When I was young, cookie season started in mid-December and continued until early January. Friends and family all had platters and trays of cookies on their tables, often of the multi-tiered variety. Each was carefully wrapped in plastic ready to be unwrapped when guests arrived. The platters were replenished after each group of guests left.
In my circle of family and friends, cookies usually fell into one of two categories, Italian-American or Slovak-American.
Nut rolls and poppy seed rolls are Slovak (well, OK, they’re really pretty much pan-Eastern European but since I grew up in a half-Slovak family we considered them to be Slovak even though we knew they were also made by the Poles, Ukrainians, Slovenians, and other Eastern Europeans in town) but they were made by the Italian side of my family as much as by the Slovak side.
There were also nut horns, butterballs, and thumbprints which defied ethnic baking boundaries.
However, flat, rolled cookies, like these butter cookies, were not usually made by Italian-Americans. The totos that I wrote about last December and the colored cookies that are coming up later this week were not usually made by Slovak-Americans.
Click HERE to join our mailing list and you’ll never miss a recipe again!
This recipe came to me by way of Aunt Ann who was married to my father’s brother, Jano. She said it was Grandma’s recipe.
I remember eating these cookies and seeing them piled on my grandmother’s table over the holidays.
These cookies are similar to the sand tarts that are common in the central part of Pennsylvania where the Pennsylvania Dutch, of German extraction, historically lived. The big difference, though, is that the dough for these butter cookies is prepared more like a pie crust while the dough for sand tarts is prepared more like cake batter. That is, for these cookies, flour and sugar are cut into butter with a pastry blender whereas for sand tarts the butter and sugar are first creamed together.
There also are sand tarts that I think of as more Southern. These are usually rolled into balls or formed into shapes and baked but not rolled thin like Pennsylvania Dutch sand tarts and my grandmother’s butter cookies.
Grandma Mihalik's Butter Cookies
The cookies should just be pale golden brown on the bottom. The color and weight of the cookie sheet significantly influence cooking. I find that shiny aluminum cookie sheets of medium weight work best. Dark metal will cause the bottom of the cookies to brown too much. Allow the cookies to rest for about 30 seconds before removing them from the cookie sheets. If you wait too long the cookies will lose their flexibility and are likely to break.
Combine cinnamon and three tablespoons sugar. Reserve.
Grind the walnuts and reserve.
Put the butter in a mixing bowl and leave at room temperature for about 30 minutes to soften slightly.
Add 1 cup of sugar and flour to the butter.
Mix with a pastry blender until little beads form.
Add the cream and egg yolks and continue mixing with the pastry blender until a shaggy dough forms.
Press into a log, cut in half (or quarters) and wrap in plastic wrap and refrigerate for 30 minutes.
Roll a portion of dough between sheets of waxed paper to approximately 1/8 inch thick.
Cut into shapes.
Arrange on ungreased cookie sheets.
If the dough starts to warm too much it will be difficult to get the cookies off the waxed paper. If this happens, put the rolled out dough, still between the waxed paper, in the refrigerator for a few of minutes.
Brush with unbeaten egg whites.
Sprinkle with ground walnuts
Sprinkle with cinnamon sugar.
Bake 350°F approximately 8-9 minutes or until light brown on the bottom.
Remove from the cookie sheet almost immediately and cool on a wire rack.
Pizzelle were present at every holiday, birthday, wedding, and festive event as well as at random times throughout the year.
They usually came from Aunt Margie, though other folks made pizzelle, too.
My mother never did. Though she liked to bake, and made some wonderful pastries, pizzelle were not part of her repertoire.
The classic flavor is anise, though vanilla, and to a lesser extent lemon and orange, are common as well.
Aunt Margie would use pizzelle to make ice cream sandwiches. She would roll them around a tube to make faux cannoli. She would even roll them into ice cream cones. Of all the permutations, though, my favorite is just the classic, flat, crispy anise-flavored cookie.
Click HERE to join our mailing list and never miss another recipe again!
I don’t know anybody who doesn’t use an electric pizzelle iron these days but originally Aunt Margie used one of cast iron that was heated on the stove. It came from Berarducci Brothers in McKeesport, Pennsylvania and is most definitely iron, not aluminum. I have the pizzelle maker in its original box.
Unfortunately Berarducci Brothers is no longer around. Not only did they manufacture stove-top and electric pizzelle irons, they made ravioli molds, crank-handle vegetable strainers, and an array of other culinary tools.
