Globe-flying Santa Claus chews on delicious morsels during his delivery rounds. Here’s a sampling of traditional Christmas cookies from around the world to bake in your own kitchen. Serve with a tall glass of chilled milk (my preference: non-dairy, nut-based milks) for your busy little elves during the holidays.
Let’s Go Dutch
Jan Hagel cookies are a traditional treat enjoyed in Holland at Christmas time. The Dutch version of shortbreads, this thin, flaky delicacy has a motherlode of nuts and rock sugar. “Jan Hagel,” a Dutch phrase that translates to “unruly mob,” perhaps refers to the uncontrollable temptation of sweet tooths when inhaling the blissful aroma of these cookies baking in the oven. Whether cut into squares, diamonds or ovals, they add holiday cheer to a cup of jo or a mug of hot chocolate.
Darling Little Tart of Austria
Linz, once part of the Holy Roman Empire is best known for the creation of the beloved buttery pastry with notes of almonds and lemon zest and a lattice crust over a generous layer of rich black currant preserves. The Linzertorte, one of the oldest tart recipes in food history, was found in an Austrian abbey during the 17th century.
The American riff on the tart takes the form of cookie sandwiches with the same dough recipe, but swapping out black currant for raspberry jam, and punching out circular or heart-shaped peep holes exposing the ruby-colored preserves.
Nutty and Nice Noel
French cookie offerings include a divine array of petite treats from almond macarons and tuiles to chocolate meringues and madeleines.
Madeleines are the French adaptation of Magdalen, referring, of course to the disciple of Jesus, Mary Magdalen. In 18th century France nuns baked batches of these delicate buttery cookies with fluted designs and sold them to raise money for their convents, then actually sold the precious recipe to bakers when their monasteries were demolished during the French Revolution.
The scalloped tips dipped in chocolate or dusted with Confectioner’s sugar make a delightful partner with a cup of ginger tea to warm the cockles of your heart on a chilly Christmas night
The Scots celebrate the winter holidays with ancient customs revolving around a fire festival and the tradition of burning the Yule log on Christmas Eve. Traditional desserts include the “shortie,” which began as a mealy recipe with a load of butter, ground oats and nuts originally baked in a circular shape symbolic of the sun. Today’s Scottish shortbreads are richer and more decadent, still loaded with butter; one savory version incorporates sharp cheddar cheese to punch up the flavor.
To Russia with Love
Russian tea cakes that resemble mini snowballs are festive spherical pastries filled with ground hazelnuts, almonds or walnuts and twice coated with Confectioner’s sugar. Popular in England during the Middle Ages, and believed to have migrated to Mexico via European nuns, food folklorists are miffed at the tea cake’s connection to Russia.
Some speculate they were originally served next to Russian samovars or tea urns during celebrations. Now they are traditional treats for wedding and Christmas celebrations in the USA, known also by the moniker “Mexican Wedding Cakes.”
Buon Natale! - When in Rome
Crispy, crunchy, jaw-breaking biscotti, Italian finger cookies literally translates from the Latin to “twice baked,” which describes the method of preparation to achieve the distinct texture.
Virtually indestructible, biscotti were staples of the Roman Legions to sustain them on long journeys. During the Renaissance period the Spartan recipe was tweaked to a more elegant, palatable form.
A Tuscan baker from Prato is credited with the re-emergence of biscotti that he served with the local sweet wine as a dunking companion. While enjoyed throughout the seasons biscotti are tricked out with dried cranberries, pistachios and Meyer lemon zest this time of year. Mangia bene, vivi felice!
Holiday Hazelnut Biscotti
1 cup white sugar
1/2 cup canola or safflower oil
1 1/2 cups chopped toasted hazelnuts
A few drops vanilla or hazelnut extract
3 cups unbleached flour
2 teaspoons baking powder
A pinch of salt
Zest from one lemon
Method: Beat eggs and sugar in a large bowl. Add the oil, zest, nuts and extract. In another mixing bowl combine flour, baking powder and salt. Gradually add the dry mixture to the wet, blending well.
Cover the bowl and refrigerate for one hour.
Preheat oven to 350 degrees F. On a floured board, form four flat oblong loaves. Transfer to a parchment-lined cookie sheet. Bake 20-25 minutes. Remove loaves and cut diagonally, one-inch wide. Lay on cut sides. Bake again for 15 minutes or until golden brown.