Scintillating Sicily

As the sun sets slowly over our Sicilian adventure, I know one thing for sure -that the inspirational food of this special place will stay with me forever.

The sea locked football to mainland Italy's boot, Sicily is famously home to plentiful pistachios, lemons, almonds, olives, seafood and wine. Not to mention Don Corleone, who now gets glamourised on touristy tee-shirts selling the gloom of The Godfather trilogy.

On a more cheerful note, what not everyone knows is that as well as all the above, plus the obligatory daily shot of espresso, Sicilians love nothing more than a good pastry.

The pasticcherias, or pastry shops, in Sicilia, are simply stunning. From marzipan fruits and hazelnut meringues to weird and wonderful dolcetti - or little sweets - made with all the fruit and nuts of this fertile island's labour, the window of each and every merchant is a show stopper.

One particular pastry I had a holiday romance with was the 'pasta di mandorle'.  It's a sweet little almond nibble that you eat with your coffee. Once tried, never forgotten. You can go to pretty much any place on the island and they'll have a version of them. Think amaretti biscuits crossed with macarons. Whether they come scented with lemon, orange, pistachio, rosewater, fig or original almond, they're all delectable. And an added bonus is that they're gluten free.

Imagine my joy then, when on returning home I discover a lovely recipe for them at a fellow food blogger's site called Rachel eats. This recipe uses egg yolks as well as the white, I think the ones we tried used just the white. No matter. They sound as delicious as they taste and even better, require minimum effort on your part.

One word of warning. Make sure you invite your friends over to try them with you, otherwise you may end up (as I did) with a sweet almond hangover. They also make a gorgeous gift for friends and family when placed and covered in baking paper in a little tin or box.

Pasticcini di mandorle (little almond sweets), from the Rome based food blog Rachel Eats

Large baking tray (I used the bottom of a grill pan) lined with 2 sheets baking parchment 
Rolling pin for making small indentations
Large mixing bowl

300g ground almonds
200g icing sugar (plus extra for dusting)
Zest of a large unwaxed lemon (you can try orange but the lemon works as a bitter balance against the super sweet paste)
2 medium-sized eggs gently beaten with a fork

1. Preheat your oven to 180degrees. Prepare your baking tray with parchment. Then mix the ground almonds, icing sugar and lemon zest in a large bowl. Add the beaten egg and using a knife or fork, mix into a soft sticky dough.

2. This part is key: dust your hands with plenty of icing sugar and then with a teaspoon, place and roll walnut sized lumps of dough in between your palms. Dust the balls with more icing sugar (this is also important as ensures a lovely, Italian crackled effect once baked) and then put them onto your lined baking tray. Continue making the rest of the balls. The balls should be well spaced as they increase slightly as they cook.

3. With a rounded edge such as a rolling pin (as per the pic), make a light indentation into the centre of each ball. You can see mine were heavy, which wasn't the idea but worked well for placing an almond in them after they were cooked. Sometimes cookery mistakes can turn out for the better.

4. Bake at 180° for about 20 minutes or until the balls have turned a golden brown underneath and cracked, crisp and very pale gold on top. Once cooled, place a whole almond into the indentations.

5. Either eat warm with a coffee, or they do keep in an airtight container for a week. Let me know if you manage to keep them that long though as they are moreish!


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