Editor’s note: We’re regifting you this oldie about goodies for the holiday season.
Photos: April McGreger
Christmas is on the horizon, and my kitchen has been turned into a mini cookie factory. Every inch of countertop is occupied by cookies in some process: mixing dough, rolling out dough, icing cookies, filling sandwich cookies, dusting cookies with powdered sugar, and packing cookies into boxes with red tissue paper. The scent of roasted pecans and powdered sugar transports me to my mother’s kitchen, where I began helping out with the holiday baking before I could even reach the countertop.
I rarely bake cookies the rest of the year, but come the holidays I can’t help myself. Some shop; some decorate; I bake.
Here are some of my favorite recipes.
Moravian Ginger Crisps
For North Carolinians, the height of the Christmas season is going to visit the historic Moravian village of Old Salem, NC. The Moravians are respected bakers, especially for their thin and crispy cookies, like these. Their shape may be delicate, but their spicy ginger flavor packs a punch. I usually skip the icing and as do the Moravians, but with a three-year-old nephew this year, I got the urge.
Makes 2-3 dozen cookies, depending on shape
1/2 stick unsalted butter, at cool room temperature
3/4 cup sugar
2 tablespoons brown sugar
2 tablespoons unsulfured molasses
4 teaspoons grated fresh ginger
1 egg white
1 1/2 cups all-purpose flour
1/4 teaspoon salt
1/2 teaspoon baking soda
1/4 teaspoon black pepper
3 tablespoons ground ginger
1 teaspoon cinnamon
1/4 teaspoon nutmeg
1/4 teaspoon cloves
Royal icing, optional, recipe below
In a food processor or mixer, blend together butter, sugar, brown sugar, and molasses. Mix in egg white and fresh ginger. Sift together the flour, salt, baking soda, and spices. Mix the dries into the butter mixture in two batches and until just combined. Form into a disc, wrap in plastic, and chill 6 hours or overnight.
Roll dough out between two pieces of plastic wrap or wax paper to 1/8-inch thick. Dip your cookie cutter into flour and cut the dough into shapes. Chill the cookie dough on a sheet pan in the freezer, if possible, for 10 minutes. Then bake about 8 minutes until the edges are golden brown. You may chill the scraps and reroll them.
5 tablespoons meringue powder
1/3 cup water
4 cups powdered sugar
1 tablespoon lemon juice
1 tablespoon vanilla extract
Beat all ingredients together at medium speed until just combined, about 1 minute. Turn mixer up to high and beat until stiff, glossy peaks form, about 3 minutes. Transfer to a pastry bag with a fine tip or a plastic storage bag with the corner snipped and pipe as desired on cool cookies. Let icing set at least 1 hour.
Chocolate Cherry Schnecken
What the rest of the country calls rugelach, the Jewish communities of Philadelphia and Baltimore call schnecken, German for “snail.” They are so good I don’t know why they haven’t developed a larger following. Most commonly found in the rolled crescent shape, this method is easier and suits me best. Schnecken have long been a favorite of my husband’s family and have in recent years my mother has begun making requests for them, too. Many fillings exist, with cinnamon-spiced raisins or currants and walnuts being the most common. I chose this filling to satisfy my chocoholic husband. Feel free to experiment.
Makes about 15-18 cookies
For the cream cheese pastry
2 cups all-purpose flour
1/4 teaspoon salt
2 sticks unsalted butter, cool room temperature
8 oz. cream cheese, cool room temperature
2 tablespoons sugar
1 egg, beaten for glazing
For the filling
1/2 cup light brown sugar, packed
2 tablespoons granulated sugar
1 teaspoon ground cinnamon
1/2 cup chopped bittersweet chocolate, or 1/4 cup chocolate and 1/4 cup cocoa nibs, finely chopped
1/2 cup dried sour cherries, chopped
For pastry: sift together flour and salt. Cream the butter and cream cheese. Add flour mixture and stir with a wooden spoon until a soft dough forms. Gather dough into a ball, form into a rectangle and wrap in plastic wrap. Chill until firm, at least 2 hours or overnight.
