Happy Valentine’s Day! To celebrate, I made occhi di bue, one of my favorite Italian cookies. They are a simple sandwich-style cookie made of pasta frolla typically cut into a circle with a thin slip of fruit preserves, fruit curd, or Nutella spread in between. The top half of every cookie has a smaller circle cut out so the filling is visible. Every Italian pasticceria (pastry shop) or biscottificio (cookie shop) will almost always have occhi di bue behind their impeccably clean glass counters, lined with tray after tray of beautifully presented cookies, crostate, cakes, and pastries.
We spent the last day of our trip to Italy last month in Venezia with our friends, and as we were walking the quiet, narrow calle of the city towards Piazza San Marco, we were met with the sweet aroma of pastries wafting out from Pasticceria Rizzardini even before we saw it. We had just finished an incredible lunch at a traditional bàcaro and were craving something sweet, so when we happened upon the little shop with its antique-style, gold lettering and the windows almost completely fogged from the sweet warmth inside, the timing couldn’t have been more perfect. Little did any of us know that Pasticceria Rizzardini was named one of Venezia’s top ten pasticcerie last year. Francesca and I ducked inside with her youngest daughter in tow, and (politely) elbowed our way up to the counter through the confusion of customers enjoying an afternoon caffè, a chat with friends, and relishing a few minutes respite from the city’s signature damp-cold winter weather. Francesca’s youngest daughter, Agnese and I went straight for the occhi di bue filled with apricot preserves; her oldest daughter, Anna chose a delicate almond bar cookie, and Francesca selected three chocolate sigari (cigars) for herself, her husband, Alessandro, and my husband, Peter. The portly man behind the counter arranged our cookies on a small vasoio (tray), wrapped it as beautifully as a Christmas present, took our payment, and we exited back into the cold where we snapped a few pictures before happily munching on our desserts and exclaiming “mmm che buono!” as we continued our walk towards Piazza San Marco.
Occhi di bue means “ox’s eyes”, which I’ve always thought was an amusing name for this cookie but nevertheless appropriate since they resemble the animal’s large, round eyes. Italians have named several foods after both human and animal body parts, and as I started writing this post, I thought I’d have some fun with this topic and tell you about a few of them–some well-known, others more obscure. I posted my request for ideas on Facebook, and with the help of several of my lovely food blogging friends (grazie, ladies!), I got some terrific (and a few naughtily hilarious) answers. I even learned about a few foods I never knew about! This is by no means a comprehensive list since every region, city, and small village has their own creatively-named foods, but this a great start to a topic with which I am now totally fascinated. Be sure to do an image search for these foods as each one is beautiful in its own way.
lingue di gatto (“cat’s tongues”): A delicate and thin butter cookie named for it’s long, narrow shape. They pair well with a cup of tea, gelato, pastry cream, or with a fresh fruit salad.
ossa dei morti (“bones of the dead”): A hard, crunchy cookie typically made at the beginning of November to commemorate All Soul’s Day.
occhi di santa Lucia (“Saint Lucy’s eyes”): A small, ring-shaped cookie made to commemorate the feast day of Saint Lucy on December 13th. Once baked and cooled, they are covered with a simple glaze made of water and powdered sugar. There is also a version that was created twenty-five years ago for the May feast day celebration of Saint Lucy, where the dough, made entirely of almond paste, is shaped into a flat oval with pointed ends and garnished with candied orange peel to resemble an eye.
orecchiette (“little ears”): A pasta shape typical to the region of Puglia whose cupped shape and sturdy texture holds up well to hearty sauces.
linguine (“little tongues”): Long, flat pasta that is wider than spaghetti but thinner than fettuccine. They are also known as trenette and are typically dressed with a seafood-based sauce or pesto genovese.
panzerotti (“belly” or “tummy”): Half-moon shaped, savory, stuffed pizza turnovers that are fried (instead of baked like a calzone). They are typical to central and southern Italy. The name is derived from the word panza, a dialect of the word pancia, meaning “belly” or “tummy”, which is what panzerotti look like when the dough swells as it fries.
