If you're at longtime "Ciao Italia" TV cooking show host Mary Ann Esposito's Durham home on Columbus Day, you'll find her baking Christmas cookies. Yes, Christmas cookies in October, the first of the more than 25 varieties she bakes each year.
"It's just a passion. I can't help it," Esposito said. "I love the joy of doing it and I love giving them away."
She begins in October because that's when her mother would begin.
"I make them because they bring back memories of Christmas as a child," she said as she described her favorites affectionately.
"I love making the pizzelles, and using a twist of anise or vanilla, or making two-toned ones of half chocolate and half vanilla," Esposito said. "I love that they look like stained glass windows."
"Mom's Date Nut Bars are easy to do," Esposito said. "They're a good one to make if you need something fast and you're really in a hurry."
Many of the cookies keep alive memories of family members like her mother, Louisa Saporito, famous for those nut bars, who passed away this year at 89. This is Esposito's first Christmas without her mother.
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Esposito reveals her secret for keeping her cookies fresh. Over the next couple months, after she bakes and cools each batch, she wraps groups of two or four, depending on the size of the cookie, in Press N Seal wrap, puts them in a sealable plastic bag and pops them in the freezer. "When they come out, they are as fresh as the day I made them," Esposito said, noting her family eats leftover cookies as late as July some years.
This week in Durham, Esposito and her daughter Beth will set up "Cookie Central" in her basement, putting tables up, taking all the cookies out of her freezer and creating an assembly line for filling dozens of white boxes with her confections to distribute just before the holiday to those lucky enough to be on her Christmas list.
Included in those gift boxes are these selections from Esposito's favorites:
Esposito writes in her Ciao Italia blog: Everyone loves pizzelle. One of the all-time favorites, this waffle-like cookie is made on a pizzelle iron. Originally these cookies were made one at a time, using a single-handled pizzelle iron with a personal design etched in the center. My grandmother Saporito had one that sported two individuals toasting with wineglasses. The idea was to hold the iron over a gas flame, turning it once to create the cookie. Over the years I have experimented with many variations of pizzelle, changing their look and taste with the seasons of the year. For Christmas my family loves this version, which is a standard vanilla-flavored dough; before each little ball of dough is put onto the form, it is coated with multicolored sprinkles.
When the lid is pressed down on the dough, a pretty stained-glass look is created that is unusual and very festive. Chill the dough for several hours before rolling the balls in the sprinkles. I prefer to use a non-coated pizzelle iron, as the weight of the lid helps to create a thinner cookie.
3 1/2 cups King Arthur Unbleached, All-Purpose Flour
12 tablespoons (1 1/2 sticks) unsalted butter, at room temperature
5 extra-large eggs, at room temperature
In a medium bowl sift the flour, baking powder, and salt.
In another bowl, beat the butter and sugar together with an electric mixer. Beat in the eggs one at a time until well blended. Add the vanilla extract. On low speed, blend in the flour mixture a little at a time until well blended. The dough will be soft.
Cover the bowl and chill the dough for at least 2 hours.
(Note: You can make the dough in a food processor, combining the butter and sugar first, then eggs and vanilla, and last the flour mixture.)
Heat a pizzelle maker according to the manufacturer's directions. If it is nonstick, spray it with a baking spray or lightly brush with vegetable oil.
Pour the sugar sprinkles into a shallow dish. Using 2 teaspoons scoop up a spoonful of the dough, and using the spoon as a guide, roll the dough in the sugar sprinkles, coating it well. Place the dough in the center of the form; if you have a 2-form maker, or 4-form maker, roll the balls first before putting them on the form.
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Close the lid and latch it for a count to 30. Lift the lid and remove the pizzelle with the edge of a fork and place them on cooling racks in single layers to cool completely. For darker-colored pizzelle hold for a longer count. Continue making pizzelle until all the dough is used.
The pizzelle should be thin and have a crisp texture. When completely cool, wrap them in groups of 6 in plastic wrap and place them in airtight containers. Pizzelle can be made ahead and frozen for up to 3 months.
Variation: When just removed from the pizzelle form, the waffles can be rolled around cannoli forms, or pressed between two small custard cups to form shapes that can be filled with cream, custard, or fruit. Scoop softened ice cream between two pizzelle to make delicious ice-cream sandwiches.
From Espositor's blog: No holiday visit to Mom’s was ever complete without her sending me home with a box of her famous date nut bars. Of all her confections, this was the one that everyone craved.
1/2 cup plus 1 1/2 tablespoons King Arthur unbleached all purpose flour
2 large eggs at room temperature
Butter a 10-inch square pan and dust with flour or line the pan with aluminum foil and butter and flour it. Set aside.
