Brutti ma buoni

Frankdessert, Lombardia, Piemonte, Toscana21 Comments

brutti ma buoni

Brutti ma buoni, meaning “ugly but good”, is the jocular name Italians give to these nut and meringue cookies originally from north-central Italy (their precise origin is disputed) but now popular all over the country.

The recipe is simple enough, though you need to take some care so they come out just right. You fold roughly ground hazelnuts or almonds (or a mix of both) into a soft meringue made with egg whites and sugar. You then reduce this mixture over a low flame until it forms a sticky “dough”, which you then drop in spoonfuls on a cookie sheet. Then they bake in a low oven for about 20-25 minutes.

I have to admit, the rather lumpy and misshapen cookies that emerge from your oven might well deserve to be called ugly. But they are also definitely good. Very good, in fact, when properly made. Crispy on the outside and delightfully soft and chewy on the inside, I find them downright addictive.

Ingredients

Makes about 12 cookies

  • 150g (5 oz) hazelnuts, peeled and chopped (see Notes)
  • 2-3 egg whites (about 60g)
  • 150g (5 oz) sugar, preferably caster sugar (aka superfine/baker’s sugar)
  • A tiny pinch of salt

Directions

In a standing mixer, whisk the egg whites with a tiny pinch of salt until they form soft peaks. Then add the sugar in a steady stream as you continue to whisk until the sugar emulsifies with the egg whites and the mixture forms ribbons.

Stop the mixer and fold the hazelnuts into the meringue with a spatula.

Transfer the meringue and nuts mixture to a saucepan or non-stick skillet over medium heat. Simmer, stirring constantly and scraping up the bottom of the pan, until it starts to darken a bit and thickens into a gooey mass, about 5-10 minutes.

Plop heaping spoonfuls of the mixture on to a baking sheet lined with parchment paper, making sure they are well spaced. The mixture will be sticky, so you’ll need two spoons for the job.

Bake in a low (150C/300F) oven for about 20-25 minutes.

Let cool before serving.

Notes

This may seem like a fairly straightforward recipe, but it can be surprisingly tricky to get your brutti ma buoni to come out just right. While they will almost certainly be tasty almost no matter what, but to get that perfect crisp on the outside, chewy on the inside contrast that, for me at least, is what makes these cookies so special, you need to bear a few tips in mind.

The nut and meringue mixture

Here’s one I learned from my cyberfriend Tina Prestia from Tina’s Table—make sure you follow her if you don’t already!—and this was a gamer changer for me: Don’t whisk your egg whites until stiff, but only until they form soft peaks. This helps prevent the dough from drying out too easily, which in turn encourages browning during the next step and ensures a chewier texture after baking.

In my own brutti ma buoni testing, I found the following stove top simmer is also crucial. Take your time and let it go low and slow, scraping up the ever thickening nut and meringue mixture so it gently but steadily forms a thick mass that pulls away from the bottom of the pan. At that point, turn off the heat immediately and turn the mixture into a mixing bowl.

If the mixture overcooks, it can dry out and turn to crumbles. (Trust me, I’ve been there…) But if this happens to you, don’t fret too much. You can reconstitute the mixture after a fashion by adding a few drops of water, enough so the mixture comes together again. The texture won’t be the same, but in the end you’ll end up with a passable and still quite tasty batch of brutti ma buoni.

On the other hand, it’s important not to undercook the mixture, either. It may seems counterintuitive, but if you don’t cook the dough well enough, the cookie will actually turn out more brittle, more like a regular meringue.

Equipment

While most recipes call for a saucepan, I recommend using a non-stick skillet for simmering the nut and meringue mixture. The skillet’s greater surface area facilitates browning and shortens the time needed to thicken the dough. Most recipes call for ten minutes simmering, but in a skillet, I find 5 or 6 minutes is usually enough. And of course non-stick makes the clean up easier.

And needless to say, you don’t need a standing mixer to form the meringue, but it makes life a whole lot easier. If you don’t have one, a mixing bowl and hand mixer or, for the hearty, a simple whisk and lots of elbow grease, will get the job done.

brutti ma buoni
Baking

Because you bake your brutti ma buoni is a low oven, don’t expect them to brown very much there. That said, I recommend baking a slightly higher temperature than most recipes call for to provide just a slight bit more oven browning.

Hazelnuts

Where I live, the easiest form of hazelnut to find in stores are bags of the pre-peeled, pre-chopped nuts. And I’m guessing that’d be the case for many readers as well. (Sadly, once commonplace, whole unshelled, unpeeled nuts are getting harder and harder to find these days.) Chopped nuts are convenient, though usually a bit lacking in taste. I suggest you wake them up, so to speak, with a brief toss in a dry skillet until they give off their aroma, followed by a quick whiz in the food processor. Not too fine, as their rough texture is part of the charm of these “ugly” cookies.

If you are working with whole hazelnuts, then roast them briefly in a moderate (180C/350F) oven for about 10 minutes. If they are unpeeled, as soon as they are cool enough to handle, rub off their skins, which tend to be bitter. Or most of them. No need to be too fussy. (I actually like a hint of bitterness they can lend to the cookies.)

And if you really want to lean into authenticity and enjoy brutti ma buoni at their very best, then splurge on imported Italian hazelnuts from Piemonte, which you can buy online. They are from an area called Alta Lange, whose special microclimate produces hazelnuts of particular sweetness and tenderness.

Almonds

In Tuscany they usually make brutti ma buoni with almonds. Most recipes call for peeled almonds. You can buy almonds pre-peeled, or you can just parboil unpeeled almonds briefly, after which their peels should come off easily. That said, I actually prefer the taste of unpeeled almonds, which I briefly warm in the oven or toss in a skillet to bring out their oils.

