Thursday, January 7, 2016

ugly but good cookies

ugly-but-good cookies

I am, as ever, a sucker for a recipe with a great name. Bring me your grunts, your bundts, your fools, slumps and sonkers. Take me across the pond and let me feast on jammy dodgers, bubble and squeak, rarebit and rumbledethumps. I hope you know it’s only a matter of time until we take in some scrumptious nun’s farts. And so, for no reasons other than an inherent fascination with great food names plus egg whites to use up after a batch of these evil things, I turned my attention this week to the brutti ma buoni (meaning “ugly but good”), an egg white cookie that hails from Prato, Italy.


what you'll need
nooooow they're toasted enough

In this age of Pin-able envy, lifestyle aspiration, and “elevated” anything (living rooms, personal brands, and soups, apparently) I find it delightfully direct that we get to call these misshapen, homely beige blobs exactly what they are. Everyone knows the prettiest pastries — too glassine and brightly colored, not a dot of royal icing out of place — are the most suspicious, and often the least tasty. Ugly baked goods are, to me, like the one out-of-place item on a restaurant menu, irresistible because it couldn’t be there for anything but the fact it must taste really good.

a rough grind
beating egg whites and sugar
stiff peaks that flop a little
fold in nuts
fold in chocolate
my son calls these cloud cookies

They are a close cousin to my mom’s meringues, or perhaps the other way around. I realize meringues don’t usually win cookie popularity contests but I think that’s because most people imagine that they’ll be like the factory-made varieties: crisp, light and somewhat bland throughout. Though you can make yours like this at home through the overnight oven-off technique, my mother, and apparently swaths of central Italy, make theirs with a quicker bake that yields a featherlight shattery exterior and stretchy marshamllow-like center. Here, it’s studded with a lot of very well toasted finely chopped hazelnuts and chunks of chocolate and scented with espresso powder, but you could fiddle at home to your heart’s content with other nuts and flavorings (almonds or pine nuts and lemon zest are traditional). What matters is that you don’t deny yourself these because their cracked surfaces and protruding lumps mean never going to be the prom queen of the cookie tin.

brutti ma buoni
ugly-but-good cookies

One year ago: Butterscotch Pudding
Two years ago: Parmesan Broth with Kale and White Beans
Three years ago: Ethereally Smooth Hummus
Four years ago: Apple Sharlotka
Five years ago: Vanilla Bean Pudding
Six years ago: Spicy Caramel Popcorn and Southwestern Pulled Brisket
Seven years ago: Pecan Sandies, Sugar-and-Spice Candied Nuts and Fig and Walnut Biscotti
Eight years ago: Viennese Cucumber Salad and Goulash
Nine years ago: Coq au Vin and Really Simple Homemade Pizza

And for the other side of the world:
Six Months Ago: Very Blueberry Scones
1.5 Years Ago: Sticky Sesame Chicken Wings
2.5 Years Ago: Slow-and-Low Dry-Rub Oven Chicken
3.5 Years Ago: Blackberry Gin Fizz
4.5 Years Ago: Skirt Steak with Bloody Mary Tomato Salad

Mocha Hazelnut Ugly-But-Good Cookies (Brutti Ma Buoni)
Adapted, a little, from Baked: Occasions

This is another one of those recipes (a theme of late) that seems to have a language gap, wherein the ones written in English largely seem to advocate a single baking (as we will here) but the ones one can view translated from Italian insist they should be cooked twice. As I really enjoy the texture that comes from a single bake, I didn’t test them out further. You can definitely fire me over this; just please let me take the cookies home with me.

Yield: 36 cookies

1 1/2 cups hazelnuts
1 cup granulated sugar, divided
1/4 teaspoon fine sea or table salt
4 large egg whites
2 teaspoons instant espresso powder (optional)
8 ounces (about 1 1/3 cups) miniature chocolate chips or bittersweet chocolate, chopped small

Heat oven to 350 degrees F. Place hazelnuts on a baking sheet and toast in oven for 10 minutes, rolling around once to ensure they cook evenly. Check the color; I believe that they taste best when toasted to a real golden color. Put them back in for 2 minutes at a time and check again if they’re not there yet. Let cool completely. (Putting the tray outside in winter for all of 5 minutes does the trick.) Place nuts in a dishtowel and roll them around so that the skins largely come off. Reduce heat to 300 degrees F.

Transfer toasted, peeled hazelnuts to a food processor and add 1/4 cup sugar and the salt. Grind until they reach your desired consistency; I went for well-chopped but not fully powdery.

In a large bowl, beat egg whites with an electric mixer until very foamy. Slowly pour in remaining 3/4 cup sugar, beating the whole time. Beat until stiff peaks form; when you lift the beater, they should flop over slightly after forming a peak. Fold in nuts, espresso powder (if using) and chocolate.

Line two large baking sheets with parchment paper or a nonstick baking mat. Scoop batter into about 1 1/2 tablespoon mounds with about an inch of space between them. Bake for 25 minutes, until very faintly golden. Let cool on baking sheet for 5 to 10 minutes, after which they’ll be easier to remove with a thin spatula. Let finish cooling on racks.

Cookies keep at room temperature in an airtight container for a week, but only if you don’t tell anyone they’re there.


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