Five holiday cookies from around the world

I 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.

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.

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]Ma’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.

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

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]

Alternatives to fireworks for July 4th

It’s been 35 years since the city of Austin canceled its July 4th fireworks display, but due to the extreme drought in Travis County, Austin‘s fiery light show has been canceled. Because of the hot, dry, and windy conditions in this section of Texas, the Travis County Fire Marshal decided not to approve any permits for fireworks throughout the county. “We just can’t take that chance”, said Austin’s Fire Chief, Rhonda Mae Kerr. And although I’m disappointed, as an Austin resident who loves fireworks, I’m also comforted, as an Austin resident who doesn’t want to see my house burn down.

So what’s a July 4th celebration without the big bang of those patriotic fireworks? I’ve been doing some brainstorming. I’ve been tracking my memories of July 4th events back to, well, as far as I can remember, and I’ve come up with some tried and true and undeniably traditional ways to celebrate July 4th for those of you also currently living under a burn ban.

  • Grill. As far back as I can remember, grilling has been a part of my July 4th celebrations. I spent several July 4ths in NYC at a party where I was unable to actually see the fireworks shooting off into the thick city air, but still able to successfully grill. An old-fashioned cook-out, even sans fireworks, is a perfectly fine way to spend your holiday.
  • Bake. If you’re hosting or attending a cook-out, summon the baker in you and bring something red, white, and blue to the table. From American flag cakes to red and blue M&M cookies, show your team spirit for America with one of the most popular things in America: sugar.
  • Go outside. One of the things the USA has going for it is the outdoors. No matter where in the states you reside, there’s natural beauty awaiting exploration throughout this country. As a nod to our founding fathers, spend the day outside. Whether you’re soaking up the sun while lounging on a boat or hiking deep within the forest’s shade, you’ll be honoring America by spending some time in its great outdoors.
  • Embrace community. Independence Day has long been a day reserved for community activities. Even if you rarely get out and involved with your community, Independence Day is a good time to start. Honor your country via its residents. Take advantage of the parades, concerts, parties, and other events the members of your community have organized to celebrate this holiday.
  • Dress to Confess–confess your pride in being an American, that is. Red, white, and blue are the colors of the day. Do it up! (And then take photos and tag yourself on Facebook so all of your friends abroad know just how American you are).
  • Faux Fireworks. If you need to have some sort of firework action in your life on the holiday, but you can’t have actual fireworks, then go for some fauxworks. What are fauxworks? Videos of fireworks going off projected onto the wall of your house, fireworks sounds blasting from your speakers, images of fireworks tacked anywhere you can see them, or even a light show aimed to emulate the sparkling rockets.

If you have ideas on how to fill the firework void for those living in a firework-free zone, please comment! Let us know. The more ideas those of us living in these areas have, the more like a regular July 4th this one will be.

SkyMall Monday: Edge Baking Pan ACTUAL REVIEW (ft. the Garden Yeti)

Last month we had a little poll to see which SkyMall dessert pan was the king of confections. The Edge Baking Pan won in a landslide. I’ll be the first to admit that I was skeptical about whether brownies sporting heaps of edges could be good. I like my brownies like I like my women: moist and packed with M&Ms. However, you voted and I listened. I got my hands on an Edge Baking Pan immediately and put it to the test.

Well, to be honest, my Garden Yeti, Calvin, was the real tester*. He whipped up a batch of brownies with more edges than a knife collector. And you know what? Those brownies were moist. Chewy but not tough. Moist but not loose. The best of both worlds, really. So, consider me a convert. All of my brownies will be edgy now. I’m sorry that I ever doubted the Edge Baking Pan. I guess even SkyMall experts don’t know everything.

Check out the video above to see just how a Garden Yeti gets busy with the Edge Baking Pan.

* Actually, it was my girlfriend, Jordana, who did all the baking. She’s good at that. I just manage the Garden Yeti.

Check out all of the previous SkyMall Monday posts HERE.


SkyMall Monday: Edge Baking Pan vs. Giant Cupcake Pan

Here at SkyMall Monday, we love to eat. We’ll eat hot dogs, pizza or any other foods that SkyMall wants to shove down our gullets. But after those healthy meals, we like to indulge in the sweet stuff. From cakes to crepes, brownies to blondies and ice cream to crème caramel, we just want dessert. However, when it comes to SkyMall, two devices have long battled for sugary supremacy. Now, however, we will settle that dessert debate once and for all. This week, SkyMall Monday pits the Edge Baking Pan against the Giant Cupcake Pan. It’s the Battle of the Desserts and your votes in our poll will settle once and for all which device is SkyMall’s greatest contribution to the confectionery universe.Our first competitor weighs in at $39.95. The Edge Baking Pan is for the brownie lovers who enjoy the firm, crisp edges of a well-baked brownie. What you lose in gooey middles you gain in chewy, overcooked edges. Brownies not your thing? The product description shows you how versatile the Edge Baking Pan truly is:

You’ll also love the results with quick breads, cobblers and lasagna because they bake evenly, no burnt edges or gooey centers.

Zig-zagging lasagna that’s crispy and not gooey? Sign me up. I mean, who wants moist lasagna? Dried out pasta and burnt cheese are how they make it back in the old country. Or at least that’s what Sophia told me.

Or next competitor is looking lean and mean at $29.95. The Giant Cupcake Pan takes all the fun of a cupcake – the fact that it’s a small, personal cake that you enjoy by yourself – and blows it up to a big, communal cake that you share with others. It’s everything you want in a cupcake when you don’t want a cupcake but want a cake instead but also want a cupcake. Confused? Read the product description, moron:

This whimsical cake will be the hit of the party!

The USDA recommends that you get 300 grams of whimsy everyday. The Giant Cupcake Pan provides you with that recommended daily allowance. It may also make you diabetic.

So, what say you, lovers of SkyMall? Vote for your favorite SkyMall dessert device below. I may just have to test the winner to see if victory does, in fact, taste sweet.


Check out all of the previous SkyMall Monday posts HERE.