When Santa makes his way around the globe on Christmas Eve, he is treated to a range of tasty cookies that bakers have been making for centuries.
Here is a sampling of some of the international cookies gracing holiday tables around the world — and right here in the Capital Region.
Cookies with a story
Family history plays a large part in what some bakers like to make during the holidays because the treats come with great memories. “These kinds of memories are quintessential to baking,” said Laura Klynstra, who authored
“Christmas Baking: Festive Cookies, Candies, Cakes, Breads, and Snacks to Bring Comfort and Joy to Your Holiday” (Good Books, 2020) with her mother, Joyce.
Glenville resident May Beth Frewin, whose ancestors came from Hungary, makes kiffles and kolachi, and she has a great story to go with the treats. Frewin’s maternal grandmother, Ethel, was one of five sisters. The family had emigrated to the United States between the birth of the oldest sister, Julia, and the rest of the girls.
Frewin’s great-grandmother took her five daughters back to Hungary for a visit. They were scheduled to return to America on April 15, 1912, aboard the RMS Titanic, but Frewin’s great-grandmother literally missed the boat.
“My great-grandfather didn’t know for quite some time if they were still alive,” Frewin said.
Fortunately they were, and Frewin inherited two of her family’s Hungarian cookie recipes, plus a torte recipe that Frewin makes for her son’s birthday. “I was 12 when my grandmother died, so I can’t be certain she was the baker or if Julia was,” Frewin said.
Nevertheless, she carries on the family tradition of baking these cookies, pastries filled with a mixture of preserves and nuts, during the holidays.
Kiffles (Hungarian Horns)
Recipe from Mary Beth Frewin
3 1/2 cups flour
1 cup margarine
1 cup sour cream
2 egg yolks
1 egg white (save the extra egg white)
1 teaspoon vanilla
3/4 cup each coarsely ground walnuts and apricot preserves.
Cut margarine into flour until crumbly. Mix sour cream, yolks, egg white and vanilla together, stir into flour mixture.
Roll out 1/8-inch thick and cut into squares, about 3 1/2-inch square.
Put a teaspoon of filling in the center and roll from corner to corner to form a crescent. You can also fold the corners over to the center over the filling. Brush with the extra egg white.
Place on a parchment-lined cookie sheet, bake at 375 until golden, about 10 minutes. When cool, dust with powdered sugar. May need to be dusted again before serving.
Several European countries have similar cookies consisting of a pastry with a fruit or fruit-and-nut filling, with slight variations in ingredients and shape.
Mary Ann Kaszubowski of Clifton Park makes a Polish cookie, the kolaczki, for the holidays. This is a cookie her mother made. “I am sure she probably got the recipe from her mother,” Kaszubowski said.
Similar to the Jewish pastry rugelach, the dough has cream cheese and butter. The dough is cut into squares and spread with jam. Then two sides are folded over before baking. (Note: Tease the dough together firmly with a knife when you fold it over, or you will end up with flat cookies instead of an attractive confection.)
Ukrainians have an easy version of this type of pastry. Plyatski is one of the most popular Ukrainian holiday pastries.
“Basically, every family has their own plyatski recipe that is passed on from generation to generation,” said Anya Zaderej of Burnt Hills. “You share plyatski with your friends and family. It’s like an exchange program, so everyone gets to taste each other’s recipe.”
The basic recipe is dough made from butter, sugar, eggs, flour, vanilla and baking powder. Part of the dough is rolled out into a rectangle and spread with jam. Then the other, now-chilled part of the dough is grated over the top, and then the whole thing is baked. After cooling, the pastry is cut into squares for serving. The dough itself is not that sweet; this pastry’s sweetness comes from the preserves.
Another Eastern European pastry is the rugelach. While they are not from her own family’s heritage, Tema Chase of Halfmoon enjoys baking them.
Rugelach originated from Poland’s Jewish communities and made its way around the world in too many varieties to count. Originally these crescent-shaped pastries filled with nuts and fruit were made with a yeast dough, but the recipe was modified over the years to a cream-cheese version that is easier to make.
Chase makes a version with raisins, cinnamon and nuts, or cherry preserves and chocolate bits. “You could do apricot and little chocolate bits, too,” Chase said, pointing out the pastry’s versatility in terms of flavor.
She makes the dough, chills it and rolls it out into a circle. The jam goes on first, then the filling. The circle is then cut into 12 equal triangles. “Then you roll it from the wider side,” Chase said. “When you bake it, bake it point side down so they don’t unravel.”
Chase shared her rugelach recipe.
8 oz. cream cheese at room temperature
1/2 lb. unsalted butter
1/4 cup sugar + 9 tablespoons
1/4 teaspoon kosher salt
1 teaspoon pure vanilla extract
2 cups flour
1/4 cup light brown sugar, packed
1 1/2 teaspoon cinnamon
3/4 cup raisins
1 cup walnuts, finely chopped
1/2 cup apricot preserves, pureed in food processor
1 egg, beaten with 1 tablespoon milk for egg wash
Cream the cheese and butter in the bowl of an electric mixer until light.
