With a soft texture and warm, licorice-like flavor, my grandmother’s Italian anise cookies are a longstanding Christmas tradition in my family.
Every year, I dive into Christmas decorating almost as soon as Thanksgiving ends. By Saturday afternoon, the tree is usually up, our windows adorned with wreaths, and the stockings “hung by the chimney with care.” Despite the festive surroundings, the Christmas season doesn’t really begin in my house until a batch of my grandmother, Josephine’s, Italian Anise Cookies (or “Drops,” as they’re often called) emerge from the oven. Soft and cakey with a wonderful, licorice-like flavor, these cookies are a signature taste of the season for my family. I can’t imagine the holidays without them.
If I had to choose a favorite characteristic of these cookies, it would be their texture. So many Anise Cookies I’ve come across on bakery trays have been heavy and dense. Not necessarily bad with a cup of coffee, but not what I had become accustomed to through the years. These Anise Cookies are, by far, the softest and lightest I’ve tasted. The only drawback to their light texture is that they don’t leave you feeling overly full, and thus, have a tendency to disappear quickly from the cookie tray!
The primary flavor in these cookies, anise, is a sweet, warm, roundly-flavored extract. Anise is well-suited to a number of baked goods, but can easily overpower a recipe if used with too heavy a hand. As you’ll read in the recipe notes, my grandmother used a generous amount of extract in these cookies (1 tablespoon) for a full, rich flavor. I grew up with the cookies prepared this way and enjoy them on the well-flavored side. If you prefer a more subtly-flavored cookie, the recipe is easily adjusted by decreasing the amount of anise extract accordingly.
I’m sure my first love of Anise Cookies as a young child had nothing to do with the anise, and everything to do with their “pretty” nonpareil sprinkles. In fact, I remember the first year my grandmother (“Nanny,” as I called her) invited me to help her with glazing and decorating. As a little girl, there couldn’t possibly be such a thing as “too many” nonpareils on a cookie. I was heavy-handed with my sprinkling technique that year, resulting in cookies that were…crunchy…to say the least. My small share of the batch probably bordered on inedible, but Nanny thought they were beautiful. Looking back as an adult, I’m sure she had gotten a kick out of my enthusiasm!
Nanny is no longer with us, but so many of my family’s holiday traditions continue to center on her delicious recipes. (Her Lobster Tails over Linguini and Stuffed Calamari on Christmas Eve are two of my all-time favorite dishes.) At the start of this year’s holiday’s season, I wish you merry baking and memory-making, from my family’s kitchen to yours!
Josephine's Anise Cookies
The longer the cookies sit, the color of the nonpareils might "bleed" a little into the glaze. This is normal and does not affect flavor. These cookies should not be frozen and are best enjoyed within a day or two of baking.
- 1/2 cup milk
- 1/2 cup vegetable or corn oil
- 1 cup granulated sugar
- 3 large eggs, room temperature
- 1-1/2 to 3 teaspoons pure anise extract*
- 3 cups all-purpose flour
- 1-1/2 tablespoons baking powder
- pinch salt
- 1-1/2 cups confectioner's sugar
- 3 tablespoons milk
- pinch salt
- 1 tablespoon anisette liqueur OR
- 1/2 teaspoon pure anise extract
- multicolored nonpareils for decorating
Make the cookies
In a large bowl, whisk together milk, oil, granulated sugar, eggs, and anise extract until well-combined. Add flour, baking powder, and salt, and mix with a wooden spoon until smooth. Set aside and let batter rest for 10-15 minutes.
Preheat oven to 350 degrees F with rack in the upper-middle position. Line three baking sheets with parchment paper. Drop cookie batter by rounded teaspoonfuls onto the baking sheets, about 1-1/2 inches apart. (I use a 1-1/2 teaspoon cookie scoop.) Bake, one sheet at a time, for 10 minutes, until centers of cookies bounce back when gently pressed. The cookies should not brown. Remove from oven and let rest 2-3 minutes. While cookies are still warm, remove from baking sheets by gently lifting each cookie while peeling back the parchment paper (a thin crumb impression of the cookies will remain on the parchment; this is normal.) Transfer cookies to wire racks to cool before glazing.**
Make the glaze
In a medium bowl, whisk together confectioner's sugar, milk, salt, and anise extract or liqueur until smooth (I use liqueur). When cookies have cooled to room temperature, dip tops into glaze and sprinkle immediately with nonpareils. Let stand at room temperature until glaze is dry.
*My grandmother's cookies, made with 3 teaspoons (1 tablespoon) of extract always had a lovely, prominent anise flavor. I love them this way. If you prefer a more subtle flavor, or if you're using an artisanal brand of extract that's particularly potent, decrease the quantity in the batter to 1-1/2 to 2 teaspoons.
**I place a layer of wax paper under my cooling racks to make cleanup after glazing a breeze. When finished, just roll up the paper, with all of the dripped glaze and sprinkles, and discard.