baci di dama (“lady’s kisses”): While not technically a food named after a body part, since a kiss comes from the lips, it’s close enough, so I made an exception! Two buttery hazelnut cookies are sandwiched together with melted chocolate.
dite degli apostoli (“apostle’s fingers”): A typical dessert from the region of Puglia, crespelle (crêpes) are stuffed with sweetened ricotta perfumed with liquor and lemon zest, rolled tightly, and sprinkled with powdered sugar and cinnamon. They are traditionally made during Carnevale.
teste di moro (“Moor’s heads”): A traditional sweet from Napoli made of pan di spagna (sponge cake) that is perfumed with liquor and has chocolate cream between the cake layers. It is then covered in more chocolate cream and chocolate sprinkles.
capelli d’angelo (“angel’s hair”): also known as capellini, they are a thin, long, and delicate variety of pasta that cooks very quickly.
minne di sant’Agata (“Saint Agatha’s breasts”): Also known as “virgin’s breasts”, minne di sant’Agata were created by the nuns of the Monastero della Vergine in Palermo to honor Saint Agatha, who was martyred by having her breasts cut off by a Roman suitor whom she rejected. She is depicted in frescoes and paintings holding her breasts on a platter. She is the patron saint of the eastern Sicilian city of Catania, whose pasticcerie (pastry shops) make and sell the minne during her feast day which is celebrated February third through the fifth. They are similar to cassata but simpler and smaller. Shortcrust pastry is baked in a half-sphere mold and then filled with sweetened ricotta embellished with finely chopped candied citrus and dark chocolate. The pastries are then enrobed with a simple white glaze and garnished with a candied cherry for “anatomical correctness”.
tette (or sise) delle monache (“nun’s breasts”): A traditional pastry from the town of Guardiagrele in Abruzzo, this pastry was originally named tre monti (“three mountains”) because they resemble the three mountain peaks of a nearby national park. Two legends exist about how this pastry got its name: the first legend states that the poet Modesto della Porta, upon seeing the snow-capped mountains of Guardiagrele, exclaimed that they looked as pure and perky as nun’s breasts. The second legend states that nuns trying to hide their ample bosoms would stuff fabric between their cleavage to appear more correct and modest, essentially making it look like they had three breasts. An additional explanation for the pastry’s amusing name was that it was created by nuns who were having a little fun (the sisters of the Poor Clare order claim to have invented these).
coglioni di mulo (“mule’s balls/testicles”): A cured salame made of lean cuts of pork that are finely minced and stuffed into a natural pork casing with a piece of lard. It is made primarily in the city of Norcia in the region of Umbria. The name of this product says everything you need to know about its shape.
palle del nonno (“grandfather’s balls/testicles”): Another cured salame from Norcia in Umbria that is made from finely minced pork, seasoned with salt and pepper, and lightly smoked. The casing has many round, bumps/protrusions in an elongated form, hence the appropriate description!
You can let your creativity soar when you make occhi di bue. Traditionally, they are round with a smooth edge, or round with scalloped edges, but since it’s Valentine’s Day today, I made mine heart shaped. I had to cut the centers out freehand, but if you have mini cookie cutters in various shapes, the cut-out process will go more quickly and you’ll get a more consistent look. We’ll just call my version of these cookies “rustic”! Occhi di bue can be made bite-size small or as large as the palm of your hand. The cut-out center can be a different shape than the outer edge to add interest. Dusting the top cut-out cookie with powdered sugar makes these look extra festive, but it’s optional. I always scent my batch of pasta frolla with grated lemon zest, which adds subtle tang and bright flavor to the dough. If you are using fruit preserves, make sure you warm the quantity you are using and then let it cool completely before filling the cookies. Once the preserves have cooled, they will thicken and take on a stickier consistency which helps the cookies adhere and stay sandwiched together.
It’s important to work quickly with pasta frolla because it’s a tender dough and softens easily from the butter. Here are my tips for successful pasta frolla cut-out shapes:
- Flour the board very well. You can use a pastry brush to remove any excess flour as you work.
