Roccocò napoletani (Neapolitan Christmas Cookies)

FrankCampania, dessert30 Comments

Made with mixed spices, nuts and candied fruits, the Neapolitan cookies known as roccocò napoletani are vaguely reminiscent of our fruit cake, but, in my humble opinion, much more appealing in both in taste and texture. Roccocò are rather crunchy on the outside but, when properly made, soft and chewy on the inside. Though not as hard as cantucci, they are also often enjoyed with some beverage for dunking, either coffee or tea, or perhaps a sweet wine or, for special occasions like Christmas or New Year’s, a bubbly glass of Prosecco.

Like struffoli, roccocò are a fixture on Neapolitan holiday tables. They are traditionally made starting on December 8, the Feast of the Immaculate Conception, and enjoyed throughout the holiday season, ending with Epiphany on January 6. Of course, no one will stop you if you want to enjoy these delightful sweets off-season…

Ingredients

Makes 12 cookies

For the dough:

  • 100g (3-1/2 oz) almonds
  • 250g (1/2 lb) flour
  • 250g (1/2 lb) sugar
  • 100g (3-1/2 oz) candied orange peel
  • grated peel of an orange
  • 2-3 tsp mixed spices (see Notes), or to taste
  • 1 tsp baking soda
  • about 100ml (1/2 cup) water, or enough to form the dough

For glazing:

  • 1 egg, whisked

Directions

Bake the almonds in a hot (200C/400F) oven for about five minutes. Remove and roughly chop about half of them in a food processor. Reserve a few, if you like, to top the cookies.

In a mixing bowl, add the almonds and the other dough ingredients other than the water and mix them well. Then mix in enough water so the ingredients come together to form a rather sticky dough.

Divide the dough into 12 equal balls. Take each ball and roll it into a “log” about a thick as a finger, as if you were making gnocchi. (Working with this sticky dough, you’ll need to wash your hands from time to time. And bit of flour on the hands will help, too.)

Join the ends of each log to form a ring about 10cm (4 inches) across, placing them on a cookie sheet lined with parchment paper. The roccocò will expand during baking, so make sure to space them out by at least 2-3cm (1 inch). Brush each cookie with the egg. If using, top with reserved almonds, cut into pieces.

Bake in a moderate (180C/350F) oven for about 15-20 minutes, until the cookies are lightly browned. You can use the convection function if you want them a bit browner.

Let the roccocò cool completely on a rack before serving.

Roccoco napoletani

Notes

This is a simple recipe but there are a few tips to follow to get that crunchy on the outside, chewy on the inside consistency you’re aiming for. First use just enough water you need to form a dough. And minimize the mixing as much as you can. As for baking, the longer it goes, the harder your cookie will be. Francesconi calls for a very short baking time (10 minutes) which produces a relatively soft cookie. Most recipes hover around 15 minutes, which produces a firmer cookie, but one that is still chewy on the inside.

Roccocò napoletani get much of their characteristic flavor from a spice mix known as pisto. It typically includes ground cinnamon, cloves, nutmeg and star anise. In Naples you can buy it ready made in stores, but it is, of course, easy enough to make at home simply by combining these spices in equal proportions. One rather unorthodox substitute could be Chinese five spice powder, which typically includes some of the same spices—cinnamon, star anise and cloves—but rather untypically also includes some hot spices such as Sichuan pepper. But that bit of heat might actually make for an interesting change. (Full disclosure: I haven’t tried this, so proceed at your own risk.) Recipes are all over the map when it comes to how much pisto to add in. Francesconi’s recipe calls for only 1 teaspoonful, but I doubled her measurement and am glad I did.

Not all recipes call for the candied fruit, which you omit if you don’t care for it. Some recipes add a bit of powdered cocoa for a darker color.

