Since I was about ten years old, my family has been making this cookie for the holidays. There’s not much to it, if I’m being honest. There is no pizzazz of detailed icing or rare ingredients. Really anyone can make it. But the taste is incredible. They stick with you. They’re thumbprint cookies with a simple buttercream, replacing the more popular jam center. A buttery and airy cookie with sweet frosting—it’s pillowy perfection.
The first time my dad tried one, he was immediately brought back, Proust style, to making cookies just like these at an Italian bakery in Clairton, Pennsylvania, in the southeast outskirts of Pittsburgh. “I’ve been looking for these cookies for years!” he excitedly told my sisters and I when he tried that first bite years ago. Despite working amid sweets all day, my dad confessed that it wasn’t always pleasant to work at the bakery. He recalls moments like his boss sitting in a folding metal chair while scornfully commanding my dad to bring in bags of heavy flour. Little did my dad know that the lift and thud of the flour bags as a teen would prepare him for a career as a roof builder.
We now make these cookies every year. Since 2020, my sisters and I have baked hundreds of these and other cookies on December 23 and delivered them to family and friends. We’ve even mailed them to friends out of state! This new tradition of cookie delivery has become such an integral part of our holiday that we plan on keeping it for years to come.
The cookies in these deliveries include regional varieties, often seen in the Pittsburgh cookie table at weddings, such as snowballs, pizzelles, buckeyes, and always our buttercream thumbprints. A tradition I’m very happy to have created despite the circumstances these past few years, these cookie box deliveries are now one of my favorite holiday activities.
Adapted from a recipe from the cookbook We’re Cooking at Creekside Washington Elementary School
Yield: About 20 cookies
- 1 cup salted butter, room temperature
- ¼ cup sugar
- 1 teaspoon vanilla extract
- 2 cups all-purpose flour
For the buttercream:
- ½ cup shortening (like Crisco)
- ½ cup salted butter, room temperature
- 1 teaspoon vanilla extract
- 3 tablespoons whole milk
- 4 cups powdered sugar
Preheat oven to 400 degrees F. Prepare a cookie sheet with parchment paper.
Cream butter, sugar, and vanilla in a bowl using a hand mixer. Add the flour and incorporate with mixer until just blended. It will look fairly crumbly and flaky at this stage but should be able to be pressed together by hand.
Roll into walnut-sized balls. Place on cookie sheets and press thumb into the center of each one to create a well.
Bake for 11-12 minutes. Remove from baking sheet and transfer to cooling racks.
While the cookies are cooling, make the buttercream. Cream the shortening and butter. Add the vanilla, milk, and powdered sugar and beat well until fluffy.
Fill the center of the cooled cookie with about a tablespoon of frosting, using a piping bag. Enjoy in approximately two bites!
Lindsay Anne Herring is an intern at the Center for Folklife and Cultural Heritage, helping to conduct food-centric research on the upcoming Ozarks program at the Smithsonian Folklife Festival. She is a recent master of food studies graduate from Chatham University, and her interests include the intersections of food (specifically dining and cookbooks), art and performance, social movements, gender and queer studies, and labor equity.