Every family seems to have its favorite Christmas cookie recipes. We don’t have the same strong culinary traditions here in the US as we discover on our culinary biking and skiing explorations in Italy. But the one tradition I enjoyed was baking cookies with my mother and sisters each holiday, and year after year we would make the same ones – a gingerbread and a sugar cookie that we would cut into shapes and decorate, Mexican Wedding Cakes (or Russian Tea Cakes or Italian Butter Nut), and a Brandy or Rum or Bourbon Ball. For years, we used the recipe for Cognac Sugarplums from The Silver Palate Good Times Cookbook. All versions of the “Liquor of Your Choice” Balls are essentially the same recipe; ground up vanilla wafers, nuts, sugar, and optional chocolate are combined with honey or corn syrup and liquor, rolled into balls and dusted with cocoa powder or sugar. No baking required.
When, after many nights of desserts and cookie platters, the other cookies are getting a bit stale, these have been ‘aging’ like a fine wine and improving in texture and flavor. They were always the ones I hoarded for myself when making plates of cookies for neighbors and friends. I’ve been experimenting with new versions of this old favorite, inspired by the flavors of Italy. I shared a recipe for Tiramisu Balls, made with ladyfingers, hazelnuts, coffee liquor and dry marsala. My latest creation is a ball made from ground amaretti cookies and flavored with grappa or acquavite. I used Pere Williams, a pear flavored digestif produced by Trentino winemaker Pojer e Sandri. I visited this winery years ago on a tour with Chef Jody Adams, and they presented us with a few bottles to take home, including this liquor.
Amaretti cookies (amaretto singular), are almond flavored macaroons that are served all over Italy. I enjoy them as is, but they are often ground and used to flavor a dessert. In our Chefs on Bikes cooking classes with the Dal Corso family, we used them in a delicious filling for an apple dessert, which is then wrapped in puffed pastry and baked. This past summer, I enjoyed several peach desserts stuffed with ground amaretti cookies, which I shared on this blog as well.
Amaretti cookies are traditional to Saronno, in Lombardia. Legend has it that in the early 18th century, a Milanese cardinal visited the town. A young couple created this original dessert for him, cookies made of egg whites, sugar and crushed almonds and apricot kernals. The cardinal was so pleased with the treat he blessed the couple with a long and happy marriage.
Amaretti Grappa Balls
1 cup crushed amaretti cookies (about 36-40)
1 cup almonds, ground finely in food processor
1 cup confectioner’s sugar
1/2 cup grappa or acquavite
2 tablespoons honey
Place the crushed amaretti, ground almonds and confectioner’s sugar in a large bowl. In a measuring cup, combine the grappa and honey. Add to the dry ingredients and stir until thoroughly mixed.
With wet hands, take about 1/2 tablespoon of dough, and roll into a ball. If the dough is too dry to hold together well, add a bit more grappa or a little water. Continue until all the dough has been formed into small balls of equal size. Roll each ball in granulated sugar. Store in an airtight container. These are better after about a week of aging, so refrain from the desire to eat them right away.