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Anise Cookies for Lent (Pani di Cena)

March 30, 2021

Anise Cookies for Lent (Pani di Cena)

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There are some traditions that we simply must keep alive and making Nonna’s Pani di cena (Sicilian anise Lenten cookies) is definitely one of them. Pani di cena are crispy little cookies that are dotted with anise seeds and shaped into crosses. They are subtly sweet and crispy, and perfectly delicious.

Pani di cena are anise flavored cookies with a cross cut into the top of hte cookie and then they are frosted with a white sugar glaze

Nonna’s variation

I have memories of my grandmother and my mother making Pani di cena every year in the week leading up to Easter. She would make the cross shaped cookie, but she also shaped the dough into a bird. Then she would place a colored hard boiled egg in the birds belly and bake. There was one for each grandchild.

My mother kept the tradition of making the Pani di cena cookies every year, but not the birds with eggs in their bellies. So this year as we made the cookies together, we decided to make Nonna’s birds. Well, we found out that neither one of us is talented enough to create something out of dough that even closely resembles a bird. So after we had a good laugh, we decided that we would just make rudimentary baskets for the eggs to sit in. I am sure that Nonna was watching us shaking her head and laughing with us.

Hard boiled eggs set in cookie dough baskets.

Different versions

It is interesting that our version of Pani di cena is a cookie, but in some parts of Sicily they are actually rolls or Pani. In Messina the rolls are topped with anise seeds. The use of anise appears to be consistent across all versions of the recipe. I really wanted to learn more about the history of the cookies, but I could not find anything written in English. I will have to continue my research and update this post as I learn more.

Looking for other authentic Sicilian cookie recipes? Try these:

The Best “Cuccidati” Italian Fig Cookies

Sicilian Almond Paste Cookies, “Pasticcini alla Pasta di Mandorla”

Anginetti Cookies – Italian Wedding Cookies

How to make Pani di cena

Make the dough

The dough for these little cookies is easy to make and this recipe makes quite a few cookies. I actually cut my mother’s recipe in half for you. I did not think everyone needed to make over 200 cookies! But if you are inclined to make about 18 dozen cookies, you can easily double it by clicking the “2x” button at the top recipe.

  • Use a small saucepan to heat the milk until it is warm. Add the yeast and allow it to sit for about 5 minutes.
  • In a medium bowl, combine the flour, anise seeds and baking powder and give it a stir.
  • Creaming the eggs and sugar in a large mixing bowl, beating with an electric mixer. This may take about 2 minutes. Then add the vanilla and anise extract.
  • Add the shortening to the eggs and beat for 2 more minutes.
  • Now you can add the flour and beat until it is thoroughly combined and a dough has formed.
  • Pour the dough out on to a lightly floured work surface. Knead the dough and add additional dough to keep if from sticking to the surface. Continue to knead the dough until it is smooth and no longer tacky.
  • Place the dough in bowl, cover and refrigerate for 2 hours.

Forming the Pani di cena

Work with a small amount of dough at a time. Roll the dough into a log about 1″ in diameter. Then cut the log into about an 1 1/2″ long cookies. As the little logs are laying on their sides cut a cross on one end by cutting a 1/4″ deep slit on one end of the log. Turn it half way and cut another slit on the same end of the log. Place the cookie with the flat end on the work surface and the slits at the top of the cookie. Gently spread the 4 sections apart to form a cross. Place the cookies about 2 inches apart on a cookie sheet lined with parchment paper.

Bake the cookies in a 350 degree oven for about 15-20 minutes or until the cookies are golden. Allow the cookies to cool completely on rack before frosting.

Frosting the cookies

  • Mix the Confectioner’s sugar, milk and vanilla in a medium bowl. Stir the frosting until it is smooth. If the frosting is too thick, add a tiny bit of milk at a time, until the frosting is pourable but not liquidy.
  • Dip the cooled cookies, cross side down in the frosting and set on a rack to dry.

Baking Tips

Using Room temperature ingredients will help them mix better and more evenly.

