Ricciarelli are Italian sweets traditionally gifted to friends around Christmas time. That is, if you can manage to relinquish even one instead of greedily devouring the lot.
Ricciarelli: origin and history
Ricciarelli come from Siena and their history goes back to the 15th century. They were probably the result of the medieval fascination with oriental spices, almond confections and marzipan foremost.
In fact ricciarelli were also known as marzapanetti alla senese, little marzipans of Siena, aptly as they are pretty much made of marzipan with few additional ingredients.
The name’s origin is obscure. ‘Riccio’ means curly and so food historians think the sweets were named after the oriental slippers with pointy, curled toes worn in the Arabian world where the almonds and spices also came from.
The sweets are not SO curly though so perhaps the legend has it right, deriving the name from a Sienese family of Ricciardetto della Gherardesca who is said to have brought them back from the crusades, curled like the sultans’ beards.
What do ricciarelli taste like?
Like heaven – and I’m not even exaggerating. The firmly set outside, generously dusted with sugar, hides the chewiest, softest, delightfullest centre, like marzipan shapeshifting into a meringue. They are, quite simply, divine.
To have just one requires an enormous effort of self-discipline. Therefore I make mine a little larger than they traditionally should be, in order to curb the temptation of immediately reaching for another one, ‘because they’re only small’.
How to make ricciarelli?
There seem to be two methods: the quick and the elaborate one. The quick method means you mix all the ingredients together into a paste, shape and bake. Of course it won’t do – it’s Italian! it goes back to Medieval times! there must be an intricate process to follow!
And so there is: the elaborate method which I like to think gives better, more authentic results and is not all that taxing. It requires making the marzipan mix ahead and resting it at room temperature for at least a day.
The second part is whipping a meringue and combining the two – because that’s what ricciarelli really are, a perfect marriage of meringue and marzipan.
The recipe I followed started off with whole, blanched almonds but I usually have ground almonds in my store cupboard and that’s how I successfully make marzipan.
The ground almonds are blitzed with caster sugar into said marzipan, in a food processor or perhaps in a blender (not tested!).
Arguably you can make marzipan paste by hand (I don’t think they had many food processors in Middle Ages) by squishing and kneading until it comes together but my arthritic hand joints would protest severely at that.
The marzipan is mixed with some sugar syrup, a little flour and a little powdered sugar. It’s still very much coarse powder at this stage.
Making dough and shaping biscuits
The following day the ricciarelli dough takes shape, by folding meringue into the marzipan base. Now it will need some kneading and squashing before it becomes smooth, glossy and supple, and easily mouldable into a log.
Classic ricciarelli are small, the dough pieces weighing about 25g. Mine are bigger, for which justification was already mentioned.
The shape is variously described as lozenge, diamond, grain or rounded rhombus. The easiest way to cut them is with a sharp knife or a dough scraper, off a slightly flattened log.
They do stick to the parchment, though not catastrophically so if you think life’s too short to cut 40 lozenge shapes for the base out of edible wafer paper, make sure you dip the bottoms of your ricciarelli in fine flour before arranging them on the parchment.
The baking time and temperature are contentious too, recipe to recipe. I thought lower oven was more failproof as you definitely don’t want your biscuits to colour or go dry and hard.
But I’ve seen Italian blogs claiming they bake successfully at even 180C – as long as the cookies are watched keenly and snatched out of the oven in good time.
Storing and keeping
Airtight tubs, cookie jars, biscuits tins are all fine for storing ricciarelli, though the icing sugar cover might just get a little scuffed if transported in a box to be gifted.
All that sugar makes them keep well, for up to a month. But whoever could keep them for so long? Certainly not I.
More marzipan recipes
Marzipan truffles are traditional at German Christmas. They simply roll marzipan balls in cocoa – mine are a little bit more sophisticated.
Like Twix, only better: marzipan shortbread bars coated in chocolate.
A great breakfast cake, easy even if you make your own marzipan from scratch: Nigella’s marzipan loaf cake.
More Italian Christmas sweets
Also from Siena, panpepato or ‘peppered bread’ has much more in it than pepper, and it’s definitely more than bread!
This is a kind of mega-sized mince pie with Italian flavours in the filling – gorgeous spongata di natale. Probably also from Siena since it seems to be a city of great tradition in dolci.
And then of course there are biscotti, with Christmassy gingerbread flavour, studded with nuts.