With December upon us, the holiday baking season has begun. And while Italians don’t have the same baking tradition as Americans do, every year when Christmas rolls around I always think of the hazelnut cookies my cousin in Turin taught me to make on Christmas Eve.
In Italy, pan d’oro and panettone are king when it comes to holiday desserts. However it is not unusual to eat nuts around the holidays, whether they are walnuts, hazelnuts, peanuts, pistachios or almonds. So these nutty cookies are a perfect combination of both traditions: baking cookies and eating nuts. They can add an Italian flair to your holiday table.
The first Christmas I ever spent in Italy, I found myself in the grocery store with my cousin Giovanni shopping for Christmas Eve dinner. As we began to look for the food to fill our cart, I realized that I needed to find a small gift for a friend back in Rome. I began looking for cookies made especially in Piedmont, home to “nocciole”. I quickly found two kinds of hazelnut cookies: noccioline and baci di dama.
Noccioline are cookies no larger than a small button which are made with hazelnut flour, hence the name “small hazelnuts”. They are similar to amaretti but with hazelnuts instead of almonds. But the more interesting cookies I found – both visibly and in the name – were the baci di dama. These are hazelnut butter cookies sandwiched around chocolate hazelnut spread: a kind of Italian Oreo.
Baci di dama or lady kisses have a less obvious name and the history of their name is a bit vague. Some say that the two cookies look like two mouths kissing. Still others say that they resemble the mouths of dames who pursed their lips while kissing, similar to these cookies: lips that are barely touching.
Giovanni immediately decided that we would not buy these cookies but make them at home for part of our Christmas Eve dinner. We finished our shopping and headed home to start baking. The rest of the day was filled with cookie making. Finally after they were baked, cooled and filled with the Nutella, I was able to try one. They were delightfully packed with hazelnuts because there is almost as much hazelnut flour as regular flour. We ate them throughout the Christmas holiday.
But a few days later I had to head back to Rome, however I boarded the train with a few baci di dama in my purse and a new holiday recipe.
Recipe for Baci di Dama:
- 1 cup hazelnut flour (finely ground hazelnuts)
- 1 3/4 cups flour
- 11 tablespoons cold butter
- 1/4 cup sugar
- Nutella (or any chocolate hazelnut spread)
- Cut butter into chunks and incorporate into both flours and sugar until it becomes a completely mixed dough. It is best to use a wooden spoon or your fingers to completely incorporate the butter with the flour mixture.
- Place dough in the refrigerator for 10-30 minutes.
- Form small balls the size of a quarter.
- When placing them on the cookie sheet, press down slightly so that they are flattened on one side. They will form a dome shape: flat on one side, rounded on the other.
- Bake at 350 degrees, for about 20 minutes, or until they just start to become slightly darker.
- After the cookies have cooled spread a thin layer of Nutella on the flat side of the cookie and place another cookie on top, making a sandwich.
* This cookie recipe can also be used as a delicious holiday pie crust.
What is your favorite Italian holiday cookie?