Last August I spent a few weeks in Italy. “Christ Dittatrice, you’re always in Italy, do you never go on holiday anywhere else?” No, not really. But Italy’s lots of fun so it’s not a problem, really.
At one point I was in the north (Genova) and I was hanging out at the coast, getting what passes for a tan and splashing away in the sea. One afternoon I was just lounging about in the water, swimming away, when I overheard a couple of elderly ladies talk about some recipe.
“Really cara, all you need is un etto of almonds, un etto of sugar and one egg white.”
“It can’t possibly be that simple. No flour, nothing?”
“No, really, just that.”
I swam up to them. I can be pretty goddamn cheeky when it comes to recipes. “Excuse me for listening in, but what exactly is this a recipe for?” Both ladies burst out in cackles. “Amaretti, cara!”.
Amaretti, nice! Treading water, the lady repeated the whole recipe for me, including baking times and temperature. The situation wouldn’t have been so odd if it had been the first time this happened to me, but strangely, elderly Italian ladies giving me advice on sundry Italian dishes in the sea seemed to be a recurring theme of this particular holiday. But more about that some other day.
What the lady told me was that on a hundred grams of almonds, you need about 20 bitter almonds, one hundred grams of sugar, and one egg white.
Now here’s the tricky part: bitter almonds can contain cyanide, and cyanide’s pretty poisonous. I’ve not been able to find out for sure how many almonds it would take to kill you, but apparently it’s not entirely unthinkable that they would, in fact, harm you. Fortunately you don’t need many of them, as their flavour is very strong. Plus, this is rock ‘n’ roll! Living on the edge, but without the risks that other typical rock ‘n’ roll hobbies (such as inordinate amounts of bourbon, cocaine and unprotected sex with groupies) might involve.
However, what with the cyanide and all that, these bitter almonds are pretty difficult to come by. I got mine at a Chinese herb shop, that sells them for medicinal use. They were on the pricey side (a quid for 15 grams). The Latin name, in case you need it (for that’s the only name the Chinese herb shop had for it, apart from the Chinese name), is semen armeniacae amarum (which, for those of you who are interested, also tells us the origin of bitter almonds: the prunus armeniaca, or apricot! Yes, bitter almonds are in reality apricot seeds!).
However. If you can’t get bitter almonds, or if you just can’t really be bothered to look for them, or if cyanide just creeps you out, you could leave them out and instead add the zest of a quarter of a lemon. The only problem that remains then is the name: amaretti, from the word amaro, meaning bitter, are really ‘bitter wee things’ or ‘wee bitteries’. Without the bitter almonds, they won’t be, as instead they’ll be sweet and fresh sourish. But we can call them something else. Use your imagination. I’d say aspretti (because they’re sour wee things, get it?! Get it?! Oh never mind.) but you can probably come up with something a lot less lame yourself.
So, for about 12 amaretti or aspretti, you shall need:
- 100 gr normal almonds
- 20 bitter almonds (equivalent to 5 grams) or zest of 1/4 lemon
- 100 gr sugar
- 1 egg white
If your almonds are whole almonds and they’re still in their skin, put them in boiling water for one minute. Drain them and peel them, this should now be easy. Just squeeze the almond on one size and the nut should burst out of its skin easily enough. Just be careful not to launch them behind the stove or under the washing machine. Do the same with your bitter almonds if you’ve bought them in their skins (mine were peeled already).
Take a moment to smell the bitter almonds. They’ve got a really strong almondy smell, unlike the normal ones, which don’t really smell of all that much.
Put the peeled almonds on a baking tray and stick them in the oven for about 5 minutes to make sure they’re all dry. Leave them to cool down, then put them in a food processor, along with the 20 bitter almonds. Grind them all up to a very fine substance (it won’t become powder, but it should definitely be very fine – keep going until you’ve got the right consistency, might take a while). Chuck in the sugar (and, if you’re not using bitter almonds, the lemon zest) and mix well.
Separate the egg and save the yolk to make this. Chuck the egg white in with the almonds and the sugar and stir it with a spoon until you get a homogeneous, but fairly hard mixture. Put a sheet of baking paper on an oven tray. Divide the almond mixture in 12 and using the spoon and your hands, shape little balls out of it. Place them on the tray, making sure you leave enough space between them as they will expand a little. Also, make sure you make them a bit taller and rounder than you want them to be in the end, as they’ll collapse a little whilst they’re baking.
Now, if you want your amaretti to be soft, roundish and chewy, stick them in a fairly hot oven (200°C) for about 10 minutes (or until the amaretti are golden yellowish). If you prefer them to be flat and a bit harder, go for half an hour at 170°C. Either way, when you take them out of the oven, leave them to settle for at least half an hour.