Mary's Italian Orange Cookies*
3 1/2 cups all-purpose white flour
1 1/2 cups sugar
1/8 teaspoon salt
1 1/4 tablespoons Magic baking powder
1/2 cup freshly-squeezed orange juice (about 3 small oranges)
1/2 cup all-purpose vegetable oil
2 extra large eggs
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
Finely grated zest of 1 medium orange (about 1 1/2 tablespoons) mixed with 2 tablespoons sugar
about 1 cup icing sugar, divided in 2 parts
about 26 Maraschino cherries, each sliced in half
2 extra-large "Dollar Shop" aluminum baking pans (about 12 X 18 X 1 1/4-inches)
Large serving platter
A round-shaped 1 1/2-inch cookie cutter
*Makes about 3 1/2 dozen cookies
Cut Maraschino cherries in half, drain excess liquid, and then place on kitchen paper towels to usurp any remaining liquid (Maraschino cherries are usually sold in containers that contain a heavy syrup; the syrup is very sweet, if too much of it sits on the cookies, it will over-power the flavor of the cookies.).
Place the oven rack in the middle or the top half of the oven (To help avoid burning the cookie bottoms.).
Line a large aluminum baking pan with parchment paper (Cheap aluminum baking pans available in Dollar Shops seem to work better than the more expensive cookie sheets sold in kitchen specialty shops. Aluminum doesn't conduct heat all that well, and strangely enough is a good thing, as it helps the cookie bottoms from getting burnt.).
Place the finely grated orange zest on a dinner plate. Using your fingertips mix the finely grated orange zest with one tablespoon sugar. Put aside.
In a separate bowl, using an electric mixer, beat eggs.
Add sugar to the eggs and beat at top speed till a bit creamy -- about 3 minutes.
Add vegetable oil and continue beating at top speed (about 2 minutes).
Add orange juice and continue beating at top speed (about 2 minutes).
Add vanilla extract to the mixture and beat for about 1 minute.
Turn down the speed of the egg beater (slow) and add 1 cup flour and mix well.
Add another cup of flour and mix well, then add the the third cup of flour and mix well.
Add the salt and mix well.
Add the baking powder and mix well.
Slowly add the rest of the flour until you get a soft and sticky dough (If the dough seems to be getting too hard, add a touch less than the recommended amount, if the dough seems too soft, add a touch more flour -- different brands of flour have slightly different textures affecting the amount of flour needed; in addition, the size of the eggs may differ making it necessary to adjust the amount of flour used in the recipe.).
When the dough is the right consistency, add the finely grated orange zest that has been mixed with the sugar, and blend it into the dough at slow speed for about 1 minute (Or fold it in using a wooden spoon).
Take a large serving platter or a large rectangle baking pan and line it with parchment paper (N.B. This step has nothing to do with the cooking of the dough, but rather, with helping the dough "rest.").
Pour the soft, sticky dough on top of the serving platter or rectangle baking pan which has been lined with parchment paper.
Place another parchment paper on top of the dough, and then flatten it out a little.
Cover with a clean cloth.
Place the dough in the fridge and let it rest for about two hours (This will make the dough less sticky.).
After the dough has rested in the fridge for about two hours, pre-heat the oven to 350 F. degrees.
Remove the cloth.
Keeping the parchment paper on top of the dough, roll out the dough to about 1/4 inch thick with the help of a rolling pin (By keeping the parchment paper, one can avoid dusting the soft dough with flour; using flour would not be advisable as the cookies are later coated with icing sugar, ruining the icing sugar's impact).
Remove the parchment paper from the top half of the rolled-out dough.
Using a 1 1/2 inch cookie cutter cut out rounds -- (about a tablespoon of dough for each cookie).
Using the palms of your hands shape each round of dough into a golf-sized ball.
Roll each dough ball in icing sugar.
Place each dough ball, which has been coated with icing sugar, on an aluminum baking pan that has been lined with fresh parchment paper. Make sure that the icing-sugar-coated-dough-balls are spaced at least 2 inches apart as the cookies will expand substantially in the oven.
