“It’s so easy to do … two minutes… and the taste is unbelievable,” says Enzo Oliveri. The Sicilian-born chef is talking about one of the Italian island’s best-loved sweets. With just three or four ingredients, these simple biscuits are sweet, chewy and delicious. They are quick to make, they last for weeks – if you can resist them that long – and they freeze well, too.
Sicily is known for its excellent almonds, especially around Agrigento (the province, which lies on the southern side of Sicily, even holds an annual almond blossom festival) and variations of these little almond dolcetti – also known as pasticinni di mandorle and, when made with bitter almonds, as amaretti, among other names – are found across the island.
“Wherever you go they do a different shape… but the taste is a very similar one to another. When you talk about almond biscuits, we know what we're going to get… They are moist, they are nice and soft and full of flavour!” Oliveri says.
The basic recipe is very simple: almond meal, caster sugar and egg white are mixed to create a dough that is piped or shaped into biscuits. It does, as Oliveri says, take just a few minutes to mix together, and the oven does the rest. And the variations are endless: biscuits can be made with sweet almond meal, a mixture of sweet and bitter almonds, or with other nuts, such as pistachios; the pieces are often, but not always, rolled in icing sugar before baking; sometimes a blanched almond, dried cherry or other decoration is pressed into the top of the biscuit before baking; other versions coat the biscuits in flaked almonds.
“My mother's one of eleven children. She has five sisters and there's a big competition between the sisters! They're great biscuit makers. They all have their specialties and they all make amaretti.” “We call them amaretti,” she explains, because traditionally, they all used some bitter almonds in the mix.
“You could at some stage buy bitter almonds [in Australia] but you really can't get them anymore – I think it’s because if you eat too many you can get quite ill.
“We're fortunate, we have a couple of bitter almond trees so if we can rescue them before the cockies, I usually have a few of those around. So, for 500 grams of almond meal – although I don't use almond meal, I grind my own almonds – I would add about 50 to 100 grams of bitter almonds.”
“We normally use blanched almonds … but if you use natural almonds that have been toasted or just natural almonds untoasted, it gives it a beautiful nutty flavour, so I sometimes do that. It gives them a different colour as well.”
Like Oliveri, Sicily-born Mitchell uses a simple mixture of caster sugar, almonds and egg whites, but says there are many variations, even within her family.
“Sometimes people might put a little bit of lemon rind in it. My mother's recipe, which I don't use, but which some of my aunties use, has egg whites and a whole egg.” The added egg, she says, makes for a harder style of biscuit; she sticks with just egg whites as she likes a softer biscuit.
And when is the perfect time to eat an almond dolcetti? Almost anytime, it seems – and they are especially good with coffee, says Oliveri, when SBS Food chats to the globe-trotting chef (although now based in London, he returns to Sicily regularly, and when we talked to him, he was preparing for a trip to India).
“What we do, is we bring a tray to families when we go to do a visit. Instead of bringing beers and stuff, we bring trays of pastecinni di mandorle. We go to family, and they make coffee, we open up the tray of biscuits, and we have coffee and biscuits.”
Of course, almond biscuits are popular in other parts of Italy too, but given Sicily’s reputation for growing almonds, it’s not surprising that when Oliveri was filming Aldo & Enzo in Sicily, the classic biscuits were among the dishes he cooked up as he showed fellow Italian chef Aldo Zilli around the island.
“You can have as a dessert, you can have it just with coffee in a bar … you can make at home – every mother here makes it!” he tells Zilli.
The other great thing about these little biscuits is that they keep wonderfully well. When we asked how long his recipe lasts, Oliveri said up to two weeks. “They tend to be crunchy outside when they are fresh the first day, then they lose the crunchiness, and they become all softer, and then they start to become a bit harder on the outside, slowly.”
And while some of us (yes, we speak from experience, having made Oliveri’s excellent recipe!) might not be able to resist trying one still warm from the oven, Oliveri likes them best on the day they are made, after they have cooled completely.
“On the first day, as soon as they become cold! I don't like when they are hot because they're still soft, and you cannot get the right flavour. As soon as they become cold, then is the best time to eat them.”
“With the coffee, yes, must be a coffee!”
Watch double episodes of Sicily with Aldo and Enzo Saturdays 6.30pm on SBS Food (Channel 33). Catch up on the episodes that have screened so far on SBS On Demand and look out for Enzo’s almond biscuits in episode 9 of season 2, screening on February 8.
Also known as almond dolcetti, pasticcini di mandorla, or if made with bitter almonds as amaretti, these sweet, soft little biscuits are incredibly easy to make – and gluten-free too.
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