By Marilynn Marter
Knight Ridder Newspapers
Nothing says Christmas like a plate of special holiday cookies. For many, it wouldn't feel like Christmas without them.
People of many nations and regions have Christmas cookie specialties. Some, including Germans and Italians, have several. Often, one basic dough - slightly varied - makes treats of differing design under several national flags.
Gingerbread figures, now virtually generic, are rooted in German (thick and chewy) and Swedish (thin and crisp) traditions. Made plain or colorfully painted with icing or decorated with candies, they are the surest sign of Christmas.
Birgitta Davis shared a recipe (below) from master bakers at South Philadelphia's American Swedish Historical Museum.
A spiced honey cookie of that genre is also the Ukrainian Christmas favorite, says Chrystyna Prokopovych, curator of the Ukrainian Heritage Studies Center at Manor College.
Another universal favorite is the butter-and-nut-based "snowball" cookie, rolled in confectioners' sugar. Usually made with ground walnuts, this is the Russian Tea Cake in Eastern Europe, the Baltic states, Ukraine and Russia. In Greece, it is Kourambiethes. In Mexico, it is Polvorones de Nuez. In a chunkier pecan form, it is the Mexican wedding cookie. And in crescent shape in Austria and Hungary, it is called kipfel.
Pizzelles are found in virtually every Italian home at Christmas. For Georgina and John Terrizzi in the Bustleton area of Northeast Philadelphia, the annual pizzelle project is a shared activity: She makes the batter; he handles the pizzelle press.
"He says he's my 'main squeeze,' " Georgina Terrizzi joked, referring to how tightly the press is held to produce the thinnest, most delicate pizzelles.
"It's a good thing they came out with electric pizzelle irons or some families might have lost the tradition," said John Terrizzi, who used to use the heavy cast-iron press passed down in his wife's family.
In Westmont, Pa., restaurateur Graziella Iacovino still makes the crispelle (fried, honey-glazed rosettes) and struffoli (little fried-dough balls dipped in honey) that she says were the only Christmas treats many families could afford when she was growing up in the Basilicata region of Italy.
My mother's Christmas specialty was Springerle, part of our German heritage. And there are requests here each year for cinnamon stars, or Zimtsterne, a German and Swiss favorite. Both recipes follow.
Asia is not known for Christmas traditions, but after many years in America it's no surprise that Susanna Foo, who blends Asian and Western styles at her restaurant, would give an Asian twist to an American holiday cookie for her family and friends. She shared her take on the all-American chocolate blossom.
Kolachky, with nut fillings in a cream-cheese dough, are popular from the Czech Republic through Russia. A cheese dough also is used for rugelach, which, while usually linked to Hanukkah and Jewish tradition, also are popular with Christians of Eastern European descent.
For the English, Scottish and even Australians, butter-rich shortbread is deemed a Christmas indulgence. French favorites are madeleines, macaroons, and the puff-pastry palmier.
The variety is endless, but one thing holds true for all Christmas cookies: They evoke memories of Christmases past, make this holiday sweet, and leave us anticipating more.
Here are recipes to open your holiday to the wide world of Christmas cookie delights.
PEPPARKAKOR (SWEDISH GINGER COOKIES)
Makes about 12 dozen thin, small (2- to 3-inch) cookies
½ cup dark corn syrup
1 cup sugar
4 ounces (1 stick) unsalted butter, softened
2 teaspoons ground ginger
2 teaspoons ground cinnamon
1 teaspoon ground cloves
2 teaspoons baking soda
6 tablespoons chilled heavy (whipping) cream
4 cups all-purpose flour, approximate
1. Heat the oven to 400 degrees.
2. Mix the syrup, sugar, butter, ginger, cinnamon, cloves.
3. In a separate bowl, mix the baking soda and heavy cream and add to the sugar-butter-spice mixture.
4. Beat in about 3 cups of the flour, then gradually add more until the dough is thick enough to knead.
5. Knead the dough gently with floured hands on a lightly floured surface just until it holds together and feels smooth.
6. Cut the dough in quarters and roll it thin, 1/8 inch or less.
7. Cut desired shapes. Arrange ½ inch apart on ungreased baking sheets. Reroll the scraps to cut more.
8. Bake in batches mid-oven, reversing the pans after about 3 minutes. Bake until cookies puff, then collapse slightly, 5 to 6 minutes total. Remove to cool on a rack.
