'It all started with my grandmother': New Jersey's home bakers share their recipes

·12 min read

For Alessandra Aiello, food is love.

It is also a way to stay connected to family, like the aunts the Holmdel woman has in Naples, Italy, where she was born. During the holidays – and all year round – Aiello cooks her family's recipes, making memories with her daughters and doing what she can to preserve their history.

That includes documenting her recipes through a YouTube channel, which she launched early on in the pandemic. She called it – what else? – Alessandra's Food is Love.

"I try to push forward because I want the tradition to continue," said Aiello, whose cooking and baking includes converting her family's metric measurements to imperial.

During the holidays, Aiello hosts a cookie swap, and a favorite is her lemon Christmas cookies. She also makes twist cookies, hazelnut crescent cookies, almond-flavored mostaccioli, and struffoli, or honey balls.

Last year's favorites: New Jersey's home bakers share their recipes, 2020 edition

For the honey balls, "my sister Serafina and cousin come and help, and now it’s become a tradition to make struffoli together," Aiellos said. "We have a simple spaghetti, shrimp and crab legs lunch, and then get started rolling, cutting and frying. A little vino there, a little here, and in no time, they’re done."

Here is her recipe for lemon cookies, plus others shared by staff and readers.

Story continues below gallery.

Lemon Christmas Cookies

The trick to tasty lemon cookies is quality lemons, Aiello said. "Let's say I want to make lemon cookies and I go to Whole Foods, but the lemons don’t look good. We're not making lemon cookies." – Alessandra Aiello, Holmdel

Ingredients:

1 cup sugar

2 stick butter, softened

1 teaspoon lemon extract

Zest of a lemon

6 large eggs

4 cups all-purpose flour

6 teaspoons baking powder

¼ teaspoon salt

Sprinkles

For the glaze: Juice of a lemon, 4 cups confectioners' sugar

Holmdel resident Allesandra Aiello cooks her family's recipes, making memories with her daughters and doing what she can to preserve their history.
Holmdel resident Allesandra Aiello cooks her family's recipes, making memories with her daughters and doing what she can to preserve their history.

Directions:

  • Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Line a cookie sheet with parchment paper.

  • In a stand mixer with the paddle attachment, cream butter and sugar until light and fluffy. Add lemon extract and zest. Add eggs one at a time and continue beating.

  • In a separate bowl, combine dry ingredients. Add flour mixture slowly to creamed butter and sugar, mixing until dough is sticky and light. Cover and refrigerate for about 30 minutes.

  • Using a small ice cream scooper, form dough into balls and place 1 inch apart on cookie sheet. Bake 15 to 18 minutes, until golden on the bottom. Let cookies cool while you make the glaze.

  • For the glaze: Mix ¼ cup lemon juice with confectioners sugar, stirring to create a smooth glaze. It should be thick and not too runny; if needed, adjust with more lemon juice or a little water.

  • Dip the top of each cookie into the glaze. Shake off excess and place on a cookie rack, then add sprinkles before the glaze dries.

  • Makes about 48 cookies

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Struffoli (Honey Balls)

The honey ball (struffoli) recipe from food writer Sarah Griesemer's grandmother, Mary Guglielmi.
The honey ball (struffoli) recipe from food writer Sarah Griesemer's grandmother, Mary Guglielmi.

I never got the chance to make struffoli with my grandmother, but every Christmas, I pull out her recipe. I mix the soft dough, flavored with anise, then turn it over to my boys, who roll long ropes, cut them into pieces, and shape them into balls between their palms. These are passed to my mom, who fries them until they are golden brown and just starting to crack. Then, back to me. I toss them in honey and a generous shake of brightly colored nonpareils. We sneak a few before they're scooped onto a serving platter, knowing Grandma would approve.

