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Biscuits after baking

With their crisp golden crust and soft almondy interior, these biscuits evoke the flavours and textures of the exquisite confections to be found in the pastry shops of Sicily.

The recipe is my adaption of one for Amaretti Melilli (or soft amaretti)  in Biscotti by Mona Talbott and Mirella Misenti. I wanted a less pronounced bitter almond flavour, and I added various coatings to mimic what I’d seen on sale in Palermo. If you want to make soft amaretti instead, I have given instructions below.

Ingredients

  • 300g of ground almonds
  • 25g bitter apricot kernels or ¼tspn bitter almond essence
  • 200g granulated sugar
  • Grated zest of one lemon
  • 3 egg whites
  • Optional coatings: flaked almonds; pine nuts; sugar coated aniseed /fennel seeds

Makes about 30

Method

Line two baking trays with baking parchment.

If using the bitter almonds, cover them with boiling water and leave for about 5 minutes. Drain, then pop them out of their skins by squeezing them between your fingers. Grind  them finely with some of the sugar. You could blitz them in a coffee grinder, making sure to shake them regularly and add more sugar if they show any signs of going oily. Or you could use a pestle and mortar. Either way you want them finely ground; you don’t want anyone biting into a lump of these, as they are very bitter.

Mix the ground apricot kernels with the almonds, the rest of the sugar and the lemon zest.

Whisk the egg whites with the almond essence, if using, until they form soft peaks, and then fold them into the nut mixture. You need to get everything thoroughly mixed, but don’t overdo it. Don’t worry if the egg whites seem to have lost volume. They will still do their job.

Dip your fingers into a bowl of cold water and pick out 20g lumps of the dough, slightly less if you are using the coatings. (If you’re not as obsessed as me with making every biscuit the same size, you could just weigh the first one then do the rest by eye. Or if you really don’t care, a heaped teaspoon would be about right. I find my digital scales invaluable here. I put a small plate on top, then add rough lumps of dough in 20g increments, either doing the necessary mental arithmetic myself or using the “tare” button to make life easier. I weigh them all out before shaping them).

Roll into balls as neatly as you can. If you are using the coatings, you’ll need to press the dough quite hard into them to get them to stick, then neaten up the balls. In any case, make sure to leave some uncoated, as they have their own charm and will be a good indicator of when the batch is cooked.

Place about 1” apart on the baking trays and leave out at room temperature for at least an hour.

Heat the oven to 190C / 375F / Gas Mark 5 (adjust for fan oven).

Bake for 10 to 15 minutes. Check them after 7 minutes, and turn the trays and swap them between shelves if necessary. Then check them every few minutes. They want to be golden brown, no more.

Biscuits ready for the oven

Biscuits shaped and ready to go in the oven

Notes

Shop bought ground almonds are absolutedly fine for this, but you could grind the same weight of blanched almonds along with most of the sugar in a food processor, or use the mincer attachment on your mixer. The resulting biscuits will be different, probably with a grainier, moister texture, but they will still be delicious.

Bitter apricot kernels are what give the bitter taste to amaretti. You can find them in health food shops. They are expensive, but you don’t use many. You probably wouldn’t want to eat one on its own, but the flavour they add to biscuit mixtures is much better than that of almond extract. Be aware that these are reputed to be toxic if eaten in quantity.

Although sugar coated aniseed is used in Sicily, I found that sugar coated fennel, of the kind they serve as a mouth freshener in Indian restaurants, was a good substitute. I used two different brands. The first was made by Saki and came from an Asian supermarket in Gloucester. These were the traditional mix of orange, yellow, green and white. I started painstakingly sorting out the white ones, until I realised that after 20 minutes I only had enough to coat about 3 biscuits. The second brand was Top Up, which I bought online from Amazon. These were in different shades of pale green and white. I was disappointed with these at first, and even wondered if they were somehow a duff batch, but in fact they turned out to work better. They were smaller, and gave just the right amount of crunch to the outside of the biscuits. And the shades of green, while not authentic, were not as alarming as I feared.

You could turn these into soft amaretti by leaving off the coatings, and  increasing the amount of apricot kernels. Go easy though. They have such a strong flavour that even an extra 5g will make quite a difference. The original recipe stated 40g, but I found that a bit too strong, so I’d go for 30 or 35g. You might need a few attempts to get the ideal flavour for you, but I predict you won’t find that too much of a hardship!

Biscuits on a plate