Aunt Sandy's Italian Christmas Cookies
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When I was growing up, Christmas time was cookie time. And no one made cookies like my Aunt Sandy. Aunt Sandy is the aunt at large to all of us nieces and nephews. Rather than get married, she took care of her mother until Grandma died. Then she moved upstairs from my mother. Every Italian family I ever know had a maiden aunt. Sometimes instead of a maiden aunt, the family might have a woman who married young, was widowed, never remarried and wore black for the rest of her life.
The only thing black about Aunt Sandy is her hair, which we all swear she dyes to cover the gray. (Incidentally, Aunt Sandy’s real name is Santina, but like her bothers Colangelo and Balthazar, a.k.a. Charlie and Albert, the names were changed to make life easier for non-Italians.) Before becoming disabled a number of years ago, Aunt Sandy made about 20 kinds of cookies, every one a knockout. There were coral islands, light and tender with strawberry jam centers; butterballs, round, rich nuggets coated with powdered sugar; giuggiuleni, miniature footballs covered with toasted sesame seeds; mocha nut crescents, flavored with cocoa and coffee; and triangles (also known as English toffee bars), thin, crisp wafers with walnuts and a hint of cinnamon.
During the holidays, these cookies were augmented by my mother’s cucciddati, traditional Italian Christmas cookies stuffed with ground dates and figs. (According to food historian Waverly Root, in Palermo they also contain almond cream, candied squash and bits of chocolate.)
After the cucciddati were baked, they were iced and sprinkled with nonpareils. Mom always reserved a batch of unfrosted cookies for my father. Dad thought the cookies were already too rich – they have lard, shortening AND eggs in the crust – without the addition of frosting and sugary sprinkles.
Mom and Aunt Sandy would make up little trays of their cookies on paper plates lined with doilies. Some of the more delicate cookies like butterballs were ensconced in little colored cups. Then the plates were covered with clear plastic wrap and tied with red and green ribbons.
These packages were destined for relatives who Mom would drag us to visit. Often they were distant cousins we hadn’t seen since the last wake and had no real interest in seeing again.
"Who are we going to see tonight, Mom?"
"Who’s Cousin Phil?"
"You know Cousin Phil. He’s the second cousin of your grandfather's brother’s first wife."
"Oh, have we met him before?"
"Sure you have, at Cousin Carmela’s wedding."
"Who’s Cousin Carmela?"
When people came to our house for a holiday visit, they always found a plate or two of cookies on the dining room table. Mom would greet the guests with "How about some schnapps?" (Why a Sicilian woman asked other Sicilians if they wanted schnapps I have no idea.) The schnapps was usually in the form of anisette, the clear licorice-tasting liqueur that we drank only during the holidays. I think Mom still has that bottle of anisette somewhere.
In addition to Dad’s fondness for unfrosted cucciddati, we each had our favorite cookie. I liked triangles (after an early preference for butterballs). My brother Frank was partial to giuggiuleni, and my brother Russell loved butterballs.
Recently, Russell revealed a secret about Aunt Sandy’s cookies. When Aunt Sandy lived with Grandma in the old neighborhood, she kept her cookies in a small room under the stairs. When no one was looking, Russell would sneak into the room and devour cookies. But to cover his tracks, he’d eat an entire boxful.
"I figured Aunt Sandy would notice if only a few cookies were missing
but she wouldn’t if an entire box was gone," he said. "Of
course, you had to destroy the box too."
Aunt Sandy also made cookies for weddings, christenings and first communions. Considering the size of the family, that’s a lot of cookies. The demand was so great in fact that Aunt Sandy had to set up a pecking order. She decreed that nieces and nephews automatically got them for all occasions. Second cousins and their children got them only for weddings. Third cousins got them only when they had a petition with a sufficient number of signatures from first and second cousins. And fourth cousins got them only when they died.
Several yeas ago we realized that Aunt Sandy wouldn’t be with us
forever. So some cousins, my sister Maria and I set out to learn the secrets
from the cookie queen.
Aunt Sandy’s cooked recipes are kept in an envelope in the pantry near the cornflakes. That may seem rather cavalier, but Aunt Sandy has long since committed these recipes to memory.
In this high tech age, it’s refreshing to see someone do things the old fashioned way. Take shortening, for example. Aunt Sandy has worked with shortening, an essential ingredient in much of her baking, so often that she eschews normal measuring devices in favor of a wooden spoon.
