Mondel bread (sometimes spelled mandelbrot or mandel bread) is a cookie in the Ashkenazi Jewish baking tradition that's similar to biscotti (although it's really baked once, unlike biscotti, which is baked twice, as the name indicates). Many versions are dry, hard, crumbly, and not very sweet. This recipe, one that has been passed down on my mom's side for several generations, is all of those things, and yet improbably delicious. It's studded with toasty, fragrant almonds, coated generously in cinnamon sugar, and is better than just about anything dunked into a cup of tea or coffee.
My mom is a wonderful baker and made mondel bread all the time when I was growing up. Because this treat was my mom's specialty, I never made it myself until I started working on the cookie chapter of my book, Dessert Person. At that time, I was taking a “sabbatical,” a euphemism I used to refer to the fact that I’d moved in with my parents for a month so I could focus solely on work. I spent each day in the kitchen with my mom, and one afternoon I took notes as I watched her make model bread, deftly flipping the loaves of baked dough on the baking sheet and then gently slicing them into individual cookies.
My mom and I chatted about the recipe and the handful of others passed down in our family, like her Aunt Tilly’s Apple Cake and my Nanny’s noodle kugel. Much isn’t known about her side of the family, just that her grandparents emigrated from Ukraine to the United States through Ellis Island in the early 1900s and settled in Baltimore.
In that conversation, my mom revealed that, prior to coming to the United States , my great-grandfather was a baker (once in Baltimore, he got into the 'shmatte' business). I’d never heard that detail before and pressed my mom a bit, but she didn’t know any more than that. It made sense, though, and provided context for the beloved baking recipes we have in our family. I’m grateful for that knowledge, for the time I got to spend with my mom in the kitchen, and for the mondel bread recipe itself, which I was proud to publish in Dessert Person. It’s one of the only pieces of family history we have, and an aptly delicious one at that.
Reprinted from Dessert Person. Copyright © 2020 by Claire Saffitz. Photographs copyright © 2020 by Alex Lau. Published by Clarkson Potter Publishers, an imprint of Random House, a division of Penguin Random House. —Claire Saffitz
Test Kitchen Notes
This model bread is part of Recipes to Give & Share, a collection of perfectly packable holiday treats that we're sending to our loved ones this year. —The Editors
- Prep time 4 hours 45 minutes
- Cook time 45 minutes
- makes about 36 cookies
1 1/2 cups
plus 1 cup neutral oil (such as vegetable or grapeseed)*
plus 4 cups all-purpose flour
Diamond Crystal kosher salt
pure vanilla extract
- Make the cinnamon sugar: Toss the cinnamon and ½ cup of the sugar in a small bowl until uniform. Set aside.
- Preheat the oven and toast the almonds: Arrange an oven rack in the center position and preheat the oven to 350°F. Place the almonds on a small rimmed baking sheet and toss with 1 tablespoon of the oil to coat. Bake until the almonds are deep golden brown and fragrant, shaking halfway through, 8 to 10 minutes.** Remove from the oven and let cool, then toss with 1 tablespoon of the flour to coat. (Turn off the oven.)
- Mix the dry ingredients: In a medium bowl, whisk together the baking powder, salt, and remaining 4 cups flour to combine.
- Mix the cookie dough: In a stand mixer fitted with the paddle attachment, mix the eggs, remaining 1 cup sugar, and remaining 1 cup oil on medium-high speed until smooth and homogenous, about 1 minute. Reduce the speed to low and add the vanilla and cooled toasted almonds, followed by the flour mixture. Continue to mix on low speed just until you have a smooth dough, about 45 seconds.
- Chill the dough: Use a flexible spatula to scrape any dough from the paddle back into the bowl, then fold the dough several times to ensure it’s well mixed. Refrigerate the bowl uncovered for 4 hours. (My mom says it has to be exactly 4 hours, but an hour less or more is fine.)
- Preheat the oven: Arrange an oven rack in the center position and preheat the oven to 350°F.
- Form the dough into loaves: Remove the chilled dough from the refrigerator and divide it into 3 equal portions (if you have a scale, each portion should be about 1 lb / 454g). Space out the 3 mounds of dough on an unlined, ungreased baking sheet. Pat each portion of dough into a smooth loaf measuring about 8 x 3 inches and 1 ½ inches tall. The exact dimensions aren’t important, but the loaves should all be about the same size. The dough will spread in the oven, so make sure you space them several inches apart.
- Score and sugar the loaves: Use a serrated knife to make ½-inch-deep score marks crosswise along each loaf at ¾-inch intervals. (These marks completely disappear when you bake the loves but, according to Aunt Rose and my mom, they help you slice the cookies more easily after baking.) Using one-third of the cinnamon sugar, sprinkle it over the tops of all the loaves.
- Bake the loaves: Transfer the baking sheet to the oven and bake until the loaves are set and the tops are golden brown, about 30 minutes. Remove from the oven and, using a fish spatula, very carefully turn each leaf over so the sugared side is down. The loaves are only partially baked and fragile at this point—try to be gentle so they don’t break. Sprinkle half of the remaining cinnamon sugar over the loaves and return to the oven. Bake for another 15 minutes, then remove from the oven and turn the loaves again. Sprinkle with the remaining cinnamon sugar and bake for a final 15 minutes. Remove the pan from the oven. Let the loaves cool slightly on the baking sheet, 10 to 15 minutes.
- Slice the cookies: When the loaves are cool enough to handle but still very warm, slide the metal spatula beneath the loaves and transfer them, one at a time, to a cutting board. Use a serrated knife in a sawing motion to slice the loaves into ¾-inch-thick cookies. The score marks will have disappeared during baking, so you’re making fresh cuts. Let the cookies cool completely.
Do ahead: The cookies, well wrapped and stored at room temperature, will keep up to 5 days. The cookies can also be frozen up to 2 months.
*You can use olive oil in place of the neutral oil, but note that it will lend the cookies a slight grassy bitterness (in a good way).
**Make sure the almonds go a shade or two past golden brown before pulling them from the oven. You want them really well toasted, since most of the flavor of the cookie comes from this step.