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In the kitchen with grandma: How to make 6-layer Neapolitan cookies

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Christie Rotondo / Neapolitan cookies are a favorite in the Rotondo family. Christie Rotondo / Neapolitan cookies are a favorite in the Rotondo family. The Yule Blog, Dec. 10: 15 days until Christmas

These delicious Italian specialty cookies are a Christmas favorite

I think every family has one: a cookie recipe that only makes an appearance after Thanksgiving leftovers have disappeared. Gingerbread men, sugar cookies cut into candy canes, Christmas trees and Santa hats, put out next to a glass of milk for Old St. Nick on Christmas Eve.

In the Rotondo household, it’s my grandmother’s Neapolitan cookies. They are normally delivered to us on Christmas Eve with a variety of her specialties – butter cookies, fried Italian bow-tie cookies and lots of others – and only after we’ve finished The Feast of the Seven Fishes.

To my family, these cookies mean Christmas. And they are by far the best-tasting cookies. Ever. 

My grandmother Patricia Rotondo, aka Grandma Tricia, pronounced TREE-sha, turned 76 in November. She used to make 13 different kinds of cookies for Christmas, and every household in our family would get a basket.

Her recipes are on handwritten cards, now yellowed with age, and photocopied magazine pages stored in a duct-taped box with her vintage cookie press and cutouts.

Now she makes only a handful of the cookies, just our favorites. But the prize of the basket are the Neapolitan cookies.

On Saturday, Dec. 7, I made the cookies with her for the first time.

“They aren’t too hard, it’s just a lot of steps,” she prepared me. It’s easily the longest recipe in her collection of family recipes, which she made into a cookbook some years ago.

I thought the recipe would have been passed down from her grandmother to her mother, and so on. But Grandma Trisha found it in a magazine featuring Italian specialty recipes a long time ago.

She tried it, and it has become a tradition. The magazine recipe is photocopied and stained, but she still references it to see how much flour or sugar should be in the dough, or how many drops of food coloring will turn the top layer the perfect color of pink.

The original recipe calls for almond paste, but my grandmother prefers Solo almond filling, which she says is easier to work with and makes the cookies moist (It's on sale this week at ShopRite for $2.99, a dollar off the regular price).

You need three pans of the same size to make the three colored layers: one green, one yellow, and one pink. Grease the pans with butter and line them with waxed paper, then grease the paper as well. This will make stacking the layers much easier.

Grandma Trisha showed me how to separate the egg yolks and whites, and then we mixed them with a can of almond filling, margarine and sugar in her vintage electric mixer until the batter was light and fluffy. Most of my grandmother’s appliances are well-worn and older than I am.

We added flour to the mixture, beat egg whites until they formed soft peaks, and mixed them in. Then we divided the batter into three equal portions. My grandmother is particular about getting all the leftover mixture out of the bowl, and she wields a spatula so skillfully that the bowl is practically wiped clean. That’s a skill I have yet to master.

Christie Rotondo spreads the pink cookie dough in the pan. Christie Rotondo spreads the pink cookie dough in the pan.

We added food coloring to two of the bowls of dough to turn one lime green and the other bright pink. The third was left natural. Then each was spread into a separate pan and baked for 10 to 12 minutes.

While we were waiting for the cookies to bake, my grandma explained that many of our family recipes are actually “borrowed” from a neighbor of my great-grandmother, who grew up in a convent after my great-great grandmother died. Great-great grandpa didn’t think he could raise two girls on his own, so they went “off to live with the nuns,” and he and their brother would visit on weekends.

My great-grandmother didn’t learned how to cook until she got married and an old Italian woman who was living above them in their Newark apartment taught her.

By the time the story was over, the cookies were ready to come out of the oven. The next part was the hardest: flipping the layers onto one another, lined up perfectly, so you’ve got pretty cookies.

Tricia Rotondo shows granddaughter Christie Rotondo how to spread raspberry jam over the first layer of the cookies. Tricia Rotondo shows granddaughter Christie Rotondo how to spread raspberry jam over the first layer of the cookies.

My grandmother demonstrated how to flip the green layer out of the pan, and we covered it in raspberry jam. Then I took a deep breath and tried my hand at flipping the yellow layer on top of it. It ended up about half an inch to the right – not bad for a first try.

