Sunday, March 8, 2015

The sweet side of Siena: ricciarelli

Almond Complex

pretty well the archetypical ricciarello

A good ricciarello (richyarello) is thickly dusted with icing sugar which is cracked on the surface; it is  lightly crunchy on the outside but soft and melting on the inside. It should have a definite marzipan (or bitter almond) taste and be quite sweet. It traditionally appears at Christmas to be consumed with vin santo or other sweet wines but nowadays we can indulge anytime of year.

these ricciarelli look perfect; they also look homemade as they do not have quite the 'boat' shape of the commercial ones
The ricciarello would appear to go back a long way, to the time of the Crusades, or so the Sienese would have it. A returned crusader called Ricciardetto della Gherardesca (a mouthful in himself), legend says, had tried these tasty Middle-Eastern morsels in the Holy Land and introduced the recipe to his hometown.

Other stories aver that originally they were called marzipanetti (little marzipans) - marzipan perhaps deriving from the Roman martius pan or bread of March - and only in the 19th century was the current name introduced.
mulberries encased in marzipan, a Persian treat
Whatever the etymology, marzipan is an ancient and almost universal sweetmeat deriving from the Middle East but before that possibly from China. Siena's version is however its own variant, for ricciarelli are particular to Siena and don't let anyone tell you otherwise. 
Researching for this post on Siena's almond biscuits I was astonished to discover how many different recipes exist for what is essentially a simple biscuit. 

What, apart from blending almond meal, sugar and egg whites could the recipe possibly involve? 

Instead I found hidden ingredients such as flour - beware coeliacs!, orange peel, cinnamon, bicarbonate of soda, lemon juice, sugar syrup; I saw that some recipes require the mix to rest overnight in the fridge, others for a few hours, some not at all.

I decided to take a middle course, using a recipe suggested by a Sienese 'massaia' or housewife but adapting it slightly to my own taste preferences.
each year in our part of the world a massaia (culinary) competition takes place; it is called the Palio delle Massaie

The reason I decided to go down the ricciarelli path in the first place is that ricciarelli are delicious, but they are very, very sweet. As someone who usually halves the sugar-dose in most recipes I thought to attempt this with classic ricciarelli even at the risk of defying age-old culinary tradition.

Recipe for Sienese ricciarelli 

(classic, simplified):
300g almond meal
200g sugar
100g icing sugar
2 egg whites
1 dessertspoon bitter almond essence

(less sweet variant):
300g almond meal
100g sugar
50g icing sugar 
2 egg whites
1 dessertspoon bitter almond essence 

nb If you are making the almond meal yourself, add some of the sugar to the blanched almonds as you mince them; another interesting variant could be to not blanch the almonds - more on this anon

[various add-ins: grated orange peel, lemon juice, cinnamon]

Blend the almond meal with the sugar and half the icing sugar, the lightly beaten egg whites and the almond essence. 
Using the rest of the icing sugar as 'flour', roll out a cylinder with the paste, cut off slices as thick as your finger and place them on a baking tray lined with rice paper or baking paper. They can be quite thick with icing-sugar but I prefer a light dusting...
Shape the ricciarelli; the traditional shape is like a little boat.
Leave to dry out for at least 8 hours (overnight is good) and then bake gently at 100°C for 40+ minutes. 
They will still be soft but will harden slightly as they cool.
The ricciarelli keep well in an airtight container but are most marvellous when eaten fresh. 

If you are in Siena, Sapori and Nannini are two of the most famous and ubiquitous of the commercial ricciarelli producers, but if you explore the little side streets in the city you may be lucky to chance upon a pasticceria which makes its own. Try not to buy the pre-packaged ones: only the freshly-baked ones are truly worth it.

Extra information from a friend for those seeking the genuine article here in Chianti:

"You do not have to wander too far from Le Ripe for a delicious ricciarello.  From Le Ripe, drive towards Radda and take the shortcut past the Campo al Sole brickworks.  At the end of the road turn right and then left at the next turning.  Go towards San Gusmè through Lecchi to Pianella.  At the bridge near Pianella make a left and you will find Forno di Pianella on Via dell'Artigianato 6.  Open only in the morning. The ricciarelli, cavalluci and pan pepato, all Sienese, are top quality and it's a nice drive."


  1. Hurrah for the glorious ricciarelli and all things from the almond tree. A noble history.

  2. Very evocative! But for those of us who live far away, the packaged ones at least provide a reminder of the original...


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