In my experience, anise oil is essential. Anise extract simply does not pack enough flavor to give pizzelle the punch they need.
When I was young, anise oil came from the pharmacy. It was not uncommon in those days for pharmacies to routinely compound medications to a physician’s specific instructions. Compounding is now limited to a few specialty pharmacies but not so back then. Anise oil was commonly used to flavor what might otherwise be a noxious medication.
It was common practice among the Italian families in my hometown to go to the pharmacy to buy a bottle of anise oil. One upside, besides the easy availability of the stuff, is that it was pharmaceutical grade and, therefore, very pure.
I tried that in Santa Fe after my mother-in-law kept failing to get enough anise flavor out of anise extract. We even have actual compounding pharmacies in Santa Fe as well as pharmacies that specialize in herbal and homeopathic medications that also make up their own medications. No dice. Not one of them carried anise oil.
Amazon to the rescue. There are other on-line sources, too, like the King Arthur Flour people. So, if you want to try your hand at pizzelle, get anise oil, not anise extract. If you don’t like anise you could give vanilla, lemon, or orange a try. If you do, I suggest the lemon and orange oils from Boyajian rather than extract.
Anise extract does not work well. Anise oil is an absolute requirement for the authentic taste. As with many "old Italian recipes" in my collection, this one provided a range of amounts of flour. 1 3/4 cups of all-purpose flour worked well and was pretty much right in the middle of the range. The batter will be quite stiff until the melted butter is stirred in.
I ate Impossible Pies back in the 1970s. Savory Impossible Pies were a favorite of Auntie Helen. Auntie Helen was actually the aunt of Gene d’Aquili, my College Advisor. Ultimately, years later, I went into psychiatric practice with him. I spent lots of time with Gene and his family, including Auntie Helen, and her sister, Auntie Louise, from the early 1970s until the late 1980s when I left Philadelphia and moved to Tucson for a year before settling in Chicago. In a previous blog post, I talked about Auntie Helen and Auntie Louise.
Auntie Helen was especially fond of Impossible Tuna Pie. I have “her” recipe which exactly matches one I found on the internet a few months ago. I’m going to guess it was the one put out by the makers of Bisquick® way back in the day!
I’ve only ever had sweet impossible pies from Julie, but she says she makes savory ones too. Her take: “Green bean is delicious. Broccoli is fantastic and pretty. Zucchini is good.”
Julie is one of those folks who doesn’t like pie crust…and there are plenty of them. For her, Impossible Pies are the perfect solution.
On our recent visit to Julie and Gay’s home on Fire Island Julie made three Impossible Pies during a six-day stay. We ate every last crumb!
Impossible Pies appear at the end of most every dinner that Gay and Julie host in Santa Fe and I wouldn’t want it any other way.
You’ve read my rants about the adverse health effects of hydrogenated and partially hydrogenated fats. That’s what baking mix (OK, let’s call it what it is, we’re really talking about Bisquick®) used to contain. I’m here to say: NO LONGER!
In prepping for making Julie’s Impossible Pecan Pie, I researched “baking mix” substitutes. There are many recipes available, all of which are very similar (flour, some sort of oil or fat, a bit of sugar, and baking powder). My plan was to make up a substitute rather than use the real thing because of my zero tolerance policy for hydrogenated and partially hydrogenated fats.
On a stroll through the supermarket, I saw the baking mix section and decided to take a look. That’s when I discovered that the good folks at Betty Crocker had changed the formula and replaced the partially hydrogenated fat with vegetable oil. I actually bought a box, intending to make all those things I had as a kid that were based on Bisquick and Auntie Helen’s Impossible Tuna Pie after making Julie’s Impossible Pecan Pie.
I looked at several other brands of baking mix and discovered that not all manufacturers are as enlightened as Betty. Partially hydrogenated fat was still a common ingredient in many of them. (There are also some specialty Bisquick products that contain—or may contain—based on the label, partially hydrogenated fats. It’s best to stick with what is labeled as the “Original” (which, of course it really isn’t) or the HeartSmart.
A funny thing happened with all this thinking about baking mix and baking mix substitutes. I realized that for all practical purposes, an Impossible Pie is like a Clafoutis! The only real difference is that the baking mix contains baking powder and the standard recipe for clafoutis does not. Given the variability of recipes from cook to cook, I guess it wouldn’t be unreasonable to call this a Pecan Clafoutis! And, as Julie says, a Clafoutis is best right out of the oven while an Impossible Pie is just fine at room temperature.