I spread apricot preserves over the yellow layer, then flipped the pink layer onto the yellow. My aim was better this time.

The cookies, which were more like cake at that point, were then covered in plastic wrap and placed in the fridge with a cutting board on top that we weighed down with a few jars for good measure. This squishes the layers together so that when the cookies are cut the layers don’t come apart.

The process took about an hour and a half, not counting the five minutes to top the cookies with chocolate the next day.

It is traditions like these that make the holidays special. For me, Christmas Eve isn’t Christmas Eve without baccala salad and my youngest cousin, Joseph, asking if it’s time to open presents yet. And Christmas Day isn’t Christmas Day without my family arguing over who ate the last Neapolitan cookie by the time breakfast is over.

Now the recipe has been passed down, and I am officially a part of this treasured family tradition.

Neapolitan 6-Layer Cookies

1 can Solo almond filling
1 cup margarine, softened
1 cup sugar
4 egg yolks
4 egg whites
2 cups sifted flour
20 drops red food coloring
12 drops green food coloring
raspberry jam
apricot preservers
1 6-ounce package chocolate chips
1 teaspoon margarine

Preheat oven to 350. Grease the bottom of three 13- by 9-inch pans. Line pans with waxed paper and grease the paper.

In a large mixing bowl beat almond filling, margarine, sugar and egg yolks until light and fluffy. With wooden spoon, beat in flour until well-combined.

In medium bowl, beat egg whites until soft peaks form when the beater is raised. Add to the almond-flour mixture and stir well.

Remove 1 1/2 cups of batter to medium bowl, stir in red food coloring until blended and spread evenly into prepared pan. Remove another 1 1/2 cups and add green food coloring, mix and turn into second pan. Turn remaining batter into the third pan and bake all three 10 to 12 minutes, just until edges are golden brown.

Invert on to wire racks and slowly remove waxed paper. Once cooled, turn green layer into one of the baking pans and spread evenly with raspberry jam.

Place yellow layer on top of green layer and spread with apricot preserves, then top with pink layer. Cover with plastic wrap and set a cutting board or heavy flat pan on top of cake to weigh it down and refrigerate overnight.

The next day, melt chocolate and margarine in a double boiler. Spread on top of cake, let dry slightly and cut into 24 half-inch wide strips. Cut each strip into four even pieces. Store covered. 

The Yule Blog is a day-to-day countdown to Christmas featuring a new story each day. Click the links below to read other stories in the series.

Nov. 29: Best shopping apps put you where the buys are.

Nov. 30: Small Business Saturday gives independent shops their turn to shine.

Dec. 1: Before there was 'Elf,' there was 'The Santaland Diaries.'

Dec. 2: Historic Smithville has plenty of old-fashioned Christmas spirit to go around

Dec. 3: Earth-friendly gifts help preserve the world's green assets.

Dec. 4: Great gift ideas for the cook

Dec. 5: Let Cape May kindle your Christmas spirit

Dec. 6: The worst and the weirdest Christmas films

Dec. 7: How to take the perfect holiday portrait

Dec. 8: Will South Jersey have a White Christmas in 2013?

Dec. 9: Don't risk a home fire this winter

Dec. 10: In the kitchen with grandma: How to make 6-layer Neapolitan cookies

Dec. 11: 12 (relatively) new songs for Christmas

Dec. 12: Best all-time Christmas movies, Part 1

Dec. 13: Best all-time Christmas movies, Part 2

Dec. 14: How to make Razzleberry Dressing

Dec. 15: Last-minute make-it gift: Peppermint Patty Martini

Dec. 16: Dennisville Christmas House Tour connects past and present

Dec. 17: Snow day survival guide

Dec. 18: Best all-time Christmas songs

Dec. 19: 5 handy gifts for the home baker

Dec. 20: Cookie swaps sweeten the holidays if you can avoid the jams

Dec. 21: When will Santa get here? Track his flight Christmas Eve with NORAD

DEc. 22: Presents for pets - and pet lovers

Dec. 23: Best children's books get to the heart of Christmas

Dec. 24: Feast of the 7 Fishes is a Christmas Eve tradition for many Italians

Dec. 25: People all over the world celebrate the birth of Jesus

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