Four holiday cookie recipes from around the world

Try an internationally inspired cookie plate this holiday season.
Christmas cookie illustration
Christmas cookie illustration [ Illustration by Lisa Merklin ]
Published Dec. 4, 2019

This year, we’re taking holiday baking inspiration from around the world, working some iconic cultural treats into our seasonal cookie festivities.

Greek Butter Cookies

Greek butter cookies
Greek butter cookies [ LORRAINE FINA STEVENSKI | Special to the Times ]

These traditional Greek butter cookies are called koulourakia, or “little koulouria,” pronounced koo-loo-RA-keya. This translates in Greek to “rusk” or “biscuit.”

These are traditionally an orange-flavored shortbread cookie topped with sesame seeds or an egg wash. The roots of this cookie can be traced back to ancient Crete and even further to ancient Egypt. The snakelike twist is a symbol of the therapeutic powers of the snake, so the cookie was consumed for health and wellness.

Traditionally a Greek Orthodox Easter cookie, koulourakia can be rolled and pressed into many shapes. This buttery cookie is popular during the Christmas season and is often flavored with generous amounts of Greek cognac or ouzo. Opa!

Here is my version, with vanilla and Fiori di Sicilia, an Italian citrus flavoring. This is a great item to have on hand for holiday baking. But you can use orange zest in a pinch. My topping choice is ground almonds and sugar instead of sesame seeds. To make these even more festive, you can sprinkle colored sugar instead of vanilla sugar on top.

This dough works best at room temperature, as it can crack if too cold. The warmth of your hands makes it easy to handle. If you refrigerate the dough, bring it to room temperature before forming.

For the dough:

½ cup butter, softened

½ cup sugar

2 egg yolks

3 tablespoons half-and-half

2 teaspoons vanilla extract

2 drops Fiori di Sicilia, or 1 teaspoon orange zest

2 ¼ cups all-purpose flour

1 teaspoon baking powder

¼ teaspoon kosher salt

For the topping:

2 tablespoons sliced almonds

2 tablespoons vanilla sugar or colored sugar

1 large egg yolk

Make the dough: Preheat the oven to 350 degrees. Line 2 large cookie sheets with parchment paper. With a stand mixer on medium speed, beat the butter and sugar until creamy, about 2 minutes.

Beat in the egg yolks one at a time and mix just until smooth. Mix in the half-and-half, vanilla and Fiori di Sicilia (or orange zest).

On low speed, gradually add the flour, baking powder and salt. Beat just until a firm dough is formed. Turn out on a lightly floured surface and gently knead into a smooth ball.

Pinch off about 1 tablespoon of dough and roll into a 7-inch log. Bring the two ends of the dough together and then twist two to three times. Repeat with remaining dough.

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Place 12 cookies on each cookie sheet. If the dough starts to crack, use the warmth of your hands to patch it together.

Make the topping: In a small food processor, pulse the sliced almonds and vanilla sugar until finely ground, and set aside. In a small mixing bowl, whisk the egg yolk until frothy. Brush the egg yolk lightly over each cookie. Sprinkle with the ground almond mixture.

Bake for 15 minutes or until golden brown. Cool on the pan until completely cool.

Makes about 24 cookies

Source: Lorraine Fina Stevenski

Italian Neapolitan Cookies

Italian Neapolitan cookies
Italian Neapolitan cookies [ LORRAINE FINA STEVENSKI | Special to the Times ]

Straight from my mom’s recipe box, this family gem brings back sweet memories. Scribbled, but legible, in her cursive handwriting, the recipe card is stained with the flavors and colors of the cookie and worn by time.

I could not wait to reinvent this family favorite and bring it up to date with fresh and natural flavors. The Neapolitan cookie is a refrigerator cookie with vanilla, chocolate and strawberry flavors in one cookie. I always remember asking for the cookie with the pink stripe.

This buttery cookie with three perfect stripes has vastly different flavors that meld together quite perfectly.

