Nonsense happens at the holidays. I am sure for many families that comes in different forms. With no surprise my families nonsense comes in edible form. The crux of this derelict family trait is THE COOKIE TABLE. It sits in the corner of the dining room and taunts us all with silent sweetness. The first “official” cookie course doesn’t come until Christmas Eve but each of us quickly falls into temptation after the confectionery seduction uncrosses it’s proverbial legs. By the time dessert on Christmas Eve arrives each of has already dipped our fingers into one or more of the tightly sealed but loosely guarded cookie tins.
Every last dessert is made with an ingredient that I find precious and necessary to make delicious food. From my Aunt Joy’s pignoli cookies to my mom’s tortalina’s, pictured above, each has at least a half cup of love as a main ingredient. Now that might seem like whimsical bullshit but every single person I have ever seen eat a cookie off the table lights up with their first bite. I’m not implying back flips and cartwheels but if you take notice there is a little flicker as their incisors crack into the sweet dough like an internal dimmer switch was turned up.
This cookie table taunts us for three days as we struggle to keep away from it while preparing lunch, dinner and even breakfast. I thought I’d share some of the addictive residents calling this years table home so you can attempt to understand the crisis my family is subjected to each year. Ironically it’s self inflicted. Double ironically we are oblivious to our vice.
1. Tortalina (pictured above)
These are the most decadent and delicate of all the cookies. Two separate batters make up their character. A flakey outside crust cups a deep, rich decadent nut, brown sugar and vanilla flavored center. A powdered sugar drizzle completes the process. These are most irresistible late at night. Sneaking them causes powdered sugar trails so be careful to not wear the evidence. They also take a long time to make. Therefore, there is a lower numbers of them on the table. If too many of these are stolen it results in others noticing the dwindling tortalina population.
2. Orange-Crasin Cookies
New to the line up these bad boys tempt the tummy any time of day. A great breakfast coffee dunker is part of their charm. Luckily they come in abundance and are fast to make. The downside, they never run out. They are always bragging about their crunchy exterior and chewy soft interior. If a cookie could talk these would be stand up comedians.
3. Chocolate Truffles
The chemical warfare agent of the cookie world. These bad boys are silent until the first bite. They lure you in with their smooth and rounded tops and dropped white lace decoration. Once you bite you fall hard into the deep, dense chocolate center. It assaults your stomach as quickly as your tongue shooting signals around your body almost as fast as when you stepped on that rusty nail as a kid. Of course, it’s the good kind of pain.
4. Rainbow Cookies
A classic and a staple. In the Italian culture these fall in the same iconoclastic category as the horn, wife beater, IROC-Z and chicken parmigiana. Make no mistake that this cake-in-a-cookie disguise is a birth right. Eating one is more of a mandate instead of a choice. At least that is how we rationalize the consumption. The edible version of a nations flag is a tough thing to resist particularly when fruit preserves separate the colors.
5. Russian Tea Balls
Think palette cleanser between cookies. These scrumptious balls are lined up like powdered sugar soldiers in their airtight bunker waiting to be airlifted by a pair of sticky fingers into the tunnel labyrinth behind enemy lines that is your throat. I guess that description is a bit more Vietnam than the Cold War inferred name but in any case these deceiving simpletons pack a flavor punch and once across the DMZ fill up the tummy quickly. Tread lightly with these.
6. Gum Drop Cookies (top)
Gum Drops are just what you think. A baked version of the childhood original candy. The colorful bite sized treats are surrounded by doughy goodness and then frosted. Probably the simplest on the table but that doesn’t mean they get ignored.
Butterhorn’s are another time consuming baking process. These cookies fall into the same delicate scrutiny as the tortalina’s. A butter dough is rolled out very thin and then cut into a triangle. It is sprinkled with cinnamon and finely chopped walnuts then rolled up into what look like mini croissants or “horns”. Although not inherently evil they will still get you in trouble.
8. Pignoli Cookies
A delicate darling but made right they trump the entire table. My aunt Joy’s rule the roost and at $40 per pound for the pignoli nuts they are the most costly as well. Unfortunately these are so easy to wack down and she makes so many, that it sometimes feels like you have one of these between every course. If I was stranded on a desert island with only one item on my cookie table it would be a pignoli. In fact, I think I need one now.
A cast iron, butterfly shaped sweetness wand is dipped in a simple batter and dunked into 400 degree oil. Deep fried to perfection they are then splashed with honey and sprinkles. Lots of people probably make these cookies in different shapes, sizes and styles but in this family it’s strictly a butterfly thing. Every household has the same iron and they are passed down generation to generation. That adds generational love to every cookie. Very powerful.
10. New York Style Cheesecake
You may already know of my penchant for the Italian cheesecake. I prefer the ricotta over the cream cheese any day unless that day is December 25th. My Uncle Doug kills it in the cheesecake department. I am not sure how the ricotta was lost when the Sicilians came over from Italy but the ingredient switch to cream cheese makes a denser and richer cake. Perhaps it should be blamed on the Jews and the overlap between NYC neighborhoods. This might also explain why Jews and Italians are so similar. Regardless of the reason, this graham cracker bottomed goodness sits a few feet from the table in the refrigerator but not out of reach of my paws. Those in the know also make the quick stop for a a forkful. It’s density makes it a lingering treat. Usually one of the last items to finish, we consume the cake as a delicate-bite-dessert instead of the “grab and go” chaos some of the other sweets endure. The moral of all this; keep an eye out for the non-direct table stuff.
11. Cannoli Cake
This is always crazy hyped as the best cake at Christmas. Personally, I beg to differ but filled with all the ingredients of a cannoli mixed with cake batter can’t really be bad. This is the only item not homemade but it’s close enough because we have the baker make this cake special for us each year.
12. Kiss Blossom
13. Chocolate Filled Walnut Cookies
Imagine a Hersey’s kiss jumped out of a burning building and a fresh ball of cookie dough broke its fall. Then imagine they were placed back in that burning building for 7 minutes, turned 180 degrees and removed after another 7 minutes. That is a Kiss Blossom. A layered and delightful contrast with the ability to distinctively taste the chocolate and the cookie dough in each bite.
Walnut cookies are one of my favorites. As a kid I pounded these down by the dozen. My mom traditionally makes them in logs icing them with red or green for the holidays and then slicing them into half inch wide cookies. Down south chocolate is folded into the logs before they hit the oven baking a rich velvety center into the light and brittle walnut dough. Iced the same it turns this childhood classic into an adult deviance.
14. Mini Marshmallow Topped Fudge
Watch yourself here. Danger. You can use these to build a cookie tin to keep all the other cookies fresh. That’s how dense they are. A tiny square goes a long way but with nuts inside and marshmallows on top there is just enough to break up the chocolate and trick you into grabbing another one. This is also a new addition to the table this year but they fared quite well against some of the classics. They play nice with a pignoli or a butterhorn but are sworn enemies of the truffles and cheesecake. Eat them in moderation and have milk or coffee at the ready.
I hope that I have been able to properly explain the incredible indulgence my family and I have to endure each year. I even hope I have inspired some of you to dig deep into the recipe books and perhaps pull out that long lost family recipe. If you do watch for that little glimmer that lights up in peoples eyes when they take a bite. But, what ever you do, don’t set them on a table out in the open. They will taunt you until you break. Unless of course you are that masochistic type.