Baci di Dama: Italian for “disturbingly tedious cookie balls.” Even for me, who relishes a difficult task. And not just part of the process, either: every single step is rife with things which can and will irritate you. Easy to make? Nope. Fun? Not in the slightest; no one is going to throw any Baci di Dama cooking-making parties anytime soon, at least not around here. If you’re interested, hazelphiles (and I know some of you are), this one’s for you. Hopefully my little tutorial will eliminate some aggravation, and you can get right to the best part: popping them in your mouth, one by one, ad nauseum.
Let’s make some baci balls together. here’s how to do it without crying:
- Buy skinned hazelnuts – I realize this is a total cop-out, people, but honestly: do it. As you can see from the photo above, I couldn’t find any skinned hazelnuts (and you may not be able to find any either) but boy oh boy if you do, grab them and don’t let go. You’ve just saved yourself many, many minutes of work. Toast them a little prior to making the cookies, and you’re good. Proceed to tip #4.
- Work with what you’ve got – You can’t find skinned hazelnuts? Join the club, because neither can I. Skinning hazelnuts is something you want to be efficient about, because frankly, it’s horrible. I’ve done this several times now, my first time being with these cookies, which are MEGA worth the trouble, just saying. First (and exact directions are going to be in the recipe below) you have to throw the nuts in the oven, heat them up, get them out to cool down a little bit. The trick: only let them cool to just where you won’t melt your hands off – important, because the hotter the nuts, the faster the skins will come off. Keep that oven on: once mine cool off too much, I throw them back in for a few minutes to heat up. Rinse, repeat.
- Time to rub the nuts – there are several ways to accomplish this, and all of them will make a mess; it’s up to you to keep that mess contained (see fig. 1). Your options are A) use a kitchen towel to pick up groups of heated nuts, rubbing them vigorously against each other so their skins flake away, or B) using your bare hands to do the same thing. The pros and cons are pretty clear here: option A protects your hands from the heat, but is less efficient in removing the skins, so you’ll be working for longer. Also, there will be skins all over that towel. Option B gives you zero hand-protection, but moves things along at a decent clip. Those skins? they’ll stick to your hands, but less than they would the towel. No matter which option you choose, one thing holds true: it will make a huge, hard-to-clean mess, which is why I suggest working with the hot pan in (or over) your kitchen sink. It’s the only way to contain the mess, and it would be weird (although very smart, now that I think about it) to work with these in a bathtub. By the way, I should tell you: 100% of the skins don’t need to be off the nuts: it’s perfectly acceptable to leave maybe 20-25% of the skins intact, and it makes for some pretty freckling in the finished product.
- Your nuts are naked: let’s make them into wet sand – if you’re keeping track, you get to rub burning hot nuts between your hands for a long time, and then you get turn them into wet sand (see fig. 2). Sound fun? I know. No big deal, really, until you realize you’re being asked to roll wet sand into logs. I want you to sit back and remember a time at a beach when your younger self tried to press wet sand into a log…how did that go for you? Did it fail miserably? Chances are that it did, which is why I can’t understand why almost all the baci di dama recipes call for pressing these into think logs immediately. It’s impossible – not difficult, but doable – really, really impossible. When I first made this recipe, I panicked at this step. Almost cried, really, because I had just spent maybe 83 hours skinning hot hazelnuts and an equivalent amount of time cleaning skins off every square inch of my kitchen, only to find that my ball cookies wouldn’t log. So I fixed it, and simply: just press the dough into an 8×8 pan and chill for 2 to 3 hours. The butter firms up, the dough becomes hydrated, and stability improves; it’s a necessary step, so don’t skip it. So why press it into a pan and not smash it into a disk? Because…
- Making identically-sized cookies is hard…unless you slice them – Which is why the whole pan-chill thing makes a big difference. Ultimately you’re sandwiching cookie balls together with chocolate: those balls should be as close to the same size as possible so they look pretty. To get evenly-sized cookies, take a sharp paring knife and cut your pan into a 7 x 8 set of squares – 56 in total (see fig. 3.) For you mathematicians out there, that’s 6 knife cuts by 7 knife cuts. You’re welcome.
- Be firm, but smart – you’re still dealing with sand here, just slightly firmer sand. Press these into balls: don’t roll them or you’ll end up with a damp mess in your hands. Shape and press, shape and press, until balls are achieved.
Hard parts = over! You did it! All that’s left to do is bake them off, pair them off with partners, and stick some chocolate inside them. The only slightly tricky thing you may encounter is the chocolate fill: these obviously aren’t going to just sit up on their own, and you don’t want chocolate sliding around all over the place, so I would suggest using a lipped baking sheet and propping them up against the side as you fill and sandwich the cookies together. Once they harden, they’re bonded for life.
