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:

MAKES 14 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

Directions:

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.

 

 

So much of life is in small things

So much of life is contained in small things.  What holds meaning for you?

Each week, The Washington Post Magazine publishes a column featuring small essays about items that are important to us.  This week’s column was a beautiful reflection on a religious medal that the author’s family carried through several generations.

photo (50)As I baked our annual candy cane cookies and packed them away in the Ward Paradise Fruit Cake tin, I realized that Christmas is all about the items of significance—the ornament, the wreath, the candle or nativity set.  It’s easy to go to the store and buy everything at once, but it’s collecting the old, small, hand-made or important over time that makes Christmas. When my parents give us “heritage” gifts, these special items beat a store-bought presents any day.

I don’t know when I became the keeper of this tin that my mom used to pack away cherry winks, snowballs, and other Christmas cookies.  I suspect I appropriated it one year in my young mother days and didn’t give it back.

This Ward Baking Co. tin was designed to hold a fruit cake, and my quick research reveals its from the 1920’s.  My mother thinks that the tin was manufactured by the Continental Can Company, where my Aunt Pauline worked for most of her life.  Pauline may have given it to my mom in some ordinary transaction, like taking home leftovers in Tupperware.  I don’t know.  Ward Baking Company, I learned,  became the largest bread distributor in the country, the baker of Wonder enriched bread products and the maker of Hostess Twinkies.

Chances are the beautiful tin with the birds of paradise on the top may have been an ordinary object for many in the mid-1900’s, but it’s bruised and scratched surface is made more beautiful now to me by years of use and Christmas memories.

Speaking of Cookies…

As we alluded to in our podcast, this next week Natalie and I plan to bake a variety of shortbread cookies.  We will be analyzing the recipes for ease, expense, and of course results.  This got us to thinking more and more about all those cookies that add to a wonderful Christmas.  We want some information from you to help guide our research and preparation for more cookies in the coming months.  Please vote in our poll so we have some idea of what cookies are YOUR favorites.

Krusteaz Sugar Cookies: A shortcut worth taking

When we were kids, baking and frosting my mom’s homemade sugar cookies was high on our list of anticipated Christmas activities.  I am still partial to the 8-piece red plastic set of cookie cutters that was my mom’s, and I just can’t settle in to using the newer metal ones.  It may sound odd now, but we sucked a hole into each raw cookie with a straw so that they could hang from the tree at Christmas. I had no qualms then about eating them off the tree.  Now, it would be a different story.

Rolled and cut sugar cookies, of all the Christmas treats are, in my humble opinion, the most labor intensive.  In the years when my Christmas spirit doesn’t develop, the sugar cookies are the first to be sacrificed.  The solution, I discovered this year, is to cheat.

At Thanksgiving, we were trolling the aisles at Costco, presumably buying “only what’s on the list,” but our cart was already full of extras, when we stumbled upon an enormous back of Krusteaz Sugar Cookie Mix.  In full impulse shopping mode, we bought a $17.00 bag that advertised it made 21 dozen cookies.

We made our first two batches in early December, dropping the dough on the pan.  They were thin, crisp, and amazingly sweet (even without sugar sprinkles).  We proceeded to make more batches through the holidays, using the alternate recipe on the bag for rolled and cut cookies.  Perfect every time (even I didn’t ruin them).  No frosting needed.

We calculated that we got our money’s worth:  total investment (with butter and eggs), $22.00.  That’s less than 10 cents a cookie.  Voracious cookie eaters, we couldn’t bake and eat enough to finish the bag until I baked them for a birthday party tonight, in late January.  I cut them into heart shapes and sprinkled them with red sugar.

I discovered this size bag is available November – December at Costco, but plenty of grocery stores nearby stock the regular single-batch,  3-dozen variety year-round.  Making a list of things to remember for next year?  (Who doesn’t ?)  Keep your eyes peeled in November for Krusteaz.

Tate’s Bake Shop Cookie Bake-off

Tonight, we have a family celebration and we invited our friend, Gini.  C.J. calls her “Just Gini,” which is his way of designating her as a family member (no special behavior required.) Part of Gini’s gift to us at the holidays was an enormous box of Tate’s Bake Shop White Chocolate Macadamia Nut cookies.  Cookies and Christmas go together, but the hectic Christmas season is not always the best time to roll out a new recipe.  In December, I made a jelly-filled, delicate cookie for the Christmas cookie exchange.  My sister-in-law made Aunt Irene’s recipe, and they were awesome.  Mine?  Not so much. (Nicole was away at college, so my results were bound to be inferior.) But it was too late to re-bake.  Christmas Advice 101: Experiment with new baked goods in the quiet days of winter.

To that end, on a recent weekend, Gini and I decided have a cookie taste test.  Could we (using Tate’s Bake Shop recipe) bake the same delicious cookies created by Tate’s Bake Shop cookie entrepreneur, Kathleen King. (WARNING:  You will be required to eat multiple cookies; this could lead to a stomache ache.)

No, we could not.  However, without the original on the same plate, most people would be fooled.  We failed to reach the extra crunchiness and the Macadamia nut texture of the original, but we were highly satisfied with the results.  One of the best parts of the recipe is that it produced 5+ dozen, more than enough for gifts or for a Christmas cookie exchange.  Perhaps my error is that the recipe recommends white chocolate made with cocoa butter, as opposed to palm oil, which I did not find in the regular grocery store.   Mmm.  Sounds like I should try again.  I rarely need an excuse for baking cookies.  This is not an “excuse.”  I have a serious purpose!

Next year I’ll be sharing the homemade version of Tate’s!  I am including the link to Tate’s Bake Shop in case you want to compare.