Brutti ma buoni

In the nearly 7 years I've been living in Rome, I've noticed a great many differences between Americans, the people of my home country, and Italians, the people of my adopted country. There are the little, more trivial things; Italians, for example, follow strict and purposeful rules when it comes to food and drink – no cappuccino after noon, no cheese with seafood, no eating dinner before 7:30pm -- while Americans are decidedly more relaxed in this regard, with more of any anything-goes-approach. Americans love and fully appreciate air conditioning, using it with abandon, while Italians are convinced that artificial cold air in general, but especially cold air blowing on your neck (yes) makes you sick (FYI: this is called “colpo di aria”). When it comes to a career, Americans have a more optimistic "follow your dreams!" approach, while Italians are far more practical, placing heavy importance on finding a "posto fisso" (fixed term job).

Then there are the bigger, more significant differences I've noticed, namely: The Filter. In my interactions with both Americans and Italians, I've realized that Americans, generally speaking, tend to be very (at times overly?) friendly and polite, more likely to sugarcoat something then tell you what they actually think. Americans, you see, are ever aware of their Filter, and keep it with them at All Times. Italians on the other hand tend to use their Filter far less consistently, and are much more likely to, in any given situation, tell you what they really think, and how they actually see things; I've learned that this behavior isn't meant to be rude, but simply direct and to the point. For example: In my earlier years in Rome, in a desperate attempt to fix what was supposed to be a trim gone wrong (don’t ask) I cut my then long hair quite short. I was pleased with the results -- it was something a little different, good in the 100 degree Roman heat, because remember, no air conditioning -- but when I showed my new look to an Italian colleague, her response was “It’s nice, but you looked better with longer hair.” Every single one of my American colleagues, on the other hand, said the haircut was “awesome” “great” “adorable.” 


Not too long ago, I was chatting with two Italian friends, one of which was talking about her (successful) diet. Translated, the conversation went something like this: "Well, it was about time I lost the weight, because honestly, I was really overweight before, and always had been," to which the other Italian friend responded, with a nod of her head, "Yes, of course." Her response struck me. An American, in this situation, would've responded to this comment with something like "Oh, stop!" or "Oh no, you weren't overweight, you looked fine before!" In this exchange however, there was no glossing over, no smoothing out, and no hurt feelings -- just the acknowledgment of facts they both knew to be true, no problem.

A couple of weeks prior to writing this post, I brought a piece of a cake I'd made to an Italian friend of mine. When I messaged him afterwards to see what he thought, he said, in so many words: "It was nice enough but just a piece was enough for me. I've liked other things you've made better." An American, in this case -- even if they hated the cake! -- would've, most likely, put their true thoughts about the cake aside and said "It was great! Thank you!"

I could go on, of course (I've made mental note of many of these instances over the years) but I think you get the idea -- bottom line, the use or lack thereof the Filter is one of the biggest cultural differences I've noticed between Americans and Italians. Which, of course, begs the question: which is better? Is it preferable to always tell the truth, and say what you really think, or is it better to err on the side of politeness and the preservation of feelings, keeping your opinions to yourself? I can see the merits of both -- no one wants to be lied to, but on the other hand, no one wants their feelings hurt, either, so it's a tricky one. Personally speaking, I still find my Filter firmly in place 7 years in, and while I'm no longer offended at comments that are more direct than perhaps I'm used to, they still stand out to me.

But I digress! Today's recipe is for brutti ma buoni, a hazelnut-meringue cookie from the Piedmont and Lombardy regions up in the north of Italy (there seems to be some controversy about exactly which region the cookies originally come from, so I'll be diplomatic and list both). Their name, translated to English, means "ugly but good," which strikes me as something a direct, no-filter Italian might say (if an American had named these cookies, they'd probably be called something like "Honestly no, they're not that ugly, and also they're really delicious"). And after all, it's true -- these cookies aren't much to look at, all pale brown and sort of craggy and uneven -- but they're darn good, truly buoni, buonissimi even. They're crisp on the outside with a soft and chewy interior, packed lots of crunchy, toasty hazelnuts, sweetened with a good dose of sugar and the unassuming but mighty flecks of a vanilla bean. They're a subdued, less-is-more kind of sweet -- a departure from the buttery, in-your-face American cookies I usually bake -- but are quite addictive nonetheless; in fact a significant amount of them mysteriously vanished before they were even photographed. Bonus: these cookies are also gluten and dairy free, if you're avoiding either (or both) of those these days.
A couple of notes: If you have a kitchen scale, please do use it to measure the egg whites -- you want 150 grams exactly. If you don't have a kitchen scale, you can measure out 3/4 cup egg whites (using an American standard cup measure) but the kitchen scale is best here. If you're living in Italy, you can buy granelle di nocciola, which are hazelnuts that are already chopped for you. If not, buy hazelnuts that are already skinned and use either a knife or a food processor to chop them until fine. If you don't want to buy a vanilla bean, you could probably substitute about 2 teaspoons vanilla extract here, but I've never tried it myself (let me know how it works for you!) The baking time here varies a bit depending on your oven -- see my comments in the recipe below. When cooking the meringue, use a non stick pot - if you don't have one, prepare to have the meringue stick a bit to the pot, but never fear, with a bit of soaking it will come off right away. Not sure what to do with all the leftover egg yolks you have from the egg whites you'll be using? One of my favorite sites, The Kitchn, has some ideas for you.

Looking for other cookie recipes? A few more favorites: these White Chocolate, Almond, and Apricot Biscotti, these Brownie Cookies, these Brown Butter and Chocolate Chunk Cookies, these Gingerbread Cookies, these Oatmeal Chocolate Chip Cookies, these Dark Chocolate Coconut Macaroons, these Magical 4 Ingredient Peanut Butter Cookies, and these Peanut Butter Sandwich Cookies.

(recipe from Giallo Zafferano)

About 5-6 room temperature egg whites (3/4 of a cup or 150 grams, better to weigh them if possible)
3 cups (300 grams) finely chopped skinned hazelnuts
1 cup (200 grams) sugar
1 vanilla bean

Place the egg whites in the bowl of a standing mixer, if you have one, adding the whip attachment. If you don't have a standing mixer (I don't) then you can also use electric beaters. Cut the vanilla bean down the middle and using a knife, scrape out the seeds. Add the seeds to the egg whites. Beat the egg whites with either the standing mixer or the beaters until they are thick and white. Add the sugar and beat until stiff peaks form -- you can test this by lifing the beaters/beater out of the egg whites; if the egg whites are sturdy enough to form little peaks once the beater is lifted away, they are ready). Note that this process might take a few minutes, especially if you are using electric beaters. 
 Next, fold in the hazelnuts, a little at a time. In a non-stick medium sized pot over a very low flame, cook the egg white/sugar/hazelnut mixture, stirring often, for 10 minutes.
Preheat the oven to 265 degrees Fahrenheit (130 degrees Celsius). Let your newly formed brutti ma buoni batter cool a minute or two, then using two spoons (or a cookie scoop) portion them out on to a cookie sheet lined with parchment paper. I managed to fit about 8 cookies on one sheet (you will get about 20-25 cookies from this). Bake the cookies until they are set on the bottom and the top is also set and crackly but the insides are still on the softer side -- this could take anywhere between 35-45 minutes, and actually with my little oven that heats up in an instant, it took me 30 minutes. Keep an eye on them and see how it goes -- it will very much depend on your oven. 
If the brutti ma buoni seem like they're getting too brown, cover them with aluminum foil. Let the cookies cool and enjoy. Makes 20-25 cookies.

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