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Three women offer know-how, recipes for holiday cookies

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Cookies that Rita Venturino makes

Heidi Murrin/Tribune-Review


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Decorated Ginger Crisps

Jasmine Gehris/Tribune-Review

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Royal Icing is applied

Jasmine Gehris/Tribune-Review

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Andrea Carros Schrenk rolls dough

Jasmine Gehris/Tribune-Review

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Coconut Macaroons

Jasmine Gehris/Tribune-Review

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Alyson Sprague

Heidi Murrin/Tribune-Review

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Christmas cookies

Heidi Murrin/Tribune-Review

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By Candy Williams

Wednesday, December 3, 2003

Correction: This story was updated on Dec. 17, 2003, to correct information in the Decorated Ginger Crisps recipe. The wrong amount of salt was listed. The recipe appears correctly in its entirety below.

The heavenly smells of cinnamon, vanilla, chocolate and ginger emanating from the kitchen are a sure sign of the season.

To the delight of family and friends, it's time for visions of sugarplums -- and cutout Santas and trees, spritz snowflakes, anise-flavored pizzelles and an oversized cookie jar filled with holiday treats.

Cookie baking is one of those time-honored traditions that carry on even in households where home-cooked family meals have become rare. And nothing is held in higher regard than generations-old recipes, from German gingerbread and Hungarian nut rolls to Scottish shortbread and Polish kolacky.

Rita Venturino of Richland specializes in Italian cuisine. Some of her cooking class topics are "A Trip Through Tuscany," "Tiramisu," "Savory Focaccia" and "Italian Dinner with Friends." This year, she is sharing recipes from her mother, Mary Venturino, with her students in programs at McGinnis Sisters Special Food Stores in Monroeville, In the Kitchen in Marshall, Versatile Gourmet in Butler and Polly's Pantry in Sarver.

Venturino is retired from a career in food services marketing for H.J. Heinz Co., where she managed brands and created and revised recipes. She says she enjoys teaching others about cooking and baking. "And I'm having a ball doing it, although I probably overextend myself at times." So many people signed up for Venturino's holiday cookie class at In the Kitchen that the owner had to schedule four sessions.

During the hectic weeks leading to Christmas, Venturino will bake a variety of Italian favorites -- such as biscotti, Italian fig cookies, amaretto cookies, spumoni and pizzelles -- for her family, which includes her husband, Mel Liebowitz; son, Terry Venturino, and his wife, Carlye, of Adams Township; her mother and her brother, Richard, both of Richland.

Here are two of Venturino's favorite recipes. Regina Cookies are log-shaped and coated with sesame seeds, and Italian Chocolate Cookies are dense treats flavored with allspice, cloves, cinnamon and a crunch from walnuts.

Regina Cookies

  • 1 cup vegetable shortening (preferably Crisco)
  • 1 cup granulated sugar
  • 3 eggs
  • 1 teaspoon pure vanilla
  • 3 cups all-purpose flour, divided
  • 1 teaspoon baking powder
  • 1/4 teaspoon salt
  • Milk
  • Untoasted white sesame seedsr

Heat the oven to 400 degrees. Line a baking sheet with parchment paper.

In a bowl and using a mixer, cream the shortening and sugar. Add the eggs and vanilla. Add 2 cups flour, the baking powder and salt; mix well. Slowly add the remaining 1 cup flour until the consistency is slightly sticky. (The consistency depends on the size of the eggs. You do not want the dough to be dry.)

Pour a small amount of milk into a shallow bowl. Pour the sesame seeds into another bowl.

Take a tablespoon of dough into your hands and roll it into an oblong shape. Roll the cookie in milk, then in sesame seeds. Place on the prepared baking sheet.

Bake for 20 to 25 minutes or until golden brown. Cool on a rack.

Makes 3 dozen.

If desired, freeze the cookies plain, then glaze them before serving.

Italian Chocolate Cookies

  • 3/4 cup vegetable shortening
  • 1 1/2 cups brown sugar, firmly packed
  • 1 large egg
  • 1/2 teaspoon pure vanilla
  • 4 cups all-purpose flour
  • 4 teaspoons baking powder
  • {1/2) teaspoon salt
  • 3/4 cup unsweetened cocoa powder
  • 1 teaspoon ground allspice
  • 1 teaspoon ground cloves
  • 1 teaspoon ground cinnamon
  • Milk
  • 3/4 cup chopped nuts
  • Chocolate Glaze (recipe follows)

Heat the oven to 350 degrees. Line a baking sheet with parchment paper.

In a bowl and using a mixer, cream the shortening and brown sugar. Add the egg and vanilla. Add the flour, baking powder, salt, cocoa, allspice, cloves and cinnamon. Add enough milk to make a dough that's soft but still sticky. Stir in the chopped nuts.

Roll the dough into 1-inch balls (or use a small scoop). Bake on the prepared baking sheet for 10 to 12 minutes or until the bottoms begin to brown. Cool on a rack.

Makes 3 dozen.

