My official policy is that the holidays are not over until I say they are, and I generally don’t say they are until after my birthday at the end of January, so there’s still time for holiday cookie baking as far as I’m concerned.
Depending on how organized I am in any given year, I launch the holiday cookie baking season the weekend of Thanksgiving or the first weekend in December. As I have quite a number of people on my cookie recipient list and some of them are significant distances away, my seasonal selection has been biscotti-heavy of late, because biscotti are easy to make in large quantities, are infinitely variable, keep for weeks, and ship well. Gingerbread, amaretti, shortbread, and other dry and crispy cookies are also must-haves, although I also like to make a few more delicate offerings for strictly local and immediate consumption.
I made six different cookies this year, two of which I have already been blogged about: Meyer lemon-rosemary shortbread, and Anzac Biscuits. Three new whim-driven experiments also joined the gift boxes: two variations on a pistachio-chocolate theme, and a jam and almond diamond that was too fragile and perishable to mail out but which was a huge hit when handed out at the office.
The pistachio-chocolate biscotti came from my constant fiddling with biscotti additions, and started out as a pistachio-dried apricot version I thought would look festive for the holidays last year. Unfortunately, the apricots turned into little pieces of shrapnel after that much oven drying, so I swapped them out with dark chocolate, remembering how well my earlier walnut-chocolate chunk version had turned out. Besides tasting wonderfully exotic and adult, the bright green nuts and dark brown chocolate make for a smashingly dramatic look.
The amaretti are the result of a market failure. Last winter I discovered cacao nibs, the roasted beans chocolate is made from. Much like coffee beans, cacao nibs are crunchy and loaded with flavor, tasting like a cross between pure dark chocolate and toasted nuts. I fell fast and hard, and instantly went about looking for ways to use them. In the middle of making my own amaretti when I couldn’t find them in my neighborhood haunts and couldn’t be bothered to make a trip to the specialty store, it occurred to me that cacao nibs were nut-like enough to be swapped out for part of the ground almonds in my recipe. I tried it, and loved the sophisticated results. I later substituted hazelnuts for the almonds, since the combination of hazelnuts and chocolate is so perfectly Italian, and their stronger flavor also stood up better to the nibs. The downside is that hazelnut skins are bitter and absolutely must be removed before using them. Given that I’m feeling both lazy and extravagant this time of year, I usually end up springing for blanched hazelnuts instead of toasting until the skins split and laboriously rubbing them off with a dish towel.
Although I was willing, nay, happy to pay the usurious prices charged by Whole Foods, they were just not to be had this time, so when I got home, I considered my pantry options. Spotting the pistachios, I gave them a try and was happily surprised when I bit into the first finished cookie and discovered that, while different, it was just as good. I’m sure I’ll continue to shell out for the hazelnuts, since they are my favorite nut, but the pistachio option is one to keep. Equally delicious but half the price and none of the bother. What’s not to love?
The final cookie is a twist on the America’s Test Kitchen take on the “one dough many cookies” idea in The New Best Recipe. I’m really not a fan of the plain sugar cookie, both because I find them boring and because I have no patience for cookie cutters these days, but I had faith in the ATK people and liked the idea of the chocolate-hazelnut bar cookie alternative they suggested. Since I had just done two chocolate-nut cookies, though, I wanted to do something a bit different. I thought of spreading the warm cookie base with seedless blackberry jam and sprinkled it with roughly chopped toasted almonds instead. The buttery crust, bright fruit and caramelized nuts ended up tasting like a deconstructed Linzertorte, and their fancy, stained-glass sheen are perfect for this time of year. As I discovered when I took them to work the next morning, they are too sticky and tender to travel well, but they are so easy to throw together, please consider inviting people over for these and a cup of tea.
Pistachio Chocolate Chunk Biscotti
(Makes 4-5 dozen, depending on how thinly you slice them)
1/2 cup cold unsalted butter
3/4 cup granulated sugar
3/4 cup brown sugar
2 large eggs, lightly beaten
1 1/2 tablespoons vanilla extract
3 cups all-purpose flour
1 1/2 teaspoons baking powder
1/4 teaspoon salt
1 teaspoon espresso powder
1 1/2 cups shelled pistachios
4 oz semi-sweet chocolate, chopped
Preheat the oven to 350F and line a baking sheet with parchment.
