Ruminations: Start a new tradition with Christmas cookies

Some of our Christmas cookies from a previous year.  Clockwise from the bottom center, are:  Cuccidati, or Italian fig cookies; pizzelle; almond cookies (recipe not provided here); merenguitos; and more pizzelle.  Photo courtesy of Natalie Hormilla

Some of our Christmas cookies from a previous year. Clockwise from the bottom center, are: Cuccidati, or Italian fig cookies; pizzelle; almond cookies (recipe not provided here); merenguitos; and more pizzelle. Photo courtesy of Natalie Hormilla

copyright the Chronicle December 11, 2013

by Natalie Hormilla

Some years ago, when we got tired of too many Christmas gifts with too little meaning, we started to give away Christmas cookies.

The whole process is beautiful.  We bake together, listen to Christmas tunes, talk about the people we’ll give them to, sip amaretto, and just hang out as a family.

The best part is giving them.  The cookies we make for Christmas make their appearance just once a year.  They have a way of inspiring talk about those past family members who carried the recipes into the present.

I usually make polvorones, a traditional cookie for many people with some kind of Spanish background.  My recipe comes from my mom’s mom, the late Angela Diaz — better known as Abuela Tata — whose kitchen creations we still talk about.

I also usually make what we call “merenguitos,” which is just a cutesy name for little baked puffs of meringue.  These are plain and crunchy and especially loved by children.

My husband makes at least two types of Italian cookies — cuccidati, which are fig cookies, and pizzelle, which are thin, waffle cookies usually covered in powdered sugar.  His recipes come from his mom’s mom, the late Anne Gibson.  Grandma Anne was known for her Christmas cookies and for her many Italian desserts, which she baked for a popular restaurant in Key West, Florida, owned by one of her sons.

We spend a full day baking these cookies, then we divide them into boxes and distribute them to happy family members.

I used to purchase decorative tins until I came up with a thriftier alternative last year.  I stopped by my local Chinese restaurant and bought a big stack of takeout boxes.  Line the boxes with tissue paper or napkins.

For more traditional Christmas cookie recipes from staff members and readers, scroll down.

Polvorones

Polvorones, made with guava paste, fresh out of the oven.

Polvorones, made with guava paste, fresh out of the oven.

The name for this cookie must come from the Spanish word “polvo,” which means dust.  Polvorones are a sweet, simple, crunchy cookie with a chewy center — pure addiction.

5 1/2 c. all purpose flour

1/4 tsp. salt

2 tsp. baking powder

1 tsp. baking soda

1 pound shortening

4 c. sugar

3 large eggs, or 4 medium

egg yolks

guava paste

Preheat the oven to 375 degrees.

Sift together the flour, salt, baking powder, and baking soda.

In another bowl, cream together the shortening and sugar.  Add the whole eggs one at a time.  Mix in the dry ingredients, in batches.

One tablespoon at a time, roll the dough into little balls, and set on a lined baking sheet.  Once you have a dozen cookies on the sheet, make a little dent in the center of each ball with your finger.  This is a good job for kids.  Fill each dent with either a dab of egg yolk, or a sliver of guava paste.

Bake each sheet of cookies for about ten minutes; the cookies should have puffed a bit.  As per my grandmother’s instructions:  “Don’t let them toast.”

This recipe makes about seven dozen polvorones.

Merenguitos

In my family, merenguitos don’t really have a recipe per se.  You just start with room temperature egg whites in a very clean, dry bowl.

Beat the egg whites, maybe three of them, until frothy.  Add a little sugar, maybe a few tablespoons at a time, and keep beating the mixture, gradually increasing the speed as you go.  Keep adding sugar, judiciously, and at some point, you will have meringue that holds stiff peaks.  It should stay put in the bowl even if you hold it upside down.

Some meringue recipes call for adding cream of tartar, or vanilla, or salt, or whatever else.  These are fine additions, but all you need is the room temperature egg whites and plain sugar.

Once you have a meringue you like, you can either drop tablespoonsful onto a lined baking sheet, or you can pipe little puffs with a pastry bag.

Baking them is also something of an experiment.  Some recipes will tell you to dry them out in a low oven over hours, but my family has always done the ten-minute cook in a 350-ish oven.  They should cool completely before you remove them from the baking sheet.

