Auntie Mella’s Italian Soft Anise Cookies

I feel like I am supposed to say that the foods I remember most from my childhood were prepared from memory by my grandmother over the course of an entire Sunday, pressing pinches of love onto my cheek with one hand while she stirred and stirred the contents of a bubbling kettle with the other. I could try to make my memories fit, but it just wouldn’t be true. It’s not that my family doesn’t cook; it’s just that we don’t cook “like that.”

In truth, the foods I remember most were store-bought bagels, crisp and buttery from the toaster on tiny white paper plates, and any kind of macaroni — especially Mama Rosie’s cheese-stuffed ravioli with milk and garlic bread. The ravioli was frozen, but the 2-inch high mound of parmesan on top was always fresh, grated by hand from a wedge in the fridge.

I still love bagels and macaroni, but because I can get them anytime, they don’t conjure up a memory sigh. The things that do are rare — the foods that only came out once or twice a year at family parties. Auntie Mella’s Italian Cookies are one of those. She was married to my Uncle Artie, my grandfather’s brother, a warm, teasing man who made a game of standing right next to me when I was small, but looking over my head and asking the room “Where’s Aimee?” while I jumped up and down, waving my hands, yelling “I’m right here!”

Uncle Artie on the right, posing with my Papa at our 1992 family picnic.

My mom likes to tell me that he once asked me, the way you do when children are learning the names of relatives, “Do you know who I am?” and I said that I did — that he was Uncle Artie. When Auntie Mella asked me the same question a moment later I said “Sure, you’re Uncle Artie’s friend!”

Technically, I was correct.

Her cookies were firm and perfectly round, like mushrooms, but once bitten revealed a soft, cake-like interior. The tops were coated with a hard, shiny glaze and covered with minute, colored sprinkles. What child can resist the sight of all those sprinkles?

I didn’t recognize the aroma or flavor, but it was not the vanilla, chocolate, or peanut butter cookies I was used to. If I had known the delicate, sweet taste in my mouth was anise (the flavor in black licorice) I might have stuck out my tongue and said I knew I didn’t like it, but I didn’t know, and they had those sprinkles, so I tried one. And I loved it.

I’ve been dreaming of Auntie Mella’s cookies for years. She passed away before I developed my passion for baking, so I never had the chance to tell her how much I loved her cookies and how much they reminded me of being little and underfoot at family parties where all the people I loved were alive and happy and laughing and teasing one another after a baptism, or at our annual summer picnic.

Our annual family summer picnic celebrated its 61st anniversary in 2011 – our last in Saugus.

I tried to make them over the years. Tried to find recipes in tattered secondhand community cookbooks or online, my eyes scanning the list of ingredients and method of shaping and glazing, looking for something I recognized, but none of them ever looked or tasted right. None of them were Auntie Mella’s.

Then, last weekend, I tried again. Unlike the other times, I updated my Facebook status with my plan, and a half hour later my mom called. She had the recipe I was looking for. Auntie Mella’s daughter, my mom’s cousin Anne Marie, had written it down for her on an envelope a few years ago at a family event. She knew it by heart. My mom read it out loud to me over the phone, and in about an hour, I was biting into one. An actual dream come true.

Out of the oven they don’t look like much, but they smell wonderful, and it’s nothing a little glaze can’t help.

They came out just as I remembered them. How often does that actually happen? I ate my fair share (never mind the number), then shared the rest with my friend Heather, mom, and Nana. Food is arguably one of the strongest links we have to memory, so I plan on celebrating the memory of my Auntie Mella, the whole wonderful Italian side of my family, and my own childhood memories by making these cookies, and making them often.

Try them and see for yourself how delicious they are!

