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Mealtime: Italian Holiday Cookies, Two Ways

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Italian Holiday Cookies - ANDY BRUMBAUGH
  • andy brumbaugh
  • Italian Holiday Cookies

After college, I convinced my best friend (and my current food photographer, Andy Brumbaugh) to move to Vermont from his hometown of Jamestown, N.Y. He lived with my parents for a while, and occasionally shared his Italian family's recipes with us, especially around the holidays.

I still remember the first time I tried his little chocolate cookies, flavored with cloves and other warming spices. Andy's recipe originally incorporated a chocolate cake mix. Through the years, he has been working on coming up with a good from-scratch recipe. When I told him that I wanted to make them for this column, he was excited to get my input.

A good quality cocoa is key to making chocolate cookies with a robust flavor. I suggest Hershey's Special Dark. I do not recommend Dutch processed cocoa, as that has been treated with an alkalizing agent to give it a milder taste. I also added a little strong coffee to the milk in the recipe, which helps to boost the chocolate flavor.

Andy tells me that these cookies are frequently found at Italian family gatherings and holiday celebrations, and sometimes share a plate with anise cookies. The dark and light varieties, with two very different flavor profiles, pair well.

The chocolate spice cookies, sometimes called Totos, can be made with nuts, raisins or chocolate chips. Andy's family prefers them without chunks — just a little dense cookie with a lightly sweet glaze — so that's how I made them. The cookie dough is almost like bread dough — very dense and easy to work with.

For the anise cookies, I used crushed anise seeds, which can be found at most grocery stores. The dough for these cookies is much different than the chocolate cookie dough — sticky and thinner.

I used the same vanilla glaze for both varieties, and topped the anise cookies with red sugar to make them look festive. Rainbow sprinkles would also be fun.

Both of these cookies can be made ahead of time and frozen, unglazed, for up to two months. They'll bring a little taste of Italy to your holiday cookie plate.

Ingredients:

Italian Chocolate Spice Cookies (Makes about 80 cookies)

  • 4 cups all-purpose flour
  • 1 cup sugar
  • ¾ cup unsweetened cocoa powder
  • 1½ teaspoons baking soda
  • 1½ teaspoons ground cinnamon
  • 1½ teaspoons ground cloves
  • 1 teaspoon ground allspice
  • 1 teaspoon ground black pepper
  • ¼ teaspoon salt
  • ¾ cup solid vegetable shortening
  • ¼ cup orange marmalade (or honey)
  • ¾ cup milk
  • ¼ cup strong black coffee, cooled

Anise Seed Cookies (Makes about 30 cookies)

  • ¼ cup butter, room temperature
  • 3 eggs
  • ½ cup sugar
  • 1 teaspoon almond extract
  • 1 teaspoon lemon extract
  • 2 cups all-purpose flour
  • ¾ teaspoon baking powder
  • 4 teaspoons crushed anise seeds

Vanilla Glaze

  • 3-4 tablespoons water
  • 1 tablespoon butter
  • ½ teaspoon vanilla extract
  • 2 cups confectioner's sugar

Directions:

Italian Chocolate Spice Cookies

  1. Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Whisk together dry ingredients, then cut in the shortening and marmalade with a pastry cutter or a couple of forks until well incorporated.
  2. Slowly drizzle in the milk and coffee while beating the dough with an electric mixer. Mix until a smooth, thick dough forms. Wrap in plastic wrap and set aside for at least 20 minutes at room temperature before shaping.
  3. After the dough has rested, shape into small balls about 1 inch in diameter, and put on parchment-lined baking sheets. (They can be pretty close to each other because they don't rise much.)
  4. Bake for 8 to 10 minutes and cool completely on a wire rack before glazing.

Anise Seed Cookies

  1. Preheat oven to 400 degrees.
  2. Cream together butter, eggs, sugar and extracts, then add dry ingredients including anise seeds, and mix to combine. The resulting dough will be sticky.
  3. Scoop into 1-inch balls — I used a small cookie scoop — and place about 2 inches apart on a cookie sheet. (You can use a little water on your fingertips to help form the cookies into balls).
  4. Bake for 6 to 7 minutes, or until lightly browned. Cool completely on a wire rack before glazing.

Vanilla Glaze

  1. Boil the water and slowly drizzle it over the butter, vanilla and confectioner's sugar, whisking to melt the butter and make a smooth glaze. You want it to be thick enough to adhere to the cookies, but not as thick as cake frosting.
  2. To glaze cookies, dip the tops into the glaze. If desired, top with sprinkles or colored sugar before the glaze hardens.

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