As I mentioned in my recent post on dolci delle feste, every region of Italy has specific traditions: torciglione is a tradition of my region, Umbria. As a child, I ate occasionally the one made by a family friend.
When Jeremy of DoBianchi wrote a comment on fagiolina del Trasimeno mentioning the anguilla (eel) traditionally fished in the lake, I was reminded of torciglione. I knew that its shape is supposed to represent the snakelike fish. I was also reminded of the fact that, unlike eel, I liked torciglione a lot, so I decided to try to make it for the upcoming holiday season. (As an aside, it is actually possible to buy torciglione during the year.)
The main ingredients of torciglione are almonds (mandorle), sugar (zucchero) and egg whites (albumi). I looked for some recipes, then made up my first version using 300 g of almonds and 200 g of sugar (in the recipes I read, the quantity of sugar was higher). I then made a second version with even less sugar, 170 g. I liked that better than its predecessor. At this point, I read a post on torciglione by Salsadisapa of qualcosa di rosso: her recipe had even less sugar, so I felt justified in further reducing the amount I would use for my third version. Another important characteristic of her recipe was the lack of flour, an ingredient that I had also reduced to a couple of tablespoonfuls. I am very thankful to Salsadisapa for this detail and for the exchange we had on the topic.
A handful of bitter almonds is added to the sweet ones, but I cannot find bitter almonds, so I skip that ingredient. I like to use vanilla sugar (i.e., sugar that is stored in a jar with vanilla beans) and just a hint of grated lemon zest to add nuanced flavor.
- 300 g (10.5 oz.) almonds, blanched, peeled, dried in the oven at 300 F and cooled
- 125 g (1/2 cup + 2 tablespoons) [vanilla] sugar
- a bit of grated lemon zest
- 2 large egg whites
- pine nuts (pinoli), two coffee beans (chicchi di caffè) and an almond slice for the decoration
Preheat the oven to 350 F and line a baking sheet with a silicone baking mat or parchment paper. Chop the almonds in the food processor, together with a couple of tablespoons of sugar and the lemon zest. Do not pulverize the almonds: the granules give a nice varied texture to the final product. (I hope that the close-up gives a sense of what I mean here.) Place almonds in a bowl, add the remaining sugar and mix. Beat the egg whites until stiff peaks form and gently fold them in the almond mix (the latter will become wet and sticky). Pour on the baking sheet and shape into a snake. Decorate as you like. This is the fun part. In my version, coffee beans become the snake's eyes and an almond slice its tongue, rigorously, and impertinently sticking out of its mouth. I use a spatula to make short slits on both sides and finally align pine nuts on the back of my torciglione. I guess that makes it vaguely reminiscent of an iguana.
Bake until golden. Check after 30 minutes and gauge the remaining baking time. I usually need about 35 minutes. Let the torciglione cool thoroughly before slicing it. The outer layer is crisp, the inner core softer, with texture provided by the crunchy almonds: each morsel is a delight.
I would like to thank Jeremy of DoBianchi for inspiring me to replicate this small piece of my childhood. As I was finishing the writing of this post, I received news regarding Jeremy and his group's (Nous Non Plus) new record Ménagerie: congratulations!
Click on the button to hear me pronounce the Italian words mentioned in the post:
or launch the torciglione audio file [mp3].
You don't need to thank me! :-) I just love reading your blog and recipes and cooking tips!
And I can't tell you how much I love this recipe! I am a huge fan of what was called "mirabilia gulae" in the Renaissance, literally (and I know that you know your Latin, but your readers might not), "wonders of the gullet." The Middle Ages were full of dishes that were meant to resemble all sorts of things – other types of food (for fast days) and buildings (like the original Torrone, for example) and animals. I wrote an article on "magic" using food in the Renaissance for Gastronomica some years back.
There was (and I believe still is) a Turkmeni deli next to Katz on Houston in Manhattan where they make a sweet flatbread in the shape of a lamb (and they put a sprig of parsley in its mouth!).
Fantastic post... and thanks for the shout out!
Sei veramente troppo generosa Simona! :-)
Posted by: Jeremy Parzen | January 23, 2009 at 05:43 AM
Ho scoperto l'esistenza di questo dolce tanto suggestivo, solo quest'anno legggendo il blog "Qualcosa di rosso" e mi ha incuriosito moltissimo.
Sono bellissime le ricette della tradizione.
Posted by: lenny | January 23, 2009 at 02:18 PM
I like the crunchy outside and soft inside. You have a lot of patience Simona to make it three times to perfect the recipe!
Posted by: Lori Lynn @ Taste With The Eyes | January 23, 2009 at 08:00 PM
Posted by: Baol | January 24, 2009 at 05:28 AM
How wonderful to replicate this recipe. Sounds and looks really good. Thanks for sharing with us.
Posted by: Paz | January 24, 2009 at 06:28 AM
I love your delicious-sounding "snake," right down to the tongue coming out of its mouth! I would love those flavors and textures. The shape and decoration are simply charming. Nice work!
Posted by: Lisa | January 25, 2009 at 02:40 PM
Dear Jeremy, it was my pleasure. I'd love to read your Gastronomica article.
Hai ragione, Lenny, certe ricette tradizionali sono proprio bellissime.
Thanks, Lori Lynn. Sometimes I get fixated on a recipe.
Ciao Baol e grazie.
You are welcome, Paz.
Thanks, Lisa. The tongue is actually quite delicate and I managed to break it twice!
Posted by: Simona Carini | January 26, 2009 at 09:06 PM
What a beautiful creation! So much love and effort put into it,and it also looks delicious.There`s allways something so magical about almonds and sugar..it reminds me of marzipan.As a vegan I am tempted to try and find a substitute for the egg whites.. :) Grazie,Mia
Posted by: mia | February 01, 2009 at 06:37 AM
When I first saw the lead photo, before I knew better, I immediately thought of a snake; in fact, I thought it was a meat dish. It is very well crafted and decorated.
This is delightfully whimsical, Simona. I am very fond of sweet almond confections.
Posted by: Susan | February 01, 2009 at 06:57 AM
Thanks Mia for your kind words. I love marzipan too. In my opinion, using less sugar makes the almond flavor stand out more. I'd like to know whether you try it with an egg-white substitute.
Thanks Susan. I just wish I had moved it to a different surface before taking the photo, but I was afraid of disturbing it.
Posted by: Simona Carini | February 03, 2009 at 03:08 PM