Auntie Mella’s Italian Cookies

Ingredients
3 eggs
4 teaspoons baking powder
2 teaspoons anise extract
3/4 cup sugar
4 cups flour
3/4 cup vegetable oil
1/2 cup milk

For the Glaze
2 cups powdered sugar
2 – 3 Tablespoons milk
1 teaspoon anise extract

Directions

  1. Preheat the oven to 350 degrees and line 2 baking sheets with parchment.
  2. In a large bowl, beat together the eggs, sugar, extract and baking powder.
  3. Add the vegetable oil and milk, then the flour, one cup at a time, until well combined.
  4. Pinch off walnut-sized pieces of dough, and roll smooth between your palms.  Flour your hands if the dough is too sticky.  Arrange the balls of dough 2 inches apart on the baking sheets.
  5. Bake for 10-12 minutes, or until bottoms of the cookies are a light golden brown.  The tops will still be pale.
  6. Remove from the oven, then transfer to a wire rack to cool.
  7. Combine the glaze ingredients in a bowl until just smooth.  You want it more thick than thin, but still runny.
  8. Dip the tops of the cooled cookies into the glaze, then return to the wire rack, allowing the glaze to drip down the sides of the cookie.
  9. Top with sprinkles.

Cookies are best eaten right away.  Once covered the trapped moisture will soften the glaze and the colors from the sprinkles will bleed.  Still tasty, but not so pretty.

Makes around 30 cookies.

Click to view and print the recipe for Auntie Mella’s Italian Cookies.

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41 Comments on “Auntie Mella’s Italian Soft Anise Cookies”

  1. April 5, 2012 at 10:04 pm #

    Oh my gosh, I’m going to have to try these! I also longingly remember my mother’s anise cookies. She passed away when I was a teen, and all I remember was that the recipe used to be on the back of the anise extract box. I’ve thought about trying to search for it online, but these look just like them so I’ll start here! Thank you! Great story too!

    • April 5, 2012 at 10:14 pm #

      Oh, I hope they are what you’re looking for – or are at least a step in the right direction! Anise cookies don’t get enough praise. Enjoy!

  2. April 5, 2012 at 10:19 pm #

    Aimee, these are beautiful! And as always, I love the photos and story that come with. Can’t wait to try them. Big hugs to you and I miss you tons!

    • April 5, 2012 at 10:30 pm #

      Marie!!! I miss you, lady!! Why do we have to live on opposite coasts? xoxo

  3. Anonymous
    April 5, 2012 at 10:26 pm #

    I am incredibly lucky that so many of your memories are my memories, too. Great pictures and write-up. Auntie Mella would be so proud!!! xo

    • Anonymous
      April 5, 2012 at 10:27 pm #

      This is Courtney!

      • April 5, 2012 at 10:29 pm #

        Way to fly under the radar, Court. :)

    • July 28, 2013 at 9:50 am #

      That’s a craraecjkck answer to an interesting question

    • August 7, 2013 at 3:08 am #

      Thought it wouldn’t to give it a shot. I was right.

  4. Laura
    April 5, 2012 at 10:38 pm #

    Aimee, what an incredible story, anyone on the outside would think this is fiction, but we are truly blessed to know this is all real. The memories and emotions you convey through words and food is so moving. Thank you for keeping the legacy going and I want you to know we are all so proud of you!!!

    • April 5, 2012 at 10:45 pm #

      Thank you, Laura! We are definitely blessed! Next up needs to be your mom’s blue ribbon pie! I still have the handwritten copy of the recipe you gave me! :)

  5. heather--the cookie monster
    April 5, 2012 at 11:01 pm #

    You know how much I loved the cookies. I love your cookie memoir just as much!

  6. magw3
    April 6, 2012 at 7:13 am #

    Aimee, reading this made me cry. (And wish that I had some of Auntie Mella’s cookies……sigh!)

  7. April 6, 2012 at 2:02 pm #

    I love the story behind these cookies and that secret ingredient, anise! These look fabulous

  8. April 7, 2012 at 8:26 pm #

    What a great story! Your cookies look like perfect little bites of heaven. The sprinkles definitely make them irresistible.

  9. April 15, 2012 at 10:55 am #

    Usually I am not a fan of anise but these are one of my favorite cookies!

  10. hfb
    April 28, 2012 at 6:49 pm #

    I just made a batch of these since I love anise, but didn’t really feel like making springerle. I seem to remember having a few of these a while back when I saw them at a local Shaw’s and liked them, but never got around to finding the recipe. I’m sorry I waited so long and many, many thanks to you for posting the recipe (and awesome pictures and great story)! I added a bit of powdered star anise along with the anise extract to give it a bit more oomph and now I’m quickly trying to think of someone I can take a big plate of cookies to in order to save me from eating them all. :)

    Are these just a NE/Boston treat? I know I’ve had soft anise cookies before, but not cakey as these are and not with icing and nonpareils. I’ve also seen them called ‘anisette cookies’, but I’m not sure if that’s the ‘official’ name for them. Thanks, again, for making my day! :)

  11. Anonymous
    June 10, 2012 at 10:34 pm #

    what do u do when u put too much anise extract in your cookies??

