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]

Four amazing edible Christmas displays at Walt Disney World

At holiday time, the pastry kitchens in and around Walt Disney World must kick into overdrive, churning out all the holiday desserts served in the restaurants and bakeries at the resort.

But beyond the cookies and cakes, Walt Disney World’s ovens are filled with some important construction materials – hundreds and hundreds of house and roof tiles, all made out of gingerbread.

Here’s a look at four amazing edible Christmas displays on view right now at (or very near) the Walt Disney World Resort.

1. Gingerbread Tree, Disney’s Contemporary Resort

At first glance, you wouldn’t know this tree is edible, but it is made entirely out of gingerbread shingles.

Disney’s pastry chefs use amazing restraint on this tree, which is much more about precision than decoration. The result fits perfectly into the modern decor of the Contemporary and complements the Mary Blair mosaic mural the tree sits in front of.

More than 800 pounds of flour and 1,000 pounds of honey were used in making the gingerbread for this edible Christmas tree, which stands 17 feet tall.

When you visit the tree, you can buy a variety of edible items, including hand-painted white chocolate Christmas ornaments and your own tree building block – a gingerbread shingle.


2. Chocolate Santa, Walt Disney World Swan and Dolphin Resort

A sweet Santa sits under a Christmas tree in this display at the Swan hotel, as if he is taking a rest after delivering all the packages at his feet.

It took the Swan and Dolphin’s pastry staff more than 300 man hours to create this display, and everything here is edible – right down to the fondant covered presents and pulled-sugar candy canes.

The nice folks at the Swan and Dolphin even calculated the calories in their creation, all 2,956,818 of them.

3. Gingerbread house, Holiday Inn Club Vacations at Orange Lake Resort

This rustic cabin is not technically inside the Walt Disney World Resort, but it is very nearby, at Holiday Inn Club Vacations at Orange Lake Resort, which borders the Disney property.

It’s the most traditional Christmas display on our list, with 10 pounds of gumdrops and 50 lollipops adorning the roofline and windows, while 1,000 pieces of shredded wheat cereal form the roof.

Judging by the conspicuously missing gumdrops on some of the windowsills, we’re guessing a few wayward children have already been seduced by this gingerbread charmer.

4. Gingerbread house, Disney’s Grand Floridian Resort

This is the big one – a Victorian cottage, life-size, made entirely out of gingerbread and other edible materials.

The Grand Floridian’s gingerbread house is so big, it’s used as a sweet shop, selling gingerbread tiles, cookies and chocolates to Disney visitors each day. Delicate sugar poinsettias adorn the windows, which have hand-painted winter scenes featuring Disney characters.

It takes 600 pounds of powdered sugar to sweeten up this holiday treat.

Put your Paws Up for the holidays this year

While the rest of the world is trekking out to Rockefeller Center to see the tree or hanging around Times Square while waiting for the ball’s big drop, head the other way. “The Last Best Christmas Vacation” package from the Paws Up resort in Montana pulls together everything you’d want in a traditional winter holiday celebration … along with the luxurious touch that you’d expect at a remote, upscale and high-touch destination.

From December 22 – 29, 2009, you can hole up in one of the Paws Up villas, dash off on snowmobiles or push yourself along on cross-country skis, while the world continues its rush without dragging you along. As part of this six-day/five-night package, you’ll also be able to enjoy sleigh rides and an old-fashioned tree-trimming party. The basics are covered, too, such as breakfast, lunch and dinner daily, a half-day winter adventure, a decorated Christmas tree (and some egg nog, of course!), nightly ice skating and an open fire nearby. If you have some talent, take part in the Gingerbread house building contest … while wearing the Paws Up wrangler stockings you’ll be given.

Christmas Eve, of course, is when the magic will happen. A special menu will be put together in Pomp, the Paws Up restaurant, and the highlight of the party for the kids will be a special visit from Santa Claus.

So, put civilization behind you this December, and create a vacation experience that will stay with you for the rest of your life. Enjoy nature, and frolic in the snow … and eat, sleep and relax at a resort that will positively blow your mind.