Italian Christmas Biscotti & Baci Di Dama Cookies

As soon as we got on twitter one of the first twitter “handles” to catch our eye was @lifesafeast.  We knew right away we had found a kindred spirit.  Our American friend, Jamie writes her blog from France where she lives with her husband and sons.  She is a Contributing Blogger for Huffington Post Food and a co-founder of the new From Plate to Page Workshops for food bloggers.  She nourishes her soul with food, baking, sharing and writing.  Those who visit her blog, Lifes A Feast will be filled with her stories and feast on her mouthwatering pictures. We are so happy to have her join us at the table! ~Chris Ann & Kristin

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THE MEANING OF CHRISTMAS to a Jew

AND COOKIES FOR GIVING
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Tiny white fairy lights trailing across windowsills and tabletops, swags of gaily-colored bulbs shimmer in the night all across town lending a ghostly glow to the darkness, an air of something festive. The fresh scent of evergreen, the holiday music putting a bounce in your step, there is definitely a feeling of Christmas in the air. I love Christmas. Even as a small child, I felt the excitement mount as the decorations went up all over town, I sensed that special holiday energy in the air, an electric buzz of peace on earth and goodwill towards men.

Yet I don’t celebrate Christmas. Both of my parents were raised in orthodox Jewish households in large New York Jewish communities. They married and had a family and moved south to Florida, to a new land populated with a new people and they soon found themselves in very non-Jewish surroundings. And although they no longer observed the laws of the religion as strictly as their parents had done, we celebrated all of the Jewish holidays, went to Shabbat services on Friday nights and quite often on Saturday mornings as well, we went to religious school every Wednesday and Sunday, belonged to the youth group and were completely faithful to our religion.

So we were raised observing the Christmas holidays from afar, and sometimes pretty close up: school Christmas plays and Christmas carols, gaudy decorations and garlands of colored lights hanging from every tree and rooftop, Jolly Santas and rotund Snowmen popping up in every yard and shops and stores filled with Christmas candy, Christmas displays, Christmas gifts to delight and tempt any kid. Yes, I grew up surrounded by the Christmas magic, fascinated, drawn to this holiday that we didn’t celebrate like a moth to the flame. We celebrated Hanukkah. Eight days and eight nights of candlelight and potato latkes and gifts, Hanukkah was a fun, festive yet rather low-key affair in our home, so the gorgeous, elegant tree standing proudly in our neighbor’s front window was a wonder, a thing of beauty to this simple Florida girl, and my imagination ran high even as I recoiled at the thought of being obliged to celebrate at school. Every single year, our grade school put on a Christmas pageant and there I was, in the chorus, singing songs that I never believed in, having to watch my friends perform the story of Christmas up on that stage in the school cafeteria. Finally I could stand it no longer and I revolted. I complained about the injustice, the discrimination and I point blank refused to participate. The school powers-that-be responded by allowing my class to organize a Hanukkah play – with little old me as the star – which was then performed alongside the Christmas play.

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Yet I still dreamed of Christmas. What joy and with what utter delight did I dash across the yard to the neighbor’s house to help decorate that magnificent Christmas tree as their own children grew up and moved out. Carefully placing each shimmering glass ball and tossing just the right amount of dazzling tinsel on the green boughs, stringing popcorn and cranberries and digging into plates piled high with elegant Christmas cookies became an event that I prayed for, waited for every single December. My brothers and I would wander the neighborhood streets after dark to catch a glimpse of the fabulous Christmas decorations, stroll among the Christmas luminaries casting an unearthly, romantic glow up and down cul de sacs, spying hidden Santas and laughing out loud at Ho Ho Ho’s piped in across entire streets. Trips to the grocery store with my mom would find me pulling her excitedly across the chilly expanse of groceries to the Christmas candy display where I would beg for boxes of chocolate-covered marshmallow Santas, white marshmallow Snowmen Peeps and red-and-white candy canes. She and I would end up going back together the day after the holiday and snapping up box after box of each and every delightful Christmas confection at half-price, our own guilty concession to this Christian holiday.

