Baking, Christmas, Foodporn, Italian Traditions, Uncategorized

Baking Christmas Cookies…Italian Style

“Isn’t there anyone who knows what Christmas is all about? ~ Charlie Brown

Christmas is most certainly about the birth of Jesus, and the baking of Christmas cookies! Some of my earliest memories of Christmas cookie baking are with the same great Italian home cooks, who I learned my culinary skills from. During the days, and weeks before Christmas, as each tray of cookie came out of the oven, their kitchens were filled with magnificent smells of cinnamon, spice, and everything nice. They produced so many cookies during the Christmas season, and each one was made with such patience, attentiveness, and it appeared effortless for everyone of them that I watched, and learned from. There was such precision with each cookie they baked, and as an assistant, it was important to quickly learn how to apply the final touches with exact detail, and not to ever overdo any of it.

I have always said baking is pure science, and they each had baking mastered. While each ingredient was measured, precisely, they had a gift of visually knowing how the look, feel, and texture of the batter or dough should be. This was a telling sign as to whether the end results would be wonderful, and if there were any doubts, adjustments were made accordingly, to ensure they were always wonderful, and they always were.

If you are a baker, and Italian, no less, you know Christmas cookie baking is serious business, and once all the baking is finished, the cookies are either boxed or plated, wrapped nicely with clear cellophane, tied with a pretty ribbon, and then they are given, proudly, to family, and friends as a loving gesture of the Christmas season. Over the years, I have somewhat perfected my baking skills, and learned parchment paper is a gift from the “baking gods”, and yet, there are still some days where a batch may be thrown in the trash. Everyone has a bad day…even eggs, butter, flour, and myself. For me, it’s not only the baking that needs to be perfect but also the presentation, and I spend a lot of time looking for the right packaging (to make it an even more special presentation) to place them in before giving my cookies away as gifts. The boxes are lined with pretty Christmas tissue paper, to protect, and secure the cookies during transport.

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My children grew up with the tradition of watching the baking frenzy of myself, their aunts and grandmother. Today, my daughter is carrying on those traditions with my grandchildren, who look forward to baking Christmas cookies every year. There are so many great memories of us baking all together, and more often than not, there would be more flour on a grandchild than the counter or bowl. I must say my daughter has much more patience than myself with flour being everywhere, and it’s that same patience that comes through with her making my granddaughter’s favorite…Rainbow Cookies. I say, very proudly, she makes them with such precision, and love, and it’s that love that comes through in every bite.

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First up, Biscotti…whether they are plain hazelnut or a chocolate hazelnut biscotti, with a hint of anise, they are a great cookie to have for breakfast with your coffee or an espresso or for dessert with wine. Dipping is truly a biscotti’s purpose.

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This next cookie, I will give you the English version because while I know how to say it in Italian (well, what I think is Italian), I am not sure how to spell it…Italian Lemon Cookies. They are made either in a knot or round, and are topped with a delicate flavored lemon icing, and sprinkles. They are absolutely one of my favorites, and a recipe I have had for a long time on a scrap piece of paper. My daughter laughs at the recipe directions, 5 – 6 cups of flour, and she asks, “Who gives recipe directions like that?” I laugh and say, “Nanny and I do!” Again, it goes back to the look, and the way the dough feels. Sometimes it requires 5 cups of flour, and sometimes it requires 6…it depends on the dough’s mood. I think the entire family has a passion for this cookie, and the harder it gets over the course of days, the better…just dip them in your coffee. Yum! I also have another version of this recipe that includes sour cream. It is a much softer, and a more delicate cookie but just as delicious.

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Up next is probably one of the easiest cookies to make, and there is actually a story behind their history in my recipe file. Many years ago, I was in a full, authentic Italian deli, and sitting on display for the customers to taste were these cookies called Arugula (not Rugelach, which is a Jewish version), and while I stood there, I nibbled on one or two. They were delicious, and were made by the owner’s wife. I purchased a small tray, and on went my mad scientist hat to figure out how she made these delicate, tasty pastry delights. So I proudly call it my very own recipe or version of Arugula, which is made with pastry, apple butter, cinnamon, nutmeg, walnuts, baked, and dusted with powder sugar.

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Walnut Snowballs…interestingly enough, I found this recipe in a magazine at a doctor’s office (back in the early ’90’s), and up until last year, I still had the tattered magazine page. I finally transferred all of my recipes to my desktop. Over the years, I changed the recipe up just a little bit, and it’s a given with every year since the first, a double batch is a must. It’s pretty hard to pop just one of these treasures in your mouth. Years ago, one thing my daughter, and I, learned rather quickly, my grandson, who suffers from a nut allergy, couldn’t touch the dough or be in the same room when we are making these cookies or any nut cookie, for that matter…his eyes would get watery, and then turn red. I can remember him as a little boy, when the tray of Christmas cookies were placed on the table, there would always be someone jumping up to say, “No, you can’t eat that one…they have nuts!” He eventually learned, pointed to each cookie, and asked if there were nuts. As he got older, and began to have an opinion, he asked why there had to be nuts in so many Christmas cookies. We didn’t really have an answer, except, “There just is.” Luckily for him, there are so many others that turned into his favorites, and with him being a chocoholic, I always manage to add more chocolate cookies just for him.

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I make two versions of the thumb print cookie, Apricot and Raspberry Thumbprints, and Chocolate Thumbprints filled with Christmas colors and goodies for the kids. So for the health conscious reading this, yes, there is a lot of butter in these, and many other cookies but again, moderation is key, along with discipline.

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How can you have Christmas cookies without the famous Chocolate Chip Cookie for Santa? It just wouldn’t be Christmas without them. As far back as I can remember, there was always a plate of chocolate chip cookies left out for Santa, along with a tall glass of milk. I have now added a new addition, which is Double Chocolate Chips Cookies…..oh, yes, another cookie you can’t eat just one of.

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The last two Italian Christmas treasures were actually off my Christmas cookie list for a number of years, and reappeared last Christmas. The Pignoli, with that almond flavor, a light, and airy dough, along with a hint of honey. I learned quickly the key is pressing the pignoli (pine nuts) into each cookie, securely, otherwise, they will start popping all over the oven while they are baking.

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What can I say about Struffoli? Just like most Italian families, Struffoli’s are ingrained into the history of my Italian family. I have such childhood into adulthood memories of these delicate, honey drenched, small balls of lightly, fried dough. They most certainly are labor intensive. The size needs to be precise. They use a lot of oil, and a fair amount of honey. You need to be quick with them, and they need to be watched, carefully, to not burn. Lastly, plating, and presenting the Struffoli can be tricky, and very sticky!

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Lastly, a new addition to my Christmas baking list, not a cookie but a candy…Peppermint Bark. The layers of melted semi-sweet chocolate, and vanilla bean white chocolate topped with crushed peppermint candy canes, not only satisfies a sweet tooth but it adds a little festivity to your dessert table.

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While most Christmas cookies have remained the same, some have changed but one thing is certain that will never change…it’s family time in the kitchen, uninterrupted, and with Christmas music playing. Add the sprinkle of laughter, along with a handful of family stories, and a cup of patience. Blend in the young ones excitement, and a pinch of baking experience, and just eat your mistakes with joy. Bake them with love, enjoy the Christmas miracles, and cherish the blessings of making Christmas memories for many, many years to come.

As always, in giving what I love, if you are interested in trying one of my creations, please feel free to contact me, directly, at divinedelectables@aol.com, and I will be more than happy to share any recipe that you choose.

Merry Christmas and Happy Baking!