"I take my spoon and scoop out some shortening," she says, "then I look at it and say ‘This looks like a cup.’" So much for precision baking.
Her brownie recipe reflects a similar nonchalance. I asked her how much chopped walnuts (another favorite ingredient) she uses in her recipe. "I put in whatever I have. Sometimes I have more, and I put in more. Sometimes I have less, so I use less," she says with a shrug of the shoulders.
You’ll also notice Aunt Sandy also uses margarine, not butter, even in the "butterballs." "Butter is too expensive," she says. "And besides, my cookies are rich enough without it."
AUNT SANDY’S COOKIE-BAKING TIPS
Here are some tips for better cookies from Aunt Sandy:
- Don’t skimp on shortening. "A little more won’t hurt." Use the best quality. Aunt Sandy uses Crisco.
- Use a wooden spoon to mix ingredients.
- "Never overflour your cookie." If you press your finger into the cookie dough and it comes out clean, you’ve used enough flour. Better to err on the side of too little than too much flour.
- Always sift flour, even if it’s pre sifted.
- Use quality margarine. Butter isn’t necessary.
The beauty of these delicious family favorites is that they freeze perfectly.
- 1/4 pound lard
- 1/4 pound vegetable shortening
- 1/2 pound sugar
- 5 eggs
- 3 tablespoons baking powder
- Juice and grated rind from one small orange
- 4 cups flour, approximately
- 1 pound pitted dates
- 1 pound dried figs such as calimyrnia
- 1/2 cup chopped walnuts
- Juice and rind of one small orange
- 1/4 cup sugar
- 1/4 cup water
- 3 cups powdered sugar
- 1/3 stick margarine
- 6 tablespoons or more milk
- Nonpareils (multi colored sprinkles)
For the dough, cream lard and shortening in a mixing bowl with an electric mixer. Add sugar and mix well. Add eggs, baking powder, orange juice and rind and mix well. Add flour gradually until you achieve a pliable dough. Dough should neither be sticky or flaky. Refrigerate while you prepare the filling.
For the filling, grind dates and figs together. Put in a heavy bottomed saucepan with remaining ingredients and stir over low heat so that sugar completely dissolves and mixture is smooth and spreadable, about 15 minutes. Cool.
Preheat oven to 350 degrees. To assemble, roll out dough to a thickness of about 1/8 to 3/16 inch. (If it’s too soft, put it in the freezer for 5 minutes or so to stiffen.) Cut dough into strips about 8-10 inches long and 2 1/2 inches wide. Place a strip of filling down the center of each dough strip, lengthwise. Then fold dough over on either side of the filling. Press down on the seam to seal. Cut the cookies into 2-inch lengths with diagonal cuts. Bake 12-15 minutes until slightly browned. Cool.
While cookies are baking, make frosting by beating margarine and sugar together until well blended. Gradually add milk, 1 tablespoon at a time, until a smooth, slightly runny consistency is achieved. When cookies are cool, frost with a knife and sprinkle with nonpareils.
Makes about 10 dozen cookies. Freeze with our without frosting.
CORAL ISLANDS top
- 2/3 cup margarine
- 1/3 cup brown sugar
- 1 teaspoon almond extract
- 1 egg, separated
- 1 1/3 cups all-purpose flour, sifted, approximately
- Strawberry or raspberry preserves, about 1 cup
- 1/2 cup finely chopped walnuts
Preheat oven to 350 degrees. In a mixing bowl, cream margarine and sugar with an electric mixer. Add egg yolk and extract and beat well. Add flour gradually and blend well. After you’ve used 1 1/3 cups flour, test to see if dough is pliable but not too sticky. Add more flour if needed.
Shape dough into 1-inch balls. Beat egg white so that it is still slightly runny. Put walnuts in a bowl nearby. Dip half of each ball into the egg white. Then dip into the nuts. Place on a cookie sheet, nut side up, and make a depression with your thumb just deep enough to hold a little less than 1/2 teaspoon of preserves. Fill depression with preserves. Bake 15-20 minutes.
Makes 3 dozen cookies.
- 1 cup margarine
- 1 cup sugar
- 1 egg separated
- 2 cups all-purpose flour
- 1 teaspoon cinnamon
- 1 cup chopped walnuts
Preheat oven to 275 degrees. In a mixing bowl, cream margarine with an electric mixer. Gradually add sugar and best until light and fluffy. Beat in egg yolk. Sift flour and cinnamon together. Gradually add to margarine. Combine thoroughly. Press dough with your hands into a lightly greased, 15 1/2-inch by 10 1/2 inch by 1 inch baking pan. Make sure dough is evenly distributed.
