So many holiday treats are, at heart, just butter cookies: flour, sugar, vanilla, eggs and a lot of butter. It’s what else goes into the mix – or how the ingredients are handled – that distinguishes, say, spritz from pizzelles from pfeffernusse.
This week’s recipe came from Food52.com, but the author, Suzanne Debrago, says its origins are in a 1960s Better Homes and Gardens magazine recipe that her mother had made. Debrago’s update of the festive chocolate and vanilla striped cookie includes toasted walnuts, cardamom and orange zest. The original had no nuts; the flavorings were just vanilla, chocolate and (surely a 1960s signature) rum flavoring.
The website’s notes on the recipe indicate that “this dough is the perfect base for any cookie, it’s very forgiving and surprisingly easy to work with no matter how much you handle it.”
I had to rise to that challenge, so first I made the cardamom version, which originally caught my eye because I love the flavors of chocolate and orange together.
The dough is indeed easy to handle, which is good because you have to knead it quite a bit to get the chocolate smoothly through that half of the dough. The stripes are created by alternating the layers in a lined bread pan, chilling the dough and then slicing it into rectangles. A refrigerator cookie, really, but the striped rectangles are more fun than round cookies, I think.
Ah, now how to adapt them to other flavors? A picture of an Italian rainbow cookie elsewhere on the website inspired my chocolate/pink/white/green stripes, but the flavors are my own improvisation:
▪ Chocolate layer: Omit the toasted walnuts but add some instant espresso powder.
▪ Pink layer: Dried cherries, chopped and soaked briefly in fresh orange juice (since I already had used the orange’s zest in the first version) plus red food coloring.
▪ White layer: Add a little almond extract and some toasted chopped almonds.
▪ Green layer: A bit of ground anise and green food coloring.
Debrango is insistent in her recipe not to overbake the cookies, so I pulled the cardamom ones from the oven right at 10 minutes. They had a little crunch, but many of the tasters later said they liked that.
Here’s where baking becomes science: My four-color version had just a bit more liquid, mostly from the orange juice, but at 10 minutes they were barely brown, and the cookie was soft, not crunchy. Something to keep in mind for other variations.
I’ll definitely make these again, but might put pistachios and orange liqueur in the four-color version. And for baseball season maybe an orange-colored stripe will substitute in the two-color cookies. (Go Giants!)
Makes 3 dozen
Adapted slightly by Kathy Morrison from Suzanne Debrago’s version on Food52.com. The ingredients for the four-color variation are at the end of the instructions.
To toast nuts: Put nuts in a small dry frying pan over medium heat, shaking often, until nuts just start to smell toasty. (Careful – nuts can burn quickly.) Let cool before chopping.
1/2 cup unsalted butter, room temperature
1/2 cup vegetable shortening, room temperature
1 cup granulated sugar
1/2 teaspoon baking soda
1/4 teaspoon salt
1 large egg, room temperature
2 tablespoons whole milk or half and half
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
3 cups unbleached all-purpose flour
Zest of one orange
1/3 cup dark chocolate chips, melted (microwave is easiest)
1/4 teaspoon cardamom
1/2 cup toasted walnuts (see note above), chopped finely
In a mixing bowl, beat butter and shortening with an electric mixer for approximately 30 seconds. Add sugar, baking soda and salt; beat until combined. Beat in the egg, milk and vanilla. Add flour, slowly, and mix just to combine.
Melt the chocolate in the microwave, at 30-second intervals, stirring in between, until smooth.
Divide the dough in half. Knead the melted chocolate and walnuts into half the dough, then knead the zest and cardamom into the other half. Line a 9-by-5-inch loaf pan with plastic wrap. Divide the chocolate dough in half; press half into bottom of the loaf pan. Put half the vanilla dough on top of the chocolate layer, now another chocolate layer, and finish with the vanilla layer. Cover with plastic wrap and refrigerate at least 30 minutes.
Preheat oven to 375 degrees. Remove dough from refrigerator and invert pan onto cutting board; remove plastic wrap. Divide length into 3 equal pieces (each 3 inches) and cut each third into 12 equal pieces, about 1/4 inch thick.
Place cookies on baking sheet covered with parchment paper and bake for 10 to 12 minutes, turning baking sheet around halfway through baking (5 minutes). Be careful not to overbake! Remove from oven when edges start to turn light brown. Too long and they become really crunchy.
Kathy’s variation and notes
Divide dough into four equal parts. First layer gets 3 tablespoons melted dark chocolate plus 1 teaspoon instant espresso powder. Second layer: 2 tablespoons tart dried cherries, chopped small, soaked briefly in 1 tablespoon (or less) orange juice, plus 5 drops red food coloring. Third layer: 3 tablespoons sliced almonds, toasted and chopped, plus 1/2 teaspoon almond extract. Fourth layer: 1/8 teaspoon ground anise plus 3 drops green food coloring.
▪ Dough benefits from chilling. Rechill if it gets too soft.
▪ Tasters said the orange/chocolate version had “great flavor, crunch, aroma!” and was “not too sweet”; the four-color ones were pretty, delicate and “very European.”