Florentines are enormously popular cookies world-wide, but a visit to the best of Florence’s pastry shops for these cookies will leave you empty-handed.
By Emiko Davies
There’s a rumour going around that Florentine cookies are from Florence. “These Tuscan cookies,” says the Food Network website, “are a Christmas classic.” “The origin of the recipe is in Florence, hence the name,” claims Wikipedia. Apparently even Italian food bloggers (posting recipes found in American cookbooks translated into Italian) are tempted to believe that these cookies remind them of the Tuscan capital. They could not be further from reality.
Cookies tend to originate from Florence’s neighbouring Tuscan cities. The most famous are Cantuccini, better known to the English-speaking world as ‘biscotti’, the generic Italian term for biscuits, and are from Prato. Jaw-breakingly hard and not particularly sweet, they are made with plenty of flour, eggs, sugar and olive oil, and studded with whole almonds. Sienese Ricciarelli are heavy marzipan-like biscuits, dusted with icing sugar, while Cavallucci are a medieval blob of a biscuit made with nuts, flour, spices, honey or sugar and eggs. All three are long-lasting, hardy and generously served with local dessert wine that will fill you up in a way that makes them a meal in themselves. Quite the opposite of the Florentine cookie.
If you look at Tuscan desserts in general, many have been borrowed from other countries and beautifully made into local favourites: zuppa inglese, tiramisu and zuccotto are all variations on the English trifle. Look at any traditional Florentine trattoria menu and you will always find that the short dessert list most likely has foreign intruders such as cheesecake, crema catalana or crème brulee on offer. But a crispy, thin, caramel-flavoured cookie, dressed in chocolate on just one side like the Florentine, you will not find.
I began researching the Florentine a while ago, passing through every famous pastry shop in Florence and quizzing the bakers for their knowledge on these cookies, with unhelpful results. I sceptically consulted the reliable historical cookbooks for any reference to such a cookie that could have possibly originated in Florence.
In his 1891 bible of Italian home-cooking, Science in the Kitchen and the Art of Eating Well, Pellegrino Artusi includes a recipe for a dish that, not knowing what to call it, he simply names after the city where he tasted it. This so-called Dolce Firenze or ‘Florence dessert’ is essentially a simple, English bread and butter pudding. Although the British had a large presence in Florence in the 19th century (which is perhaps how he came across this dish in the first place), apparently neither the name nor the recipe caught on, as this is today rarely seen in Italy.
The closest I have come to finding a reliable source for a recipe for Florentines is in Elizabeth David’s 1979 article on the mid-17th century cookbook, A True Gentlewoman’s Delight. She cites a recipe from it entitled, “How to make a Florentine”, which describes a dessert pie filled with veal and mutton kidneys, cream, sugar, eggs, currants, rosewater and plenty of spices. Why it is called a Florentine is still a mystery to be solved, but it is a very far cry from those delicate, lacy, petite Florentine biscuits, drizzled in melted chocolate.
The essential ingredients of today’s Florentine biscuits could not be less Tuscan: cream, butter, just the tiniest spoonful of flour and chocolate. I have seen popular recipes with the additions of candied cherries, cornflakes, oats, corn syrup, sweetened condensed milk and more – all ingredients that are not remotely Tuscan.
It is much more likely that today’s Florentine biscuits come from France, the country whose patisserie shops are known for the best cream and butter-filled delights on the planet, from flaky croissants, chocolate éclairs to heart-shaped palmiers. Not only are the main ingredients typically French but the fact that the base for Florentine biscuits is essentially a roux, an oh-so-French cooking technique, should also signal the true origins of this delicate tea-time cookie.
It really shouldn’t be surprising that the French named a dish after Florence. After all, they have been doing it for centuries thanks to their Florentine Queen, Catherine de’ Medici, who happened to be one of history’s most influential gastronomes and a spinach enthusiast (think of those French-tinged brunch favourites, eggs Florentine and quiche Florentine).
Florentine cookies were most likely created in the late 17th century kitchens of French royalty in honour of their Tuscan in-laws. Centuries on, Florentines are still enormously popular cookies world-wide, but a visit to the best of Florence’s pastry shops for these cookies will leave you empty-handed.
Emiko Davies is a food writer, photographer and illustrator who Amanda Hesser calls the "Renaissance Woman for the Internet Era". She lived in Florence, Italy, for seven years where she nurtured her love of regional Italian cuisine and now calls Australia's food capital, Melbourne, her home.