- The Washington Times - Tuesday, November 29, 2005

I grew up with Christmas cookie envy.This is somewhat ironic because at our house, most of the cooking and baking was done by my maternal grandmother, who was an expert baker. At Christmas, she created the rustic Italian specialties she knew so well.

Struffoli, a Neapolitan confection of tiny balls of dough deep-fried and bound with caramel, and calzoncelli, fried ravioli filled with chestnuts and chocolate, were the bounties of her knowledge and our heritage. As a child, I hated them, longing instead for the plain frosted American cookies my friends’ moms made.

In time, I learned to love struffoli and calzoncelli, and as an adult who has traveled widely, I have developed even more international tastes. Research and a love of baking led me to amass such a large collection of cookie recipes that a few years ago, I assembled some of them into a book devoted to cookies.

More recently, I decided to explore areas outside the United States and Italy, and I have come up with more good cookie recipes from around the globe.

It’s hard to pin down a single explanation for the origin of cookies, much less Christmas cookies. The Romans baked small cakes of whole-grain flour, honey, dried fruit, nutmeats and fresh cheese. These were wrapped in leaves to protect them from the fierce heat of wood-burning ovens.



Although many early European food traditions were lost during the Dark Ages, it’s fairly likely that these early fruit-studded cakes were the inspiration for the great Medieval confection called the honey cake.

Lebkuchen is probably the most widely prepared contemporary version of honey cake. It is a traditional Christmas treat in most German-speaking countries, although its preparation is not limited to the Christmas season. Spices were added when they became available in the late Middle Ages, and lebkuchen evolved into the somewhat refined cookie we know today.

Another version of the early Roman honey cake found its way to Tuscany and evolved into what we now know as panforte, a chewy cake made from flour, honey, spices, nuts and candied fruit. Yet a third version developed into everyone’s most despised holiday specialty, the fruitcake. (Forgive me for saying this.)

As most of us know, the word cookie comes from the Dutch word koekje. It’s the diminutive form of the word for cake, or “little cakes.”

So how did the cakes shrink to individual size? The transition probably occurred in the bake shops of European convents and monasteries, some of which still produce primitive little cakes and pastries of an obviously ancient origin.

All convents and monasteries had bake shops because they needed to produce altar breads, or hosts, the little disks of unleavened bread consecrated during the Catholic Mass and used for Holy Communion.

Altar breads may have been the first tiny, individual cakes. This is likely because some cookies of medieval origin, such as wafers (thin, crisp cookies baked on a type of waffle iron) and the French nieulles, another small sweet, are directly connected to religious observances. Maybe that’s the link that ties cookies to Christmas, which is, after all, a religious holiday.

In many European countries, the Christmas cookie season begins on Dec. 6, the feast of St. Nicholas, the saint who served as the model for Santa Claus.

Whatever the origin of Christmas cookies, most bakers mark the season by preparing them. So I’m sharing a contemporary version of lebkuchen, sweet and spicy cut-out morsels that you can use your favorite cookie cutters to prepare.

I chose two more, a Greek wine twist called tsourekakia, and simit, an Armenian cookie encrusted with sesame seeds, because they keep well.

All these cookies may be prepared weeks in advance and stored in airtight containers at room temperature. They only improve with a little aging.

Swiss and German honey cakes (lebkuchen)

There probably are as many types of lebkuchen as there are bakers in Switzerland and Germany. Subtle variations in spicing and other ingredients can change the flavor and texture, but they’re still always recognizable as lebkuchen.

The name derives from leben, which means to live, and these are long-lived cakes.

Lebkuchen is traditionally cut into rather large shapes — hearts, rounds and rectangles — but the instructions that follow are for smaller cookies like those we serve today.

DOUGH:

4 cups unbleached all-purpose flour (spoon flour into dry-measure cup and level off)

1½ teaspoons baking powder

1 teaspoon baking soda

2 teaspoons ground cinnamon

2 teaspoons ground coriander

1 teaspoon ground cloves

½ teaspoon ground nutmeg

½ teaspoon ground ginger

3/4 cup honey

½ cup molasses

½ cup sugar

TOPPING:

½ cup light corn syrup

Whole blanched almonds

Candied cherries

Have ready two cookie sheets or jellyroll pans lined with parchment or foil. Set racks in the upper and lower thirds of the oven and preheat to 350 degrees.

In a large bowl, mix flour with baking powder, baking soda, cinnamon, coriander, cloves, nutmeg and ginger. In a medium saucepan combine honey, molasses and sugar, and stir well to mix. Place over medium heat and bring to a full rolling boil. Remove from heat and carefully stir in 1/3 cup water, a little at a time.

Stir warm honey mixture into dry ingredients to form a firm dough. Scrape dough out onto a lightly floured work surface, cover it with a towel or plastic wrap and let it cool for a few minutes until it is still warm but not so hot that you can’t handle it comfortably. Use a knife to cut dough into 3 pieces. Set aside 2 pieces of dough and cover them with a clean cloth or plastic wrap.

Roll one piece of dough until it is about 1/4-inch thick. Use a floured heart-shaped or fluted round cutter to cut out the cookies. Arrange them on prepared pans 1 inch apart.

Repeat with the other two pieces of dough. Save all scraps from cutting and sprinkle a few drops of water on them before pressing together and rerolling. Don’t reroll the scraps more than once, or the resulting cookies will be tough.

