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In December, the first sign of approaching Christmas at our house, well before the wreath goes up on the front door, is the steady buildup of holiday cookie tins.
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I start my cookie baking early, making two indispensables (Toll House and peanut butter), a selection of other favorites, and usually at least one new or uncommon variety. This year I added kourambiedes, reginas, and – for the uncommon one – Ischler törtchen. These delectable tartlets look like miniature Linzer tortes. I used to make them many years ago, from a recipe in The Cooking of Vienna’s Empire volume of the Time Life Foods of the World series. But they’d slipped out of my repertoire. Time to reinstate them!
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Back in the day, I remember thinking it was a fairly complex recipe to make, but now that I’m an old hand at cookie baking, it seems quite easy. Here’s how it goes:

Cream butter and sugar; add ground almonds, flour, and cinnamon; mix until a dough forms.
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Roll the chilled dough thin and cut rounds, adding a small central hole to half of them. (Not having a tiny cookie cutter for the central hole, I used the small end of a pastry bag tip.)
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Bake in a moderate oven until lightly browned.
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Spread each solid round with jam (traditionally raspberry, but I had some black fig jam from Sicily that I wanted to try) and top it with one of the pierced rounds.
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Line them up so confectioner’s sugar can be shaked generously over them.
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Delectable they certainly were. The black fig jam was fine, though I have to say the classic raspberry filling is indeed the ideal flavor match for the almonds. These tartlets don’t keep as well as my regular Christmas cookie varieties, so we’ll have to eat them fairly quickly. Not a hardship!

Of course, neither do we want to ignore those other Christmas cookies, all so very good in their own ways. Santa always seems to like them too.
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Merry Christmas to all, and to all a good bite!

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Christmas is the only time of year I ever bake cookies. And then, in keeping with the spirit of holiday abundance, I bake a lot of them! This year I did four kinds of nut cookies: one each with almonds, hazelnuts, peanuts, and walnuts. Two are old favorites I make almost every year. One is a recent addition to my repertoire. And one is totally new to me.

Peanut Butter Cookies

peanut-butter

For me, these are the Ur Christmas cookie, going back to my earliest childhood. I don’t recall what recipe my mother used, but I love one that I clipped from an issue of Saveur magazine in 2000. With chunky peanut butter and dark brown sugar, it makes rich, luscious cookies that we look forward to every year.
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Toll House Cookies

toll-house

Another “wouldn’t be Christmas without” kind of cookie at our house – always from the recipe printed on the Nestle’s Toll House Morsels bag. This year I boldly tried one of its suggested variations, which is to add grated orange rind. A mere 1½ teaspoons of clementine rind made a surprisingly strong presence in 50 two-inch cookies. I found it a pleasant change, but Beloved Spouse – even more of a traditionalist than I – still prefers the classic version.
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Hazelnut-Brown Sugar Cookies

hazelnut

Two Christmases ago I tried this recipe from Lee Bailey’s book Country Desserts. It was very good, so I did it again this year. It’s a typical nut cookie procedure: You cream butter and brown sugar, beat in egg and vanilla, stir in flour, baking soda, and chopped nuts. Drop onto greased pans and bake in a moderate oven. This time they came out even better than last year’s – crisper and more delicate – possibly because I used light brown sugar instead of dark. Something to remember for next year.
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Granadinas

spanish

This was my new Christmas experiment. They’re almond cookies, a specialty of the Andalusian city of Granada. The recipe is from Penelope Casas’s Foods and Wines of Spain, and it’s the oddest cookie I’ve ever made. It starts with heating a cup of flour in a skillet for several minutes, not letting it brown. Cooled, the flour is mixed with ½ cup sugar, ¼ teaspoon cinnamon, and ¾ cup ground almonds. Add an egg and ½ cup of lard, and work the whole mixture into a dough. Shape it into one-inch balls, lay them on a baking sheet, and flatten the center of each one “with your index finger.”

three-stages

I did all that, baked them as directed, and they came out very well. You can’t actually taste the lard, but it provides a hint of savoriness underneath the almond nuttiness. Granadinas are supposed to be dusted with powdered sugar, but for us they’re sweet enough just plain.

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christmasdivider7

tins

So here are this season’s cookies in their tins, ready to make a sweet contribution to the year-end festivities for Beloved Spouse, our holiday guests, and – let us not forget – me.

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Beloved Spouse and I will be in Rome next week. It’s just a short trip, to revisit the places we love in that city. Many of those places will be restaurants, because minchillidining is one of the things we most love about Rome. But in addition to our long-time favorites, we try to make some new discoveries each time we go there. Toward that end, I recently bought a copy of Elizabeth Minchilli’s book Eating Rome. Subtitled “Living the Good Life in the Eternal City,” it isn’t exactly a cookbook – more a culinary guide to Rome’s eating customs and eating places – but it does include many recipes.

