There is something deliciously liberating about cooking something you know will be unremittingly ugly. Step forward Brutti ma Buoni. These Italian meringue biscuits have, for a clumsy cook like me, the most seductive name in the business: it translates from the Italian literally as ‘Ugly but Good’; and, by God, does it deliver on both fronts. Silky meringue, crispy on the outside, but ever so slightly chewy on the inside, made visibly knobbly by chopped, toasted hazelnuts and, if you make it my way, tiny prizes of freeze dried raspberries or cocoa nibs throughout. They are lumpen and mismatched, and completely addictive. Their filling raises them from being a simple meringue, giving them body and bite. They sit somewhere between a biscuit and a meringue; in the same category, maybe, as macarons, but without the need for technical skill or precision. They are small, messy bites of joy.
These biscuits give express permission to throw precision and prettiness to the wind. This is the culinary equivalent of coming home, taking off your bra, and putting on your best pizza-eating pants. This isn’t a bake that hides imperfections, but one that revels in them: they celebrate their clumsiness, they trade on it.
I think, probably, all of my best cooking is brutti ma buoni: thick stews, and finger-staining curries. Because truly, who wouldn’t rather have a deep, murky, bone-marrow-laced stew than a perfectly trussed poussin? My dish-washing assistant may not rejoice in a bolognese that showers neon spatters of tomatoey oil up the sides of your best pan, not so much staining it, as tinting it forever more, a testament to, a trophy of the unphotogenic ragu that once graced its enamel, but I always will. My absolute favourite supper in the world is a sweet soft onion sour tamarind daal: it is a bowl of pale brown gloopy, shapeless glory. Gone are the days when I cook beef wellington for dinner parties. No longer will I only serve thick slabs of banana bread with a side of cringing apologies. I’m embracing ugliness.
These funny little biscuits cannot be prettied up. And truly, they shouldn’t be. It would be disingenuous, and you’d have to call them something entirely different, and nowhere near as charming. They can be dressed up, sure, and I do: flinging bitter melted chocolate across them, and freeze dried raspberries through and over them with wild abandon. But that doesn’t change their base imprecise, dollopy state. Put your piping bag away; don’t even think of trying to quenelle these. They are joyful precisely because they are unabashed, a bit bashed up, and completely delicious. Make them with pride.
Note: Do toast the nuts before you fold them in, and let them really cool before using. It’s especially important to do this if you’re chopping or grinding them yourself. Otherwise, as I’ve learnt the hard way, you run the risk of creating hazelnut sludge; totally delicious but pretty useless for present purposes.
It goes like this:
Brutti ma Buoni (Italian meringue biscuits: ugly, but good)
175g caster sugar
175g icing sugar
260g hazelnuts, roasted, skinned & chopped
4 large egg whites
1 tsp white wine vinegar
1 tsp cornflour
A handful of freeze dried raspberries pieces or cocoa nibs
50g dark chocolate
- First, toast your hazelnuts. Heat oven to 150 degrees C. Place hazelnuts on a baking sheet and toast in oven for 10 minutes-ish. Keep an eye on them, as nuts catch quickly due to their fat content, and make sure to shuffle or turn them at least once. They’re ready when you can smell them. Set to one side and allow to cool. If you’re toasting them whole, rub their skins off using a teatowel whilst still warm, leave to cool completely and then pulse very briefy in a food processor.
- Place the teaspoon of vinegar in a clean, heatproof bowl, and using a little piece of kitchen roll, wipe some of the vinegar around the inside of the bowl (this gets rid of any grease inside the bowl that will prevent you mixing your eggs properly).
- Beat the egg whites on a low speed using hand beaters or a standing mixture until tiny little bubbles start to appear. Then turn up the speed and beat on high until you have stiff peaks. Add the cornflour, and begin to add the sugars one tablespoon at a time. Beat in between each addition, bringing the meringue back to a bright glossiness before the next addition.
- Place the heatproof bowl over a pan of simmering water. Using a metal spoon, gently turn the meringue, allowing it to cook slightly, until it very slightly lightens and becomes even more glossy. Remove from the heat and fold through the nuts using the metal spoon, and any optional extras.
- Using a large spoon – bigger than a tablespoon, but smaller than a ladle, maybe serving spoon sized? – dollop big, fat spoonfuls onto baking sheets covered with baking paper. Space relatively generously, about an inch between each. Bake for 25 minutes, until they’ve taken on a little bit of colour and have begun to look golden.
- Allow to cool, and then drizzle with melted chocolate, and scatter with extra freeze dried raspberries, cocoa nibs, or whatever your heart desires. But don’t, whatever you do, try and make them pretty.
- Ta Dah!
Icing on the Cake
You could try replacing the hazelnuts with chopped pistachios and drizzle with white chocolate. This would be lovely with a tiny smidge of espresso powder or crushed cardamom added when you fold the nuts in, or a cautious splash of rosewater. Hell, put rose petals on the top of the chocolate, but don’t think for one moment that this will save these delicious little blobs from happy ugliness.