And gift giving. I have always adored giving gifts and I love giving edible gifts at this most joyous of holiday seasons. From a young age, I would sit and hand roll chocolate truffles and make cookies for my mom’s office holiday party. Older and on my own, I would continue to make truffles and other Christmas treats to give to loved ones. And I still do. The French are fascinated by American and Italian specialties, so every year finds me in my kitchen filling up tiny aluminum bread tins with chocolate-chip-banana, cranberry-orange-pecan and pumpkin-chocolate chip batter which get baked, carefully and festively wrapped and handed out to friends. I bake trays of cookies for JP to carry to the office where he places them proudly next to the coffee machine, adding a festive touch to the pre-holiday Christmas cheer. Stollen and Christmas Spice Cakes, redolent of warm, earthy cinnamon, nutmeg and ginger, kissed by the tang of orange, studded with jewel-like dried cranberries, blueberries and pistachios make for something joyous and festive indeed. The choice is endless yet simple, each and every treat infused with something so special and celebratory that no matter which holiday you celebrate (or don’t) these confections are sure to please, guaranteed to bring goodwill and seasonal joy to the hearts of even the biggest Scrooge!

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For my lovely Feast sisters of Love Feast Table, I selected two Italian cookies to share: Holiday Biscotti, studded with Christmassy red dried cranberries and green pistachios, spiced with a special blend of Christmas spices and drizzled with orange-infused chocolate ganache. And Baci di Dama (Ladies Kisses), tender, flavorful almond and hazelnut cookies sandwiched together with the same luscious chocolate ganache. Of all the Christmas’s I’ve loved the best, Italian Christmas’ in Milan were my absolute favorite. The night air was always thick with mist, which gave the season a frosty, angelic, romantic look and feel. We would stroll through town and stop at ramshackle street corner stands selling hot-off-the-coals roasted chestnuts, scooped up and poured into newspaper cones, warming our hands and tickling our noses with the fabulous, earthy scent of roasted chestnuts. The city was always gloriously decorated, pastry shops and bakeries filled with holiday Panettone and Pandoro, and the season always lasted joyously through the day of La Befana on January 6 with more gifts, chocolates and fun. So I offer you, my friends, these two Italian delicacies and wish each and every one of you a joyous, festive holiday season!

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ITALIAN CHRISTMAS BISCOTTI
Adapted from a recipe found on The Joy of Baking

2/3 cup (135 grams) sugar
2 large eggs
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
3/4 teaspoon baking powder
1/8 teaspoon salt
1 3/4 cups (245 grams) flour
1 teaspoon Christmas Spice Blend*
3/4 cup shelled, unsalted pistachios
1 cup dried cranberries (can be replaced with dried cherries)

* I used a mixed Christmas Spice from Germany called Pflaumenmus Gewürz (Plum Jam Spices), a gift from Meeta, a blend of cinnamon and nutmeg, star anise, ginger and cloves, a dash of lemon and orange zest. Feel free to use up to one teaspoon of ground cinnamon or a blend of cinnamon, nutmeg, ginger and clove. Not more than one teaspoon combined, half a teaspoon for just a delicate hint. You could also add the zest of half or one whole orange. These biscotti are delicious even without added spices.

Preheat the oven to 350°F (180°C) and place the oven rack in the center of the oven. I find lining the baking sheets with parchment paper makes life soooo much easier.

Beat the sugar and eggs together in a large mixing bowl with an electric mixer on high speed until thick, pale yellow and fluffy, about 3 minutes. Beat in the vanilla extract.

Blend together the flour, baking powder, salt and ground spices. Add to the egg mixture and blend or beat until combined. Fold in the pistachios and the cranberries.

Transfer the dough to the parchment-lined baking sheet. Form into on loaf or log, about 12 inches long, or two smaller loaves. I prefer two smaller loaves as the biscotti turn out shorter and easier to handle and eat – and the one larger loaf tends not to always cook through. Keep your hands lightly floured as the dough is quite sticky. If making two loaves, leave enough space around each for them to expand.

Bake for about 25 minutes, or until firm to the tough and lightly golden. Remove from the oven to a rack and let cool for about 10 minutes.

Now for what makes them biscotti – twice baked – transfer to a cutting board and slice the loaves on the diagonal – after slicing off the ends and eating them – making 3/4-inch (2 cm) slices. Line these slices up on your parchment-lined baking sheet and pop back into the oven. Bake for 10 minutes them flip all the cookies and bake for an additional 8 to 10 minutes until lightly browned. Remove from the oven and cool on racks, continuing the process if you couldn’t fit all the biscotti in the oven at once.

