These are one of my most memorable culinary discoveries of last year, and one of the best cookies I’ve had in a lifetime (which is saying something — just ask my thighs). Crunchy, just-sweet, and deliciously fragrant, ciambelline al vino (‘little rings of wine’) have a long tradition in the regions of Italy from Rome to Tuscany, where they have been made for generations from a few ingredients that are plentiful, cheap and often home-produced: namely wine, olive oil and aniseed or fennel seed. They are made very differently from the more familiar cantuccini and other biscotti, but they fill a similar niche as they too are versatile keeping-biscuits designed to be enjoyed with something drinkable.
The alchemy of such simple yet characterful ingredients produces a flavour so complex, deep and satisfying it is almost indecent. Whether you dip them in wine as the locals do to finish a meal, or crumble one with an espresso to start (or re-start) the day, I honestly don’t think it’s possible to avoid a transcendent moment. And strange as it might sound for something so more-ish, one is so good, that one is good enough. It takes a little time to snap and crunch through a single bijou ring, and then there are all those little shimmers of sugar and sweet herbal seeds to savour…. I may be wrong, but I think these biscuits are unlikely to be your ruin, though they are undeniably addictive, especially as a batch keeps beautifully for many days; and in fact their aniseed flavour develops over time.
Like any regional speciality, the making of these treats can vary from place to place as people adapt to what is most available to them. In some locales they are made with white wine, or sunflower as well as olive oil; but in the part of rural Umbria where we first encountered them, they are made, we were told, with the prolific red wines of the area, and its spicy olive oil. To make these in England is not the economical effort it is in Umbria, but these really are worth the use of a glass of good wine and olive oil.
How we came to discover them is quite a story, too, arising from a vertiginous mountain drive, a woodland hunt for black summer truffles, two charming cousins named Allesandro and Luca, and a pack of working dogs that kept us running and spell-bound.
On a sleep-deprived holiday in Umbria (thanks to a week-long Eighties music festival that discoed on into the wee hours outside our window), we set out bleary-eyed from our otherwise medieval base in the hill town of Montefalco (famous for its own ancient variety of grape, the Sagrantino) for a day’s truffle-hunting in the nearby mountains with no idea what to expect. Would we find any? Would we even find our destination? Would we manage to throw off the BeeGees and stay conscious enough to navigate the hair-pins that looked so ominous on the map?
We arrived unscathed after a demanding yet beautiful drive at a village called Pettino, where we had arranged to meet our host, Allesandro, in the carpark of the small church that sat on its own amongst rippling fields of durum wheat (Umbria manufactures much of Italy’s dried pasta). As soon as he drove up in his sturdy jeep, greeting us with a winning smile, we knew we were in good hands.
We were flagging again after the adrenalin rush of the drive, and to our immense gratitude, our newly acquired friend suggested we start the day with a visit to the family home for coffee and a little something before we headed out to the truffle-grounds.
The little something was a pot of stovetop espresso made by Allesandro’s cousin, Luca, and an old-fashioned tin of these traditional biscuits, made by Luca’s mother. They were delicious – so much more so than they promised by their pleasing but rather plain appearance. There was a depth of flavour I hadn’t expected, and it was an exciting flavour, not just a good one. As I rhapsodised, Luca and Allesandro explained with pride how the cookies were made with the family’s own red wine and olive oil. The day had been a blessing already and we hadn’t even made it out of the kitchen.
As we sat sipping and crunching at that simple table, with its linoleum cloth, its Moka pot and biscuit tin, we fell easily into Allessandro and Luca’s stories of farming, and truffle hunting, local politics, and family. We felt how the way of life seemed less armoured there, more demonstrative, with greater appreciation of the everyday and more honest exchanges over serious matters, even with virtual strangers. To sit at a table together was to engage, take an interest, look for commonalities, share. Somehow it is easier to lay down one’s own defences in such a setting, where feelings are more in the open and hospitality is whole-hearted by instinct. This world is generous.
Our day blossomed, and was one of the most warmly memorable we’ve experienced, thanks to the beautiful contrasts of mountain and woods, the easy companionship of our hosts, the energy of the working dogs, the symbiosis of man and nature in that unique place. We did find truffles – lots of them; or rather the dogs and their masters found them as we watched in wonder. A mix of breeds that took years to train for the task sped from tree to tree, keeping us on our toes to witness the moment when they would sniff out their fragrant quarry for Luca and Alessandro to dig free with their sticks. Sometimes the dogs would manage to dig the truffles from the earth themselves and deliver them eagerly with softened jaws to their masters, who carefully checked each find to determine its quality.
The sigh of the breeze through the trees, so welcome under the August sun; the springy feel of the woodland floor; the crunch of leaf and stick underfoot; the earthy smell of the truffles as they emerged like magic from the black soil; the excitement of it all, the forager’s primal joy, and the traveller’s, made this a joyous day, tender and sensuous. I felt close to the men, to the dogs, to the earth and what grows in it.
I remember all of that when I bake these simple biscuits. I can’t walk out my door and go to the forest to dig truffles, but I can go to my cupboard for some olive oil and wine. And when I do, I go back to that landscape, and kitchen table, and the talk of family and farming, hunting and dogs, red wine and olive oil, and I marvel at the love of life that exists in the world. I am grateful for that day and the efforts of a woman we didn’t meet, who made something with her hands and the produce of the land in which she was born and raised that brought pleasure to us, and which we now can make here in our own place to share with others.
