For more than a year, the region's top home cooks have invited the Daily News into their kitchens to share their recipes and tips with readers of our Thursday food pages. These "Top Cooks," as we call them, have encouraged many of us to throw out the pizza-delivery number, or at least take it off speed-dial, and get back to cooking.
In that holiday spirit, here are a few prize holiday cookie recipes from some past Top Cooks - our own cookie exchange, if you will. So fire up that oven and make a couple of batches to share with your family and friends.
MY MOM'S CHOCOLATE CHIP WALNUT COOKIES
In May, Ernest Jones brought us a healthy salmon and kale recipe, but he has a long history of pilfering a few of his mom's walnutty treats - her special take on the original Toll House cookie. Agnes Jones is an excellent baker, says Ernest Jones, and she's cut back on the vanilla and increased the quantity of nuts to make these worth a young boy's crime. Ernest Jones continues to cook his standing Monday lunch for his father and son, but a second son, recently welcomed into the group, will need teeth before enjoying these nutty morsels.
3/4 cup sugar
3/4 cup brown sugar
1 cup butter, room temperature
1/2 teaspoon vanilla extract 2 and one-quarter cups all-purpose flour
1/2 teaspoon salt
1 teaspoon baking soda
1 12-ounce bag semisweet chocolate chips
1 1/2 cup coarsely chopped walnuts
Preheat oven to 375 degrees.
Cream butter and sugars.
Blend in egg and vanilla extract.
Stir in flour, baking soda and salt - dough will be stiff.
Stir in nuts and chocolate chips.
On a cookie sheet, drop one round tablespoon of dough about two inches apart.
Bake 8 to 10 minutes until light brown. Center should be soft.
Let cool and enjoy!
Makes about 4 dozen cookies
Source: Agnes Jones.
MY MOM'S ITALIAN NUT CUP COOKIES
Entering (and winning) Peddler's Village annual Gingerbread Competition has long been a tradition for Lisa Viola who once again took first place in the Traditional category at this year's event in Bucks County. Last spring Viola and her daughter shared with Daily News readers their winning cupcake decorating secrets, but it's these Italian nut cups from Viola's childhood that garner the family's blue ribbon.
For the dough:
1 stick cold butter
1 cup flour
3 ounces cream cheese
In a medium bowl, cut butter into small pieces.
Add flour and cream cheese.
Mix dough with hands until ingredients are combined and medium-size crumbs form.
Gently pack dough together, cover bowl with plastic wrap and refrigerate to keep dough cool while you make the filling.
For the filling:
3/4 cup chopped pecans or walnuts
1 cup light brown sugar
1 teaspoon vanilla
In bowl, slightly beat egg.
Add brown sugar and vanilla. Mix until smooth and well blended.
Add chopped nuts. Mix well until all ingredients are thoroughly incorporated. Set aside.
To make the cookies:
Preheat oven to 350 degrees.
Lightly grease mini-muffin pan cups with butter, or spray with non-stick spray.
Remove dough from fridge.
Roll 1-inch dough balls, and drop one ball into each muffin cup.
With your fingers, gently work the dough in and around the bottom and sides of the mini-muffin pan. (It looks like a mini pie crust in the end.)
Add enough of the nut mixture to fill the dough cup no more than 3/4 of the way full. (Too full and the filling will spill over in the oven, creating a sticky mess.)
Bake 20 to 25 minutes, or until crust is golden brown and filling begins to set.
Let stand a few minutes to cool before removing from pan.
Makes about 3 dozen
Source: Lisa Viola
CANADIAN CHOCOLATE SPARKLE COOKIES
An avid recipe collector, Jane Jann is part of Carol Purfield's potluck group that shared its summer get-together with us. Jann especially likes the book Cookielicious, a collection of 150 cookie recipes St. Petersburg Times food editor Janet Keeler compiled from readers' files - much like our Top Cook series. These cookies require some planning, but their creamy texture and rich chocolate flavor are worth it. They've been part of Jann's holiday table since she tried them three years ago.
1/2 pound semisweet or bittersweet chocolate chips
3 tablespoons unsalted butter, at room temperature, cut into pieces
1/3 cup granulated sugar, plus more for rolling
3/4 cup ground almonds
1 teaspoon cocoa powder
confectioners' sugar, optional
Melt chocolate in a double boiler set over, but not touching, simmering water.
Remove from heat. Add butter, a few pieces at a time, and mix into chocolate until melted.
In a separate bowl, beat eggs with electric mixer, gradually adding sugar until ribbons form. Fold the egg mixture into the chocolate-butter mixture and gently add ground almonds and cocoa powder. (Mixture will be very runny.) Cover and refrigerate overnight or for 24 hours.
Preheat oven to 325 degrees. Line baking sheet with parchment paper.
Using a scoop, form the dough into 1-inch balls. Roll the balls in granulated sugar, place on baking sheet about 2 inches apart and immediately place in oven. Bake 9 to 12 minutes or until the centers are soft and sticky to the touch. Remove from the oven and when cookies are slightly cool, dust with confectioners' sugar, if desired.
