At this time of year we’re always looking for recipes for gluten-free sweets, especially cookies, as more and more of our friends have forsaken flour. I always turn to my French pastry guru, Jacquy Pfeiffer, with all of my baking questions, even though I know that the Chicago-based, Alsatian-born pastry chef is not a gluten-free kinda guy. But he doesn’t need to be to offer an array of Christmas cookies that everyone can enjoy, whether they tolerate gluten or not. His moist, chewy almond-meal cinnamon stars (zimsterne), are among the most iconic of Alsatian Christmas cookies and date back to the 14th century, long before people even knew what gluten was, let alone gluten free.
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There are several other gluten-free cookies in Pfeiffer’s Alsatian repertoire. He did not have to invent these recipes, or make traditional cookies gluten free by working with special flours or ingredients and changing formulas. They just don’t happen to contain flour. Among my favorites are his coconut macarons, or rochers, incredibly addictive morsels made with lots of unsweetened coconut, egg whites and sugar. They are the easiest cookies in the world to make: You mix together the egg whites, sugar and coconut with a very small amount of applesauce or apricot compote (whose fruit pectin absorbs and retains moisture), and stir the mixture over a double boiler until it thickens a little and reaches 167 degrees F (75 degrees C). Then you refrigerate the batter overnight. The next day you scoop out the cookies and bake them until golden brown. They keep well for weeks, so you can begin your Christmas baking way ahead of time.
Lemon mirrors, macarons and more
Other cookies that I find irresistible and always make at this time of year so that all of my friends can enjoy them are called lemon mirrors. They are delicate, nutty cookies with a meringue base enriched with almond flour, an almond cream filling (the original recipe for the almond cream called for 1 teaspoon of flour, but that small quantity was easy to swap out for cornstarch), and a lemon icing. They’re called mirrors because the final glaze makes them shiny and reflective.
The coconut macarons and lemon mirrors are not the only gluten-free cookies in Pfeiffer’s repertoire. Think macarons. Those iconic French cookies are made with almond flour, egg whites and sugar, without a jot of wheat. But they require a little more time and practice to make than the two Alsatian cookies here, and by now you are probably ready to get those cookie plates going. So get out your baking sheets and your whisks, and leave your flour in the cupboard.
Jacquy Pfeiffer’s Coconut Macarons
It’s best to mix up the batter for these cookies the day before you bake and let it rest overnight in the refrigerator. They are naturally gluten free, with no flour in the batter.
Yield: 3 dozen cookies
Prep time: About 15 minutes
Resting time: Overnight
Baking time: 15 to 20 minutes
100 grams (about 3) egg whites, at room temperature
160 grams (3/4 cup) granulated sugar
100 grams (about 1 1/3 cups) unsweetened fine coconut flakes
10 grams (2 teaspoons) apricot compote or applesauce
1.5 grams (scant 1/4 teaspoon) fine sea salt
1. Create a double boiler by pouring 3/4 inch of water into a saucepan and placing it on the stove over medium heat.
2. Place all the ingredients in a stainless steel mixing bowl that is larger than the saucepan, and mix them together with a whisk. Reduce the heat under the saucepan to low and place the bowl on top. It should not be touching the water. Stir continuously with a whisk — not like a maniac, but stirring all areas of the bowl so that the egg whites don’t coagulate throughout the mix into small white pieces. Stir until the mixture thickens and reaches 167 F/75 C. Remove from the heat, take the bowl off the pot and wipe the bottom dry. Scrape down the sides of bowl.
3. Place a piece of plastic wrap directly over the mixture, taking care to lay the plastic right on the surface of the batter so that it is not exposed to air. Cover the bowl as well and refrigerate for at least two hours or preferably overnight.
1. Preheat the oven to 375 F and arrange the rack in the middle. Line sheet pans with parchment or Silpats and, using a 1 1/2-inch ice cream scoop, scoop the coconut mixture onto the sheet pan leaving one inch in between each cookie and staggering the rows. Each scoop should be leveled so that all the cookies are the same size and bake the same way. Bake the cookies for 15 to 20 minutes, one sheet pan at a time, until golden brown. Allow to cool on the parchment before removing.