Make the filling: mix together all ingredients in a medium bowl and set aside.
Roll out the pastry: On a lightly floured work surface, or between two pieces of wax paper or plastic wrap, roll out the dough into a rectangle 8 inches wide, 16-18 inches long, and 1/4-inch thick.
Spread the filling over the dough, press it into the dough slightly and roll it up, starting from the short end. Wrap the log in plastic wrap and chill for 2 hours or freeze.
Preheat the oven to 350 F. Cut the log into 3/4 inch thick slices and place on a parchment-lined baking tray. Brush the cookies with beaten egg and sprinkle with turbinado sugar. Bake for 20-25 minutes until golden brown. Be careful not to burn the bottoms.
Other than chocolate chip, these are the first cookies that I ever baked. Known elsewhere as Mexican wedding cookies, they are a standard Christmas cookie in my family by the name “snowballs.” My sweet tooth has waned of late, and this cookie seemed overly sweet. I have remedied the problem by browning the butter in this recipe, giving the cookie a toasty hint of bitterness and putting them back in the No. 1 spot.
Makes about 2 dozen cookies
2 sticks unsalted butter
1 1/2 cups plus 2 tablespoons powdered sugar
1/4 teaspoon salt
1 1/2 cups all-purpose flour, sifted
1 cup pecans, toasted and coarsely chopped
granulated sugar and powdered sugar for dusting
Melt the butter in a medium saucepan over medium heat. Cook until the butter begins to brown and smell toasty, and the solids begin to stick to the bottom of the pan, 8-10 minutes. Let the mixture cool slightly, then transfer to the refrigerator to chill until firm.
In a food processor or with an electric mixer, cream the brown butter with the powdered sugar and salt until lighter in color and fluffy, about 2 minutes. Mix in the flour and then the pecans. Cover the bowl of dough with plastic wrap and refrigerate until firm, about 1 hour.
Roll the dough into 1-inch balls and roll them in granulated sugar. Shake off the excess.
Bake the cookies 1 inch apart on a parchment-lined baking sheet for 12-15 minutes, or until the bottoms are light golden brown. Do not brown the tops and do not over-bake.
Cool completely, then toss in powdered sugar.
Chocolate Icebox Shortbread
I make these cookies with high-quality cocoa powder, which makes them seriously chocolately and aromatic. Their saltiness amps up the flavor even more. I shaped them in to modern petite rectangles, but you can cut them into whatever shape you choose. You can’t beat the convenience of slice-and-bake icebox cookies. You may never have to be more than 15 minutes away from home-baked cookies ever again.
Makes about 5 dozen cookies or 30 s
3 sticks unsalted butter, at cool room temperature
3/4 cup sugar
2 1/2 cups all-purpose flour
1 cup plus 2 tablespoons cocoa
3/4 teaspoon salt
Preheat oven to 350 F.
Cream together butter and sugar with a wooden spoon or with a mixer until well-blended. Sift together the flour, cocoa, and salt. Add to the butter mixture and stir until just combined.
Form the dough into a rectangle about 1 1/2 thick. Wrap in plastic and refrigerate until firm, about 2 hours. Cut the block of dough into two or three rectangular logs about 2 1/4 inches wide and 1 inch thick. Wrap the blocks of dough in plastic wrap and freeze until firm (or up to two months). Slice the cookies with a sharp knife into 1/4-inch thick slices. Place the cookies a 1/2-inch apart on a parchment-lined bake sheet. Bake the cookies for 12-15 minutes, until firm, matte, and slightly puffed. The cookies will spread and their edges will touch while baking, but this is desired. You cookies will be more uniform and have straighter edges. Just separate your cookies with the edge of a spatula when cool. When the cookies cool, they should be crisp around the edges and slightly softer in the middle. If you’d like them crisper, you can bake them a few minutes longer.
You can alternatively roll out the dough between two pieces of waxed paper or plastic wrap and cut out cookies shapes. Space the shaped cookies 1 1/2 inches apart on the tray when baking.
These cookies are perfect just as they are, but also make delicious sandwich cookies with chestnut cream, mint buttercream with crushed peppermint edges, or chocolate ganache.