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The Ultimate Holiday Cookie

How good are they?

Ever since “Classic Home Desserts” (Houghton Mifflin Court) by the late-great Richard Sax was reissued in 2000, I have baked these super chewy, almond-intense macaroons for Christmas.

Yes, every Christmas. Friends, family, and co-workers clamor for them, and can’t wait for their appearance in cellophane-bagged stocking stuffers or on party dessert trays. Basically, they won’t let me make anything else.

But that’s OK, because I can’t get enough of them, either.

At the annual potluck at the San Jose Mercury News, my contribution was always a batch of these festive cookies. Colleagues would grab a cookie prior to lining up for the entrees, just to be sure they got one before they all disappeared. In fact, they talked me into baking TWO batches in subsequent years. And one year, a former copy editor who had moved to San Diego was visiting the area at this time, and showed up to the potluck only because she wanted to snag one of my macaroons.

If you’re not a fan of coconut, no worries. There is no coconut in these macaroons. Just egg whites, sugar, and almond paste. That’s it. The original recipe, Mary’s Pignoli, calls for rolling 1-inch balls of the mixture in pine nuts. But with their high oil content, the pine nuts made the cookies almost too rich, if you can believe that. The recipe states sliced or slivered almonds are other alternatives. I like using slivered almonds because they give these pale-golden cookies an almost snowflake-like look.

Make a batch and see for yourself just what perfect holiday cookies they are.

And for more cookie fun, be sure to tune in to “Dining Around with Gene Burns” (KGO Radio, AM810), 10 a.m. to 1 p.m. this Saturday, Dec. 13, for the 13th annual Holiday Cookie Exchange at the InterContinental San Francisco.

Twenty-five finalists will present their best cookies for judging by yours truly, the Food Gal; Dominique Crenn, executive chef of Luce in the InterContinental San Francisco; Cindy Mushet, author of Sur La Table’s “The Art & Soul of Baking” cookbook; and Emily Lucchetti, cookbook author and pastry chef of Farallon, WaterBar, and Epic Roadhouse, all in San Francisco.

Top winners will receive get-away weekends to San Francisco, Monterey, and Yosemite, as well as restaurant gift certificates.

Italian Macaroons

(makes about 5 dozen)

1 pound almond paste

1 1/4 cups sugar

4 large egg whites

About 1 pound slivered almonds

Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Line 2 or 3 baking sheets with parchment paper or lightly butter sheets.

Be sure to measure the almond paste accurately, as too little almond paste will create a super sticky dough that will be harder to work with. Break almond paste into pieces. Place in bowl of a food processor with the sugar. Pulse into almond paste is crumbled finely, and evenly combined with sugar.

In a separate bowl, beat egg whites to soft peaks. Stir a little of the egg whites into the almond mixture; it will be fairly dry. Fold in remaining whites.

Place almonds in a shallow bowl. Roll almond paste mixture into 1-inch balls, keeping them as round as possible. If mixture is too sticky, alternately drop heaping teaspoonfuls into the bowl of almonds; use your fingers to roll the dough ball around until coated evenly with slivered almonds. Place on prepared baking sheets, spacing 1 inch apart.

Bake cookies until evenly pale gold, 15 to 17 minutes.

Cool cookies in pans on a wire rack for about 5 minutes. With a spatula, very carefully transfer cookies to the rack to cool completely. These macaroons keep well; store in an airtight container. You also can freeze the cookies in sealable plastic bags.

Adapted from “Classic Home Desserts”