Ricciarelli - Tuscan Soft Almond Sweetmeats

These are Tuscan soft almond biscuits, scented and flavoured with orange. 

Shop-bought versions are always perfectly shaped and pure white  – they remind me of clean, undisturbed snowdrifts.  My recipe for home-made Ricciarelli might give you a slightly different, perhaps less perfect result, though nonetheless amazing with a glass of chilled, amber coloured Vinsanto.

According to food historians, the original recipe for Ricciarelli di Siena originates in the 14th century in what was then the Republic of Siena. The famous bakers and pastry chefs of that era often took their inspiration for these sweetmeats and other local sweet specialities from Arab cuisine, creating specialities that have remarkably lasted for over 700 years.

At that time, Siena was importing marzipan from the East. The name Marzipan - or Marzapane in Italian – has two documented possible origins. The first is that it was named after the ancient city of Martaban. The other is that the name might be derived form the Arab word mauthban: the name of the container used to preserve and transport the product over long distances.

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No exact date is recorded regarding when these sweetmeats were first created, but what is certain is that Ricciarelli are closely related to similar almond sweetmeats of the Arab tradition.

Their original name was not in fact Ricciarelli, but Morselletti – when they were made out of ground almonds blended with honey, sugar and eggs, flavoured with nutmeg and cinnamon. Apparently, the current name and recipe dates back 200 or so years, based around the legend of the famous Crusader Ricciardetto della Gherardesca.

According to that story, he returned from a Crusade bearing little cakes with turned up corners that reminded everyone of the traditional curly-toed shoes worn by Arab Sultans – (the Italian word for curl is ricciolo) - but its probably more likely that they were named after Ricciardetto himself!

Either way, Ricciarelli are now very much part of the Italian Christmas tradition all over the country. And could these have been what Caterina de’ Medici in 1553 offered guests at her wedding to the Duke of Orléans, no less than four centuries before the claimed birth of Ladurée, the most famous pastry shop in Paris, and where the Macaron is said to have been born? 

Traditionally, Ricciarelli are baked with a lining of edible paper, which forms their base and is of course eaten along with the rest of the biscuit, but they can also be cooked directly on a baking sheet lined with non-stick baking parchment, as in the recipe that follows.

This recipe is by Valentina Harris. See more of Valentina's Italian Christmas recipes plus classic Italian dishes such as homemade pasta.

Ingredients for Ricciarelli Serves: 24

How to make Ricciarelli

  1. Pound the almonds and the pine kernels together in a pestle and mortar, or blitz in the food processor, until reduced to a fine powder.
  2. Tip into a bowl and add the sugar, corn flour and grated orange zest. Mix together thoroughly.
  3. To make the syrup, in a small saucepan, melt the water and sugar together over a low heat and simmer for 2 or 3 minutes, swirling. Add the orange juice and stir together briefly, then tip the liquid into the dry ingredients and add the almond extract. Mix together with a spatula.
  4. Whisk the chilled egg whites into soft peaks and fold into the mixture. Knead together gently – you should now have a thick biscuit dough that holds together and is easy to roll out -– if too wet, add a little more corn flour; if too dry add a little more whisked egg white.
  5. Dust the work top with corn flour and either roll the dough into a long sausage shape and then cut into 24 discs to shape with your fingers into lozenge shapes; OR roll out on a corn flour dusted sheet of baking parchment and cut into lozenge shapes with a pastry wheel.
  6. Dip the shaped Ricciarelli in icing sugar and line them all up on 2 lined baking sheets, well spaced apart. Cover with clean tea towels and leave to rest for about 2 hours. 
  7. Preheat the oven to 160°C/325°F/Gas mark 3/140°C fan.
  8. Bake for 15 to 20 minutes, they need to be soft and squishy with a crisp crust. Carefully remove from the baking trays with a palette knife and cool on a wire cake rack. Dust generously with the icing sugar before serving. 
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1 comment

  • Add the egg whites bit by bit – dough was way too wet to fix when I was last and added it all at once! Delicious anyway though!

    Martin on

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