As I look back through the last four and a half years of Food Fare columns I’ve written, there is one topic I’ve covered in one way or another every year — holiday cookies.
That’s because this is one of my favorite seasons, filling the house with the warm scents of baked dough and spices while revisiting old friends and making new ones. And because it’s the holidays there are, of course, no calories involved.
Holiday baking is a family tradition for many. It can be as simple or as complicated as you want it to be — from pulling out a tube of prepared sugar cookie dough, then slicing, baking and decorating them with the kids, to making elaborate layered treats with decorations that rival a Faberge egg and look almost too fancy to eat. But if you have the time to bake … homemade is fun and allows you to exercise your creative side (and if it doesn’t quite work out the way you planned, there are almost always tasty ways of disposing of the evidence before anyone finds out).
In previous columns I’ve baked Almond Sticks and Hoosier Wedding Cakes with Cheryl Munson, tried my friend Kay’s Apricot Cream Cheese Tarts, melted Jolly Ranchers into Stained Glass Cookies and explored Tess Arrias’ “Ultimate Cookie Handbook.” We’ve eaten cookies I’ve made every year for nearly 40 years (Lime Dreams and Apricot Shortbreads) and even tried to be just a bit healthy with Oat & Apple Cookies from “New York Christmas Baking.”
This year I’m trying out three new cookies to share with readers, using a couple of new techniques and my new quarter sheet baking pans. I learned to make almond paste, but decided to leave the homemade dulce de leche for another year.
Almond paste is similar to marzipan but has less sugar and a coarser texture. Straight up it’s softer than marzipan and spreadable. It’s most often used as a base, filling or ingredient in pies and cakes and, unlike marzipan, will stand up to baking temperatures (as it is used here in the Italian Rainbow Cookies). Mixed with additional powdered sugar it can be molded into discs (as in the Hausfreunde cookies) or simple shapes, although it’s not as versatile or sturdy as marzipan for decorations.
Almond paste is available for purchase but it’s easy to make at home. You simply blanch whole almonds in boiling water for a minute or two and then drain. The skins will pop off easily (I peeled about 4 cups of almonds while watching the Colts take down the Patriots and had plenty of the game left over). The blanched almonds are then ground and mixed with powdered sugar, a pinch of salt, perhaps some almond extract and egg whites (use pasteurized egg whites if you’re not planning to bake it) and the resulting paste is ready for use or can be kept in the refrigerator or frozen for later.
Almond paste in hand, I made some Italian Rainbow Cookies. The cookie base gets its flavor from almond paste in the batter plus a little almond extract and is baked in three thin sheets which are then stacked with a thin layer of jam in between to hold them together. The result is more like a slightly crisp cake than a cookie, in striking red, “white” and green layers.
I found the edges a little dry. It’s possible that I over-baked them slightly as this was the first time I had tried the recipe, or perhaps I didn’t use quite enough jam between the layers. Make sure you spread enough jam along the edges to help retain moisture. You could even make it a bit more of an adult cookie by brushing the layers with a brandy or peach schnapps simple syrup to add additional flavor and moisture before spreading on the jam.
Finally, the top and bottom of the cookie are covered with a thin layer of tempered chocolate. It’s not a complicated process but it is a bit time consuming and you’ll need an instant-read thermometer to be able to achieve the correct temperatures. And while tempering the chocolate isn’t absolutely necessary, it makes the chocolate set up in a crisp layer that doesn’t melt as soon as you handle it, making the cookie less messy to eat. Once you’ve got the hang of it you can use the technique in many chocolate coated desserts.
Hausfreunde are also a three-layered cookie. In this case two shortbread-like cookies are sandwiched with a layer of apricot jam. The top cookie is then brushed with another layer of jam and topped with a disc of molded almond paste and this in turn is dipped in melted chocolate. You can use semi-sweet chocolate but for a real contrast use bittersweet. Top the cookie with a walnut or pecan half. You’ll find that the dough seems crumbly straight out of the food processor, but once refrigerated and rolled out it will hold together. The result is a cookie that melts in your mouth but still has enough crunch to contrast with the almond paste and the crisp chocolate topping and nut.
