Crunchy, toasty, and not too sweet, Italian sesame cookies are a fabulous addition to a holiday cookie tray or for enjoying with espresso or a cup of coffee for dunking. This is a classic, simple recipe that can be flavored several different ways.
I currently live further from an Italian bakery than I ever have in my life. Not ideal. So I've started to take matters into my own hands when the craving strikes and began making their classic treats at home. Pignoli cookies, rainbow cookies, butter sprinkle cookies...you name it, I've craved it and baked it.
Today is all about Italian sesame cookies, biscotti regina. Crunchy and not too sweet, these easy cookies is are just bursting with toasty sesame notes.
This recipe has been adapted from my mother-in-law, who started making them decades ago. My own family's recipe for Italian sesame cookies has been lost to time, so I was extra grateful she dug through her archives to find this one for me.
Reasons to Love This Recipe
- It features basic ingredients and steps to produce a dough that's reliably easy to work with.
- Pre-toasting the sesame seeds accentuates their flavor for a nice sweet and savory balance.
- There's no need to dip each cookie in egg or milk for the sesame seeds to stick. The dough is just the right texture and is all you need.
- They're the perfect pairing for a cup of coffee, espresso, or warm beverage. Dunk away!
- Sesame Seeds: While you can buy pre-toasted sesame seeds, they take just a few minutes to toast on the stovetop. It's also cheaper to do it yourself.
- Flour: Two cups (250 grams) are used. Because Italian sesame cookies are crisp and slightly crumbly in the first place, you want to measure correctly so excess flour doesn't accidentally make its way into the dough. I recommend weighing it for the most precision.
- Butter: This should be softened enough to be worked into the dry ingredients to form small crumbs.
- Milk: You'll need between 1-2 tablespoons to help the dough come together and form a ball. Any kind works.
- Vanilla Extract: This balances the savory sesame flavor wonderfully. If you like, substitute up to one-half teaspoon with anise extract.
- Orange Zest: While optional, fresh orange zest is another delicious variation that complements these flavors. I wouldn't go much higher than one teaspoon as the citrus flavor can begin to overwhelm and you want the sesame notes to shine through.
Prep-Ahead Step: toasting the sesame seeds. While not entirely necessary, toasting the sesame seeds brings out the depth in their flavor and really enhances this cookie.
Tip: If you haven't toasted the sesame seeds before starting this recipe, you'll have plenty of time during the dough's one hour chill to do so.
- Whisk together the dry ingredients.
- Add the softened butter and work it into the flour mixture with the stand mixer paddle attachment or a pastry blender. Continue until the butter is in small pieces around the size of a pea or smaller.
- Add the egg, milk, vanilla extract, and orange zest and beat in until a ball of dough forms, hand kneading it briefly towards the end. It should have a smooth and very slightly tacky feel to it - not sticky.
- Wrap the dough in plastic wrap and chill in the refrigerator for at least one hour. This helps prevent the cookies from spreading too much as they bake.
- Once chilled, slice the dough into six equal sections. Roll each section into a log about one-inch thick, then cut the dough into pieces about two inches long.
- Roll pieces in sesame seeds until all sides are well-coated.
- Place cookies on a parchment-lined baking sheet around 1 ½ inches apart from one another.
- Bake Italian sesame cookies at 375°F for 20 or so minutes, or until golden. Immediately transfer them to a wire rack to cool completely.
There are different ways you can tweak these cookies depending upon family tradition and preference. The most basic features vanilla extract, which allows for the bold and toasty sesame flavor to shine. I have a soft spot for this way as it was how my grandma and great aunts made them.
Other Italian sesame cookies are flavored with anise or orange zest. I've tested this recipe with both of those flavorings (what work!) and find them just as delicious, too. The recipe card includes all options.
Recipe Tips and Tricks
- When toasting sesame seeds, stay close by to the pan as they can go from fragrant and lightly golden to the verge of burnt very quickly.
- Don't worry about the sesame seeds becoming too toasty if you pre-toast them. They don't continue to toast during the cookie bake time.
- If your dough is too sticky, work in additional flour a sprinkle at a time until it handles easier. If your dough is crumbly and not coming together, add additional milk one teaspoon at a time until it is more manageable.
There are so many wonderful Italian holiday desserts it would be impossible to link them all here. Below are some of my very favorites, which coincidentally all feature rainbow nonpareils. New this year on the blog is also my recipe for Italian wedding cookies - YUM.
If you’ve enjoyed this recipe, I’d love for you to leave a star rating in the recipe card and/or a comment review below!
Source: Adapted from my mother-in-law's recipe.
Italian Sesame Cookies
- 2 cups (250g) all-purpose flour
- ½ cup (100g) granulated sugar
- 1 ½ teaspoons baking powder
- ¼ teaspoon salt
- ½ cup (113g) unsalted butter softened
- 1 large egg
- 1 ½ Tablespoons (22 ml) milk any variety
- 1 ¼ teaspoons vanilla extract
- 1 teaspoon orange zest (optional)
- ½ cup (77g) sesame seeds
- Prepare the dough: Add flour, sugar, baking powder, and salt to a mixing bowl and whisk to combine the dry ingredients well.
- Add butter and beat with an electric mixer until the butter is evenly worked into the flour and the mixture resembles small, coarse crumbs. You can also do this with a pastry blender or a fork.
- Beat in the egg, milk, vanilla extract, and orange zest. It won't look like there's enough liquid at first, but keep mixing and the dough will form. It should be smooth and only the slightest bit tacky, not sticky at all. Hand knead the ball of dough in the bowl several times to ensure a smooth consistency throughout, then wrap the dough in plastic wrap and refrigerate for at least one hour.
- Toast the sesame seeds while the dough is chilling: Add seeds to a dry pan set on the stove over low-medium heat. Stir frequently as the sesame seeds become fragrant and begin to turn golden, 5-10 minutes. Give them your constant attention as they can burn very quickly. Once a light golden, immediately transfer the seeds to a plate or bowl so they stop toasting.
- Shape the cookies: Preheat oven to 375°F (190°C) and line baking sheet(s) with parchment paper. Once chilled, cut the dough into six equal parts. Roll each one on a clean work surface into a log about one-inch thick, then slice it into segments 1 ½-2 inches long.
- Roll each log in the toasted sesame seeds to coat all sides completely, then place on the prepared baking sheet. Repeat for the rest of the dough, placing the cookies 1 ½-inches or so apart from one another on the sheet as they don't spread much.
- Bake: Bake for 20-25 minutes, or until the cookies turn golden. Aim for the lower end of the range if you'd like the cookies to have more of a tender center, while the upper end of the range will produce more golden-brown, crisper cookies. Transfer immediately to a wire rack set over a sheet pan (see note) to cool completely before serving or storing.
Nutritional information is provided as an estimate. As it can vary due to many factors (brands used, quantities, etc.), we cannot guarantee its accuracy.Food Safety and Nutrition Disclaimer