May 24, 2009

Amaretti cookies

I love amaretti.  Outside of Italy it is more common to find the crunchy style of amaretti, delicious with coffee or crumbled over ice cream, but my favourite is the soft amaretti cookie found in Italian bakeries.

If you have ever had one in Italy you know what I am talking about - soft and chewy, fragrant with almonds.  They are sold by the pound and on Sundays you will see families carrying bakery boxes full of these treats.

Recently we made them for a wedding shower.   They are incredibly easy to make - if you opt for plain cookies, that is.  If, on the other hand, you want to pipe them into fancy shapes, well, let's just say that you better have some strong arms!

For the shower we made piped amaretti in pink and white to match the colour scheme. After piping several hundred cookies it felt like my arm was going to fall off but it was all worth it when we saw the finished product on the tables.

The room was stunning.  The bombonniere were pashmina scarves in a range of pinks, each draped over the guest's chair and tied with a gold bow.  The centrepieces were tulips, again in matching pinks and whites.  Despite the torrential rains outside, the room absolutely glowed.

And we had some very talented bakers contributing to our sweet table - from cream-filled dates to truffles to these lovely daisy sandwich cookies, I could not resist sampling them all.  

As incredible as all of these cookies were, my favourite continues to be the humble amaretto. It's a classic for a reason!  And, for those with food sensitivities, these cookies are gluten and dairy free!

Start by mixing the ground blanched almonds with the sugar in a large bowl.   Make sure the almonds are fresh - bulk food stores with a high turnover are good places to source ground almonds but if they are not absolutely fresh then make your own.   Finely grind whole blanched almonds in the food processor - just make sure to grind them with the sugar to avoid making almond butter!
Whip the egg whites just until they are barely at the soft peak stage.  They will be very soft and you will be tempted to keep whipping but don't - you want them very soft and billowy.

Fold the egg whites into the almond mixture and add the almond extract - you don't need to worry about deflating the whites so get in there with your hands and make sure that they are thoroughly incorporated. This will take a few minutes.

All that is left is to tint and shape the cookies.  The most basic cookie is untinted and rolled into balls.

Since we were making these for a special occasion, we tinted half the batter pink and left the rest untinted, piping the cookies in layers with a star tip. 
To make this shape start by piping out a 4cm (1 1/2") base star layer on a parchment lined baking sheet, rotating the bag slightly before lifting the bag to finish the layer.   

Using the same tip, pipe a smaller star over the centre of the base layer.  You will get a more finished look by placing the piping bag over the base layer so that the points of the star tip fit into the grooves of the base layer.  Again, rotate the bag slightly to finish.

Warning - the dough is stiff so this will take some elbow grease!

Sprinkle with a bit of granulated sugar, top with an almond or an espresso bean, and bake.  Pull these out of the oven before they start to brown - they will look underbaked and will be very soft but they will set up as they cool.

I promise you, these will impress your friends!

Makes 200 cookies.

11 cups of blanched ground almonds
12 egg whites
4 cups of sugar
3 teaspoons of almond extract
sugar for sprinkling
food colouring (optional)

Preheat oven to 350°F.

Mix sugar and ground almonds until well combined.

Place egg whites in the bowl of an electric mixer fitted with the whisk attachment. Beat on medium speed until foamy and light, just barely at the soft peak stage.

Using a rubber spatula, fold beaten egg whites in ground almond mixture. Add almond extract and food colouring. Mix until well combined.

Transfer batter into a piping bag and pipe out cookies onto parchment paper-lined baking sheets. **Instead of piping, you can also form cookies by rolling batter into 1 inch balls.** Sprinkle each cookie generously with sugar.

Transfer to oven and bake until cookies are golden, about 15 minutes. Let cookies cool briefly on baking sheets before transferring to a wire rack to cool completely. Store in an airtight container up to 3 days. 

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