- Roll the dough out when it is pliable but still has a chill.
- If you have a marble board to roll out your dough on, it will help keep it cool as you work with it.
- Invest in dough thickness rails to help you roll out an even sheet of pastry dough. Cookies that are the same thickness will bake evenly and at the same rate.
- Once the shapes are cut, use a thin metal offset spatula to help you lift the pastry shapes onto a parchment-lined baking sheet and chill them for 10-15 minutes before baking them off.
- Bake the cookies straight from the refrigerator to ensure they keep their shape and don’t spread too much.
- Space the cookies 2-3 inches apart on the baking sheet to prevent them from sticking together.
- Cool the cookies completely on a wire rack before assembling.
Occhi di bue are not a difficult cookie to make, despite the pasta frolla being slightly fiddly to work with, but with some attention to the details, they come together quickly. Younger bakers can easily help make these cookies by cutting out the dough shapes, sprinkling the powdered sugar, and sandwiching the finished cookies together. The extra cut-out hearts also make a great snack, so be sure to bake those little pieces, too!
Happy Valentine’s Day, friends!
Occhi di Bue
Adapted from ricettedellanonna.net
Using the quantities listed below, you can make the pasta frolla using the food processor (see my step-by-step picture tutorial here). Alternately, follow the directions below to make the pasta frolla by hand. To avoid wasting the dough and to make as many cookies as possible, re-roll the scraps no more than twice to avoid making the pastry dough tough.
Special equipment: cookie cutters in the shape(s) of your choosing
200 grams (1½ cups + 2 Tablespoons) Italian 00 flour or pastry flour or all-purpose flour
100 grams (7 Tablespoons) unsalted butter, softened
100 grams (½ cup) granulated sugar
4 grams (1 teaspoon) baking powder
1 large egg, at room temperature
Zest of 1 small lemon (optional)
Fruit preserves or fruit curd (flavor of your choosing) or Nutella
In a large mixing bowl, add the flour and the butter. Use a fork to work the butter completely into the flour until it is about the size of peas. Add in the sugar, baking powder, egg, and lemon zest (if using) and work the ingredients in with the fork until they are completely incorporated and the dough comes together with no dry ingredients remaining (this will take some time). If the dough needs more moisture, add in some ice water ¼ teaspoon at a time until the dough comes together. Form the dough into a ball, wrap it in plastic wrap, and refrigerate for 1 hour or preferably overnight.
Remove the dough from the refrigerator and let it stand at room temperature until it is pliable but still chilled. Divide the dough ball in two equal pieces. Flour the board very well and roll out one half of the dough until it is ¼ inch (about 6 mm) thick. Use a cookie cutter to cut out as many shapes as possible (re-rolling scraps no more than twice) and transfer them to parchment-lined baking sheets. Roll out the second half of the dough, following the same procedure. Count how many dough shapes you have and then cut the center out of half of them. Chill the dough shapes for 10-15 minutes.
Preheat oven to 350°F (180°C). Adjust the rack to the center position.
Space the chilled dough shapes 2-3 inches (approximately 5-7 cm) apart onto a parchment-lined baking sheet, keeping the remaining dough shapes chilled in the refrigerator. Bake one tray at a time until the cookies take on a very light golden color at the edges, about 8-10 minutes (watch them carefully). Cool the cookies on the baking sheet for 5 -10 minutes and then transfer them to a wire rack to cool completely.
Once all the occhi di bue are baked and cooled completely, warm the fruit preserves (if using) in a small saucepan, stirring often, until it bubbles gently. Remove the jam from the heat and transfer it to a small bowl. Let it cool completely to allow it to thicken. In the meantime, sprinkle the cut-out cookie tops with powdered sugar and set aside.
Spoon a small amount of the fruit preserves (or fruit curd, or Nutella) onto a solid cookie base and use a dinner knife or small offset spatula to spread the filling to the edges of the cookie in a thin, even layer. Top with the cut-out cookie top, making sure not to press down too hard (the filling should not ooze out the sides or center of the cookie). Let the cookies set for 10-15 minutes and serve.