A love of history is actually what provided the initial spark for my culinary persuits. Being an avid reader as a child, I devoured everything from the World Book Encyclopedia to the Time Life Series of Cookbooks. That collection of international guides to the food culture of far away places transported me to foreign lands I only dreamed of traveling to in those days. It’s not surprising that my favorite cookbooks are written by authors who delve into the local culture of even the tiniest hamlets featuring traditional local recipes and lore.
Rosetta Costantino is one of those authors. With Calabrian roots, a paesaen as we would say in New Jersey, she delved into the culinary traditions, foods and customs of Calabria long before it appeared on the general public’s radar. I remember learning of her first book My Calabria and purchasing multiple copies for family members who were thrilled to see an entire cookbook dedicated to the family roots.
Southern Italian Desserts, another of Rosetta’s well researched books is a treasure trove of specialty dolce from the south of Italy and has been my go to resource on many occasions. With Passover or Pasqua Erbaica as it is called in Italy just around the corner I wanted to include something different to our dessert table. Low and behold, Almond Cookies with Cherry Preserves fit the bill.
Biscotti di Ceglie originate from the town of Ceglie Messapica in the northern part of Salento and is considered one of the oldest towns in Puglia. The special almond cookies are recognized by the Presidio of Slow Food and are uniquely specific to this tiny area: Rosetta was determined to recreate these Puglian treasures.
Puglia has had a Jewish Community dating back over 2000 years, naturally shifting in number with the political situation over the years. The Baroque town of Lecce in Salento known as the Florence of the South, restored a tiny area once the Jewish quarter featuring a Jewish museum – Palazzo Taurino. A recently released book The Guide to Jewish Salento documents the history of the Jews in the area.
The ingredients for Biscotti di Ceglie fall within the dietary constraints for Passover, using ground almonds as the base for the cookies. Fortunately, I was gifted a bottle of kosher for Passover Limoncello by a dear friend a few years back upon returning from Israel so I was ready to get started.
The preparation is straightforward and only requires a bit of patience and delft handling to roll. Rosetta’s careful instructions make this rather simple – moistened fingertips and a bench scraper are the only tools needed. A little prodding when rolling the logs helps to move the process along nicely.
Once Biscotti di Ceglie begin to bake the kitchen will be perfumed with the gentle scent of almonds. The finished biscotti are deep golden brown after 18 to 20 minutes.
Why not bring a little bit of Puglia to your table this year and I guarantee you that your Seder guests will ooh and aah…
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- 4 cups of blanched almonds lightly toasted and cooled
- ¾ cup granulated sugar
- 2 large organic eggs
- 2 tablespoons of Limoncello plus more for forming the rolled cookies
- 1 tablespoon of mild honey
- Finely grated zest of one large lemon
- 6 tablespoons of homemade or high quality cherry preserves
- Combine the lightly toasted almonds and the granulated sugar in a food processor, processing until they are coarsely ground yet the pieces range in size from finally chopped to coarse meal. Place the mixture in a mixing bowl and add the eggs, limoncello, honey and grated lemon zest and mix until well combined. Rosetta suggests using your hands and I found this best. Allow the sticky dough ball to rest in the bowl for about 30 minutes, uncovered.
- Preheat the oven to 375º, place the rack in the upper third of the oven and line a baking sheet with either lightly oiled parchment or a silicone baking mat.
- Place a bit of limoncello in a small bowl, gather the ball of sticky dough, jam, a bench scraper and the lined baking sheet.
- Moisten the work surface with the limoncello using your fingertips. Transfer the dough to the moistened work surface and divide it into thirds. Moisten your hands with the limoncello as needed to handle the dough.
- Flatten the first piece of dough into a 4½ by 6½ inch rectangle. Take 2 tablespoons of the cherry preserves and run a ribbon of the preserves lengthwise about 1½ inch from the edge. Using a bench scraper to guide the dough, begin to lift and roll the cherry lined dough completely to form a log. Carefully lengthen the log to almost 12 or 13 inches, taking care to keep it formed, the seam side should be at the bottom. Press down gently on the log to create a height of about 1¼ inch.
- Using the bench scraper, cut the log into 1 inch segments and carefully place on the lined baking sheet, spacing the cookies about 1 inch apart. Repeat the process with the remaining two pieces of dough.
- Bake until the cookies are a deep golden and the room is fragrant - about 18 to 20 minutes. Cool the baking sheet on a wire rack until the cookies are easily handled. At this point the cookies may be individually transferred to the wire rack to cool completely.
- Store in an airtight container at room temperature for up to 2 weeks.