Sugar

For making the meringue, most recipes just call for sugar, full stop. But whipping up the meringue is much easier with caster sugar. Failing that, regular granulated sugar would also work in a pinch. I’ve even seen a recipe calling for powdered sugar, though I haven’t personally tried it. What you want to avoid is coarsely ground sugar like Demerara or Turbinado. Both are delicious but not ideal for meringue making.

Variations

Once you get the basic recipe down, feel free to experiment with it to suit your personal tastes. Use more or less sugar to suit your sweet tooth. Chop the hazelnuts more or less finely to vary the texture. Adjust the ratio of nut to meringue. Bake a bit longer for a darker cookie, or at slightly higher or lower temperature, etc., etc.

You can also flavor the nut and meringue mixture with a few drops of vanilla extract or a pinch or two of ground cinnamon. I add the cinnamon along with the ground nuts before simmering, and the vanilla extract after. And if you’re a chocolate fan, try adding a spoonful or two of cocoa.

Besides hazelnuts or almonds, you can find recipes for brutti ma buoni with all sorts of other nuts, from pistachios to walnuts to pine nuts to peanuts. It’s difficult, really, to imagine a nut that wouldn’t lend itself to this treatment. Or why not try a mix of different nuts?

And if you don’t want to bother, you can skip the stovetop browning step. The resulting cookie will be much lighter in color, less intense in flavor and rather brittle in texture. In other words, more like your basic meringue cookie, but still quite edible.

A little history

According to Wikipedia, the origin of brutti ma buoni is disputed among three Italian regions. Some say they originated in the late 19th century in a pastry shop in Gavirate, a town in Lombardy. Borgomanero, a town in Piemonte, also claims them as its own. Then again, they show up in the early 20th century in Prato and Pistoia in Tuscany. There, as mentioned, they make brutti ma buoni with almonds and scented with lemon essence.

Since then, these little cookies have become popular all over Italy. You can find them as far south in Naples, with its own cinnamon-scented version, and Sicily, where they make them (like the Tuscans) with almonds.

Brutti ma buoni

Italian Nut and Meringue Cookies
Total Time1 hour
Course: Dessert
Cuisine: lombardia, Piemonte, Tuscan
Servings: 12

Ingredients

  • 150 g (5 oz) chopped hazelnuts
  • 2-3 egg whites about 60g
  • 150 g (5 oz) sugar, preferably caster sugar aka superfine or baker's sugar
  • A tiny pinch of salt

Instructions

  • In a standing mixer, whisk the egg whites with a tiny pinch of salt until they form soft peaks. Then add the sugar in a steady stream as you continue to whisk until the sugar emulsifies with the egg whites and the mixture forms ribbons.
  • Stop the mixer and fold the hazelnuts into the meringue with a spatula.
  • Transfer the meringue and nuts mixture to a saucepan or non-stick skillet over medium heat. Simmer, stirring constantly and scraping up the bottom of the pan, until it starts to darken a bit and thickens into a gooey mass, about 5-10 minutes.
  • Plop heaping spoonfuls of the mixture on to a baking sheet lined with parchment paper, making sure they are well spaced. The mixture will be sticky, so you’ll need two spoons for the job.
  • Bake in a low (150C/300F) oven for about 20-25 minutes.
  • Let cool before serving.

21 Comments on “Brutti ma buoni”

  1. Your brutti ma buoni recipe is spot on! I totally get the “ugly but good” charm of these cookies, they might not win a beauty contest, but that crispy outside and chewy inside combo is just addictive.

  2. Such a wonderful and dessert! I love Italian (and generally European) cookies as they tend to be not as sweet as American-style, and they are also more interesting in terms of flavour and texture, in my opinion. Loving these little beauties, and with the use of hazelnuts, they must be nicely chewy and nutty!

  3. Thanks for the shoutout Frank! I appreciate it. It seems we prefer these cookies the same way! Crisp on the outside and chewy on the inside! When they’re kind of dry and crisp throughout I’m sad!🤣

  4. Made these a while back and they’re great but the stovetop part seemed to take ages. I’ll try the non stick skillet next time.

  5. I had my first in Montalcino about three decades ago, from a small bakery on the main street. I got them as a joke because the car rental place told us our car was “bruti ma buoni,” saying it was like the cookies. I had to try them and, since, buy them whenever I see them. They are so good! Honestly, I never thought of making them… until now! I might need (need, I tell you) a batch this weekend!

    1. Well, that was serendipity at work, I guess! Nice way to get to know them. If I lived in Italy, I guess I wouldn’t bother making them. Just like I wouldn’t bother to bake my own bread. But of course I live where I live so…

  6. this sounds like an incredibly different technique Frank! and not all that easy perhaps to get right :=) I am surprised you say that about buying hazelnuts pre-chopped in stores as I have never seen them like that here in australia. We only get whole ones i believe. Either blanched/skinned or in their skins. Interesting…
    cheers
    sherry

    1. Interesting! I’ve re-worked the post a bit to be a bit more neutral about the form of hazelnut you buy. The whole ones are so much better but where I live only one of our supermarket chains still carry them whole. Convenience trumps all in this country, sadly.

  7. In my neck o’ the woods, no one knows what caster sugar is. On the other hand, I am starting to see baking sugar on the supermarket shelf. Google says it’s the very same!

    1. Must be, if Google says so! 🙂 I think they also call it superfine sugar. I’ve revised the ingredient list to account for all the different names.

We'd love to hear your questions and thoughts! And if you tried the recipe, we'd love to hear how it went!

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