Note: Use the dough at once or refrigerated for up to two days.
_From the American Swedish Historical Museum, Philadelphia
Per serving of 3 cookies: 87 calories, 1 gram protein, 15 grams carbohydrates, 6 grams sugar, 3 grams fat, 8 milligrams cholesterol, 58 milligrams sodium, 0.4 gram dietary fiber.
SNOWBALLS (RUSSIAN TEA CAKES)
Makes about four dozen cookies
6 ounces vegetable shortening plus 2 ounces butter (or 8 ounces butter)
½ cup confectioners' sugar
2 teaspoons vanilla extract
2 cups all-purpose flour
½ teaspoon salt (optional)
1 cup coarsely ground pecans or black walnuts
Additional confectioners' sugar for coating
1. Heat the oven to 325 degrees.
2. Blend the shortening and/or butter, sugar and vanilla.
3. Stir the flour with salt and beat into the shortening.
4. Stir in the pecans. Drop by heaping teaspoonfuls on nonstick baking sheets or roll into 1-inch balls.
5. Bake at 325 degrees until golden, about 20 to 25 minutes.
6. Remove and let cool. Roll twice in confectioners' sugar.
Per cookie: 84 calories, 0.7 gram protein, 7 grams carbohydrates, 1 gram sugar, 6 grams fat, 3 milligrams cholesterol, 10 milligrams sodium, 0.3 gram dietary fiber.
CINNAMON STARS (ZIMTSTERNE)
Makes about 3 dozen cookies
2 cups blanched whole almonds
2 cups confectioners' sugar, sifted, plus more for dusting
2 large egg whites
1 ½ teaspoons ground cinnamon
1 ½ teaspoons finely grated lemon zest (colored rind only)
1. Have ready a 1 ½-inch, straight-sided, star cookie cutter and two baking sheets lined with parchment.
2. In a food processor, combine the almonds and ½ cup of the confectioners' sugar; process to a very fine grind.
3. In a large, grease-free bowl, with an electric mixer, whip the egg whites to soft peaks. Gradually add the remaining 1 ½ cups confectioners' sugar, whipping until thick and creamy. Remove and reserve ¼ cup meringue for glazing.
4. Fold the almond mixture, lemon zest and cinnamon into the remaining meringue, for a stiff batter. Let stand at room temperature for 30 minutes. Heat the oven to 275 degrees.
5. Roll the dough to ¼ inch thickness on a surface dusted with confectioners' sugar. Cut out small stars and place them 3 inches apart on the prepared baking sheets. Use a soft artist's brush to paint the surface with reserved meringue.
6. Bake until bottoms are light golden brown, about 20 minutes. The meringue should remain white and be very dry. If cookies are browning, prop open the oven door. Slide parchment and cookies onto racks to cool. Store airtight.
Note: Dip the cutter into hot water after each cut. Leave as little space as possible when cutting stars to avoid scraps. To reroll, knead scraps together with more ground almonds. Roll, glaze and cut as before.
Per cookie: 74 calories, 1.7 grams protein, 8.2 grams carbohydrates, 6.8 grams sugar, 4.3 grams fat, no cholesterol, 3 milligrams sodium, 0.8 gram dietary fiber.
CRISPELLE (FRIED ROSETTES, ITALY)
Makes about 40 cookies
6 cups all-purpose flour
7 large eggs
2 tablespoons sugar
2 tablespoons vegetable shortening
½ cup extra-dry champagne (or ginger ale)
Pinch of salt
Vegetable oil for deep frying
3 to 4 cups honey for dipping
1. On a countertop or in a large bowl, make a well in the flour. In the center, add the eggs, sugar, shortening, champagne and salt. Slowly stir the flour into the mixture. Knead to form a ball of firm dough, moist but not sticky.
