When I was a little girl, I loved going to big Italian weddings for two reasons. The first was the chance to see the bride. I was a timid child, so I was wary of approaching the bride in her all her white tulle glory, yet the sight of her was always special.
But the second reason, and the one that was far more exciting, was the chance to receive and open the bomboniera, the customary gift handed out by the bridal couple. It’s not that I cared so much about the gift, it’s that I wanted the chance to get at the confetti that, by tradition, had to accompany the bomboniera.
Confetti are sugar-coated almonds. Italians use them to mark special occasions from baptisms to weddings to anniversaries. But the confetti that accompany bomboniere are certainly the most special. The sugar-coating is usually white in colour and the confetti are wrapped in tulle, usually in a small sac. The confetti must always be odd in number in order to ensure that the marriage is indivisible. It is most common to receive five confetti, which represent love, fidelity, longevity, fertility and happiness.
Confetti are perhaps the best symbol of how important almonds are to the traditions and cuisine of Italy, in particular Southern Italy where the almond tree abounds. While it’s unclear where the almond originated, it’s believed that the almond is native to Asia or Africa. Besides Italy, almonds are cultivated in many countries including Greece, Morocco, Portugal, Spain, Turkey and the United States, where the major almond producer is California.
Rich in Vitamin E, the almond is part of the rose family (Rosaceae) and is closely related to the peach. There are two types of almonds, bitter and sweet. While sweet almonds are more widely-consumed, bitter almonds are valued for their essential oils. However, bitter almonds can be dangerous because they contain prussic acid, which, if consumed in large enough quantity, can be lethal. Prussic acid is destroyed when almonds are heated prior to being used for such purposes as the extraction of their oils.
Almonds lay claim to an important role in my family’s baking. The most tangible example of this would be amaretti. For those of you who have never come across amaretti, they are cookies made of either ground almonds or almond paste. Their name means "little" and "bitter", in reference to their small size and to the bitterness of the almonds. For every Italian family that you meet, you will undoubtedly come across a different version of amaretti. Everyone has their favourite favourite version and everyone swears that their amaretti are the best.
My family is no exception. We have a collection of amaretti recipes, all of which make appearances during special occasions and holidays. My favourite amaretti, however, are the ones my mother makes most often. The recipe comes from her mother, who in turn got the recipe from a close family friend. While many people in my family circle make these cookies, none are superior to my mother’s.
These particular amaretti are made with ground almonds, sugar and cocoa, which is not a common addition to a recipe for amaretti. These cookies are a bit larger than your average amaretti, although you can make them smaller if you like. They are the type of cookie that improves with age. Freshly baked, they are soft, chewy and fragrant. As the days pass, the amaretti harden slightly and the almond flavour becomes more assertive. These are pretty cookies that never look out of place on a dessert plate. And best of all, they will keep for a long time (at least a week), which means you can enjoy them with a cup of espresso over the course of many afternoons.
As with all treasured family recipes, my mother’s amaretti have become so much more than just a special cookie. They have marked so many of my family’s milestones. But most importantly, they’re from my mother.
And they are so dear to my heart.
My Mother’s Amaretti
Treasured family recipe.
- 1-1/2 pounds almonds, finely ground (plus extra whole almonds to garnish cookies)
- 2 cups granulated sugar (plus 1 cup extra sugar to roll the cookies in)
- 1-1/2 tbsp. cocoa
- 4 eggs
- 3 tbsp. almond extract
- Preheat your oven to 350 degrees F.
- Position your oven racks so that one rack is at the bottom of the oven and the other rack is in the middle of the oven; line 2 baking sheets with parchment paper and set aside.
- In a large bowl, combine ground almonds, sugar and cocoa.
- Add eggs and almond extract and mix until well combined.
- Using a tablespoon or your hands, scoop out enough of the almond mixture to form a ball that is roughly 1-1/2 to 2 inches in size.
- Roll each ball in the 1 cup of extra granulated sugar and place on cookie sheet.
- Use extra whole almonds as garnish by placing one almond in the centre of each cookie.
- Bake cookies on lower rack for 10 minutes and then move to middle rack for an additional five minutes.
- Remove cookies from oven and allow to cool in pan for 5 minutes. Transfer cookies to a wire rack to cool completely.
- Once cool, store cookies at room temperature in an airtight container. Cookies will keep for up 10 days.
Note: This recipe will yield anywhere from 50 to 70 cookies, depending on the size of the cookies.