September 24, 2018

Tu B’Shevat: Celebrate with festive cookies

Tu B’Shevat, known as the Jewish celebration of trees, falls on Jan. 25 this year, in the middle of winter, and marks the time when barren fruit trees begin to spring back to life.

It is customary to eat several kinds of fruits and nuts during the holiday, and over the years it has become a custom to serve an assortment of mandelbread. A crisp, almond-flavored bread-type cookie, they reflect the history and heritage of what families serve during Jewish festivals.

Some recipes for the cookies include walnuts or pistachios as well as dried fruits such as cranberries, raisins, figs, apricots or orange peel, which are appropriate during this holiday.

My Classic Mandelbrot recipe was passed down to me by my mother-in-law, and is traditional in Eastern Europe. Using an electric mixer for this recipe is easier, but making it in a large bowl with a wooden spoon is the way our grandmothers did it in the old days. 

Catalon Biscotti, a Sephardic style mandelbread flavored with anise and cinnamon, are a favorite in Spain. These biscotti have two unusual ingredients — powdered sugar and self-rising yeast — which results in very crunchy and shiny cookies. 

Italian homes make a form of mandelbread, known as biscotti, filled with almonds and flavored with anise. If I had to choose a favorite, these biscotti would be the one. The recipe contains no oil, butter or margarine and therefore must be made on a wooden board and kneaded like a bread or pasta. The results are very authentic — just like the biscotti found in Italy. I love to pack them up and give them to family and friends or serve at our Tu B’Shevat holiday dinner along with ice cream or sorbet.

CLASSIC MANDELBROT

From “The Gourmet Jewish Cook” by Judy Zeidler

  • 1 cup oil
  • 1 cup plus 2 tablespoons sugar
  • 3 eggs
  • 1 teaspoon vanilla extract
  • 1 teaspoon almond extract 
  • 1 tablespoon grated orange peel
  • 4 cups flour
  • 1 teaspoon salt
  • 1 teaspoon baking powder
  • 2 1/2 teaspoons cinnamon
  • 1 cup sliced almonds 

 

Preheat the oven to 325 F.

In a large mixing bowl, blend the oil and 1 cup of sugar. Add the eggs, vanilla and almond extracts, and the orange peel. Blend thoroughly. 

In a large bowl, combine the flour, salt, baking powder and 2 teaspoons of cinnamon. Blend the flour mixture into the oil mixture. Add the almonds and mix well.

Divide the dough into 4 or 5 portions. With lightly oiled hands, shape each portion into an oval loaf shape, 2 inches wide and 1 inch high. Place the loaves 2 inches apart on greased baking sheets. Sprinkle with the remaining sugar and cinnamon and bake for 45 minutes. 

Remove the loaves from the oven and, using a spatula, transfer them to a cutting board and cut into 1-inch-thick slices. Place cut-side down on the same baking sheets, turn off the heat and return them to the oven. Leave the mandelbrot in the oven for 10 minutes per side or until crisp. Transfer to racks and cool. 

Makes about 6 dozen cookies.

BISCOTTI (ITALIAN ALMOND MANDELBROT)

From “Italy Cooks” by Judy Zeidler

  • 2 cups flour
  • 1/2 teaspoon baking powder
  • 1/2 teaspoon baking soda
  • 1/4 teaspoon salt
  • 1 teaspoon fennel seeds
  • 3/4 cup toasted, ground almonds
  • 1/2 cup toasted, whole almonds
  • 2 eggs
  • 1/2 teaspoon anise or almond extract
  • 1/4 teaspoon vanilla extract
  • 1 cup sugar
  • 1 egg white, lightly beaten

 

Preheat the oven to 350 F.

Place the flour, baking powder, baking soda, salt and fennel seeds in a mound on a floured board. Surround the outside of the mound with the ground and whole almonds. Make a well in the center. Place the eggs, anise (or almond) extract and vanilla extract in the well. Beat the sugar into the egg mixture, blending well. Quickly beat the egg mixture with a fork, gradually incorporating the flour and almonds to make a smooth dough.