  12. nicole
    September 5, 2012 at 9:57 pm #

    I found this recipe with google. I needed to make cookies for my husband’s Italian Family Reunion. I was not use to the anise taste but after reading your story I figured I would give it a shot. My 5 and 3 yr old helped roll, frost, and sprinkle. Great time! Needless to say they were a HUGE success! And I just wanted to say Thank You for sharing!!!!

  13. Anonymous
    September 22, 2012 at 12:11 pm #

    You made me cry. I lost my mother who also never wrote down the recipe for her cookies. I hope your aunt’s recipe will be close to my mother’s. I did the same thing, I never asked her how to make them. Now shes gone, and I want to make them, so I can bring back a small part of her for my children who were small when she past away. So, I am very excited to be making this recipe that sounds very authentic. I cannot thank you enough.

  14. Anonymous
    October 18, 2012 at 6:15 pm #

    BETH

    Well I can die now. I’ve made THE italian cookie that I thought only my sister-in-law Linda could make! This recipe is awesome! I’m so glad I stumbled across it. Only thing, it says it makes 30 cookies, I came out with 56 pretty nice size ones. And what an easy way to frost them, just sticking the tops in the frosting! THANK YOU SO MUCH!!

  15. Anonymous
    December 17, 2012 at 9:09 am #

    These are fantastic! I also came out with more cookies than expected (which was great!) I colored the glaze I put on top, red and green for the holiday party I brought them too. Everyone was asking for the recipe and I gladly shared your blog with them.

  16. December 19, 2012 at 1:56 pm #

    I am so glad so many of you are visiting from Google because you’re searching for an Italian Anise Cookie, and I am even happier to hear you are enjoying them! Looks like I am going to have to make them again soon to update the cookie yield. Darn! :)

  17. Elisa
    December 21, 2012 at 11:52 am #

    I need to tell you– you have saved a really special Christmas memory for me. We have made my mom’s/gram’s anise cookies at Christmas and Easter for my WHOLE life. Two Christmases ago, the recipe was destroyed. It was just written on a very very old 3×5 card, and it was in a little recipe box. The box got wet on the bottom without our realizing it, and when we went to get recipes out, they were completely unreadable, covered with black mold. I cried. Last year, I looked for recipes, but to no avail. All the recipes I found that made similar looking cookies all had butter, shortening… some made those really hard anise cookies that you can wrap around a whole egg at Easter, or little crispy ones. I decided to look again this year, and after looking through over 20 recipes, I found yours. It is EXACTLY RIGHT–the very same cookies I have made since I stood on a stool beside my mom frosting them! It seems simple, and a little silly (since they are just cookies), but I am so grateful! Thank you, thank you! And Merry Christmas!

    Also, I noticed above that your family is from Saugus, and my family is from Saugus/Revere– so, I like to think that maybe, somewhere along the line, some great-aunt of mine shared a recipe with some great-aunt of yours, and here it comes again! :o)

    • December 21, 2012 at 12:25 pm #

      Elisa, thank you so much for your comment! I know how important it is to have the right version of the Italian anise cookie, and it makes me so, so happy to know this is the right one for you and your family! It’s not simple or silly at all — food is such a powerful connection to memory and tradition. So glad you’ll be enjoying them again this Christmas! Hope it’s a very merry one! (And yes, I hope our relatives were in a coffee club together!!)

  18. JN
    December 23, 2012 at 5:11 pm #

    Wonderful recipe! I’ve been looking for a soft anise cookie recipe, and this is perfect. I didn’t have anise extract, so I used powdered anise. The flavor still came through. Thanks!

  19. Edee
    December 25, 2012 at 3:08 pm #

    I made a bunch of anise biscotti last night, and they’re nearly all gone because I LOVE the flavor. I thought…I wonder if there is a soft cookie with the anise flavor! Thank you, thank you! Can’t wait to try them and take them to church :)

  20. Kate
    December 26, 2012 at 5:35 pm #

    My husband’s family makes similar cookies that have anise seeds in them and no sprinkles on top. They call them Sucareens (sp). I’ve been told they are too hard to make….wondering if you have any ideas about using the seeds instead of extract and what the ratio for measurement purposes would be? These are really lovely cookies and I would like to be able to make. Also, my mother-in-law stores them in the freezer so they don’t get hard too fast. Works well! Thanks!

