Pignoli are Italian pine nut cookies, with a sweet, chewy almond cookie base studded with crunchy pine nuts. They are easy to make, naturally gluten free and deliciously good.
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Much as I try not to encourage my kids' taste for sweeter treats too much, now and then I can't help but bake something they might like. I figure it's better than candy (as much as anything, I am happier to join in) and it's not exactly every day.
Each year we love to try some new, and tweak older favorite cookies from around the world in the run up to the festive season. All so we can share them with you, of course. No self-indulgence, honestly. It's a win-win either way, as you'll agree if you give these a try.
Where are pignoli cookies from?
Pignoli cookies - amaretti con pignoli - are from Italy - in fact pignoli means pine nut in Italian. More specifically, these are generally considered to originate from Sicily, though you will find them in bakeries throughout the country as well as Italian bakeries in other parts of the world.
Italy is the largest producer of pine nuts in Europe and Sicily is one of the major growing regions. Pine nuts were introduced to the island during its Arab occupation in the 10th and 11th century, which is also when sugar was introduced.
Pine nuts are used in many Sicilian recipes, both sweet and savory (see my pasta con sarde a mare and Sicilian-style stuffed squid). These simple cookies combine them with another product of the island - almonds - into a delicious sweet treat.
These are incredibly simple cookies, similar to macarons with only a few ingredients of almonds, egg white and sugar for the base cookie and then pine nuts studded on the outside. As a result, they are naturally gluten free and dairy free.
In most traditional versions, you use almond paste as the base, but you can also make these starting with other forms of almonds. Using ground almonds or larger pieces of almond can lead to a slightly different texture, though the flavor will stay much the same.
You can also add a little additional flavor in the form of lemon or orange zest, as I have here. Some add vanilla, some almond extract or a spirit such as amaretto.
Is almond paste the same as marzipan?
While both are made from almonds and sugar, they are not quite the same. Almond paste is typically a little coarser and not quite as sweet. If you were to use marzipan here, you would want to reduce the sugar a little.
When are these traditionally enjoyed?
You’ll find these cookies year round in bakeries, but they are particularly popular during the festive period. As with a number of other countries, Italy has a number of baked goods that are traditionally enjoyed in the run up to Christmas.
Tips for making these cookies
Being so simple, these are very quick and easy to make, but a couple tips that may help:
- A food processor is the easiest way to make these, but you could also use a stand mixer.
- Break the almond paste up with your hands before processing it to break it up into crumbs. Then add the sugar to combine them and form a grainy texture.
- Add the egg white last and mix to combine everything - the mixture will be a little sticky. Use large eggs to get the right quantity of egg white.
- If the mixture is too sticky to handle, you can dampen your hands a little or place the mixture in the fridge for a few minutes to firm up. But, you want it to be a little sticky to be able to hold the pine nuts.
- A cookie scoop is helpful to divide the cookie dough, but you could also use a spoon.
- You can add pine nuts to just one side and leave the base without or roll on all sides, as here. I prefer on all sides as they then stick less to the cookie sheet and avoids having accidental gaps on the sides.
- Take care not to overbake these. They should be just golden brown and the pine nuts should only have the slightest bit of color. This means the pine nuts stay a nice flavor and leaves the cookies with a nice chewy texture.
You can dust these cookies with powdered sugar or leave them without, as you prefer. The sugar looks a little more festive but they will be delicious either way.
Pignoli cookies are so easy to make, with a delicious chewy texture and sweet nutty flavor. They make a wonderful addition to a festive cookie plate, but are equally good any time. Enjoy!
Try these other tasty festive cookies:
- Basler brunsli (Swiss chocolate almond cookies - also gluten and dairy free)
- German ginger cookies (ingwerplätchen)
- Melomakarona (Greek honey cookies)
- Plus get more Italian recipes and Holiday recipes in the archives.
- 7 oz almond paste 200g
- ½ cup sugar 100g
- 1 teaspoon lemon zest (optional)
- 1 egg white from a large egg
- ⅔ cup pine nuts 93g (may not need all)
- Preheat the oven to 350F/175C and line a baking sheet/tray with a silicone mat or parchment.
- Break up the almond paste into chunks and place in a food processor. Pulse for a minute or two to break the paste into crumbs.
- Add the sugar and lemon zest to the almond paste and process again to combine and form a grainy crumb-like texture.
- Add the egg white and mix to combine and bring the dough together. Remove the blade then divide the mixture into 12 pieces - I find it easiest to scoop with a small cookie scoop, with the scoop flattened off as you scoop.
- Roll each piece of dough into a ball. Using slightly wet hands can make this easier. Place the pine nuts in a relatively small wide bowl then roll each ball of dough in the pine nuts so that they stick evenly on all sides. Place the dough on the prepared cookie sheet/tray leaving around 2in/5cm between each cookie. Repeat with the rest of the cookies.
- Bake the cookies in the lower middle of the oven for around 12 - 15 minutes until they are a light golden brown. Remove from the oven and allow to for a good 10 minutes before removing from the baking sheet onto a cooling rack to cool further. If you like, dust with sifted confectioner's sugar (icing sugar). Store at room temperature in a closed container.