Any scraps of dough left can be mixed together and processed into rounds, shaped into balls and then rolled in icing sugar etc.
After all the dough has been processed and the dough balls placed on the baking pan, make a depression in the center of one dough ball with your thumb and then place 1/2 Maraschino cherry, flat side down, in the thumb print depression. Doing this should help flatten the dough ball a little, if it doesn't, then flatten it just a touch more, but not too much as the cookies will naturally flatten out while they are in the oven.
Continue to place the halved Maraschino cherries on the dough balls until all the available space is used up.
When the space is used up, bake the first batch of cookies at 350 F. degrees until ready -- about 12 to 14 minutes (Baking one cookie batch at a time will ensure more even heat, helping to avoid under-cooking and/or over-cooking. Stacking two baking pans on two separate racks impedes even baking.).
Cool the cookies.
Store in the fridge, in clear plastic bags tied with a twist, until needed. Fresh is always best when it comes to home-made sweets.
If any dough is left over process the second batch of cookies, repeating all the steps.
Bake. Cool.... Store in fridge....
Serve at room temperature.
I had imagined "traditional Italian orange cookies" are easy to do until I tried making them, and then all kinds of problems crept up. Most traditional Italian orange cookie recipes use lard which has to be cut into the dough -- a cumbersome activity. I don't particularly like making cookies (Too much work), I prefer baking cakes (Less work), so anything that adds to the labor, I try to avoid. Some traditional Italian orange cookie recipes do use vegetable oil, and that's what I went with. Still, a traditional Italian orange cookie dough, whatever shortening one uses, is supposed to be on the soft side, making it hard to work with. The amount of flour needed seems to change every time I make them -- if I use "Red Rose" flour it's one amount and if I use "Robin Hood" another; also the size of "extra-large" eggs differs depending on what company sells them, making exact proportions almost impossible. Also most doughs can be formed into a ball and allowed to rest in the fridge, but this dough is so soft it doesn't lend itself to do this. So I found flattening it out and placing it between parchment paper works better -- but that could just be me. In the kitchen it's always about "whatever works" for you (Forget everybody else! You're the boss!). Making "traditional Italian orange cookies" that look pretty, have uniform sizes and so on, is difficult, but not impossible. It's worth the effort. These cookies are relatively cheap, and being nut-free can be sold at bake sales and brought to children's parties. Nowadays, most Italian orange cookies are flavored with vanilla, but prior to World War II the cost of bottled flavoring would have been too expensive for the average household. Incidentally, sweet almond extract could also be used with this style of orange cookie. Still, if one were to bring these cookies to children's parties it would be better to flavor the cookies with vanilla extract rather than almond extract as party organizers often insist on foods that contain no peanuts or nuts of any kind (It's unlikely artificial sweet almond extract contains any nuts, still it is always wise to avoid any appearance of impropriety.). Actually, "traditional" Italian orange cookies don't have to include any flavoring, be it vanilla or almond. In fact some recipes for "traditional Italian orange cookies" don't even include Maraschino cherries so they too are not an absolute necessity (still the Maraschino cherries do improve the look of the cookies, making them important if one wants to offer them to guests). If one doesn't use flavoring and Maraschino cherries these cookies end up being very cheap, maybe not as cheap as those available at the Dollar Shop, but then those cookies do have a lot (too much!) artificial ingredients. Personally I prefer home-made sweets to anything that comes packaged from a store -- they're generally two sweet for my taste. Even factory-made taralli that supposedly have no sugar in them, taste sweet, why they do is beyond me. Frankly, home-made Italian almond cookies are much more enticing to the palate than Italian orange cookies, unfortunately, they're much more expensive as well, and if one has money to burn, well then, best to chop and grind all those wonderful nuts, but if there are budget limitations traditional Italian orange cookies are a good alternative. In any case, most recipes can be adjusted to suit one's individual needs and preferences, and this is one is no exception. Hopefully, my take on this traditional Italian orange cookie recipe is easy to duplicate and will be enjoyed..... Personal comments and photo: Mary Melfi.