Almond Semolina Cookies

Almond Semolina Cookies- Life Love FoodAlmond Semolina Cookies- Life Love FoodAlmond Semolina Cookies- Life Love Food

“Why do you write about food?” People ask.
“Well,” I’d like to tell them, “sometimes I wonder the same thing. Let’s just say it’s complicated.”

Instead, I try to be confident, to give them a straight answer. I spit out a few words like ‘culture’ and ‘family’ amidst a vortex of phrases, but the actual train of thoughts, already blurred in my mind, often lacks any coherence. Were I prepared, or warned, or simply good at giving answers that feel lucid and well-pondered, I would reply in M.F. K. Fisher’s words. No one better than her has expressed the reasons why. In the foreword to The Gastronomical Me, she writes:

The easiest answer is to say that, like most other humans, I am hungry. But there is more than that. It seems to me that our three basic needs, for food and security and love, are so mixed and mingled and entwined that we cannot straightly think of one without the other.

Love and hunger are, evidently, what keeps me writing too. And yet, I often interrogate myself on how I can keep this passion of mine burning brightly like a cherry wood fire, year after year. How do you keep yourself close to the craft while also away from burnout? The question resurged last week, as I was making a batch of these almond semolina cookies for the third time in a row. The recipe belongs to Dorie Greenspan’s new book, which, being her twelfth, decrees her as one of the most prolific cookery authors of our time. How does she do it, I thought. How does she stay interested after so many years, and so many books?

The answer, unsurprisingly, came from Dorie herself. During an interview she gave not long ago, she mentioned how she started in the kitchen in the first place, and how she kept going. She began out of necessity, she said. And carried on because of the pleasure she felt in feeding others. Dorie has always been a baker, and despite winning a number of James Beard Awards for her craft, she still calls herself “a home baker”. A home baker who, with her cookies and cakes and pies and tarts, enjoys making others happy.

These two worlds – M.F.K Fisher’s  and Dorie Greenspan’s – so far apart in so many ways, collide in my mind as I stir eggs with flour and dollop dough on a baking sheet. Cooking, baking, writing, are connected by a feeling that, at the base, is humble and deeply human. Pleasurable, too, if we think of these as choices rather than chores. So, while I slip the first batch of cookies inside the hot oven, I remind myself: this is a choice. This is your choice. And it’s one that, if sustained by empathy and kindness and security, will keep acquiring new meanings as you go, learn, stumble and age.

Almond Semolina Cookies- Life Love Food

I find myself looking at these cookies now and think about how reassuring their sight is in the morning as I shuffle down the stairs into the kitchen with my eyes half closed and a blanket wrapped around my chest (alas, it’s still cold). I think, too, about the friends I brought them to, and about their dunking them in tea and reaching for just one more, just one more. And finally, I think about the lemony, flowery scent climbing up the stairs as they bake and cool, summoning me to leave whatever it is that I’m doing, go downstairs, and have a snack. All these things – domesticity, comfort, connection – are what fuel words and actions around here. More than the recipe itself. More and beyond the food.

So really, I could have gone on a long tirade about semolina and almond meal and about how lovely they are together, and about what sandy yet tender cookies they produce. I could have told you about how rubbing freshly grated lemon zest in a cup of sugar before adding it all to the rest of the ingredients is a wonderful idea, for it intensifies the citrus flavour to the nth degree and makes the cook high on freshness while at it.

Then, I could have told you about the childish joy of rolling spoonfuls of dough into a bowl of icing sugar, covering the whole kitchen counter in a thin layer of sticky dust. And about how satisfying it is to press your thumb over the soft dough until the edges wrinkle and crack, and your mark is left on the surface of each cookie, and each of them will carry your signature. But these are all things you’ll find out in due time.

Instead, I’m going to tell you about their scent. The original recipe called for vanilla, and lemon, and orange blossom water (or rose water), which, to me, appeared like a cacophony of perfumes, like you’d find in a duty-free or a beauty parlour. And I realise now that this perception of excess has everything to do with me, and nothing to do with the recipe itself. Sensorial perceptions and memories, in cooking like in life, are deeply personal. So here vanilla was, to me, best left out of the equation. Leave it to the sprightly scent of citrus, and to the sweet aroma of orange blossom water ( a hint, just a hint) to give things some character, I thought; they’ll know what to do.

Dorie calls these cookies ‘Moroccan’ and I can see why – ingredients and flavours are reminiscent of those lands. However, semolina and almond meal are now such common ingredients in the cuisine of  Central and Southern Italy that, in baking these cookies, my first thought actually went to Sicily – to the almond trees now blooming, and to the crunchy semolina bread that is so typical of the island. My second went to Naples, where one of the most celebrated local cakes, the pastiera, gives a scent of orange blossoms so beautifully intense that one might suspect it contains real flowers. For these reasons and many others, I’d like to think that the actual origin is, in this case, irrelevant (or perhaps, once again, personal). Though I know for a fact that, good as they are, they’ll feel at home in any kitchen, on any table, no matter where.

