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Brutti ma buoni, mark III

Brutti 3, plate

This is the third recipe for brutti ma buoni – Italian “ugly but good” hazelnut cookies.

It’s very different to the others I’ve tried, or read, as it doesn’t involve whisking the egg whites. All the other recipes I’ve seen involve whisked egg whites, resulting in cookies with a meringue or macaroon-type character. Not these, which are still delicous, but much more crunchy little lumps, reminiscent of coconut macaroons, unlike the more disc-like previous version I tried, or the knobbly mounds of the first recipe I tried.

So many variations with so few variables!

Anyway, this recipe is from my favourite baker, Dan Lepard (whose personal site is still pending an update; it’s been down for yonks now, sadly!). His recipes in the Guardian newspaper are almost always reliable, and I recommend the book that collects them, Short and Sweet. I also heartily recommend his bread book, The Handmade Loaf. Of the three recipes I’ve tried for brutti ma buoni, however, I must admit this is my least favourite: I just prefer the texture when the egg whites are whisked.

The full recipe, along with Dan L’s panettone recipe, is available here.

Brutti 3, baking sheet

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Brutti ma buoni, mark II

On plate 3

Considering brutti ma buoni – Italian “ugly but good” – cookies are basically just made of nuts, egg white and sugar, methods of making them are surprisingly varied. How much albumen? How much sugar? Grind the nuts? All of them? How fine? Leave some whole? Whisk the egg whites? Cook the mixture in a pan? Include some cocoa? Never mind the question of using almonds.

The first recipe I tried was from the American Academy in Rome’s Biscotti book. They were good, but I wasn’t entirely satisfied. It’s taken me this long to get round to trying a different recipe. I thought I’d better try an actual Italian one, direct from an Italian source.

One of the biggest, perhaps the biggest, Italian recipe site is Giallo Zafferano (“Yellow Saffron”). When googling Italian recipes you may well get prompted to visit there first. Although I’m gathering other recipes, I thought why not start here? So here’s a tweaked, reduced translation of their recipe. The original makes “about 70” cookies, which seems excessive for domestic consumption – unless you’ve got a very big family that loves hazelnut meringuey things.

Even if you don’t speak Italian, it’s worth checking out the site for the pics of the procedure.

Makes about a dozen.

200g whole, skin-on hazelnuts
20g water
25g caster sugar
1/2 t honey
35g egg white (ie the white of one egg, more or less)
90g icing sugar

On tray

1. Gently roast the hazelnuts, at about 150C, until they’re starting to brown. Remnove but keep the oven on.
2. Rub the hazelnuts in a tea towel (which I believe you US lot call a “dish towel”) or cloth to remove the skins. Don’t agonise if a little bit stays stuck.
3. Divide the nuts in two, and coarsely grind half of them in a food processor.
4. In a pan, warm the water and caster sugar until the latter dissolves, then stir in the honey and allow to cool slightly.
5. In a clean bowl, whisk the egg white to peaks.
6. Slowly pour in the syrup, whisking constantly.
7. Keep whisking for another few minutes or so (the original recipe says 10, but this seems excessive), then sieve in the icing sugar.
8. Keep whisking for another few minutes. You’ve basically got a meringue mix.
9. Add the ground nuts, then the remaining, whole, nuts and fold to combine.
10. Line a baking sheet (or two) with parchment, then dollop dessertspoonfuls onto it, leaving space between for the cookies to flow and expand a bit while baking.
11. Bake at 150C for about 12 minutes, until they’ve coloured slightly or as the original puts it, until they’ve achieved “un colore leggermente dorato” (“a lightly golden colour”). Which seems a bit misleading, as egg while plus hazelnut doesn’t really equal golden. It’s more a pale brown.
12. Cool. I actually left mine to cool in the oven, turned off, as you would meringues.

The result is very nice, note unlike some hazelnut meringues I remember my mother making on occasion when I was a nipper. I still don’t think this is quite the perfect brutti ma buoni recipe though, so I’ll try another soon, specifically one that uses the technique where the mixture is cooked first before baking, drying it out more. Onwards, bakers!