Who invented the three flavors in one cookie? Gelato conquered Italy and Europe as early as the 15th century. But as fashion changes, ice cream was also reinvented in the 19th century. Giuseppe Tortoni invented Neapolitan ice cream with the classic vanilla, chocolate and strawberry flavors in one block. This variation was quickly brought to the United States, where it became an American favorite. Spumoni and tortoni are Italian frozen desserts inspired by this combination; the rainbow cookie and Neapolitan cookie came after with this delicious combination of flavors.

I have updated this classic cookie with more intense flavors. One simple buttery dough is mixed and then divided, the flavorings added to those three sections of dough. Vanilla is enhanced with almond extract, ground almonds and Fiori di Sicilia as an optional flavoring. Chocolate has cocoa, espresso powder and melted chocolate. Strawberry has intensely flavored strawberry jam plus natural strawberry flavoring. I still love the pink stripe best.

Have all your ingredients ready to go before starting this recipe; melt the chocolate and finely grind the nuts. If you like to be precise with your weights, the dough should weigh 31.50 ounces and then be separated into three 10.50-ounce pieces. For best results, make the dough a day ahead of time and refrigerate before assembling the cookies.

2 ½ cups all-purpose flour

1 ½ teaspoons baking powder

½ teaspoon kosher salt

1 cup (2 sticks) unsalted butter, softened

1 ½ cups granulated sugar

1 large egg

1 teaspoon pure vanilla extract

For the vanilla dough:

¼ cup finely ground sliced almonds

¼ teaspoon pure almond extract

2 drops Fiori di Sicilia, optional

For the strawberry dough:

2 tablespoons strawberry jam

½ teaspoon natural strawberry flavoring

2 tablespoons all-purpose flour, or more, to make the dough hold together

For the chocolate dough:

2 tablespoons semisweet chocolate chips, melted and cooled

1 tablespoon cocoa powder

Pinch of espresso powder

Sparkling white sugar, for topping

Lightly coat a 9- by 5-inch straight-sided loaf pan with canola cooking spray. Line with parchment paper, one piece the long way and one piece the short way, with the ends extending over the sides of the pan. Press the parchment into the bottom corners of the pan so no wrinkles remain. Lightly spray again.

In a large mixing bowl, whisk together the flour, baking powder and salt. Set aside. In the bowl of a stand mixer on medium speed with the paddle attachment, beat the butter and sugar until light and fluffy, about 2 minutes. Add in the egg and vanilla, beat 1 minute and then scrape the bowl.

On low speed, gradually add the flour mixture into the butter mixture, beating just until blended and a dough forms. Divide the dough into three equal portions (about 10.50 ounces each) and place each in separate small mixing bowl. Use a large rubber spatula to mix in the flavorings.

For the vanilla dough: Mix in the ground almonds, almond extract and Fiori di Sicilia (optional).

For the strawberry dough: Mix in the strawberry jam, strawberry flavoring and 2 tablespoons of flour. Add more flour by tablespoon if mixture is too wet. (It depends on the consistency of the jam.)

For the chocolate dough: Mix in the cooled melted chocolate, cocoa powder and espresso powder.

On a lightly floured surface, knead each piece of dough into a ball. Roll each dough separately into a 7 ½- by 3 ½-inch rectangle, using your fingers or a rolling pin to get a smooth top. This will evenly define the different layers. Press each dough layer firmly and evenly into the parchment-lined loaf pan. Start with the chocolate on the bottom, vanilla in the middle and strawberry on top. Gently press the layers to seal. Fold the parchment flaps on top of the dough, cover with plastic wrap and refrigerate overnight.

Position a rack in the center of the oven and heat the oven to 350 degrees. Line three half-sheet pans with parchment paper. Lift the extended edges of parchment to remove the dough from the loaf pan and onto a cutting board. Cut the dough in half lengthwise with a sharp long knife. Cut each half crosswise into ½-inch-thick slices. Trim the cookies with a knife to smooth the edges.

Place the slices 1 inch apart on the parchment-lined pans, 12 cookies to a pan. Sprinkle with sparkling sugar. Bake one pan at a time until the edges are firm (the cookies should not brown too much), 10 to 12 minutes. Cool on the pan 15 minutes to firm up, then transfer the cookies to wire racks to cool completely before storage.

Makes about 36 cookies.

