desserts

pignoli [pine nut] cookies.

pignoli [pine nut] cookies.

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.

pignoli [pine nut] cookies.

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.

pignoli [pine nut] cookies.

pignoli [pine nut] cookies.

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:

pignoli [pine nut] cookies.

See? Equally toasty nuts, top and bottom.

pignoli [pine nut] cookies.

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.

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19 Comments

  • Reply Willow @ Will Cook For Friends December 15, 2014 at 4:40 pm

    These cookies. Where have they been all my life?! Let’s see, favorite things… almond paste? Check. Orange zest? Check. Pine nuts galore? Check. Pretty much sounds like my dream cookie. (And wow, you got THE PERFECT amount of toastiness on those nuts!)

    Also, I have a serious lack of Italian-American cooks in my life. Sooo, could you come over and remedy that? We could make these cookies together, and you can teach me all your genius ways. (Keeping a damp towel nearby to prevent overly sticky nuts? GENIUS.)

    • Reply shannon December 17, 2014 at 10:00 am

      it’s all the things: and seriously they just get better in the freezer, so it’s like you could just make a batch and treat yourself all december (and january? maybe february). 🙂 i’m a nut-toasting expert, borne from really, REALLY hating burned nut flavor. GROSS.

      I’d love to: i’m zero percent italian, and i struggle with savory italian dishes (except pizza: i can do that all day long), but i feel like i’m super comfortable with the sweets. so if you don’t mind just eating a major amount of cookies, i’ll be there.

      Always a damp towel, Willow: no one likes sticky nuts.

      • Reply Willow @ Will Cook For Friends December 19, 2014 at 10:58 am

        Pff, do I mind eating a major amount of cookies? Who do you think you’re talking to! I’ll get the cookie sheets lined.

        • Reply shannon January 3, 2015 at 7:04 am

          Girl, i know you don’t mind. 🙂

  • Reply John@Kitchen Riffs December 15, 2014 at 11:10 pm

    I love this cookie! Have had them often, but never made them. Superb post — really excellent, detailed instructions/explanations. Thanks for doing all the research. And the Trader Joe’s tip is worth many $$!!

    • Reply shannon December 17, 2014 at 10:01 am

      Thank you so much, John! I love a tutorial, and these deserved one: i want everyone to try them because they’re such a special cookie. Trader Joes for nuts (and definitely some other things) is the only way to go.

  • Reply Jennie @themessybakerblog December 16, 2014 at 7:24 am

    Hmm, I’m intrigued. Are pignoli cookies better than sprinkle cookies? I must know. Hello, toasted nuts! That’s saying something right there. I’m excited to see all the cookies you’re going to bust out this week. I, too, am on a major cookie kick. Wanna trade? Cookie for cookie?

    • Reply shannon December 17, 2014 at 10:04 am

      oooo, hard questions, Jennie. that’s seriously an apples to oranges type of question, because there’s no “better” to be had here: just different, and equally amazing. Pine nuts are sophisticated, sprinkles bring the fun. does that answer it? if it were me, i’d make both. always both.

      i do want to trade! i feel like today’s post (the hazelnut ones) will be right up your alley…

      • Reply movita beaucoup December 23, 2014 at 7:12 am

        This sounds exactly like a mother talking about her children. Do I love one more? NO. They are different, and equally amazing…

        • Reply shannon January 3, 2015 at 6:59 am

          You totally get me, Movita.

  • Reply mellissa @ ibreatheimhungry December 16, 2014 at 8:40 am

    Pignoli cookies are one of my absolute favorites, though I’ve never had the guts to make them myself! I can’t even find pine nuts in the stores here in SC, and when I ask about it down here I get blank confused stares usually followed by “Pig-know-what????” When I used to live in CT you could get really excellent ones almost anywhere due to the really high Italian American population. At my old office job the little old italian ladies would bring these in by the heaping trayful every year and I would be in heaven! Yours look just as good if not better than theirs, I wish I could reach through the screen and grab a couple! Maybe the iphone 7 will have that feature… Here’s hoping!

    • Reply shannon December 17, 2014 at 10:06 am

      a life without pignolis? that’s not even right, mellissa. i think I can credit our own serious Italian American population with our pine nut supply, and i’m thankful for it! Although it’s been mostly in recent years; before that, they were findable, but you really had to look. If you manage to locate some, use them on these, for sure. SO nutty and i bet those little italian ladies would be proud. 🙂

  • Reply natalie @ wee eats December 16, 2014 at 11:51 am

    OMG I am DYING think of you as a Jersey Housewife. D-E-D. You do have a lot of good points, though. Although I feel i really need a sprinkle cookie too, you know, for an accurate comparison.

    And you’re SO RIGHT – Trader Joe’s is the ONLY place to buy pine nuts. Never in my life have I seen them so cheap! And they last practically forever if you store them in your fridge (like I do) 🙂

    • Reply shannon December 17, 2014 at 10:08 am

      you know i would make a good one: you KNOW i would! *flips table* As luck would have it, sprinkle cookies should be making their appearance later this week. 🙂

      Seriously, how do they swing the cheap nuts?!? on other things their prices are kind of better, but on nuts? BLOWS THE COMPETITION AWAY, especially on the pricier ones like these, and hazelnuts, macadamias, etc. totally worth a trip, every time, and especially at christmas when everything is nut-rageous.

  • Reply Ashley December 16, 2014 at 1:37 pm

    Just…love. Love it all. I love the dedicated research you did, the practical tips (seriously, sticky paws are a huge obstacle when cookie making and my poor hands always end up dried out by the end of the day), and the whole Nonna persona thing. You rock!

    • Reply shannon December 17, 2014 at 10:10 am

      YAY! girl, that was some hard-earned knowledge: i like when everything turns out okay, but it was touch and go there during the process b/c i was running up against problems and then having to strategize workarounds on the spot, etc. Always fun when the project is done, but during, it’s a little nerve-wracking. 🙂 I like to help people make all the cookies, you know?

  • Reply Matt December 20, 2014 at 10:33 pm

    I had an Italian nonna and bisnonna. I miss them and cookies like this. Pine nuts? Yes please.

    • Reply shannon January 3, 2015 at 7:03 am

      I want you to know that i had to look up “bisnonna,” which means i learned something today. From you. I hope these are half as good as their cookies used to be: i tried super hard to get them right.

  • Reply jeni’s spinalong: icelandic wedding cake frozen skyr with lingonberry swirl and kransekake (say what?) – A Periodic Table December 2, 2015 at 2:08 pm

    […] which is made from almond paste, sugar, and egg whites (Oxford comma forever!) – my beloved Pignoli Cookies from last December! So I made a half-batch, minus the orange zest and pignoli, and I was in business. What you see […]

  • Leave a Reply to Matt Cancel Reply