It all began when my mother gave me an Italian pastry recipe book which contained this childhood classic (well, mine at least). These are small shortcrust biscuits sandwiched together with pastry cream, then rolled in a dark red liqueur and granulated sugar. The result is a peach-looking like biscuit, very boozy and finger lickin’ good. I remember going to the pastry shop as a kid and asking my mother to buy me one of these, only to devour it in a few seconds. Not that I showed any alcoholic obsessions from an early age (the alcohol content is minimal if compared to other desserts), but more because of the deep red colour and the intense flavour these biscuits have. Just divine.
According to tradition, these should be made using two liqueurs. First, Maraschino, a Dalmatian liqueur obtained from the distillation of Marasca cherries, is added to the dough. As I didn’t have it, I used Cognac instead. These little beauties are then rolled in Alchermes, an Italian alcoholic concoction prepared with sugar, cinnamon, cloves, nutmeg and vanilla. Alchermes is renowned for its deep scarlet red colour, obtained with the addition of Kermes, a parasitic insect. When it came out the liqueur was prepared with insects, sales dropped and people refused to use it. As a result, modern preparations prefer vegetable colourings instead. I bought mine in Italy, but you should be able to buy it online or in specialist shops. Also, the filling can traditionally be either pastry cream or its chocolate version. I stipulated in favour of the second one, mostly because that’s the way I have always had them.
Ingredients (for the dough)
- 250g plain flour
- 1 large egg
- 100g golden caster sugar
- 1 tsp bicarbonate of soda
- 1 1/2 tsp baking powder
- 2 tsp Cognac
- 100g unsalted butter, softened
- pinch of salt
- zest of one lemon
Ingredients (for the filling and decoration)
- about 450g pastry cream and/or chocolate pastry cream
- about 200ml Alchermes
- 200g granulated sugar
- Line two (or three) baking trays with baking parchment. Do not turn the oven on now as the pastry needs to chill.
- Using a freestanding mixer (or your hands), cream the butter and the sugar together until light and fluffy, then add the egg and mix that in.
- Mix the flour with the raising agents, then sift those in and work them into the mixture, ensuring not to overwork it. Add the liqueur and the lemon zest, then work those in too. Gather the dough into a ball.
- Dust your working surface with a good amount of flour, then place your dough in the middle and use a floured rolling pin to roll it out to the thickness of a pound coin. Use a 4cm round cutter to cut shapes, then roll each one into a ball and place on the prepared baking tray. Keep on re-rolling your pastry trimmings to make as many nugget-sized pastry balls as possible. Also ensure you have an even number as you will need to sandwich them. Transfer each baking tray to the fridge to firm up before baking. You will need approximately 20-30 minutes.
- Towards the end of the baking time, pre-heat your oven to 180C, then bake each biscuit batch for 15 minutes. Do not overbake to give them a deep golden colour as they will be too hard afterwards. Remove each batch from the fridge and leave on a wire rack to cool down and firm up.
- Once cooled, use a knife to slightly carve the peach halves. This will ensure more cream can be used to fill them and keep the two halves together.
- When you are ready to assemble, place the granulated sugar in a shallow bowl, the liqueur in another and have the pastry cream at hand with a teaspoon. In an assembly line sort of way, fill the two halves with some pastry cream, then join them on the flat side to make them stick. Dunk them briefly in the Alchermes (you don’t want them to become too soggy), then roll them in the granulated sugar. Transfer them to an empty plate and, should you feel particularly artistic, decorate each one with a small mint leaf.