So, while I don’t often make Julia Child’s recipe for Clafoutis I think there are lots of Impossible Pies in my future.
Click HERE to join our mailing list and you’ll never miss a recipe again!
Julie's Impossible Pecan Pie
Although I used a mixer, as you’ll see in the pictures, a blender is easier and produces a smoother batter. Also, the original pie pan I chose was too small. You’ll see that I started putting everything into the 9-inch pan. I had to switch to a 10-inch deep dish pan! Although not part of Julie's original recipe, I've successfully added 1/4 teaspoon of almond essence to this pie. It's not enough to give the pie an almond flavor but it does amplify the nuttiness!
Add the pecans to the buttered pie pan and set aside.
Put all remaining ingredients into a blender jar or mixing bowl and blend until thoroughly combined and no lumps remain. This will take approximately 15-20 seconds in a blender and at least one minute by electric mixer.
Pour the batter over the pecans.
Bake at 350°F for 50-55 minutes, until a knife inserted in the center comes out clean.
Cool at least five minutes before serving or serve at room temperature.
Homemade cookies and pastries were staples of my childhood. Trays of cookies showed up for holidays, celebrations, weddings, funerals, and, sometimes, for no apparent reason.
My mother along with relatives and friends set up a cookie-making operation that went on every night for weeks leading up to my sister’s wedding. The overseer was Annie Castagnola, a family friend. She had a thin spiral-bound 3-inch-by-5-inch notebook of cookie recipes. The notebook was the kind we used in grade school to write down our homework assignments. Annie’s recipes were a curated collection gathered from a host of “old Italian women,” my grandmother included.
The little notebook was coveted by more than a few cooks. Annie, however, did not share her recipes, even when those recipes came from relatives of the very people who were asking for them. I know, my mother was one of those people who wanted some of her mother’s recipes. Annie wouldn’t budge. The situation got resolved, however, during the cookie-baking marathon for my sister’s wedding. One night, Annie left her little notebook at our house overnight. Nobody’s confessing, but there are a few cookie recipes in my mother’s recipe box (sitting on my bookcase) written in my twelve-year-old hand.
Annie died a while back. Her little notebook is most likely gone forever and along with it the baking secrets of a whole group of “old Italian women.”
Of all the cookies that showed up throughout the year, my favorites were the various kinds of cakey cookies, my mom’s Genets, Aunt Margie’s aptly named “Colored Cookies,” and my cousin Angie Catanese’s Sesame Seed Cookies, to name a few. These cakey cookies, which were not very sweet by American standards, were usually little balls but not always. Genets are lemon flavored knots. Colored Cookies are vanilla flavored balls, each made with four or five pinches of dough of different colors rolled together. Sesame cookies are little logs, perfect for dunking into some Vin Santo. For me, though, the best of these cakey cookies are Totos, little chocolate spice balls.
Totos (Italian Chocolate Spice Cookies)
These little chocolate balls are intended to have a good kick from an array of spices. Lard is the traditional shortening to use. I render my own. If you need these to be vegetarian, or you just don't want to use lard, you can use solid vegetable shortening. Heck, you can even use clarified butter but that is way off the traditional scale!
In a small saucepan, melt the lard over low heat. When just melted, remove the lard from the heat and allow to cool slightly.
Meanwhile, combine the flour, cocoa, baking powder, baking soda, salt, cloves, cinnamon, allspice, and nutmeg together. Reserve.
Make the icing and reserve.
Put the sugar into a large mixing bowl. Add the cooled but still liquid lard and mix well until thoroughly combined. The mixture will be gritty. I recommend doing this by hand with a mixing spoon but you could use a portable electric mixer.
Add the eggs one at a time to the sugar and lard mixture, mixing well after each addition. The sugar should dissolve as the eggs are added.
Add the milk, honey, vanilla extract and lemon extract to the egg mixture. Mix until well combined.
Add the reserved dry ingredients. At this point there really is no better option than to reach into the mixture with your hand and get everything well combined. The dough will be somewhat sticky. Be certain that all the dry bits are scraped off the bottom and sides of the bowl and combined into the dough.
Roll the dough into walnut-sized balls. If you want to weigh the first few to get the size correct, they should be between 21 and 22 grams.
