocolate (the easy way – finely chop all the chocolate. Melt 1/3 in the microwave, then add the next 1/3 and stir until melted, then add the final 1/3 and stir until smooth, and reheat in the microwave for 5 seconds on full power). Put the chocolate in a piping bag, then put a little chocolate, the size of a chocolate chip, onto the base of a cookie, and gently place its partner on top – you want chocolate peeking out of the edges. Keep going until they are all done, and leave to set completely.