I tried one of the very first ones in the book: Amor Polenta, which the author calls her favorite breakfast cake. The odd name seems to mean Cornmeal Love, and apparently it’s a very traditional bakery item throughout Italy. It’s a sort of cornmeal-flavored pound cake, though in this version, at least, there’s not a preponderance of cornmeal in it.

There are basically only two steps to the recipe. First you beat together softened butter, eggs, granulated sugar, and vanilla. Second, you stir in a mixture of all-purpose flour, corn flour, ground almonds, and baking powder. The resulting batter is to be poured into a loaf pan and baked for 40 minutes. The finished cake gets a coating of powdered sugar.

I had some trouble with the recipe, though. It calls for one cup of ground almonds, which Minchilli says equals 170 grams. I weighed my almonds (170 g = 6 oz) before grinding them, and that quantity gave me two cups’ worth of fluffy particles. I decided to use them all, thinking maybe a finer grind would have compressed them into a single cup. That may have been a bad choice, because when I combined all the ingredients, I got something more like a dough than a batter.

dough

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It certainly wouldn’t pour into the pan. And when baked, it made a very dense bread. We first tasted my loaf as a dessert, and it really needed the simple fruit compote (plums, oranges, and bananas) I served alongside to lighten it.

served

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However, over the next few days, the bread turned out to be nice enough when toasted for breakfast. It even seemed to improve as time went on. Nut breads always seem to keep well. Still, I’m a little suspicious of this author, because when I subsequently checked the weight-to-volume conversions she gives for the other dry ingredients (corn flour, all-purpose flour, and sugar), not one of them agreed with the authorities I consulted.

Now, when I get to Rome I’ll have to look for amor polenta in pastry shops, to see if it’s anything like this one that I made.

BTW, since I won’t be at home, there won’t be a new post on this blog for the next two weeks.

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This is going to be a story of extended, earnest, culinary efforts that were totally unsuccessful. They were not entirely without consolations, but they fell far short of the goal. It all started last December, when De Robertis, a family-owned Italian pastry shop in Manhattan’s East Village, closed after 110 years in business.

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To downtown New Yorkers, its demise was as devastating as if the Statue of Liberty had stepped off its pedestal and walked away. I was one of the chief mourners, mainly because for decades I’d been addicted to De Robertis’s almond-studded biscotti. Light, crunchy, nutty, gently anise flavored, these were my Platonic ideal of biscotti. Nowhere else, in this city rich in biscotti and their kin, had I found any to equal them.

My very last De Robertis biscotto

My very last De Robertis biscotto

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After a futile round of re-trying the biscotti from other local Italian bakeries, it occurred to me that, having enjoyed many hundreds of the De Robertis ones over the years, I should be able to find or adapt a recipe that would allow me to approximate them at home. So I set forth on my quest, filled with innocent (but unmerited) confidence and eager (but soon to be dashed) hopes.

There are tons of different biscotti recipes in cookbooks and on the Web, using all manner of ingredients and flavorings, but I needed to focus on almonds and anise, which narrowed the options for me. The procedure itself is simple enough: Mix up a dough, shape it into rolls, bake them not quite to doneness; slice them, lay out the slices, and bake them again until browned, crisp, and dry. Stored in a tin, they keep almost forever.

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My first attempt was based on a recipe from my friend Joan, which I had made and enjoyed in the days before I fell in love with De Robertis. It calls for butter, eggs, anise extract, vanilla, flour, baking powder, salt, and grated walnuts. I switched almonds for walnuts, reduced the sugar somewhat, and doubled the amount of anise.

That didn’t work. I must have gotten the proportions wrong, because they came out rough, fat, and extremely crumbly – almost fell apart in the slicing, which they’d never done when I followed the recipe exactly.

Joan's biscotti

They even refused to get very brown. As cookies they were reasonably tasty, but nothing like what I was aiming for.

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sopranos family bookA few weeks later I was ready to try again. For my second attempt I turned to the recipe for Biscotti d’Anice in The Sopranos Family Cookbook. The De Robertis biscotti were Italian-American, right? What’s more Italian-American than the Sopranos? (The book’s recipes are actually by Michele Scicolone, also a friend.) The recipe had no butter – which I’d realized was what made my first batch so cookie-like – but used an extensively creamed base of eggs, sugar, anise extract and vanilla. Into that were to be folded flour, cornstarch, baking powder, and aniseed to make a thick batter. I substituted a lot of slivered almonds for the aniseed.

The batter had to be baked in a square pan, turning it into a cake, which was then to be cut into strips for the second baking. Unusual.

soprano biscotti

Though unconventionally shaped for biscotti, these crisped and browned well, but they were more delicate in texture and much sweeter than De Robertis’s. The almonds were barely noticeable. Again, not what I wanted.

