I am not what you would call a “chocoholic”. I absolutely love chocolate as an ingredient; I appreciate its fascinating history and the complexity of producing it. I like working with chocolate and teaching people how to work with it in confections and desserts, but I don’t crave it on a daily basis.
However, during the Eurochocolate festival in Perugia, strolling the streets and piazzas while breathing in the heady aromas of dark, milk, and white chocolate, it’s hard not to want to taste everything in sight. And the beguiling contrast of meters and meters of confections against a backdrop of gorgeous architecture and panoramic views is really inspiring to a pastry chef like myself.
One of the most popular confections is chocolate bark, which comes in small beautiful packages or is sold by the kilo in big slabs. Chocolate bark is just dark, milk, or white chocolate with all manner of sweet, crunchy, flavorful, aromatic, or surprising add-ins mixed into it while it’s in its melted state. When the chocolate cools and sets, these delicious items are embedded in it. At Eurochocolate, you can find bark with anything from rose petals, dried bananas, lavender, and coconut to cereal, hazelnuts, pistachios, and puffed farro (my favorite).
Gianduja is so popular in Italy, and its hard not to love it. It’s the perfect marriage of two luscious flavors- chocolate and hazelnuts. Gianduja was invented in Torino where the Piemontese hazelnuts are plentiful. Rich and unctious hazelnut paste is combined with melted dark or milk chocolate and allowed to become one, so to speak. Gianduja can be either a confection on its own or used as an ingredient in desserts- such as our Gianduja Cheesecakes at L’Arte.
Chocolate truffles abound too- their crisp shells make a satisfying contrast to their rich, creamy interiors. There is even a stand that sells chocolate truffles flavored with the real underground fungus that Umbria is famous for- black truffle-scented chocolate truffles!
One of the things I love about the pasticcerie, or pastry shops in Italy, is that they always contain a bar! Why we haven’t adopted this idea in the States is beyond me. You order your pastry and eat it with an espresso or a cappucino standing up at the bar. Or, of course, you order yourself an aperitivo or an amaro or a glass of wine… It’s just so civilized. The main corso in Perugia has a gorgeous pastry and chocolate café called Pasticceria Sandri.
Its beautiful vaulted ceiling painted with murals and antique glass cases filled with pastries and chocolates are truly a sight to see.
The dolce vita lifestyle that attracts so many of us to Italy always includes a break in the late afternoon for a little pastry or a biscotti, a coffee, and some time to actually think, or reflect on what’s happening in your day. It’s a small thing, but can really add to the quality of life.
Ricciarelli are a type of biscotti, or cookie, commonly seen all over Tuscany and Umbria, although they are originally from the beautiful Tuscan city of Siena. They are made with almonds or hazelnuts and are a sort of Italian macaron. I developed this very easy-to-make chocolate version of the ricciarelli, and it’s the perfect accompaniment to a late afternoon cappucino. They are rich and chocolatey but very light, and on a platter or cake stand, they also make a nice addition to a holiday dessert table.
Note: This recipe is measured by metric weight, not volume. Since accuracy is super important in pastry making, using a scale to weigh ingredients is the way to go. Small scales that measure both by ounces and grams are inexpensive and readily available.
126 g. ground toasted hazelnuts or almonds (Lightly toast the nuts in a 325F. oven, then grind them in a food processor.)
150 g. sugar, divided into two halves
2 tablespoons plus 1 teaspoon cocoa powder
¼ teaspoon baking powder
seeds scraped from 1 vanilla bean
¼ teaspoon freshly ground black pepper, optional
3 egg whites
large pinch salt powdered sugar
- Preheat oven to 325F.
- In a large bowl, combine ground almonds, the first half of the sugar, the cocoa powder, baking powder, vanilla, and black pepper.
- Add the salt to the egg whites, which have been put in the bowl of the mixer.
- With the whisk attachment, start whipping the whites and when they come to soft peaks, add the other half of the sugar in a stream.
- When the meringue has firm peaks, stop mixing.
- Fold the ground nut mixture into the meringue all at once.
- Make oval shaped tablespoonfuls of the batter on a parchment lined baking sheet, spaced 2 inches apart.
- Sift confectioner’s sugar on top of the batter mounds.
- Bake until just set, about 12 minutes.
- Let the cookies cool on the baking sheet, then remove them with a metal spatula. Keep them in an airtight container until ready to eat!