A Pop-Up Cookie Event
2014 is the inaugural year of the Italian Gals Christmas Cookie Exchange. One minute Linda, Domenica, Marie and I were gabbing about food (what else?) on Facebook, and the next we were doing what we do best – getting busy in the kitchen. Linda figured out the logistics, and we all baked and packed our goodies for shipment to one another’s homes. Linda sent her spiced Italian Christmas “Brownies.” Domenica tantalized us with Cranberry-Hazelnut Biscotti, a sample from her forthcoming book, Ciao Biscotti.
Marie baked (literally) hundreds of her famous fig-filled, spicy, orange-kissed Cucidati. My Three-Nut Fingers made their way from California to Illinois, New Jersey, and Virginia and into the homes of my partners in this project. We had a ball, and a tradition was born. Sweet Mouthfuls!
Whether packed in a tin and mailed away, or stashed under a tree, one bite and these will enter the pantheon of your family’s classic Christmas cookies. Elegant enough for the fanciest cookie tray, yet familiar enough for an office party, these hand-formed delights have a shape reminiscent of Biscotti di Regina, but a flavor all their own. Little nut trios made of toasted and ground walnuts, pecans, and hazelnuts get a flavor boost from almond extract and Sonoma Syrup’s Vanilla Crush. A generous splash of Frangelico, Italy’s hazelnut liqueur, completes the flavor profile. The liqueur is distilled from plump, sweet Tonda Gentile hazelnuts. Larger and sweeter than hazelnuts grown in northwestern America, Italian hazelnuts are sought after by pastry chefs and confectioners worldwide, and the liqueur, with its notes of cocoa and coffee, adds a pleasing richness to the cookies.
I adapted this recipe from Rose Levy Beranbaum’s classic book Rose’s Christmas Cookies.
½ cup (42 g) unblanched sliced almonds
⅓ cup (33 g) pecans
¼ cup (36 g) hazelnuts
¾ cup + 1 tablespoon -dip & sweep method (114 g) unbleached all-purpose flour
Scant ¼ teaspoon fine sea salt
2 tablespoons (27 g) light brown sugar, firmly packed
½ cup (113 g) unsalted butter, softened and cut into 8 pieces
1½ teaspoons Frangelico
½ teaspoon Sonoma Syrup Vanilla Crush (or vanilla extract)
¼ teaspoon almond extract
½ cup (100 g) superfine vanilla sugar, for rolling the baked cookies (See Cook’s Note)
Preheat the oven to 350 degrees F. Adjust the rack to the center position. Line a baking sheet with Silpat or parchment paper, and set aside. Place the nuts on a second large rimmed cookie sheet, keeping the hazelnuts separate. Toast the nuts for 10 to 12 minutes until fragrant. Remove the nuts from the oven, and place the hazelnuts in a rough, clean, lint-free kitchen towel. Allow the hazelnuts to cool briefly. Gather the towel around the nuts and rub briskly to remove as much of the skins as possible. It is alright if some skins remain; it’s just that leaving all of the skins will impart an unpleasant bitterness. Removing about 60% is plenty. Discard the skins.
Whisk the flour and sea salt together in a small bowl. Set aside. Fit a food processor with the metal blade. Place the cooled nuts and light brown sugar in the bowl of the food processor and process until powder fine. Remove the processor lid, and add the softened butter, Frangelico, and extracts. Replace the processor lid, and process until the mixture is smooth and creamy, stopping to scrape down the sides once or twice, as needed. Remove the top of the processor, and sprinkle the flour and salt over the mixture. Replace the top and pulse until just combined.
Scrape the dough into a bowl, and use a 1¼-inch cookie scoop (2 teaspoon capacity) to form oblong, football shaped cookies that are 1¾ inches long and ¾ inches wide. Place the cookies 1½ inches apart on the Silpat or parchment-lined cookie sheet.
Bake at 350 degrees F. On the center rack for about 15 minutes, until lightly browned. For even baking, rotate the cookie sheet front to back halfway through baking.
Remove the cookies from the oven and allow them to cool for 5 minutes. Use a small offset spatula to remove the cookies from the baking sheet. Carefully roll the baked cookies in the superfine vanilla sugar, and transfer to racks to cool thoroughly. Once cool, roll the cookies a second time in the superfine vanilla sugar.
Store the cookies in an airtight container at room temperature or in the freezer. These will keep one month at room temperature or several months if frozen.
Cook’s Note: Vanilla Sugar is sugar infused with pure vanilla. I use C&H Baker’s Sugar, a granulated sugar that is slightly more finely ground than regular granulated sugar, though not as finely ground as superfine sugar. Typically I use 1 or 2 beans per pound of sugar, or more for a stronger vanilla flavor and perfume.
To make the vanilla sugar, place the vanilla bean on a work surface, and split it open by running a paring knife down the length of the bean. Spread the bean open, and using the non-cutting edge of the paring knife, scrape the seeds out. Drop the seeds into the sugar, and using your fingertips or a whisk, combine the vanilla seeds and sugar. Add the scraped vanilla bean, cover tightly, and set aside for 1 week to infuse. Add more vanilla beans and seeds along with more sugar, as needed. Vanilla beans have varying amounts of moisture, and thus the sugar may clump. Use your fingertips or a whisk to break up the clumps.
To make the superfine sugar for rolling these cookies, simply drop some of the vanilla sugar into the bowl of a food processor fitted with the metal knife, and process for about 30 seconds or until powder fine. For richer vanilla flavor add the seeds of 1 more vanilla bean.
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I have no affiliation with any product, manufacturer, or site mentioned in this article.