Note: One measurement in this recipe is up for interpretation. My grandmother measured the anisette by the "glass," and as she passed away years ago, we can't be sure what she meant (maybe a shot glass of anisette liqueur?) We add several tablespoons of anise extract to start, then fry a few struffoli and taste them. If more flavor is needed, we add more to the dough. – Sarah Griesemer, food writer

Ingredients:

4 cups all-purpose flour

6 eggs

1 stick butter, softened

1 cup sugar

1 glass anisette or anise extract, or to taste

1 teaspoon vanilla

1 teaspoon baking powder

Canola or corn oil, for frying

Honey

Nonpareils

Aiden Griesemer, son of Asbury Park Press food writer Sarah Griesemer, rolls struffoli dough in their Barnegat home.
Aiden Griesemer, son of Asbury Park Press food writer Sarah Griesemer, rolls struffoli dough in their Barnegat home.

Directions:

  • In a large bowl, mix the first seven ingredients until combined. Pour onto a floured surface and knead until smooth.

  • Break off a golf ball-sized piece of dough and roll it into a rope about ½-inch thick. Cut into pieces about the size of a marble, then roll each piece into a ball.

  • In a deep, wide pot, heat canola oil; it is hot enough when a ball of dough sizzles when added. Using a slotted spoon or spider, lower 10 or so dough balls into the pot. Do not overcrowd. Let them cook for about a minute, turning occasionally. The struffoli are done when golden brown.

  • Remove to a paper-towel lined baking sheet, and repeat until all dough is fried.

  • In a large bowl, gently toss struffoli with a generous amount of honey, then nonpareils. Place a large plate over the bowl, flip, then slowly remove, creating a mound of struffoli. These are best served the day they are made.

Matthew & Avo's Gingerbread Men

Mathew Fernandes of Elizabeth bakes gingerbread cookies from his grandmother's recipe, which he has been perfecting for years.
Mathew Fernandes of Elizabeth bakes gingerbread cookies from his grandmother's recipe, which he has been perfecting for years.

Christmas is my favorite time of year – I love the warm feeling everyone gets and how happy people are in December. I’ve been baking for as long as I’ve been able to hold a spoon, and I’ve been perfecting this recipe for about 15 years. It all started with my grandmother — her giving me full access to her kitchen since I was a toddler really helped me grow my love for baking. She and I would spend hours working together to make crazy mashups, and these cookies were our end result. My grandmother grew up in Portugal and started working at a very young age. She was illiterate and couldn’t bake to save her life, It’s safe to say recipes weren’t really her cup of tea. So with plenty of trial and error, and hundreds of awful awful cookies later, we had our first winning batch.

My grandmother passed in 2008; since then, I’ve worked on perfecting our recipe every holiday season. I spend the whole season delivering cookies to friends and handing them out to strangers, to spread the same Christmas cheer and warmth that my grandmother and I shared when we were making them together. I’m hoping to open my own bakery soon, so that I can spread the joy with even more people. – Mathew Fernandes, Elizabeth

Ingredients:

3½ cups all-purpose flour

1 teaspoon baking soda

½ teaspoon salt

1 tablespoon ground ginger

1 tablespoon ground cinnamon

1 teaspoon ground allspice

¼ teaspoon ground cloves

10 tablespoons salted butter, softened

¾ cup dark brown sugar, packed

½ cup molasses

1 egg

1 teaspoon vanilla extract

Directions:

  • Preheat oven to 350 degrees.

  • In a medium bowl, whisk together dry ingredients until fully incorporated. Set aside.

  • In a large bowl, cream together the butter and sugar until light and fluffy. Add molasses, egg and vanilla and mix well.

  • Pour liquid mixture over dry mixture and mix until a dough forms. Roll out dough on a lightly floured surface (dough tends to be very sticky), making sure not to roll it out too thin or you’ll get crispy cookies. Cut out using cookie cutters.

  • Once your gingerbread men are all cut out and on a sheet pan, place them in the oven on the middle rack for 10 minutes. They are done when they start to brown a bit at the edges.