Bake lebkuchen in preheated 350-degree oven until well risen, no longer shiny and slightly firm when pressed with a fingertip, about 20 minutes. Change position of pans from upper to lower rack and vice versa, also turning them back to front at least once during baking. If your oven gives strong bottom heat, stack 2 pans together for baking on the bottom rack to provide extra insulation against burning the cookies. Slide the papers from the pans to racks to cool the lebkuchen.

While the lebkuchen are cooling, prepare the topping. Bring corn syrup to a boil in a small pan. Brush hot corn syrup over one of the cookies, then decorate it with the almonds and cherries. Reheat glaze, if necessary, to finish covering the lebkuchen. Makes about 30 cookies, depending on the size of the cutter used.

To store: Keep the lebkuchen between sheets of parchment or waxed paper in a tin or plastic container with a tight-fitting cover. They last indefinitely. If you are going to prepare them long in advance, it may be wiser to add the glaze and decorations closer to the time you wish to serve the cookies.

Armenian sesame seed rings (simit)

These are typical Armenian cookies crunchy and loaded with sesame seeds. I like to bake them at a low temperature to ensure that they are dry and crisp. Some people bake them at a higher temperature until done, then return the cookies to the turned-off oven to dry out and crisp. Thanks to my dear friend Sandy Leonard, who lives in the Armenian enclave of Watertown, Mass., for sharing this recipe.

3½ cups unbleached all-purpose flour (spoon flour into dry-measure cup and level off)

1½ teaspoons baking powder

½ teaspoon salt

16 tablespoons (2 sticks) unsalted butter, melted

½ cup milk

½ cup sugar

1 large egg

FINISHING:

1 cup sesame seeds

2 large eggs well beaten with a pinch of salt

Have ready three cookie sheets or jellyroll pans lined with parchment or foil. Set racks in the upper and lower thirds of the oven and preheat to 325 degrees.

Stir flour with baking powder and salt, and set aside. Pour melted butter into a large bowl and whisk in milk, sugar and egg, one at a time. Add flour mixture and use a large rubber spatula to stir ingredients together to make a soft dough. Scrape dough out onto a lightly floured work surface.

Roll dough into an 18-inch cylinder, then cut it every ½ inch to make 36 pieces of dough. Roll each piece of dough under the palms of your hands to make a 4- to 5-inch strand. Connect ends to make a circle and set aside on work surface until all cookies have been formed.

Place a tablespoon or two of the sesame seeds in a small bowl. One at a time, paint the outside of the cookie all over with egg wash and gently press top of cookie into the small bowl of sesame seeds. Arrange cookie, seeded side up, on prepared pan, keeping the cookies about an inch apart all around.

Repeat with remaining cookies, adding sesame seeds to bowl a little at a time as you use them up so that seeds don’t all get sticky from the egg wash.

Bake cookies in preheated 325-degree oven for about 30 minutes, or until golden and dry. Change position of pans from upper to lower rack and vice versa, also turning them back to front at least once during baking.

If your oven gives strong bottom heat, stack 2 pans together for baking on bottom rack to provide insulation against burning. Cool on the pans on racks. If cookies are not completely crisp after they have cooled, return them to the turned-off oven for 20 minutes, then cool. Makes 36 cookies.

To store: Keep cookies between sheets of parchment or waxed paper in a tin or plastic container with a tight-fitting cover.

Greek wine twists (tsourekakia)

These easy and impressive cookies are moistened with a little dry white wine.

Although it’s not traditional, you could substitute white vermouth for the wine with excellent results. These cookies are good with coffee or tea or even sweet wine.

Think of them as the Greek version of biscotti. Although they are not prepared in the same way, they have a similar texture.

2 cups all-purpose flour (spoon flour into dry-measure cup and level off)

1/3 cup sugar

1 teaspoon baking powder

8 tablespoons (1 stick) unsalted butter, cut into 8 or 10 pieces

2 teaspoons cognac or other brandy

1/3 cup dry white wine, possibly more

Have ready two cookie sheets or jellyroll pans lined with parchment or foil. Set racks in the upper and lower thirds of the oven and preheat to 350 degrees.

Place flour, sugar and baking powder in bowl of a food processor fitted with the steel blade. Pulse several times to mix. Add butter and pulse until butter is finely mixed in but mixture remains cool and powdery. Add cognac or brandy and wine and pulse until dough forms a ball. If it resists, add up to 1 additional teaspoon of wine and pulse again.

Scrape dough out onto floured work surface and form it onto a rough cylinder. Use a knife to cut dough into 6 pieces. Cut each piece of dough in half to make 12 pieces. Cut each 1/12 of dough into 3 equal pieces to make 36 pieces of dough.

Roll one of the pieces of dough into a 4- to 5-inch strand. Fold strand in half, pinch ends together, then give it 3 or 4 twists and place on one of prepared pans. Repeat with rest of dough, placing 18 cookies on each pan.

Bake cookies in preheated 350-degree oven until they are golden and firm, about 20 minutes. Change position of pans from upper to lower rack and vice versa, also turning them back to front at least once during baking.

If your oven gives strong bottom heat, stack 2 pans together for baking on bottom rack to provide insulation against burning. Cool cookies on pans on racks. Makes 36 cookies.

To store: Keep cookies between sheets of parchment or waxed paper in a tin or plastic container with a tight-fitting cover.

Nick Malgieri is the award-winning author of “Perfect Cakes” and “A Baker’s Tour” (HarperCollins).

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