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Florentine quaresimali, lean chocolate meringue alphabet cookies for Lent.
After the festive excesses of Carnevale, many Italian Roman Catholics observe the forty days of fasting and penitence that is Lent, stretching from Ash Wednesday to Easter. Italians, not so long ago, would adopt a meatless diet during this period. Traditionally, Lenten desserts were scarce. Those around were made without eggs and often dark brown, nearly black, in symbolic mourning for Christ.
Florentines have long approached the concept of leanness in desserts during Lent with typically Italian creativity, sidestepping the rules. For instance, one of the breads customarily featured by bakers at this time, pan di ramerino, is enriched with lard, not exactly fat free. And I find nothing grim or mournful about the cookies known in Florence as quaresimali (from Quaresima,the Italian word for Lent), although they are dark (from cocoa) and lean (egg whites only). Quaresimali are shaped like letters of the alphabet, around two inches tall, and are sold in pastry shops and bakeries throughout, but only during, Lent.
Quaresimali seem too terrific to restrict to forty days a year. They're easy, quick, and fun to make. They also use leftover egg whites (always a pleasure!). Readers who celebrated Carnevale with my recipe for schiacciata alla fiorentina will have the required egg whites for this cookie recipe.
Advocates of tradition may wish to skip piping out the letters J, K, W, and Y, as they are not part of the Italian alphabet. If your children like to help in the kitchen, on the other hand, skip the scholarship and let Jeffrey and Kathy spell out their names.
-March 9, 2000
These cookies are a tradition during Lent (Quaresima) in Florence, Italy. They are easy, low in fat, and fun to make with children. If you are not a strict observer of Lent, you might use the egg yolks left over from this recipe to make schiacciata alla fiorentina, a festive flat bread popular with Florentines in the earlier season of Carnevale.
3 egg whites
Pinch of salt
1/4 cup superfine sugar
1/4 cup powdered sugar
6 tablespoons unsweetened cocoa powder
2 tablespoons flour
Preheat the oven to 300° F.
In a medium-sized mixing bowl, beat egg whites and salt until foamy. Add superfine sugar slowly, beating until stiff, but not dry, peaks are formed. Sift powdered sugar and cocoa over beaten eggs and use a spatula to combine ingredients well. Don't worry about deflating the mixture. Sift flour over the mixture, again using a spatula to combine ingredients.
Transfer mixture to a pastry bag equipped with a number 10 tip. (You may substitute a large plastic sandwich bag and snip a 1/4-inch diameter hole off of its corner.) Pipe 2-inch letters of the alphabet onto parchment paper or, preferably, a nonstick baking mat. You can put them close together, because they won't spread. Bake for 12 minutes. If you use parchment paper, then remove the cookies from the paper the moment they come out of the oven. In any case, remove them with a spatula while still warm.
Makes about 24 cookies.