As plain as these cookies look, that's how surprising they are. At first glance, they have the look of little meringue buttons: their tops are pale, smooth, buff colored, and as crackly thin as parchment. Tucked beneath the crust is the cookie proper, a tidbit that is all crunch. These are cookies you might be tempted to gobble like gumdrops if it weren't for their flavor: anise, a flavor so assertive it can never be taken lightly.
For those unfamiliar with anise, it has a bold licorice flavor and a full, almost floral fragrance, and both qualities are played up in these cookies, which are traditional in Switzerland and Alsace, pastry chef André Lerch's homeland, the root of his inspiration, and the source of so many of the most sought-after specialties in his shop. If you love anise, I can guarantee you'll adore these. If anise is not your favorite flavor, see my vanilla variation, following the recipe.
A word on preparation: Although the batter is made in under 10 minutes, once piped or spooned out, the rounds need to rest for 24 hours—so plan ahead. In addition, unless you use a buttered and floured baking sheet, the cookies will not develop the craggy little circle at their base ("the foot"), which is characteristic of authentic pains d'anis
- 2 cups (400 grams) sugar
- 3 tablespoons (15 grams) anise seeds
- 4 large eggs, at room temperature
- 2 cups (280 grams) all-purpose flour
1. The Day Before: Butter two baking sheets, dust the sheets with flour, and shake off the excess. If you want to pipe the cookies, fit a medium pastry bag with a 3/8-inch (1-cm) plain round tip and set it aside; if not, you can use a small spoon.
2. Put the sugar and anise seeds in the work bowl of a food processor fitted with the metal blade and process for a full minute to flavor the sugar with the anise. Pour the sugar through a strainer into the bowl of a mixer; discard the anise seeds that remain in the strainer. Crack the eggs into the bowl, then, working with the whisk attachment, whip the eggs and sugar on high speed until they are thick and pale, about 3 minutes. When you lift the whisk, the mixture should fall back on itself and form a slowly dissolving ribbon. Switch to a large rubber spatula and, adding it through a strainer, gently fold in the flour in two additions.
3. Pipe or spoon rounds of the batter, each about 1 3/4 to 2 inches (about 5 cm) across, onto the baking sheets, leaving about 1/2 inch (1.5 cm) space between them. Allow the cookies to rest uncovered overnight at room temperature.
4. Position the racks to divide the oven into thirds and preheat the oven to 350°F (180°C).5. Bake the cookies for 15 to 18 minutes, rotating the pans front to back and top to bottom midway, or until they have turned pale, almost white, on top and have formed a rough little foot at the base. Transfer the cookies to a rack and cool to room temperature.
Keeping: Because these cookies are crisp and dry, they can be kept at room temperature in a covered container—or even an open basket—for at least a week.
An American in Paris: Instead of grinding anise seeds into the sugar, I sometimes grind in one or two vanilla bean pods—not the pristine pods that still have moist pulp, but the dried leftovers from other recipes. If you haven't been stockpiling used pods, you can make these cookies by beating 4 teaspoons pure vanilla extract into the whipped egg mixture.