Any food historians out there? Looking for early 13th cent. Italian honey almond cookie

Reading a biography of St. Francis of Assisi, the only treat he indulged in were some honey almond cakes (or cookies) that a Roman noblewoman would make him. He even asked for these on his deathbed but was too sick to eat them. I'd love to know what these were that he loved so much. One Italian company makes "Cappuci del frate" which they claim are that cookie--but they're made with hazelnuts and dipped in chocolate, and I"m quite sure chocolate hadn't made it to the Old World yet.

I did find a forum discussing the topic and they offered this recipe. Just wondering if anyone out there could tell me how likely this might be to the be real thing:

Mostaccioli - An Italian almond pastry

1 pound blanched almonds
1/2 cup honey
1 teaspoon cinnamon, or 1 teaspoon vanilla
2 egg whites, lightly beaten
Approximately 1 cup of flour

Chop the almonds very fine or coarsely grind in a blender

In a bowl combine the nuts, honey, cinnamon, and egg whites. Mix thoroughly. Gradually stir in enough flour to form a thick paste.

On a lightly floured surface, knead the paste until smooth and stiff. Roll out to about 1/4 inch. Cut into diamond shapes, about 2 1/2 inches long. Place the diamonds on a lightly buttered and floured baking sheet. Let dry for 1 to 2 hours.

Bake in a preheated 250°F oven for 20-30 minutes or until set. Do not let brown.

Yield: about 3 dozen

from A Continual Feast by Evelyn Birge Vitz

The person who posted this recipe added: "I suggest adding a splash of almond extract to punch up the flavor of the almonds in the dough." She also suggested dipping in chocolate--but I want to get the authentic experience of what it may have been that St. Francis enjoyed so much. (I'm also not so sure that it was a cookie. The book I have said that they were little honey almond cakes she made for her children.)

Updated on Aug 16, 2010

3 Replies

  1. This is at least very close to what 21st-century Franciscan Friars, at least where I work, distribute as St. Francis's favorite nosh. The local bakery sells them with or without the chocolate dip, and calls them almond horns, basically marzipan rolled in sliced almonds and formed into crescents (or mustaches!). Tasty.

    1. Retired food historian here, I taught for about six years. Reading the recipe, I detect a modern slant to the original. What is today called Italy was a major pathway for European Crusaders going to and from what we call The Middle East. Spices and other non-Eurpoean ingredients were carried home. The cinnamon and almonds were very likely available but would have been mixed with additional spices. The vanilla is less likely; orange or rose water would have been more available. Separating the eggs and beating the whites is probably another recent (+/- 500 years) twist. You are correct about the introduction of chocolate, much too early for this to have been used. You can get closer to the original by using a whole wheat flour since our bleached AP flour was not yet available. An oven that could be set to a specific temperature was an unheard of luxury, ditto for the blender for chopping the almonds.
      Note: these would have been referred to as "cakes" since the cookie designation was not used.

      I have questions and doubts about "the Roman noblewoman" making these ......... the noblewoman would not have been doing the actual baking and the distance from Rome to Assisi is approx 200 Km or over 100 miles. It makes a nice story but is probably stretching the truth somewhat.

      Good luck on your quest. Students were always fascinated by what was considered "normal" food by our ancestors. Often, the students made samples and brought them to class (with varying degrees of success, I must add).

      1. re: Sherri

        Whenever Francis travelled to Rome to see the Pope about an issue, he stopped to see a widow, Lady Jacopa (or Jacoba). She knew he wouldn't eat much other than bread and water, but she brought him some of the cakes she made her children. He loved them and for some reason allowed himself this little indulgence. (My guess is that part of his delight is that they came from her hands.) He left her a habit like the Franciscans wore and called her "Brother Jacopa." She's actually buried in Assisi near St. Francis' tomb. He probably only saw her and ate these treats a few times since years would pass before he'd go to Rome. But when she knew he was dying she did come and bring them to him, but he was too ill to eat them. It's well documented--but apparently not the recipe. :-)

        I'm guessing that I probably wouldn't even like whatever the original concoction was. For a man who ate bread and water most of his life, I suppose it wouldn't have taken much for him to find something else delicious.

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