In the end, you should have a sweet, crunchy meringue puff about a little bigger than a Hershey’s kiss.  You can save up egg whites over time, in a jar in the refrigerator, and make a mountain of these in an afternoon.

Cuccidati (Italian fig cookies)

These two logs of fig cookie filling wrapped in pastry dough are ready to be cut into fun shapes.

These two logs of fig cookie filling wrapped in pastry dough are ready to be cut into fun shapes.

Slice the logs crosswise to start the cookie-cutting process.

Slice the logs crosswise to start the cookie-cutting process.

web fig cookies cutting

Cut the cookies into any shape you can think of.

These cuccidati — or fig cookies — are cut, shaped, brushed with egg wash, and ready for the oven.

These cuccidati — or fig cookies — are cut, shaped, brushed with egg wash, and ready for the oven.

These fig cookies, fresh out of the oven, are cooling on a wire rack.  They can either be eaten like this, or further decorated.

These fig cookies, fresh out of the oven, are cooling on a wire rack. They can either be eaten like this, or further decorated.

Fig cookies decorated with a simple icing and rainbow sprinkles, a fun touch.

Fig cookies decorated with a simple icing and rainbow sprinkles, a fun touch.

Filling:

12 pieces candied orange skin

3 pieces candied lemon peel

12 pieces candied pineapple, chopped

3/4-pound dark raisins

3/4-pound golden raisins

1/2-pound candied cherries

peel of fresh orange and tangerine

3 pounds of dried figs, stem ends removed

1/2 c. almonds, chopped

1/2 c. walnuts, chopped

1/4 c. sherry wine

1/4 c. brandy

1 tsp. cinnamon

1/4 tsp. allspice

 

Pastry:

3 c. all purpose flour, sifted

1/2 tsp. salt

1 1/2 tsp. baking powder

1/2 c. sugar

1/2 c. solid vegetable shortening

3 eggs beaten

1 1/2 tsp. vanilla

1 egg, beaten to use as a wash

For the pastry, combine the flour, salt, baking powder, and sugar in a food processor, and pulse just to combine.  Add the shortening (it’s best to have the shortening cut into small cubes) and pulse just enough to get it worked in.  Add the beaten eggs and vanilla, and pulse until you have dough that will come together in your hands.  You may need ice water to help it come along.  If you do, just add small amounts at a time, like a tablespoon or so, until the dough looks workable.

Form the dough into two disks of the same size, wrap the disks in plastic, and let rest in the refrigerator for about an hour.

For the filling, combine all the ingredients to make this sweet paste.  This is easiest in a food processor, working in batches.

Once you have your pastry dough and filling, you’re ready to assemble the cookies, which is the fun part.  Cuccidati are made artfully and in a freeform manner.

Consider each disk its own batch size to work with.  Roll the disk into a rectangle, roughly eight inches by 14 inches.

Spread half the filling on this rectangle, leaving an even border of the dough.

Fold the rectangle of dough around the filling, rolling it into a log, leaving the seam at the bottom.  The log should be roughly four inches wide.  Brush the log with the egg wash.

Slice the log crosswise into cookies that are about an inch wide.

From here, you can turn the cookies into any shape you want.  Into x-shapes, into z-shapes, into little fanned out bits that look like a big smile — use a knife to make slits, and your hands to twist the cookies into the shapes.  Fig cookies don’t look like they came from a box.  They look rough and homemade, and can each be unique.  The design depends on who’s making them.

Once you have all your cuccidati cut up, place on a lined baking sheet, and bake at 375 degrees for about 15 to 20 minutes, until the cookies are light golden.

Allow to cool.  You might decorate some with a simple white icing and rainbow sprinkles, a touch my husband prefers.

Pizzelle

6 eggs

3 1/2 c. flour (approximately)

1 1/2 c. sugar

1 c. margarine*

4 tsp. baking powder

2 tbsp. vanilla or anise or any flavor desired

*Don’t use more than one cup and don’t use oil or other substitute.

Beat eggs, adding sugar gradually.  Beat until smooth.  Add cooled, melted margarine and flavoring.

Sift flour and baking powder and add to egg mixture.  Dough will be sticky enough to be dropped by a spoon.

