Totos (Italian Chocolate Spice Cookies)

December 21, 2016

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.

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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!
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Cuisine Italian
Prep Time 45 minutes
Cook Time 2 hours
Servings
dozen cookies
Ingredients
Cookies
Icing
Cuisine Italian
Prep Time 45 minutes
Cook Time 2 hours
Servings
dozen cookies
Ingredients
Cookies
Icing
Votes: 0
Rating: 0
You:
Rate this recipe!
Instructions
Cookies
  1. In a small saucepan, melt the lard over low heat. When just melted, remove the lard from the heat and allow to cool slightly.
  2. Meanwhile, combine the flour, cocoa, baking powder, baking soda, salt, cloves, cinnamon, allspice, and nutmeg together. Reserve.
  3. Make the icing and reserve.
  4. 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.
  5. 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.
  6. Add the milk, honey, vanilla extract and lemon extract to the egg mixture. Mix until well combined.
  7. 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.
  8. 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.
  9. 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.
  10. As soon as you remove the cookies from the oven, carefully put them on cooling racks.
  11. 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.
  12. Well wrapped, the cookies can be refrigerated for several weeks or frozen for several months.
Icing
  1. 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.
  2. 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.
Recipe Notes

Check out my method for rendering lard.

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.

Copyright © 2016 by VillaSentieri.com. All rights reserved.

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25 thoughts on “Totos (Italian Chocolate Spice Cookies)”

  1. Yum, looks delicious. My Grandmother used to make these wonderful apricot yeast rolls in a round pan. Though I knew where the recipe was. Didn’t find. Looked all over, internet, old cook books and I can not find. So sad.

    1. It really is sad when we lose part of our history that way. Let’s talk about it and maybe I can create something close to the original.

  2. Hugs and kisses! Thank you, thank you! I am printing this off and planning on serving them at my next tea party.Looks like there’ll even be enough to send home.

    1. Yes, it really is 2 1/2 pounds. This is the exact recipe I made for this post and one that I’ve used for decades. It is best if you can weigh the flour rather than convert to cups.

    1. Recipes for crostoli, pizzelle, and biscotti are on the list of recipes to be posted. Maybe I could do a guest feature for your family’s date nut rolls.

  3. GARY!!! I LOVE your blog and thank you!!! Seriously I just made almost that same exact chocolate spice cookie -a little different with peanuts and mincemeat
    It’s my grandmother’s recipe –
    Let’s chat later
    Much ADORING love to All
    Mariterese

  4. Gary,
    Thank you so much for saving this recipe and sharing it with us. I can just imagine how wonderful the house must smell while they’re baking!

  5. We make these cookies every year. The recipe came from my sister-in-law. They are a favorite, we just call them chocolate balls.

  6. Hi Gary!

    Ahhhh. Totos!! I still make them every year for Christmas. I remember the ones your mom made. And I remember how all the Italian families in Johnstown swapped cookies at Christmas time – part of a rich community tradition. So glad you started this site. Planning to post cuccidati too? Or did you already and I missed it?

  7. Hi Gary, My mom always made these. They are one of my favorites. She also made the wedding knots, the pugedates and the panedecces ,etc.I thik we used to make 40 different kinds of cookies each Christmas.Your recipe is a little differnet than my moms. She uses oil instead of shortening.

  8. Thank you for this recipe Gary. Can’t wait to try it. And love the story about a few of the recipes showing up in your handwriting! We always make the sesame biscuits as part of our Italian holiday tradition – great for dunking in coffee too. Sometimes traditional biscotti, bowties (fried with powdered sugar), and a few others.

    1. Hi Susan, the fried ones may be similar to the crostoli my mother-in-law makes. Those will be featured soon! My cousin Angie’s sesame cookies are on the schedule too.

  9. I remember my mamma rendering lard. And I have a snippet of a courtyard and a chicken running around without a head. In those days wives did a heck of a lot. I’d love to share this recipe with my readers and of course link back here and give you credit.

    1. Hi Marisa,

      I’m so glad you like the recipe and the remembrances. You are welcome to directly link back to this recipe from your site but I ask that you not reproduce or rewrite the recipe on your site.

      Thank-you for understanding.

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