Christmas Cookies Italian Style: Mostaciolli with Rum Icing

Thursday, December 23, 2010

Hands down my most favorite Christmas cookie of all time ever is Mostaciolli. They are little spiced chocolate cookies with rum flavored icing on top. They are insanely good. They're super dense, flavored with warming cocoa powder, cinnamon, black pepper, cloves and nutmeg and added crunch is provided by finely chopped walnuts. The dough is then rolled into small balls and baked off, then topped with a rum-flavored icing.

They are a traditional Christmas cookie of the Napoli region in Italy, and many variations of the cookie recipe can be found throughout Italy and America. Old, original recipes use honey as the main sweetener, which implies the birth of this cookie could have gone back as far as Roman times. The name, "mostaciolli," means "little mustache" in Italian and is often confused with the penne pasta shape with the same name. However, "mostaciolli" also refers to laurel (or bay leaf), which was a common spice used in ancient Roman cooking. Further, other recipes call for red wine as a main ingredient in making these, another indication these cookies are actually really quite old and traditional. Still other American-based recipes use molasses in addition to or in place of the honey for the main sweetener, while others like the one below use simple and easy to find granulated sugar.

The common denominator in these recipes is the use of finely chopped walnuts in the batter, and a a super dense dough most often flavored with cocoa powder. If the original Roman theory is correct, they would certainly not have used cocoa (as cocoa was brought from the New World much, much later) and the cookies would have appeared blonde rather than dark brown. Same goes for the use of rum. But whether you make your mostaciolli with honey and wine or cocoa and rum, they are wonderfully spicy cookies that are just perfect for any holiday table, and a nice treat the next morning with a cup of hot espresso.

Last year stuck home with a bad cold, baking was simply out of the question for me, so baking duties fell to The Hubsters. He opened up this book he gave me the Christmas before, called "Entertaining with The Sopranos," a spoof cookbook "written" by Carmela Soprano from the famous HBO show. Also happens to be one of our favorite shows of all time, and much to my delight the book ends up having incredible and authentic Italian-American recipes! In fact, two of our Christmas traditions now come form this book -- these cookies and the Shrimp Aragonate (post forthcoming). So The Hubsters chose this cookie recipe under their Christmas chapter mostly because it was the only one that we had all the ingredients for, thus saving him a trip to the store. And now he makes them every year for us! It's a wonderful treat that I seriously look forward to every winter.

I love eating them warm just out of the oven, but the best part of these cookies is they actually get better with age, so it's even better if you make them a day or even two in advance. The recipe makes about 6 dozen quarter-sized cookies or 2-3 dozen larger cookies -- they will all cook evenly so amount and size depends on your preference.

2 large eggs
10 Tbsp (1.5 sticks) unsalted butter, melted and cooled
1/2 cup milk
2 tsp pure vanilla extract
3 cups unbleached all-purpose flour
1 cup sugar
1 cup finely chopped toasted walnuts
1/2 cup unsweetened cocoa powder, sifted
2.5 tsp baking powder
1 tsp ground cinnamon
1 tsp kosher salt
1 tsp finely ground black pepper
1/2 tsp ground cloves
1/2 tsp freshly grated nutmeg

For the frosting:
2 cups powdered sugar
2 Tbsp dark rum
2 Tbsp milk

Preheat the oven to 375 degrees and line two baking sheets with parchment paper.

In a medium bowl, whisk the eggs until blended. Add the butter, milk, and vanilla and mix.

In a larger bowl, stir together the flour, sugar, walnuts, cocoa powder, baking powder, cinnamon, salt, pepper, clove and nutmeg. A whisk or large dinner fork works nicely for this. Add the butter mixture and stir until combined. Conversely, you can mix the wet ingredients in the bowl of a standing mixer and add the dry ingredients slowly with the mixer on low.

Pinch off a small piece of dough and roll it into a ball. Again, size depends on your preference. Place the balls 1 inch apart on the baking sheets and bake in oven 18-20 minutes or until the cookies are puffed and slightly cracked. Transfer the cookies to a cooling rack when done baking.

To prepare the frosting, simply whisk together the sugar, rum and milk in a small bowl. Dip the top of each cookie in the frosting and place it back on a sheet or counter, frosting side up, to stand until frosting is set, about 20 minutes on the earlier end if eating right away and 2 hours if making in advance and planning to store in containers.

The Hubster's Notes: "Use tender loving care when making these cookies."


endlessummer said...

I can't believe I'm seeing this recipe! My Mother's Mother is from Naples, and my Mother always made these for Christmas. I've never seen this recipe ANYWHERE in my entire life before.
A couple of differences -
no pepper
no rum
and the icing was just vanilla

other than that they're the same. Oh, and I think yours uses more butter...which might be a good thing as they tend to be dry.
Thank you and Merry Christmas!

Mishy said...

Love this comment!!! I think the rum is a like family/personal tradition to be honest -- my family are "those" people who when they bake like everything is better with a splash of rum. They make pannetone with rum too. LOL But give it a try -- it does give a really great flavor especially with the vanilla! The pepper too -- at first it's scary to add it but it does give a really great background spice and warmth to the cookies. Merry Christmas!!!!

Jen said...

These cookies are fantastic and exactly what I was looking for! It brings back memories of my best friend's grandma baking her cookies at Christmas and the front stairwell between their apartments being lined with cookie tins full of goodies. These were always my favorite. :) Really just delicious ... And they were very easy to make. Thank you so much for sharing!

Mishy said...

I am so happy to hear it Jen! Merry Christmas and happy baking!!