Sunday, November 1, 2009

Italian Christmas Cookies -- White Cookies

Italian Christmas cookies are part of my history and heritage. As far back as I can remember my mother and aunt would start baking in November in preparation for holiday feasts and gift giving. There were wondrous aromas coming from the kitchen, and numerous old potato chip tins now full of little sweet cookies awaiting the time when they were to be enjoyed by all -- white cookies, fig cookies, chocolate cookies, seed cookies, "dead man's bones"..... . Of course, all of the children would sneak a few now and then, so that by holiday time, the tins weren't quite as full!

Recipes are easy to post, and I will start with the White Cookies. The technique takes some practice, and I would be happy to help in any way that I can. Just comment or send me an email at with your specific problem or question.

There is some controversy as to the "correct" size for these cookies. Some like them large; some like them small. You will need to experiment to see what size suits you, and will need to adjust the baking time accordingly. They will taste the same no matter what size you make them. Not all Italian white cookies (often called Knot Cookies) are the same. Some are made with liquid vegetable oil and are much more like little cakes. Some are flavored with orange. This recipe, in my opinion, is the best and has been loved and enjoyed in my family for many generations by babies, adults and dogs.

The full recipe makes from 90 to 125 or so cookies, depending upon whether you make them small or large. I would suggest that you cut the recipe in half your first time. The amount of dough that the full recipe produces can be somewhat overwhelming.

Ingredients for a full recipe: 5 lb. flour; 2 lb. sugar; 1 lb. Crisco; 4 Tblsp.butter melted in 1 cup milk (let it cool); 3 heaping Tblsp. baking powder; 12 eggs brought to room temperature; 2 tsp. pure vanilla extract. For the frosting you will need butter, 1-2 lb. Brand Name powdered sugar (Domino or Jack Frost), a little milk, and more pure vanilla extract (see below for exact amounts).

I strongly recommend that you use only the best ingredients for the best results. For example, use Crisco, not a generic vegetable shortening; use butter, not margarine; use pure vanilla extract, not imitation.

Instructions: Preheat oven to 375 degrees. Lightly grease two cookie sheets. Place dry ingredients (flour, sugar, baking powder) into a very large bowl. Blend them together. Cut Crisco into dry ingredients as when making pie crust until the Crisco in broken down into little pea-like balls. Make a well in the middle of this mixture. In a separate bowl beat the eggs and vanilla together with a whisk, pour into the well, and mix into the dry ingredients. Add the cooled butter and milk mixture and mix until a dough forms. To form cookies, grab a piece of dough about the size of a ping pong ball and roll it into a 5" or so rope about the thickness of your finger. Twist into a knot. Place on cookie sheet (on a large cookie sheet I put three across and either four or five down, depending upon how big I am making them that day). Bake 13 minutes or until they are tan colored on the bottom. Cool completely before frosting.

For the frosting, melt 2 Tblsp. butter and place in a medium bowl. Gradually add powdered sugar, then a little milk, and keep alternating until you have frosting that is not too thick or thin. You don't want it to be like frosting you would frost a cake with, but you don't want it to be so thin that it's like a glaze -- somewhere in between. When cookies have completely cooled, take one cookie at a time in one hand, dip the other hand in the frosting, and "paint" a thin layer of frosting all over the cookie (not the bottom). Lay frosted cookies flat on wax paper or tin foil and allow to fully dry overnight before placing in air tight storage containers. If you have to layer them for storage, place wax paper or parchment paper in between layers. It is very important to fully dry these cookies after frosting them before storing them, or they will be soggy and will not taste right.

So there you have it. I was lucky in that I watched these cookies being made for years before I tried my hand at them myself, and once I did start making them, I had my Aunt Mil to critique my method. One of the best compliments that I have ever received in my life is when she told me that I finally "had the knack"!

Most importantly, relax, have fun with this, and remember --- "chi mangia bene, mangia Italiana" (he/she who eats well, eats Italian). If you want another Italian Christmas Cookie recipe before I am able to post it, please Comment or send me an email at and I would be happy to oblige.

Happy Thanksgiving to all!