Amaretti cookies are the quiet staple holiday treats in Italy that don’t often get referred to as such. It’s all in the numbers: once the holiday season starts the countdown, the sales inevitably go up. Yet they never get to shine as panettone, marzipan, or mostaccioli cookies, even if grabbing a pack of them for the cupboard seems to have long become the habit of most Italian households.
So let’s break down what amaretti cookies are and why you need to include them in your Christmas shopping list this year.
What Are Amaretti Cookies?
Amaretti cookies are traditional Italian biscuits from the late Renaissance period. They’re usually made with almonds (a mixture of sweet and bitter almonds), egg whites, and sugar. Initially, the cookies were made with apricot kernels, and some varieties still use them, especially in combination with sweet almonds.
Depending on the ingredient ratios, amaretti cookies can be hard and crispy (Secchi) or soft and chewy (Morbidi). The most famous amaretti variety (and the one most people think of when imagining amaretti cookies) are small, dry, and crispy, but interestingly enough, the majority of them veer towards being a bit chewy, if not soft.
Their name comes from the word “amaro,” which in Italian means “bitter,” and refers to the cookie’s complex, bittersweet flavor derived from either bitter almonds or apricot kernels.
Hard amaretti cookies are sometimes called “biscotti de credenza” (it. “cupboard biscuits”), as they can last a long time without going stale.
Who Invented Amaretti Cookies?
As with many traditional recipes, the exact history has been lost to the annals of time. One theory points to a man by the name of Francesco Moriondo, a pastry chef from the mid-17th century, who served the Duke of Savoy, though the records are sketchy.
Another claims that the amaretti cookies were an invention of a local Saronno couple. In 1719, a Cardinal (or Bishop, the tales differ) from Milan was visiting the town, and a young baker named Giuseppe wished to greet him with proper respect.
He and his betrothed, Osolina, came up with the initial recipe for the crispy meringue-type cookies. They made it with sugar, egg whites, and apricot kernels (presumably because almonds were expensive and the young baker could afford them), and thus Amaretti di Saronno was born.
The couple wrapped the cookies in pairs, symbolizing love, and presented them to the Cardinal. The latter was so pleased that he blessed them with a long and happy marriage.
Amaretti cookies owe their modern-day fame to Luigi Lazzaroni, who first thought to package them in lavishly decorated tins, turning them from simple desserts to luxury gifts. The Lazzaroni family has been producing Saronno-style amaretti cookies since at least 1847. Luigi started industrialized production in the latter half of the 19th century, and the rest is history. The family is the custodian of the amaretti archive, which resides in the 14th-century Franciscan church.
Types of Amaretti Cookies:
As with many traditional foods, over the centuries, the recipe for amaretti cookies underwent quite a few changes. While the essence of the cookie stayed the same - it’s still a meringue-type cookie made with almonds and egg whites - once it spread across the country, various regions gave the recipe tweaks to give it more local flair. As a result of these changes, nowadays, there are about a dozen different types of amaretti cookies, many of which have been granted PAT (Prodotto Agroalimentare Tradizionale or Traditional Agricultural Product).
Amaretti di Saronno, or the cookies most people think about when they think about amaretti in the first place. Considered to be the originals, Amaretti di Saronno started as a Lombardy specialty, but they’re easily found all over Italy and are found under the label of amaretti cookies, most often outside the country. They’re crisp and crunchy, light cookies with a distinct bittersweet flavor. Traditionally, Amaretti di Saronno cookies are made with sugar, egg whites, and apricot kernels instead of almonds, though modern varieties often swap apricot kernels for almonds.
Amaretti di Gallarate is another Lombardy specialty, though not as famous as the di Saronno variety. While made with similar ingredients (sweet and bitter almonds, sugar, egg whites), they look and feel very different: Amaretti di Gallarate cookies are soft, almost cake-like in texture, irregularly shaped, and pale. They’re traditionally dusted with powdered sugar.
Amaretti di Modena is the Emiglia-Romagna region’s take on the cookies. Unlike the di Saronno cookie, they’re dry and crumbly on the outside but soft and chewy on the inside. Amaretti di Modena cookies are also typically larger in size, about 2.5-3 inches in diameter. There’s an even older version from the Modena region called Amaretti di Spilamberto. They’re considered to be the first soft (Morbidi) amaretti cookie variety.
Amaretti di Casperiani is a very crunchy, dry meringue-type cookie. It’s a specialty of Rieti province. What sets it apart from other amaretti varieties is that along with eggs and sugar, it uses toasted hazelnut instead of almonds as the main ingredients. It’s flavored with bitter almond essence and vanilla extract to give the cookies the characteristic sweet-bitter undertones. Amaretti di Casperiani is typically very light, almost white, and has a puffy, dome-like shape.
Amaretti Molisani, also known as Amaretti Morbidi Molisani, is the specialty of the Molise region. These cookies resemble the original di Saronno variety the most looks-wise (round, puffy, dark golden) but differ in all other aspects. Amaretti Molisani cookies are made with peeled sweet almonds. Bitter almonds are allowed in small quantities but essentially looked down on and believed to produce a cookie of inferior quality. They also contain whole eggs (instead of just egg whites) and flour, resulting in soft and chewy cookies. Most Amaretti Molisani bakers either skip adding sugar altogether or contain less of it than other varieties, so the cookie has a more robust, well-expressed almond flavor.
