Friday, April 20, 2012

Pignoli Cookies--Nut a Mistake

The words "dessert" and "pine nuts" might not seem to go naturally together, but for Italian-American bakeries, pignoli cookies ("pignoli" is Italian for pine nuts) have been a longtime staple.

There are two tricks to making these. The first is to find almond paste, which is similar to marzipan, only much less sweet. One of my cooking instructors insists on using almond paste that comes in a can, like Solo, rather than from a tube, which he calls wax. My local grocery store occasionally carries it (and when they do, I stock up). You can also get it at cooking stores, Italian food stores, or online at Amazon.

After you mix the ingredients, a combination of the paste, granulated and confectioners' sugar, egg whites, vanilla, a bit of flour, and some salt, you end up with a super soft, sticky dough, so sticky in fact, that I worried I'd made a mistake the first time I made these. Here's where the second trick comes in. You need to scoop up tablespoon-sized balls of dough, and then press them into a bowl of pine nuts, so that the entire surface is covered in nuts, then transfer to a baking sheet. I ended up with a great deal of dough on my hands and in the bowl of pine nuts, even when I tried using "dampened fingers" as my recipe suggested. Next time, I may try flouring my hands or coating them in powdered sugar.

That's really it. You bake the cookies at 350 for about 12 minutes, until they're just just starting to turn golden brown on the edges. Don't let them go too much further, as you want a soft, tender cookie, with a strong almond flavor. The texture and sweetness is contrasts nicely with the slightly bitter crunch of the pine nuts.

Pignoli Cookies
(from Martha Stewart's Baking Handbook)

Yield:  18 cookies

7 ounces almond paste
1/2 cup granulated sugar
1/2 cup powdered sugar, plus more for dusting
2 large egg whites
1/2 tsp pure vanilla extract
3 tbsp flour
1/8 tsp salt
3/4 cup pine nuts

Preheat oven to 350. Line two baking sheets with parchment.

In the bowl of an electric mixer with the paddle attachment, beat almond paste and sugars, the add egg whites, vanilla, and finally the flour and salt, until a smooth paste forms. Dough will be sticky!

With floured or dampened hands (your call) scoop out balls of dough, 1 tbsp each, and dip into a bowl of pine nuts. Try to cover the surface evenly with pine nuts.  Place on baking sheets (pine nut-side up) 2 inches apart. Fill in any bare spots with remaining pine nuts.

Bake until cookies and nuts have just started to turn golden brown, about 12 minutes. Transfer cookies on parchment to wire rack to cool completely. Use a metal spatula to loosen the cookies CAREFULLY from the parchment. With a fine sieve, dust cookies with powdered sugar. Cookies can be kept in airtight container for up to 4 days, or frozen for 3 months.

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