My very favorite Christmas cookie
I first discovered these cookies over 20 years ago at Clarke's, a now-famous restaurant and bakery in London, that my friend Bene introduced me to. One bite and I was hooked. Crunchy on the outside, chewy on the inside, and oh so delicious. I searched my cookbooks and back issues of Gourmet and Bon Appetit, but could not find a similar recipe. This was back in the day before the internet and researching a recipe was much more challenging than it is today.
Forward 10 or 12 years, and I rediscovered these cookies when I took my daughter Lauren to school in Boston. We found them at Mike's Pastry, a legend of an Italian pastry shop on Hanover Street. Turns out these are very traditional Italian cookies. I just did not have much of an opportunity to discover them, living in Southern California and Honolulu.
A bit pricey to make
These cookies are incredible, but they are not cheap to make. The almond paste is expensive and so are the pine nuts. Consequently, I usually make these only as a special Christmas treat.
Almond paste not marzipan
Make sure you buy almond paste and not marzipan. The original recipe recommends canned almond paste. I have used two kinds of almond paste: Odense Almond paste from Denmark. It comes in a tube, but can be a little stiff to work with. Solo makes a canned almond paste that is very easy to use and has good results. Note: if you use Odense, it comes in 7 ounce tubes, and the Solo product comes in 12.5 ounce cans and 8 ounce packages.
Simplified original recipe
The best recipe I have found came from the December 2002 edition of Gourmet magazine, but I have made some significant changes to the method to simplify the process. A good food processor is critical. The almond paste needs to be broken down and a food processor is the best way to accomplish this. I mix all of the dough in the food processor and skip using a mixer as the original recipe recommends. I always love it when I reduce the amount of pots and pans that need to be washed!
The dough is very sticky and can be difficult to work with. I don't bother piping the dough, it just makes a mess. I get my hands wet, use a spoon to scoop up a bit of dough and gently work it into a ball. You need to re-wet your hands about every three cookies or the dough starts to stick.
Gluten-free and dairy-free
As a bonus, these delicious cookies happen to be gluten free! The recipe does call for egg whites, if you are working around allergies.
Try them with a cup of coffee or espresso!
Yield 3 dozen cookies
These traditional Italian pignoli and almond cookies are easy to make and utterly delicious. Gluten-free and dairy free, they are a perfect holiday cookie that almost everyone can enjoy.
- 2 7-ounce tubes or 2 8-ounce cans of almond paste
- 1 1/2 cups powdered sugar, unsifted
- 1/2 t salt
- 2 egg whites, slightly beaten
- 2 T honey
- 1 cup pine nuts
- Parchment paper
- Heat oven to 350 degrees. Break the almond paste up into small chunks with your hands and put it in a food processor. Using long pulses, whirl the paste until the it is broken into fine pieces. Add the powdered sugar 1/2 cup at a time and the salt. Whirl after each half cup. Sugar, paste and salt mixture will look like fine meal.
- Add the egg whites and honey and continue whirling using long pulses until the mixture is well combined and smooth. At this point the batter will be thick and sticky.
- Spread 3 cookie sheets with parchment paper. Put the pine nuts in a shallow bowl. Wet your hands and using a spoon, scoop up a large teaspoon of batter. Use your hands to form a ball of dough. Dip half the dough in the bowl of pine nuts and then invert the cookie, pine nut-side up onto the cookie sheet.
- Bake cookies for about 18-20 minutes, until they are puffed and golden. Sometimes I make larger cookies and need to add a few minutes to the cooking time. If your oven has hot spots, you may need to turn the cookie halfway to get uniform browning.
- Allow cookies to cool completely before removing the parchment paper. Store in a well-sealed tin.