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Sugar Cookie Christmas Tree

I know you’re all frantically trying to get everything done before Christmas, and may not have time to make this cookie Christmas tree, but you might want to tuck away this idea for next year, especially if there are kids in the family. This “Christmas tree” is composed of delicious sugar cookies, covered in royal icing, which acts as a sweet “glue” keeping the tower from toppling over.

I made a similar tree last year with the grandkids, cutting out templates for each size of the cookie layers with scissors and paper templates. Even though it was a little tedious to cut using a knife around pieces of paper instead of real cookie cutters, it all came together, and they were eager to dig into it, decorated with green frosting and red candies.

This year, however, I ordered cookie cutters online made just for such a project,  and it sure made things a whole lot easier. I decorated it only in white, using royal icing, and sparkly edible crystals to simulate the feeling of snow. I made the cookie cake in steps, so the job wasn’t so onerous, baking the cookies ahead of time and freezing them, then frosting and assembling the towering tree weeks later

Here’s a closer look at the layers, which you swivel to alternate the points, as you’re building the tree. The royal icing, made of egg whites and sugar, dries as hard as cement, but you might need to just steady each layer for a moment before moving to the next. Start by “glueing” the bottom layer to the plate so it doesn’t slip.

Before you know it, you’ll have a towering edible tree, that adults and kids alike will love. It may be hard to dig in and break up this beauty, but hey, you’ll be making a lot of people happy, and you can always make another one next year. 

I’m so fortunate to have so many family members sharing in the joy with me at Christmas time, including my 97-year-old father,  who still enjoys a good glass of wine (and still plays golf!),

and the newest and youngest member of our family – my two month old granddaughter, Aurelia. And we have another new granddaughter coming any day now, from my husband’s side of the family!! Our family has really grown in the last couple of years. I count my lucky stars every day!

I hope you all have a wonderful Christmas holiday too, surrounded by good friends and family. Thank you to all my readers who followed me this year. I really appreciate your support. See you in 2019!

Buon Natale e felice anno nuovo!

Sorry for the formatting of this recipe, but WordPress updated and the icon for the “Easywrite” recipe (that allows you to print the recipe without printing the entire post) is missing. I’ll try to figure it out for the next post, but if any of my readers, who are also food bloggers and who also use WordPress, can clue me in, please drop me a line and let me know. 

Cookie Christmas Tree Recipe

5 cups flour

1 1/4 tsp. salt

3 sticks butter, softened

1 1/2 cups sugar

2 large eggs

2 tsps. vanilla

Beat the butter and sugar together at a medium high speed until pale and light, then beat in the eggs and vanilla. Reduce speed to low, then add the flour, mixing until well combined.

Form dough into four balls and flatten into disks. Keep each disk wrapped for about 1/2 hour or so.

Roll out a disk of dough onto a well-floured surface, about 1/4 inch thick. I found it easiest to roll onto parchment paper, especially for the large shapes, so I could easily transfer the parchment paper to the baking sheet without risk of ripping the dough. Cut the largest shapes first, and remove the excess dough from the parchment paper. Set that dough aside to reuse with other pieces later.

Keep cutting out the stars, using the largest shape cutters two or three times each, and some of the smaller shape cutters two or three times each, until you run out of fresh dough. Make more cookies, gathering the remaining scraps and reroll them, but try not to reroll more than once, or you’ll get a tougher cookie. 

Bake in a 350 degree oven about 10 to 12 minutes.

Royal Icing

3 egg whites

1 tsp. vanilla

4 cups confectioner’s sugar

Whip egg whites until frothy and add the vanilla, then the confectioner’s sugar, 1/2 cup at a time. Beat on high speed until the mixture is glossy and thick.

Pipe or spread some of the icing on the plate to secure the first star. Then pipe or frost some of the royal icing on the tips of each layer, sprinkling with decorations immediately. Once the icing dries, you won’t be able to sprinkle anything on top. Pivot the next cookie “star” so that the tips are in a different alignment than the layer below, frosting each tip and decorating with sprinkles. Continue doing the same until you reach the top, saving the smallest star for the top. You may have to hold the cookie tree at various levels for a few minutes if it feels like it’s going to topple, until the icing sets a bit. Once the royal icing sets, it is very secure.


World Nutella Day – Nutella Pizzelle Sandwich

World Nutella Day – Nutella Pizzelle Sandwich

It’s World Nutella Day! Sara from Ms. Adventures in Italy and Michelle from Bleeding Espresso started this holiday two years ago for all Nutella lovers out there. The celebration takes place today, when tons of new Nutella recipes, stories, art and other adventures will be posted on the blogosphere. They’ll be sharing all the recipes on Monday, February 9 on the World Nutella Day site.

For those of you who haven’t posted, the day is young. Get going. For those of you who haven’t tried Nutella yet, get thee to a Nutella-selling store anon. Procure spoon. Open Jar. Indulge.

Here’s my slightly gussied-up alternative to spreading on toast: a pizzelle sandwich smeared with warmed Nutella on the inside.

