November 28, 2012

Pignoli cookies

Let's call this the official start of the holiday season!  That means plenty of cookies!  I can't wait to enjoy some of our family favorites - a few recipes that I feel are must-haves for the season (like those soft and chewy chocolate gingerbread cookies and those divine tri-color cookies, which my husband recently requested for his birthday).

Today, I want to share pignoli cookies.  They are one of my favorite treats to pick up from the Italian bakery though, admittedly, I haven't been a good customer since I started baking a lot more in recent years.  There is an Italian bakery in my neighborhood that I used to take my little one to often and my favorite thing to get there was always the pignoli, or pine nut, cookies.
If this bakery had tri-color cookies, I would've dived for those but since they don't, I always went for some of these delicious, chewy pignoli cookies.  The little guy loved to get the almond cookies with a red or green cherry on top (the cookie base was essentially the same as the pignoli).  That was always rather amazing because there's no way he'd eat an actual cherry straight up in real life.

And there are many weekend mornings where we head into New York City and end up at Ferrera Bakery in Little Italy.  I sometimes have a doctor's appointment nearby and my husband usually takes the little one there for "a snack".  When I come to meet them, after the little one has (typically) enjoyed a plate of tri-color cookies, I have to take a minute to admire their beautiful display of pine nut cookies, biscotti, miniature cakes, canoli, gelato, and so much more.  I love French pastry and desserts but we sure owe the Italians for some truly amazing cuisine.
Now back to pignoli cookies.  I love the base of this cookie - an abundance of almond flavor from almond paste.  It's one of my all-time favorite baking ingredients, and I particularly favor Love 'n Bake almond paste.  These pignoli cookies are very similar to the almond macaroons that I love to make; in this case, the almond cookie is encrusted with pine nuts.  You can roll the dough completely in pine nuts or press some over the tops of the cookies.  The pine nuts add a nice crunch against the sweet, fragrant, and oh-so chewy almond cookie itself.  The combination is divine and one I'd love to see on any upcoming holiday cookie platter.  I love it anytime for that matter. 

I looked at several recipes for pignoli cookies but relied heavily on the almond macaroon recipe, except I adjusted the amount of egg whites and sugar down a bit.  These cookies need to be firm enough to be rolled into a ball and I find that refrigerating the dough for a while really does the trick if you find your dough too soft and sticky.

For these cookies, you essentially need almond paste, egg white, powdered sugar, vanilla extract, and pine nuts.  No need to toast the pine nuts since they'll essentially toast in the oven when baking.
For a small batch (about one dozen), I started with 5 ounces of almond paste, or half a can of Love 'n Bake almond paste.  I am a devoted fan of this brand of almond paste; I find the other tube variety doesn't have enough almond flavor.  Place the almond paste in the bowl of the standmixer and beat it with the paddle attachment to loosen it up.  Then add a scant 1/2 cup of powdered sugar and a pinch of salt.
Beat together until combined and the mixture is crumbly, about 3 minutes. 
Then add half of a large egg white and 1/4 teaspoon of vanilla extract.  I find that the amount of egg white you use can be adjusted a bit.  In this case, the batter should be quite thick so that we can roll the dough but don't be afraid to add a bit more egg white if your dough is too stiff.  Beat the mixture for about another 3 minutes.  Time permitting, transfer the dough to a bowl and chill for about 30 minutes.  This firms up the dough and makes for easier rolling. 
When you're ready to bake, make heaping teaspoon size balls.  It helps to do so with wet hands.  Then you can either roll the entire ball in pine nuts or set the dough ball on the cookie sheet and press pine nuts over the top.  (These little cookie dough balls remind me of Chinese dessert dumplings I loved to help make and eat as a child!) 
My cookies didn't spread much while baking so I found it a good idea to press the cookie balls down gently.  I like these cookies about 2 inches wide.
Bake the cookies in a 350 degree oven for roughly 18-22 minutes, until they are lightly golden brown.  For some reason, my almond paste cookies don't brown very much (not sure if it's the type of almond paste I use or what!).  A longer baking time will make a crisper cookie and I like mine quite chewy in the center.  If you rolled your cookies in the nuts, they will slip right off the cookie sheets.  If you only coated the tops, let them cool completely on the cookie sheet before removing.
Yum!  I just adore these cookies!


Pignoli Cookies
Adapted from Martha Stewart and Lidia Bastianich

- Makes approximately 12 cookies so do consider doubling up the recipe -

5 ounces almond paste (I use Love 'n Bake brand)
Scant 1/2 cup confectioners' sugar
Pinch of coarse salt
1/2 large egg white, at room temperature
1/4 teaspoon pure vanilla extract
2/3 cup pine nuts (more/less depending on whether you roll or top the cookies with them)

Break up almond paste and place it in the bowl of a standmixer.  Beat with the paddle attachment to loosen it up.  Add sugar and salt to the bowl and mix together on medium speed until almond paste and sugar are combined and mixture is crumbly, about 3 minutes.  Add egg white and vanilla extract.  Continue mixing for about 3 minutes, until mixture is smooth.  The batter will be thick.

Transfer cookie dough to a bowl and chill for about 30 minutes.  Preheat oven to 350 degrees.  Line baking sheet with parchment paper.

Scoop heaping teaspoons of dough and roll it into a ball with your hands (it helps to wet your hands with cold water).  Drop the dough ball into pine nuts and roll it around to coat.  Place onto the baking sheet and lightly press the cookies to flatten slightly.  (Alternatively, set the dough ball onto the baking sheet and press pine nuts over just the top and sides).  

Bake until cookies are lightly golden brown, roughly 18-22 minutes, rotating the baking sheet halfway through.

Once completely cooled, store cookies in an airtight container for up to 3 days.

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