Italian Pignoli Cookies
If you have an Italian grandmother there’s a good chance these cookies make an appearance around Christmas, Easter and weddings. If you buy these in an Italian bakery, they’ll cost about $20.00 a pound (2010 prices) but anyone can make them for considerably less.
Moist, chewy centers of almond paste are studded with pignoli, or pine nuts, the seeds from the pine cones of certain varieties of pine trees that grow in Europe, Asia and in the Southwest United States. The best pine nuts for these cookies come from Italy or New Mexico. The New Mexico pine nuts are also called piñon nuts. They are sweeter, plumper, fresher and less expensive than imported nuts. Some varieties of Asian pine nuts can be unpleasantly bitter and rancid. Seriously avoid any from China or Vietnam for this reason (they may be fine for Asian cuisine but not for these cookies).
The almond paste for the cookie base is available in most major grocery stores in the baking aisle, but purchase almond paste, not almond pastry filling. Almond pastry filling may contain ingredients like corn syrup or milk that don’t work in this recipe.
Once you have your pine nuts and almond paste, the rest is a snap. The dough comes together quickly and easily. The interior of the baked cookies resembles marzipan and the soft, rich pine nuts make these traditional Italian cookies addicting.
Italian Pignoli Cookies
8 ounces pine nuts (pignoli)
1/2 cup granulated sugar
1/2 cup confectioners’ sugar
1/4 cup all-purpose flour
pinch of salt
1 8-ounce can almond paste
2 egg whites, room temperature
1/4 teaspoon almond extract
Preheat the oven to 325 degrees. Line 2 cookie sheets with parchment paper or lightly butter the sheets. Place pine nuts in a shallow dish.
Combine the granulated sugar, confectioners’ sugar, flour and salt in a medium bowl.
Break up the almond paste with your fingers and place in a mixing bowl. Add the egg whites and with an electric mixer beat on low speed until smooth. Add the extract and flour mixture and beat until flour is blended in, about 30 seconds. Do not over beat.
Using a teaspoon, scoop a rounded spoon of dough and place it into the plate of pine nuts. With your fingertips, gently roll the dough in the pine nuts, gently pressing them in so the nuts adhere all around the ball of sticky almond paste. Place the dough on prepared buttered cookie sheets or cookie sheets lined with parchment paper (my choice) 2 inches apart. Using your fingers, shape the dough so that all the cookies are round and press extra pine nuts into any spots where the pine nuts may have fallen off.
Bake the cookies for about 20-25 minutes until light golden brown. Since ovens vary, watch closely during the last 5 minutes so the pine nuts don’t over brown. Cool 1 minute and remove to a rack to cool completely. Makes about 2 dozen cookies.