Blend the butter and sugars together in a mixer until fluffy, then beat in the eggs and vanilla. Mix together the flour, baking powder, salt and espresso powder and add to the wet mixture, beating again gently until just combined. Stir in the pistachios and chocolate.
Divide the dough in half and shape into two 12-inch loaves on the baking sheet. Bake until light brown and beginning to crack, about 35 minutes. Remove from the oven and allow to cool to room temperature.
Lower the oven to 300F. Slice the loaves on the diagonal with a serrated knife into 1/4 inch slices. Place the slices in a single layer on the baking sheet and bake again until toasted and golden, about 15 minutes. Turn over and bake again until crisp, an additional 10-15 minutes. If the cookies are not sufficiently dry at that point, turn the oven off and leave several hours or overnight to cool.
Notes: Thinner is absolutely better in this case, as you want crisp but not tooth-breaking cookies, so fight the urge to slice them any thicker than 1/4 inch. You could use either raw or roasted pistachios, but using raw will help preserve the beautiful green color a bit better by preventing over-toasting.
Pistachio-Cacao Nib Amaretti
(Makes approximately four dozen)
1 cup roasted, unsalted shelled pistachios
1/2 cup roasted cacao nibs
1 1/2 teaspoons cornstarch
1/2 cup powdered sugar
1/4 teaspoon kosher salt
2 egg whites
1/3 cup plus 2 tablespoons granulated sugar
1 Tablespoon vanilla extract
Preheat the oven to 300 F. Line two baking sheets with parchment paper.
Combine the pistachios, nibs, cornstarch and powdered sugar in a food processor and pulse until the nuts and nibs are very finely chopped.
Whip the egg whites with an electric mixer until foamy. Add the granulated sugar in a slow stream while continuing to beat until a stiff and glossy meringue forms. Beat in the vanilla.
Gently fold the nut mixture into the meringue with a rubber spatula. Scoop the batter onto the baking sheets with a tablespoon-sized ice cream scoop, approximately twenty cookies per sheet. (Since they will not spread very much, they can be spaced closer than usual.)
Bake for 15-20 minutes, until the cookies begin to crack slightly. Lower the oven to 200 F, leaving the door ajar to release excess heat, and bake until completely dry and crisp in the center, 30-45 minutes. The oven can also be turned off and the cookies left overnight to dry.
The cooled cookies can be kept in an airtight container almost indefinitely, and ship beautifully.
Jam Almond Diamonds
(Makes approximately 4 dozen, not including the waste along the edges)
1 1/2 cups whole almonds
2 1/2 cups (12.5 oz) unbleached all purpose flour
3/4 cup (5.5 oz) superfine sugar
1/4 teaspoon salt
1 cup unsalted butter (2 sticks), cut into 16 pieces, at room temperature but still cool
2 teaspoons vanilla extract
2 tablespoons cream cheese, at room temperature
2 1/2 cups seedless jam of choice
Adjust rack to lower-middle position and heat oven to 375. Line a baking sheet with parchment.
While preparing the cookie dough, bake the almonds in the heated oven until toasted and golden. Remove and allow to cool, then chop coarsely.
Mix flour, sugar and salt in a mixer until combined. With mixer on low, add butter one piece at a time, then continue to mix until mixture looks crumbly and slightly wet. Add vanilla and cream cheese and mix until dough just begins to come together.
Press the dough into an even layer in the baking sheet and bake until golden brown, approximately 20 minutes. Immediately after removing from oven, spread with the jam and sprinkle with chopped almonds.
Cool to room temperature, then cut into 1 1/2-inch diamond shapes.
Notes: You will have a fair amount of waste, since there’s no way to get perfect diamonds without creating triangles, trapezoids and the like along the edges, but I consider the waste the baker’s tax and will happily reserve it all for my personal consumption. If you want to avoid the waste and don’t care as much about a pretty shape, you can just cut the cookies into squares or rectangles instead.