HONEY AND ALMOND COOKIES
by Gina Depalma
Honey is one of those pantry staples that may too often be relegated to the rear of the kitchen cabinet, trapped inside of a plump plastic bear, used for the occasional cup of tea. In Italy, honey, or miele, is yet another example of a simple ingredient that can take on epic proportions. One is likely to find honey used as an ingredient in nearly every region of Italy, where the production and classification of certain honeys is taken as seriously as that of cheeses and olive oil.
Honey is a truly ancient food; Egyptian beekeepers kept hives along the River Nile as far back as 3000 BC. Ancient Greek poets wrote of honey as a delectable treat to be enjoyed with pleasurable company in happy times, and the ancient Roman philosopher Apicius provides us with recipes and instructions on how honey should be prepared and served
In the modern age we have come to realize honey’s specific contributions to the diet. It has only a slight nutritional edge by way of trace amounts of vitamins and minerals, but it is far easier on the digestive system than refined sugar. Honey also packs more energy punch when measured spoon for spoon against sugar: one tablespoon of honey has 65 calories, compared to the 45 calories in a tablespoon of granulated sugar. Above all, honey contains antioxidants, which are non-nutritive agents that decrease the activity of cell-damaging free radicals linked with many chronic diseases. In particular, darker varieties of honey can contain large quantities of a particular antioxidant called flavonoid, the same agent found in red grapes that has been credited with leading to lower instances of heart disease among wine drinkers.
In order to fully appreciate the wide variety of Italian honeys that exist, it helps to first understand how honey is produced. We all know that honeybees make honey, but the actual process is the result of a delicate relationship between insects and plants. It can best be described as Mother Nature engaging in the barter system. Flowers and plants allow worker honeybees to gather nectar from their blossoms in exchange for the services bees provide by pollinating as they fly from flower to flower. Pollination, unintentional as it is on the part of the bees, is nonetheless crucial to the fertilization of most flowering plants. In turn, honeybees rely on the nectar they gather to produce the honey they need to survive at specific times of the year.
As the honeybees travel among the flowers, they collect nectar in little sacks, which they transport back to the hive. There they combine the nectar with enzymes from their intestines to make honey, which they store in wax combs to be used as their food source when flowers are not blossoming. The honey is their only source of energy, in the form of carbohydrates, and vital to their survival. The caveat is that the bees usually make far more honey than they need, which is where we step in. Beekeepers can harvest the excess honey and process to varying degrees for human consumption. The number of blossoming plants in the area traveled by the bees determines the amount of excess honey produced. The flavor and aroma of the honey is specific to the blossom the nectar is gathered from, as well as the soil composition, climate, air quality and time of harvest. The nectar also determines the amount of fructose in the honey, which then affects the consistency.
Classification of Italian honey is by no means a simple set of criteria, and illustrates the near-obsessive way in which Italians take the regard proper categorization and labeling. The type of honey is determined either by origin, which includes the type of blossom or nectar used to make the honey, or by method of extraction, which includes whether or not pieces of honeycomb are included and if heat or pressure was applied to extract the honey. Labels may further include the place of production of the honey, such as a specific region or territory, as well as if any special processes have been applied to preserve it or alter the consistency.
The regions of Tuscany, Sicily, Sardinia and Piedmont produce some of the finest honey from Italy. Among the numerous varieties you will find are Acacia, Chestnut, Sage, Thyme, Lavender, Eucalyptus, Orange, Lemon and Lime Blossom, Sunflower, Sulla (made from crimson clover) and my personal favorite, “Millifiore”, or honey from “a thousand flowers. Artisinal honey producers offer their honeys in very small quantities, and sadly, many do not even make it to American shelves. There are, however, some online sources for imported Italian honey: Gourmet Sardinia, Tuscan Farm Online, iGourmet, Gustobene,and here in New York City, Todaro Brothers. Zingerman’s, one of my favorite purveyors of hard-to-find imported items, carries Sardinian Corbezzolo Honey, which is made from the rare blossom of the Arbutus plant. Arbutus, or tree strawberry, can only be found on Sardinia, and in the wild area of Maremma in Tuscany. This rare honey is only slightly sweet, with a bitter, almost mentholated flavor.
The best way to discover your favorite use for honey is to experiment with abandon. My favorite way to eat honey is to simply spread it with sweet butter on a hearty slice of whole-grain bread. For a more composed presentation, try drizzling some Tuscan acacia honey on some aged Pecorino di Pienza and fresh pears, or pair chestnut honey with gorgonzola and walnuts. Honey is excellent as a glaze for pork or ham, and adds depth and interest to marinades and vinaigrettes. The possibilities for baking with honey are limitless. I am particularly fond of the flavor combination of honey with almonds, and to that end, I offer the following recipe, which I developed to pay homage to the honey cookies my grandmother used to make.
Makes XXX cookies
The variety of honey you use will determine the ultimate flavor of the cookies – so experiment and find your favorite kind! The glaze and sliced almonds make them especially pretty when placed on an antique plate and served with steaming cups of tea.
Place the almonds and the granulated sugar into a food processor and process for about 20 seconds, or until the almonds are finely ground. Set aside. In a medium bowl, whisk the flour, baking powder and salt together and set aside.
In the bowl of an electric mixer, use the paddle attachment to cream the butter and honey together until smooth and creamy. Beat in the egg and egg yolk, and scrape down the sides. Beat in the dry ingredients, followed by the ground almonds and orange zest.
Scrape the dough onto a large piece of plastic; wrap and chill the dough until firm, about 4 hours.
Preheat the oven to 325 F degrees.
On a floured board, divide the dough into 3 pieces, and working with each piece separately, roll them into rough logs. Break off small bits of dough and roll into ½-inch balls. Flour your fingertips as needed to keep the dough from sticking. Place the balls 1-inch apart on greased cookie sheets and flatten them slightly.
Bake the cookies for 12-14 minutes, rotating the sheet tray halfway through the baking time. The cookies are done when they are golden brown and somewhat firm.
Remove the cookie sheet from the oven and allow the cookies to cool slightly before removing them to a wire rack to cool.
While the cookies are cooling, make the glaze by placing the confectioner’s sugar, honey and orange juice in a bowl and whisk together until smooth.
Brush the glaze onto the cooled cookies and serve.