And that’s how you do it; no big deal once you navigate through the troublesome steps. A footnote on these: although you can substitute regular flour for the rice flour, don’t: it really does change the texture on them, and the rice flour will give you a crispy lightness that’s unmatched by all-purpose flour. It’s not difficult to find: any well-stocked grocer will have it, and Bob’s Red Mill makes a nice one in a manageable size. Oh! also, these are gluten-free, so that’s pretty great.
Adapted, but barely, aside from some techniques, from a baci di dama recipe I found on David Lebovitz’s beautiful website. Were I as gifted in the kitchen as he is, perhaps I wouldn’t need to employ any tricks to getting these right, but I’m not.
Baci di Dama (Hazelnut + Chocolate Sandwich Cookies)
- 1 1/4 cups hazelnuts, toasted and skinned*
- 1 cup rice flour (Bob’s Red Mill Organic White Rice Flour is a great choice)
- 1/2 cup granulated sugar
- 1/4 teaspoon kosher salt
- 6 tablespoons unsalted butter, at room temperature
- 2 ounces 60% dark chocolate
*to toast hazelnuts, preheat your oven to 325˚F, spread them onto an unlined lipped baking sheet, and toast for 10 to 15 minutes, until golden brown with skins that look dry and peely (fig. 1 above). Remove them from the oven and wait a minute, then rub the hazelnuts in a clean kitchen towel OR your bare hands (I find the latter to be the most efficient, but yeah…be careful) vigorously against each other until most of the skins are off. Doing this whole process over a kitchen sink will help eliminate some of the residual mess (see my notes in the post above).
Make those sandy cookies:
Transfer cooled nuts to a food processor and grind them until very fine: these do have a tendency to turn into butter pretty rapidly, so pulse it and watch carefully: if you see that beginning to happen, add a tablespoon or so of your rice flour and finish grinding.
Add rice flour to the pulverized nuts and pulse until incorporated. Add sugar and salt and continue to pulse until everything is evenly distributed. Cut the butter into tablespoon-sized chunks and add it to the hazelnut mixture; pulse a few seconds at a time until mixture comes together (very much like a pie crust would). if it still looks too dry when this is finished, add a teeny bit of water as you pulse to tighten it up; dough should look like very wet sand and be able to hold together if you press it (fig. 2 above).
Remove the dough from the bowl of the processor and transfer to an 8×8 pan – glass or metal, makes no difference. Press firmly and evenly into the bottom of the pan, cover tightly, and chill for at least 4 hours or up to overnight.
When you’re ready to bake, preheat your oven to 325˚F. Line a half sheet pan with parchment paper.
Remove dough from the refrigerator and slice into 56 squares (fig. 3, and I talk about this above too, but that’s 7 x 8 for those of you who, like me, will overthink easy math problems.) Life each square using a little metal spatula and form into a ball by pressing – not rolling, we discussed this – tightly. Repeat and place balls about 1 inch apart onto baking sheets – these don’t spread, but you want them to have a little breathing room. Place in the oven and bake for 12 to 14 minutes, until very lightly golden. Remove from the oven and NO TOUCHING for about 15 minutes, or they’ll just crumble in your hands. Once cooled slightly and firmed up a bit, transfer them to a wire rack to cool completely.
Meanwhile, make your chocolate filling:
Which is nothing; just melt the chocolate in the top of a double boiler over barely simmering water, making sure the pan doesn’t touch the water beneath, stirring occasionally. Stir until smooth and melted; remove from the heat and allow to cool for just a few minutes, until it can be placed in a pastry bag (or a plastic freezer zipper bag, I’m not even going to front).
Ready a lipped baking sheet: maybe the same sheet you used for baking these off, which should be cool by now.
Take the completely cooled cookies and match them up – two by two, Cookie Noah – and place them on the ark which is your baking sheet. You’re wanting to find the cookies most similar in size to each other to make uniform balls, which shouldn’t be difficult; eat the ones who just don’t have a good match.
When you’re ready to do the chocolate, begin with one pair and set one of the two cookies bottoms-up against the lip of the pan, so it’s got something holding it there (I say go for the corner for added stability). Repeat with a few more until you have maybe 8 to 12 cookies face-up. Pipe the chocolate in generous chocolate chip-sized balls onto the face-up cookies (fig. 4 above), then top with their matches. Repeat until all cookies are filled. Allow them a few minutes to stabilize, and boom: they’re ready to eat.