baci di dama (gluten-free chocolate-filled hazelnut cookies.)

baci di dama [chocolate-filled hazelnut cookies].

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.

baci di dama [chocolate-filled hazelnut cookies].

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.
baci di dama [chocolate-filled hazelnut cookies].

fig.1: removing skin from hazelnuts.

fig. 2

fig. 2: processing your dough.

fig. 3: how to slice your dough into pre-ball squares.

fig. 3: slicing your dough into pre-ball squares.

fig. 4: lining up cookies for chocolate piping.

fig. 4: lining up cookies for chocolate piping.

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.

baci di dama [chocolate-filled hazelnut cookies].

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.

baci di dama [chocolate-filled hazelnut cookies].

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.

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  • Reply mellissa @ ibreatheimhungry December 17, 2014 at 9:43 am

    You had me at Gluten Free!!! So excited to finally be able to try one of your recipes! 🙂 These look amazing – definitely worth the work required to skin (I can’t bring myself to type rub ha ha) the nuts! You CAN get blanched hazelnuts from (not affiliated or anything, just a public service announcement) but they are definitely spendy at 16.99 per pound. Might be worth it though! Great cookie, this is getting pinned to my “MUST TRY” board!

    • Reply shannon January 3, 2015 at 9:57 am

      (confetti cannon) yay! Oh i’m so excited you’re trying these! And thank you tons for the note about blanched hazelnuts: i can’t ever find them, and i’d happily pay the money for them. Definitely will order next time i attempt these because WORK, girl: I no like it. 🙂 thanks!

  • Reply Brianne December 17, 2014 at 1:16 pm

    I vaguely remember skinning hazelnuts for something once. I find tedious tasks in the kitchen oddly soothing, so I also remember enjoying it. But I’m not certain I would enjoy skinning all these hazelnuts. These cookies sound awesome; I’ve seen this recipe many times and every time I try to convince myself to bust it out. Though all that skinning and that piping and filling still freaks me out a bit. Gah, I just gotta try these!

    • Reply shannon January 3, 2015 at 9:57 am

      You know, Brianne, i usually do as well. Risotto? no problem…i’ll stir for days. Curds? I’m all in for leisurely whisking. I think, however, the combination of flaky mess, hot hot heat on my hands, and lack of forward movement at times (b/c those skins are pesky and make you feel like you’re doing NOTHING and getting NOWHERE) makes this task hard to love. I knew that going in, because i’ve done it a few times before, so maybe i was dreading it? but it’s not what i’d call relaxing or fun. Worth it, though, for these cookies (and those salted chocolate cookies as well, for sure).

  • Reply Ashley December 17, 2014 at 1:18 pm

    Cookie Noah!!!! Ha! Your tips and tricks are so clever, as always. I abhor removing hazelnut skins (seriously, can’t they do it themselves?) and have been known to yell or throw temper tantrums when I follow a recipe and all hell still breaks loose. You save me the temper tantrum….and you save Eric a hasty retreat and subsequent fearful approach to see if I’ve calmed down yet. Plus you gave me another way to get rid of the rice flour hanging out in my pantry. I also get an Italian Nonna vibe from these cookies….;)

    • Reply shannon January 3, 2015 at 7:18 am

      It’s horrible, the hazelnut-skinning, right? i hate to complain, but it’s easily my least favorite (or one of my least favorite) things to do in the kitchen. Just revisiting this post again after a few weeks makes me loathe it all over, but the cookies that came out of it were very worth it (although i say that full well knowing that i’ll be getting blanched hazelnuts next time). 🙂 If you make these, Ashley, good luck, and direct your temper at me if you get frustrated. 🙂 In the meantime, i’ll be looking for more ways for us to use up that rice flour.

  • Reply John@Kitchen Riffs December 17, 2014 at 6:00 pm

    I never realized these were such a pain to ;make! Buying them is so easy. 😉 Of course if you can find a decent bakery in the first place — less easy these days. Really instructive post. And really not that hard to make if you can find the skinless hazelnuts. I wonder if a middle eastern market would have them? Need to go on a scouting mission!

    • Reply shannon January 3, 2015 at 7:15 am

      John, there were definitely a few times in this process where buying them seemed like a MUCH better idea. 🙂 Less easy to find, you’re right, but if you seek them out, i daresay it’ll save some heartache and definitely some time. If you’re up for a project, though…these are it. Thanks for the tip about middle-eastern markets: I would have never thought to look there, but it makes complete sense! there’s one not too far from my house, and i may need to go hunt them down: i could do without the skinning-and-making-a-total-mess-in-the-kitchen step.

