We are ready for the next wave of holidays here at the much vaunted Spy Test Kitchens. There is plenty of butter, bags of flour, oodles of sugars (confectioner’s, cane, light brown and dark brown), molasses, spices, silver dragees, sprinkles, cinnamon red hots, candy canes, chocolate chips, and googly eyes, for emergencies. Find the parchment paper and the rolling pin. Show us the cookie cutters. Unearth the pastry bag. Cough up the cookie press. Bring on the childhood memories and the inevitable sugar rush. It’s time to get baking.
The food departments of major publications are falling all over themselves trying to be ingenious and innovative with their holiday baking. This year I am not feeling fancy. I am feeling grateful that we have avoided COVID. That it seems the world is coming back from nearly sliding over the edge into dragon territory. I’m happy to count my blessings. Instead of gilding the holidays, why don’t we simplify instead? Less glitter, more sentiment. Less glitz and more chocolate chips.
So we will not be baking fancy schmancy Madelines, or profiteroles, or croquembouche in the Spy Test Kitchens this year. We will be sticking to the tried and true Cookies of Christmases Past, the very first cookies we ever baked and decorated, standing on a wooden stool so we were tall enough to work at the kitchen table. These are the cookies which taught us how thick (or thin) to roll out the cookie dough. We learned how to use potholders and timers and spatulas. We learned how to measure sugar into Pyrex measuring cups. We also learned the importance of cleaning up molasses drips right away.
My favorite cookie is the humble gingersnap. Gingersnaps are among the most versatile of cookies. They taste deelish warm from the oven, cold in a lunch bag, and are still not too bad when they are stale. These are simple, round and wholesome.
3/4 cup unsalted butter, room temp
1/2 cup dark brown sugar (pack it into the measuring cup)
1/2 cup granulated sugar
1/4 cup molasses
1 large egg
1/2 teaspoon pure vanilla extract
2 cups all purpose flour
1/2 teaspoon baking soda
1/4 teaspoon salt
1 1/2 teaspoons ground cinnamon
2 teaspoons ground ginger
1/2 teaspoon ground cloves
For dusting the cookies: 1 cup granulated white sugar
Preheat the oven to 350°F. Line baking sheets with parchment paper. Beat the butter and sugars until light and fluffy, I use an electric mixer. Add the molasses, egg, and vanilla extract and beat until well-mixed. In a separate bowl whisk together the flour, baking soda, salt, and spices. Add the flour mixture to the butter mixture and mix well. Cover the bowl with Saran Wrap and chill it in the fridge for about half an hour, until it is firm.
Fill a little bowl with the cup (or thereabouts) of granulated sugar. When the dough is nice and chilly, roll it into 1-inch balls. Then drop and roll the balls of dough in the sugar, this is the best point for expecting kid interaction and assistance. Put the dough balls on the baking sheets, and use a small flat-bottomed glass to flatten the balls. Sometimes you will need to dip the glass back into the sugar to maintain the right amount of crunchy, sugary goodness. Do not squash them too thin, or the cookies will get too dark and brittle. Bake for about 12 – 15 minutes. Cool on a wire rack.
I am also partial to fool-proof shortbread cookies. That’s because I know myself so well, and my tendency to mess with perfection. We love Scottish shortbread any time of the year, but particularly at Christmas.
3/4 pound unsalted butter, at room temperature
1 cup sugar
1 teaspoon pure vanilla extract
3 1/2 cups all-purpose flour
1/4 teaspoon salt
Preheat the oven to 350°F
Mix the butter and 1 cup of sugar together until they are just combined. Add the vanilla. In a another bowl, sift together the flour and salt, then add to the butter and sugar mixture. Mix on low speed until the dough starts to come together. Roll the dough out on a surface dusted with flour, and shape into a flat disk. Cool in the fridge for about half an hour.
Roll the dough 1/2-inch thick and cut with a pizza cutter or a knife. Prick the dough with a fork to make lovely little pointillistic designs. Place the cookies on an ungreased baking sheet and sprinkle with sugar. Bake for 20 to 25 minutes, until the edges begin to brown. Allow them to cool before gobbling.
I looked high and low for the recipe card with my mother’s Sugar Cookies before I discovered that yet another secret family recipe was firmly rooted in plagiarism. Helen Roberta Foley Dixon’s famous sugar cookies came from Irma Rombauer’s Joy of Cooking. Heavens to Betsy. Though, to be fair, Mom always added about a teaspoon of grated lemon rind to personalize her spin on this classic Christmas cookie.
1 cup unsalted butter, softened
2/3 cup sugar
1 large egg
1/4 teaspoon baking powder
1/8 teaspoon salt
1 1/2 teaspoons vanilla
2 1/3 cups all-purpose flour
Using an electric mixer, beat the butter and sugar until very fluffy and well blended. Add and beat in the egg, baking powder, salt, and vanilla until evenly incorporated. Stir in flour until well blended and smooth.
Divide the dough in half and shape into circles. Place each circle between large sheets of wax paper. Roll out a scant 1/4-inch thick, checking the underside frequently and smoothing out any creases. Keeping the wax paper in place, layer the rolled dough on a tray and refrigerate for 20 to 30 minutes, or until cold and slightly firm but not hard.
WHEN READY TO BAKE:
Preheat the oven to 350 degrees F. Lightly grease cookie sheets.
Working with 1 portion of dough (leave the other refrigerated), gently peel away and replace 1 sheet of the wax paper. (This will make it easier to lift the cookies from the paper later.) Peel off and discard the second layer. Using 2- or 3-inch cutters, cut out cookies. With a wide spatula, carefully transfer them from the wax paper to the cookie sheets, spacing about 1 inch apart.
Roll any dough scraps between wax paper and continue cutting out cookies until all the dough is used. If the dough becomes too warm to handle at any point, refrigerate it again briefly. If desired, very lightly sprinkle the cookies with colored sprinkles or colored decorating sugar.
Bake, 1 sheet at a time, in the upper third of the oven for 6 to 9 minutes, or until cookies are just slightly colored on top and slightly darker at the edges. Rotate sheets halfway through baking for even browning. Transfer sheets to wire racks and let cookies firm up, 1 to 2 minutes, Then transfer the cookies to wire racks and let stand until thoroughly cool.
Makes 2 1/2 to 3 1/2 dozen 2 1/2 to 3 1/2-inch cookies.
Source: Joy Of Cooking Christmas Cookies by Irma S. Rombauer, Marion Rombauer Becker and Ethan Becker
Royal Icing Using Egg Whites:
2 large egg whites
2 teaspoons fresh lemon juice
3 cups confectioners sugar, sifted
Food coloring – use to your heart’s content.
Our friends at Food52 have lots of swell Christmas cookie ideas. I like a nice, cookie cutter Christmas cookie. And we have timed this just right. Amanda suggests that we bake these cookies well in advance, so they will be perfect to leave out for You Know Who and his eight tiny sidekicks: https://food52.com/recipes/19858-holiday-cut-out-cookies Don’t forget a carrot, for emergencies.
“There’s nothing sadder in this world than to awake Christmas morning and not be a child.”