  • Let cookies cool completely before adding your preferred icing.

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Crazy Good Oatmeal Cookies

I have been making cookies for about 20 years, ever since my kids were young. I came up with this recipe about two years ago; I wanted to add a little bit of goodness to an old-fashioned favorite. I was going to the food bank back then; times were tough. So I entered a contest at the food bank and won – I was so grateful.

I have always loved to cook desserts. I bake and give to a bunch of family and friends. It gives me such pleasure to hear how much they love them. So I figured what the heck, I should give my twist to all. I love to add a bit of mixtures and revamp or tweak the recipe in my way. – Debra L Beville, Wall

Ingredients:

3 cups quick-cooking oatmeal

1 cup Blue Bonnet margarine

1 cup sugar

1 cup brown sugar

1 egg

1 teaspoon vanilla extract

2 teaspoons baking soda

2 cups all-purpose flour

½ cup each walnuts, raisins, dried cranberries

½ cup blueberries

Directions:

  • Preheat oven to 350 degrees.

  • Cream margarine with sugars. Blend in egg and vanilla.

  • In another bowl, mix dry ingredients together then add to creamed ingredients.

  • Drop teaspoons of dough onto cookie sheets and bake 10 to 12 minutes.

Pecan Sandies

Kathy Lewandowski of Fort Lee talks about her family's pecan sandies recipe at her home.
Kathy Lewandowski of Fort Lee talks about her family's pecan sandies recipe at her home.

My family has a long tradition of baking Christmas cookies. I fondly remember baking both with my grandmother and my mother, and still bake some of our favorite cookies at the holidays. My mother was the cake baker and always made a killer Christmas fruitcake, the only kind I ever liked! My grandmother would always make Spritz cookies, pecan sandies and others. So many, in fact, that she would fill large Tupperwares of each cookie and keep them in her pantry. It was always a treat to take out the big containers and have cookies for dessert.

I still have my grandmother's cookie press and cookie cutters and my mother's old, beat-up measuring spoons. I always feel if I use these, I get a bit of their baking mojo. Today, my sister and I keep the baking traditions alive by making Mom’s fruitcake and Grandma’s pecan sandies every year. – Kathleen Lewandowski, Fort Lee

Ingredients:

1 cup butter, softened

¼ cup confectioners' sugar

2 teaspoons vanilla extract

1 tablespoon water

2 cups all-purpose flour

1 cup chopped pecans

Confectioners' sugar for rolling

Pecan sandies from Kathy Lewandowski of Fort Lee.
Pecan sandies from Kathy Lewandowski of Fort Lee.

Directions:

  • Preheat oven to 300 degrees. Line a cookie sheet with parchment paper.

  • Cream butter until blended, then add sugar and mix until fluffy. Add vanilla and water.

  • Add flour, a little at a time, then pecans. Mix well.

  • Form into small logs 1½ inches long and place on cookie sheet. Bake 20 minutes or until light golden brown. While cookies are warm, roll in confectioners' sugar. For a heavier coating and snow-like look, roll in sugar again.

  • Makes 4 dozen cookies.

Butter Nut Snowballs

"I found this recipe over 30 years ago in a local newspaper. I've been making it ever since, every Christmas. I now make them for a Christmas cookie exchange, Everyone loves them." – Joanne Kowaleski, Monroe

Ingredients:

1 cup butter

½ cup sugar

2 teaspoons vanilla

2 cups flour

½ teaspoon salt

2 cups finely chopped pecans or walnuts

Confectioners' sugar

Directions:

  • Preheat oven to 350 degrees.

  • Mix all ingredients and shape into tiny balls.

  • Bake for 20 minutes. When cool, roll in confectioners sugar.

Vegan Rollout Sugar Cookies

Allison and James Vercelli of Sea Girt and their ugly sweater cookies.
Allison and James Vercelli of Sea Girt and their ugly sweater cookies.