What you need to give these cookies their trademark look is a pizzelle iron.  All pizzelle irons make different size pizzelle, with different patterns, so it takes some experimentation to know how much batter to spoon onto an iron to get thin, crispy, almost delicate pizzelle.

Last year, we finally wrote a note on our copy of the recipe  — for our Chef’s Pro pizzelle iron, a generous 1 1/2 tsp. of batter, with the iron set on five, yields perfect pizzelle.

Each pizzelle takes a few minutes in the iron, so this cookie is a labor of love during which you stand at your counter, tending to the pizzelle in their different stages of readiness.  You get into a groove — carefully remove the pizzelle from the iron (using either tongs, or a butter knife and quick fingers) and put them on a wire rack, instantly dust them with confectioners sugar.  Without missing a beat, be ready to spoon more batter onto the iron.  Occasionally spray the iron with more Pam.  Swat inquiring hands away from the plate as you go.  Move cooled pizzelle from racks onto a serving platter to make room for more; etc.  It’s a little like making waffles, but more intense.

All of these cookies are best made with a crowd.

contact Natalie Hormilla at natalie@bartonchronicle.com

Pfeffernüsse

This is a German Christmas cookie.  Its name means pepper nut — you’ve been warned.

2 c. plus 2 tbsp. all-purpose flour

3/4 tsp. baking powder

tsp. baking soda

1/4 tsp. salt

12 tsp. freshly ground pepper

 

Sift these together and add:

 

1/4 tsp. nutmeg

1/4 tsp. ground cloves

1 tsp. cinnamon

1/4 tsp. anise seeds

 

Cream 1/2 c. butter with 1/3 c. sugar.

Add one egg and beat until light.

To the creamed butter and sugar add:

1/4 c. finely chopped almonds

1 tbsp. finely chopped candied citron

1/4 c. finely chopped candied orange peel

(These should be very finely chopped)

Add a portion of the flour mixture to the butter mixture, alternating with a mixture of:

1/3 c. molasses

1 tbsp. corn syrup

1/3 c. brandy

1 tsp. grated lemon rind

1 tbsp. lemon juice

 

When all is combined, beat well and put in the refrigerator to chill overnight.

Heat the oven to 350 degrees, then shape the chilled batter into one-inch balls.

Place them on a greased cookie sheet and bake for 10 or 15 minutes.

While warm, roll the cookies in powdered sugar.

This recipe makes a ton of little cookies.

— submitted by Joseph Gresser of Stannard.

Sour cream sugar cookies

1/2 c. butter, softened

1-1/2 c. sugar

2 eggs

1 c. sour cream

1 tsp. vanilla

3-1/2 c. flour

1/2 tsp. baking soda

2 tsp. baking powder

1/2 tsp. salt

 

Cream together the butter and sugar.  Beat in eggs and sour cream.

Combine dry ingredients and add to the butter and sugar mixture.  Stir until combined.  Chill.

Divide the dough in half.  Roll out to 1/4-inch thickness.  Cut with cookie cutters.

Bake cookies at 350 degrees for seven to nine minutes, or until light brown on edges.

Cool cookies, then frost and decorate.

— submitted by Georgia Young of Glover.  This recipe is from her mother, Arlene Young.

Fold-up cookies

2 c. flour

1/2 tsp. salt

8 oz. cream cheese, softened

2 sticks butter, chilled

1 tbs. white vinegar

1 tbs. milk

cherry pie filling

blueberry pie filling

raspberry jam

 

Glaze:

3/4 cup confectioners sugar

1 tbs. water

 

Combine flour and salt.  With pastry blender, cut butter and cream cheese into flour mixture thoroughly.  Add milk and vinegar.  Work dough with hands until it holds together.  Divide into four pieces.  Press into squares and flatten slightly.  Wrap in wax paper and chill for at least two hours.

Preheat over to 375 degrees.  On lightly floured board, roll dough into square about 1/8 inch thick.  Cut into 2-1/2 inch squares (I use a ruler and pizza cutter.)  Place a cherry or a few blueberries in center of each square.  Moisten each corner with finger dipped in water and press together over center of fruit to seal.  For raspberry:  Put a small amount of jam on one corner of square.  From opposite corner roll dough so that it ends up under the cookie.  Press to seal.  Place on ungreased cookie sheets and bake for about 12 to 13 minutes (raspberry bake for ten minutes) or until bottoms begin to brown.  Remove to wire rack to cool.

