I still remember one of the very first events I went to after moving to country Tuscany. A handful of locals had come together in a tiny little hall to listen to folk songs and dance. It wasn’t exactly Woodstock. It was one lovely old man with an accordion and a few equally sweet old couples dancing. What was I doing there? I have no idea, but I do remember dancing with one of the little nonnos. He tried so hard to teach me the steps, but I was hopeless! He passed away recently and it’s this memory that has inspired today’s post… because it also happens to be the first time I’d ever tasted brutti ma buoni biscuits!
What a silly name for a biscuit. Brutti ma buoni literally means ugly, but delicious. To be honest, looking at my very artfully styled photos, I have to admit they had a point! No matter how hard I tried, these biscuits are so ugly to look at. They are the pugs of biscuits.
After dancing and music, the locals stopped to enjoy a glass of vin santo liquor and an array of biscuits they’d made for themselves and their friends. Among the cantucci, amaretti and other traditional Italian biscuits were these ugly little suckers.
Brutti ma buoni have contested origins – what Italian delicacy doesn’t? A lot of people believe they were invented by a very famous Liberty-style baker in Gavirate in Lombardy in 1878, others insist the original recipe comes from the Piedmontese town of Borgomanero.
It doesn’t really matter because the version I’m sharing today is a Tuscan interpretation with pistachios and rosewater. Even though more than a decade has passed since that town party, I still think about the dancing and music and that little old man every time I made these brutti ma buoni biscuits.
For me, they’ve come to represent my town, which has changed and modernised so much since I moved here and those first few weeks with that overly confident, but terribly sweet Italian boy who would become my husband.
Brutti ma buoni biscuits are traditionally made with ground almonds. The first time I tasted them, there were two versions, lighter cream ones, which the locals called ‘brutti ma buoni bianchi’ and the lovely dark ones I am sharing today.
The lighter ones were very similar to your basic macaron, crunchy and airy with the tiniest hint of vanilla essence, but nothing to write home about. But the darker ones! They were intoxicating! Maybe it’s because I am a sucker for rosewater, but they had a lovely flavour of the Middle East and reminded me of sun and souks, two images that you hardly ever associate with Tuscany.
I’m a Southern Italian girl at heart, so I’m much more at home with Moorish flavours and I just fell in love with these biscuits. The pistacchio is delicious and adds fantastic colour and crunch, while the rosewater is delicate and floral. They’re gorgeous with a black rose tea or an Earl Grey, which I know isn’t terribly Italian either!
The base of these brutti ma buoni biscuits is your basic meringue, whipped egg whites with sugar and a hint of rosewater. Where these differ from a macaron is in the cooking process.
The biscuit batter is actually cooked over the stove like a custard before you spoon it out onto the baking tray to bake. This double cooking is what separates authentic brutti ma buoni from just any old pistachio meringue.
The mixture is cooked on the stovetop over a very low heat to remove excess moisture and dry out the batter without turning it rock hard. Brutti ma buoni are hard biscuits, when you bite into them they make a snap like crystallised sugar. If you skip this step, you’ll end up with chewy soft biscuits, which are equally delicious, but not brutti ma buoni!
After you’ve cooked your brutti ma buoni biscuits over the stove, being very careful not to burn them, you’re left with a very thick and sticky paste. Don’t worry if it looks like glue! That’s how it’s supposed to look.
Use two spoons to help you get them on the baking tray. The shape is not important. They are supposed to be ugly remember? When I showed my first finished batch to my baker father-in-law, he said they were the ugliest brutti ma buoni biscuits he’d ever seen. Not sure if that was a compliment!
Bake them long and slow and don’t be afraid to burn them, they need to dry out completely. When you remove them from the oven, they may still be a little soft, but they should harden up. If they don’t, pop them back in the oven and adjust the recipe to suit your oven at home.
These Italian biscuits are a fantastic take on the traditional tea. Pistachios are a pain in the butt to shell and grind, but well worth it. They have a lovely toasty flavour and I just think they embody Tuscan summer! Enjoy!
Brutti ma Buoni biscuits with PISTACHIO AND ROSEWATER
150g egg whites, at room temperature
1 teaspoon rosewater
300g ground pistachios
Preheat your oven to 130°C
Beat the egg whites in the bowl of an electric mixer until you get soft peaks. Gradually add the sugar and beat on high until you have shiny thick peaks (10 minutes). Gently fold in the rosewater and ground pistachios.
Spoon the mixture into a small saucepan and cook over a very low heat, stirring constantly with a plastic spatula, until you have a thick and dark brown batter (5 minutes). The mixture will reduce and develop the consistency of glue, which is what you want so don’t worry, just make sure it doesn’t start sticking to the bottom of the pan!
Spoon tablespoonfuls of the batter onto a tray lined with baking paper. Bake for 1 hour. The brutti ma buoni biscuits should be nice and crunchy, but remember, they will harden more as they cool. Switch off the oven and leave to cool. Makes 20 biscuits.
Looking for more Summer dessert recipes? Try my Cornetto biscuits with from-scratch grapefruit jam or Spiced Elderflower Italian Sponge Cake (Pan di Spagna)