This recipe comes from the Vercelli family of Sea Girt. James, 13, wrote the following story, titled "I believe in my mom's ugly Christmas cookies," for a school assignment. His teacher encouraged his mother Allison to submit it.

Seeing people for who they are and not what they look like seems to be a hard concept for people to understand. My mother's ugly Christmas cookies helped me to understand that looks don’t matter; what is on the inside is what really counts.

Waking up on Christmas morning is always a wonderful feeling as a child. But for myself, presents were not the only thing that I was excited for. My mother’s adequate cookies were what really made my morning. They had white icing smeared all over them and sprinkles dumped on some. They looked horrible, but the taste was all I cared for. They were always perfectly sweet, soft on the inside but crunchy on the outside. I’ll admit, looking at them made me cringe, but the taste is what really counts.

Every year, helping my mom decorate the cookies was always fun. Nobody in my family has any artistic talent, so no matter how hard we try, the cookies look terrible. My little brothers would dump sprinkles haphazardly all over them, my mom would slap icing on with a knife, and I, well, I would eat them off the tray. My mother would always be concerned what the rest of my family would think of the cookies. I would assure her they would love them. The taste of them, of course. The cookies were perfect in my eyes. I didn't care about the messy icing or the mountains of sprinkles or the random pieces of star-shaped candy thrown on. They tasted good, and that was all I cared about.

Christmas Eve desserts would roll around and we found out that the rest of my family did, in fact, love the cookies. No one ever mentioned how repulsive they looked. By the end of the Christmas Eve party, the batch was gone. My family judged them on the taste, not what was on the outside, because, when you really think about it, what does it matter how a cookie looks? You’re going to eat it anyway. The real thing that matters is how well the cookie tastes.

My mother's ugly Christmas cookies are a great example of a simple concept that many fail to grasp: It doesn't matter how a person looks, or sounds. It doesn't matter what clothes they may be wearing, or how their hair is styled. What's on the inside is what really counts, the God-given personality in each and every person that makes them unique and special. A truly beautiful human is one with a truly loving heart.

Ingredients:

1 cup Earth Balance vegan butter, softened

1 cup sugar

½ tablespoon Ener-g egg replace mixed with 2 tablespoons water

1 tablespoon vanilla

2½ cups all-purpose flour

1 teaspoon baking powder

2 tablespoons orange juice

For the frosting: 1 pound confectioners' sugar, ½ cup Earth Balance vegan butter, 1 teaspoon vanilla extract, 3 tablespoons almond milk

Directions:

  • Combine butter, sugar and mixed egg substitute in large mixing bowl.

  • Add flour, baking powder and mix well.

  • Divide dough into three pieces, wrap each in plastic wrap and refrigerate for 2 to 3 hours.

  • Preheat oven to 400 degrees. Remove dough from refrigerator, working one at a time, and roll out with rolling pin and cut with cookie cutters. Bake for 6 to 10 minutes. Once cooled, frost and decorate as desired.

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Chocolate-Orange Biscotti

Biscotti and other assorted cookies from Karen DeLuca of Clifton.
Biscotti and other assorted cookies from Karen DeLuca of Clifton.

This recipe comes from Karen DeLuca of Clifton, who has held cookie bakes with friends each year for nearly a decade. The original recipe is from Bon Appétit magazine; DeLuca's version (below) uses half the amount of chocolate called for in that recipe.

Ingredients:

2 cups plus 2 tablespoons all-purpose flour

1½ teaspoons baking powder

¼ teaspoon salt

¾ cup sugar

½ cup unsalted butter at room temperature

2 large eggs

2 tablespoons Grand Marnier or other orange liqueur

1 tablespoon grated orange peel

1 cup pecans, lightly toasted, coarsely chopped

3 ounces bittersweet chocolate (not unsweetened) chocolate, chopped

Directions:

  • Line large baking sheet with parchment paper.

