Five holiday cookies from around the world

holiday cookiesI love good old American iced sugar cookies as much as the next person. Yet there’s a whole world of cookiedom out there, and the holdiays are the best excuse to do a little experimenting.

Whether you prefer your cookies buttery, spiced, crisp, or iced, there’s something to suit your…ahem, taste. Check out the following holiday favorites from around the world.

Springerle
These embossed, biscuit-like German cookies–usually flavored with anise–date back to the 14th century. They’re traditionally made using a wooden or ceramic mold (human figures are a common theme) or a rolling pin decorated with carved-out depressions. Think of them as edible art, especially if you have the talent and patience to ice them.

Shortbread
For butter sluts like me, few things beat a well-made piece of shortbread. True shortbread is Scottish in origin (the recipe we’re most familiar with today–flour, sugar, and butter–is attributed to Mary, Queen of Scots). Because the ingredients were considered luxury goods, shortbread became synonymous with festive occasions, including Christmas.

Shortbread has become ubiquitous throughout the UK, and similar (but inferior, in my humble opinion) cookies are found throughout Scandinavia. What makes good shortbread so special? The quality of the butter is paramount, but also the handling of the dough. Any baked good with a fat content that high is bound to be tasty, but overworking the dough–whether it’s rolled or patted out by hand–ensures a cookie the equivalent of a hockey puck. And I’m a purist: no crystallized sugar or fancy shapes for me, please. Just give me the cookie.

[Photo credits: Flickr user JeMaSiDi]holiday cookiesMa’amoul
These rich, Lebanese semolina cookie/pastry hybrids traditionally have their top half pressed into a decorative mold, while the bottom half is stuffed with a filling of chopped fruit and nuts such as dates, figs, walnuts, pistachios, walnuts, or almonds. Ma’amoul may be round or dome-shaped, or slightly flattened, and are categorically a form of shortbread due to their high fat (butter or shortening) content. They also contain rose and/or orange flower water, which gives them a subtle floral essence.

Ma’amoul are popular in the Levantine cuisine of the Eastern Mediterranean, as well as that of the Arab Persian Gulf states. They’re a frequent site during religious holidays an festivals, including Ramadan and Purim. In Jewish communities, date-filled ma’amoul are a favorite Hanukkah treat.

Mandelbrot
Some liken these twice-baked almond cookies to “Jewish” or “Askenazic” biscotti, and it’s a fairly accurate description. The name comes from the Yiddish for “almond bread.” Like biscotti, they’re shaped into a loaf, sliced, and baked twice to achieve a hard texture. They’re traditionally dunked in tea.

It’s believed that mandelbrot may have found it’s way to medieval Eastern Europe via the significant Jewish population residing in Northern Italy. According to food writer and Jewish cuisine expert Joan Nathan, the durability of the cookies made them a popular Sabbath dessert, because they traveled well via merchants and rabbis. Mandelbrot are also served at Hanukkah, because they’re parve (made with oil, instead of butter, aka dairy).

Melting Moments
holiday cookies
Although similar to Mexican Wedding cookies–those tender little shortbread domes dusted with powdered sugar–Melting Moments don’t contain ground nuts (the Latin versions–which have been traced back to medieval Arab culture–always contain ground almonds or other nuts, which were then a delicacy).

I first discovered Melting Moments, which rely upon the addition of cornstarch for their trademark disintegrating quality, while working for a Kiwi chef in London. Charmed by the name, I soon discovered that these Australian/Kiwi cookies are holiday favorites. They’re ridiculously easy to make, consisting primarily of butter, powdered sugar, and flour in addition to the aforementioned cornstarch (called “corn flour” in UK/Aussie recipes). They’re often made as sandwich cookies filled with icing (because you can never have too many Melting Moments).

There are literally dozens of other holiday cookies out there, ranging from the anise-fragranced wafers of the Nordic countries and soft amareti or macarons of Italy, to the spice cookies of Central Europe. An easy affordable gift idea: bake up a batch that correlate to your recipient’s ethnic heritage or favorite/dream vacation spot. Happy holidays!

[Photo credits: ma’amoul, Flickr user àlajulia;melting moment, Flicker user ohdarling]

Easy Gingerbread Men Cookie Recipe

16 great farmers’ markets

Farmers’ markets are not only a great way to sample a community’s natural bounty, they’re also a unique setting to experience its culture. While each farmers’ market is different, a really good farmers’ market brings a sense of community to the cities and municipalities where they operate. Wondering where you can experience some of the freshest produce, tastiest snacks and friendliest people across the country? Check out our picks for 16 of our favorites below.

Saint Louis – Soulard Farmer’s Market

The Soulard Farmers Market began in St. Louis in 1779, making it the oldest continuously operating farmers market west of the Mississippi. In addition to the fresh fruit, produce, baked goods and flowers, the market includes a craft and flea market in the two wings of an old train terminal. A bit “Old World” in atmosphere, shoppers can buy live chickens, barter with vendors and enjoy a festive, energetic atmosphere all year round.

Indianapolis – Indianapolis City Market
The Indianapolis City Market was built in 1886 and today includes an arts market on Saturday, a farmers’ market on Wednesdays, cooking classes and ethnic theme events that may focus on the foods of Asia one week or the spices of the Middle East the next. The common thread through it all is that homegrown goodness of corn, tomatoes and other produce from the soil of Indiana.

