"From pepparkakor to pfefferneuse...the world's favorite holiday cookies."
Photo: Justin Kern
One of the best things about the holidays are the traditional cookies, from decorated sugar cut-outs to Mexican wedding cookies, gingerbread men, rum balls, chocolate chip cookies, pfefferneuse and more.
As Christmas is more than just coming...it's just about here, I offer up, in the holiday spirit, a look at the world's favorite holiday cookies, with a few recipes just in case you have a few spare hours before December 25. We'll travel alphabetically, which is not the direction that Santa would ever follow or it would take him one year to deliver all his presents, instead of just one night. And as we drop into certain countries, we'll look at the cookies they would traditionally be eating on Christmas Eve...and leaving on a plate by the Christmas Tree so that Santa would be sure to be have plenty to eat as he rides his way across the world.
Let's start with Austria, where the linzer cookie is a holiday favorite. Said to be the oldest cake in the world, the linzer is named after the city of Linz in Austria. It's made both as a torte and a sandwich of two cookies melded together with layer or raspberry preserves (or jam), and dusted with confectioner's sugar, the linzer cookie is the perfect symbol of Christmas.
Now we head westward to Belgium, where speculaas, or spice cookies, are enchantingly crispy, thin and imprinted with traditional Christmas images. Similar to springerle, they are formed using a cookie mold. Speculaas are made as spice cookies, with cardamam, cinnamon and clove, almond cookies or with extra butter.
Traveling far to Egypt, we find that this time of year, people here and in other Middle Eastern countries celebrate the holiday with zalabia, puffy fritters soaked in syrup colored red or yellow to symbolize joy, and sprinkled with cinnamon or sugar. Zalabia are also popular in the Jewish tradition, served during Hanukkah along with other fried treats.
Now back to Europe, where pfeffernusse is as German as sauerbraten and sauerkraut, but the cookies are known around the world. The word translates from German as "pepper nuts," and refers to the legend that St. Nick baked these gingerbread cookies with black pepper, covered them in powdered sugar and left them in children's boots on Dec. 5.
Italians make a dazzling array of Christmas cookies, including the cuccidati, a Sicilian cookie stuffed with figs, dates, nuts and spices. The specialty also comes in the form of a ring called buccatello, and often contains chocolate or apricot preserves. Anise cookies are another Italian holiday favorite, perhaps because anise in baking dates back to the days of the Roman Empire, when people believed adding anise seeds kept evil spirits away, and also worked as a love potion. The Romans also baked anise seeds into spice cakes to settle their nerves and stomachs after eating a big meal.
Kourabiedes, or buttery shortbread cookies, are the favorite holiday cookie in Greece, traditionally shaped into circles and pear forms. During the Turkish occupation of Greece from 1919 to 1922, the Greeks made their kourabiedes in shape of a crescent in protest of the Turkish flag, which bears the image of a half moon.
Next down to Mexico, where Mexican wedding cookies date back centuries to the Moorish traditions that spread through Europe and eventually reached the Americas. These shortbread-style treats are also known as Russian or Swedish tea cakes, sandies, polvorones, snowballs or numerous other names. Made with chopped and roasted pecans (or walnuts, if they're Russian), then rolled in powdered sugar, they are delicious, by any name!
In Peru, Alfajores de Dulce de Leche is popular, as they are throughout South America. These almond-flavored shortbread sandwich cookies are filled with decadent caramel made from sweetened condensed milk.
Moving up to Poland, chrusciki bow ties are a bow-tie shaped pastry dusted with powdered sugar and drizzled honey. They're perfect for the Christmas season because they look like angel wings.
In Sweden, pepparkakor is a traditional Christmas cookie that's similar to the American gingersnap. Pepparkakor are heavily spiced and wafer thin and are used as Christmas tree ornaments, cut in the shapes of hearts and farm animals. It's customary to place a pepparkakor in your hand, make a wish, then tap the cookie's center. If it breaks into three pieces, your wish will come true.
In the British Islands, Scottish shortbread cookies, or shorties, are eaten traditionally Christmas and New Year's Eve, much the way that the shortbread cookie known as Mexican wedding cakes, Russian Tea Cakes and so many other names are eaten during the holiday season around the world.
In the Ukraine, medianyky, or honey lace cookies, are a Christmas tradition, cut into stars, crescents and circles. They're also hung on the lower branches of Christmas trees so the children can reach them.
