There are these biscuits that I always buy when I'm in Venice. They're small, crunchy, with chunks of hazelnut and a sugary crust. They sell them at the pastry shop around the corner from our house. They're called Brutti Ma Buoni. Literal translation: 'Ugly But Good'. Were I to try and give you an idiomatic translation, I might go for something like 'Ugly Duckling Biscuits'. I quite like that - it has a certain ring to it. And I really like them.
It's an interesting concept this ugly but good business. If something's ugly, we assume it must be bad to it's core. Our Pinterest and Instagram worlds - saturated with bright thumbnails, cakes doused in rainbow sprinkles and slender glamazons in extravagantly pretty dresses - have trained us to eat with our eyes. We judge with our eyes too. Biscuits and baked goods certainly - but people also. Think: ugly stepsisters. Ugly and mean. Wicked Witch of the West. Green and mean. Fact.
We can blame all this prejudice on the evils of social media - why not? Most things can be blamed on the evils of social media - but to associate the beautiful with the good is a basic human instinct. Most of Ancient literature is founded on the belief in physical beauty as a manifestation of the purest internal beauty. Homer calls his grandest heroes kalos kagathos, at once beautiful and good. An epic hashtag - of sorts - reserved only for the beautiful people. Classical beauty and the moral high ground go hand in hand. Inseparable. And woefully out of reach from those cursed with blotchy skin or love handles that no amount of cardio is ever going to shift.
And so, I worry about these little walnut biscuits. I worry how they might be judged. They're not lookers, let's be honest. I like to think that they're characterful, but I'm under no illusions: sometimes characterful is just not enough. These little biscuits are going to struggle to make their way in this world, they're not popping the Pinterest bubble any time soon. And they're not candidates for Homer's clique of beautiful heroes: nothing kalos kagathos about them.
So let me give you the pitch - a shout out for the underdog. Because it's the twenty-first century and in a post Hans Christian Anderson era we should know that ugly ducklings turn into swans, not to judge books by their brown mottled covers and that 'characterful' biscuits are often the tastiest. These ones particularly so: deliciously more-ish, crisp on the outside and chewy soft in the middle. Just how I like them. They're a variation on the theme of amaretti, but with a slightly richer, denser flavour that comes from the finely ground walnut flour. They're gluten free, packed with protein and healthy oils from the high nut content. Let's count them as a health food - another feather to their little caps. And they are almost ridiculously easy to make. They also taste delightful with coffee after dinner. Throw in a bowl of fresh seasonal berries or a plate of dark chocolates and you've got yourself a dessert.
These little walnut biscuits have so much good going for them. So much more than good looks.
Prep Time: 10 mins
Cooking Time: 20 mins
250g walnuts and extra to decorate
3 egg whites
250g caster sugar
Preheat the oven to 180 degrees and line a baking tray with parchment paper. Toss 250g of walnuts into a food processor and blitz until you have a fine walnut flour, almost like sand in texture. Separate the eggs, pour the egg whites into a clean bowl and beat until stiff peaks begin to form. Gently fold in first the sugar - a little at a time - and then the walnut flower.
Using a teaspoon, heap the batter onto the baking tray, leaving a few centimetres between each biscuit as they will expand as the bake, then top each one with a walnut half.
Bake in the centre of the oven for 15-20 minutes or until golden on top. When they are ready take them out of the oven and set to one side for a few minutes to allow them to cool and harden a little before gently lifting them off the tray and on to a wire rack.