Madison, Wisconsin
The Madison Wisconsin Farmers Market fills the grounds of the state capitol building and draws a huge crowd to the pedestrian-only mall and shops nearby. Fresh produce is only part of the fun. One Saturday, Wisconsin’s famous dairy cows may be on display; at other times there might be an iron man competition underway. Since it’s the state capitol, don’t be surprised if you’re asked to sign a petition or happen to see an up-and-coming politician working the crowd.

Kansas City – City Market
Kansas City’s City Market
overflows with activity weekend mornings all year when as many as 10,000 people have been known to shop for produce and bedding plants one more, artwork on another and bargains from the community garage sale another weekend morning. Valet service is available for big purchases. Some of the city’s most prosperous farm-to-table restaurants have found a naturally successful home here.

Des Moines, Iowa
All products sold at the Des Moines Farmers Market must be grown within the state of Iowa and that means 160 or more booths carrying the freshest produce grown in some of the world’s best farmland. There are also hand-made items, such as dried flower arrangements, seed murals and wheat weaving. A miniature train for children is a standard fixture and most Saturday mornings, you’ll find musicians, clowns or dance troupes performing.

Woodstock, Illinois

Voted the best farmers market in the state of Illinois in 2008, the Woodstock Farmers Market could easily be called a “producers market” because everything must be grown, raised or made by the seller. Located on the town square of this historic community, shoppers are accompanied by folk music performed live from a nearby gazebo on Tuesday and Saturday mornings.

Holland, Michigan

The Holland Michigan Farmers Market literally overflows with blueberries, cherries, strawberries and other fresh fruit from the fields of western Michigan. The market also carries farm fresh cheese, eggs, herbs and spices. In the craft area, handmade furniture is an unexpected treat. But just wandering the aisles, munching on freshly baked Danish and feeling the breeze from Lake Michigan is a treat in itself.

Columbus, Ohio – North Market
Columbus Ohio’s North Market comes with its own kitchen and James Beard-award winning chef to prepare meals right on the spot from items bought at the market. In addition to fresh dairy products, including ice cream, and prepared foods from international vendors, the North Market sells just the right utensils and cookware to bring any meal together.

Lincoln, Nebraska – Historic Haymarket
The Historic Haymarket in Lincoln, Nebraska was originally a place where livestock and produce were sold in the state capitol, but now it is the site of the trendiest restaurants and retail outlets in the city. Every Saturday morning from May to October, the activity jumps another notch when more than 200 of the Midwest’s best farmers bring their produce. It’s also the best place in the city for Kolaches and coffee.

Little Rock, Arkansas – River Market

As polished as any supermarket, the Little Rock Arkansas River Market, located in the historic Quapaw Quarter, is a year-round destination for ethnic cuisine, entertainment and in the summer months, some of Arkansas’ famous tomatoes and watermelons. Something is always happening at the adjacent park overlooking the Arkansas River, and just a few blocks from the William Jefferson Clinton Presidential Library.

— The above was written by Diana Lambdin Meyer, Seed contributor



Washington D.C. – Eastern Market

Casualty of a fire that ripped through the stalls in April of 2007, the historical Eastern Market has made a comeback and continues to serve meats, poultry, breads and gourmet goodies throughout the week in the South Hall, where many employees of nearby Capitol Hill migrate for lunch. On the weekends, stalls extend to the surrounding outdoor areas and offer antiques, crafts, photography, handmade jewelry and other collectibles. On our last visit, we purchased some vintage fruit labels and stocked up on distinctive greeting cards for less than a dollar apiece.

Santa Monica, California – Virginia Avenue Park
There are several markets that sprout up over the course of the week in this beach city. The best is the Saturday one in Virginia Avenue Park where weekly appearances are made by local restaurateurs featuring the best of their menus.

New York, NY – Union Square Greenmarket
One of the best markets in New York City is the Union Square Farmer’s Market, which extends the length of the west side of the square. Stalls are filled with local fruits, vegetables, dairy, meats, poultry, fish, spices… just about anything you can imagine. At the tail end, you’ll find tables with artists selling their wares. We picked up some local goat cheese and wine, plus a hilarious comic-book version of the Grimm brother tales, handed to us directly by the author.

Chicago, IL – French Market
Inspired by European markets, the French Market was recently developed as an effort to promote community in the city. It’s located adjacent to the Ogilvie Transportation Center. The vendors sell delicious pastries and prepared foods as well as produce, meats, cheese and seafood. Grab some mussels and delicious Sicilian sandwiches before hopping on a train to the Chicago suburbs. Make sure to stop by Chicago’s world-renowned Green City Market while you’re in town.

— The above was written by M. Fuchsloch, Seed contributor

Portland, OR – Portland State University
Portland has long relished in its status as one of the country’s most eco-conscious, sophisticated food cities, and the town’s wealth of farmer’s markets certainly doesn’t disappoint. Each Saturday the shoppers of Portland flock to the grounds of Portland State University, home to Portland’s biggest and most famous of the city’s six recognized downtown markets.

San Francisco, CA – Ferry Building and Plaza
No list of farmers markets could be complete without mentioning this titan of the food world. Ground zero for the birth of slow food and much of the current revolution in local, organic eating sweeping the nation, San Francisco and the Bay Area is king and its historic Ferry Building and nearby Plaza Farmer’s Market is the capital building. Stop by for delicious favorites like locally produced cheeses, more mushrooms than you’ve ever seen and some tasty gelato.