New Jersey: Pignoli cookies bring out my inner Italian

This headline was misleading, since, according to my DNA, I am  <1% Italian; however, the smell of these cookies baking took me to the evenings I’ve visited Vaccaro’s Bakery in Baltimore’s Little Italy.

If you are just joining this 2017 adventure, Jeremy and I have challenged ourselves to produce one terrific cookie recipe from each of the 50 states.  Each week, we draw a state name and go off in search of an interesting cookie recipe.  This week, I added New Jersey to my group of states.  I have baked my way through Alaska, Colorado, Wisconsin, Illinois, and Alabama.

Before my research on cookies from New Jersey, I had never heard of a pignoli cookie.  (Pignoli is pronounced: peen-yo-lee and means “pine nuts.”)  Also, I could not imagine a delicious sweet made with pine nuts, which are usually relegated to annoyingly healthy salads or pesto–savory, not sweet.

I landed on the Carlo’s Bakery page.  Although I do not watch TLC’s Cake Boss, I learned that the show is filmed in the Hoboken bakery.  Digging a little deeper, I figured out that the charismatic Buddy Valastro also has a huge repertoire of cookies, including the Italian pignoli.

I picked up 7 oz. of almond paste (a first for me–had no idea this existed) and 8 oz. of pine nuts.  Almond paste was $8.99 at Martins, and the pine nuts set me back another $8.00.  The recipe I used produced 14 cookies–that’s more than $1.00 a cookie.  Valastro advertises these cookies at $14.95 a lb.

With my usual disregard of baking directions, I didn’t see that I would be making the dough in a food processor–mixing took less than 5 minutes.  I did like the surprising ease of directions, but if a person didn’t have a food processor, it would be hard to create the consistency needed.

I rank the flavor of these cookies at the top of my list so far, but the price tag would keep me from producing these as gifts.  If I can find a more reasonable source of these two ingredients, I am making these in December.

Bon-Appetit Recipe for Pignoli Cookies:


  • 1 7-ounce tube almond paste (not marzipan), coarsely crumbled
  • ⅔ cup powdered sugar
  • 1 large egg white
  • 1 tablespoon honey
  • ¼ teaspoon kosher salt
  • 1 cup pine nuts


Preheat oven to 350°. Pulse almond paste and powdered sugar in a food processor until combined. Add egg white, honey, and salt and pulse until a smooth, thick batter forms, about 1 minute.

Place pine nuts in a small bowl. Working one at a time, scoop tablespoonfuls of batter onto pine nuts and toss gently to coat. Roll lightly with your hands to form pine nut-covered balls. (Note to Reader:  It is a sticky dough–I wasted at least a cookie’s worth of dough stuck to my fingers–“flouring” my hands and utensils with powdered sugar would have helped this process.) Transfer to a parchment-lined baking sheet.

Bake cookies until golden brown and edges are firm, 16–19 minutes. Let cool.

Do Ahead: Cookies can be made 5 days ahead; store airtight at room temperature.



Alabama: Southern spice – Turtleback cookies make great Christmas gifts

Our 50-state Christmas cookie challenge continues.  Between now and December, Jeremy and I are trying to bake on cookie representing each of the 50 states, with the idea that these will make excellent personalized gifts. I’ve baked c0okies representing Alaska, Illinois, Wisconsin, and Colorado.  I drew Alabama this week.

Let me digress a minute.  In second grade, I had to produce the dreaded “science fair project.”  My mom and dad helped me to combine my love of baking with science.  I made the traditional Tollhouse chocolate chip cookie recipe, but each time I baked them, I left out one ingredient.  My final display explained the chemical influence of each of the ingredients in the cookie.  I was proud of the project and remember sharing my display in the cafeteria/gymnasium of our elementary school.

Fast forward to Saturday. I was in a hurry, and I decided that Turtlebacks would be a great cookie to make for a party I was hosting a few hours later. With my grandson, we began mixing and measuring.  I was temporarily thrown off by the 20 tbsp. of unsalted butter required but continued mixing with my typical abandon.

I was stopped in my floury tracks when I read that the dough had to be refrigerated for 24 hours.  Oh well.tra I put the dough in plastic wrap, cleaned up the kitchen, baked two trays of chocolate chip cookies from a boxed mix and went out the door.

On Sunday, I returned to the cookies, determined to finish them.  The frosting began with the instruction, “Whisk REMAINING cinnamon and salt. . .”  That’s when I realized that I had not measured several of the main ingredients correctly the day before–I put ALL the cinnamon, salt, butter, brown sugar and vanilla in the dough.  That was an epic error. Remembering my elementary school project, I knew that my cookies would be flat, dark brown, and inedible.

So I doctored the dough with flour and baking soda and moved on.

The frosting for the cookies is out of this world delicious.  I could have eaten it with a spoon out of the pot. Ok.  I confess.  I ate it with a spoon out of the pot.

The cookies–if you mix the ingredients correctly–are delicious.  What I like about them, too, is that they are not your average oatmeal, chocolate or sugar cookie.  The flavor is maple and spice.

I shared the cookies with family and friends.  My German teacher friend, Joanne, remarked that they taste a lot like the traditional spice cookie, lebkuchen.  Lebkuchen means “gingerbread” in German.  That gives me more reason to believe that these cookies would be an excellent gift at Christmas.

Turtleback Cookies

(based on the recipe from Traeger’s Bakery in Demopolis, Alabama).



1 12 cups all-purpose flour
12 cup chopped pecans
1 14 tsp. ground cinnamon
12 tsp. baking soda
12 tsp. ground cardamom
12 tsp. kosher salt
34 cup brown sugar
12 cup granulated sugar
20 tbsp. unsalted butter, softened
1 12 tsp. vanilla extract
2 eggs
1 12 cups confectioners’ sugar
3 tbsp. heavy cream


(Ingredients in bold are the ones I didn’t measure correctly–pay attention!) Combine flour, pecans, 1 tsp. cinnamon, baking soda, cardamom, and 14 tsp. salt; set aside. Combine 12 cup brown sugar, granulated sugar, 16 tbsp. butter, and 1 tsp. vanilla in a large bowl; beat on medium-high speed with a hand mixer until smooth and fluffy, about 3 minutes. Add eggs, one at a time, beating well after each addition; add dry ingredients; beat on low speed until just combined.
Cover the dough and refrigerate overnight.
The next day, whisk remaining cinnamon and salt, plus the powdered sugar in a bowl; set aside. Place remaining butter and brown sugar in a 2-qt. saucepan over medium, stirring constantly; boil. Remove from heat and stir in remaining vanilla and the cream. Using a mixer, add the powdered sugar mixture and blend until icing is completely smooth.
Heat oven to 350˚. Roll dough into 1 12” balls and flatten into circles about 12” thick. Bake for 25 minutes, until browned around the edges; cool. Top each cookie with a thin layer of icing, spread almost to the edge (about 1 tablespoon of icing should suffice). Allow the icing to harden completely before serving.
Traeger’s Bakery is no longer in business, but it was the mainstay of Demopolis, Alabama for over 70 years.  A description of the cookies and the bakery appeared in Saveur online magazine in April 2015.