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
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.