  • Whisk together flour, baking powder and salt in a medium bowl.

  • Using an electric mixer, beat butter and sugar in a large bowl. Beat in eggs one at a time, then add Grand Marnier and orange peel. Add flour mixture and beat until blended. Stir in pecans and chocolate. Gather dough together then divide in half. Wrap in plastic and freeze for 20 minutes until firm.

  • Position rack in center of oven and heat oven to 350 degrees. Using floured hands, form each dough piece into logs that are 14 inches long and 2½ inches wide. Transfer both logs to baking sheet, spacing 2 inches apart. Bake until light golden, about 30 minutes. Transfer parchment and logs to a cooling rack and cool for 20 minutes. Reduce oven temperature to 300 degrees.

  • Working one log at a time, place on cutting board and, using a serrated knife, cut on diagonal into ½-inch thick slices. Stand upright on baking sheet, with one of the cut sides facing up.

  • Bake until dry to the touch and pale golden, about 30 minutes. Cool completely on rack. Store in airtight container up to one week.

Salted Butterscotch Snowballs

Salted butterscotch cookies made from a recipe from  Sylvia Dombrowski of Haddonfield.
Salted butterscotch cookies made from a recipe from Sylvia Dombrowski of Haddonfield.

Many years ago, The Courier-Post in Cherry Hill hosted an annual Christmas cookie contest for our readers.

One year, when Sylvia Dombrowski of Haddonfield brought in her salted butterscotch snowballs, she blew away the competition.

Since then, we’ve published her recipe many times, and I have also baked them at home. (They are my younger son’s favorite, and he helps me when I make several dozen to get us well past New Year’s.) Drop a dozen in a Mason jar, and you’ve got a lovely hostess gift and a more traditional alternative to the black sesame tahini and the Polish lace cookies I also bake at Christmas.

They are a rich and decadent treat that goes so well with coffee or tea, seated beside a perfectly decorated tree. All these years later, we are grateful to Sylvia for sharing her holiday treats. – Tammy Paolino, regional features editor.

Ingredients:

1½ cups all-purpose flour

¾ teaspoon baking powder

½ teaspoon baking soda

¼ teaspoon table salt

1¾ sticks (14 tablespoons) butter or margarine

1 cup granulated white sugar

¼ cup light brown sugar, packed

1 large egg, beaten

1 teaspoon vanilla extract

¾ cup quick Quaker Oats

1 (12-ounce) package butterscotch chips (Toll House)

Sea salt with built-in grinder

Confectioners' sugar (½ cup or less)

Directions:

  • Preheat oven to 375 degrees. Line a baking sheet with parchment paper or use a non-stick cookie sheet.

  • In a large bowl add flour, baking powder, baking soda and table salt. Hand stir with a wooden spoon to combine dry ingredients.

  • In a separate medium bowl add butter/margarine, white sugar and brown sugar. Combine by hand with a wooden spoon (or cream together with an electric mixer until well blended). Then add beaten egg to this sugar mixture and combine. Next, stir in vanilla extract.

  • Add the sugar mixture to the large bowl of flour mixture. Using a wooden spoon, combine to blend well. Stir in the Quaker Oats and butterscotch chips.

  • Using rounded teaspoons of cookie dough, place dough on your cookie sheet about 2 inches apart; these cookies will spread/flatten out. Bake cookies about 8 minutes at 375 degrees; watch carefully since oven temperatures vary. Cookies will appear slightly brown, and will firm up when cooled.

  • Remove cookies from the oven, but before cookies are removed from the cookie sheet, using the sea salt with built-in grinder, lightly sprinkle sea salt over cookies. Then remove cookies to a wire rack or a flat surface to cool. When cookies are cool, lightly dust with confectioners' sugar (using your fingertips or a shaker container) to give these round cookies a snowball appearance.

  • Makes about 4 dozen.

