Che buono! (so good!)
Dry? Hard? Not sweet enough? In defense of the Italian cookie
Despite our country's romance with all things Italian, it seems there is a serious gap when it comes to Italy's colorful, diverse repertoire of cookies. (Bill Hogan/Chicago Tribune)
Admittedly, it's not as if French, Peruvian or Latvian cookies are flooding the markets here. But at a time when the vast array of Italian olive oils, breads, pastas, cheeses, etc., continues to be celebrated in high-end restaurants and mainstream supermarkets alike, the Italian cookie remains an anomaly.
(Anyone who bakes them knows this. You hand your precious tray of Italian cookies to the recipient, who looks down at these sturdy treasures and says, eyes darting hither and yon, "Wow! I'm going to save these for later!" We all know what later means.)
Besides biscotti -- the authentic ones often criticized for approximating the texture of granite or, worse still, Americanized into a variety of bizarre flavors and squishy textures -- and perhaps the pizzelle, those crispy wafers that require a special appliance, the Italian cookie carousel remains familiar mostly to Italian-Americans who bake (or whose relatives do), dedicated Italophiles and those who stock their pantry with Stella D'oro.
Most Americans, asked to define cucidati, will furrow their brows and perhaps blush. (It's a fig cookie. And, for the record: koo-chee-DAH-tee.) Ditto for the chubby Italian lemon cookies. Sicilian sesame cookies. Cantucci (crunchy almond cookies). There are more. Hundreds more.
"The range of Italian cookies in Italy are virtually unknown here," agreed Francine Segan, an Italian-American and author of "Dolci: Italy's Sweets" (Stewart, Tabori & Chang). Her book explores many Italian cookies, including amaretti and savoiardi (aka the ladyfingers you enjoy in tiramisu), and she acknowledged that she only skimmed the surface in her beautiful book. Indeed, the variety she found on her travels through Italy, she said, was "a real surprise."
Part of the problem is that these cookies' flavor profiles are often lost on a culture that reaches for a soft-sweet-sugar blitz.
"Americans generally like chewy cookies," Segan said. "To get a soft, chewy cookie, you're going to need a lot of butter. Generally, Italians don't like that much." And, she added, "they do not (use) as much sugar as we do." Which brings to mind a friend who dislikes Italian cookies just for those reasons and describes them as tasting "industrial." No argument here: They are rarely gooey, often cakey and pair beautifully with coffee, which is how Italians like them.
To be completely honest, many Italian cookies are heavy enough to cause damage if you throw one at somebody, and rarely are they the prettiest kids on the cookie tray. But once you adapt to the sturdy, honest flavor, you'll become addicted. What's more, they keep forever -- it's not unusual for a recipe to end with, "Store in an airtight container for up to 1 month." And they'll come out of the freezer just fine after a year. "It's essentially," Segan concluded, "a cultural difference."
This still doesn't explain why the multifaceted language of Italian cookies remains so limited, because there are, after all, some that are gooey (the aforementioned cucidati) and soft (cavallucci, made with honey, nuts and anise). Segan thinks it has to do with the role of the cookie in its homeland. She traveled throughout Italy for her book, exploring the cuisine's language of dessert. Italy's bakeries usually focus on bread, she said, while its chefs tend to concentrate on fanciful desserts.
Cookies, she learned, are very much a homemaker's domain, and obviously travelers are not going to experience these cookies, short of knocking on a few doors and inviting themselves in. (We're not recommending that.)
Emily Luchetti, a San Francisco-based pastry chef (Farallan and Waterbar) and cookbook author ("Classic Stars Desserts," "A Passion for Desserts"), sees that focus translate to Italian-American bakeries, which produce fabulous breads and other baked goods. As for the cookies, well ... "A lot of the old-fashioned bakeries -- and I'm not blasting all of them -- but you'll see 50 different varieties (of cookies)," Luchetti said, "and they all look so unique and they all look so beautiful and then when you go home and taste a few they all taste the same!"
"You would never begin to think that if there were 45 gelati in the case, they would all taste the same." Luchetti wonders if it's time for American bakers to start bridging the gap between Italian classics and American preferences. The pine nut-fig cookie in her latest book, "The Fearless Baker: 175 Surprisingly Simple and Utterly Indulgent Recipes" (Little, Brown), uses traditional Italian ingredients (pine nuts, figs, semolina) but incorporates melted butter to create a moister, flatter cookie.
This is not to dismiss anybody with a penchant for authentic Italian cookies. Luchetti, a proponent, says that Italian cookies have not morphed into a steroid version of something they're not. She recalled sitting next to a woman on an airplane who was unwrapping a cookie whose package said it "serves 4."
"The good thing about Italian cookies, as opposed to American cookies, is that sometimes you just want a small bite of something sweet," Luchetti said. "The tradition of the Italian cookie is in a good spot: It has stayed where the intention was."
Looking for authentic Italian cookie recipes? The Internet will yield a variety of recipes, and so will your neighbor's nana. (Do not pass up any opportunity to bake with a veteran.) In the meantime, these cookbooks deliver the goods:
• "Dolci: Italy's Sweets," by Francine Segan (Stewart, Tabori & Chang).
• "Cookies Unlimited" (William Morrow). Nick Malgieri, the renowned cookbook author and teacher, offers many Italian cookies in this book, as well as delicious examples from other cultures.