Amaranth, barley, millet, spelt and teff — you’ve probably seen these or other whole-grain flours showing up on store shelves as we become increasingly familiar with them and as they become more widely available. These are flours with distinct characters and subtle flavors, and they’re great to play with, especially during the holiday baking season. Baking cookies with whole-grain flours doesn’t have to mean wreaking havoc to family favorites, but rather adding new recipes to your repertoire. Here are recipes for three holiday classics — biscotti and thumbprint cookies, and a riff on the German spice cookie pfeffernüsse — each recalibrated for spelt, barley and teff flour, as well as a primer for baking with whole grains, to get you started.
Spelt, an ancient wheat variety with a subtle nuttiness, is a wonderful flour to try in cookies. In my holiday spelt biscotti, you will be rewarded with an alluring aroma and a crisp crunch. In my native Germany, spelt has been used for centuries in traditional baked goods. The nutritious flour is lower in gluten and thus has to be handled a bit gently. It works well in a fruit and nut-studded biscotti, adding an extra boost of nutty flavor.
Barley is another terrific holiday baking flour because it adds hints of malt and a natural sweetness to your treats. In the barley thumbprints with honey and hazelnuts, the whole-grain flour is combined with toasted hazelnuts, honey and citrus zest, all of which give you a supremely fragrant cookie. This fiber-rich flour is also lower in gluten, so I recommend you only use barley to replace up to 25% of all-purpose flour by weight in your favorite recipes.
Teff, a traditional Ethiopian grain flour, has a dark hue and notes of cocoa. It’s beautifully suited to holiday baking, particularly in pfeffernüsse, a type of German gingerbread. I make a variation with teff that I call “teffernüsse” — the flour contributes a smooth, almost truffle-like richness to the classic cookies. Teff is also gluten-free (as are millet and amaranth), so be sure to replace only about 20% of your total flour by weight in a recipe if you want to avoid making the baked goods too heavy.
Tips and tricks for baking with whole-grain flours include adding more liquid to the dough. Another thing that helps is to give the dough time to rest so that the bran in the flour can absorb that extra liquid — this can be extra water, milk or buttermilk — which makes for a softer and more appealing texture. It’s also worth investing in a basic digital scale with a tare feature. Measuring your ingredients by weight, rather than with unwieldy measuring cups, reduces uncertainties that can derail a baking project. (Different bakers may pack a cup differently, even when following the same instructions.) Weighing is especially important with whole-grain flours, where too much flour can result in dense, heavy baked goods. And why grams rather than ounces? There’s a reason why most bakers around the world use grams to scale recipes: It’s just easier. Try doubling or tripling 1 3/4 ounces of sugar or 5 3/8 ounces of flour, then do the math for tripling 50 grams of sugar. Because if you’re doing a lot of baking this time of year, worrying about math is not nearly as much fun as making, decorating — or eating — your holiday cookies.
Maria Speck is author of “Simply Ancient Grains” and “Ancient Grains for Modern Meals.”
In the bowl of a food processor, pulse the hazelnuts until they’re finely chopped with most pieces the consistency of steel-cut oatmeal and a few slightly larger ones, about 10 one-second pulses. Or chop the hazelnuts by hand.
In a large bowl, whisk together the flour, cinnamon, baking soda and salt. Add the chopped nuts and whisk well again, then make a well in the center.
In a deep, medium bowl, whisk together the olive oil, honey and zest until the mixture is thoroughly blended and turns opaque, about 1 minute. Pour the oil mixture into the center of the flour mixture. Working from the center, combine the wet and dry ingredients with a dough whisk or a wooden spoon. When much of the flour is incorporated, bring the dough together with a few gentle turns — it should be soft and moist. If it is dry, gently knead in a tablespoon or two of milk. Cover the bowl with a plate and set aside for 25 minutes.
Meanwhile, place one rack in the top third of the oven and one in the bottom third and heat to 325 degrees. Line two large rimless baking sheets with parchment paper.
Once the dough has rested, divide it in half, working with one half per baking sheet and keeping the remaining dough covered. Using about 1 heaped tablespoon at a time, roll the dough into 1 1/2-inch balls. If the dough cracks, gently press and roll until smooth. Place the balls onto the baking sheets, spacing them about 2 inches apart. Using the thick end of a wooden spoon (about 1/2 inch) or your thumb or index finger, gently press each ball down to flatten by about a third — don’t worry about some cracking — then fill the indentation with about 1/2 teaspoon jam. If you use hazelnuts, don’t make an indentation but press the nut in while gently holding the thumbprint with your other hand.
Bake until the cookies firm up and are deep golden brown all around but still yield slightly when gently pressed with a finger, rotating the sheets once halfway from front to back and top to bottom, 23 to 25 minutes total. Carefully slide the cookies with the parchment paper onto a wire rack to cool completely. They will firm up as they cool. Thumbprints will keep at least 5 days in an airtight container.
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