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Saturday, December 3, 2011

Venetian cookies, just in time for the holidays!

I love a challenge! Some people climb mountains, or try to write the great American I am thrilled to conquer a difficult recipe, and be able to share it with others.  Just in time for the holidays, I am happy to share with you a very special cookie often seen in bakery shops, and made at home by only the very brave...the Venetian, or Rainbow cookie!  Most of you might know that this cookie is associated with Italians, hence the name, Venetian. It is called a rainbow cookie only because of its colorful, striped good looks, but it has nothing to do with a rainbow, nor is it seen in is purely Italian American in origin, made to honor Italy by duplicating the colors of the Italian flag.  It is sweet, but not that sweet:  the cake is delicate and slightly chewy, with a distinctive almond flavor; the apricot filling between the layers is somewhat tart; and the high quality bittersweet chocolate that is required completes the symphony of flavors.

Venetian Cookies
Photo by Julia Evanczuk
Years ago, my good friend and excellent baker, Barbara, gave me a recipe for these cookies. I let it sit in my recipe folder for several seasons until I developed the courage to try it, because, truth be told, upon first reading, it is daunting. As I have told you in the past, I consider myself more of a cook than a baker. Baking is more of a science to me than an art; with cooking, if you make a mistake, it usually can be corrected. With baking, one mistake, and you have a disaster on your hands: starting over is the only option.  So when I finally conquered this recipe, I was so excited!  I absolutely love to hear the refrain, "You MADE this? They look like they come from a bakery, and they are amazing!!" For someone who loves to cook and to feed the crowd, this is highest praise indeed.  My message to you is, if I can make this, certainly you can too!!

This is fairly time consuming. You can save time by having all ingredients and equipment set out in advance so you don't have to go scrambling at the last minute and waste time. A partner as sous chef might also be an option!  One important note: the cakes must be assembled and spend the night in the refrigerator, weighted down, so that the layers adhere, before they are frosted and cut. So make sure you start the day before you serve them!

I have adapted the original recipe somewhat, and after trial and error, produced several fairly to very successful attempts. I have added some details that the veteran baker might not need to include, but when I bake,  I certainly need every detail explained.  For me, it makes the difference between good and great.

All the ingredients


1 7 or 8 ounce tube or can of  pure almond paste...not almond filling! Solo is a popular brand.
   Place can or tube in hot water to soften.
3 sticks butter, softened
4  large eggs, cold, separated
1/4 teaspoon cream of tartar
1 cup granulated sugar
1 teaspoon of pure almond extract
2 cups sifted all purpose flour
1/4 teaspoon salt
25 drops liquid red food coloring
25 drops liquid green food coloring
1 18 ounce jar apricot preserves, heated and strained (yields about 1 to 1 1/2 cup)
1 10 ounce bag of Ghirardelli 60% cacao bittersweet chocolate baking chips

A note about cream of tartar: it is added to egg whites to stabilize them. This white substance, found in the spice aisle, is tartaric acid, which lines the inside of wine caskets after fermentation. Another use for wine! It is invaluable when using beaten egg whites. Without it, the egg whites will begin to degrade much more quickly and will affect the volume and texture of your cakes.

Preparing the baking pan
You will need:

3 13X9X2 inch pans
Wax paper, 3 sheets, approximately 2 feet long each sheet
Nonstick cooking spray
Strainer or flour sifter
Electric stand mixer or sturdy electric hand mixer
2 small bowls for separated eggs
Large bowl for egg whites when done
3  2 cup (or larger) bowls for separating batter
Jelly roll pan or baking sheet
Strainer for apricot preserves
Small double boiler for chocolate
Plastic wrap
Heavy cutting board or heavy plate for weighing down the cakes

1. Preheat oven to 350 degrees.
2. Coat the pans with nonstick cooking spray, place the wax paper in each pan, allowing it to come up the short ends. Spray the paper.
Beating the Egg Whites
3. Separate the eggs, taking care not to allow any yolk to drip into the whites, as the whites will not rise in volume. If using a hand mixer, use a stainless steel bowl for best results.  Beat the egg whites with the electric mixer until foamy, gradually increasing the speed, then add the cream of tartar. Beat until stiff peaks form when the beaters are raised.  Set aside in a large bowl until ready to add to the cake batter.
4. Break up almond paste in electric mixer bowl. Add butter, sugar, egg yolks, and almond extract. Beat until light and fluffy, 5 minutes.  Beat in sifted flour and salt, only about 30 seconds more.
5. Carefully and by hand, in a circular motion, fold beaten egg whites into cake mixture until it is a well blended batter.
Dividing the Batter
6. Divide batter into three equal portions:  if you want to weigh, each portion should be 11-12 ounces each. Each portion is about one cup and a half.  Add green food coloring to one, red food coloring to another, and leave the last portion yellow. Spread each portion into the prepared pans.  It's kind of like spreading icing on a cake; eventually you will get the knack of it.
Spreading the batter
7. Bake in the oven for 15 minutes until the very edges are golden brown. My oven is typical. You probably will not be able to bake all the cakes side by side on one rack, so either place one on a lower rack below the other two. Otherwise, you will have to bake in two batches. I prefer the former method; I just watch the cake on the lower rack carefully and remove it a few minutes before the other two are done.  Be careful not to overbrown!  When done, remove the cakes from the pans immediately, using the wax paper overhangs. Make sure you have a surface, such as a cooling rack or a countertop, prepared when you remove the cakes from the pan. Let the layers cool on the prepared surface.
The layers are done

8. Heat and strain the apricot preserves.
9. Remove the green cake layer,  very carefully using two spatulas, place on the jelly roll pan or baking sheet.  Spread half of the strained apricot preserves on that layer.  Slide the yellow layer on top, again being  very careful. Spread with remaining preserves. Slide the red layer on top.
Spreading the strained preserves
10. Cover with plastic wrap, tucking in the sides.  Weigh down the assembled cake with a large wooden cutting board, heavy plate or stoneware baking stone, leave in refrigerator overnight. Some use one of the baking pans, placing two 5 pound bags of sugar or flour in the pan, to weigh it down.
11. The next day, make the chocolate frosting by melting the chocolate in a double boiler. Be careful that no water droplets get into the chocolate or it will seize. You can also microwave it in a bowl, a few seconds at a time until completely melted.  Remove the plastic wrap from the cake, and spread the chocolate evenly. Allow the chocolate to dry,  only about 10 to 15 minutes. If you wait too long, the chocolate will crack and it will be difficult to cut the cookies. Trim the edges neatly (save the trimmings! they are as delicious as the cookies, but not as pretty!)  Cut into 1 to 1/12 inch squares or rectangles. I slice the cake into four slices lengthwise, and then cut into one inch slices. This recipe yields 45 to 55 cookies.

I promise you that everyone will be very impressed with these cookies. They make a wonderful gift, and something very special to bring to holiday parties!
Just where they should be!
Photo by Julia Evanczuk

Buon Natale e felice anno nuovo! Buone feste a tutti!
Merry Christmas and Happy New Year! Happy Holidays to all!


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