2. On a lightly floured surface, roll the dough to ¼ inch. Using a fluted pastry wheel, cut the dough into strips ½ inch wide and 15 to 20 inches long. Fold strips lengthwise and roll each into a rosette shape starting at the center and working outward. Pinch the end of the rosette to seal.
3. Heat oil up to 1 inch deep in a frying pan. Carefully slip the rosettes into the oil and fry until golden. Remove from the oil, drain and transfer to paper towels. Let cool.
4. In a separate pan, heat the honey. Use tongs to dip the cookies in the honey to cover. Drain. Place on waxed paper and sprinkle with jimmies. Let cool. Will keep up to 3 days.
_From Graziella Iacovino, Graziella's Ristorante, Westmont, Pa.
Per cookie: 150 calories, 3 grams protein, 29 grams carbohydrates, 15 grams sugar, 2 grams fat, 37 milligrams cholesterol, 24 milligrams sodium, 0.6 gram dietary fiber.
Makes 4 to 5 dozen
6 large eggs
1 1/3 cups granulated sugar
1 tablespoon vanilla extract
2 teaspoons anise oil (not extract)
8 ounces (2 sticks) unsalted butter, melted and cooled
3 ½ to 4 cups unbleached flour, approximate (see note)
4 teaspoons baking powder
1 teaspoon finely grated orange zest (colored rind only)
½ teaspoon anise seeds, optional
1. In mixer bowl, beat the eggs with the sugar until light and fluffy. Add the vanilla, anise oil and melted butter.
2. Combine the flour and baking powder and gradually beat into the egg mixture using just enough to make a batter thick enough to cling to a spoon.
3. Put a tablespoon of batter in the center of each section of a hot pizzelle iron. Close the lid. Hold it tight until the steam and sizzle subside, about 20 to 25 seconds. Pizzelles should be golden in color. Remove them carefully with a fork.
4. Set pizzelles aside to cool before stacking them carefully in an airtight container. Separate stacks and cushion the sides of the container with loosely rolled paper towels.
Note: Mix 4 cups flour with 4 teaspoons baking powder but use only as much as needed for a non-pourable batter.
_Recipe from Georgina Terrizzi, Philadelphia
Per cookie, based on 5 dozen: 81 calories, 2 grams protein, 10 grams carbohydrates, 4 grams sugar, 4 grams fat, 30 milligrams cholesterol,
33 milligrams sodium, no dietary fiber.
GINGER-CHOCOLATE PEANUT BLOSSOMS
Makes about 3 dozen cookies
For the Ginger-Chocolate Drops:
1 cup heavy cream
2 ounces fresh gingerroot, sliced thin
8 ounces bittersweet chocolate, chopped (or semisweet chocolate bits)
1/8 teaspoon ginger powder
For the Peanut Cookie batter:
4 ounces (1 stick) unsalted butter
½ cup peanut butter
½ cup granulated sugar plus some for coating
½ cup packed brown sugar
1 large egg
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
1 cup all-purpose flour
½ teaspoon salt
½ teaspoon baking soda
2 ounces candied ginger, diced
1. For the Ginger-Chocolate Drops, heat the cream and ginger in a saucepan to boiling. Remove from heat. Let steep 20 minutes; reheat and strain. Pour the hot cream over the chocolate in a bowl. Add the ginger powder. Stir until chocolate melts and is smooth. Refrigerate 30 minutes or until set.
2. Line a sheet pan with parchment or waxed paper. Using a piping bag fitted with a round tip, spoon the ginger-chocolate mixture into the bag and pipe individual chocolate drops onto lined pan. Refrigerate 30 minutes.
3. For the Peanut Cookies, in a mixer bowl, cream the butter, peanut butter, white and brown sugars. Beat in the egg and vanilla, scraping down the sides of the bowl.