Sift 1/2 cup of the flour with the baking powder and salt into a bowl.
In another bowl beat the eggs until they are foamy. Gradually add the sugar and vanilla beating until well blended. Fold in the flour mixture.
In a small bowl toss the dates and nuts with the remaining 1 1/2 tablespoons of the four. This method will prevent the dates and nuts from sinking to the bottom of the pan while baking.
Fold the date mixture into the batter.
Spread batter evenly in the pan. Bake 20-25 minutes or until golden brown on top and firm to the touch. Cool completely in the pan on a wire rack.
Cut into squares and sprinkle the tops with confectioner’s sugar.
Note: These can be made ahead and frozen without the confectioner’s sugar for up to 3 months.
1 1/4 cups (10 ounces) walnuts or almonds, coarsely chopped
1 egg white beaten with 1 tablespoon water, for egg wash
Sift the flour, baking powder, and salt together into a large bowl. Add the sugar and mix well. Cut in the shortening with a fork and work the mixture until it looks like coarse cornmeal.
In a bowl, beat the egg, milk, and vanilla together. Add to the flour and work the ingredients with your hands until a rough dough forms. Turn the dough out onto a floured surface and knead for 5 minutes, or until smooth. The dough will be soft. Cut the dough into 4 pieces, wrap each piece in plastic wrap, and chill for 45 minutes.
Meanwhile, preheat the oven to 375°F. Lightly grease two cookie sheets. Grind the figs, dates, and raisins in a meat grinder or in a food processor until coarse. Or coarsely chop with a large knife. Place the mixture in a bowl, add the remaining filling ingredients, and mix well. The mixture will be thick. Set aside.
On a floured surface, roll out one piece of dough at a time into a 12-inch square. Cut the cough into 4-by-3-inch rectangles. Spoon 2 tablespoons of the filling mixture down the center of each rectangle. Carefully fold the long edges of each rectangle over to meet in the center, then pinch the seam to close securely. Turn the cookies seam side down and seal the short ends by folding the dough under. Shape the cookies into crescents and place on the cookie sheets.
Make 2 or 3 diagonal slits in the top of each crescent with scissors. Brush with the egg wash and sprinkle on the colored sprinkles. Bake for 25 minutes, or until golden brown. Cool on racks.
Note: "I wrap the crescents individually in plastic wrap, twist the ends, and tie them with ribbons. They make a wonderful Christmas present. They can be made ahead and frozen," Esposito says.
In her Ciao Italia blog, Esposito notes: "Walnut-studded chocolate drop cookies are always found on a wedding cookie cake because they are firm and provide a good color contrast to the lighter cookies, This recipe has changed hands and ingredients many times in my family, but the one thing that remains constant is the black pepper in the dough. These freeze beautifully."
3 1/4 cups King Arthur Unbleached, All-Purpose Flour
1 1/4 teaspoons freshly ground black pepper
Preheat the oven to 350ºF. Lightly grease two cookie sheets. Sift all the dry ingredients together into a bowl. Work in the shortening with your hands until the mixture resembles coarse cornmeal. Add 1/2 cup milk and the nuts and mix with your hands until well blended. If the mixture seems too dry and does not hold together, add just enough additional milk so the dough holds together.
Pinch off 1-inch pieces of dough and roll them into balls. Place 1 inch apart on the cookie sheets. Bake for 15 to 20 minutes or until firm.
While the cookies bake, make the frosting. In a bowl, combine the confectioners' sugar, 3 tablespoons milk, and the rum extract and beat until smooth. Add additional milk if necessary to make a thin frosting.
Let the cookies cool on racks only until warm. Dip the tops into the icing, place on the racks, and sprinkle with colored sprinkles. Let the frosting dry completely before layering the cookies between wax paper. These will keep in an airtight container for up to 1 week or can be frozen for up to 2 months.
In addition to her secret to keeping the cookies fresh for months in her freezer, Esposito shared these additional tips for baking:
Bring all ingredients to room temperature before beginning to make the cookies unless otherwise stated in the recipe. "They'll mix better."
Never rush the creaming process in which you mix the butter and sugar. There should be no grittiness and should be well integrated.
Use rimless cookiing sheets so the cooks bake evently.
Use parchment paper to line the cookie sheets so you don't have to grease and clean them between batches.
Preheat over well before baking.
Never put in more than two trays at one in the oven. "I rotate the cookie sheet from the bottom to the middle and the middle to the bottom halfway through the baking time so they cook evenly."
Place the cookies on cooling racks when you take them out of oven.
Use a wide-face spatula when transferring cookies such as gingerbread to and from the cookie sheet "so an arm or a leg doesn't break off."