The pizzelle recipe is thanks to my husband’s Aunt Alice, who at 94, is still going strong and making her spaghetti and meatballs every Sunday for her children, grandchildren and now great-grandchildren. Several years ago, she invited me to her home to show me how she makes her pizzelle. I’m passing on her basic recipe to you, minus the Nutella, which is simply a matter of microwaving for about 20 seconds or until it reaches the right consistency, then slathering it between two pizzelle. My advice though, is if you plan to sandwich the pizzelle with Nutella, use vanilla extract and omit the anise flavoring, which is too strong to pair with Nutella.

3 eggs
1/2 tsp. anise seed or anise oil
2 tsp. baking powder
1 tsp. vanilla
1 3/4 cup flour
1/2 cup butter, melted
3/4 cup sugar

Beat eggs and sugar. Add cooled melted butter, vanilla and anise. Sift flour, baking powder. Add to egg mixture. Let batter rest a half hour, then drop by small spoonfuls onto pizzelle iron, following manufacturer’s instructions.

Related Post: Chocolate Nutella Rice Pudding

Italian Christmas “brownies”

Italian Christmas “brownies”

Italian Christmas “Brownies”

Caveat emptor: These are not brownies in the true American sense. Yes, they have a strong chocolate flavor, but they also are loaded with pungent spices, like cinnamon, nutmeg, cloves and a surprise ingredient of black pepper. I grew up eating these at Christmas time, when my mother would line up dozens of them in trays, waiting to be cooled in preparation for the confectioner’s sugar embellishment. They’re not a specialty of the Emilia-Romagna region where she was born and raised. I’m pretty sure she learned it from her mother-in-law, who was from the Southern Italian region of Calabria – and it was she who labeled them “brownies.” I had never seen a recipe for them in any of the Italian cookbooks I own. But one day many years ago, a photo and recipe for “Cocoa Christmas Cookies” appeared in the New York Times food section and caught my eye. The cookies looked just like my mother’s. The recipe was from Alfred Portale, chef and co-owner at New York City’s Gotham Bar and Grill. Portale’s relatives hail from Sicily – just across the straits of Messina from Calabria. Bingo! Except for a few ingredients, the recipe sounded just like the cookie I remembered, only better. This one added a cup of apricot jam, which my mother’s recipe didn’t, and I think it helps keep the cookies moist, as well as adding flavor. You can add walnuts and raisins to the cookies if you like, as Portale did, but I leave them out, since they were never included in my mother’s version. She did however add chocolate chips – a nod to her new found country, I suppose. And of course, her recipe calls for that unusual addition of black pepper. It adds even more complexity to the flavor – and some mystery too. I wouldn’t dream of making the cookies without it.

Cocoa Christmas Cookies

4 cups all-purpose flour
1 cup unsweetened cocoa
4 1/2 tsps. baking powder
2 tsps. cinnamon
1/2 tsp freshly grated nutmeg
1/2 tsp. ground cloves
1/2 tsp. salt
1 1/2 tsp. black pepper
3 sticks unsalted butter, at room temperature
1 1/4 cups sugar
2 large eggs
1 tsp. vanilla
1 cup apricot jam
1/4 cup milk
2 cups chocolate chips

If using raisins and walnuts as Portale did, add 1 1/2 cups of each

glaze:
2 cups confectioner’s sugar
1/4 cup lemon juice

1. In a large mixing bowl, combine flour, cocoa, baking powder, cinnamon, nutmeg, cloves, salt, black pepper. Combine and set aside.
2. With a heavy duty mixer, beat butter and sugar together until creamy. Add eggs, one at a time, beating on medium speed for 1 minute after each addition. Beat in vanilla, jam, and milk. Set mixer to low and gradually add flour mixture, beating only until it is incorporated. Add the chocolate chips. The batter will be extremely stiff.
3. Place a large piece of waxed paper or parchment paper on the counter and flour it generously. Take a large spoon and scoop out a couple of heaping cups of the stiff batter onto the floured surface. Use a spoon to release it if needed. Flour your hands well and begin to shape the batter into a log shape, about an inch in diameter, rolling it back and forth on the floured surface. Use the paper to help mold it. Place the “logs” into the refrigerator for a couple of hours.
4. Remove from refrigerator and cut into sections about 1 1/2 inches wide. You can leave it this shape, or roll it between the palms of your hand into a flattened ball, which is the traditional shape.
5. Place balls on a parchment-lined or greased and floured cookie sheet, about 1 inch apart. Bake for about 10 minutes at 350 degrees. The tops will crack – this is normal. Transfer cookies to a rack and let cool. Cover with the glaze when completely cooled.

For the glaze:

Mix sifted confectioner’s sugar and lemon juice with a spoon until the desired consistency. I make mine almost like a frosting rather than a glaze, which means you’ll need to add more sugar. If you prefer yours to be more of a drizzle, adjust with more lemon juice.

This recipe makes about 6 to 7 dozen cookies and they freeze well. Just make sure the glaze is dry before putting them in the freezer. They will get hard if you leave them at for more than a week.