Beat egg white lightly and brush on top of the dough. Spread walnuts over evenly and press gently into the dough. Bake 1 hour. While still hot from the oven, cut into 7 even rows lengthwise and 5 rows widthwise. Cut each rectangle diagonally. Gently lift from the pan with a spatula and let cool.
Makes 70 cookies.
- 1 cup margarine
- 1/4 cup granulated sugar
- Pinch salt
- 3/4 cup finely chopped walnuts
- 2 3/4 cups cake flour (not self-rising)
- Confectioners’ sugar
Preheat oven to 350 degrees. In a mixing bowl, cream margarine with an electric mixer. Add granulated sugar and salt and beat well. Add nuts and flour and work dough until all ingredients are thoroughly mixed. Roll dough into a ball, cover with plastic wrap and refrigerate 1 1/2 hours or until dough is firm. (Dough can be made several days ahead.)
Allow dough to come to room temperature. Form into balls slightly smaller than walnuts. If dough is too dry or stiff, squeeze it with your hand before forming the balls. Put balls on a baking sheet and bake 18 minutes. Gently remove to a rack to cool. When cool, roll in confectioners’ sugar.
Makes 40-50 cookies.
MOCHA-NUT CRESCENTS top
- 1 cup softened margarine
- 1/2 cup granulated sugar
- 2 teaspoons vanilla
- 2 teaspoons powdered instant coffee
- 1/4 cup cocoa
- 1 3/4 cups all-purpose flour, sifted
- 1/2 teaspoon salt
- 2 cups very finely chopped pecans or walnuts
- Confectioners’ sugar
Preheat oven to 325 degrees. In a mixing bowl, cream margarine with an electric mixer. Add granulated sugar and beat until fluffy. Add vanilla and continue beating. Add coffee and cocoa. Gradually add in flour. When flour is fully incorporated, add salt and fold in nuts. Combine thoroughly.
Form dough into 1-inch balls. Roll each ball out with your hand to a length of about 2 inches. Then curl the ends to form a crescent shape. Put on a cookie sheet and bake 15 minutes. Cool on a cloth with newspaper underneath. Roll gently in confectioners’ sugar.
Makes about 36-40 cookies.
- 1 cup vegetable shortening
- 3/4 cup sugar
- 4 eggs
- 2 tablespoons baking powder
- 3 tablespoons milk
- 3 1/2 to 4 cups all-purpose flour, sifted
- 2 cups sesame seeds
Preheat oven to 375 degrees.
In a mixing bowl, cream shortening with an electric mixer. Add sugar and beat until well combined. Add 2 of the eggs, baking powder, vanilla and 2 tablespoons of the milk, making sure each is fully incorporated before adding the next one. Gradually add flour until you have used 3 1/2 cups. When flour has been completely mixed in, check consistency of the dough. It should e smooth and somewhat pliable but not too sticky. If too sticky or soft, add remaining 1/2 cup flour.
Shape dough into balls 1-inch in diameter. In a small bowl, beat remaining eggs and milk. Put sesame seeds in another small bowl. Dip balls into egg mixture, then roll in sesame seeds. Shape with our hand into 1 3/4 – 2 inch oblong shapes, like little footballs. Bake 15 minutes until sesame seeds are golden brown.
Makes 50-60 cookies.
HERE’S HOW TO STORE THESE COOKIES:
These tips on storing cookies are from Land O’Lakes.
For short term storage (up to one week):
- Cool cookies completely.
- Do not mix soft and crisp varieties in the same container, or the crisp cookies will become soft.
- Store soft cookies in a container with a tight-fitting lid.
- Store crisp cookies in a container with a loose-fitting lid.
- Store bar cookies in the pan in which they were baked. Cover tightly with aluminum foil or plastic wrap.
For long term storage (both frosted and unfrosted cookies can be frozen up to six months):
- Cool cookies completely.
- Arrange in a container lined with plastic wrap or aluminum foil. Separate with layers of foil or plastic wrap.
- Tightly seal container, label and freeze.
- Thaw cookies by allowing them to stand loosely covered on a serving plate for about 20 minutes.