Chocolate Glaze

  • 3 cups confectioners' sugar
  • 1 tablespoon vegetable shortening
  • Milk

Cream the confectioners' sugar and shortening. Add enough milk for the mixture to reach a glaze consistency. Glaze cookies while they are on the rack; let dry.

Two types are twice as nice

Another cookie specialist is Andrea Carros Schrenk, a certified executive pastry chef from Bellevue who teaches at the Pennsylvania Culinary Institute, Downtown. She also conducts classes at Crate in Green Tree, where students in her recent holiday cookie class learned how to make pinwheels, checkerboard cookies, pecan diamonds, chewy coconut macaroons, decorated ginger thins and three versions of piped butter cookies.

Schrenk enjoys baking for her family, which includes her husband, Jim, and three sons: Alek, 15, Max, 13 and Ian, 8. While she might turn out batches of many different holiday favorites, she says it's not necessary for home bakers to do the same. For those who don't have a lot of time to spend baking, she recommends preparing at least two varieties -- "maybe something chocolate and something nutty" -- for a company-pleasing tray.

She says her Decorated Ginger Crisps are a nice variation on simple ginger cookies. They hold up well and can be enhanced by adding toppings, such as holiday sprinkles. Her Coconut Macaroons are easy to make, Schrenk adds, and they can be dipped in dark chocolate for a special touch.

Decorated Ginger Crisps

Editor's note: The following recipe, printed on Page E1 of the Dec. 3 Food section in a story about holiday cookies, had the incorrect amount of salt. It is reprinted in its entirety.

The contributor, Andrea Carros Schrenk, a certified executive pastry chef who teaches at the Pennsylvania Culinary Institute, Downtown, also recommends using a heavy-duty mixer to combine the dough. Otherwise, you will have to knead it to make a pliable mixture that can be rolled out.

If desired, freeze the cookies plain, then ice them before serving. Look for pasteurized egg whites in cartons in the dairy section or powdered at stores that sell cake decorating or candy making supplies.

  • 8 ounces (2 sticks) butter, softened
  • 1 cup brown sugar, firmly packed
  • 1/2 cup molasses
  • 2 large eggs
  • 6 1/2 cups pastry or all-purpose flour
  • 1 tablespoon ground ginger
  • 1/4 teaspoon ground cinnamon
  • 1/4 teaspoon ground nutmeg
  • 1 teaspoon salt
  • 2 teaspoons baking powder
  • 1/4 cup finely minced candied (crystallized) ginger (optional)
  • Royal Icing (recipe follows)

In a bowl, cream the butter, brown sugar and molasses until incorporated. Add the eggs, then the flour, ground ginger, cinnamon, nutmeg, salt and baking powder. Mix until smooth. Add the candied ginger and refrigerate the dough, covered, until firm.

Heat the oven to 350 degrees. Line a baking tray with parchment paper.

On a floured surface, roll the dough out very thinly (about 1/8 to 1/16 inch) and cut with desired cutters. Bake until firm to the touch on the prepared baking tray for 15 to 20 minutes. Let cool on wire racks.

Frost with Royal Icing when completely cooled. After decorating, store in a covered container or zipper-top food storage bag at room temperature.

Makes 4 to 6 dozen, depending on the cutters' size.

Royal Icing

  • 2 cups sifted confectioners' sugar, more if needed
  • 1 pasteurized egg white (about 2 tablespoons), more if needed
  • Food coloring (optional)

Combine 2 cups confectioners' sugar and the egg white, and adjust the consistency by adding extra sugar or egg white. May be tinted with food coloring. Store at room temperature, covered with a damp cloth and plastic wrap.

Coconut Macaroons

  • 12 ounces almond paste
  • 1 cup granulated sugar
  • 2 tablespoons corn syrup
  • 4 egg whites (about 1/2 cup)
  • 2 1/2 cups shredded coconut
  • Dark chocolate, melted (optional)

Heat the oven to 325 degrees. Line a baking tray with parchment paper.

Combine the almond paste, sugar and corn syrup until blended. Add the egg whites until blended, then add the coconut.

Place the mixture in heaping tablespoons on the prepared baking tray. Bake for 15 to 20 minutes, until golden at the edges. Let cool.

If desired, use fork times to "stripe" the cookies with the melted chocolate, or dip the cookies into the chocolate.

Store in the freezer or in an airtight container.

Makes 3 to 4 dozen, depending on size.

Chef treasures memories of grandmother

Alyson Sprague of Sewickley is a certified chef who instructs classes at In the Kitchen in Marshall while working toward her professional teaching certificate. Her background is in pastry arts; her interest is helping children in the kitchen.

She has special memories of her childhood and her Grandma Sprague, who lived in Ingomar and "was very influential and a marvelous cook," she says. "She made her Christmas cutout cookie recipe for every single holiday of the year. At Easter time, she filled a basket with decorated cookies for my sister and me. At Christmas, we'd all get together and make cookies."

Sprague remembers how much time and effort her grandmother put into decorating each cookie shape. She says she treasures her grandmother's cookie cutter collection, which she inherited; it includes hard-to-find designs.

Sprague has two daughters, ages18 and 13, and says her younger daughter, Caitlin, especially enjoys baking and helping in the kitchen.