Almond Semolina Cookies- Life Love Food

Almond Semolina Cookies

Adapted from Dorie’s Cookies by Dorie Greenspan via Melissa Clark for the NYT

300g | 1 ¾ cup plus 2 tablespoons semolina flour
200g | 2 cups ground almonds
1 ½ teaspoons baking powder
¼ teaspoon fine sea salt
150g | ¾ cup granulated sugar
Grated zest of 1 unwaxed lemon
2 large eggs, at room temperature
60ml | ¼ cup extra virgin olive oil
2 teaspoon orange blossom water
Icing sugar, for rolling

Preheat the oven to 180°C/350°F. Line two baking sheets with parchment paper.

In a medium bowl, whisk together semolina, ground almonds, baking powder and salt. Put the sugar in a separate, large bowl. Finely grate the lemon zest over the sugar, then rub them together with your fingertips until the sugar is moist and fragrant. Add the eggs and beat them energetically until the sugar has dissolved. Next, pour the oil in a thin stream and keep beating until incorporated. Beat in the orange blossom water. Add the dry ingredients to the wet in three increments, mixing until just combined.

Sift some icing sugar into a small bowl. For each cookie, spoon out a tablespoon of dough, roll it between your palms to form a ball and then roll it in icing sugar. Place the balls on the lined baking sheets, leaving some room between them, then use your thumb to push down the centre of each cookie, pressing so as to cause the edges to crack.

Bake for about 13 minutes, switching the pans after 7 minutes, or until cookies are golden and just firm to the touch. Transfer the cookies to a rack to cool. Store in an air-tight container or cookie jar for up to a week.

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  1. Angela March 24, 2017

    And you must not stop cooking, baking, sharing or writing – for we will be left with little joy!

    • Valeria March 28, 2017

      Oh, Angela, thank you so much for your kind words. I won’t, not anytime soon! x

  2. Mimi March 24, 2017

    I can only. Imagine the flavor. Of. These cookies! Pardon my keyboard – it’s doing odd things with periods.

    • Valeria March 28, 2017

      No worries, haha, and yes, the cookies are very lovely, the recipe is a keeper for sure!

  3. I love your story telling style. You show so much culture and knoledge. You’re not the average food blogger, you’re way more than that. And these biscotti sound really delicious and “homy”.

    • Valeria March 28, 2017

      Thank you so much, Valentina, your words mean a lot. Yes, the cookies are very nice, definitely worth a try!

  4. Giulia March 24, 2017

    Beautiful beautiful beautiful! words, feelings, perceptions, photos, the cookies…
    just incommensurably beautiful!

    • Valeria March 28, 2017

      Thank you, lovely Juls! <3

  5. Valentina @Hortus March 25, 2017

    Love this post, and love you reasoning behind it. Still, should we really feel the need to justify our love for food writing? ‘Because it makes me feel like home’ makes for a great answer IMHO 🙂

    • Valeria March 28, 2017

      More than a justification, it was an investigation. But your answer is spot on! x

  6. Agnes {Cashew Kitchen} March 29, 2017

    Beautifully written Valeria! I had to take some notes in my journal from this post, because the words resonated so much with me 🙂 It’s so true that thing about writing because of love & hunger. Two fundamental things. And I also loved the story of that cookbook author – how it started out of necessity and continued because of love. So thanks so much for writing this post! I absolutely loved it! <3

    • Valeria April 1, 2017

      Thank you, Agnes! I’m glad you enjoyed it – it’s nice to realise mine is actually a shared feeling. x

  7. Sophia April 1, 2017

    Love the look of these – they remind me of both amaretti and Moroccan almond cookies. My parents lived in Morocco before I was born so anything involving orange blossom water always reminds me of home.

    I loved what you wrote in this post as well – I sometimes feel the need to justify why I like to cook and bake (and then often take pictures of it and write about it) as well. In short, it is about pleasure – the pleasure of knowing that you are feeding yourself and your loved ones well, to pause in this frantic world to knead dough by hand (and the pleasure of seeing sticky dough turn silky), feeling connected to where you live and the seasons by adapting your meals to suit the seasonal bounty. I could go on and on.

    • Valeria April 1, 2017

      You’re so right, Sophia. Pleasure has definitely something to do with it, too. And I also find deep pleasure in seasonal produce and the change that it brings to the kitchen. There could be so much to say about this!

  8. Michelle April 4, 2017

    What a beautiful post Valeria; and the answer resonates in my heart too. Cooking, baking, creating and sharing all have the fundamental quality of love. I have always been so interested in what people eat; usually its my first question when my freinds are talking about an evening out or a vacation…what was the most fantastic thing you ate?
    I just wanted to say that I loved your answer, it was so very thoughtful and you put into words what I know in my heart to be true!

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