My grandmother would spend the better part of December mixing, rolling, baking, and icing her famous Italian cookies. On Christmas, the entire extended family would leave her house with an oversized Tupperware container packed to the brim with enough holiday cookies to last through Valentine’s Day.
Everyone in my family has their personal favorite Italian cookie – wafer-thin pizzelles, amaretto biscotti, orange cookies (which are made with orange zest, but are not orange in color), weird sesame-seed covered ones that only my great aunt seems to like, and cucciddatis (traditional Sicilian fig cookies worthy of their own blog post).
To this day, my absolute favorite family cookie recipe is Italian chocolate cookies. Everyone in my family refers to them as “grandma’s cookies” or “Matt’s cookies” because I’ve been known to steal them from the plate well before the grown-ups finished their first Manhattan, expertly garnished with a cherry by grandpa.
Grandma would always pack a few extra chocolate cookies in my take-home container (to go along with the handfuls I’d already stashed in my coat pockets) because she knew how much I loved them. Nothing makes an Italian grandma happy like feeding her grandson.
To be completely accurate, it was my great-grandmother who perfected this recipe. Although we don’t know the history, some family members contend it’s an American adaptation of a classic Italian cookie recipe, calling for ingredients that were readily available during the Great Depression. Others think it’s a Sicilian recipe passed down generations. My grandmother’s recipe calls for margarine, but we use butter now.
I can’t quite put my finger on why these chocolate cookies keep me coming back for more. Maybe it’s the classic holiday spices of nutmeg, cloves and cinnamon that make it taste exactly how a Christmas cookie should taste. Maybe it’s the finely chopped walnuts or the chewy raisins. Maybe it’s the bold black coffee that deepens the chocolate flavor.
My mother and sister have carried on the tradition of making grandma’s chocolate cookies the past few years. It’s not just my favorite holiday treat anymore – my kids launch themselves at the plate of chocolate cookies first, too. Mom sends a box to my family, and freezes an extra batch for when we come to visit. And for the first time, I’m baking grandma’s chocolate cookies this year. The tradition of going to grandma’s house for a Christmas dinner of lasagna followed by a dessert of pies and Italian cookies is just a memory now, but my family will carry this chocolate cookie recipe with us for many generations to come.
Heritage Dish: Italian Chocolate Cookies
- 4 cups all-purpose flour
- 1/2 cup baking cocoa
- 2 teaspoons baking powder
- 1/2 teaspoon ground cinnamon
- 1/2 teaspoon ground cloves
- 1/4 teaspoon ground nutmeg
- 1/4 teaspoon salt
- 1 cup butter, softened
- 1 cup sugar
- 1/2 cup grape jelly
- 1/3 cup + 1 tablespoon cold strong black coffee
- 1/2 cup raisins
- 1/2 cup finely chopped walnuts
- 3/4 cup confectioners’ sugar
- 2 tablespoons half and half
- Colored sprinkles
- Heat oven to 350°F. Line 2 cookie sheets with parchment paper. Set aside.
- In a large bowl, combine flour, cocoa, baking powder, cinnamon, cloves, nutmeg and salt. Set aside.
- With a stand mixer on medium speed, beat butter, sugar and jelly until creamy. Gradually add flour mixture with coffee, beating until well blended. Stir in raisins and walnuts.
- Roll rounded tablespoons of dough into balls and place 1 inch apart on parchment paper-lined cookie sheets.
- Bake 10 to 12 minutes or until lightly brown around edges.
- Let cookies stand on cookie sheet for 2 minutes. Transfer to racks and cool completely.
- In a medium bowl, stir together confectioners’ sugar and half and half until well blended. Dip top of each cookie in confectioners’ mixture. Place on wire rack and sprinkle with colored sprinkles. Let stand on wire rack until glaze has set.
- Store in an airtight container.
Test Kitchen Tip: If confectioners’ sugar mixture gets too thick, stir in 1 teaspoon half and half at a time until desired consistency.