Over the years, I've whittled my Christmas cookie baking to two or three types. Fortunately, I know I can count on my father's wife to bring me a tin of pizzelle and my friend Lilli to bake me some of her almond paste cookies. But this year, I can add three more types of cookies to my cookie tray, thanks to a cookie exchange with three of my favorite Italian food bloggers, - Adri, Domenica and Marie.
We started our first annual "Italian Gals Cookie Exchange," baking cookies and shipping them to each other at our homes across the United States - from California and Illinois to Virginia and New Jersey. Who says you have to live in the same town to have a cookie exchange?
The arrivals were greatly anticipated and felt like an early Christmas present. The first two arrived on the same day, including Domenica's delicious cranberry hazelnut biscotti, one of the recipes that will be included in the newest cookbook she's written, about to be released in March, called "Ciao Biscotti."
Adri's heavenly three-nut fingers came in a tin beautifully lined in striped tissue paper, with each pair of cookies individually delicately wrapped inside its own waxed paper envelope. The buttery cookies, with almonds, hazelnuts and pecans, just melted in the mouth.
And the reputation for Marie's legendary cucidati preceded the actual cookies. I've been reading about them for years, since she makes hundreds of them each Christmas and I've been so anxious to try them. They were every bit as delicious as what I had expected and brought back memories of Christmases with my late husband's Aunt Jenny, who baked a similar version.
My contribution were these chocolate-y, spicy cookies that my mother made each Christmas when I was growing up. She called them "brownies" but they're nothing like American brownies, except for the chocolate. In addition to the cinnamon, nutmeg and cloves, there's another unexpected spice that gives them a zing. For me, they're a taste of my childhood and it wouldn't be Christmas without them. The recipe, adapted from Alfred Portale, is listed below, but you can see step by step photos of how to make them on a post I wrote here, shortly after I started the blog in 2008. They're actually based on a Sicilian cookie called either "tutu" or "toto," according to reports I received from readers. Sometimes they're even referred to as "Meatball cookies." I think you can see why.
Also included on the plate below are a couple of "intorchiate," a cookie I wrote about in my last blog post.
I hope we four bloggers continue to maintain this tradition each year, and that we have inspired you to start your own cookie exchange, whether you live close to your friends, or far away. Just make sure to bake cookies that aren't too fragile so they won't break during shipment, and to keep it to a maximum of two dozen cookies and four people. Otherwise, you'll spend a lot on shipping and you'll be baking until la Befana comes home on January 6.
In the meantime, Buon Natale and best wishes for a wonderful 2015 to all my readers. Thank you for taking the time to read my blog through the year and for those of you who leave comments, an extra bacione.
Cocoa Christmas Cookies
or Italian "Brownies"
printable recipe here
4 cups all-purpose flour
1 cup unsweetened cocoa
4 1/2 tsps. baking powder
2 tsps. cinnamon
1/2 tsp freshly grated nutmeg
1/2 tsp. ground cloves
1/2 tsp. salt
1 1/2 tsp. black pepper
3 sticks unsalted butter, at room temperature
1 1/4 cups sugar
2 large eggs
1 tsp. vanilla
1 cup apricot jam
1/4 cup milk
2 cups chocolate chips
If using raisins and walnuts as Portale did, add 1 1/2 cups of each
2 cups confectioner's sugar
1/4 cup lemon juice
1. In a large mixing bowl, combine flour, cocoa, baking powder, cinnamon, nutmeg, cloves, salt, black pepper. Combine and set aside.
2. With a heavy duty mixer, beat butter and sugar together until creamy. Add eggs, one at a time, beating on medium speed for 1 minute after each addition. Beat in vanilla, jam, and milk. Set mixer to low and gradually add flour mixture, beating only until it is incorporated. Add the chocolate chips. The batter will be extremely stiff.
3. Place a large piece of waxed paper or parchment paper on the counter and flour it generously. Take a large spoon and scoop out a couple of heaping cups of the stiff batter onto the floured surface. Use a spoon to release it if needed. Flour your hands well and begin to shape the batter into a log shape, about an inch in diameter, rolling it back and forth on the floured surface. Use the paper to help mold it. Place the "logs" into the refrigerator for a couple of hours.
4. Remove from refrigerator and cut into sections about 1 1/2 inches wide. You can leave it this shape, or roll it between the palms of your hand into a flattened ball, which is the traditional shape.
5. Place balls on a parchment-lined or greased and floured cookie sheet, about 1 inch apart. Bake for about 10 minutes at 350 degrees. The tops will crack - this is normal. Transfer cookies to a rack and let cool. Cover with the glaze when completely cooled.
For the glaze:
Mix sifted confectioner's sugar and lemon juice with a spoon until the desired consistency. I make mine almost like a frosting rather than a glaze, which means you'll need to add more sugar. If you prefer yours to be more of a drizzle, adjust with more lemon juice.
This recipe makes about 6 to 7 dozen cookies and they freeze well. Just make sure the glaze is dry before putting them in the freezer. They will get hard if you leave them at for more than a week.