Cavallucci di Siena are fragrant, crunchy but gooey, anice seed cookies traditionally eaten on Twelfth Night in Tuscany. They are a perfect end to the Christmas festivities.
Cavallucci: newish name, old recipe
In this week’s podcast episode, I talk about the traditions surround the 6 January in Italy, and I promised you a recipe: Cavallucci di Siena. These are traditional cookies eaten in Tuscany for Twelfth Night, aka La Festa della Befana. They appear to be very ancient and are first mentioned in a document from 1515 under their older name of berriguocoli. The current name, which I explain below, probably dates to the 18th Century.
There are many recipes around for cavallucci but I have chosen the one by Pellegrino Artusi from his 1891 classic cookbook La scienza in cucina e l’arte di mangiar bene. You will remember him and his cookbook from previous posts.
I’ve translated and included his version here and then tidied it up and modernized it at the bottom of the page. There are some notes on the text afterwards.
619. – Cavallucci di Siena
The speciality pastries from Siena are panforte, ricciarelli, cavallucci, and cupate (1). Cavallucci are rhomboid shaped biscuits of the size shown below; so you will see that the shape of a horse doesn’t have anything to do with it (2), and why they are thus called no-one knows even in ‘Siena full of three things: towers, bells, and jousting‘.(3)
In this recipe, I intend to show you how to imitate cavallucci, but not reproduce them precisely, because even if we are more or less there with the taste, the method leaves a lot to be desired. But this is only natural—when you are an expert and work with trade secrets which are a kept from outsiders, imitations are always a bit lacking. (4)
Light brown sugar, 300g
Shelled walnuts, 100g
Candied orange peel, 50g
Anice seeds, 15g
Spices and ground cinnamon, 5g
Chop the walnuts to more or less the size of vetch leaves. Cut the orange peel into dice. Heat the sugar with a third of its weight in water and when it arrives at the thread stage throw all the other ingredients in (5), mix them and then turn the warm mixture out onto the work surface on top of the flour so it absorbs it; but in doing this note that you will need more flour, which is necessary to make the dough come together. (6) Then form the cavallucci, (you will get about 40 with these measurements) and since, because of the sugar, the dough is sticky, sprinkle a little flour on top. Place them on a baking tray and cook them at a moderate heat so that they remain uncoloured. Pay attention when cooking the sugar, because if it cooks too much it will become too dark. When, taking a drop between your thumb and index finger, it begins to form a thread, then it’s ready to use. (7)Pellegrino Artusi (1891) La scienza in cucina e l’arte di mangiar bene. Milano: L’arte della stampa.
(1) Artusi starts of by listing the traditional dolci from Siena. All of them are still very popular today. Cupate, more usually spelled copate today are disks of nougat sandwiched between two pieces of rice paper. Here’s a link to my recipe for panforte.
(2) As far as the name of unknown origin—cavallucci means little horses—is concerned, people now think that it’s because the biscuits were used as snacks when people were travelling by post.
(3) Here Artusi makes a joke. He misquotes a common Florentine saying about Siena inserting the word quintane (jousts) at the end instead of the rather rude word with which the proverb ends. Any Florentines reading the book in 1891 would have been shocked to come across it but then would have laughed with relief when they saw how Artusi had ended it. If you want to know the original version, click here (but don’t say I didn’t warn you).
(4) I think Artusi is selling himself a bit short here. The finished cavallucci are delicious and very similar to ones I’ve had in shops in Tuscany. I must say, that I’ve added an ingredient to the recipe below. Cavallucci have a reputation for being a bit hard so I added a bit of baking powder to make them softer. The result is that they are crunchy on the outside and soft and gooey on the inside. You also need to be careful not to overcook them. They will still be soft when you take them out of the oven but they will harden when cooled. Maybe this was one of the ‘trade secrets’ he mentions.
(5) It seems that there is a mistake in the recipe. Artusi says that you should put ‘all the other ingredients’ into the sugar mixture but then it’s clear from the next stage that this doesn’t include the flour. Don’t worry, as I’ve corrected this in the modernized recipe below which, as you will notice from the pictures, works very well.
(6) As stated above, Artusi seems to think that his method of making the cavallucci isn’t quite correct as he was not party to the trade secrets of the 19th Century Sienese bakers. I must say that I’ve read an awful lot of recipes and the only real difference I could find was that the syrup is sometimes allowed to cool down before the other ingredients are added and that the flour is added to the pan along with the other ingredients instead of it being mixed through on the work surface. I tried a compromise which works very well: turn the dough out onto a floured work surface, form it into a sausage shape and then allow it to cool a little before cutting and forming it into cavallucci.
(7) At the end of the recipe, Artusi adds a few comments that perhaps would have sat better at the correct points in the recipe, such as the advice about needing more flour and not to overcook the sugar. It’s almost as if these were added as an afterthought after he tested the recipe. Artusi tested all the recipes for his book with the help of his cook Francesco Ruffilli and his housekeeper Marietta Sabatini who worked for him for many years and were more like friends than servants. As I read this, I can imagine the scene in the kitchen as Francesco and Marietta tried the recipe out under Sig. Artusi’s guidance and them discussing how the dough was a bit sticky and how more flour was needed and Sig. Artusi duly making notes. It’s passages and observations such as this which really bring Artusi’s book to life.