I didn’t grow up celebrating Christmas. There was no tree and no Santa, and I never thought twice about it. Not wanting to commercialize religion was something that I could get behind, even as a kid. The one obvious flaw I could find in this whole plan, however, was the apparent lack of joyous holiday traditions: caroling, decorating, Christmas baking. Especially Christmas baking.
Fortunately, my parents weren't averse to finding ways to occupy the calendar holiday, and food was a popular way to observe December 25. To this day, I'm a bit puzzled by many holiday customs and protocols, but the annual exchange of baked goods is something I look forward to with a good amount of genuine Christmas cheer. This year, these cookies were my very satisfactory attempt to celebrate the season.
I agree with most holiday bakers that Christmas treats beg to be full of spice. That concession, however, is where I bid adeiu to the bulk of holiday cookie trays in the American Midwest. Something intensely chocolate is too often missing, and I do think spice can come from ingredients beyond a dusty bottle of dried ginger.
Here, licorace-ey sambuca provides a hint of the exotic and pays homage to the traditional Anisette cookies the Italians make this time of year. The sambuca, combined with dark cocoa, yields a tender little shortbread that's an absolute winner with a glass of milk or a cup of tea.
The recipe is freely adapted from Nigella's double chocolate Christmas cookies. Her recipe is great as written, but I've cut down on the sugar, added salt, subbed Dutch cocoa for regular, and infused both the cookie and the icing with the fragrance of sambuca to create a very grown-up chocolate biscuit.
Dark Chocolate Sambuca Cookies
Adapted from Nigella Lawson
Makes 26 cookies
2 1/4 sticks softened unsalted butter
1/2 cup sugar
3 tbsp sambuca
1/3 cup Dutch process cocoa
2 cups all-purpose flour
1/2 tsp baking soda
1 tsp baking powder
Pinch of kosher salt
For the icing
3 tbsp cocoa powder
1 1/2 cups confectioners' sugar
1/4 boiling water
1 teaspoon sambuca
Preheat oven to 325°F.
Cream butter and sugar in a bowl. When you have a soft, whipped mixture, beat in sambuca and cocoa powder, followed by the flour, baking soda, baking powder, and pinch of salt.
Roll dough into 1 tbsp-sized balls and slightly flatten them as you place them on your cookie sheet.
Bake each batch for 15 minutes and not a minute longer. Cookies will continue to cook as they cool.
To make the icing, combine cocoa powder, confectioners' sugar, boiling water, and sambuca in a small saucepan. Whisk over low heat until smoothly combined and remove from heat for 10 minutes before icing cooled cookies.
Dribble cookies with chocolate glaze six at a time, using the back of a spoon to spread. Once you've iced six, sprinkle with nonpareils and repeat with remaining cookies.
Store cookies on a plate for up to one day. If there are any left after 24 hours, transfer to a container. It's possible these cookies taste even better the second day, as the glaze has settled into the cookie.