And finally, for my Argentinian brother-in-law I made Alfajores. Although they originated in the Middle East, these days this cookie is most commonly associated with South America, where they were introduced by the Spanish, and especially with Argentina. The cookie here is also a shortbread-like cookie, but more tender because of the large amount of cornstarch in the recipe. The cookies are baked, then sandwiched with dulce de leche. They are wonderful as is but you can dust them with powdered sugar, roll them in chopped almonds, pistachios or coconut flakes or dip them in chocolate if you’re feeling extra indulgent.
Three new cookies, all of which I’d make again. Now the only issue is to figure out which of the old favorites I can leave out to make room for the new ones … or perhaps I’ll just find a bigger cookie tray. Time for a cookie and a glass of milk before bed.
Happy holidays to all and to all a good night!
Source: By Makinze Gore, Delish, Dec. 22, 2020
1 1/4 cup cornstarch
1 1/4 cup all-purpose flour, plus more for surface
1 teaspoon baking powder
1/2 teaspoon baking soda
1/2 teaspoon kosher salt
12 tablespoons butter, softened
3/4 cup granulated sugar
Zest of 1 lemon
3 large egg yolks
1 teaspoon pure vanilla extract
1 (15.8-ounce) jar dulce de leche
1/4 cup shredded coconut (optional)
1. Preheat oven to 350 degrees and line 2 large baking sheets with parchment. In a large bowl, whisk together cornstarch, flour, baking powder, baking soda and salt.
2. In another large bowl, using a hand mixer, beat butter, sugar and lemon zest together. Add egg yolks and vanilla and beat until combined. Add dry ingredients and beat until dough comes together. You should be able to squeeze the dough and it holds together at this point.
3. Lightly flour surface and dump dough onto counter. Form into a smooth ball, then divide in half. Working with one half at a time, roll dough out to 1/4-inch thick. Use a 2 1/4-inch round cookie cutter to cut out dough and place on prepared baking sheet. Repeat with second half of dough. Gather scraps and shape back into a smooth ball, then re-roll and cut out rounds.
4. Place sheet trays in freezer until dough is frozen, at least 15 minutes.
5. Bake frozen dough for 8 minutes: Cookies will still be a little soft and won’t have gained much color. Let cool completely.
6. Flip half of the cooled cookies over and spread with dulce de leche. Top with remaining cookies. If desired, roll the sides in shredded coconut.
Source: Food & Wine
2 cups all-purpose flour
1/4 cup plus 1 tablespoon granulated sugar
1/4 teaspoon kosher salt
1 1/2 sticks cold unsalted butter, cubed
1 large egg, beaten
1/2 teaspoon pure vanilla extract
About 1/2 cup apricot jam
7 ounces almond paste
3/4 cup confectioners’ sugar
5 ounces bittersweet chocolate, chopped
24 walnut halves, toasted (or pecans if preferred)
1. In a food processor, pulse the flour with the granulated sugar and salt. Add the butter and pulse until the mixture resembles coarse meal with some pea-size pieces remaining. Add the egg and vanilla and pulse until the dough just comes together. Scrape out onto a work surface and pat into a disk. Wrap in plastic and refrigerate until chilled, about 1 hour.
2. Preheat the oven to 350 degrees and line two large rimmed baking sheets with parchment paper. On a lightly floured work surface, roll out the dough 1/4 inch thick. Using a 2-inch round cookie cutter, stamp out cookies as close together as possible; transfer to the prepared baking sheets. Gather the scraps, re-roll and stamp out more cookies. You should have a total of 48.
3. Bake the cookies for about 20 minutes, until golden; rotate the baking sheets from top to bottom and front to back halfway through baking. Transfer to a rack to cool.
4. In a small saucepan, warm the jam over moderate heat, stirring, until runny, about 3 minutes. Brush a thin layer of jam on 24 of the cookies and top with the remaining cookies.
5. In a medium bowl, combine the almond paste with the confectioners’ sugar and knead until blended. Roll out the almond paste 1/8 inch thick between 2 sheets of parchment paper. Using a 2-inch round cookie cutter, stamp out 24 rounds. Brush the top of each cookie sandwich with another thin layer of jam and top with the rounds of almond paste.
