Imagine for a moment that it’s the holiday season, and you have an Italian Nonna in town for a visit.
Now imagine I am that visiting Nonna. Let’s talk cookies.
Blame it on Bravo, or the Real Housewives of New Jersey, but I’ve had an obsession with Italian-American holiday cookies ever since Theresa berated Melissa for bringing sprinkle cookies instead of pignoli cookies to Christmas Eve. I relate to these women for many reasons: there are aspects of my personality which, in another life, would have made me a spectacular Jersey-born Italian-American. I’m emotional and passionate…about everything. I talk with my hands, I’m independent, I have lots of opinions – some founded, some completely crazy – which I will defend to the death, and I relish a healthy argument every now and again. Most importantly, I believe in honoring history and carrying on old school traditions, and I think Italian-Americans in particular do this extremely well.
So back to Theresa and Melissa and those pignoli cookies for a second. I wasn’t sure that I’d be insulted by a sprinkle cookie, but maybe, just maybe, I would be. Are pignoli cookies that incredible? Do sprinkle cookies fly in the face of some sort of time-honored pignoli tradition at Christmas? Obviously given what each of them are, the pignoli would be vastly more expensive to make, with all the almond paste and pine nuts involved – pine nuts are basically gold in the nut world – but beyond that, what makes them special?
This week I’m going to be working my way through a few very classic Italian-American cookie offerings. I wanted to do more, but a few failed along the way, and others just needed some tweaking. These are the ones that made it; solidly delicious, but each requiring some problem-solving to make them correctly. You know what that means, right? Welcome to your tutorial.
First up, pignoli cookies: apparently these aren’t the easiest things to make, mostly due it seems to their tendency to spread out flatter than they should be. From what I gather, the ideal pignoli should be half-ball, half-puffy cookie with a load of pignoli and some serious almond flavor. Here’s how to get them right the first time (because there’s no pain like the one you feel when you ruin many dollars’ worth of pine nuts, believe me.) Let’s do this.
Get your Pignoli Cookies right (the first time):
- Choose your nuts wisely – prices on most things found in grocery stores don’t vary that greatly: pine nuts are one of the few that do. Example: pine nuts at my local grocery store range anywhere from $27 to $30 a pound, even in the bulk section. By contrast, Trader Joe’s, who offers a fabulous and affordable section of nuts and seeds, sells them for about $16 a pound: that’s half the price, friends. Make the trip. If you don’t have a Trader Joe’s, do your homework to find a local purveyor who sells them at a reasonable price.
- Don’t skimp on prep time – there’s very few ingredients here, one of which is a paste, so take your time and to really be sure that all ingredients are perfectly incorporated: you don’t want balls of goo here and there when you bake these. If you’re using a stand mixer (and hopefully you are) take the time once everything looks completely homogenous to scrape all the way down to the bottom: I would bet my own Nonna on the fact that there’s some patches of unincorporated stuff down there which needs to be mixed in. (Grandma – I wouldn’t actually offer you up as collateral in a bet; I was just underscoring a point.)
- Don’t skimp on pine nuts, either – Most of the recipes I found seem to fall a bit short in the pignoli department; odd, considering they are called pignoli cookies. Having an ample amount of pine nuts in these serves both an aesthetic and functional purpose: not only will the be drop-dead gorgeous, but the pine nuts (just like the granulated sugar roll in these cookies) add stability and keep things from spreading out too much. If you bought your pine nuts responsibly, using more shouldn’t be an issue. Just go for it: Christmas only comes once a year.
- Always be prepared – with a damp kitchen towel, also known as my secret trick for slicing things cleanly in other recipes. In this one, your hands will get really sticky after rolling 4 or 5 balls, and having a damp towel on hand is helpful in cleaning you up. Clean hands equal a cleaner cookie, and it keeps the dough-to-nut transfer to a minimum. No one likes sticky nuts, after all.
- Size really does matter – although here, we’re wanting small balls: the smaller the better, actually. It’s a pretty decadent cookie, so you don’t want a huge end product, and smaller balls tend to hold their shape during baking.
