Ciao'd with The Bishop's Wife on the telly. Two words: Cary Grant.
The Christmas preparations began early in December. My Italian aunts baked cookies, dried fruits, stuffed figs, and fried pastries. By the time Christmas eve arrived, their frigid winter attics were burgeoning. The figs stuffed with almonds and orange zest were stacked high with bay leaves tucked between the layers. The cartellate (cartedatte in our Pugliese dialect), ribbon-shaped fritters, had been drizzled with honey. The struffoli, clusters of fried dough balls enrobed with honey and slivered almonds, were piled in roasting pans (don't ask me why). Iced vanilla cookies scented with lemon nestled next to the fennel-laced taralli.
The confections whispered "Puglia." My aunts brought the recipes with them when they emigrated to America. The handwritten instructions with words like "a teacup full, "a few shots of" and a "finger pinch" were the sugared ties that bound them to Italy and the Christmas traditions passed down by mothers, grandmothers, and aunts. The sweets charmed my sisters, cousins and me with flavors and textures that appeared only once a year and for too short a time. Racing up the attic stairs to that redolent world was a beloved ritual for us.
I don't possess the prowess for making the cartedatte and struffoli. I can make the chocolate cookies, though. They're my favorite. The cookies are spiced with cinnamon, cloves and allspice, studded with toasted walnuts, chocolate morsels and raisins, and spiked with a healthy dose of bourbon that knits the ingredients into a rich and complex goodness. No doubt the recipe has Medieval origins. And because we Italians like to gild the lily, the cookies are finished with lemon-scented icing and colorful sprinkles.
I jotted down the recipe for Italian chocolate Christmas cookies more than 10 years ago while watching my Aunt Frances make them and it had been languishing between the pages of a random cookbook ever since. This year, when I decided to give the cookies a go, I noticed that an ingredient was missing. Cue the "cousin call" via Facebook inquiring who had the full recipe. My cousin, Pat Savino, came to the rescue. I had not talked to her for more than 20 years, but reconnecting with family is a beautiful thing. Once the recipe had been rectified (mine was missing vegetable oil), we meandered through memories, recollected funny stories, and checked in about "him," "her" and "they." The conversation was like the recipes in a way, evidence that time can separate but family ties bind in the most delicious way.
ITALIAN CHOCOLATE CHRISTMAS COOKIES
The recipe makes a sticky batter. Chilling it for an hour or more will make shaping the cookies easier. I also chill the shaped cookies for 15 minutes before baking but it's not a "must." This is a generous recipe so you'll have enough cookies to enjoy yourself with plenty to share, too.
Makes approximately 5 dozen cookies
5 cups unbleached flour
4 teaspoons baking powder
1 teaspoon ground cinnamon
1/2 teaspoon ground cloves
1/4 teaspoon ground allspice
1/4 teaspoon salt
3/4 cup granulated sugar
3 large eggs, beaten
1/2 cup vegetable oil
one 16-ounce can Hershey's chocolate syrup
1 tablespoon vanilla
3 tablespoons bourbon
1 cup raisins
1 cup bittersweet chocolate morsels
1 cup chopped toasted walnuts
2 cups confectioners' sugar
2 tablespoons freshly grated lemon zest
1/3 cup fresh lemon juice
In a medium bowl, stir together the flour, baking powder, cinnamon, cloves, allspice, and salt; set aside.
In a large bowl, using an electric mixer, beat the sugar, eggs, vegetable oil, vanilla extract, and bourbon until smooth. Add the Hershey's syrup and beat to combine. Add the dry ingredients in two batches, mixing well after each addition. Mix the raisins, chocolate morsels, and walnuts into the dough until evenly distributed. Refrigerate the dough, covered, 1 hour.
Preheat oven to 350°F. Line baking sheets with parchment paper.
Shape the dough into 1-inch balls. Here's a trick for handling the sticky dough: slick your hands with a bit of vegetable oil before shaping the balls. Place 2 inches apart on the parchment paper-lined baking sheets. Bake until cooked through, 8 to 10 minutes. Let cool on the baking sheets, 10 minutes, then transfer the cookies to a wire rack to cool completely.
For the glaze: in a medium bowl, whisk together the confectioners' sugar, lemon zest, and lemon juice until smooth. Glaze the cookies with about 1 teaspoon of the icing and top with the candy sprinkles. Let the icing set for about 1 hour.