COOKING LESSONS FROM ROME

RING-SHAPED COOKIES

At the end of a meal out, I rarely order dolci, sweet desserts, but after a long, leisurely Sunday lunch of tuna carpaccio and spaghetti alle vongole (with clams), at the restaurant Pierluigi in Rome's Centro Storico, we happened upon ciambelle, a sweet cookie with a distinctive shape. When my caffe decaffinato arrived, the waiter surprised us and brought along a small plate of what appeared to be ordinary sugar cookies shaped into rings. One bite proved these were unusual: not too sweet, with a delicate crisp bite, and a mild but unidentifiable fruity flavor. Later I learned it was red wine.

Before that day, I had never tasted ciambelle, which aren't strictly a Roman tradition. Many regions of Italy have their own version, and it's not unusual to find other baked goods shaped in a ring -- breads, cakes, doughnuts -- also called ciambelle, ciambellini, or ciambelloni (all mean "circle," but the different endings denote a difference in size). They're typically sold at a forno, bread bakery, as opposed to a pasticcieria where you buy creamy, buttery confections. In Rome, ciambelle cookies are reliably crisp and sugary on the outside. Traditional flavorings, which add a delicate taste, are red or white wine. Some bakers are now using limoncello, a lemony, sweet after-dinner drink. The type of wine or liqueur used also affects the texture. I prefer ciambelle made with red wine, which have the crispest consistency.

The cookies aren't difficult to make at home. With olive oil as the fat, the dough is surprisingly easy to work with and almost indestructible. In addition to the oil, the recipe calls only for wine or liqueur, and sugar -- these added in equal parts --and then enough flour to make a soft, elastic dough. Combine the ingredients in a bowl with a spoon, the way an old-fashioned cook might. No electric appliance or baking skills, like separating eggs or creaming butter and sugar, are required here.

Once the dough is prepared, cut it into small pieces, then roll the pieces between your palms into short ribbons or "snakes." The ends of the ribbons are pressed together to make rings, which are rolled in sugar before baking.

I thought I would never bake in my little Roman kitchen, but ciambelle are so easy to prepare I've made several batches. Rome is a city full of surprises, and discovering a plate of wonderful cookies that you didn't ask for, or expect, was only one of them.


Ciambelle
(Ring-shaped Cookies)

Makes about 30

The dough for these cookies is very forgiving and easy to work with. Use the best quality olive oil you can find.

1/2 cup sugar

1/4 cup olive oil

1/4 cup dry red wine

1 cup flour

Extra flour (for sprinkling)

1. In a medium bowl, combine 1/4 cup of the sugar with the olive oil and red wine. With a spoon, stir well to mix.

2. Add the flour gradually, incorporating the liquid mixture. Continue to add flour until the mixture forms a soft dough.

3. Turn the dough out onto clean work surface and begin to knead, adding flour as necessary, until the dough is smooth and not sticky. Cover with a clean dish towel, and let the dough sit at room temperature for 30 minutes.

4. Set the oven at 350 degrees. Have on hand a baking sheet lined with parchment paper.

5. To shape the rings: Place the remaining sugar on a plate. Cut the dough into four equal pieces and roll each piece into a fat cylinder. Cut each cylinder into 5 or 6 2-inch pieces. Gently roll the pieces of dough between your hands to form a 6-inch "snake" about the width of a pencil. Turn the ends to meet and press them together.

6. Carefully drop each ring onto the plate of sugar. Turn once to coat both sides of the rings, and place them on the baking sheets 2 inches apart; they will not spread during baking.

7. Bake in the middle of the oven for 30 minutes, or until they are lightly browned. They will continue to crisp as they cool.