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Anise Cookies for you Holiday Dessert Tray

Anise cookies (or anisette cookies) are tender ball-shaped or S-shaped cookies laced with a licorice fragrance that comes from potent seeds or extracts of the anise plant. They’re synonymous with the comfort of nonna and home. While nobody’s stopping you from baking them year-round, they are most popular, stealing the spotlight of beloved Italian Christmas cookie platters, where their light glaze shines with a shower of rainbow sprinkles for a burst of holiday color. And these cookies are as rich in history as they are in flavor!

Anise seed, essential oils, and fragrance have been used for medicinal purposes in sweet and savory dishes and drinks since ancient Roman times. Besides cookies, if you’re thinking what I’m thinking— “Hey, isn’t Sambuca made with anise too?” you’re correct! The precursor to Sambuca was called posca, a cheap-to-produce white wine vinegar and water concoction made for ancient Roman soldiers. Modern-day Sambuca, a colorless liquor that came onto the scene in 1851, has been long favored as a digestivo—an after-dinner spirit infused with herbs that aid digestion. 

But since cookies are our business today, cookies ye shall find!  Here is an easy to make anise cookie recipe that will warm your holidays this season. This recipe has been adapted from my namesake grandmother Theresa’s recipe (who else would I turn to?). Like all great nonnas do, she served her cookies after Christmas dinner, along with brewed coffee, and her special stash of Sambuca alongside. 

Now, that’s a Merry Christmas!  

Nonna Theresa’s Anise Cookies

Makes about 3 dozen

Look for excellent quality pure anise extract so that a strong licorice flavor shines through. If you love anise, add the optional crushed anise seeds to the dough! My grandmother also used anise extract in the glaze, but I have updated it here to be balanced by a light, lemon-flavored icing. You can also use vanilla or almond extract since both complements the herby anise. And while my grandmother knew what she was doing, she never mentioned it in her written recipe, so I will tell you here: The secret to ensuring your cookies turn out light and airy, rather them lumps of —dare I say it —coal— is to make sure that your milk and eggs are room temperature. Bake these cookies in batches, making sure not to overcrowd your baking sheet.

For the cookies

  • 5 cups all-purpose flour, plus more for dusting 
  • 6 teaspoons baking powder
  • ½ teaspoon fine sea salt 
  • 12 tablespoons (1 ½ sticks) unsalted butter, softened
  • 1 ¼ cups granulated sugar
  • 6 large eggs, room temperature
  • 3 teaspoons pure anise extract
  • 1 ½ teaspoons crushed anise seeds (optional)
  • ½ cup whole milk, room temperature

For the glaze

  • ½ pound powdered sugar 
  • 5 tablespoons, or more whole milk
  • 1 teaspoon pure lemon extract (or vanilla or anise extract)
  • Rainbow sprinkles 


Preheat the oven to 400 ° F with the rack set in the center position. Line a large cookie sheet with parchment paper, or a silicone mat.  In a large bowl use a whisk to combine the flour, baking powder and salt, and set aside. 

In the bowl of a standing mixer fitted with the paddle attachment, cream the butter and sugar until pale and fluffy. Next, add the eggs, one at a time, until well combined. Add the anise flavoring, and anise seeds, if using, and mix until just combined. 

Next, alternate adding the reserved flour mixture, and the milk, until well combined, and a dough ball begins to form. 

Lightly flour a work surface with flour and turn the dough onto the work surface—it will be soft and sticky. Add a bit more flour and knead the dough until just firm but no longer sticky. 

Using your hands, pinch off about 2 tablespoons of dough at a time and gently roll and place 2-inches apart on the cookie sheet. They will expand. Bake until the undersides and edges are lightly browned and set, 8 to 10 minutes. Remove from the oven and transfer to a wire rack to cool completely before glazing. Repeat rolling and baking, until you have used up all the dough. 

To make the glaze: In a large bowl add the powdered sugar, and gently whisk in the milk, adding it a little at a time until well incorporated. Add the lemon extract, (or preferred flavor) and stir well to combine. Once the cookies have cooled, working with one cookie at a time, turn it upside down and dip the top into the glaze —old school style. Top with the sprinkles and serve immediately. Or, return the cookies to the rack to set, before storing in an air-tight container on the counter where they will keep for up to 5 days.