Add 1/4 cup sugar, salt and vanilla with mixer on low speed. Add flour and mix until just combined.
Dump dough on a well-floured board and roll into a ball. Cut the ball in quarters, wrap each piece in plastic and refrigerate for one hour.
To make filling, combine 9 tablespoons sugar, the brown sugar, 1/2 teaspoon cinnamon, the raisins and walnuts.
On a well-floured board, roll each ball into a 9-inch circle. Spread the dough with 2 tablespoons apricot preserves and sprinkle with 1/2 cup of filling. Press the filling lightly into the dough. Cut the circle in 12 equal wedges, cutting the whole circle in quarters and then each quarter into thirds.
Starting with the wide edge, roll up each wedge. Place the cookies point side under on a baking sheet lined with parchment paper. Chill for 30 minutes.
Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Brush each cookie with egg wash. Combine 3 tablespoons of sugar and 1 teaspoon cinnamon, and sprinkle on cookies.
Bake for 15-20 minutes until lightly browned. Remove to wire rack and cool. May be frozen.
Like Frewin, Mary Ann Benson had a traditional family cookie handed down from generation to generation. Today, the Clifton Park resident carries on her family’s custom of making pizzelles for the holidays.
Pizzelles originated in the middle region of Italy in the village of Colcullo. The story goes that the village was overrun with snakes, and after villagers chased them out, they celebrated with pizzelles.
“My grandmother, who was born in Italy, made them in Italy, so my father had that tradition growing up,” Benson said. When Benson was growing up, pizzelles were her father’s specialty. “It was my father’s pride and joy,” Benson said.
Making these light, lacy, crunchy cookies requires a special piece of equipment similar to a waffle iron. Benson received one as a wedding gift from her sister 34 years ago. “My sisters and brother all make them,” Benson said. “We all have one.”
The iron makes four cookies about 3 inches in diameter. Benson turned the tradition into a family one, gathering with her children and their spouses to make the cookies assembly-line style. Benson uses anise in the batter, as that’s the way her grandmother and father made them.
“I would make the batter and pour it on, and press it,” Benson said. “Somebody would start the timer, then I would take them out. The person next to me would trim them right out of the iron. If you wait, they get crispy really fast.”
Another person sprinkles powdered sugar on them and stacks them. Each batch of four takes about 45 seconds to make.
“The powdered sugar goes all over your shirt when you eat them and that’s part of the fun,” Benson said.
During COVID, Benson’s daughter, Erin, got together with her brother, Andrew, in his garage to make pizzelles. Andrew had inherited his grandfather’s pizzelle iron.
Recipe from Mary Ann Benson
1/4 cup vegetable oil
1/4 cup butter or margarine
1 1/2 cups sugar
1/4 cup vegetable shortening
2 teaspoon baking powder
1/4 teaspoon salt
1 1/2 teaspoon flavoring (anise or lemon or vanilla or almond extract)
2 to 2 1/2 cups flour
Blend ingredients together, adding one at a time. Drop batter by teaspoonful onto the center of each cookie section. Close lid and allow to cook 45 seconds or until lightly brown.
Allow to cool on wire rack or towels. Dust with powdered sugar.
Cookies may be served flat or rolled tightly into a cylinder. Cookies must be hot during rolling and held in shape until cool.
Charlene Campanelli also inherited a family recipe that uses a special iron similar to a pizzelle iron, as well as two additional recipes.
“My grandmother was from Norway,” Campanelli said. “We did this every year. We’d start in early December and make the different cookies. Lots of times we’d give them away because a lot of people weren’t familiar with them, and it was something different.”
Krumkake are baked on an iron like a pizzelle, but when they come out they are rolled over a cone. “They’re lacy, sweet and crunchy,” Campanelli said, noting that you can fill them with jam, whipped cream or ice cream, but that the cookie will get soggy if filled. “I just like them plain.”
Campanelli also makes fattigman cookies, which are often referred to as “a poor man’s cookie.”
“The dough is rolled out and cut into triangle with a little hole in the center and you pull one of the corners through the hole,” Campanelli said. Then the cookies are deep fried.
A third cookie passed down through her family and a popular Norwegian confection is the sandkaker, which translates literally as “sand cookies.”
The simple batter has butter, ground almonds, flour, almond extract and sugar. The dough is pressed into sandkaker tins. Campanelli uses her grandmother’s tins.
“They’re very common in Norway during Christmas and are served during holiday parties,” she said of the cookies.
The dense, buttery cookies can be served plain or topped with whipped cream and berries. The Hagen family, founders of Viking Cruises, shared their traditional family recipe for this Norwegian treat. (Note: I found a set of “Fancy Tart Molds” at Spoon & Whisk in Clifton Park that resemble Campanelli’s tins. I could not find blanched almonds at the grocery store, so I substituted slivered almonds that I ground up in a small food processor.)
Prep time: 45 minutes / Cook time: 15 minutes / Makes 36 cookies, depending on mold size; serving size is 2 cookies.
8 1/2 oz (250 g) butter*
1 cup (190 g) sugar
1 large egg
1 cup (100 g) blanched, ground almonds**
3 cups (375 g) flour
Cream together butter and sugar; beat in egg. Add almonds and flour; mix well. Let rest overnight.
