Putting together an assortment of Christmas cookies is like building a good cheese plate – it's all about variety. Different flavors, shapes, and textures, all in a festive mood. Christmas cookies should be a little luxurious, a few pegs up from quotidian cookie-jar treats. Chocolate chip cookies, oatmeal-raisin, snickerdoodles, hermits; I love them all, but they just don't make my Christmas cut.
I make 4 or 5 different kinds each year, holding to the same ones for a few years then moving on to something new that grabs my fancy. But I seem to have settled on a consistent palette: toasty nuts, chocolate, warm spices (cinnamon, ginger, clove, cardamom), something orange, lots of vanilla, and always plenty of butter. My current roster includes Double Gingersnaps, Mexican Wedding Cakes, chocolate-dipped Shortbread Stars, Mint 'Oreos', and Cuccidati. I won't include recipes here, just notes on what I've changed or tips for getting them right.
I used to form these by making balls & then flattening them gently, but last year I found that the dough takes nicely to rolling and cutting, which makes for a more refined cookie. Roll the dough to slightly less than 1/4-inch thick for best results. The candied ginger gives them funny dimply pockmarks, so if that bothers you just leave it out. They'll still be delicious.
Mexican Wedding Cakes
Also known as Russian Tea Cakes. And the recipe is pretty much the same as for Viennese Crescents, just shaped differently. For a few years, I made Rose Beranbaum's Filbertines, but missed the burst of powdered sugar from the Wedding Cakes. So I'm back to making them, but I use hazelnuts instead of almonds or pecans, and add a 1/2 teaspoon of ground cardamom. Best of both worlds.
The benchmark of these cookies is their melting tenderness, which requires careful handling of the dough. Most recipes recommend forming the balls by rolling a small blob of dough between your palms, but I've found this sometimes works the dough too much. So I use a small scoop to portion out the little blobs, then quickly pinch each one into a rough ball shape using my fingertips.
Out scouting for a simple butter cookie, I came across the recipe for 'Hearst Castle Shortbread Cookies' on Heidi Swanson's lovely 101 Cookbooks blog. I cut them in little star shapes, then dipped their bottoms in good dark chocolate to dress them up for the holidays. I've been experimenting with the slightly fussy technique of tempering the chocolate so that they wouldn't melt as soon as you touched them. I think I got it right this year.
The food blogosphere went nuts for Smitten Kitchen's Homemade Oreos a few years back, so I followed the crowd. But the filling...putting vegetable shortening in anything just gets my dander up. I replaced the filling with an all-butter version from Tish Boyle's The Good Cookie, and flavored it with a little bourbon. I have to say that I was underwhelmed: the biscuits were a little soft (not what you want for a good sandwich cookie), and I didn't like the homely shapes made by cutting them from a log.
I poked around for simple chocolate biscuits, and tried a different one the following year. Better (crisper), but not chocolatey enough. Still a little disappointing.
Last year I found this recipe for Chocolate Rolled Cookies, which turned out exactly the sort of biscuit I was looking for – crisp, buttery, and deeply chocolatey. The dough is a dream to work with for rolling and cutting, and has enough fat & plasticity that you don't need a lot of flour to keep it from sticking.
I was all set to bourbon-up the filling again this year, when a tiny bottle of peppermint oil caught my eye. I'd bought it for making pulled butter mints (which I hope to get to today or tomorrow), but the idea of mint Oreos seemed so appealing (and so right for Christmas). We have a winner. Sort of like Girl Scout Thin Mints, only politically uncomplicated.
My friend Lisa and I share a deep bond over cooking, and whenever I visit her in Atlanta, we manage to spend entire days shopping for and cooking elaborate meals to share with her family. I'm sure she'll correct me, but I believe she makes 10 varieties of cookies at Christmastime. When I casually mentioned on Facebook that I was about to tackle Cuccidati for the first time, she picked up the phone and called me to cheer me on and offer her best advice: use as little flour as possible when you roll out the dough.
Well, they're a bit fussier than that. For me, the trickiest part is getting the filling portioned out. At first, I tried piping it out of a pastry bag with a big fat tip, but it's really too stiff for that. Last year, I pre-formed long ropes of the filling, laid out on a tray covered with parchment. Using slightly wet hands, I took small handfuls of well-chilled filling and rolled it between my palms (sort of like making a snake with Play-Doh, if that helps), using 2 or 3 pieces to make each 15-inch long rope. Then I chilled these so they'd be stiff enough to simply pick up and plop down onto the rolled-out dough.
The dough itself, while very soft, is actually quite sturdy and holds together nicely when rolled. The advice to form the dough into a rectangle before chilling is wise, as it will help in rolling out the long narrow sheets required.
I haven't been to Atlanta for a while, and I miss our cooking marathons. But making my cuccidati here while she makes hers there...it amounts to cooking together, no?
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It's a dietary peril having all these cookies around the house, so I'll keep just enough to entertain family. The rest are boxed up and handed out with abandon – to the mailman, the staff at our favorite restaurant, to friends and neighbors (I'd give them all fruitcake if I could, but alas). I'll send along a platterful to the ski shop where TJ works through the winter; he'll hide them in the back room where only his co-workers can find them, but he'll slip a few to some of his favorite customers.
We've finally gotten just enough snow cover to make it feel like winter, and the forecast is calling for snow on Christmas Day. The paperwhite narcissus are blooming in the windowsills. And now that the solstice has passed, days are growing imperceptibly longer as we tilt back towards the sun. Light, and lightness. Happy Christmas to all.