Amaretti di Sassello is a Ligurian specialty. Made with the classic combination of almonds, apricot kernels, egg whites, and sugar, it, nevertheless, has a much softer and chewier texture than other similar varieties, including Amaretti Molisani and Amaretti di Spilamberto. This delicate, almost marzipan-like texture is the result of a high ratio of nuts in the dough, with nearly 50% of the cookie being almonds and apricot kernels.
Amaretti di Mombaruzzo is a Piedmont specialty and one of the most renowned varieties in Italy. In Piedmont, there’s even a festival celebrating the cookies. Amaretti di Mombaruzzo cookies are crunchy and airy, with more pronounced bitterness to them than other amaretti varieties (though that doesn’t mean they’re outright bitter). The original recipe only calls for four ingredients: blanched almonds, crushed apricot kernels, sugar, and egg whites. Modern recipes sometimes incorporate chocolate nibs and hazelnut bits into the dough.
Amaretti di Guarcino is a specialty (and pride) of the Lazio region. They’re made with a combination of sweet and bitter almonds, egg whites, powdered sugar, and a dash of salt, resulting in a soft, cake-like dough. They’re traditionally oval-shaped instead of round. A distinct feature of Amaretti di Guarcino is the baking process: the dough dollop is placed on a paper wafer disc before being baked. The cookie is served or packaged with the paper disc still attached.
Amaretti di Carmignano is a Tuscan take on the amaretti cookies. It’s a soft cookie, imperfectly shaped (somewhat reminiscent of a coconut macaroon in appearance), and typically tiny, about the size of a walnut. They were invented in 1897 by a man named Giovanni Bellini, who was nicknamed I Fochi (it. “fiery”) for his tempestuous character. Because of this, Amaretti di Carmignano is also called Amaretti di Foci. In Carmignano’s main square, the bakery he established still serves the cookies and is considered the go-to spot to get them.
Amaretti Siciliani, or, as they’re more commonly referred to, Paste di Mandorla, uses almond paste as the main ingredient. The paste is usually made with a mix of sweet and bitter almonds, though sometimes you might stumble upon a version made with pistachios mixed into it. Paste di Mandoria is crispy on the outside and slightly chewy on the inside. Often, it’s decorated with either an almond kernel or a candied cherry on top.
How Do Italians Eat Amaretti?
Most commonly, amaretti cookies are enjoyed as they along with a glass of sweet dessert wine like Vin Santo or a flavored liqueur. Those who aren’t feeling like having alcohol pair it with a cup of strong, unsweetened coffee, typically espresso.
But they’re also greatly appreciated for their versatility in the kitchen, as more and more people are starting to use them as an ingredient in more complex dishes instead of serving them alone.
5 Ways to Serve Amaretti Cookies this Christmas:
While amaretti cookies are not considered to be among traditional Italian Christmas desserts per se, their sales always spike right around the holidays. As they’re long-lasting and sturdy, it’s common to find amaretti in most Italian households during the winter season, when they’re either piled up in bowls and served not unlike candy or used to spruce up other desserts. This is especially common with classic hard and crunchy amaretti cookies. They are often hard to appreciate for their dry texture but are beloved for their complex, bittersweet flavor profile.
Here are a few ideas on how to use them this holiday season to impress the guests (or simply enjoy yourself):
Crush the cookies until they’re your preferred consistency, whether that’s a fine powder or large chunks. Then, cover the bottom of the glass with the crushed cookies and start layering it with vanilla ice cream and other ingredients. Chocolate nibs, nuts of your choice, and fresh fruit will all work wonderfully.
Cozy Winter Breakfast with Amaretti Oatmeal or Granola
Crushed amaretti cookies can also make a fine addition to your favorite granola. Then all you need to do is just pair it with some milk and fruit, as you would any other granola. Or, if you don’t feel like putting in the work to make granola, simply cook up a bowl of thick oatmeal and top it off with a generous handful of crushed cookies, along with some fresh fruit. It’s the coziest breakfast imaginable, perfect for cold winter mornings.
Crushed amaretti cookies make for an excellent base for pies and cheesecakes. But you can take it a step further and just layer the top of the pie with cookies on the top for the extra crunch and almond flavor. Nut and chocolate-based pies are considered the classic pairing, but the if you wish to pair it with apples or cherries - go ahead! Who’s going to tell you no?
Easy Amaretti Tiramisu
Want to enjoy a piece of tiramisu but can’t be bothered to bake the base? Line your chosen vessel with some crushed amaretti cookies (larger chunks will work better this time), soak them with a shot of hot espresso, and once the base has cooled, top it all off with easily whipped-up mascarpone cream.
Gnocchi with Amaretti
And what do you know, you can even use crushed amaretti cookies as a garnish not just for desserts but more complex dishes. They would go well with white pizzas that are topped with pears, blue cheese, or delicate, sweet, cured meats, for example. But gnocchi is considered to be the best pairing, particularly gnocchi alla Zucca (pumpkin gnocchi), with its deep, naturally nutty, and a bit smoky flavor. Roll the gnocchi with some creamy sauce, add some crushed amaretti and shaved parmesan on top, and enjoy!