Divide the dough into 3 to 4 portions. With lightly oiled hands, shape each portion into an oval loaf shape. Place the loaves 2 inches apart on greased and floured baking sheets. Brush with lightly beaten egg white and bake for 15 to 20 minutes or until lightly browned. Remove the loaves from the oven and, using a spatula, transfer them to a cutting board and cut into 1/2-inch-thick slices. Place them cut-side down on the same baking sheet and return them to the oven. Leave the mandelbrot in the oven for 5 to 10 minutes per side or until golden brown. Transfer to racks and cool. 

Makes about 6 dozen cookies.

FRUIT-FILLED MANDELBROT

  • 1/4 cup unsalted butter or margarine
  • 1 cup sugar
  • 3 eggs
  • 1/2 teaspoon anise extract
  • 3 cups flour
  • 1 1/2 teaspoons baking powder
  • 1/4 teaspoon salt
  • 1 cup lightly toasted whole almonds
  • 1/2 cup candied, dried cranberries
  • 1/3 cup candied orange peel, chopped
  • 1 egg white, lightly beaten
  • Sugar for dusting

 

Preheat the oven to 375 F.

In a large bowl, cream the butter and sugar with an electric mixer until light and fluffy. One at a time, thoroughly beat in the eggs. Beat in the anise extract.

In a medium bowl, combine the flour, baking powder and salt and gradually beat them into the butter mixture. With lightly-oiled hands, knead the dough into a ball, wrap it in plastic wrap and refrigerate for 1 hour.

In a small bowl, combine the almonds, cranberries and orange peel.

Transfer the dough to a floured board and, if it is sticky, knead in additional flour. Divide the dough in half and, with lightly oiled hands, roll it out on floured wax paper into an 8-by-12-inch rectangle. Sprinkle with the fruit-and-almond mixture and, starting at a long edge, roll up the dough like a jellyroll. Crimp the seam to seal it and place each roll seam side down on a greased baking sheet (or Silpat baking mat). Brush the rolls with lightly beaten egg white and sprinkle with sugar. 

Bake for 20 to 25 minutes or until lightly browned. Remove the loaves from the oven and, using a spatula, transfer them to a cutting board and cut into 1/2-inch-thick slices. Place them, cut-side down, on the same baking sheets and return them to the oven. Bake for 5 to 10 minutes per side or until lightly browned. Transfer to racks and cool. 

Makes about 4 dozen cookies.

CATALON BISCOTTI (SPANISH BISCOTTI)

  • 3 eggs
  • 1 cup confectioners’ sugar
  • 1 cup flour
  • 1 tablespoon ground anise (or whole seeds)
  • 1 tablespoon ground cinnamon
  • 1 1/4 teaspoons active dry yeast
  • Zest of 1 lemon, ground
  • 1 1/4 cups almonds, roasted

 

Preheat the oven to 375 F. 

Line a cookie sheet with parchment paper or a Silpat baking mat and set aside. In a small bowl, beat one of the eggs and set aside.

In a large mixer, add sugar, flour, ground anise, ground cinnamon, yeast and lemon zest and mix well. 

Beat in the remaining 2 eggs, one at a time at high speed, mixing well after each addition. Remove bowl from the mixer and stir in almonds. (The dough will be soft.)

Turn the dough out onto a well-floured surface and divide in half. Lightly flour your hands and shape the dough into 2 slightly flattened cylinders about 2 1/2 inches wide and 12 inches long. Brush off excess flour with a dry pastry brush. Carefully transfer dough cylinder to a prepared sheet pan about 3 to 4 inches apart. Brush with reserved beaten egg. 

Bake until crust is shiny and dark brown, about 30 minutes. Remove from the oven and let cool slightly; slice on the diagonal into 1/2-inch-thick cookies. Transfer biscotti to a wire rack to let cool completely. 

Makes 30 to 40 cookies.


Judy Zeidler is a food consultant, cooking teacher and author of “Italy Cooks” (Mostarda Press, 2011). Her website is judyzeidler.com.