Sometimes I am all for making something that looks neat and precise, and I get a certain pride when each cookie in a batch ends up looking identical. The most recent case in point was my checkerboard cookies.
However, today we’re going to the opposite end of the scale with these little guys. They’re from Italy and they’re called bruttiboni. The name roughly means “ugly-good” because they look as they look, but the are utterly delicious.
As with many Italian celebratory cookies, their precise origin is not clear. Today they are typical of the city of Prato in Tuscany, and they are also known as brutti ma buoni (“ugly but good”) or the more poetic-sounding mandorlati di san clemente. They are delicious little cookies made from meringue and hazelnuts.
To make them, you start with a simple meringue mixture, which I flavoured with some vanilla and a little hint of cinnamon. I don’t know if the spice addition is tradition, but I think it works well with the flavour of the nuts. Then you fold in ground, toasted almonds and hazelnuts – you can grind them to a fine powder, or leave a few more chunky bits if you prefer a bit more texture. And then…you do something plain weird. You put the whole bowl over a pan of barely simmering water, and then stir it gently. This makes the mixture somewhat looser, and all I can think that this does is to cook the meringue mixture in a similar way to making Swiss meringue. I’ve never come across this technique before, and in fact, not every recipe that I saw for bruttiboni thought this was necessary. One recipe even suggested making a Swiss meringue and just adding nuts. But I’m all for experimentation so I decided to give this strange approach a go.
From what I could tell, this extra step makes the mixture both a little softer and more stable, as once I had done it, the batter certainly seemed to keep its volume. I think it might also have impacted on the texture – these really are nothing like the miniature meringues I had been expecting – there was no brittle exterior and or marshmallow centre. They are more like the sort of thing I would expect from a “traditional” cookie made with flour and butter, so there is clearly some kind of magic at play here. But they do have a crisper outside and a softer middle. And they are, indeed, absolutely delicious!
To make Bruttiboni (makes around 24)
• 125g ground almonds
• 125g skinned hazelnuts
• 3 large egg whites
• pinch of salt
• 140g white caster sugar
• 1/2 teaspoon vanilla extract
• 1/4 teaspoon ground cinnamon
1. Start by toasting the nuts. Preheat the oven to 150°C (300°F). If you are using whole nuts, ground them in a food processor. They can be fine or you can leave chunks for texture. Spread the ground nuts on a baking sheet lined with greaseproof paper, and until the nuts are golden and fragrant (tip: I put them in for 5 minutes with the timer on; check them, then keep doing them in 2 minute intervals, in each case using the timer to make sure they don’t burn). When done, remove them from the oven and allow to cool.
2.When you’re ready to make the cookies, start by preheating the oven to 170°C (340°F). Line two baking sheets with greaseproof paper. Also put a saucepan of water on the stove over a medium heat.
3. Now make the meringue. Get a heatproof bowl. Add the egg whites and salt. Whisk to the soft peaks stage. Now add the sugar, a spoonful at a time, mixing well after each addition, until you have a stiff meringue. Fold in the vanilla and ground cinnamon. Finally fold in the cooled nuts.
4. Now put the bowl over the pan of water – it should be barely simmering. Gently stir the mixture with a spatula for 10 minutes. It will become slightly darker and slightly more runny by the end, but don’t expect to see massive changes.
5. Next, remove the bowl from the heat. Take tablespoons of the mixture and put them on the prepared baking sheet. The neatest way to do this is with an ice-cream scoop, but spoons work just as well. Just don’t expect them to be too neat or too regular!
6. Bake the cookies for around 25 minutes until golden, turning half-way to get an even colour. When done, remove from the oven and leave to cool on a wire rack. The cookies will become firmer as they cool.