Once upon a time, when much younger and much more energetic, Michelle made cookies to share with friends and family for the holidays. Of course, Michelle being who she is, these cookies were very, very good—but also took up very, very much of her time. Within a few years she was spending virtually the entire month between Thanksgiving and Christmas obsessively thinking about cookies, making cookies, packaging cookies and distributing cookies to a growing number of people, constantly trying to outdo the last season’s gifts. (Alas, in those days, it never occurred to anyone to waste film on a photo of a cookie assortment so we have no visual record of it.)
Of course, simple human frailty, work demands and a finite amount of freezer space made this trajectory as unsustainable as the housing bubble, and the cookie-making crash saw the holiday cookie boxes stay unfilled for many years. This season, however, Michelle has quietly begun a new cycle, tackling as her first return her famed Ischler apricot sandwich cookies made from an old Maida Heatter recipe.
It takes an astonishing amount of effort to produce even a few of these buttery-short almond delights, sweet with apricot jam filling and dipped in silky bittersweet chocolate. In the old days, most were reserved for Michelle’s mother (and Steve, who is not, we are sad to say, above stealing).
Michelle plans again to give most of the Ischlers to her mother, but has been reviving the Christmas cookie tradition with a few more varieties, some old and some new. The sweet cookie stocks found before the turn of the century may never return to their dizzying heights, but the denizens of Gourmandistan (OK, mostly Steve, who cooks no cookies) see even this modest recovery as a very positive holiday development.
(adapted from Maida Heatter’s Book of Great Cookies) (makes somewhere between 25 and 50 sandwich cookies, depending on size)8 oz. blanched almonds 2-1/4 c. sifted all-purpose flour 2/3 c. sugar 10 oz. (2-1/2 sticks) cold butter, cut into 1/2″ slices 1/2 to 3/4 c. apricot preserves approx. 10 oz. bittersweet chocolate 1-1/2 TB vegetable shortening
Put almonds in food processor and grind to a fine powder, just short of turning into a butter. Place ground almonds in a large mixing bowl. Add flour and sugar and stir to mix. Use a pastry blender to cut the butter into the dry ingredients until the mixture resembles a coarse meal.
Turn the dough out onto a smooth work surface. Squeeze dough between your hands until it holds together. Form into a ball, flatten it a bit and then break it—that is, use the heel of your hand to push off small pieces, smearing against the work surface until the butter is fully incorporated into the dry ingredients. Form the dough into a ball again.
Divide the dough in half. Form each half into a flat round disk on a piece of wax paper. Place another sheet of wax paper over. Use a rolling pin over the top paper to roll the dough 1/4″ thick. Slide cookie sheets under the wax paper-enclosed flattened dough. Transfer to the freezer (or place outside on a cold day).
Preheat oven to 350°.
When dough is firm, pull off wax paper. Cut out using a 2″ to 2-1/2″ round cookie cutter. Place cookies 1″ apart on ungreased cookie sheets, using a metal spatula if necessary. If dough has warmed up, put back in the freezer for a bit to firm so cookies will hold their shape.
Reserve scraps and repeat process of rolling, cooling and cutting.
Bake cookies for 12-15 minutes, reversing the sheets front to back and top to bottom midway through. The cookies, when done, will be lightly golden (not brown). Remove with a spatula and cool on a wire rack.
Match up cooled cookies into pairs of equal sizes.
Strain preserves through a sieve or (lazier way) process in food processor.
Hold a cookie in one hand and spread the under side with a thin layer of preserves, keeping a bit away from the edge. Cover with another cookie (under side to preserves) and press together gently. Repeat until all cookies are made into sandwiches.
Melt chocolate and shortening over very low heat in a small pan. Transfer to a small bowl.
Line a couple of cookie sheets with wax paper. Dip cookie sandwiches into chocolate glaze until sides are about half covered. Wipe edge of each sandwich against top of bowl to remove excess glaze. Place on wax paper. When all cookies are glazed, place cookie sheets in freezer or refrigerator to allow chocolate to set. When glaze is set, cookies can be removed and stored in a container, in layers separated by wax paper, in the freezer.
These cookies are best when served chilled or frozen.