Lilli’s Biscotti

Lilli’s biscotti

Lilli’s biscotti

You know how sometimes you have a memory of a favorite dish and nothing else can compare to that version? Maybe it’s the cheesecake you ate at that diner, or the lasagna your mother used to make. For me, when it comes to biscotti, nothing holds a candle to this recipe from my friend Lilli. Sure, there are plenty of delicious biscotti around, but this recipe is the one I keep making time after time. It’s my benchmark and everything else comes in second. They’re crunchy without being rock-hard. They’re not too sweet, just sweet enough. And they’re as addictive as potato chips. One friend who visited ate nearly the entire plate of biscotti – leaving nothing but a lot of crumbs on the sofa. These do make a mess when you’re eating, so have a napkin handy. I don’t usually add the dried cranberries, but with Christmas approaching, they’re a festive touch. The only thing needed now is a cup of espresso – or a glass of vin santo. Enjoy.

Lilli’s biscotti

1 stick of unsalted butter, softened
1 cup sugar
4 eggs
3 cups flour
3 tsp. baking powder
2 tsp. vanilla
1 pinch salt
1 cup whole almonds, toasted ahead of time in a 350 degree oven for 15 minutes
1/2 cup dried cranberries, optional

Mix sugar and butter together until blended. Add eggs, one at a time. Add flour, baking powder, vanilla, and salt until all is blended. Scrape from the bottom to make sure everything is mixed in. The batter will be very stiff. Add the almonds (and dried cranberries if using) either with a durable wooden spoon, or with your mixer. Don’t mix for long if using a mixer since you don’t want to break up the almonds.

Take about 1/3 of the mixture and plop it onto a well-floured counter or board. Shape into a “log” that resembles a small, flat loaf of bread, tapering the two ends at an angle. It’s a sticky dough, so you’ll need to keep your hands and board floured. Repeat two more times with the remainder of the dough. Butter a cookie sheet and place the “logs” on the cookie sheet, leaving ample room between them. Coat with a thin layer of milk or beaten egg. Bake in a preheated 375 degree oven until golden – about 25 to 30 minutes.
Remove from oven and turn the heat up to 450 degrees. Carefully place one of the “logs” on a cutting board, using two spatulas if necessary to keep it from splitting. With a sharp knife (I use a serrated knife) slice the cookies at a diagonal. Hold one hand firmly on the log while you cut with the knife in the other hand, so you don’t break the dough and crumble the cookies. A few are bound to break. Place the cookies back on a cookie sheet and bake at 450 degrees for about five minutes. Watch carefully so they don’t burn. Flip the cookies over and bake another five minutes on the other side. Makes about four dozen biscotti.

“Bocconotti” – Little Chocolate Treats

“Bocconotti” – Little Chocolate Treats

These chocolate treats are one of the many specialties of the region of Italy called Abruzzo. We spent a week there, as part of a recent trip to Italy, visiting my husband’s relatives who live in a small village near the Adriatic coast.
While there, we feasted each day at pranzo (lunch) and cena (dinner), moving from one cousin’s house to another, soaking up the warmth, the hospitality and the good food.
Giovanna, the cousin who is pictured here, cooked up a batch of these cookies the night before we left for us to take back to the U.S. Her culinary skills are well-known among her family and neighbors in Italy. Since returning to the U.S., I’ve been sharing her bocconotti with friends and relatives here, so her reputation has spread to the U.S. as well.
Giovanna gave me her recipe, which uses lard in the dough, but I have adapted it with butter. She also told me she uses a mixture of liqueurs in the filling — “Whatever I have in the house,” she said.
Feel free to do the same, or focus on one particular flavor. You could use rum, or brandy, or an orange-flavored liqueur, for example. Or do as Giovanna does and combine several.
They keep for a month, she said, as long as they are in a covered tin or container. Even though the recipe makes about four dozen bocconotti, you might have trouble keeping them for that long!

Bocconotti

For the dough:

10 Tablespoons of unsalted butter
2/3 cup plus 1 T. sugar
6 egg yolks
3 1/2 cups flour or enough to make a soft dough

Cream butter and sugar in a mixer. Add egg yolks, one at a time, blending well. Add flour and mix until it forms a soft dough. Break off small portions and roll out to the thickness of pie crust. Cut and fit into small metal tart tins.

For the filling:

4 ounces espresso coffee
7 ounces dark chocolate, broken into pieces
1 1/3 cups almonds, toasted and finely ground
3/4 cup plus 1 T. sugar
pinch of cinnamon
peel of 1 lemon, grated
2 egg yolks, slightly beaten
1/2 cup liqueur, any kind
6 egg whites, stiffly beaten

Put the chocolate into a bowl and pour the hot coffee over it, stirring until melted and smooth. Mix in the almonds, sugar, cinnamon, lemon, egg yolks and liqueur. Fold in beaten egg whites.

Pour into the tart shells. Place on a cookie sheet and bake in a 375 degree oven for about 20 minutes.

When cool, melt about 4 ounces chocolate in a bowl with 1 T. oil. Spread over the cooled cookies.