skip to Main Content
Menu
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.

“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.

Tender Chocolate Cake

Tender Chocolate Cake

I love layer cakes as much as anyone. Give me a slice of a three-tiered chocolate cake oozing with frosting and I’ll finish it off quicker than you can say “red velvet.”
But I’m also partial to the cakes that are more common in Italy — low, one-layer desserts that typically are served with just a dusting of confectioner’s sugar or no embellishment at all. This is one of those — dense, not too sweet, delicious, and easy to make in just ten minutes. Add a dollop of whipped cream on top, and you’ve got the perfect ending for a meal any night of the week or even for company.
The recipe comes from the handsome young newlyweds you see in the photo — my cousin Matteo Passeri and his wife Silvia de Domenicis, who live in Piacenza, about 40 miles south of Milan. The cake served at their wedding in June wasn’t chocolate, and it too, was very different from what you see at American weddings. Picture a giant sheet cake, with one very low layer of white cake, anchored on the bottom with puff pastry, then smothered entirely in whipped cream. Now picture rows of strawberries marching up and down the perimeter of the cake and you’ve got a dream of a confection that will make you forget you ever asked for a towering layer cake on your birthday. Maybe this recipe will become your annual celebratory request instead.
I’ve tweaked Matteo’s recipe just a tad by adding a teaspoon of vanilla, which adds another layer of flavor and enhances the chocolate.

Torta Tenerina

3 1/2 ounces dark chocolate, broken into small pieces
***For the recipe, I used all but three small pieces of a 4.25 oz. bar of dark chocolate. Those I ate. (Well, the cook needs anti-oxidants too, you know.)

1 stick of unsalted butter
3/4 cup all-purpose flour plus 2 T.
3 eggs
3/4 cup sugar
1 tsp. vanilla
a pinch of salt

Place the butter and chocolate into the top portion of a double boiler. Let the ingredients melt over gentle heat. Meanwhile, crack the eggs into a mixer and beat for about a minute, then add the sugar and beat for about five minutes, or until the mixture is thick and pale yellow in color. Add the vanilla, salt and the flour and beat another minute until all ingredients are blended. Take the chocolate and butter mixture and stir with a whisk until smooth. Add the chocolate mixture to the ingredients in the other bowl. Pour into a greased and floured 8 inch cake pan and bake at 325 degrees for 20 minutes. Cool in pan on a cake rack for 10 minutes, then loosen edges with a butter knife and invert onto serving dish. After cake is completely cooled, place a paper doily on top, sprinkle confectioner’s sugar over all, then carefully lift the doily to reveal a beautiful pattern.
Serve with freshly whipped cream.