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Brutti ma buoni

Brutti ma buoni

The easiest way to describe Brutti ma buoni (“ugly but good”) is as nut meringue cookies. All the ones I’ve encountered in Rome have been made with hazelnuts, and many of the recipes online seem to be also. But there’s also a variant made with almonds.

Italian Wikipedia says they’re also called Bruttibuoni, made with almonds and are from Prato in Tuscany. I suspect a lot of other Italians might take issue with that though, as they do seem to be a fairly widespread. Indeed, a bit more googling, and another source claims they’re from Varese, in Lombardy, north of Milan. Yet another calls them Brut ma bon (a more French-sounding dialect name) and gets even more specific about their origin: not just Varese, but Gavirate, a town in the vicinity of Varese.

Hazelnuts reading for roasting

Whatever the history, bottom line is that they’re a meringue-type cookie (ie made with egg whites, no fat and little or no flour) that are rich in chopped nuts. Heck, even us Brits have a traditional hazelnut meringue, so I’m really not sure it’s the sort of recipe anyone can really stake a claim to.

I decided to make some as we had some egg whites left in the fridge from making custard. The recipe I used is from Biscotti: Recipes From The Kitchen Of The American Academy In Rome. It’s the third recipe I’ve tried from there following the wonderful Honey and farro cookies, and the Pinolate (pine nut cookies). I need to try the latter again before I blog it as my first batch wasn’t quite right.

Chopping nuts

Anyway. While baking these this morning, I looked around to compare recipes, and – would you Adam and Eve it – my favourite baker Dan Lepard published his recipe a few weeks ago in The Guardian. It’s an indication that despite how basic these cookies may be, there are several approaches to the method. His doesn’t require the eat whites to be beaten, uses pre-skinned hazelnuts, and involves combining all the ingredients in a saucepan. I will have to try that for comparison. One day. Not today. Not when I’ve already got 30 biscuits cooling in the kitchen. Another recipe, from a Canadian cookbook, meanwhile, also involves cooking the sugar and egg whites together, then beating them. That approach is more like a classic Italian meringue, and certainly the results in the pics look more meringue and less cookie.

Sugar, beaten egg whites etc md

So. As usual, I’m tweaking as I go along. The original recipe made a lot of mixture, but as you turn off the oven at the end of baking and let the cookies cool inside – as you do with meringues – you either need a massive oven, or should do half quantities. So I’ve halved the original recipe. I’ve also added some almond essence – simply because it’s more explicitly nutty than just using vanilla essence. Ideally I’d use hazelnut essence but I don’t have any.

250g hazelnuts (with skin)
1 egg white
125g granulated sugar
1 teaspoon vanilla essence
1/2 teaspoon hazelnut or almond essence
5g plain flour
Zest of half a lemon

Heat the oven to 150C.

1. Put the nuts on a tray, then roast them for about 15 minutes.
2. Turn the oven up to 180C.
3. Take the nuts out of the oven and rub them with a tea towel. This removes some of the skin. Don’t agonise though. The inclusion of some skin adds a depth of flavour, IMHO. (I also prefer my peanut butter to be wholenut, skins and all.)
4. Put half the nuts in a mixer and give them a quick whizz. Just break them up. You don’t want to grind them.
5. Put the other half of the nuts on a chopping board and chop roughly. (The original recipe has you chopping them all by hand, but a) that’s labour intensive and b) I like the mixture of sizes and texture this method creates. Mades the results extra-brutti.)
6. Beat the egg whites to a soft peak.
7. Beat the sugar into the egg whites, to a firm peak, then add the essences.
8. Add the zest and flour to the nuts.
9. Gently fold the egg white mix into the nuts.
10. Put teaspoonfuls on a baking sheet lined with parchment, leaving about 4cm between (though they don’t spread much).
11. Bake for about 12 minutes, until only just starting to colour.
12. Turn off the oven, leaving the cookies inside to continue baking as it cools. Leave for about 10 minutes
13. Remove and cool on a wire rack.
14. Enjoy.

Baked and cooling

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