Grandma Sprague's Christmas Cookies feature a cream cheese icing that can be tinted with food coloring in festive holiday shades. Alyson Sprague says her Chocolate Quakes are kid-friendly snacks that young bakers will enjoy making.

Grandma Sprague's Christmas Cookies

  • 1/2 cup (1 stick) butter, softened
  • 1/2 cup vegetable shortening
  • 1 cup granulated sugar
  • 1/2 cup brown sugar, firmly packed
  • 2 large eggs
  • 1 teaspoon pure vanilla
  • 1 teaspoon almond extract
  • 2 1/2 cups all-purpose flour
  • 2 teaspoons baking powder
  • 1 teaspoon ground nutmeg
  • 3/4 teaspoon ground cinnamon
  • 1/4 teaspoon ground allspice
  • 1 teaspoon ground nutmeg
  • Cream Cheese Icing (recipe follows); or your favorite cookie icing
  • Colored sugars and assorted decorations

In a mixing bowl, cream the butter, shortening and the granulated and brown sugars. Add the eggs, one at a time, mixing in the vanilla and almond extracts.

Sift together the flour, baking powder, nutmeg, cinnamon and allspice. Add to the creamed mixture 1/2 cup at a time, until incorporated. Cover and chill overnight.

Heat the oven to 375 degrees. Grease several cookie sheets.

Divide the dough in fourths and work with only 1 piece at a time, keeping the others chilled as you work. Roll out on a floured board until about 1/4-inch thick. Using cookie cutters, cut into shapes. Bake on the prepared sheets for 8 to 10 minutes, until just brown on the edges. Let cool completely before frosting with Cream Cheese Icing and adding colored sugars and other decorations.

Cream Cheese Icing

  • 1 pound (2 8-ounce packages) cream cheese
  • 1 stick (1/2 cup) unsalted butter
  • 3 cups confectioners' sugar
  • 1 teaspoon pure vanilla
  • Food coloring (optional)

In a mixing bowl, beat the cream cheese and butter. Add the confectioners' sugar slowly. Beat in the vanilla.

Divide the icing among small bowls and tint with food coloring as desired. Frost the cookies and add colored sugars and decorations as desired.

Chocolate Quakes

  • 3 tablespoons unsalted butter, melted
  • 1/2 cup granulated sugar
  • 1 large egg
  • 1/2 teaspoon pure vanilla
  • 3 tablespoons unsweetened cocoa powder
  • 1/2 cup all-purpose flour
  • 1/2 teaspoon baking powder
  • 1/8 teaspoon salt
  • 1/4 cup finely chopped pecans (optional)
  • 1/4 cup semisweet chocolate chips
  • Confectioners' sugar

In a mixing bowl, beat the melted butter, granulated sugar, egg and vanilla until thickened. Sift the cocoa, flour, baking powder and salt into the bowl and mix on low speed until incorporated. Fold in the nuts, if desired, and chocolate chips. Place the mixture in a plastic container with a lid or wrap in plastic wrap and chill until firm enough to handle, for about 1 hour.

Heat the oven to 350 degrees. Line a baking sheet with parchment paper or foil.

Place about 3/4 cup confectioners' sugar in a small bowl. Form the chilled dough into 1-inch balls and roll each in the confectioners' sugar to coat completely.

Place the cookies on the prepared baking sheet about 11/2 inches apart. Bake for 12 minutes or until the cookies are puffed and the sugar coating has cracked. (The cookies will appear underdone in the center.)

Let cookies cool for 5 minutes on the baking sheet, then transfer them to a wire rack to cool completely.

Makes 22 cookies.

Tips for perfect cookies

Here are guidelines from the pros to make holiday cookies extra-special.

From Rita Venturino:

  • Flour should be measured carefully with a spoon, not by dipping or scooping a measuring cup into the bag, which tends to compact the flour and result in an inaccurate measurement.

  • Specific ingredients are important. When a recipe calls for vegetable shortening (such as Crisco), don't use butter.

  • You can freeze most any cookie that hasn't been frosted. Frost frozen cookies after they have thawed and are at room temperature.

  • For an attractive holiday tray, arrange cookies diagonally by flavor. Garnish the tray with multicolored Jordan almonds, and place some holly sprigs on the sides.

    From Andrea Schrenk:

  • Use parchment paper -- not shortening or vegetable cooking spray -- to line cookie sheets before baking. If you grease the sheets, the cookies tend to brown on the bottom.

  • Unless someone in the family has a dietary restriction, use butter instead of margarine when baking cookies. The cookies brown better, and butter has a superior flavor. It may be a little more expensive than margarine, but now's the time to splurge, especially if you are giving cookie trays as gifts.

    From Alyson Sprague:

  • It's much easier to roll out dough for cutout cookies if the dough is chilled in the refrigerator overnight.

  • Canned frosting is acceptable for icing holiday cutout cookies, but Cream Cheese Icing is preferable.

  • If cookie decorating plans include young children, bake the cookies ahead of time, let them cool completely, then allow the youngsters to add frosting and decorations.

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