Imagine a delicious filling of crunchy crushed almonds, caramelized nuts, honey, and dark chocolate-stuffed inside two round, flat and translucently-thin white biscuits—like a sandwich or an Oreo. But these are no ordinary cookies—they’re sacramental breads, glued together by mouthwatering ingredients. Shaped and made with real hosts, the sort you’d usually have at Sunday mass communion, they’re eaten for dessert.
Italy may be a zealously religious country but when it comes to food, even the worst sins of gluttony are forgiven, and indulged in. The ostie ripiene, or the “stuffed hosts,” are also known as the Host’s Biscuits. When I first heard about them I thought it was just another way to call one of those many homemade cookies that grannies or restaurant owners (the hosts!) make for special clients. But I was wrong.
When I actually saw and tried one I couldn’t believe my eyes, nor my taste buds. The delicate taste of the pure, smooth ivory-white host (made with just flour and water) clashes with the strong-flavored dark-brown caramelized interior, with bits of nuts sticking out. The ostie embody the dichotomy of human nature, torn between innocence (the white holy bread) and temptation (the seductive rich mix).
I was shocked that sacramental bread could actually be used to make pastries, thinking it quite provocative and blasphemous. But as I bit into the holy biscuit, my palate went into ecstasy. The host melted on my tongue and my teeth gently sunk into the nut-honey-chocolate paste, which is soft and tender. I was scared to chip a tooth as penance for my gluttony: an intake of roughly 600 calories per host, with bittersweet flavors of cinnamon and citrus, added to make the sin more pungent.
The ostie ripiene are a specialty of a super-religious rural town called Agnone, stuck in the deep central Italian region of Molise. It’s a place that would be unknown even to most Italians if it weren’t for two products it makes divinely: church bells (commissioned by the Vatican) and these unique host biscuits.
As for all supreme Italian treats and recipes, the legend says the ostie ripiene were born from a culinary mistake, or by chance. Religious people call it ”providence.” It is said that in the early 1600s at the local convent, nuns and choir girls were making a special cake with a honey-almond-nut mix for a knight who had stopped by in town. The knight had bragged about his military achievements to the friars who hosted him, so when he realized his excess of vanity, asked the nuns to prepare a lavish, savory and nutritious treat as a pardon gift to the monks.
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The nuns had a knack for chat and so it happened that a few clumsy ones inadvertently dropped a spoonful of the paste on the floor. To scoop it up quickly they used a readily available convent item: altar bread, which they were also preparing for the following Sunday mass. Hosts back then were made inside convent kitchens. As the nuns kept beehives, holy hosts and honey were predestined to unite.
When the pious sisters picked up the messy host from the floor, they realized the sugary sticky filling had stuck to the sacramental bread. Driven by curiosity (or tempted by their own palates), they tasted the concoction and found it miraculously toothsome. They then successfully replicated that “mistake” to perfection, handing it down through generations. Today, Agnone’s pastries and families prepare ostie ripiene year-round.
Other versions of the story have slightly different twists: the nuns either dropped the hosts inside the nuts and honey mix, or dropped the honey onto the holy bread. No big difference. In time, the treat was exported to the nearby regions of Puglia and Abruzzo, where the host paste is whole toasted almonds (instead of chopped) and honey, sans chocolate.
“I still remember when my grandparents used to make ostie ripiene at home: the ritual would start in autumn with the picking and shelling of the nuts and almonds, and we would gather around the fireplace to mix and heat the filling. It was party time. The secret is to stir together the ingredients long enough without hardening them, and placing the right amount into each ostia. If it’s too heavy, it cracks open,” says Annamaria Segreti, a housewife who lives in Agnone’s countryside and makes take-away ostie each weekend.
Each family has their own holy bread metal press and stamp to mark the hosts with a special symbol—such as a star, leaf, triangle, or flower—and Segreti still uses the old one handed down by her ancestors. It was an aristocratic treat, something poor families could afford just at Christmas. Even today, the ostie are perhaps the most expensive pastry in Italy. Prices range from 1.5 euros to up to 7 euros per host, depending on filling and village. But they’re worth the money.
There are a variety of biscuit sizes, from small to huge ones that cover a whole hand. The idea is to break and share these dessert holy breads with friends and family, given not just their size and calorie intake, but also their semi-spiritual nature.
Talking to locals in Agnone, it struck me that it had never occurred to them how such pastry could be offensive to Catholicism, or perceived as a blasphemous item in a town so religious. Segreti shrugs and replies it’s actually the other way round: the ostia ripiena enhances the mystical flavor of religious experience.
Even the Pope has given the green light. In 1995, Pope John Paul II visited Agnone and specifically asked to taste an ostia ripiena, which he apparently found real yummy. If a Pope enjoyed the cookie, then how can stuffing yourself with such a delectable treat be a sin?
Don't worry about these cookies. The hosts haven't been consecrated or transubstantiated so when the cookies are made, they are just crackers. It's a great way to use up reject or misstamped hosts (which may be the true origin story). Also, the Poles and Slovaks have oplatky at Christmas--you have to put honey on them to make them partially edible. Same thing. I thing the recipe will make the oplatky more palatable.