Whenever we visit Jim’s family in Pittsburgh, his Italian grandmother always sends us off with some of her amazing homemade foodstuffs, such as her hand-rolled gnocchi and her sweet pickled peppers. But at Christmas time Grandma’s attention turns to baking. Brown paper bags and clear plastic containers fill the kitchen and dining room, all containing her homemade holiday cookies for family and friends.
Thin, waffle-like Italian cookies called pizzelles are the stars of her festive baked goods. And now that Jim and I are forming our own holiday traditions in Brooklyn, pizzelles are our buttery link to his family in Pennsylvania. So this week, in between setting up our Christmas tree and decorating our apartment, we pulled out our pizzelle iron and started waffling away.
I had never heard of pizzelles before I met Jim, but I’ve since learned that they are specialties of Abruzzo on the central east coast of Italy, where Jim’s grandmother was born. My family is from Puglia in southern Italy, a region with its own culinary traditions, pizzelles not included. Those Pugliesi don’t know what they’re missing.
Although pizzelles are traditionally flavored with anise or vanilla, there are many variations, including chocolate, hazelnut, and almond. Supposedly pizzelles are one of the earliest known cookies. The older waffle irons were even made with specific family crests, but today’s electric irons commonly emboss the dough with a flower and basket weave pattern. Feast days are not complete without these celebratory waffle cookies, although I’ve only seen them during the Christmas holidays.
Jim’s grandmother is a wonderful cook and doesn’t use written recipes. She simply knows what feels right, whether she’s rolling out dough for potato gnocchi or Easter bread. So for a definitive pizzelle recipe we turned to the trusty Villaware recipe pamphlet that came with our iron.
We started with a basic mix of eggs, flour, sugar, butter, and baking powder, adding both vanilla and anise oil for a double dose of holiday flavor. The dough was thicker than Jim and I remembered, so we tried to thin it out with a few tablespoons of water. When the iron was hot and ready, we dropped two spoonfuls of dough into the pizzelle molds, held the iron closed for about 30 seconds, and then removed the fragrant disks to a paper towel. We started the process again, opening and closing the iron over the thick dough to efficiently produce twenty-four pizzelles.
Unfortunately, this round of pizzelles was just okay. The anise oil and vanilla subtly flavored the dough, but the final texture of the cooked pizzelles was too dense. During an emergency telephone call to Jim’s grandmother on Sunday she informed us that we had used too much flour. She had just finished making nine-dozen pizzelles, so she knew what she was talking about. Stay tuned for another batch…and a recipe, I hope!
Update: Recipe for Pizzelles
Adapted from the Villaware Prima Pizzelle Baker pamphlet
In our pizzelle-making experiments this year, we’ve determined than Grandma was right (of course): Using less flour than recommended by Villaware makes a lighter, more airy cookie. The recipe below reflects this adjustment; if you prefer a denser pizzelle, add a little more flour to your batter.
- 3 eggs
- 3/4 cup sugar
- 1/2 cup butter, melted
- 1 teaspoon vanilla extract
- 1/2 teaspoon anise oil
- 1 1/2 cups flour
- 2 teaspoons baking powder
Beat the eggs and sugar together in a large mixing bowl. Add the melted butter, vanilla extract, and anise oil. Sift flour and baking powder together, then combine with egg mixture. The batter should be slightly thick, yet you should be able to drop it off a spoon onto your pizzelle maker. Recipe makes 20-24 pizzelles. Enjoy!