Even Chewier Chocolate Chip Cookies

Recipe developer Mehreen Karim's miso chocolate chip cookies.
Recipe developer Mehreen Karim's miso chocolate chip cookies.

I love making really chewy chocolate chip cookies during this time. There's one recipe I tried last year that I really enjoyed — the game changer was adding miso paste. (This recipe comes from writer and recipe developer Mehreen Karim, as shared on her website, imakedthis.com.) – Hira Qureshi, food reporter

Ingredients:

1 cup light brown sugar, packed

4 tablespoons granulated sugar

1 stick of unsalted butter, at room temperature

1 egg

¼ cup plus 1 tablespoon white miso paste

1 teaspoon vanilla extract

2 cups all-purpose flour

½ teaspoon cornstarch

1 teaspoon baking soda

1 cup bittersweet chocolate chips

1 4-ounce bar bittersweet chocolate, chopped in shards

Directions:

  • Beat both sugars and butter together in a medium bowl with an electric mixer until creamy and fluffy. The color will have changed to a paler beige.

  • Add the egg, miso and vanilla and beat until well mixed.

  • In a separate bowl, whisk together flour, cornstarch and baking soda. Add this dry mixture to the dough and mix with a spatula or wooden spoon (not a beater) until just combined. Lastly, mix in your chocolate chips.

  • Cover the bowl with plastic wrap and refrigerate for at least an hour or freeze until you’re ready to bake.

  • Preheat oven or toaster oven to 350 degrees and prepare a baking sheet with parchment paper or aluminum foil.

  • If dough was frozen, let it sit in the fridge for an hour or on the counter for 30 minutes.

  • Form 1- to 2-inch dough spheres with an ice cream scoop and place them on your prepared sheet, about 1½ inches apart from one another.

  • Place a few chunks of bittersweet chocolate on the tops of each cookie sphere. These will form yummy pools of chocolate later.

  • Bake for 10 minutes; cookies should be a bit puffy with golden brown tops and edges. Reduce temperature to 325 and return the sheet to the oven, rotating it once. Bake for 3 to 4 minutes, keeping an eye on them.

  • Remove cookies from oven and let rest for at least 15 minutes before removing from the sheet.

Kifli

My favorite Christmas cookies are kifli filled with apricot preserves or lekvar, or fruit butter. I have been making these cookies since I was 8 years old – this was before I knew about parchment paper for easy clean-up!

These cookies have been part of my Christmas since my young childhood days. The first time I tasted these cookies was on Christmas night at my parents’ friends home. I absolutely loved them. I asked how they were made, and the friend let me copy her recipe. I thought it would be fun to make them. I asked my mother to make them; she said if I really liked them, I should learn how to make them. I did exactly that. I think it was the first time I used a rolling pin to make a cookie. – Theresa Meskis Alfieri, Saddlebrook

Ingredients:

1 cup butter, softened

2 cups flour

½ teaspoon salt

8 ounces cream cheese, softened

Thick apricot jam or lekvar

Directions:

  • In a bowl, mix butter, flour, cream cheese and salt. Blend well then refrigerate to chill the dough thoroughly. (I let it sit overnight.)

  • Preheat oven to 425 degrees.

  • When dough is chilled, roll thin on a lightly floured pastry cloth, then cut into 3-inch squares.

  • Place a scant teaspoon of jam or lekvar on the center and then pinch the opposite corners together.

  • The original recipe then stated the cookies be placed on an unoiled cookie sheet. I now use parchment paper so that I have an easy clean-up process.

  • Bake for about 8 minutes. Eat mistakes! Makes about 3 dozen cookies.

Sarah Griesemer joined the USA TODAY NETWORK New Jersey in 2003 and has been writing all things food since 2014. Send restaurant tips to sgriesemer@gannettnj.com.

This article originally appeared on Asbury Park Press: Christmas cookie recipes from NJ home bakers sure to wow

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