Refrigerating the dough will make it easier to work with and to form the cookies. It also keeps the cookies from spreading too much while baking.

Don’t make your cross cuts too deep or the cookie will lose it’s shape. Try to not go more the 1/4″ deep.

Storing the cookies

These cookies will stay fresh for up to 2 weeks if stored in an airtight container in a cool location. The cookies can also be frozen for up to 3 months. I would recommend placing them in an airtight container and then wrapping the container in plastic wrap to avoid freezer burn. Take the cookies out of the freezer and allow them to thaw at room temperature for about an hour before serving them.

Pani di cena on a plate with ceramic easter eggs

Sicilian Anise Cookies for Lent (Pani di Cena)

Pani di cena are a traditional Sicilian cookie that is made to celebrate lent. These little biscotti type cookies are dotted with anise seeds and made to resemble little crosses. They are subtly sweet and crispy cookies that we coat with a light frosting.
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Refrigerate 2 hrs
Total Time 2 hrs
Course Dessert
Cuisine Italian
Servings 100 cookies
Calories 99 kcal

Ingredients
  

  • ½ lbs. Sugar
  • ¾ lbs. Shortening
  • lbs. Flour
  • 3 Eggs
  • 1 cup Milk
  • 1 tbsp. Yeast
  • 5 tsp. Baking Powder
  • ½ tbsp. Vanilla
  • 1 tsp. Anise Extract
  • ½ tbsp. Anise Seeds

Frosting

  • 3 cups Confectioners Sugar
  • 4 tbsp. Milk
  • 1 tsp. Vanilla Extract

Instructions
 

  • Use a small saucepan to heat the milk until it is warm. Add the yeast and allow it to sit for about 5 minutes.
  • In a medium bowl, combine the flour, anise seeds and baking powder and give it a stir.
  • Creaming the eggs and sugar in a large mixing bowl, beating with an electric mixer. This may take about 2 minutes. Then add the vanilla and anise extract.
  • Add the shortening to the eggs and beat for 2 more minutes.
  • Now you can add the flour and beat until it is thoroughly combined, and a dough has formed.
  • Pour the dough out on to a lightly floured work surface. Knead the dough and add additional dough to keep if from sticking to the surface. Continue to knead the dough until it is smooth and no longer tacky.
  • Place the dough in bowl, cover and refrigerate for 2 hours.

Form the cookies

  • Work with a small amount of dough at a time. Roll the dough into a log about 1" in diameter. Then cut the log into about a 1 1/2" long cookies. As the little logs are laying on their sides cut a cross on one end by cutting a 1/4" deep slit on one end of the log. Turn it halfway and cut another slit on the same end of the log. Place the cookie with the flat end on the work surface and the slits at the top of the cookie. Gently spread the 4 sections apart to form a cross.
    Pani di cena being formed and cut with crosses on the top
  • Place the cookies about 2 inches apart on a cookie sheet lined with parchment paper.
  • Bake the cookies in a 350-degree oven for about 15-20 minutes or until the cookies are golden. Allow the cookies to cool completely on rack before frosting.

Frost the cookies

  • Mix the Confectioner's sugar, milk, and vanilla in a medium bowl. Stir the frosting until it is smooth. If the frosting is too thick, add a tiny bit of milk at a time, until the frosting is pourable but not liquidy.
  • Dip the cooled cookies, cross side down in the frosting and set on a rack to dry.
    Pani di cena on a plate with ceramic easter eggs

Nutrition

Serving: 100cookiesCalories: 99kcalCarbohydrates: 15gProtein: 2gFat: 4gSaturated Fat: 1gTrans Fat: 1gCholesterol: 5mgSodium: 30mgPotassium: 21mgFiber: 1gSugar: 6gVitamin A: 12IUVitamin C: 1mgCalcium: 21mgIron: 1mg
Keyword Anise cookies, pani di cena, Sicilian cookies, Lenten cookies, Italian dessert
Tried this recipe?Let us know how it was!


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