  21. Jaylene Low
    January 12, 2013 at 11:35 am #

    I’ve been searching for a recipe that did my Nana Jo’s cookies justice and this is it!! I made them for Christmas and even my mom was amazed! Thank you for the lovely trip down memory lane…delicious!!!

  22. Anonymous
    March 19, 2013 at 8:41 am #

    can i substitute almond or vanilla extract? I hate anise, SORRY!!!

  23. Anonymous
    April 21, 2013 at 3:29 pm #

    I have been making Anise cookies for years it was my grandma FANNIE’s recipe .. A little differen from Auntie Mellia’s.. But they are AWSOME . My family enjoys Christmas cookies every year.. When I seen this recipe, it brought back some great memerios … So enjoy …. Patty Pollard…..

  24. Anonymous
    May 22, 2013 at 6:36 am #

    I used your recipe for the first time last year and it’s seriously become a staple at holiday meals ever since! Thanks!!

  25. Roe
    September 2, 2013 at 8:04 am #

    My grandmother also made these but just like most cookies she made she would substitute/add liquor into the recipe. :) In this case anisette in the dough and glaze. At Christmas she would roll out the dough and use holiday cookie cutters. Always loved them–still do!

  26. Primori M.
    November 10, 2013 at 5:57 am #

    These represent some of my earliest kitchen memories with my mom. I would be kneeling (or standing maybe) on a chair, the table coated in flour, and she would give me a ball of dough to roll into snakes. Then she showed me how she twisted a loop and overlapped the ends to make a sort of fish-like shape. I still have her handwritten recipe card from those times, and now I pass this experience down to my own child. Your recipe is so close to hers.
    Thank you for posting.

  27. Anonymous
    December 14, 2013 at 10:57 am #

    Can butter be used for this delicious recipe…i have made similiar recipes but cant wait to try yous…thank you

  28. Cindi
    March 3, 2014 at 5:49 pm #

    My husband’s Nonnie gave me her recipe for Italian anise cookies many years ago. She’s been gone for quite a few years now, but her cookies live on. Anise oil, not anise extract, was the secret… Anise oil has a much stronger flavor, but it is hard to find. Thank goodness for the internet, because I was able to score it on a website. At any rate, her recipe called for a ‘wine glass full of oil’ and ‘a wine glass of milk’…I always used a certain juice glass for this recipe and it served me well. Foolishly, I never measured the amount this juice glass held, and you guessed it, the glass broke! I was nearly in tears! I’ve since had to become a test kitchen and finally decided that 3/4 cup was the measurement for my ‘wine glass’ and it seems to fare well. I will definitely give Auntie Mella’s recipe a try!

  29. terry
    March 28, 2014 at 12:52 pm #

    So special this is. I just made these. For my brother and sister both have some health problems. My mother made these very Easter. It was so special. Have to tell you memories of our food we shared together is so special. Thanks for this and we are sharing in a great commune of food together. God Bless you and have a Blessed Easter.

  30. March 28, 2014 at 2:00 pm #

    Cindi and Terry, I’m so glad you share my love for these special Italian anise cookies! Have a wonderful Easter!

  31. Dianne
    April 20, 2014 at 10:37 am #

    Finally I found someone else that doesn’t use butter in these cookies! My Mama used 3tbls of crisco & 1/4c of crisco oil (no milk). NOW if I can find a recipe for the Ricotta Cookies without butter, I’d be all set:)))) Happy Easter!

  32. October 28, 2014 at 8:03 am #

    I love your recipe! I made these for my son’s Baptism reception this past Saturday and they were such a success! Everyone loved them!!! Thank you so much for sharing! 😊

    • Anonymous
      December 20, 2014 at 8:41 pm #

      Hi I made these today as part of my Christmas cookies and they came out great ! Thanks for sharing. I’m keeping them in recipe book for future Christmases. They remind me of my Italian grandmother’s recipe so now at Christmas I’ll think of her and your Aunt Mella too !

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