- Work those nuts – Press those nuts into the balls firmly, – I’m talking real gusto here – because the nuts really need to hang on to the balls when baking, and you don’t want your nuts falling out all over the place when you serve the cookies. More importantly, our guests don’t want that.
- Do not. burn. your nuts – seriously, people, watch your ovens when you bake these: you know that burned nuts are bad nuts and do you really want to do all this work only to see it go up in flames? No. Use a light pan versus a dark one: we all have pans which cook things differently based on how they are made, what color they are, and so on. Choose a good-quality pan that keeps cookies lighter on the bottom; your end result should look like this:
See? Equally toasty nuts, top and bottom.
And…we’re done! Look at those…so many pine nuts. so much poof. If you compare this photo to the unbaked version of this photo above, it’s a nice visual indicator of what to expect in terms of spreading. These won’t stay still like Mexican wedding cakes, but they’re not going to flatten out like chocolate chip cookies, either.
Seems like a lot of instructions for a 6-ingredient cookie, right? Well, cookies with few ingredients tend to be the ones you should be the most careful with, in my humble opinion. This is no exception, and if you do things correctly, you’ll be rewarded with an over-the top, pine-nutty, marzipan-flavored explosion of a cookie. Make them for a crowd and they’ll be charmed by these. Or make them just for yourself: this recipe is one which can be easily halved, which is a conscious choice I made when in development because honestly, halving it will save you a few dollars (even with affordable pine nuts) and you’ll still get 20 or more cookies out of it.
Adapted from Lidia Bastianich’s recipe for pine nut cookies, along with an excessive amount of research and testing by yours truly. Although my end product varies in terms of ingredient ratios, the flavors are exceedingly traditional and very much the same as hers.
Pignoli (Pine Nut) Cookies
Makes 40+ cookies
- 1 1/4 cups granulated sugar
- 1/2 cup confectioners’ sugar
- 2 8-oz tubes of almond paste (NOT marzipan: there’s a difference and it’s significant)
- 4 egg whites
- zest of 1 large orange
- 2 1/2 cups pine nuts (pignoli)
Preheat oven to 350˚F. Line a baking sheet with parchment paper.
In the bowl of a stand mixer fitted with the paddle attachment, crumble in almond paste. Turn the mixer on low to further break it up. Continue mixing on low while you stream in the granulated and confectioners’ sugar, and mix until everything is thoroughly incorporated. Add egg whites one at a time, mixing well on medium-high after each addition, and scraping down the bowl as needed with a rubber spatula. Add the orange zest and mix on medium high for 20 to 30 seconds, scraping down the bowl as you go, until everything looks homogenous. Remove bowl from stand and use the spatula to work through the dough, incorporating any dry patches you find (especially at the bottom of the bowl). Everything should look evenly distributed and smooth.
Place pine nuts in a medium bowl (a shallow one is good here, if you have it). Ready a damp kitchen towel to wipe hands with as you proceed. It’s actually easier to begin with slightly damp hands, as the dough tends to stick more to dry hands. Roll out about 1 tablespoon of dough at a time to form a tight ball, then roll firmly in pine nuts until completely coated. Set gently onto prepared sheet pan. Repeat with remaining dough, setting balls about 2 inches apart on the baking sheet. Bake one sheet of these at a time: I never condone multi-sheet baking, as it can lead to inferior cookies, but especially in this case, stick with one sheet. you can assemble the remaining cookies as the first sheet bakes.
Place in the middle rack of the oven and bake for around 14 to 16 minutes, checking at the 12-minute mark for doneness. for a chewier cookie, look for the cookies to be spread slightly and puffed, but without any color change to the dough itself; pine nuts will be golden and toasted. For a crispier cookie, cook for a minute or two more, watching the pine nuts carefully so they don’t burn. Cookies do firm up as they cool, and will harden further in about 48 hours or so, so keep that in mind as well.
Remove from oven and place sheet on a cooling rack for about 15 minutes to allow cookies to set. Transfer cookies to cooling rack and allow to cool completely. I like these about a day or so in, even more than I do fresh from the oven, because it gives their flavors a chance to develop and settle in. Perfect if you’re planning to have these at a gathering, because it’s less work to do the day of.
Store in an airtight container at room temperature for up to 3 days, or stick in the freezer for a week or two.