In the days leading up to the Holidays, my aunt Lucia would bake special cookies and apportion them among family members: my uncle, my father, my cousins. My father visited her before Christmas and brought back the package allocated to our family. I never saw my aunt making the content of that eagerly awaited package, but in my mind's eye I can reconstruct the scene: the kitchen, the table, the fireplace, my aunt and my father chatting. What came out at the receiving end were diamond-shaped torzetti and half-domed croccanti (croccante means crisp, crunchy).
I regret that I did not ask my aunt for any of her recipes. I guess in my mind I thought I had time, until one day, time suddenly ran out. For years I had been making meringues (meringhe) enriched with walnuts inspired by my aunt's croccanti, but I knew they were different. A few years ago, I asked one of my cousins whether a record of the recipe existed. A few days later, I received an email with the list of ingredients and a set of instructions that provided a starting point to develop my own version of the beloved croccanti, a variation on a theme of egg whites (albumi) and walnuts (noci) dedicated to my aunt.
- 2 extra-large egg whites at room temperature
- 1/2 cup super-fine or granulated white sugar (zucchero)
- 8.5 oz. (240 g / 2 and 1/2 cups) shelled walnuts
- 2 tablespoons (30 ml) all-purpose white flour, sifted
- 1/2 teaspoon (2.5 ml) vanilla extract
My aunt started with walnuts still in their shells, and I often buy whole walnuts, because I enjoy cracking them. Shelled walnuts are readily available and also convenient. However, they should be stored in an airtight container in the refrigerator, as they are prone to become rancid, due to their high fat content (including nutritionally-valuable alpha-linolenic acid, ALA, an omega-3 fatty acid).
In her “Vegetarian Cooking for Everyone”, Deborah Madison gives instructions on how to treat walnuts to improve their flavor when they aren't freshly cracked, and make them less irritating for people who are sensitive to their skins. Bring a pan of water to a boil, add the walnuts and let them stand for one minute, then drain them and absorb the excess moisture with a towel. Finally, spread the walnuts on a baking sheet and place them in the oven preheated to 300 F until they have dried out, 15-20 minutes. Remove them from the oven as soon as they are dry.
Place two egg whites (I use pastured eggs) in a mixing bowl and let them rest until they reach room temperature. Place a rack in the middle of the oven and preheat to 350 F.
Beat the egg whites until stiff peaks form. Slowly add the sugar to the egg whites and continue beating until it is well incorporated. Sift flour over the egg whites and fold it in with a spatula, using light, slow movements. Add the chopped walnuts in a few batches and fold them into the batter with the spatula, again using light movements. Add vanilla extract and gently stir in.
Line one large baking sheet or two small ones with parchment paper (in this case, a silicone baking mat is not recommended). Drop the batter on the sheet by spoonfuls (i.e., use a soup spoon to scoop up the batter and let the spatula help you in the dropping phase), leaving 3/4-1 inch between mounds. You should have 24 of them, of 1.5-2 inch diameter.
Bake for about 20 minutes, carefully overseeing the process. Check the cookies after 18 minutes. They are ready when you can pick one up delicately with two fingers without a disappointing structural failure. The bottom should be a light tan color and upon applying a little pressure, the surface should feel delicately crisp. If otherwise, bake for an additional two minutes, then check again. Be careful because it is easy to burn the cookies. Do not touch the cookies when they come out of the oven, but let them cool on the baking sheet. To accomplish this, you may consider closing the kitchen door to prevent the sweet smell to waft out and become an irresistible magnet on other inhabitants of the house.
When you bite into a croccante, you hear the light crackle of the crisp outer layer. Your teeth sink into finely chopped walnuts supported by a framework of egg white and sugar. The latter dissolves and creates a substrate over which the walnut bits dance and overlay their nuttiness on the prevailing sweetness. As you chew, the nuts' crunchiness is slightly offset by a stickiness that encourages slow motion.
This original family recipe, made mostly of white ingredients, is my submission to the White Christmas Challenge on Very Good Recipes. Follow the link to see all the recipes submitted to the event... and also to see that my croccanti were selected for 5th place: Thank you!
White Christmas in Italian is bianco Natale.
Click on the button to hear me pronounce the Italian words mentioned in the post:
Or launch the croccanti audio file [mp3].
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