Source: Lorraine Fina Stevenski

Rugelach Cookies With Pistachios and Orange Marmalade

Rugelach with orange and pistachio
Rugelach with orange and pistachio [ LORRAINE FINA STEVENSKI | Special to the Times ]

Rugelach is a crescent-shaped butter and cream cheese pastry that has evolved throughout history, from Europe to the Middle East. The Jewish-American favorite has roots in the Hungarian kifli, Austrian kipfel and Polish rogal.

Originally made with a laminated yeast dough and filled with fruit jams, poppy seed paste or nuts, “rugelach” is a Yiddish word that means “little twists." American bakers quickly came up with a short cut for the complex yeast dough with the addition of cream cheese mixed with butter. Rugelach are favored for the Hanukkah season, and usually filled with cinnamon, raisins, walnuts and a smear of apricot preserves.

This twist on a traditional rugelach cookie is a flaky, buttery pastry infused with cinnamon and orange zest. Pistachios and orange marmalade pair together to make the filling. You can use either sweet or bitter orange marmalade, to your taste.

The food processor makes quick work of making the pastry. Don’t overprocess the dough; leave bits of butter and cream cheese showing. To achieve a flaky layered dough, I borrowed the technique of folding the dough into thirds from my favorite croissant recipe.

Use high-quality ingredients, as the pastry depends on it. The other trick? Work with this dough while it is cold. If it becomes too warm, return it to the refrigerator for 30 minutes to firm up.

Wondra quick-mixing flour (or all-purpose flour), for your hands and surface

For the pastry:

2 cups all-purpose flour

½ teaspoon kosher salt

1 cup (2 sticks) unsalted butter, cold

¾ cup (6 ounces) cream cheese, cold

⅓ cup sour cream, cold

¼ cup finely granulated sugar

2 teaspoons pure vanilla extract

1 teaspoon orange zest

½ teaspoon ground cinnamon

For the filling/topping:

½ cup orange marmalade (sweet or bitter), stirred smooth

¼ cup cinnamon sugar blend, like McCormick’s brand

½ cup finely ground shelled pistachio nuts

1 large egg, beaten

Sparkling white sugar for sprinkling on top

Make the pastry: To the bowl of a large food processor, add the flour and salt, pulsing to aerate. Cut the butter and cream cheese into 1-inch pieces. Add to the food processor with the sour cream, sugar, vanilla, orange zest and cinnamon. Pulse a few times just until crumbly and when pinched the dough stays together. Pieces of butter and cream cheese should still be visible in the dough. Do not overprocess. Pulse just enough to hold the dough together.

On a lightly floured surface turn out the dough. Knead into a ball and slightly flatten with your fingers. Roll into a rectangle and fold into 3, like a letter. Roll into a rectangle again and fold into 3. Cut the dough into 4 equal portions. Form each into a ball and then flatten into a disc. Wrap each piece of dough separately in plastic and refrigerate until firm, preferably overnight.

Make the cookies: Preheat the oven to 350 degrees. Line 4 half-sheet pans with parchment paper. Remove 1 piece of dough at a time from the refrigerator. On a lightly floured surface, roll a piece of dough into a circle. Flour and turn the dough once or twice so as not to stick to the surface. Use an 8- or 9-inch dessert plate as a guide to cut the circle. Wrap the scraps in plastic and refrigerate. With a small offset spatula, spread the orange marmalade 1 inch from the edge of the circle in an even layer that is about ¼ inch thick.

In a small mixing bowl, toss together the cinnamon sugar blend and ground pistachios. Lightly sprinkle a layer of the pistachio mixture on top.

Use a floured pizza wheel to cut the circle into 8 equal wedges. Roll each wedge, beginning with the wide end and ending with the narrow end. Place 9 to each cookie sheet. Push each cookie into a crescent shape with the tip of the cookie on top, slightly pressing to seal with your finger so it doesn’t separate while baking.

Lightly brush the cookies with the beaten egg, then sprinkle with a pinch each of the remaining pistachio mixture and sparkling sugar. Bake 2 pans at a time for 15 minutes or until golden brown. Cool on the pan 15 minutes before removing. Cool the pans, wipe the parchment with a paper towel and repeat with the remaining dough, including the dough scraps. Cool completely on a rack before storage.