The origins of roccocò napoletani

The recipe for roccocò are said to go back to 1320, when it was invented by the nuns at the Royal Convent of the Madgalene in Naples. (Sadly the convent was demolished in 1955.) The convent was established by Sancha of Aragon, illegitimate daughter of King Alfonso II of Naples, as a reformatory for the prostitutes that frequented the surrounding Maddalena neighborhood, which at the time was the center of a lively international trade in exotic and sometimes illicit goods from the Orient, including the spices that lend roccocò their characteristic flavor. The name roccocò is said to be a corruption of the French word recaille meaning “shell”, which the cookie is thought to resemble both in its round form and in its hard outside.

Roccoco napoletani

Neapolitan Christmas Cookies

Ingredients

For the dough

  • 100g 3-1/2 oz almonds
  • 250g 1/2 lb 250g (1/2 lb) flour
  • 250g 1/2 lb sugar
  • 100g 3-1/2 oz candied orange peel and/or citron
  • grated peel of an orange
  • 2-3 tsp 2-3 tsp mixed spices or to taste
  • 1 tsp 1 tsp baking soda
  • 100 ml 1/2 cup water or enough to form the dough

For glazing:

    Instructions

    • Bake the almonds in a hot (200C/400F) oven for about five minutes. Remove and roughly chop about half of them in a food processor. Reserve a few, if you like, to top the cookies.
    • In a mixing bowl, add the almonds (both chopped and whole) and the other dough ingredients other than the water and mix them well. Then mix in enough water so the ingredients come together to form a rather sticky dough. 
    • Divide the dough into 12 equal balls. Take each ball and roll it into a "log" about a thick as a finger, as if you were making gnocchi.
    • Join the ends of each log to form a ring about 10cm (4 inches) across, placing them on a cookie sheet lined with parchment paper. The roccocò will expand during baking, so make sure to space them out by at least 2-3cm (1 inch). Brush each cookie with the egg. If using, top with reserved almonds, cut into pieces.
    • Bake in a moderate (180C/350F) oven for about 15-20 minutes, until the cookies are lightly browned. You can use the convection function if you want them a bit browner. 
    • Let the roccocò cool completely on a rack before serving. 

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    30 Comments on “Roccocò napoletani (Neapolitan Christmas Cookies)”

    1. I wanted to do twist on recipe and make it more appealing to kids. My kids are super fond with pasta from osteria20? Can you recommend me something?

    2. Frank – I have a friend who makes these but it’s been years since I had one. Thanks for the recipe and for clueing me into “pisto.” I had never heard of it, but that Chinese 5-spice is a good alternative.

    3. What an interesting back story on the origin of these cookies – it makes perfect sense why they include the variety of exotic spices! I wasn’t familiar with Roccoco before reading this post, but now I want to give them a try. These sound delicious! Happy New Year to you and your family, Frank!

    4. I have been meaning to tell you how much we loved your spatzle! I had a forlorn home grown acorn squash in my fridge when your recipe turned up. I managed to find a grater for the dough on ebay and a new family favourite was born. Thank you so much from a very rainy new years day in the UK.

    5. Wonderful. I prefer mine on the crunchy side and heavy on spices. Should u come across baking ammonia, try it Frank – it gives the best crisp finish. Auguri a tutti btw – finger crossed

    6. Thank you so much for the Yule cookies with such a romantic name . . . and rather different from the spicy, crispy Christmas offerings of northern Europe . . . . thank you too for all the posts found in the box throughout the year . . . may this one already begun here be happy and healthy and successful for you . . .

    7. This is absolutely wonderful, I just love the story too. This is just my type of cookie. It may just be too tempting not to make. Hope you had a wonderful Christmas and will have a very happy and healthy New Year.

    8. Happy New Year Frank and thank you for your great blog, I look forward to it each week. Victor

    9. I knew they contained almonds just by looking at them and I bet they taste delicious! I love the Italian and Spanish traditions of making cakes and pastries for specific religious holidays.
      Happy New Year Frank!

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