We've reached the end of the alphabet—and of the tour—so here are a few recipes for the world's most-loved Christmas cookies. Merry Christmas to all, and to all...have fun baking!
Mexican Wedding Cookies (“Full Moon Cookies” from Cafe Pasqual's Cookbook; Yields 12 large cookies)
1 cup (½ pound) unsalted butter, at room temperature
3 cups powdered sugar
2 teaspoons vanilla extract
¾ cup finely chopped pecans
¾ teaspoon salt
2 cups all-purpose flour
3 tablespoons vegetable shortening
Preheat oven to 375 degrees.
Combine butter and 2 ½ cups of powdered sugar in a bowl. Using a whisk, wooden spoon or electric mixer, fitted with paddle attachment set on high speed, cream together until well incorporated. Add vanilla extract, pecans, salt and flour and beat just until blended.
Lightly great baking sheet. Divide dough into 12 equal pieces. Between lightly floured palms, roll each piece into a ball, place balls on prepared baking sheet and bake 12-15 minutes, until cookies are light brown on the bottom. Cool slightly.
While cookies are still warm, roll them in remaining powdered sugar until they are completely coated. Cool on rack. When cool, roll them in the sugar again they are evenly covered. You can store them in airtight tin container at room temperature for up to seven days.
Austrian Linzer Cookies (From “Real Simple;” yields 36)
2/3 cup almonds
1/2 cup packed light brown sugar
2 1/2 cups all-purpose flour, spooned and leveled, plus more for the work surface 1/2 teaspoon baking powder
1/2 teaspoon kosher salt
1/4 teaspoon ground cinnamon
1 cup (2 sticks) unsalted butter, at room temperature
1 large egg
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
1 tablespoon confectioners’ sugar
1 12-ounce jar raspberry jam
Spread almonds on a baking sheet and toast, tossing occasionally, until fragrant, about 6-8 minutes, and let cool. In a food processor, process the almonds and ¼ cup of the brown sugar until the almonds are finely ground.
In a medium bowl, whisk together the flour, baking powder, salt, and cinnamon. Using an electric mixer, beat the butter and the remaining ¼ cup brown sugar on medium-high speed until fluffy, 2 to 3 minutes. Beat in the egg and vanilla. Reduce speed to low and gradually add the almond mixture, then the flour mixture, mixing until just combined (do not overmix). Divide the dough in half, shape into two disks, wrap in plastic wrap, and refrigerate until firm, at least 3 hours.
Pre-heat oven to 350° F.
On a lightly-floured surface, roll out each piece of dough to a ⅛-inch thickness. Using a 2- to 2 ½-inch round cookie cutter, cut the dough into rounds and place on parchment-lined baking sheets, spacing them 1 inch apart. Using a ¾- to 1-inch round cookie cutter, cut out the centers from half of the cookies. Re roll and cut the scraps as necessary. Bake, rotating the baking sheets halfway through, until the edges are golden, 10 to 12 minutes. Cool slightly on the baking sheets, then transfer to wire racks to cool completely.
Sprinkle the confectioners’ sugar on the cookies with the holes. Spread 1 teaspoon jam on the remaining cookies and top with the sugared cookies. Store the cookies in an airtight container at room temperature for up to 5 days.
Swedish Pepparkor (From Food.com; yields 4 to 5 dozen)
2/3 cup packed brown sugar
2/3 cup molasses
1 teaspoon ground ginger
1 teaspoon ground cinnamon
1/2 teaspoon ground cloves
3/4 tablespoon baking soda
2/3 cup butter
1 egg 3 1/2 cups sifted all-purpose flour
Place butter in a large, heatproof bowl. In a medium saucepan, heat brown sugar, molasses and spices just to boiling point. Add baking soda and stir in. Pour this mixture over the butter and stir until it melts.
Beat egg and mix in; add flour, a cup at a time, and blend thoroughly. Turn out onto a lightly floured board and knead 1-2 minutes. Wrap in waxed paper and chill until firm (about an hour).
Preheat oven to 325 degrees.
Roll out to approximately 1/8 inch thickness on a lightly floured board and cut into desired shapes. Place on greased baking sheets and bake for 8 - 10 minutes. Remove from sheets and cool on racks; may be decorated with piped icing, raisins, candy and other edible sweets.