Saturday, December 24, 2011

Iced Italian White Cookies (The 11th Sweet of Christmas)

Ah!  The bread and butter of an Italian cookie tray, the cookie that, for my entire life (and the lives of my mother, aunt, grandmother, and all who went before me), meant, "Christmas is coming!"  The simplest of Italian cookies!

We called them "biscottis", even though true biscotti are the crunchy, twice baked delights you often find in coffee shops and specialty bakeries.  But the word biscotti in Italian can be used to refer to any type of cookie, which is probably why that's what my great-grandmother called them.

But in perfect honesty, even though my family persists in calling them biscottis (with the predictable flat, short o sound inherent to most American speech patterns), they're really iced Italian white cookies.  There are a gazillion variations on this type of cookie, because it really is the quintessential family recipe.  No two Italian white cookies are exactly the same, but they are all beautiful things.  You can use just the basic vanilla flavoring and call it a day, or make it your own by using other flavor extracts like lemon, orange, cherry, peppermint, anise, almond... the list goes on.

What's particularly great about these cookies is the fact that even little kids can get their hands in the action.  With a consistency similar to Play-Doh, they can be shaped in countless ways.  Letters, circles, loops, and so on.  Or just roll them into balls or, if you're like me and want to get the whole job done quickly (because you realized on December 23rd that you were totally out of biscottis already and decided to make more that very night), you can use a cookie scoop.

Iced Italian White Cookies (or "Biscottis")

  • 4 cups flour
  • 1/2 cup sugar
  • 3 teaspoons baking powder
  • 1/2 teaspoon salt
  • 3 eggs
  • 1/2 cup milk
  • 1 teaspoon vanilla
  • 1 scant cup shortening, melted
Melt the shortening in the microwave.  For your reference, a "scant" cup means not quite a full cup.  I usually measure out a cup and then sort of scrape out a shallow concave hollow off the top.

Transfer the shortening to a large bowl.  Add the vanilla and milk and whisk it together.  This helps cool the shortening down enough to safely add the eggs without scrambling them.  It will be rather thick and look sort of like thick whipped cream.

When you beat the eggs in, the mixture will take on a sort of lumpy, eggnog-ish colored look.  Kids who are helping will likely scream, "GROSS!"  Maybe don't have them watch this part.

Next, add the flour, sugar, salt and baking powder.

Roll up your sleeves, make sure your hands are clean, and mix it all together by hand.  You may have to add a bit more milk as you go, a dribble at a time (there's a technical measurement for you), if it's really crumbly and dry.   You should be able to work in all the flour.  A stiff dough will form.

You can use a cookie scoop to get even sized cookies.  I just scooped them directly out onto a parchment lined cookie sheet.  If you don't have parchment, leave the cookie sheet ungreased - there's enough shortening in the cookies to keep them from sticking.  But really, why wouldn't you use parchment?

Bake them at 350 degrees for 12 to 15 minutes until they are a light golden brown color.  Let them cool completely before icing.

Glaze Icing
  • 1 pound confectioner's sugar
  • milk to moisten
  • 1 teaspoon vanilla extract*
  • liquid food coloring
  • sprinkles to decorate
Method: Combine sugar, vanilla and milk in a medium bowl and stir until smooth.  If it is too thin, add more confectioner's sugar.  If it is too thick, add milk, just a little at a time.  You want it to be relatively thick or it will all run off the cookies.  You can test a cookie if you're not sure about thickness.  Decorate with sprinkles before the icing sets.  You may want a helper to keep up with the sprinkles, or do a few cookies at a time.  Let the cookies dry completely before packing in an airtight container.

*If you've flavored the cookies with a different extract, like lemon or orange, you can flavor the icing with the same extract.  I suggest using vanilla in the icing if you've used anise in the cookie, however.

Now, remember how I said that these were great cookies to make with little helpers?  Well, I had time this year to make them with my 2nd graders, and they had a blast.  I think I only had one little boy who ate all of his cookies in school - everybody else tried one, then asked for a baggy to bring the rest home to share with their families.

(I promise their desks were clean, even if some of them don't look it.)

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