4. Stir together the flour, salt and baking soda. Combine with the creamed mixture. Refrigerate 30 minutes.
5. When ready to proceed, heat the oven to 350 degrees.
6. Separate and roll dough into 1-inch balls, roll in granulated sugar, and place 2 inches apart on parchment-lined sheet pans.
7. Bake at 350 until set but soft, about 8 minutes. Remove. Place a Ginger-Chocolate Drop in the center of each cookie and return to the oven to bake 2 minutes more and melt chocolate.
8. Remove. Dot chocolate centers with candied ginger.
_Recipe from Susanna Foo, Susanna Foo Chinese Cuisine, Philadelphia (adapted from Peanut Blossoms, a Pillsbury Bake-Off Hall of Fame recipe)
Per cookie: 140 calories, 2 grams protein, 14 grams carbohydrates, 9 grams sugar, 10 grams fat, 22 milligrams cholesterol, 58 milligrams sodium, 1 gram dietary fiber.
Makes about 3 dozen cookies
4 large eggs
1 pound confectioners' sugar, sifted
4 drops anise oil
½ teaspoon baking powder or hartshorn (bakers ammonia)
4 to 4 ½ cups sifted cake flour
1 ¼ tablespoons crushed anise seeds
1. In mixer bowl, at medium speed, beat the eggs until fluffy, 5 minutes. Blend in the sugar and anise oil, about 5 minutes. Beat for 15 minutes more. (The tradition was to beat this for an hour by hand for very light cookies.)
2. Combine the baking powder and flour. Fold the flour into the egg mixture using just enough flour to make a somewhat dry, stiff dough. Refrigerate for 2 hours to rest.
3. Gently roll the dough out to ½-inch thickness. Using a lightly floured Springerle mold, press the mold into the dough to imprint relief images. With a sharp knife, cut the cookies along the lines of the imprint. Transfer to lightly greased baking sheets sprinkled with anise seeds.
4. Let sit in a cool place at least 2 hours or overnight.
5. When ready to proceed, heat the oven to 375 degrees.
6. Put the cookies in the oven. Reduce the setting to 300 degrees and bake until the cookies just start to color on the bottom, about 10 minutes. Let cool on racks.
Per cookie: 100 calories, 1.4 grams protein, 20 grams carbohydrates, 12 grams sugar, 0.7 gram fat, 28 milligrams cholesterol, 15 milligrams sodium, no dietary fiber.
LINZER COOKIE (AUSTRIA)
Makes about 3 dozen sandwich cookies
¾ pound (3 sticks) unsalted butter at room temperature
1 cup granulated sugar
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
3 ½ cups all-purpose flour
¼ teaspoon salt
¾ cup good raspberry jam
Confectioners' sugar, for dusting
1. Preheat the oven to 350 degrees.
2. In a large mixer bowl, with the paddle attachment, combine the butter and sugar. Add the vanilla.
3. In a medium bowl, sift the flour and salt. Add to the butter-sugar mixture. Mix at low speed until the dough starts to come together. Turn the dough onto a surface dusted with flour and form a flat disk. Wrap in plastic; chill 30 minutes.
4. Roll the dough out ¼ inch thick. Use a fluted cutter to cut 2 ¾-inch rounds. With a small round or heart-shaped cutter, cut a hole in the center of half of the rounds. Put all the cookies on ungreased baking sheets and chill for 15 minutes.
5. Bake the cookies until the edges begin to brown, about 20 to 25 minutes. Let cool to room temperature.
6. Spread jam on the flat side of each solid cookie.
7. Dust the top of each cut-out cookie with confectioners' sugar. Then press the flat sides of cookies together, with the jam in the middle and the confectioners' sugar on top.
_From The Barefoot Contessa Cookbook by Ina Garten (Clarkson Potter, 1999).
Per cookie: 151 calories, 1 gram protein, 19 grams carbohydrates, 10 grams sugar, 8 grams fat, 21 milligrams cholesterol, 18 milligrams sodium, 0.4 gram dietary fiber.
© 2003, The Philadelphia Inquirer.
Distributed by Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.