Special Italian cookies spice up Christmas season

Story by CATHERINE HOSMAN
Photo by RICHARD CREED

I grew up in a large extended Italian family. My mom and dad each had five siblings. Count in their spouses and the kids and we had to rent a hall for family events.

The holidays were especially a big deal in our family. Oftentimes members of both sides would gather for backyard barbecues on the Fourth of July, Easter dinners, religious holidays, wherever there was an occasion, the family would gather. And the women would cook. My aunts and mother were all gourmet cooks. Everything was made by hand: from pasta to gravy to bread and pastries.

Each holiday had its special recipe, that one thing we always looked forward to. On Easter it was the homemade sweet bread — thick braids of orange-hued bread wrapped around an egg that cooked during the baking process. I can still taste that bread, fresh out of the oven; I can see my dad cutting a slice of the still-steaming loaf and spreading fresh butter on it before taking a bite. I tried making that bread once. It didn’t taste the same. Too yeasty. I didn’t realize how labor intensive it was.

My mother and aunts made cooking look so easy. From minimal ingredients came feasts to remember. But of all the holiday treats, my favorite has always been the Christmas Italian Spice Cookies.

They were first introduced to our family by one of my maternal aunts. They were these light clouds of chocolate laced with just enough spices and fused with dark cocoa to give every chocolate lover their fix. The problem with these cookies was that there were never enough. As soon as the plate was placed on the sweet table, those cookies were the first to disappear. Dozens of these cookies were prepared and set out almost ration-like. Everyone in the family loved the cookies and all the women wanted the recipe.

One year my mom asked for the recipe and when she made the cookies, something was missing. She studied that recipe, making several batches to figure out what went wrong, only to discover that a crucial ingredient was “accidentally” left out. Once the ingredient was identified, the cookies were a success.

Many years later I was thinking about those childhood Christmases and wishing I could taste those spice cookies again. I called a cousin but she didn’t have the recipe. I went through all the family recipes my 98-year old Aunt Clara sent me, but couldn’t find it. So I did what any modern woman living in the digital age would do — I Googled it.

I found the exact recipe online but made a minor alteration to it, adding what I call my secret ingredient. I must admit, the cookies I made for this issue turned out a little bigger than they should have. The recipe makes three dozen, I got two. Plus, the temptation of these cookies coming out of the oven was too much for my willpower and I ate most of the second dozen. Try them yourself and you will see what I mean. Hot or at room temperature, drizzled with frosting or plain, one cookie will not be enough. Enjoy.

Catherine’s Family Christmas Italian Spice Cookies

Makes about 3 dozen, depending on size of cookie and how many you eat before they make it to the plate.
It takes about 40 minutes to prepare. Preheat oven to 375°F.

3 cups all purpose flour (I used organic)
1 cup granulated sugar
2 teaspoons baking powder
¼ cup unsweetened baking cocoa
1 teaspoon ground cinnamon
1 teaspoon ground cloves
Secret ingredient: A pinch of nutmeg.
1 cup butter (2 sticks)
2 eggs
½ cup strong coffee, cooled
1 teaspoon vanilla
½ cup walnuts or pine nuts (not optional but can be left out if you have an allergy)
Powdered sugar drizzle (see below)

Step 1: Lightly grease cookie sheets or line with parchment paper; set aside.
In a large bowl stir together flour, granulated sugar, baking powder, cocoa, cinnamon, cloves and the optional pinch of nutmeg. Add softened butter.
Using a pastry blender (or improvise if you don’t have one), cut into butter until mixture resembles coarse crumbs. Make a well into the center of the flour mixture.
Step 2: In a medium bowl, whisk together eggs, cooled coffee, and vanilla. Pour egg mixture into flour mixture and stir until combined. Stir in nuts.
For easy handling, cover and chill dough for one to two hours.
Step 3: Shape the dough into walnut-size balls, (about 1¼ inches in diameter). Place balls about 2 inches apart on lightly greased or parchment-lined cookie sheets.
Bake cookies for 8 to 10 minutes or until edges are firm. Cookies may appear soft. Don’t overbake or they get too hard.
Transfer cookies to a wire rack and let cool. Drizzle with icing. Let icing dry.
Cookies can be stored frosted or unfrosted. Layer frosted cookies between wax paper in an airtight container and cover and store at room temperature for up to three days.
Freeze unfrosted cookies for up to three months. Thaw before frosting.

Icing

1 cup of powdered sugar
1-2 tablespoons of milk

In a small bowl, stir powdered sugar and milk until smooth.
Using a tablespoon, drizzle icing over each cookie.

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