Nonna Rhode Island’s chicken soup was the ultimate, with rich broth, thin noodles, and tiny meatballs. But her white wine cookies? Those would not have won any prizes. More biscuit than cookie, the egg-glazed rings of twisted dough were hard and not very sweet. You really had to bite down to break into them, and they also required a fair bit of chewing. They were best dunked into a glass of milk or bowl of cappuccino (or wine, if you were an adult).
Nonna Rhode Island, by the way, was my paternal grandmother (who, needless to say, lived in the Ocean State); we called her that to distinguish her from my maternal grandmother, Nonna Italy (can you guess where she lived?).
My mother, who actually liked the white wine cookies, wrote down the recipe and carried on the tradition of making them. They faithfully appeared at every holiday and, when pulled fresh from the oven, before they hardened, they were almost good. Over time I came to appreciate them, the way one comes to appreciate a birthmark, say, or an old scar.
Then someone ~ a family friend? ~ introduced us to red wine cookies, the ones dipped in sesame seeds. And that was the end of Nonna Rhode Island’s Italian hard tack. Red wine cookies were lighter, crispier, sweeter, and simply better. No doubt this had nothing to do with the color of the wine but rather the fact that the recipe called for less flour and no egg. They weren’t the prettiest cookies ~ they sometimes turned out an odd purple-gray, depending on the wine used to make them. But their flavor was divine.
A few weeks ago I came across a recipe for red wine cookies in L’Italo-Americano, written by Adri Barr Crocetti. Reading it, I realized I hadn’t bitten into one of these delicious cookies in years, decades maybe. I made a batch, and then another. They were as good as I remembered; better, even, as Adri’s recipe specifies tender “00” flour, fruity Sicilian olive oil, and Sicilian Nero d’Avola wine, which carries spicy notes. She also spikes the dough with ground cinnamon and white pepper. I was out of the latter, but I found a little jar of quatre epices, a French spice blend of white pepper, ginger, nutmeg, and cloves that I had made awhile back (from a recipe in Mrs. Wheelbarrow’s Practical Pantry. The substitution worked nicely, punching up the spice in the cookies and echoing the toasty notes of the sesame-seed coating.
About the sesame seeds: Be sure to use fresh ones; rancid seeds will ruin the cookies. And coat the cookies generously; not only do the seeds add flavor and crunch; they also make the cookies better looking. I just boxed up a batch and mailed them to my mom for Mother’s Day. Now I’m off to make one more batch for myself. Happy Mother’s Day to all the mammas out there.
Red wine, toasted sesame seeds, and a blend of spices give these crispy cookies their warm appeal. Use a good, fruity olive oil from Sicily if you can find it, and Sicilian Nero d'Avola wine. This recipe is adapted slightly from one by Adri Barr Crocetti that appeared in L'Italo Americano. Read the original recipe here, including more information about Sicilian olive oil and Nero d'Avola wine.
- 1 1/2 cups "00" flour or unbleached all-purpose flour
- 1 1/2 teaspoons baking powder
- 1/4 teaspoon baking soda
- 2 teaspoons cinnamon
- 1/2 teaspoon Quatre Epices (see NOTES) or 1/4 teaspoon ground white pepper
- Pinch of fine sea salt
- 1/4 cup plus 2 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil, preferably Sicilian
- 1/4 cup plus 2 tablespoons sugar
- 1/4 teaspoon pure vanilla extract
- 1/4 cup Nero d'Avola wine or other bright, fruity red wine
- 1/2 cup toasted sesame seeds (see NOTES)
Preheat the oven to 350F.
In a medium bowl whisk together the flour, baking powder, baking soda, cinnamon, quatre epices, and salt.
Fit a stand mixer with the whisk attachment and beat the olive oil, sugar, and vanilla extract together until the sugar has dissolved completely and the mixture thickens, about 5 minutes on medium-high speed. Switch to the flat beater. On low speed, add the dry ingredients in three additions, alternating with the wine, beginning and ending with the dry ingredients. Increase to medium speed and beat until a soft, shiny and slightly ragged dough comes together.
Use a tablespoon measure or scoop to form the dough into balls, and roll them into small (1½-inch) logs with slightly tapered ends, like little footballs. Roll each cookie in toasted sesame seeds to coat. (If the seeds aren't sticking, very lightly mist the cookies with water before coating them; I found this step was not necessary.)
Place the cookies 1 inch apart on a parchment-lined baking sheet. Bake for about 22 minutes, until lightly browned and set. Transfer the cookies to wire racks to cool completely. Store in an airtight container.
To make Quatre Epices: mix together 2 tablespoons freshly ground white pepper, and 1 tablespoon each ground cloves, ground ginger, and ground nutmeg. Store in an airtight container. (Recipe courtesy of Cathy Barrow)
To toast sesame seeds: Spread them out on a rimmed baking sheet and bake at 350 F for 8 to 10 minutes, until lightly browned and fragrant. Stir once or twice during baking to promote even browning. Cool completely before using.