  • Reply natalie @ wee eats December 18, 2014 at 11:33 am

    i love all the tips you give to help motivate a lazy person like myself to believe that EVEN I COULD DO THIS! also, i like when you talk about rubbing nuts >.<

    • Reply shannon January 3, 2015 at 7:13 am

      I think everyone likes it when i discuss nut-rubbing.

  • Reply Monica December 18, 2014 at 3:58 pm

    I had to laugh because I made something like this years ago (before the idea of a blog ever existed). I think it was a chocolate version, a Martha recipe (I’m sure because those were the only recipes I made then) and it was a project. You won’t be surprised that I only made them once. I think I will just admire yours. I love hazelnuts so I wish I could have some ()without going through all the work…because I’m starting to get tired). : )

    • Reply shannon January 3, 2015 at 7:12 am

      they do fall into the “project” category, don’t they! 🙂 the hardest ones of the bunch, to be sure, but pretty delicious once done. I won’t be attempting these again anytime soon, but i would consider them next christmas…maybe. I hope you had a lovely holiday!

  • Reply Willow @ Will Cook For Friends December 19, 2014 at 10:55 am

    Okay, first of all? These cookies sound amazing. I suppose you could call me a hazelphile, because I absolutely love them (I use them frequently in recipes, and honestly? I don’t even mind the skin-removal part all that much. I usually dump the entire batch (maybe half the batch, if I’m making a ton) of nuts into the center of a kitchen towel, fold the edges up to make a pouch, and just rub the pouch vigorously between my hands. After a minute or two I scoop out all the nuts that have sluffed their skins, and rub any remaining nuts for a little while more to see if the skins will come off. If I’m careful about it, I can usually contain all the skin within the towel, then shake the towel into the trash, or the sink, or outside, to discard them with no mess.) Maybe I’ve just become blind to what a pain it is because I do it so often, or maybe I love hazelnuts so much that I don’t care. Either way, totally worth it, and I am just enamored at the thought of a cookie made almost entirely from hazelnuts. I love that they’re gluten-free, too, and of course, filled with chocolate. Everything is better with chocolate! These are going on my must-make list.

    • Reply shannon January 3, 2015 at 10:01 am

      so Willow: i am so thoroughly impressed and happy that you made these this past week! Guess it pays to get behind on comments *cough cough whoops* 🙂 I’m really happy they came out for you, and that my cookie extravaganza here was not in vain. I like your way of doing the skinning: i’m definitely going to keep it in mind for the next time i attempt it (which won’t be for awhile, because HAND RECOVERY lol). 🙂 And i just deep cleaned my kitchen because i’m just a total mess when i’m cooking and i guarantee you i’d wreck it with skins, careful or no careful, were i to do these again. 🙂

  • Reply elizabeth December 31, 2014 at 10:21 am

    They look adorable and so impressive, and I know I would chow down on several and not even consider how much work they would take to make. Maybe if I’m feeling extra ambitious one cold afternoon I’ll try my hand at these!

    • Reply shannon January 3, 2015 at 6:51 am

      I can totally attest to their deliciousness: but yeah…they’re work, and a cold afternoon would be ideal to attempt them. If nothing else, it’s pretty great to have the smell of toasted hazelnuts in the house. 🙂

  • Reply mochi cake. | A Periodic Table January 19, 2015 at 11:30 am

    […] cups sweet rice flour (the same rice flour I used in those baci di dama back in […]

  • Reply mia February 22, 2016 at 9:14 am

    I tried this twice – not your recipe and method:
    First time I got cookie sheet full of flat thin crisp layer – broke them into pieced and called them hazelnut crisps they really tasted good. The problem, I think, was too much butter and heat.

    The second time I got individual cookies alright but they were flat not semi-spheres. Taste was still good. The problem again was too much heat.

    I will try yours – thank you for the explanation. I hope I will get it right this time

    • Reply shannon May 6, 2016 at 8:37 am

      Hi Mia! Sorry for the late reply; your comment was hanging out in my spam folders (wordpress can be a stickler sometimes). 🙂 Hope these worked out for you and that my tips helped! These aren’t easy but they are really delicious when you get them right.

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