Happy Valentine’s Day, all! Appropriate to this holiday of love and appreciation for all of those who are special to us, I am featuring a recipe by someone who is near and dear to my heart, my grandmother. This is a recipe for Italian S & I cookies that she has passed down to me. You may be familiar with these delightful little alphabet-shaped cookies if you also have a grandmother of Italian heritage who likes to bake or if you’ve visited an Italian bakery; “S” cookies are definitely a staple there.
I have fond memories of helping my grandmother to crank out batches of these little guys – me forming the cookies and her glazing. While the process of making these cookies is incredibly easy (minus the dough-mixing stage – be prepared to exercise your biceps there!), you may also want to recruit a beloved family member or friend to help you, since it can get a bit involved and labor-intensive. Depending on cookie size, the recipe typically makes around 10 dozen! But you can easily break the process up, making the dough one day and baking and glazing the cookies another, as I did this time.
S & I cookies are the most unassuming of cookies. The ingredient list is pretty basic – a crap-ton of flour and eggs, some sugar, some milk, vegetable shortening, some baking powder and vanilla. Add a simple powdered-sugar-and-milk icing glaze flavored with a splash of your favorite extract – rum or anise or lemon – and you’ve got one of the most addictive cookies in the world. Seriously. I used to eat these cookies for breakfast, eight or so at a time. Because of the high flour content and relatively low sugar content, they are not super sweet, so you can eat a lot of them in one sitting without really realizing what you are doing. I baked this batch of cookies about a week ago, expecting to have to freeze some. As you may know if you’ve visited this blog before, I try to avoid consuming a lot of processed sugar and enjoy making desserts flavored with natural sweeteners such as honey and pure maple syrup. I thought my tastes and self-discipline had evolved to the point where I could resist eating S & I cookie after S & I cookie as in the days of old. WRONG. I have been gobbling these guys daily. One day I realized I had eaten them at three different points in the day, for a daily total of about 10 cookies. Yikes! Well, it is Valentine’s Day and all. A little indulgence is more than OK – regardless of the time of year. So sit and savor a cup of tea and some of these cookies with your beloved, or with your beloved self.
A note about the vegetable shortening: if you are appalled by the idea of using a conventional vegetable shortening such as creepy, trans-fat-laced Crisco (which I was), fear not! For one, there are healthier alternatives on the market, such as Spectrum Organic All Vegetable Shortening, which is what I used. It’s made from refined organic palm oil and fully trans-fat free. And two, in doing a little researching while writing this post, I discovered that Crisco, which has boasted itself as having zero grams of trans-fat per serving for years but that still contained it via the partially hydrogenated oil among its ingredients (per the FDA’s allowance of less than a half-gram of trans-fats per serving being declared as zero grams of trans-fat on a nutritional label – shady business!), is now also wholly trans-fat free! So yay!
Another note: please do not substitute wheat flour for white flour in this recipe, as I did around Christmas time last year when I was making these and realized that I didn’t have even half the amount of white flour that I needed, and, stubbornly refusing to run to the store after already making two market runs that day (I did not scope my ingredients out ahead of time – shame on me!), used wheat flour to make up the difference – against my better judgement. The cookies will be edible, but they will lose much of their magic.
Italian S & I Cookies:
-9 extra-large eggs
-2 1/4 cups sugar
-1/2 cup milk
-2 tbs. pure vanilla extract
-9 cups of flour (about 2/3 of a 5-lb. bag!), unsifted
-2 tbs. plus 2 tsp. baking powder
-2 1/3 cups vegetable shortening
-Powdered sugar (you can start with about 1/2 cup)
-Splash of milk
-Preferred amount of anise extract, or another flavor extract, such as rum or lemon
An hour prior to making the dough, take the eggs out of the fridge and let them sit. Once ready, crack the eggs and add them to a large bowl with the sugar, half of a cup of milk, and the vanilla extract. In my grandmother’s words, “beat real good till sugar is dissolved.”
In another large bowl, stir together the flour and baking powder. Add the vegetable shortening and mix until well-blended.
Now comes the part that requires elbow grease. Make a “pocket” (little hollow) in this flour-and-baking-powder-and-vegetable-shortening mixture and add some of the egg mixture to it. Mix well, then make another pocket, pour in more egg mixture, and continue until all of the egg mixture is gone. The mixing will get a bit tough at the end, as the dough will become rather dense. As challenging as this part can be, it is also the part that makes you feel like a boss when it’s done!
Once the dough is mixed, cover the bowl and let it chill in the fridge for at least at hour.
When the dough has sufficiently chilled, preheat the oven to 375 degrees. Form the dough into small S and I shapes (I usually do all one cookie sheet of one letter and then the next sheet with the other letter, for efficiency’s sake, but it doesn’t really matter). Line up a batch on a nonstick cookie sheet and bake for 10-15 minutes, until cooked through and only very lightly browned on the bottom. Fourteen minutes seemed ideal in my oven.
Once the cookies have cooled a bit, it’s on to the icing! Mix a half a cup of powdered sugar with a splash of milk in a bowl. If it seems too thin, add more powdered sugar; too thick, add more milk. Add flavor extract to taste. Use a pastry brush or your finger to spread the glaze on. You’ll likely need to make more than one batch of icing.
And that’s it! This recipe should make around 125 cookies, depending on the size. They keep well in the fridge, lasting at least a week in an airtight container.