Space the cookies several inches apart on ungreased cookie sheets. Bake at 375°F for 8-10 minutes until the cookies are very slightly browned on the bottom but still soft when touched. They have a tendency to crack as they bake. This is normal. You can bake two trays at a time, one in the lower third of the oven and one in the upper third. Be sure to switch the top and bottom cookie sheets after five minutes and also turn them front to back.
As soon as you remove the cookies from the oven, carefully put them on cooling racks.
Ice them immediately by holding a cookie with one hand and using the tip of your finger to spread a dollop of icing on the top half of each cookie. The icing should be a glaze, not a thick coating. Put the iced cookies on cooling racks to cool completely.
Well wrapped, the cookies can be refrigerated for several weeks or frozen for several months.
Melt the butter. Add the sugar, vanilla (or lemon) extract and 2 tablespoons of milk. Mix well. Add more milk, a teaspoon at a time, if needed, to make a thick icing that will hold its shape and spread well.
It may be necessary to add a bit of milk from time to time if the icing stiffens up over the course of icing each batch of cookies as they come out of the oven.
I prefer to grind my own spices using a small electric coffee grinder, except for the nutmeg, of course, for which I use a small grater. It is best to pass the ground spices through a small strainer to get out any small bits. If you don’t grind your own spices be sure to buy really fresh ground ones so the flavor is vibrant.
This recipe doesn’t involve any strenuous beating so the first few steps can easily be completed by hand with a sturdy mixing spoon rather than with a mixer. Similarly, after adding the dry ingredients, the dough only needs to be mixed enough to come together. This is easily (and traditionally) done with your hand though I suppose a dough hook would work, too.
I have been planning the launch of this site for several years. It’s going live shortly before Christmas, a time when Italians traditionally enjoy panettone. Panettone for breakfast. Panettone as a gift. Panettone as a snack. While there are wonderful commercially produced products, I prefer to make my own.
The fact that the site is going live now feels like a gift…to myself! So, I’m making panettone!!! One for me, and half-a-dozen for friends.
I’ve been making Panettone for almost 30 years. This year I’m using candied citron from Italy. I plan to try making my own candied citron from the wonderful Buddha’s Hand fruits available from the farmers’ market in Palm Springs, California where I spend time each winter using this recipe from David Lebovitz. For now, though, I’ll be using the citron from Italy.
Panettone is a sweet bread from Italy, traditionally served around Christmas. It is enriched with eggs and butter and contains raisins and candied citron.
This is candied citron from Italy. The flavor is superior to the diced candied citron sold in supermarkets.
If using large pieces of citron, cut them into batons approximately 1/4 inch on a side.
After cutting batons of citron, or if using citron that is already diced, slice the citron into thin slices.
Beat salt, sugar, eggs and egg yolks together. Reserve.
Use a mixer with a dough hook. Put 1200 g flour in the bowl of the mixer. Add yeast and begin to mix. Add warm water and mix. Add egg mixture and mix. Slowly with the mixer running, add 225 grams of melted butter and orange oil or zest. Knead for approximately 10 minutes, scraping the side of the bowl a few times. Add citron and raisins and continue mixing till incorporated. The dough will be sticky.
Butter the inside of a large bowl with 2 tablespoons of the softened butter. Place dough in the buttered bowl and be sure to butter the top with some of the melted butter. Cover dough with waxed paper and place a kitchen towel on top. Refrigerate overnight. It should have at least doubled by morning. In place of a large bowl, you can use a food-service container of approximately 7 quarts with a tight-fitting lid.
Punch the dough down by hand. Cover again with waxed paper and towels and allow to rise at room temperature until doubled in bulk.
Butter 3 cylindrical baking pans, approximately 7 inches in diameter, using 3 tablespoons of softened butter. Set the pans aside.
Knead the dough by hand until smooth and the air bubbles have been worked out. Form into 3 balls and place each into one of the baking pans. Butter the tops with the remaining 1 tablespoon of butter.
Cover with waxed paper and a towel. Allow to rise at room temperature until doubled (or a little more), approximately 45-60 minutes.
Cut a deep cross in the top of each loaf. Bake at 350° F for 55-65 minutes. Use a cake tester to be sure that none of the dough clings to tester.
Place on a cooling rack. Cool slightly and remove from the pans. Cool completely on the rack. Wrap tightly until ready to use.