There is really only one way to make baci di dama, if you're going the traditional way and you want melt in the mouth results (and you should). It is a recipe of perfect proportions (just look at the measurements in metric weight) and the bare essentials that every Piemontese signora probably knows or has had passed down to her. But despite it being a simple, what Italians call “casalinga” (literally, “housewife”) recipe, these delightful biscotti require a certain amount of technique and skill in order to retain their delicate shape and texture.
And there are plenty of tricks to getting this right and if you're familiar with working with short crust pastry, this won't be new – you want that perfect dome to each cookie half, so delicate that they fall apart in your mouth. One, work quickly; two, use very cold butter and three, they need to be barely cooked in a very cool oven. Following this traditional method, not only do they keep their shape and don't melt into a puddle, but they remain so wonderfully soft they literally melt as soon as they hit your tongue.
While the method is always the same, you'll find these most commonly made with almond meal like they do in Tortona, but depending on the area of Piedmont you're in, the recipe may be made with a mixture of almond and hazelnut meal or, like they do in the area of Cuneo (the land of hazelnuts – this is, after all, where Nutella was born), just hazelnuts.
Many modern recipes include eggs or milk or other unorthodox ingredients that help stabilize the cookies during cooking so that you don't need to be so careful with the preparation or the cooking to lose that domed shape. But you can tell the difference – they're not as light or delicate.
Try these with a filling of homemade gianduia (hazelnut and chocolate) too – to the dark chocolate, add a handful of hazelnuts, whipped into a creamy paste in a food processor, together with a couple tablespoons of powdered sugar. Heaven. —Emiko
20 to 25 cookies
3 1/2 ounces
(100 grams) hazelnuts, shelled and skins off
3 1/2 ounces
(100 grams) very cold butter, cubed
3 1/2 ounces
(1/2 cup or 100 grams) sugar
3 1/2 ounces
(3/4 cup or 100 grams) flour
3 1/2 ounces
(100 grams) good quality dark chocolate
Start with hazelnuts with skins removed. If you have hazelnuts with skins, toast them gently in the oven until warm and fragrant then rub them in a tea towel to remove the skins -- or, less messy, put them in a plastic bag and shake (the static helps capture the skins and you get much the same result). You don't need to be perfect, but the skins will add a bit of flecked color to the cookies, which is lovely too. Once completely cool, blitz the hazelnuts in a food processor until it resembles sand.
Like a good short crust pastry, you want to make sure your butter is very cold and you want to work quickly. Combine the hazelnut meal, cubed butter, sugar and flour in a bowl and rub with fingers until it resembles breadcrumbs (or use a food processor), then knead until it just comes together into a dough. Flatten to a disc about an inch high and place in the fridge, preferably leaving overnight if you can or at least an hour if you're in a rush.
When ready to make the cookies, remove from the fridge and roll out teaspoon-sized portions of dough into perfect balls and place them on a lined cookie sheet a couple of inches apart (they will spread a little as they sink into domes). Place back in the fridge for a couple of hours before baking (or, if low on time, pop it in the freezer for at least 30 minutes).
Bake in a low oven at about 285 to 300ºF (140 to 150ºC) or less, if using a fan, for 15 minutes or until the cookies become hemispheres and are dry to the touch. They will be very lightly baked and extremely fragile at this point, but you do not want them to brown or melt into a puddle so watch them carefully during this time and if they seem to be cooking too quickly, remove them from the oven or turn the temperature down. Let cool completely before even touching them as they are very fragile. Once cool, they harden enough to handle.
Place the dark chocolate over a double broiler and let it melt about 75 percent. Take off the heat and stir to melt the rest of the chocolate and let it cool about 5 minutes or until it reaches a consistency where it can be spooned onto a cookie without dribbling off the sides. Place a teaspoon of the chocolate on the bottom of half of the cookies and before the chocolate sets (but not too early as it will spill and slide!) place the other hemisphere of cookie on top and leave to set. Store in an air tight container. These are even better a couple of days after baking.
The Australian-Japanese cookbook author has lived in Florence (where a visit to a cheese farm once inspired her to start a food blog) for over 10 years with her Tuscan sommelier husband and two kids. Her third cookbook, Tortellini at Midnight, is out now.