Honey Cookies Filled with Almonds, Cocoa, and Anisette
In the southern Italian region of Calabria, Christmas celebrations would not be complete without mostaccioli. These hard cookies might be among the region’s oldest sweets, says cookbook author Rosetta Costantino, a native Calabrian who lives, gardens, and cooks at her family’s home in Oakland. She calls mostaccioli a “primitive” recipe; the most traditional version as nothing but flour and honey mixed into a stiff dough. “Calabrian children learn to suck slowly on these jaw-breaking cookies until they soften,” she says.
The traditional decorating techniques show the Calabrian love for hand crafting food: “Mostaccioli are never frosted but are charmingly decorated with hatch marks and tiny squares of shiny colored tinfoil that you remove before eating. The shapes are limited only by the baker’s imagination, but typically include horses and other farm animals, woven baskets, dolls, and little girls. The most common shapes are produced with molds, but the artisan mostaccioli maker, or mostazzolaro, creates many forms by hand, with only a knife, drawing his ideas from myth, legends, and daily life.”
The version below is a more modern interpretation, which can be accomplished by most any avid home baker who likes spending time in the kitchen.
From My Calabria: Rustic Cooking from Italy’s Undiscovered South (Norton, 2010), by Rosetta Costantino with Janet Fletcher, © 2010 by Rosetta Costantino and Janet Fletcher. Used with permission.
Makes about 5 dozen cookies
4 cups all-purpose flour
½ teaspoon baking powder
¼ teaspoon baking soda
1 cup honey
2 large eggs
2 teaspoons orange juice
2 teaspoons anisette
2 teaspoons almond extract
½ teaspoon vanilla extract
2 cups whole blanched (skinless) almonds
½ cup honey
¼ cup unsweetened cocoa powder
½ teaspoon cinnamon
½ teaspoon ground cloves
2 teaspoons grated orange zest
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
1 teaspoon almond extract
1 teaspoon anisette
4 ounces bittersweet chocolate, chopped small
1 large egg
1 tablespoon water
Few drops vanilla extract
Preheat the oven to 350°. Toast the almonds on a baking sheet until lightly colored and fragrant, about 10 minutes. Set aside to cool. Raise the oven temperature to 375°.
To make the dough: In a bowl, stir together the flour, baking powder, and baking soda. Make a well in the flour and put the remaining dough ingredients in the well. Stir with a fork until the dough comes together, then knead it in the bowl with one hand until the dough is smooth, well blended, and similar in texture to a sugar cookie dough, about 2 minutes. Let stand 15 minutes to allow the flour to absorb the moisture so it will be firm enough to roll.
Divide the dough in half. On a work surface, arrange 2 sheets of parchment paper, each large enough to accommodate a 14- by 6-inch rectangle. Dust the parchment sheets lightly with flour. Put half the dough on each sheet and, with a rolling pin, flatten the dough into a 14- by 6-inch rectangle about ⅜ inch thick. Use your hands, if necessary, to straighten the dough edges to make a neat rectangle. Don’t worry about overworking the dough; it is very forgiving. Let the elongated dough rest at room temperature while you proceed with the filling.
To make the filling: Place the honey in a 1½-quart pot and warm it over low heat until it becomes fluid. In a small bowl, combine the cocoa, cinnamon, cloves, orange zest, vanilla and almond extracts, and anisette. Add to the honey along with the almonds and chocolate. Bring to a simmer and cook, stirring, until the chocolate melts and the mixture is thick and well blended, about 1 minute. Let it cool until it begins to stiffen and is no longer syrupy, 1 to 2 minutes, but don’t let it cool too long or it will become too stiff to spread.
Arrange the dough rectangles horizontally on the work surface, so that the 14-inch side is nearest you. Working quickly with a spoon, spread half the filling lengthwise on the bottom half of each sheet of dough, staying about 1 inch away from the edges. Lifting up on the parchment, carefully fold the top half of the dough over the filling to make a log about 14 by 3 inches. Peel away the parchment and press the edges of the dough together to seal it all the way around. Be sure to make a firm seal or the filling may leak during baking. With the palm of your hand, flatten the top of each log to prevent an air pocket from forming between the filling and the dough.
Line a 12- by 17-inch baking sheet with parchment paper. Transfer the logs to the baking sheet. With a fork, prick them decoratively, making about 2 dozen pricks in each log.
Bake for 20 minutes. While the cookies bake, prepare the egg wash by whisking together the egg, water, and vanilla. Remove the baking sheet from the oven and brush the 2 logs generously with the egg wash. (You won’t need it all.) Return the baking sheet to the oven and continue baking until the logs are caramel brown and firm to the touch, 5 to 10 minutes. Cool on the baking sheet for about 10 minutes, then transfer the logs to a rack and cool completely. With a serrated knife, slice on the diagonal about ⅓ inch thick.