Dough! IX: Holiday Cookie MADNESS

Coping with cookies still counts as coping, right? I sure hope so, because I have baked hundreds of cookies in the last few weeks. And read so many “My guide to the perfect cookie box” articles with immaculate icing and tissue paper touched by angels and cookies forged by Zeus that I was lucky to get out of baking madness mode with my sanity intact.

We’re all coping in different ways. My mom, who normally chews the legs off her chair if forced to sit still for any length of time, has devoted herself to watching classic epic films in ten-minute bursts (“director’s cut only“) and then retelling them to us over FaceTime.

So I’ve spent Christmas break hearing about The Last Emperor and Lawrence of Arabia like they’re a comic strip. “Did you know that eunuchs in China had to carry a little box with them everywhere so if they died they could be buried intact, if you know what I mean!”

“Okay, Mom, I need to take out my cookies.”

“Great, I’m going back to China.”

Yes, cookies. Our wondrous food emporium has been crushing it with the virtual classes lately. They’ve brought people together to bake from 49 states and 12 countries (so they’ve been asking everyone lately if they know any bakers from Alaska), and since my family marginally celebrates both Christmas and Hanukkah and it’s a goddamn pandemic, I treated myself to two cookie classes.

The first class, holiday-themed cookies, had a decidedly German bent to it. Nobody does Christmas like the Germans. Real flaming candles on a real flammable tree? They’re hardcore.

“Spritz” cookies derive from the German word “Spritzgebäck” which refers to squirting the dough with a cookie press or a pastry bag. In virtual class, we gave ours a kick with peppermint flavoring, which makes it taste like a candy cane had a baby with a sugar cookie. You can dip them in chocolate, sprinkle them with sugar, it doesn’t matter, since you’ll be stuffing them in your mouth in blocks of five.

Linzer cookies have been around since 1653, and made their way to America via Wisconsin, one of their few non-cheese culinary accomplishments. Named for the Austrian city of Linz (Hitler’s favorite city!), they’re the ones with the little jam windows, which are called “Linzer Eyes.”

Pfeffernüsse means “pepper nut” in German, and have been the Christmas cookie throughout Germany, Denmark, Belgium, and the Netherlands since the 1750s. There are many variations, but as long as it’s spicy, it’s a pfeffernüsse. Do not touch your eyes while baking them!

Our recipe called for anise, cloves, black pepper, nutmeg, and cinnamon. The dough smelled like a Christmas candle, but tasted much better.

Continuing our tour of the former Axis powers, we move to Italy for baci di dama, or “lady kisses,” tiny hazelnut sandwich cookies filled with chocolate or Nutella. They come from the Piedmont region, which is famous for its hazelnuts, as well as hosting the 2006 Winter Olympics in its capital of Turin.

On Christmas Day, I watched the Olympic figure skating finals for the 2002, 2006, and 2010 Winter Olympics, entering a pocket vortex of spacetime, spinning and sparkles that lasted nine hours, then got into a heated discussion with my mom and my sister over whether or not Michelle Kwan would have gotten higher or lower marks with the modern scoring system (I say no. She skated not to lose! WHEN SHE NEEDED TO SKATE TO WIN!).

I made Christmas cookie tins for all the people with whom we’ve spent the holidays since I was a baby, leaving them on porches and in mailboxes. My friend’s dad appeared at the door and said, “Do you want to come in for a drink?” and then laughed hysterically.

My cookie boxes weren’t very neat or polished, and because I live in panic mode I ended up with six dozen lemon ricotta cookies and a batch of chocolate coconut bites that I don’t even remember making, and still I didn’t have as many different cookies as the official cookie box guide from the New York Times said to make, but I hope they tasted good.

On to more Italian cookies, courtesy of my second class . . . Italian Cookies.

The Cherry Sesame Biscotti was pretty straightforward, since it’s basically the same as Mandelbrot, which is Jewish biscotti (or maybe biscotti is Italian Mandelbrot? Did I make that joke in the other post?). I only had black sesame seeds, which I think gave the whole cookie a bit of a perky goth look.

My dad, who is Jewish, loves Christmas shopping. He’ll go to the mall on Black Friday just to walk around and check out the deals and watch little kids melt down meeting Santa.

“I really miss trying on sweaters at the mall,” he’s said, multiple times.

“There are no fitting rooms anymore,” I said.

“Then what’s the point?” he sighed, flopping dramatically onto a chaise lounge.

Pignoli, or pine nut cookies, originated in Sicily, and are traditionally a Christmas cookie since pine nuts are expensive (because they take so long to grow! RESEARCH!). They’ve got a great rich flavor thanks to a blend of hazelnuts, almonds, honey and the aforementioned pine nuts made of gold.

A and I took Italian lessons from an elderly Sicilian man whose first language was actually Sicilian. He told us stories about his childhood that may have been borrowed from Fellini movies but were fascinating nonetheless.

Ricciarelli are another Italian Christmas cookie, made with almond paste and powdered sugar, which harken back to 14th century Tuscany—aka the time of the Black Death, so people really needed a nice cookie. They’re light but chewy, and the instructor demonstrated how to pinch them into diamond-shaped “Madonna eyes.”

My research is inconclusive but I’m pretty sure it’s not the Madonna from Detroit.

Amaretti means “little bitter ones” since they’re flavored with bitter almonds. They look and taste like little meringues, and required whipping egg whites to the point that you can turn the bowl upside down without spilling anything (like on Bake Off!), then piping out the cookies and leaving them in the oven for two and a half hours to fully dry out. I was skeptical, but the time investment is worth it.

When I signed off the Zoom call, the instructor wished us a good day and said “Don’t eat too many cookies!” I said, “You mean, ‘Do eat too many cookies, right?'” and she said “I won’t judge you!”

“Your mother is obsessed with eunuchs,” said A, scrolling through her texts.

It’s a pandemic!

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