Sunday, August 8, 2010

Meini o Pani de Mei

From Miss Fairfax we learn that “cake is rarely seen in the best houses nowadays.” But what about sweet corn cookies from Italy? Meini o Pani de Mei are always fashionable, especially with tea or after dinner served with coffee or a glass of white wine.

Italian cookies are remarkably diverse. Regional factors such as trade, prosperity, religious celebrations and geography influence the many variations. You find more butter-based cookies in the cooler, dairy-rich North and more olive oil- and ground nut-based cookies in the warmer South. Regions that grow corn, such as Emilia-Romagna and Lombardy, have traditional maize cookies. Sicily excels in almond production and almond paste cookies are found throughout the region. Piedmont’s hazelnut orchards beget hazelnut cookies.

The following recipe for Meini o Pani de Mei is from Carol Field’s The Italian Baker [1985]. Although classified by Field as bread, Meini are more cookie than bun, muffin or scone. They are traditionally enjoyed on 24 April “as a celebration of the liberation of [the Milanese] countryside from the assault of a ferocious highwayman and his brigands during the Middle Ages.” The Milanese also traditionally serve these cookies on All Souls’ Day to bring cheer on a day of remembrance. These are happy cookies.

  • 2 sticks plus 2 tablespoons (250 grams) unsalted butter, room temperature
  • 1¼ cups (250 grams) granulated sugar
  • 2 tablespoons plus 2 teaspoons honey
  • 1 egg
  • 1 egg yolk
  • ½ cup plus 2 teaspoons milk
  • 3¼ cups (450 grams) unbleached all-purpose flour
  • 1¾ cups plus 1 tablespoon plus 1 teaspoon (300 grams) fine yellow cornmeal
  • 3½ teaspoons baking powder
  •  2 drops almond oil or 1/8 teaspoon almond extract
  • About 1/3 cup (70 grams) granulated sugar
  • ½ cup (70 grams) confectioners’ sugar

By Mixer Only         Using the whisk if you have one, beat the butter, 1 cup plus 3 tablespoons sugar, and the honey for 1 to 2 minutes at low speed until combined. Increase the speed to medium-high and beat until light and fluffy. Add the egg, egg yolk, and 2 teaspoons milk and continue beating for 1 minute. Mix in the flour, cornmeal, and baking powder. Add ½ cup milk and the almond oil and mix at the lowest speed until blended. The dough should be stiff but not heavy. Knead briefly by hand or mixer, sprinkling with additional flour as needed, until buttery, soft, pliable, and slightly sticky.

Shaping         Line baking sheets with parchment paper or buttered brown paper. Cut the dough into 15 equal pieces (3 ounces or 90 grams each). Flour your hands and roll each piece into a ball. Flatten each ball into a ½-inch-thick patty, the size of a hamburger and the width of a woman’s hand. Place on the paper-lined baking sheets.

Glazing         Brush the tops with water and then sprinkle with granulated sugar, making sure a thin layer of sugar covers each bun. You can shake off the excess sugar by holding on to the paper and shaking the sugar up and over the edge of the pan. Place the confectioners’ sugar in a sifter or sieve and sift the sugar heavily over the buns so that they look as if they’re lost in a blizzard of sugar. The excess powdered sugar can stay on the paper because it will not caramelize.
Baking         Heat oven to 375ºF. Bake until the sugar on top has cracked into an irregular design, 15 to 20 minutes. Cool on racks. Makes 15 buns.

It is hard to imagine that a recipe containing the words patty, hamburger and woman’s hand can produce such excellent cookies.

Some thoughts and comments on this recipe: Field calls for 1¼ cups (250 grams) granulated sugar but only adds 1 cup plus 3 tablespoons when creaming the butter. The recipe does not account for the 1 tablespoon difference. I have baked different batches using each measurement and the cookies taste just fine either way. The 1¼ cups (250 grams) version is sweeter.

Over time I have moved from larger to smaller Meini. The recipe divides the dough into pieces weighing approximately 3 ounces or 90 grams. The accompanying photographs show pieces weighing approximately 2 ounces or 60 grams. This smaller size yields 24 cookies instead of 15. I like to serve the smaller cookies as a simple dessert. If you decide to bake smaller cookies, check them after baking for 15 minutes.