Here we are at the second leg of the tour in Tuscany with Ventura to discover traditional recipes made with dried fruits and nuts. We are in Florence, well known as the cradle of the Renaissance, but for me it’s the city which I fell in love with before and which then made me fall in love afterwards. Now that I live with a Florentine guy, I feel like the city also belongs to me a little more. I try to adopt its traditions and to bring them to life in our kitchen, along with those from Siena, in which I was brought up. For Carnival, along side cenci, fried dough from Siena, there is now also space for the Florentine schiacciata.
Florence is a city which you never stop discovering. I approached it timidly, like a country girl setting foot in an alien environment to her and I found my favourite corners, the views which seem like old fashioned postcards, friends and family. There’s Bizzarri, the spice shop which is like a pharmacy from a previous century, the walks along the Arno river with your head in the clouds, the summer evening ice creams and the walk up the Cathedral dome, or Cupola. There is the Sant’Ambrogio market and the local markets, like the one in the Cure area.
Also, as far as the recipes are concerned, Florence never fails to inspire. Dishes which, for me, represent the flavours of home, are completely different there, but still keep the same name, such is the case with pappa al pomodoro. In Florence I tried lampredotto for the first time, the pan di ramerino (sweet rosemary buns) and quaresimali (Lent cookies).
The period between Carnival and Easter is an unusual one. Traditionally, during Lent, Quaresima, the foods which you eat change. It’s a time for spiritual reflection which should prepare you for Easter, through giving things up and purification. Throughout Italy, the traditional recipes during this time exclude all meat and animal fats, instead introducing fish and vegetables. The ingenuity, however, of housewives, men and women of faith brought about the creation of sweets offered during Lent, biscuits known throughout Italy as quaresimali or Lent cookies.
In Sicily, the quaresimali look like the Tuscan cantucci, they are almond biscuits with lemon zest and cinnamon. In Genoa, the quaresimali take on a rounded shape – they are biscuits made with almonds, flour, sugar, egg, orange flower water, and decorated with icing and coloured sugar sprinkles.
In Florence, right after Fat Tuesday, the schiacciata alla fiorentina gives way to the quaresimali, which then quickly disappear from bakeries and pastry shops on Holy Thursday, replaced then by pan di ramerino. Here, in the Val d’Elsa area, only a little under an hour’s drive from Florence, the quaresimali never made it. I discovered them therefore almost by complete chance when I began visiting Florence.
What intrigued me at first was the shape: the quaresimali are biscuits made from egg whites, sugar and flour, with the addition of hazelnuts and cocoa, orange zest and, sometimes, a pinch of cinnamon. They take the shape of letters of the alphabet, they have a glossy surface and are cracked and rough underneath.
Some say they were invented in a convent between Florence and Prato in the mid-nineteenth century – biscuits for nobility and archbishops free of animal fats and made sweeter by adding a small amount of cocoa. It also seems that the usual shapes are a reminder of the scriptures, therefore perfectly in line with the announcement of the Gospel and the coming of Easter.
Instead, it is more likely that their invention can be linked to a Florentine biscuit manufacturers at the beginning of the ‘900s, the Ditta Digerini Marinai. The biscuits reserved for wealthy people and clergy gradually spread out among the families of Florence, becoming a Lent time tradition, especially loved by children.
Today, you will find them in every bakery and pastry shop in Florence. I bought especially good ones from S.Forno, my favourite bakery in Florence, a historic, high-quality one in the Santo Spirito area. There, they sell them in transparent bags. They are so light and crispy, you’ll eat them as if they were crisps, one after another.
Quaresimali, Florentine cookies for Lent
Here’s how to make the quaresimali. The recipe is traditionally free of animal fats, so no egg yolks, only egg whites. You only need a spoonful of cocoa and a handful of hazelnuts to make biscuits that you won’t be able to stop munching away on, spurred on by the idea that they’re not really that bad for you…
This recipe is inspired by the one from Paolo Petroni, author of the book, Recipes from Tuscany. Traditional Home Cooking: Yesterday’s Flavours for Today’s Taste, an authentic and useful reference point when you are looking for something linked to the culinary culture in Florence and in the whole of Tuscany.
- 3 egg whites, at room temperature
- 200 g (1 cup - 7 oz) of sugar
- 50 g (1/3 cup, whole - 1,7 oz) of hazelnuts, finely ground to a paste
- 150 g (1⅕ cup - 5,3 oz) of flour
- 50 g (3/5 cup - 1,7 oz) of unsweetened cocoa powder
- 1 teaspoon of baking powder
- Seed from half a vanilla pod
- Zest from a whole organic orange
- 1 pinch of cinnamon
- 1 pinch of salt
- Whip the egg whites until soft peaks form. Add the sugar and keep on whipping until it becomes a glossy meringue. Add the hazelnut paste and stir into the egg whites.
- Sift the flour, cocoa powder, baking powder and salt and fold gently into the meringue. Add now the vanilla seeds, orange zest and cinnamon. The final texture of the dough should be quite firm but still soft enough to be used with a pastry bag.
- Line three baking sheets with parchment paper and draw many alphabet letters with the pastry bag. Keep them spaced enough as they tend to expand while baking.
- Let sit at room temperature for a few hours.
- Preheat oven to 140°C (275°F - gas mark 1) and bake the cookies for about 15 minutes. Let them cool down on the baking sheets before removing them, as at the beginning they'll still be quite soft.
- Keep them in a closed tin or in an airtight container.
- Two more recipes for quaresimali: one from Gaia and one from Epicurious.
- A few posts about Florence if you’re planning a visit in the new season: one day in Florence, lampredotto, the Florentine street food, antique market in Florence.
- A very interesting post written by Emiko on a 19th century lunch for Good Friday inspired by Artusi.
San Miniato al Monte, Firenze. From here you enjoy one of the most beautiful views of Florence.