Drizzle the cooled biscotti with Chocolate Ganache (recipe follows) and allow to cool completely – even sticking the trays in the refrigerator – before storing or serving so the ganache doesn’t stick.

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Biscotti stored in metal cookie tins last forever!

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BACI DI DAMA (Ladies’ Kisses)
Adapted from a recipe in Patisserie of Italy by Jeni Wright

10 ½ Tbs (5 oz/150 g) unsalted butter, softened to room temperature
½ cup (100 g) sugar
1 egg yolk (large egg)
2 oz (50 g) ground blanched almonds
2 oz (50 g) ground hazelnuts
1 2/5 cup (6 oz/175 g) flour
1 tsp vanilla
Chocolate Ganache

Cream the softened butter together with the sugar until light and fluffy. Beat in the egg yolk and then both ground nuts. Beat in the flour and the vanilla until everything is well incorporated. Scrape the dough out onto a lightly floured surface and, working very quickly, knead the dough just until you have a smooth, homogenous ball of dough. This dough contains a high quantity of butter so the more it is worked (with warm hands) the softer and stickier it becomes. Wrap the ball of dough in plastic wrap and place in the refrigerator to chill for a few hours or overnight.

When the dough has been chilled and you are ready to make the cookies, preheat the oven to 325°F (170°C).

Remove the chilled, firm dough from the refrigerator and from the plastic and place on a lightly floured work surface. Cut into 4 pieces (which are easier to work with) and, working one piece at a time and as quickly as possible to keep the buttery dough from softening too much, press and roll out the dough into a ¾-inch (2 cm) thick snake, ends squared. Using a pastry cutter or sharp knife, slice the long log or snake into even ½-inch (1 cm) wide pieces or slightly larger. Again working very quickly, roll each piece into a ball, pressing together if the dough splits, and place on a cookie sheet, leaving a little space between each ball for rising.

Bake the trays of balls in the preheated oven for no longer than 20 minutes or until cooked through and slightly golden. Remove from the oven and allow to cool completely before sandwiching the cookie domes together with the ganache.

Fill a pastry bag with a tip (about ¼ to ½ -inch wide hole). Pair up matching (in size) cookie halves then pipe a dot of ganache on the bottom halves of all the pairs. Gently press the other cookie half onto the ganache. Place all the Baci di Dama on a tray or rack to allow the ganache to firm up.

These cookies get even better when stored in a metal tin overnight as the cookie goes from crumbly to perfectly tender.

CHOCOLATE GANACHE

Chop ¾ cup (100 g) dark chocolate ** and place in a medium-sized heatproof pyrex bowl.

Bring ½ cup (125 ml) heavy cream to a boil. Pour it over the chopped chocolate and allow to sit, stirring, until the chocolate is completely melted and the ganache is perfectly smooth.

** I usually use Lindt dessert 70% or Lindt Excellence 70%. I prefer making this ganache for these holiday cookies with one of the Lindt Excellence dark chocolates flavored with either orange, grilled almonds or mint which give them a truly holiday flavor.

Allow to sit at room temperature until it reaches the desired consistency: to drizzle over the biscotti, it should retain its pouring consistency yet be just thick enough that it doesn’t all run off of the cookies and puddle around them on the plate or tray.

For the Baci di Dama, the ganache needs to be quite thick and firm so it pipes out without running and you can sandwich the two domes of cookies halves together without making a runny mess. You can even store the cookie pieces in a tin while the ganache chills overnight in the fridge, simply taking the ganache out of the cold a bit before piping and sandwiching the two halves of the cookies together.

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We’d like to thank Jamie of Life’s A Feast for joining us at the table! ~Chris Ann & Kristin

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Join the Conversation!

  1. Thank you so much for having me! I loved baking for you and your readers and loved sharing two of our favorite recipes! Enjoy and have a very Happy Holiday Season! xo

  2. Absolutely Beautiful! Bonus…Beautiful Story as well.
    AmyRuth

  3. How beautifully said!! These both look delicious. My family adores pistachios, so this will be a must try recipe for sure!

  4. A beautifully written post! What great memories.

    both cookies look so pretty and festive! I bet they taste heavenly. I’ll have a glass of Vin Santo with those cookies…

    Cheers,

    Rosa

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