skip to Main Content

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

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.

This Post Has 17 Comments
  1. Wow! I always wondered what made those chocolate cookies “different”! Never would have guessed pepper.
    The photos are great too. That first one is so enticing. I really want to pop “brownie” in my mouth.
    Thank you. JJ

  2. I made some of this dough into very large cookies and still cooked them for 10 minutes. They are the “molten” chocolate cookies! Unsure about pepper…but….

    Thanks for the recipe!

  3. I have not had these since my GM was alive and not sure why my Mom and Aunts never made them. Probably they lost the recipe or perhaps it was never written down by my GM. I copied the recipe and can't wait to make them for New Years. Thanks for posting and Merry Christmas.

  4. those brownies were the best I have ever had. I wish I baked. I'm going to copy this recipe and give it to Dolores.

  5. Oh, these are what we called Tutus when I was growing up! My parents are Sicilian and my mother made these every Christmas. Tons of them in fact. It's true I have never seen this cookie recipe in any cookbook but make them from my mother's handwritten recipes. She didn't use any jam, walnuts only and very rich in spices. So happy to see these!

  6. I speak from experience! these cookies are wonderful. This Cookie Exchange was such a terrific idea. A tradition is born. Grazie, amica!

  7. A year late with this, but wanted to say what a great idea for a cookie exchange! All my Italian/Sicilian family and friends are spread out and I know most of them would love to do this.

    By the way, if you can find a copy of The Art of Sicilian Cooking by Anna Muffaletto, there are two recipes in it for the chocolate spice cookies. She just calls them Biscotti di Cioccolata or Chocolate Spice Cookies (we always called them Mrs. Stassi's chocolate cookies, because, well…). That book is wonderful and the only place I've ever seen the chocolate spice cookie recipe, other than the one I got from my mother who got it from Mrs. Stassi's daughter;)

  8. My Sicilian grandma and I used to make these every Christmas! She called them "Italian brownies" as well. It has probably been about 12 years since I've had them last, but I am already looking forward to making them this year in her honor. We still have her handwritten recipe, but I plan on trying it with the apricot jam and black pepper as you suggested. Thank you!!

  9. First off, THANK YOU! I made these cookies yesterday and they are fantastic. Moist and full of flavor. My kids love them as do I. Thank you for sharing the recipe. Will be making them again and again. Ciao!

  10. So beautiful and warm city! its the place to be on Christmas! Italy has everything you want , i booked with this and i found best food, enjoyable activities, i learnt about Italy’s history and tradition and so so mch more, i will go again for sure

  11. These are the closest to my Grandma’s recipe that I have. They are also labeled ” Brownies”.
    I actually would bypass them in her recipe box thinking they were just regular old American brownies. Until one day my brother reminded me of the chocolate, spicy cookies that our Grandma made at Christmas. And thats when I read the recipe card. My recipe has to be very, very old. It’s one of the recipes she actually wrote down and that has some instructions! LOL
    Truly a treasure to have.

    1. Oh how wonderful to learn that your grandmother also called them “brownies” and that you are now making them. It warms my heart to know you’re passing down the traditions. Send me a photo if you can.

  12. I just came across this recipe and felt I really wanted to comment because these cookies are years and years of memories. My mother worked with an Italian woman who gave her a tray of cookies every Christmas. These Italian Christmas brownies were my favorite. I asked my Mom to get her, (Lillian’s) recipe. She made them said she wouldn’t be making these again unless I helped. Haha. If you have made these before, you know why. So I started helping her because I loved them! Through the years, I started making them with my daughter, then her daughters and now we have a great granddaughter who just turned one. I think we will wait until next year to include her, 1 year olds are into everything! They will be 5 generations of making “Lillian’s Italian Christmas brownies”. My recipe is slightly different, it doesn’t call for black pepper or apricot jam. But I just love the unusualness of these cookies.

Comments are closed.