Press into sandkaker or small tart molds. Place on a baking sheet; bake at 350° about 12–15 minutes, or until slightly brown at the edges. Cool about 7–10 minutes before removing from tart pans; cool on a wire rack.
*Do not substitute margarine, as the flavor relies on good quality butter.
**Ideally, blanch and grind the almonds the day before.
Moving west on the European continent, cookies get flatter and crispier. Dutch windmill cookies, called speculaas, are an example. Historically, Dutch families served these cookies to celebrate St. Nicholas’ Day, Dec. 6. Klynstra wrote in her book that these cookies were “a staple of her childhood,” as she grew up in a Dutch community.
Like the sugar cookies that are so popular this time of year in the United States, the spiced dough for speculaas is rolled out and cut into shapes, such as a Dutch wooden shoe, or flattened with a cookie stamp. There are variations of this cookie, with the main difference being the spices used, in Belgium, Luxembourg, Germany and Austria.
Moving across the pond to North America, Puerto Ricans bake a shortbread cookie called a mantecaditos. The name comes from the Spanish word “manteca,” which means shortening. Mantecaditos have centuries-old Middle Eastern roots, and the recipe made its way across the globe with the opening of trade routes and foreign conquests, being modified along the way.
The easy-to-make dough is rolled into balls, depressed in the middle with a thumbprint, then topped with guava jelly or sprinkles. A Puerto Rican friend told me the guava version he remembers from home is “so good,” but sometimes hard to find here.
Trying something new
“Christmas is about tradition and I love to bake many of the same things each year,” said Klynstra. She also likes to try something different.
“I also encourage my fellow bakers to try a new recipe each year. International cookies are a great place to look for tried-and-true classics that may be new to you and your guests.”
Inspired by the Klynstra’s book, my daughter helped me make some alfajores, an Argentine cookie that, like the mantecaditos, has its roots with the Moors in the Middle East. The cookie’s name originates from the Arabic word, “alajú,” which means “stuffed” or “filled.” The Moors brought the confection to Europe when they occupied Spain in the 8th century, and the Spaniards in turn took it to South America in the 16th century in their conquest of the Western Hemisphere. Here, the South Americans thickened the dough to a shortbread-style cookie and replaced the fruit-and-nut filling with jam or dulce de leche.
The Argentines began mass-producing the cookie in the 1950s, so it became very popular there. Today, you can find the packaged versions or fancier, artisanal versions in bakeries.
From Christmas Baking by Joyce & Laura Klynstra (Good Books, 2020)
1 cup unsalted butter
3/4 cup sugar
1 tablespoon vanilla extract
3 egg yolks, room temperature
1 1/2 cups cornstarch
2 teaspoon baking powder
1/2 teaspoon salt
1 1/2 cups dulce de leche
1/2 cup shredded sweetened coconut, optional
Confectioners’ sugar for dusting, optional
Beat butter, sugar and vanilla for 2 to 3 minutes until fluffy. Add egg yolks and beat until combined.
Divide the dough into two portions. Wrap each portion in plastic and refrigerate for 30 minutes, up to overnight.
When ready to bake, preheat oven to 350. On a floured surface, roll out one portion until it is about 1/4-inch thick.
Cut out rounds with a 2-inch cookie cutter. Repeat with second portion.
Transfer cutouts to a cookie sheet. Leave about 1 1/2 inches between cookies. Bake for 10 to 12 minutes. Allow cookies to cool on the pan for 5 minutes before transferring them to a cooling rack.
After cookies have cooled, spread dulce de leche on a cookie and top with a second cookie. Roll sides in coconut and dust with confectioners’ sugar, if using.
Store in an airtight container for up to 5 days. Over time, the cookies will absorb the moisture from the dulce de leche. For crisp cookies, assemble the cookies just before serving.
Tip: If you don’t have time to make homemade dulce de leche, there are many excellent jarred varieties available to purchase.
Dulce de leche
4 cups whole milk
1 1/2 cups sugar
1/2 teaspoon baking soda
1 tablespoon vanilla bean paste
In a large, heavy-bottomed pot or Dutch oven, combine milk and sugar. Cook over medium-high heat, whisking until sugar is completely dissolved.
Add baking soda and vanilla bean paste. Cook until boiling. The mixture will foam up high at this stage.
Stir constantly and reduce heat if foam gets to the top of pot. After mixture boils, reduce temperature to low and simmer, stirring occasionally. Cook until thick and golden brown, between 1 and 2 hours.
Pour into a glass pint jar and store in the refrigerator for up to 4 weeks.
A few years ago, to try something different, I baked Mexican wedding cookies, called polvorones, for my colleagues in the high school where I was teaching Spanish and French. These “wedding cookies” became so popular that they are not just for weddings anymore.
What makes this cookie a bit different is that in addition to butter, flour, salt and vanilla, it uses powdered sugar and finely chopped nuts. The dough is rolled into balls and baked. The warm cookies are then rolled in powdered sugar.
Like pizzelles, the sugar goes all over your shirt when you eat them, but again, it’s part of the fun.