If I had a dollar for every time someone came up to my workstation in the test kitchen and proclaimed, “Those cookies are so cute!” I could retire. But endearing as they are, baci di dama are also fussy, and a few batches into my recipe development, I wanted to retire.
Hailing from the Piedmont region of Italy, baci di dama are sandwich cookies that consist of two tiny hazelnut buttons held together by a slim chocolate filling. (Their name translates as “lady’s kisses” because each sandwich is said to resemble a woman’s pursed lips.) Sandwich cookies are laborious to make by nature, but these are made from a short, fragile dough that must be chilled for at least an hour lest it soften too much to be workable. And because the cookies are bite-size, the portioning step is a real bear: A single batch makes dozens of cookies, each of which must be measured (often weighed) precisely so that all the sandwich halves match up perfectly. Once the cookies have been baked and cooled, half of them are overturned and dolloped with melted chocolate (or sometimes Nutella or ganache), gently topped with the remaining cookies so that the filling spreads just to the edges, and left to sit briefly so that the chocolate sets.
All this I learned after being lured in by not just their visual charm but their flavor and consistency, too. A recipe from Italian cookbook author Domenica Marchetti was the best and simplest I’d made, and it yielded cookies that were rich with nuts and butter and that carefully balanced ample structure with the tenderness of great shortbread. The results looked and tasted so good (even days later, which made them great to give as gifts or take to a party) that I picked apart the process to see where it could be made faster and easier.
Marchetti’s food-processor method for making the dough is easier than most classic recipes, which call for mixing the ingredients by hand. All you do is grind hazelnuts (toasted and skinned), butter, flour, sugar, and salt until the nuts are broken down and a dough comes together. It’s the subsequent portioning and chilling steps that really drag out the process, so I took a hard look at the ingredient list to see how I could make a firmer dough that would require less chilling.
The high ratio of fat to flour is what makes a short dough such as this one soft and fragile, so I tried making a leaner version. Marchetti’s formula already called for slightly less butter (and considerably less sugar) than most classic Piedmontese recipes, and when I reduced the butter and sugar a bit further while also cutting back on the nuts, I ended up with a dough that still boasted plenty of richness and nutty flavor but was firm enough that I could get away with just a quick stint in the freezer before portioning it.
There was one more subtle but tedious task I streamlined before moving on to the portioning project: rubbing every bit of papery skin from the toasted hazelnuts. Since I was grinding the nuts very fine, I wondered if it was necessary to be quite so thorough—or necessary to skin them at all—so I baked batches of cookies made with skinned, partially skinned (rubbed briefly after toasting), and skin-on hazelnuts. The surprising news: Not only was it easier to partially skin the nuts, but leaving some of the papery bits attached resulted in a slightly drier yet more flavorful and resilient dough with attractive dark flecks. (Forgoing skinning altogether made the dough too dry and a tad savory, thanks to the tannins in the skins.)
Precisely portioning the dough is the most important step when making any sandwich cookie, and it’s even more crucial here because the cookies’ button‑like charm relies on having two perfect halves. But scooping and weighing dozens of tiny dough pieces felt tedious, so I tried alternative methods, such as a “gnocchi” approach where you roll the dough into ropes and cut each rope into equal portions. It worked well enough but wasn’t as efficient as the method we used to portion Chocolate Truffles (January/February 2012): Press the dough into a parchment paper–lined baking pan; freeze it for 10 minutes to firm it up; turn out the frozen block onto the counter; and cut a “portion grid” by halving the dough lengthwise, halving those halves lengthwise, cutting the rows in half again, rotating the dough 90 degrees, and making equally spaced perpendicular cuts. It took just minutes to make equal portions that I rolled into balls and baked (see “The Fastest Way to Portion 64 Cookies”).
While the cookies cooled, I mapped out the most efficient way to assemble the sandwiches (see “Sandwich Assembly Line”) and melted a couple of ounces of bittersweet chocolate in the microwave for the filling. (Neither ganache nor Nutella firmed up enough to lock the cookies together.) Piping the chocolate from a zipper-lock bag with the corner snipped off didn’t work since the heat of my hands made the chocolate too runny. But I did find a trick for portioning the melted chocolate. I allowed it to cool and thicken a bit before spooning it onto the overturned cookies so that it wouldn’t run off the sides. Letting the sandwiches sit for about 15 minutes before serving allowed the chocolate to cool and set.
My no-fuss approach to skinning the nuts, mixing the dough in a food processor, and making a portion grid added up to a really approachable recipe. As for the cookies themselves, they were rich and complexly nutty, with a dark, bittersweet snap—and so cute.