Makes about 40 cookies

Source: Lorraine Fina Stevenski

Chocolate Chip Shortbread With Pecan and Toffee

Pecan shortbread
Pecan shortbread [ LORRAINE FINA STEVENSKI | Special to the Times ]

The American chocolate chip cookie celebrated its 75th birthday in 2013. Ruth Wakefield’s Toll House recipe appeared in print in the 1938 version of her Tried and True cookbook. The next year, Nestle bought the rights to use her cookie recipe and the Toll House name. It is said she was paid with free chocolate for life for the rights.

This iconic American cookie followed a path taken by many culinary innovations, from homemade to mass produced, from family kitchens to factory, from fresh to franchised. Chocolate chip cookies are made every which way, small and large, loaded with chocolate chips, nuts, oatmeal and any ingredient we can stuff into the batter.

In tribute to this American cookie, I created a chocolate chip shortbread for a Cooks Country Holiday recipe contest in 2008 and was a finalist. This cookie bakes buttery and crispy. The toffee chips and almond paste give it an irresistible flavor. This easy-to-make cookie will become a favorite in your holiday baking repertoire.

For more festive cookies, I dip the cookie cutter in red or green colored sugar, so the edges look picture perfect. Dip the corners of each finished star in melted chocolate as well. You can use dark chocolate melting wafers or semisweet chocolate chips.

For the dough:

1 cup pecan halves, toasted and cooled

¼ cup English toffee bits, like Heath Bits

2 tablespoons almond paste

1 ½ cups all-purpose flour

¼ cup cornstarch

¼ teaspoon kosher salt

¾ cup unsalted butter, softened

¼ cup granulated sugar

¼ cup light brown sugar, packed

2 teaspoons pure vanilla extract

½ cup mini semisweet chocolate chips

For the topping:

Vanilla sugar or white sparkling sugar

1 cup dark chocolate melting wafers or semisweet chocolate chips, like Ghirardelli

Make the dough: To the bowl of a food processor, add the pecans, toffee chips and almond paste. Pulse a few times just until the mixture is coarsely ground. In a large mixing bowl, whisk together the flour, cornstarch and salt. Set both aside.

With an electric mixer on medium-high speed, beat the butter and both sugars and vanilla until smooth, about 2 minutes. Scrape the bowl.

On low speed, add the flour mixture; beat 1 minute just to blend. Scrape the bowl. Add the pecan mixture and mix just until a dough forms, about 1 minute more. Add the mini chocolate chips, mixing just until combined. On a floured surface, knead the dough into a ball, flatten into a disc, wrap in plastic and refrigerate at least 1 hour or until firm, preferably overnight.

Adjust two oven racks to the middle of the oven. Preheat the oven to 350 degrees. Line two half-sheet pans with parchment paper.

Remove the dough from the refrigerator and cut it in half. Keep the remaining half in the refrigerator until ready to roll. On a lightly floured surface, roll half of the dough into a circle, about ½ inch thick. Use a 3-inch star-shaped cookie cutter to cut out the cookies. Reflour the surface, gather up the dough, re-roll the scraps and cut out additional cookies. Use flour on your hands and the rolling pin. If the dough becomes too soft to work with, return to the refrigerator to firm up.

Use a floured small offset spatula to place 8 cookies, 1 inch apart, on each cookie sheet. Sprinkle each cookie with vanilla sugar or sparkling sugar. Bake two pans at a time for 8 to 12 minutes or until the cookies are just becoming golden brown around the edges. Cool the cookies on the pan for 10 minutes to firm up. Cool the pans, wipe the parchment with a paper towel and cut and bake the remaining dough. Transfer to a rack to cool completely.

Melt 1 cup chocolate melting wafers (or chocolate chips) in a shallow microwave-safe bowl for 30 seconds. Stir until smooth, then microwave for another 30 seconds; stir again until smooth. Dip each corner of the cooled star cookie into the chocolate. Place back on the parchment-lined pans to firm up.

Makes about 30 cookies.

Source: Lorraine Fina Stevenski