For glaze:  Mix together confectioners’ sugar and water and drizzle over cooled cookies.

 

For apricot fold-ups:

In medium saucepan, cover 6 oz. of apricots with 1 cup water.  Stir in 3/4 cup sugar.  Bring to boil.  Remove from heat and let cool in liquid.  Drain.  Use apricots in place of pie filling.

— submitted by Georgia Young of Glover.

Chocolate Florentine cookies

2/3 c. butter

2 c. quick oats, uncooked

1 c. sugar

2/3 c. flour

1/4 c. corn syrup

1/4 c. milk

1 tsp. vanilla extract

1/4 tsp. salt

2 c. chocolate chips

 

Preheat oven to 375 degrees.

Melt butter in medium saucepan.  Remove from heat.  Stir in oats, sugar, flour, corn syrup, milk, vanilla and salt.  Mix well.

Drop by level measuring teaspoonfuls, about three inches apart, onto foil-lined cookie sheets.  Spread thin with rubber spatula.  Bake cookies for five to seven minutes.

Cool.  Peel foil away from cookies.

For the filling:  Melt chocolate chips over hot (but not boiling) water.  Stir until smooth.  Spread chocolate on the flat side of cookie.  Top with another cookie.

This recipe makes about 3-1/2 dozen sandwich cookies.

— submitted by Darlene Young of Glover.

Mint brownie squares

2 oz. unsweetened chocolate, melted

1/2 c. butter

2 eggs

1 c. sugar

1/2 c. flour

chopped walnuts or pecans (optional)

 

Combine all ingredients and mix.  Bake batter in cookie sheet at 325 degrees for 15 minutes.  Cool.

Mix green food coloring and peppermint flavoring into prepared vanilla frosting.  Spread frosting over cooled brownies.

 

1 oz. sweetened chocolate

1 tbsp. butter

1 tsp. vanilla

 

Melt chocolate and butter together.  Add vanilla. Drizzle over the top of brownies.  Chill.  Cut into squares.

— submitted by Darlene Young of Glover.

Butterscotch cookies

 This recipe is from the Cook’s Country magazine and it’s a favorite of ours and our friends.  It makes about 32 cookies

Use chilled butter so it won’t melt when you add the melted chips in step two.  If the chilled dough begins to split as you slice it, soften it on the counter for ten minutes.

 

1/2 c. butterscotch chips

3 tbsp. unsalted butter

9 tbsp. unsalted butter, cut into 9 pieces and chilled

2 tsp. vanilla extract

3/4 c. dark brown sugar, packed

1/2 tsp. salt

1 large egg yolk

1 3/4 c. flour

1 tsp. baking powder

 

1.  Microwave 1/2 c. butterscotch chips and 3 tbsp. butter in bowl until melted, about one minute, stirring halfway through.  Whisk in vanilla until mixture is smooth.  Let it cool for ten minutes.

2.  In bowl, whisk flour and baking powder.  Set aside.

3.  Cream remaining butter and brown sugar with your stand mixer on medium high speed until pale and fluffy, about three minutes.  Scrape the bowl down during this time.  Add cooled butterscotch mixture and beat until combined, about one minute.  Add egg yolk and beat until incorporated.  Reduce speed to low and add in the flour and baking powder and mix for a minute, or until the dough is formed.

4.  Turn dough out on to the counter and shape it into a 9-inch roll to form an even cylinder.  Wrap it in parchment or wax paper, and roll it again until you feel like it’s a good cylinder shape.   Refrigerate until firm, about two hours.

5.  Adjust oven racks to upper-middle and lower-middle positions.  Heat the oven to 325 degrees.  Line two baking sheets with parchment and slice the chilled dough into 1/4-inch rounds and place on baking sheet one inch apart and bake until edges have darkened slightly, about 15 minutes, switching and rotating sheets halfway through baking.  Let cool ten minutes on baking sheets, then transfer cookies to wire rack to cool completely.

— submitted by Bethany Creaser of Derby Line.

Share

Comments are closed.