Every family has their dependable line-up of classic holiday cookies they bake without hesitation each year. My family is no exception to the rule. I’ve eaten the same rotation of Italian Christmas cookies since I was three feet tall and sprouting bangs, pigtails, and floral jumpsuits. The same cookies, year after year, which gets a little old after awhile, especially when those cookies (Biscotti, Almond Roca, Shortbread, Pizzelles) make an appearance at two family Christmas parties, Christmas Eve, and Christmas Day. Each of my Italian relatives brings similar cookies or rifts off the tradition as well. One, for instance, is my great-aunt’s buttery Almond Roca which she packages in colorful cardboard boxes for each family. That calculates to 116 indulgent parties throughout my lifetime, plus take-home. I feel like I need to put on my stretchy pants just thinking about it. I can imagine some of you can relate.
Don’t get me wrong, these are good cookies. In fact, they are exceptional. Especially the Pizzelles, a favorite of mine, which I eat slowly and methodically, square-by-square of the thin waffle-imprinted cookies. I come from a long line of great cooks and bakers. And I take honor in learning and creating these cookies, along side my mother and grandmother.
However, this year was different. I glanced at my discolored note cards with cookies recipes scribbled within the small lines, smudging in places. My grandmother’s handwriting quite difficult to decipher. I considered making the standby’s several times, taking out and putting away the same recipes over and over again before finding myself scrolling through Pinterest and Instagram for other inspiration which is so readily available at our finger tips these days. This year’s list included: Buttery Lace Cookies (with orange zest in lieu of the lemon) via Food 52, Dorie’s World Peace Cookies with flaky Maldon’s Sea Salt (because who isn’t hoping to spread a little world peace this holiday season for a number of reasons I won’t recount right now), and Pecan Shortbread from Food & Wine-each modified to be gluten- and dairy-free, but that’s to be expected as you’ve likely realized at this point.
While none of my family’s Italian standby’s made an appearance this year, I did bake a batch (or four) of our most beloved holiday cookies-Chewy Ginger Snaps. I entered one batch into a local baking competition at my favorite cookbook store, Book Larder, and stored away the leftover cookies which freeze beautifully. The two other batches I prepared were trial runs for the competition, many of which were consumed by my husband and I and thankfully, a few others.This recipe, while it doesn’t trace back to my Italian roots, is dear to my heart. These gingersnaps are timeless-they’ve accompanied me through camping trips, the perilous teenage years, and often show up in care packages from my mother. They are chewy yet crisp on the bottom. They have a deep molasses flavor with warm bursts of cloves, ginger, and cinnamon. The top is severely cracked and dotted with brilliant little glimmers of sugar. I prefer this recipe molded into large, medallion-sized cookies. However, those pictured are much smaller to cater to the requirements of the baking competition mentioned above. While I could continue to gush about these perfect ginger snaps, I’d rather leave you with the recipe and suggest you whip up a batch this season. They have minimal ingredients, can be made with a basic hand-mixer, and are easily adapted to meet dietary needs (i.e., gluten-free, dairy-free).
Chewy Ginger Snaps
Makes 12-16 large cookies or 2 dozen medium-sized cookies
3/4 cup non-hydrogenated vegetable shortening (room temperature)
1 cup organic granulated sugar
4 tbsp molasses (“Grandmas” or preferred brand)
1 large egg, unbeaten
2 cups flour (can sub gluten-free all-purpose, i.e., Namaste brand)
2 tsp baking soda
1/2 tsp salt
1 tsp ground ginger
1 tsp ground cinnamon
1 tsp ground cloves
Preheat oven to 350º and prepare baking sheet with parchment paper. Cream shortening and sugar together in a large bowl using a hand- or stand-mixer, either works. Add molasses and egg, and beat thoroughly. Sift flour, soda, salt, and spices in a separate bowl. Combine with creamed mixture. Roll dough in sizes of large marbles and then roll in sugar. Bake for 11-12 minutes, making sure to keep the cookies separated by enough room as they spread in the oven. I always pull mine out on the early side, about 11 minutes, since I prefer a chewy, doughy center. Let cool for several minutes on a wire rack. While these are delicious on their own, I often prefer to enjoy my cookies with a scoop of vanilla ice cream as an evening treat.