6. In a microwave-safe bowl, heat the chocolate at high power in 30-second bursts until just melted. Stir until smooth. Dip the top of each sandwich cookie in the chocolate, just enough to coat the almond paste; transfer to the baking sheet. Top each cookie with a walnut half. Let the chocolate set before serving.
Italian Rainbow Cookies
Source: by Makinze Gore, Delish, Dec. 24, 2020
7 ounces almond paste, broken into pieces
1 1/4 cup (2 1/2 sticks) butter, softened
1 cup granulated sugar, divided
4 large eggs, separated
1 teaspoon almond extract
2 3/4 cups all-purpose flour
1/2 teaspoon kosher salt
Red food coloring
Green food coloring
1/3 cup apricot preserves, warmed
1/3 cup raspberry preserves, warmed
1 1/4 cup semisweet chocolate chips, divided
1. Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Grease three 9-by-13-inch pans with cooking spray and line with parchment paper leaving a 2-inch hangover on each side. In a large bowl using a hand mixer, beat almond paste and 3/4 cup sugar together until light almond paste is broken into smaller pieces and looks crumbly. Add butter and beat until light and fluffy. Add egg yolks and almond extract and beat until incorporated. Add flour and salt and beat until just combined.
2. In another large bowl, beat egg whites until foamy, then slowly add in remaining 1/4 cup sugar while beating and continue beating until stiff peaks. Add about 1/3 of the egg whites to the batter and gently fold in until combined, then add the rest of the egg whites and continue gently folding until fully combined.
3. Divide batter evenly into three separate bowls. Dye one bowl of batter red and another bowl green, leaving the third one plain. Add batters to prepared pans and use an offset spatula to spread into an even layer.
4. Bake until no longer shiny and feel just slightly soft when pressed with a finger, 12 minutes. The cakes should be starting to peel from the edges and barely any color will be gained. Let cool 10 minutes in pan, then use the parchment to help lift out and place on cooling racks. Let cool completely.
5. To assemble the cakes, place a piece of parchment paper over the green layer, then invert layer onto a board. Peel off top piece of parchment paper. Spread warmed apricot preserves over green layer.
6. Invert white layer onto another board and peel off parchment paper. Gently slide it on top of green layer. Spread warmed raspberry preserves over white layer. Finally, invert red layer onto another board, peel off parchment and gently slide on top of white layer. Place a piece of parchment paper on top of red layer, then place a baking pan on top of parchment.
7. Weigh down the pan with cans and refrigerate for at least 2 hours or up to overnight.
8. When ready to coat in chocolate, remove from refrigerator while you temper your chocolate. To temper your chocolate, place 3/4 cup chocolate chips into a microwave safe bowl. Microwave in 30 second intervals, stirring after each one, until chocolate is smooth and reaches between 113 and 118 degrees. Microwave in 5-10 seconds bursts as needed to hit your desired temperature. Add remaining 1/2 cup of chocolate chips a little at a time, stirring until completely melted between additions. Keep stirring until your chocolate reaches 88 or 89 degrees. You can add a little more chocolate as needed to help cool your chocolate down, making sure the new chips melt completely before adding any more.
9. Add about half of your tempered chocolate on top of the red layer, and working quickly so it doesn’t set, use an offset spatula to spread into an even layer. Refrigerate until chocolate is completely set, 30 minutes.
10. If your chocolate hardened while the first layer was chilling, microwave in 10 second bursts until smooth and chocolate reaches 89 degrees again. Once chocolate is set, invert onto another board and spread remaining chocolate over the green layer. Refrigerate until chocolate is set or until ready to serve, 30 more minutes.
11. Using a large knife, trim edges of cakes to get clean sides, then cut into 28 pieces.
Homemade Almond Paste Recipe
Source: Taste of Home December/January 2007
1 1/2 cups blanched almonds
1 1/2 cups confectioners’ sugar
1 egg white
1 1/2 teaspoons almond extract
1/4 teaspoon salt
1. Place almonds in a food processor; cover and process until smooth.
2. Add the confectioners’ sugar, egg white, extract and salt; cover and process until smooth.
3. Divide almond paste into 1/2-cup portions; place in airtight containers. Refrigerate for up to one month or freeze for up to three months.