Wednesday, November 19, 2008

Italian Cookies

As much as I love to cook, baking intimidates me. A Daring Baker I am not, even though I greatly admire those brave souls.

I read terms like “gently fold mixtures together” and give up before I even start. Or how about this one: “Beat egg whites and extract until firm but not dry” Huh??? As firm as what? And what exactly do “dry” eggs look like?

But I’ve decided the only way to conquer these fears is to do a whole lot more baking than I ever have before. The kids are already thrilled.

True confession: the only time I bake cookies is Christmas. That fact is particularly embarrassing because I know better. I grew up in a household where the cookie jar was always full, and now I don’t own a cookie jar. If I placed a cookie jar on my counter, my kids wouldn’t even know what it was.

But every December 23, I spend about 12 hours baking cookies and that does me in for the whole year. Those foreign ingredients and directions and the pacing around while the cookies bake makes me crazy. Really what can you do in 8 to 12 minutes? I fill the next cookie sheet to kill time and then I only have about five minutes – which feels like 30 as I tap my fingers, wash my hands, re-fold the kitchen towels and wait.

The whole day is fraught with anxiety. I want to make 12 different kinds and the Kitchen Genius thinks 5 will do. It’s one of the few heated fights we have, which is pointless because time and energy usually settles the matter at about 7 varieties, so technically he wins.

Why, you ask? Why do you torture yourself that way? Because when you only make cookies once a year, stale or frozen simply will not do. I only like fresh cookies (blame my Mom and that ever flowing cookie jar).

And if you only bake cookies once a year, you want to make sure you make everyone’s favorite. We’re a family of six and everyone has a different favorite. Add one new recipe that I want to try just because I’ve got my baking shoes on and I'm up to 7 varieties in no time.

The only problem with Christmas cookies is they’re so Christmas-y. I needed some recipes this week and I needed them fast. The first place I turned for a recipe is Life, Lightly Salted because I know my dear blogger friend Michele loves cookies and is fearless about creating her own recipes when baking.

I remembered that she posted a yummy looking recipe (with gorgeous photos) for Italian Anise Cookies. Since Italian cookies from Mike’s Pastry in the North End of Boston are my one sweet weakness that recipe stuck in my mind like honey on a spoon.

Michele’s recipe was so easy to follow that I felt like she was in my kitchen with me, leading me by the hand. Other recipes say beat the butter and sugar until “light and fluffy.” Well I thought that meant about 30 seconds, but Michele specified five minutes.

I grumbled a bit that she must have a KitchenAid Professional Mixer as I stood there circling my cheap Hand Mixer
around the bowl, but I noticed that the butter and sugar really did get much lighter and fluffier the more I mixed. It even changed color.

The cookies turned out great, thanks to her very excellent recipe. They were light and moist and most delicious. I’ll be making these again at Christmas. Click here for her recipe.

Since I was on an Italian cookie roll, next I made Coconut Almond Macaroons per the KG’s advice. He didn’t get the title without reason, and now I no longer fear “folding,” even though I still don’t know what “dry” eggs look like (I hope).

Observations in the baking experiment so far: It’s really important to know your oven. Mine tends to run hot, so I always turn the temperature down 25 degrees and adjust the time to about 3/4 of whatever the recipe says. It took me many batches of burned cookies over the years to discover this, but now that I know, I rarely burn cookies.

The Recipe:

Coconut Almond Macaroons
(from Odense Almond Paste)

Yields about 30 cookies
Prep time: 20 minutes
Bake time: 20 minutes

1/2 cup egg whites, room temperature
1 teaspoon pure vanilla extract
1 (7 ounce) box Odense Almond Paste, grated
2 cups powdered sugar
14 ounce package sweetened flaked coconut
Optional (but highly recommended!) melting chocolate to drizzle over cookies

Preheat oven to 325 degrees. Line two cookie sheets with parchment paper. In a large bowl beat egg whites and extract until firm but not dry. In a separate bowl beat almond paste, sugar and coconut until the texture of small crumbs.

Gently fold mixtures together. Drop tablespoons of dough one inch apart onto cookie sheets (small scoop with wire release works well). Bake for 13 minutes or until lightly browned on bottom and firm to touch. Cool cookies on wire racks.

Melt 3/4 cup dark chocolate chips in microwave. Using a fork, drizzle the chocolate over cookies in a back and forth pattern.

For a printable recipe click here


Michele said...

Ooooo....look at my cookies! You did a wonderful job! And yes I have one of those silly kitchenaid mixers. I don't think I'd be able to live without it. :-)
Thanks so much for making my cookies, I'm chuffed that they turned out so well for you.
The macaroons look beautiful as well. I have to admit that I haven't made a macaroon since moving to the Jersey shore. We have a great little place called the Macaroon Shop in Avon-By-The-Sea. They put anything that I make to shame. So now we just buy our macaroons.

Meg said...

Wow! Both cookies look amazing! Great job!! YUM!

Jersey Girl Cooks said...

I just found your wonderful blog. I get stressed making cookies too. These look great!

Pam said...

I am so scarded to make mararoons because I know I would eat the whole batch...I love them that much. Yours look fantastic - especially with the chocolate drizzle.

Thistlemoon said...

Very nice cookies! There is nothing like holiday time to get really creative!

sj said...

yum! those look so so good :)

NKP said...

I do think that an oven thermometer, timer and KitchenAid mixer are very helpful for baking. Add a kitchen tv for the down time, or just to keep me company in the long hours!
Love the cookies, you did a great job on them. I am only getting good at cookies now, I think through pure repetition.

Sara said...

These look great, I love anything that involves almond paste.

Leslie said...

Dont stress yourself out girl!! Once a year isnt too bad to make 50 million dozens of cookies!!LOL
I just make some ohhh so chewy Gingersnaps..I will give your the recipe if you want to try them(they are super addiciting).I will probably post about them in a few days!

Unknown said...

I'm looking for the recipe for the Italian Anise Cookies you have here... the link is broken... do you mind sharing the recipe? Thank you!!!