Note: Another way to make these cookies is to pipe them onto a sheet pan with a 3/4-inch star tip. A smaller tip will not work, as the coconut likes to clump up. Pfeiffer also likes to pipe them into small 1 1/2 by 1 1/2-inch pyramid shaped silicone Flexipan molds, then bake them right in the molds. To unmold, let them cool for a full hour. They will come out easily when they are completely cool.
Jacquy Pfeiffer’s Lemon Mirror Cookies
Here’s another naturally gluten-free cookie. The only flour required is almond flour.
Yield: 40 cookies
Prep time: 1 hour (assuming ingredients are at room temperature)
Baking time: 15 minutes, plus 15 minutes for glazing the cookies
For the almond cream:
100 grams (approximately 1 cup plus 1 tablespoon) skinless almond flour
100 grams (approximately 1 cup) confectioners (powdered) sugar
6 grams (2 teaspoons) cornstarch
100 grams (7 tablespoons) French style butter, such as Plugrà
Pinch of sea salt
3 grams (3/4 teaspoon) vanilla extract
60 grams (1 large plus 1 to 2 tablespoons) beaten egg
20 grams (1 tablespoon plus 2 1/4 teaspoons) dark rum
For the icing:
50 grams (approximately 1/2 cup) confectioners (powdered) sugar, sifted
12 grams (2 teaspoons) fresh lemon juice
For the meringue cookie base:
50 grams (approximately 1/2 cup) confectioners (powdered) sugar
50 grams (approximately 1/2 cup) almond flour with skin
100 grams (about 3) egg whites
Pinch of sea salt
Pinch of cream of tartar
10 grams (2 teaspoons) granulated sugar
For the topping:
50 to 100 grams (scant 1/2 to 1 cup) sliced almonds with skin
100 grams (scant 1/4 cup) apricot jelly
Before you begin: Bring all ingredients to room temperature.
1. Make the almond cream. Sift together the almond flour, confectioners sugar and cornstarch. Tap any almond flour that remains in the sifter into the bowl.
2. Make sure that your butter is at room temperature. Place the soft butter, sea salt and the vanilla in the bowl of a stand mixer fitted with the paddle and mix at medium speed for 1 minute.
3. Turn off the machine, scrape down the sides of the bowl with a rubber spatula and add the almond flour mixture to the machine. Mix at medium speed for 1 minute. Gradually add the egg and mix at medium speed until it is incorporated, which should take no more than 2 minutes. Add the rum and mix until incorporated. The cream should look shiny and creamy. Transfer to a pastry bag fitted with a 1/4-inch tip and set aside.
4. Make the sugar icing by mixing together the confectioners sugar with the lemon juice. Set aside.
5. Preheat the oven to 325 F. Line one or two sheet pans with parchment.
6. Make the meringue cookie base. Sift together the confectioners sugar and almond flour onto a sheet of parchment paper.
7. Place the egg whites, sea salt and cream of tartar in the bowl of your standing mixer and whisk together for 10 seconds on medium. Add the sugar and whip on high for 1 to 2 minutes, until you have a meringue with soft peaks. Using a rubber spatula, gently and carefully fold in the sifted confectioners sugar and almond powder until the mixture is homogenous. Make sure that you do not over-mix. Over-mixing the meringue mixture will make it soupy and the baked cookies will be gummy.
8. Using a bowl scraper, carefully transfer the mixture to a pastry bag fitted with a 3/8-inch round tip. Do this gently so that you don’t deflate the mixture. Pipe 1 1/2-inch rings onto the parchment-lined sheet pans, leaving 1/2 inch of space between each cookie and making sure to stagger the rows. Sprinkle the edge of each ring with sliced almonds.
9. Pipe the almond cream into the center of each ring.
10. Place in the preheated oven and bake for 15 minutes, until golden brown.
11. While the cookies are baking, warm the apricot jelly in a small saucepan just until it becomes liquid. Keep the apricot jelly warm over the lowest heat possible so that it won’t seize up. If this happens just warm it up a little more and it will become liquid again.
12. Right out of the oven, brush each cookie with the apricot jelly, then right away with the sugar icing. Allow to cool completely before removing from the parchment paper.
Main photo: Jacquy Pfeiffer’s coconut macarons. Credit: Paul Strabbing, recipe and photo courtesy of Pfeiffer’s “The Art of French Pastry.”