There is something irresistibly appealing about these blushing little almond cookies shaped and painted to look like peaches and filled with ricotta cream. I love a culinary trompe l’oeil, and I’ve seen and coveted these often in pastry shops in many parts of Italy. They’re perhaps not the sort of thing you’d make every day, as they are a little fiddly (though not complicated), but, much like macaroons, they are exquisitely beautiful, dainty and feminine. They would be the perfect thing to make as a gift, or for birthdays, parties or weddings.
The traditional method of blushing the peaches pink is to paint them with
Alchermes, a vivid scarlet Italian liqueur flavoured with a mixture of spices including nutmeg, cinnamon and vanilla, which originally derived its colour from scale insects called Kermes. Modern production leaves out the insects, though it’s a drink that still divides opinion, and though many traditional southern Italian dolci include it I have offered some alternatives. To accentuate the ground almonds (almond meal) in the cookie dough, I like to paint the cookies with Amaretto, which has a less divisive flavour, combined with a splash of Alchermes for colour and the slightest spicy background note.
I fill my peaches with ricotta cream, though there are many other variations.
Sometimes they are filled with apricot (or peach) jam, sometimes with pastry
Cream. Often – as the cherry on the trompe l’oeil cake – the cookies are then
stuffed with a whole almond to replicate the peach stone.
This recipe is extracted from La Vita e Dolce By Letitia Clark (Hardie and Grant). Photography © Charlotte Bland
For the biscuits
For the filling
- 250 g (9 oz) ricotta
- 50 g (2 oz/ ¼ cup) sugar
- ½ tsp vanilla extract
- 12–14 whole almonds (optional)
- 100 ml (3 ½ fl oz/scant ½ cup) Amaretto
- red food colouring or a splash of Alchermes
- 4 tbsp sugar
- mint leaves or fresh lemon
- verbena leaves
How to make the biscuits
- For the biscuits, melt the butter in a saucepan and set aside to cool slightly.
- Briefly whisk the egg and sugar in a mixing bowl to dissolve the sugar. Whisk in the melted butter and the milk, then add the salt and lemon zest followed by the flour, baking powder and ground almonds. The batter will seem relatively loose – halfway between cookie and cake, but that’s fine.
- Allow it to rest for 5 minutes or so.
- Preheat the oven to 180ºC (350ºF/Gas 4). Line a shallow baking tray (pan) with baking parchment.
- Pinch off 12–14 teaspoon-size pieces of dough and roll them into smooth balls between the palms of your hands.
- Place the balls on the prepared baking sheet a few inches apart and press them very slightly to flatten.
- Bake the cookies for around 12 minutes, or until they still look pale on top but are golden underneath. Allow them to cool while you make the filling.
How to make the filling and assemble
- Whisk the ricotta in a bowl with the sugar and vanilla extract until smooth and creamy (the sugar will dissolve as you whisk).
- Using a sharp knife, cut a small hole in the base of each cookie.
- Spoon the ricotta mixture into the holes. If using the almonds, press them into the filling before sandwiching the cookies together. Smooth away any excess ricotta from the edges.
- Pour the Amaretto into a bowl and add the Alchermes or food colouring to create a red tint. Pour the sugar onto a shallow plate. Dunk the cookies briefly in the alcohol, turning them to make sure they are covered all over. (If you prefer you can apply the alcohol with a pastry brush, which will allow the cookies to stay crisper for longer.)
- Dip and roll them in the sugar, to replicate the downy skin of a peach, and then place a mint or lemon verbena leaf in each.
- Serve, with pride.
Note: These will keep for a day or two in the fridge, and will soften slightly because of the alcohol, but are none the worse for it.