Wednesday, December 18, 2013

Cookie Party 2013: Christmas in Tuscany

If classes are finally over and fall semester is complete, it must be time for the Annual Padula Christmas Cookie Exchange! This year's luncheon theme was Christmas in Tuscany, and as always, it was an epicurean throwdown! Let me share some pictures from the affair...

How AMAZING is this wreath made of rosemary branches topped with a olive medley and marinated sundried tomatoes? So clever!

Appetizers: White bean and pancetta spread on crostini and more crostini stopped with fresh mozzarella, prosciutto and fried sage. YUM!

The lovely luncheon tablescape.

The place settings--a tiny crock of homemade cinnamon honey butter made with Amish butter from Pennsylvania. Domenica said, "Like Texas Roadhouse, but BETTER!" Ha ha.

The main entrée was the world's BEST chicken and dumplings, or rather, homemade ricotta gnocchi that were light as a feather! I will have to make this delectable dish for myself at home. But in the meantime, here's the link to the recipe in Bon Appétit.

As if the cookies weren't enough, Domenica baked a showstopping dessert: An Italian cream cake filled with fresh orange curd and topped with toasted coconut and candied pecans. WOW!

THE COOKIES! (Thank you, Google, for the holiday "auto awesome" twinkle effect. Tee hee.)

As for my contribution to the festive exchange, I made Almond Roca Cookies. Apparently, Emeril had a cookie contest one year, and Lynn Scully of Rancho Sante Fe, CA was the winner. Well, I can tell you, these cookies are big winners! They look really fancy, but they are very simple, and I banged out six dozen of these bad boys in no time flat.

I only made one substantive change to the recipe. It calls for coarse ground almonds, so when I went to the store for ingredients, I bought almond meal or flour. Then when I looked at the pictures more carefully, I could see that they meant sliced almonds that you chop up further (I used a pastry cutter) in which to roll the dough. But I already had the almond meal, so I decided to use it, swapping out one cup of the AP flour. Then I doubled the baking soda to one teaspoon, as the nut flour is heavier than wheat flour. The cookies turned out nutty and crispy and absolutely delicious!

Oh, and I ran out of milk chocolate for drizzling at the end, so I did the last few with bittersweet, and though I am usually a fan of the darker chocolate, milk is the way to go to make these cookies taste similar to Almond Roca. However, my roommate and chief taster preferred the ones with bittersweet chocolate. So you do as your heart leads. ;-)

Almond Roca Cookies
(Source: adapted from The Cooking Channel)

2 1/2 cups all-purpose flour (I swapped out one cup of almond meal/flour)
1/2 teaspoon baking soda (increase this to one teaspoon if using almond meal/flour)
1/4 teaspoon salt
1 cup dark brown sugar
1/2 cup sugar
1 cup butter, room temperature
2 eggs, room temperature
2 teaspoons pure vanilla extract
1 package toffee bits (I used the English toffee bits with milk chocolate)
1 cup coarsely ground almonds (I used sliced almonds that I broke up more with a pastry cutter)
4 ounces milk chocolate
1/2 tablespoon vegetable oil

Preheat oven to 300 degrees F.

In a medium mixing bowl, whisk together flour(s), baking soda, and salt. Set aside. In the bowl of an electric mixer, blend sugars together on medium speed. Add butter and mix to form a grainy paste. Add eggs and vanilla and mix at medium speed until light and fluffy. At low speed, slowly add the flour mixture and then the toffee bits. Mix until just blended; do not over-mix.

Place ground nuts in a small bowl. Using hands, roll balls of dough into 1 to 1 1/2-inch balls, then roll in the ground nuts. Place on cookie sheets several inches apart. Bake approximately 22 minutes and then transfer cookies to a cooling rack.

Melt the chocolate with the vegetable oil in a double boiler or in a bowl set over a pan of simmering water. Drizzle melted chocolate over cooled cookies. Place cookies on a cookie sheet and place in freezer or refrigerator until chocolate is firmly set.

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