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Pine nuts shine in Italian Christmas cookies

Julie Falsetti

I thought I knew everything about pine nuts; that is, I knew they came from pine cones and were expensive.

Pignoli cookies are a staple on every Italian Christmas cookie plate. You can save a little money by making these delectable sweets at home.

When I read that people forage for them in the fall in New Mexico, I suggested to my friend in Santa Fe that she “pick” some and mail them to me. The only response was a derisive laugh on her end of the line.

There is a reason why pine nuts are so costly. First, there is the time-consuming task of extracting them from the pine cones. The cones are dried for 20 days and then smashed to extract the nuts. The seeds are separated by hand from the cone fragments. Finally, there is a shell that must be removed to reveal the cream-colored nuts that you buy in the store. A lot of time and patience are required for production, so the high price is understandable.

As with any product, quality varies widely. The best pine nuts come from Europe. They can be distinguished from their Chinese counterparts by their shape — European pine nuts are longer and thinner. The Giant on Pauline Drive carries Italian pine nuts.

For American pine nuts, unless you gather your own, the only option is to buy them online.

Most people are familiar with pine nuts as an ingredient in pesto. A better way to showcase these buttery little gems is Pignoli (Italian for pine nut) cookies. Made with almond paste and rolled in pine nuts, they are a staple on every Italian Christmas cookie plate. Think of them as an Italian version of a macaroon.

Bakeries sell them for around $35/pound. Though they are not a cheap cookie to make at home, baking your own will definitely save you money.

Pignoli Cookies

3­-4 ounces pine nuts

1/2 cup granulated sugar

1/2 cup confectioners’ sugar

1/4 cup flour

Dash salt

8 ounces almond paste (not marzipan)

2 egg whites, slightly beaten

1/2 teaspoon almond or vanilla extract

Preheat oven to 300 degrees. Line two cookie sheets with parchment paper. Place the pine nuts in a shallow dish.

Mix the granulated sugar, confectioners’ sugar, flour and salt in a medium bowl.

Using your fingers, break up the almond paste into small pieces and place in a large bowl. Add the egg whites. With an electric mixer, beat on medium speed until smooth. Add the almond extract and flour mixture and beat until flour is blended in.

Using a teaspoon, scoop up a rounded spoon of dough and dip it, upside down, into the nuts. Slide the dough off the spoon, pignoli side up, with your finger and place on prepared cookie sheets 2 inches apart. Stick any remaining pignoli onto unbaked cookies. Using your fingers, shape the dough so cookies are round.

Bake cookies for about 25 minutes. Cool 1 minute and remove to a rack to cool completely. Makes about 30 cookies.

— Julie Falsetti, a York native, comes from a long line of good cooks. Her column, From Scratch, runs twice monthly in The York Dispatch food section.