Makes about 3 dozen
Source: Janet Keeler, St. Petersburg Times food editor
ITALIAN COOKIES WITH APPLE BUTTER FILLING
Giovanna Damiani is known for her Italian specialties. Last fall, she shared her unusual Gateau di Patate with us. This year she welcomed her fourth-great grandchild into the world, another good reason to record her recipes! Like many great home cooks, Damiani knows when the dough has enough flour by the feel. Her tip is to add a little bit at a time at the end - just enough to make the dough workable but still yield a tender cookie. This recipe is for half the quantity that Damiani makes, so if you have a big family, go ahead and double it.
For the filling:
1/2-pint jar apple butter, store-bought or homemade. (You'll have some left over.)
For the dough:
3 cups flour, plus an additional 1 cup reserved
2 1/2 teaspoons baking powder
1/2 teaspoon salt
1/2 teaspoon grated orange rind
1/2 teaspoon grated lemon rind
1/2 cup vegetable oil
1/2 cup milk
4 tablespoons butter, melted
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
1 cup sugar
confectioners' sugar for garnish
Lightly oil two cookie sheets. Set aside.
Blend together 3 cups flour, baking powder, salt and citrus rinds. Set aside.
Whisk eggs, oil, milk, butter and vanilla together. Add sugar and whisk well.
Add the flour mixture one-third at a time, mixing well after each addition.
Add reserved additional flour one-quarter cup at a time until the dough becomes slightly stiff; try to use as little extra flour as possible.
Chill dough in the refrigerator for about 30 minutes. Preheat oven to 350 degrees.
Divide dough into four sections. Place one section on the cookie sheet and roll it out or press it into a long rectangular piece about 10 to 12 inches long 3 inches wide and 1/4 inch thick. Spread a heaping tablespoon of the apple butter over the dough and fold it lengthwise in half, pressing the edges together and making a smooth log.
Repeat, making two logs on each cooking sheet, making sure there is plenty of room for them to spread.
Bake 20 to 25 minutes or until lightly brown. Remove from tray and cool slightly. Store in an air-tight tin. When ready to serve, slice into about one-inch slices and dust with confectioners' sugar.
Makes about 32 cookie slices.
Source: Giovanna Damiani
Jim Bezila's household brought us some of their family Easter recipes earlier this year. The baking tradition continues during Christmas, and it's all-hands-on-deck for an assembly line of rolling, cutting and decorating. This big batch makes plenty to give as gifts, but the recipe can be cut by half or quartered with success, says Bezila.
For the cookie dough:
2 cups sugar
1/2 pound (2 sticks) butter
4 large eggs, beaten
2 teaspoons vanilla extract
4 teaspoons baking powder
5 cups flour
2 egg whites
Assortment of colored sugar crystals Cream sugar and butter, then add eggs and vanilla.
Slowly add the baking powder and flour.
Knead the dough until all ingredients are well incorporated. The dough should be stiff, with no elasticity. It should not be sticky. (If sticky, add some flour.)
Wrap the dough in plastic wrap and refrigerate several hours, up to 2 to 3 days.
Cut away a piece of dough (keep the rest in the refrigerator), and roll out on a floured board. The thinner the dough is rolled, the higher the yield will beand the crisper the cookies. Thicker dough makes fewer cookies with a softer texture.
Use cookie cutters to make cookies and place on an ungreased cookie sheet.
To decorate before baking, beat 2 egg whites in a small dish. Brush each cookie with the egg white, being careful to avoid run-off to the cookie sheet as this makes the cookies stick and break.
Sprinkle with sugar crystals, pressing lightly into the cookies then tilting the cookie sheet to remove excess sugar.
Bake in a 375 degree oven for 10 to 12 minutes. Pull the cookies when they begin to brown - or if a cake-like texture is desired, just before they begin to brown.
Cool for 2 to 3 minutes, then place on a cooling rack.
Wash the cookie sheets, and start over!
Makes 5 to 7 dozen cookies, depending on how they are rolled and how big they are cut.
Source: Jim Bezila
RUSSIAN TEA CAKES
For decades, family and friends of Millie Brambilla have looked forward to a gift tin of her holiday cookies. Last year the Brigantine, N.J., resident was displaced by Superstorm Sandy. But she continued the tradition, baking in an unfamiliar oven. Happily, she's now back in her renovated home and her trusty oven has survived to bake again. Last year she gave us her biscotti recipe; this year she offers a tried-and-true standard, Russian tea cakes. This is one of those recipes that falls under the category of "every culture's got one," and there are many variations - including Mexican Wedding Cakes, Brazilian Crescents and both Greek and Italian versions - using different varieties of nuts. Brambilla's secret is to make sure the dough is well-chilled before forming the cookies.
1 cup butter
1/2 cup confectioners' sugar
1 teaspoon vanilla
2 1/4 cups flour
1/4 cup walnuts, finely crushed
1/4 teaspoon salt
2 cups confectioners' sugar for rolling
Cream butter, sugar and vanilla together. Quickly stir in flour and salt. Add nuts.
Chill the dough thoroughly.
Preheat oven to 400 degrees.
Without handling the dough too much, roll into 1-inch balls and place several inches apart on an ungreased cookie sheet.
Bake about 10 to 12 minutes or until the edges begin to brown.
Immediately remove from cookie sheet and carefully roll warm cookies in confectioners' sugar. Set on a rack to continue cooling.
Makes about 3 dozen cookies
Source: Recipe files of Millie Brambilla