Al Forno: Ricciarelli and Tuscan Baking

Jack Hughes 25 October 2020
Image Credit: Jack Hughes

Walk around the Tuscan city of Siena and you’ll find ricciarelli in the window of every pasticceria. Tender, sweet, and orange-scented, these crumbly almond biscuits have left an indelible mark on this part of Italy, as they have become an integral tradition of a Siennese Christmas alongside the city’s other famed sweetmeat, panforte.

Siena’s relationship to these biscuits began all the way back in the Middle Ages when they were appropriately called ‘marzapanetti.’ According to lore, Ricciardetto della Gherardesca, a member of the most prominent family in the Republic of Pisa, brought back little almond-paste biscuits from the Middle East following the end of the Crusades. Indeed, the biscuits supposedly got their name from the tips of the shoes of Middle Eastern sultans. It wasn’t long before Siena had taken the ‘ricciarelli’ to heart, and they were to be found in many a local apothecary, the one place where spices and aromatics were readily available.

Ground almonds and orange zest are not the most exotic ingredients in the storecupboard today. However, they add a full-on perfumed hit to these biccies full of Eastern promise. They are light and dense at the same time, a cross between a French macaron and an English Bakewell.  The thick coating of icing sugar on the outside of the ricciarelli is their unique selling point – it gives an overwhelmingly indulgent carapace, not that that is a bad thing, whilst highlighting their beautiful mosaic-like cracked appearance.

Ricciarelli, like other Tuscan treats such as cantuccini and cavallucci, are divine accompanied by a glass of sweet Italian wine or amaretto.

INGREDIENTS (MAKES 20)

200g ground almonds
200g icing sugar
2 egg whites
1 tbsp almond extract
1 tbsp vanilla extract
1 orange, zested

METHOD

Preheat your oven to 160C/ Gas Mark 3 and line a couple of baking sheets with greaseproof paper.
In a bowl, whisk the egg whites until they form stiff peaks.
Diligently fold the ground almonds and icing sugar into the egg whites, followed by the almond extract, vanilla extract and orange zest. What you’re aiming for here is a soft, sticky dough.
Let the dough sit for a couple of hours.
Coat your hands with icing sugar and pinch small pieces of dough from the bowl. Roll the dough into balls and then flatten to form oval-shaped biscuits. Place them on the baking sheets with a bit of space between them.
Bake the ricciarelli for 18-20 minutes. Remove from the baking sheets to a cooling rack carefully as they will be quite soft. Let cool, dust liberally with more icing sugar, and then mangiare!