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LTIWhen I was ready to enter the fray again I decided to try working with a purely Italian-Italian recipe: my own Biscotti di Prato from La Tavola Italiana. These have plenty of almond flavor, though no anise. Other ingredients are the usual flour, sugar, salt, and egg, but no butter and no vanilla; baking soda, not baking powder; and toasted almonds. I made a small batch, adding a good dose of anise extract.

my biscotti

These came closer to what I wanted, in look as well as flavor. But they’d utterly refused to brown this time, even though I’d given them a very long second baking (looks as if I overfloured the outsides), and there was no taste of the anise at all. Sigh.

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Baking with JuliaAfter that I essentially gave up. But I still longed for good biscotti, even if they weren’t just like my late lamented ones. The other day, browsing through Baking with Julia, I came upon a recipe for Hazelnut Biscotti, which started out by saying “It’s the baking soda in the dough that gives these biscotti their wonderful open, crunchy texture.” Aha – maybe that was why my own recipe had come closer than the others! So I tried it.

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Julia hazelnuts

Again, the result was nothing like the original goal, but these were very good indeed. The texture was as promised, and the hazelnut flavor was lovely. They were still sweeter than I like, but I can cut back the sugar next time. Guess I’ll just have to train myself to be content with these and with my own un-adapted recipe, above. De Robertis, ave atque vale!

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Every December, I make many kinds of the same much-loved Christmas cookies: ginger snaps, ruggelach, kourambiedes, Toll House, peanut butter, walnut crescents…. it’s glorious holiday excess, but by mid-January Tom and I are fairly sated with cookies. This year I vowed more restraint: only two of the traditionals, plus one new kind, as much for novelty as for this blog.

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After lengthy research, I chose a new recipe from the Cookies and Crackers volume of the Time-Life Good Cook series: Linzer Nussgebäck, or Linz Nut Cookies from Germany. The technique is to make a pastry base, partially bake it, spread it with a layer of chocolate-nut cream, bake again until the topping is firm, and cut it into squares or bars. It sounded delicious.

This was, however, the most worrisome cookie recipe I’ve ever attempted. At no point in the very long procedure was I at all confident that anything edible would result.

Start with the pastry base. In my Kitchen-Aid mixer I put flour and sugar, worked in butter, and added 5 egg yolks – the only liquid. This was supposed to turn into dough and be kneaded well. (That was weird. You never knead pastry; too much handling makes it tough.) My mixture refused to come together. It remained sticky crumbs, even when I tried to compress it by hand. I had to add 5 tablespoons of water before the dough grudgingly formed.

The next step was to roll the dough to a thickness of ¼ inch. It kept trying to break apart under the rolling pin, and I had to virtually mold it by hand like clay. By the time it was thin enough, it was about 12 inches square, which I was sure would fall to bits if I tried to transfer it to a baking sheet. I cut it in two pieces and persuaded them onto separate cookie sheets.

While they had their first baking, I prepared the topping. I blanched, peeled, and ground 7 ounces of almonds; ground 8 ounces of semisweet chocolate (a very messy task!), mixed these with the 5 egg whites and a cup of sugar. It was all to be stirred over low heat until it became “thick and creamy.” Well, it was thick to begin with, and the chocolate and sugar melted all right, but with all those gritty ground almonds the mixture wasn’t what I’d call creamy.

When I subsequently spread it on the pastry base and saw how thickly the soft topping lay, I feared I’d made a terrible mistake by using flat baking sheets instead of pans with a rim. I could visualize the chocolate liquefying, running over the edges of the pastry, spreading out over the sheets, and dripping onto the floor of the oven. But it was too late to change, so I slid the sheets into the oven and prayed to the pastry gods and the spirit of Christmas Present.

Mirabile dictu, the topping stayed just where it was put! (One of the few cooperative things about this recipe.) It took twice as much baking time to firm up as the recipe called for, but I was immensely relieved. When the pastry cooled, I carefully cut it into 2-inch squares. Here they are:

Not bad looking, are they?  But how do they taste? Well, I have to say I was underwhelmed. The thick pastry base was bland, without the richness you’d expect from all the butter, sugar, and egg yolks it contained. The equally thick nut-chocolate topping was rich and fudgy – a great wallop of sweetness – but the two parts of the cookie didn’t do much for each other. They just sat there separately in the mouth. When Tom tasted one, he said it was like commercially made cake: something you’d find on a grocery store shelf wrapped in cellophane.

Now, this was only two people’s opinion. We aren’t great sweet eaters in any case. I had some contrary evidence the next day, when I brought a batch of them to a Solstice Cookie Exchange, a holiday event for Morgan Library staff and volunteers. There was an abundance of homemade treats on offer, and an abundance of enthusiastic nibblers. Within an hour my nut bars were all gone. Some folks must’ve liked them!

So, tastes vary. Never mind; it was an experiment. And I’ve got my other two kinds of Christmas treats to console me: This year I did my excellent ginger snaps and peanut butter cookies. (Tom says yum!)

 

 

Merry Christmas, everyone!

 

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