Maybe it was the cursing every year while setting up the tree - in a family that really doesn't curse. Or the watering at 6:30 a.m. Or the terror the tree would dry out.
And so it came to pass that this year we broke down (well, nobody would help Paul put up the tree anymore) and bought a plastic .... err that would be artificial tree. And whether you are decorating a "real" tree or a plastic .... err artificial tree - you need cookies. Sweet pliable pillows of ricotta cookies or the Marsala rings to have with wine or the old-fashioned orange-whiskey cookies. I decided we needed them all. (We'll talk about the tree-decorating cheeses I put out later. I have a gene that causes excess.)
These just-sweet-enough Italian ricotta cookies melt-away in your mouth. Creamy, snowy, sweetly and with ease. Everyone should try this at least once. A change from the crunchy cookies that Italians love so much, I somehow get talked into making these 3-4 times during the holidays.
Ricotta Cookie Ingredinets - about 20 cookies
- 1 cup granulated sugar
- 1/2 teaspoon lemon zest
- 1/2 cup butter
- 1/2 cup whole milk ricotta cheese
- 1 egg
- 1 teaspoon vanilla extract
- 2 cups flour
- 1 teaspoon baking soda
- 1 teaspoon salt
- 1 cup powdered sugar
- 1 teaspoon vanilla
- 2-4 teaspoons milk
- Preheat oven to 350 degrees F. Set aside baking sheets. No greasing required.
- In a medium bowl combine flour, baking soda and salt.
- In a large bowl or stand mixer, combine the zest and sugar. I add the zest for a brighter flavor - the cookies will not be lemony.
- Add the butter in chunks and the ricotta cheese and beat till smooth. Add the egg and vanilla extract and beat till combined. Slowly add the flour mixture. Beat until all is combined. Dough will be soft and a bit sticky.
- Form into 1-inch balls and place on baking sheet.
- Bake for fifteen minutes - until bottoms are browned but cookies are not. If desired, glaze immediately while warm and cover with sprinkles or use glaze. Cool and serve.
Combine powdered sugar, vanilla and milk in saucepan. Stir over medium heat till the mixtures turns liquidy and into a glaze. Brush tops of ricotta cookies as soon as they come out of the oven and cover with sprinkles.
These are not an overly sweet cookies, so if you like your cookies sweet, the glaze is a good idea. If you like a not-so-sugary cookie, simply cool.
For fifteen years we had outings where we had to lay down in the snow (well mostly that would be Paul) and "saw" the tree down. I'm not sure if both kids ever agreed on the same tree. I was missing those days and their supposed ease (memories are questionable - but often kind). And so the Marsala cookies made an appearance. With the Marsala. We're all adults now... except at Christmas.
When I first started baking Marsala cookies, they were more like a biscuit. I wanted a grown-up version of a cookie that could be served with cocktails and wine as well as with coffee and milk. Over the years I played with a Tastes of Italia's recipe. I added salt to tenderize them, added baking powder to puff them a bit, reduced the sugar so they'd pair well with wine and also reduced the flour for a more moist cookie. The result is a slightly sweet cookie that can be served alongside appetizers, breads, cheeses or on an Italian cookie Christmas tray.
Marsala Cookie Ingredients - 20-24 cookies
2-1/4 cups flour
1/3 cup sugar
1/4 teaspoon salt
1/2 teaspoon baking powder
1/2 cup unsalted butter
1/4 teaspoon vanilla extract
1/2 cup sweet marsala wine
*Optional: Powdered sugar for dusting
- Preheat oven to 350 degrees F.
- In a large bowl or mixer combine your flour, sugar, salt and baking powder.
- Add egg and combine. Slowly beat in your butter, extract and wine. Mix well.
- When dough is mixed, form into a ball.
- Break off a chunk of dough to form a one-inch ball. Roll ball between your palms to create a 4-6 inch rope. Bring ends of rope together into a circle.
- Repeat till all the dough is used.
- Bake 22 minutes.
- Cool on racks and then store in an airtight container. Will keep well for about two weeks. Before serving, bring to room temperature and if you wish to sweeten the cookie, dust with powdered sugar.
And the last of tree-decorating-trio. You don't taste the whiskey. This is from my friend Leigh. She's an Italianophile - with an Italian heritage and originally from the east coast as I am. We discovered this during a ten-minute play rehearsal and squealed together like middle school hyenas bringing the rehearsal to a halt. And I have never been prone to squealing. But everyone needs a friend that brings an instant bond - a person that encourages you to learn Italian when the memory bank is not what it was at 20. And someone who shares family recipes from the old country.
Orange-Whiskey Cookies - makes about 30 cookies
These not-sweet but creamy whiskey cookies pair well with a cocktail or a glass of dry white wine. The original orange-whiskey cookie recipe seemed to feed Naples. So I played with amounts. I love discovering new recipes and this one is a keeper.
Orange-Whiskey Cookie Ingredients
- 1/4 pound unsalted butter - softened
- 1/3 cup shortening
- 1/2 cup granulated sugar (if you like a sweet cookie you could add another 1/4 cup)
- 1 egg yolk
- 2 eggs - divided
- 1 jigger whiskey
- zest from 1 orange
- 1 teaspoon baking powder
- 1/2 teaspoon baking soda
- 3 cups flour
- non-pareils or sesame seeds for decorating
- In a large bowl or a mixer, cream butter, shortening, sugar, egg yolk and 1 egg.
- In a separate medium bowl combine orange juice, whiskey, zest, baking powder and baking soda.
- Add orange juice mix to the creamed butter mixture and beat till all is incorporated.
- Slowly (in 1/4 cups) add flour (with mixer on low) mixing well after each addition.
- Dough will be soft. Put in fridge for 1-2 hours for easier handling.
- Preheat oven to 350 degrees F.
- Grease two large baking pans.
- Pinch off about an inch of dough.
- Roll into a ball and then form a 4-6 inch rope. Bring the ends of the rope together and twist.
- Space the cookies about 1-1/2 inches away from each other.
- Whisk 1 egg and 1-2 T of water. Brush over cookies. Decorate with non-pareils or sesame seeds.
- Bake 12-15 minutes till bottoms brown a bit. Cool on wire rack.
What is about the tree that evokes trees of the past. In my childhood, my father and I and later with my "baby" sister went out every Christmas Eve to buy a tree. I wondered why they always waited. But of course, my father was in graduate school and money was tight. Trees were 50% off on Christmas Eve! My mother had a "Christmas Club" account. She put a few dollars in every week to ensure that my sister and I were spoiled silly on Christmas Day. Those were the days when presents only appeared on your birthday and on Christmas. All these memories rolling towards me through the simple act of decorating a tree.
We haven't named the new tree yet. Someday I shall tell you about "Harold" - our pathetic but well-loved tree - who fell off a car roof and into a ditch, was almost kidnapped and found his way back to us - a sadsack of a tree but we kept Harold's needles in the freezer for years. He was "the little tree who could."
In the end, you ooh and ahh over every ornament. There's the one from Taos and the ones I brought back from London so many years ago. The Peter Rabbit ones for Kirsten and the trains for Matthew. Each ornament telling of a family story. A time machine - simultaneously standing still and being swept through the years. In a sense, the tree is our family history. And it sill needs its red bows.