Saturday, August 11, 2012

Gluten-Free, Vegan Cracked Pepper & Fennel Sugar Cookies

One of my favorite snacks as a child was Stella D'Oro Anisette Sponge Cookies.  Shaped like biscotti, they were crisp on the outside, but soft, slightly dry, and spongey on the inside - like pannetone.  Perfect for dunking.  They were my grandmother's favorite cookie, and when she would ask my brother, sister, and I what we wanted for merienda (meaning "afternoon snack" in Spanish), I would always yell, "Stella Dora! Stella Dora!"  

[Funny fact:  I googled, "Stella Dora" when I first started researching for this post.  Old habits die hard, apparently.]

It may seem odd that an eight-year old would choose a licorice-flavored boat-shaped cookie over chocolate chip, double stuffed Oreos, or chewy oatmeal raisin.  But spending as much time as I did with my grandmother, who raised my siblings and I while both my parents worked full-time, a lot of her likes and dislikes when it came to food rubbed off on me.  Which looking back, I'm totally grateful for.  Early on, I was instilled with an appreciation for flavors off the beaten path and foods I would never find in my classmates' lunch bags - an appreciation that richly inspires my creative process today when it comes to cooking and baking.

So, in honor of all those lazy afternoons dunking "Stella Dora" with my grandmother, I present today's recipe. 

Fennel Sugar Cookies with Cracked Pepper
Gluten-Free & Vegan / adapted from a Classic Sugar Cookie recipe by Gretchen from kumquat

Active Prep Time: 5-10 minutes
Inactive Prep Time: at least 4 hours
Baking Time: 15-20 minutes
Yield: approx. 36 tablespoon-sized cookies

1 heaping tablespoon ground golden flax seed
3 tablespoons hot water

1 1/4 c (180g) Bob's Red Mill GF all-purpose flour
scant 1/3 c (30g) quinoa flour
1 teaspoon GF baking powder
1/8 teaspoon salt
1/2 teaspoon whole psyllium husk

8 tablespoons (116g) Earth Balance vegan butter, softened
generous 3/4 c (116g) blonde coconut sugar
1/2 teaspoon GF vanilla extract
1 teaspoon fennel seed, crushed
1 tablespoon fresh fennel frond, minced

coconut sugar, to garnish
fresh cracked pepper, to garnish

1.  Combine ground flax and hot water to make your flax "egg" and set aside for 3-5 minutes.
2.  Combine all dry ingredients, from the all-purpose flour to psyllium husk, in a mixing bowl and whisk thoroughly.
3.  In another bowl, with a whisk or hand mixer, cream softened vegan butter and coconut sugar until lighter in both color and consistency (nearly fluffy).   Add remaining wet ingredients, including flax egg, crushed fennel seed, and fennel frond, and mix to combine.
4.  Gradually add dry mixture to wet mixture until combined thoroughly.  The dough will be quite soft and sticky.  Cover and chill for at least 4 hours, to give the flours a chance to hydrate and to really let the fennel flavors come together.  I chilled mine overnight.
5.  When ready to bake, preheat oven to 350 degrees.
6.  Make tablespoon-sized balls of the dough, spaced about 2 inches apart, and flatten them to about 1/3 inch in height.
7.  Garnish with more coconut sugar and a sprinkling of fresh cracked pepper (about a quarter turn per cookie if using a peppermill), and lightly tap the sugar and pepper into the surface of the dough.
8.  Bake for 15-20 minutes.
9.  Allow to cool for 5-10 minutes before transferring to a cooling rack or plate.

Helpful to chop the dried fennel with the fennel frond to keep it in place.

Wet ingredients getting tastier by the moment.

The texture of the pre-chilled dough is almost taffy-like.

Adding the piece de resistance.

Stunning for both the eyes and the tastebuds.

I love the fennel flavors in this cookie, particularly the contrast of dried with fresh.  The dried imparts a more pungent anise flavor, almost tart, with hints of amaretto, while the frond is rounder and sweeter in character.  The black pepper gives it that subtle spice that helps to differentiate the flavors on the palate, making them cohesive, but keeping them from being muddled.  And the texture of the cookies is so pleasing.  Happy tastebuds.

I was also made happy by the fact that I was baking  based on a colleague's recipe.  Gretchen, author of the beautiful blog, kumquat, posted the recipe that served as the template for today's cookies as part of the Ratio Rally cookie challenge.  I don't have much free time, so most of it goes towards creating and testing my own recipes.  But making time to bake someone else's recipes, to channel their inspiration, and to both learn from and appreciate their creativity, is always gratifying without fail.

So whether it be for merienda, a treat you share with those you love, or a sweet, sophisticated finish to a lovely meal, I hope you find joy, pleasure, and happiness in these cookies.  And along with them, opportunities to create memories so you can look back and smile.

I love to see my grandmother laugh.  She's going to love these cookies.


  1. What a brilliant combination of flavors! I myself have been digging savory ingredients in otherwise sweet foods, so this is definitely right up my alley.

    Delicious as always, and most certainly grandmother worthy.

    1. Thank you, Morri! The flavor combination has been mulling in my brain for months, so I was happy to finally test it out and come up with such a fabulous vegan version of Gretchen's sugar cookies. :)

  2. what a fabulous variation, jonathan! i can only imagine how amazing they smell while baking. so glad my cookies were a good jumping off place, especially if it's associated with happy grandmother memories! and thanks so much the mention and kind words!

    1. Thank YOU, Gretchen! I remember reading your sugar cookie post the first time and thinking, "One day, I'm gonna make those cookies." And here we are today, with happy grandmother memories, kitchens that smell of heaven, and savory/sweet cookies that make people sigh with delight. A pleasure.

  3. When I first read the post it made me miss both my grandmothers AND it made me want to abandon the computer to make the cookies! Alas, no fresh fennel in the house. :( Another day!

    1. No fennel? Use rosemary, or basil, or better yet...shiso! lol

  4. You made me think of my grandma...She was the one who raised me also, as my parents were busy working. She was my best friend / best ally when I was growing up. I miss her terribly (I haven't seen her since 2004, but she passed away in 2009). I'm sure my grandmother would have been so interested in gluten-free cooking and baking recipes. She's always up for trying new things :)

    1. I'm glad this post inspired you to think of your Lola, Jen. It's been two years since I've seen my grandmother, but in just 4 weeks I'll be on a place to the Philippines to see her and celebrate her 104th birthday. She's given me so much - words cannot even scratch the surface. I look forward to baking gluten-free and vegan goodies with her. :)


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