Just as they were served that day in the Umbrian mountains, these are delightful to have on hand for the daily coffee or tea break, and for visitors. And they are so easy to make, requiring just a bowl and large spoon to mix – no fancy equipment, as they’re from a place where there mostly wasn’t any. Rolling the dough into rings and dipping them into wine and sugar is fun: a few moments of relaxed concentration with the pleasure of using ones hands. The smell of them baking is a delight, too, and makes the waiting that much more blissful, that much harder.
* * * * *
A few practical notes before you start baking….
Don’t be put off by the appearance of the raw dough, which looks disconcertingly like minced meat, as the red wine tints the flour. The colour and texture are transformed by baking into sparkly, rose-gold morsels.
The little dough rings are dipped in more red wine and rolled in coarse sugar before baking, and this creates a layer of syrupy sweetness that caramelises in the oven giving them a sweet contrast to the aniseedy interior and an extra crunch of sweetness that compliments the herbal interior.
*The usual practise, I’ve learned, is to dip the tops only into the wine, and then roll the rings in sugar. Some people dip only the tops in sugar. It’s apparently not traditional (and in fact is probably blasphemous) to dip both tops and bottoms of the cookies in wine (as I did on my first attempt, not knowing better). This made them much sweeter and even crunchier as there was more moisture to pick up and caramelise the sugar. It also made them messier in appearance as the sugar tends to spread out as it melts. Sweet-toothed tasters seemed to like this sweeter batch like a cat likes catnip, but on the whole I will stick with a dip into wine on the tops only, and break with tradition by allowing some sugar onto the bottoms when I roll them, since I like the sweeter, crunchier bottoms. You could try a few both ways and see which you prefer (please don’t tell Luca’s mum).
The addition of flaky sea salt is not traditional, but I love the dimension it adds, which suits the contrasting sweet and herbal notes that come from the aniseed and fennel seed.
As to these two types of anise-flavoured seeds, I am breaking with tradition again in adding both, as the traditional recipes require only one or the other. Aniseed is sweeter (and harder to find where I live), and fennel seed is more herbal and savoury. I love how the two herbs work together. I’ve made these with just the fennel seed too, and they are delicious this way — a little less sweet.
I like the flavour they both impart to be quite strong, so I add a little more than is typical – up to one tablespoon of each. You can add just one tablespoon in total if you prefer a subtler flavour. The anise flavour does develop over time, and the cookies seem to taste better the day after baking, although they are delicious right out of the oven as well.
As for how long to bake them…. These will keep for a good two to three weeks (maybe longer) if you bake them until they are completely dry and the undersides have a golden, caramelised sheen. That is how I prefer them, but they can be baked softer, too, so they have body without definite crunch; just give them long enough that they don’t taste doughy. Experiment with taking a few out of the oven sooner and giving them a taste-test. They won’t stay fresh nearly as long when they’re softer, but they get gobbled down quickly enough that this probably won’t be a problem.
Makes about 32 biscuits 30g (1 ounce) each
For the dough:
- 500g plain / all-purpose flour (4 cups sifted before measuring, minus 2 tablespoons)
- 125g (½ cup plus 2 tablespoons) caster / granulated sugar for mixing the dough
- 1 scant teaspoon flaky sea salt (e.g., Maldon); or ½ level teaspoon table salt
- 2-3 level teaspoons aniseed
- 2-3 level teaspoons fennel seed
- 175ml (2/3 cup) dry red wine
- 175ml (2/3 cup) good olive oil
For rolling the ciambelline before baking:
- About 100ml (scant ½ cup) red wine
- 200g (1 cup) sugar, ideally coarse-grained sugar (e.g., granulated rather than caster sugar)
- Combine all the ingredients for mixing the ciambelline in a large bowl and stir with a wooden spoon until the dough comes together in one mass and no flour is visible. It should be a little loose and slightly oily at this point, but the dough should be unified enough to leave the sides of the bowl clean. This takes just a couple of minutes.
- With your hands, lightly knead the dough, still in the bowl, until the mass comes together into a smoother ball and leaves the sides of the bowl clean. You can use the dough straight away or refrigerate it for a couple of hours or overnight.
- Pinch off walnut-sized balls of dough (weighing 30g or 1 ounce each if you want to be precise). Roll each into a little log the thickness of your finger and about 8cm long — a little over 3 inches (they look like thin sausages at this stage). ‘Sharpen’ the ends as you roll the little logs so they are more neatly rounded, then cross one end over the other with a slight overlap to make a ring or little wreath.
- Pour the wine for rolling the ciambellini onto a deep plate, and put the coating-sugar onto another plate. Invert the dough rings into the wine first, just long enough to moisten the tops; shake off the excess. Then quickly put them wine-side-down into the plate of sugar to coat the tops and soak up the wine. Turn them over to give the bottoms a light coat of sugar, too, if you wish. (*As described in the practical notes above, dunking both tops and bottoms of the dough rings in wine makes for a much sweeter, crunchier, and messier, result).
- Put each ring on a lined baking sheet (wine-dipped-side-up) with a bit of space between them. If they’ve lost their shape a little on handing, just give their centres a quick poke with your finger to open them up slightly.
- Bake at 160C/325F for an initial 10 minutes, rotate the sheet, and bake for another 5-10 minutes or until the cookies are lightly golden and firm to the touch. You can bake them until they are actually hard and dry, in which case they will last longer; or keep them a little softer, so they give very slightly but don’t feel soft. Try both approaches to see which you prefer.
- Cool on a rack and store airtight. Softer cookies will last a good week, and drier cookies will last two to three weeks.
- Dunk in red wine after a meal, drink with espresso as a tissue restorer, or be multinational and enjoy them with a cup of tea. (I’ve been known to mail them as gifts and to travel with them, as they also have the virtue of being nearly indestructible.)
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