This is the original version, encrusted with pine nuts. Nowadays, the dough may be flavored with myriad ingredients, from whiskey to candied chestnuts, and might be coated with coconut, chocolate, marzipan or a variety of nuts.
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Almond-Pine Nut Cookies
1 small russet potato, about 1/4 pound, peeled
1 pound blanched almonds
Grated zest of 1/2 lemon, finely minced
2 cups sugar
1 egg white
1/2 cup pine nuts
Bring a small saucepan of water to a boil. Add the potato and cook until tender when pierced with a knife, about 10 minutes. Drain and transfer to a small bowl. Mash with a fork and let cool slightly. In a food processor, process the almonds until finely ground. Add the ground almonds and lemon zest to the potato and mix thoroughly.
In a small, heavy saucepan, combine the sugar and 1 cup water and stir to dissolve the sugar. Bring to a boil, stirring with a wooden spoon until the mixture thickens to a syrup. Continue cooking, without stirring, until the syrup reaches 250 degrees F on a candy thermometer. Remove from the heat.
Pour the syrup in a thin stream onto the almond mixture and mix well with the spoon. (The dough is too hot to handle.) Let cool for at least 15 minutes. Form the dough into a ball, wrap in plastic wrap and refrigerate overnight.
Preheat the oven to 475 degrees F. Butter a baking sheet. In a small bowl, lightly beat the egg white. Using your hands, shape the dough into walnut-sized balls. Roll in the egg white and then in the pine nuts, embedding the nuts slightly into the surface. Arrange about 2 inches apart on the prepared sheet.
Bake until the cookies are golden brown, 15 to 20 minutes. Let cool on the pan on a wire rack. Store in an airtight container for up to 1 week. Makes about 20 cookies.