Now that Thanksgiving is in the rearview mirror, the next phase of holiday baking begins.
It’s one of my favorite times of the year because, while Thanksgiving is a one-off meal — one that I love, mind you — holiday baking goes on for an entire month. It seems as though each week in December is filled with office parties and caroling events as well as cookie swaps and holiday pageants. Each one involves a platter of sweets and treats, with every tray seemingly sweetier and treatier than the last.
What? Those are words.
There are even entire movies based around the theme of holiday baking. Where would Hallmark Christmas movies be without that one scene where Jillian, the cold-hearted attorney from “Big City,” discovers the true meaning of the holidays when she partners with Clint, the soft-spoken (and secretly rich) small town lumberjack, to win the local cookie baking contest?
Yes, I’ve watched Hallmark Christmas movies. Don’t hate me.
Hallmark movies may be painfully predictable, but they get one thing right: holiday baking — and especially holiday cookies — are magical. It is the one time of the year when I break away from my regular chocolate chip/peanut butter routine to try something with a little spice or just a hint of orange.
It’s also a time when I break out my cookie cutters to cut my confections into the likeness of a reindeer or a sprig of holly. I do not do much decoration, however. A drizzle of icing or perhaps a sprinkle of colorful sugars is all I need, and all that my limited decorating skills are capable of.
Many of you may have a favorite holiday cut-out recipe that you use every year. If not — or if you are looking for something a little different — I have a few below that I think would look great on any holiday cookie platter. None of them are very complicated to make, and they are a wonderfully sweet way to make someone’s December a little brighter.
Cut-Out Cookie Baking Tips
You will need a few things to make these cookies. First, you need a rolling pin to get your cookies to an even thickness. Next, you will need parchment paper. Many of the recipes below require that you roll the dough out between sheets of parchment. Others require you to bake on parchment to prevent the cookies from sticking to the baking sheet.
Cold is your friend. I always used to wonder why my cut-outs didn’t retain their shape in the oven. I’ve since learned that the secret weapon is the refrigerator. Once you’ve rolled out your dough and again after you’ve cut out your shapes, give your cookies a rest in the refrigerator. This will chill the butter and help to set the shape.
Cookie cutters are not expensive to buy. However, if you don’t have any, don’t worry. You can use a glass or a biscuit cutter to cut out your cookies. Or simply use a pizza cutter to slice them into rectangles or squares.
When putting together a cookie tray, either for a party or to give away as a gift, try to vary your flavors a bit. I love to go with a few traditional choices — sugar cookie cut-outs and peanut butter blossoms, for example — and throw in a few that folks might be less familiar with.
If you are too busy to make your dough from scratch or lack the confidence, just buy premade dough. While baking homemade cookies is easy for me, in reality, it’s the experience of decorating cookies with family and friends that is the real value of the holidays,
This recipe is one I have run in this feature before. That’s because it is my go-to cookie for rolling and decorating. I love the subtle hints of orange and spice that these cookies pack. Moreover, they roll easily and taste great with a simple powdered sugar icing.
The recipe comes from the December 2009 issue of Bon Appetit magazine.
2½ cups flour
1¼ teaspoons ground cardamom
½ teaspoon salt
1½ cups (3 sticks) butter, room temperature
1 cup plus 2 tablespoons sugar
1½ teaspoons finely grated orange peel
½ teaspoon vanilla extract
1 egg, room temperature
Colorful sugars for decorating (optional)
Whisk the flour, cardamom and salt together in a medium-sized bowl. Set aside.
Beat the butter in a large bowl until creamy. Add the sugar, and beat until light and fluffy (about 3 minutes.) Add the orange peel and vanilla, followed by the egg. Reduce the speed on your mixer and add a third of the flour mixture. Beat until combined. Add another third and beat, followed by the remaining flour.
Divide the dough in half. Wrap each half in plastic, and flatten into a disk. Refrigerate for at least an hour.
Remove the dough from the refrigerator. Roll out between two sheets of parchment paper until roughly ⅛-inch thickness. Return to the refrigerator for 30 minutes and repeat with the second half of dough.
Preheat the oven to 350 degrees. Line two baking sheets with parchment paper.
Peel off the top layer of parchment paper from your dough. Turn it over, and peel off the bottom sheet of parchment. Place dough on your counter and quickly cut out your cookies, using cutters of roughly the same size. Sprinkle with colorful sugars if you like. Place on the prepared baking sheet. Repeat with the remaining half of the dough.
Bake each sheet for 13 minutes (return the second sheet to the refrigerator while the first one bakes), or until cookies just begin to brown around the edges. Repeat with the second sheet of cookies. Dough scraps may be rerolled.
Cool on a wire rack.
I’ve never heard of Melodies, but apparently they were a mass-produced cookie that was beloved by many Americans until the 1970s.
Dorie Greenspan — one of my favorite cookbook authors — said she had been trying to remake the recipe at home for years. This one may just be it.
The cookie is chocolate-y and crisp with a sprinkling of sugar on top. I like the idea of including a chocolate cookie on a holiday cookie tray because it is something different.
2¼ cups flour
⅓ cup unsweetened cocoa
¼ teaspoon baking soda
2 sticks butter, room temperature
¾ cup sugar
¾ teaspoon salt
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
1 egg white
Sugar for sprinkling
Sift together the flour, cocoa and baking soda. Set aside.
In a large bowl, beat the butter, sugar and salt until smooth and creamy (about 3 minutes). Add in the vanilla, followed by the egg white. Beat for 2 minutes.
Beat in half of the flour mixture. Stop the mixer and scrape down the sides of the bowl. Beat in the remaining flour mixture and mix until combined.
Divide dough in half. Roll out each half between sheets of parchment paper to about a ⅛-inch thickness. Place paper with dough onto a baking sheet and refrigerate. Repeat with the remaining dough. Chill for about 2 hours.
When you are ready to bake, preheat the oven to 350 degrees.
Remove one baking sheet with dough from the refrigerator. Peel off the top sheet of parchment. Turn dough over and peel off the bottom sheet. Use a biscuit cutter (or a glass) to cut the cookies into uniform shapes. Place on a parchment-lined baking sheet. Sprinkle with sugar.
Bake for about 12 minutes. Cookies should be firm around the edges. Repeat with the remaining dough.
Jake Cohen’s Hannukah Cookies with Icing
Jake Cohen is one of my favorite Instagram bakers. The stuff he throws together is always beautiful, and these cookies are no exception. Given that I am writing this on the first night of Hannukah, I thought I would include them in this column.
The recipe is a basic butter cookie with a hint of almond. It’s his technique for icing the cookies that caught my attention, however. They are a swirl of blue and white that is easy — though a little messy — to achieve. Don’t worry about the vodka in the icing. You won’t taste it, but Cohen assures us that it will give your iced cookies the perfect finish.
For the Cookies:
1 cup (2 sticks) butter, room temperature
¾ cup sugar
2 teaspoons vanilla extract
1 teaspoon almond extract
2½ cups flour
1 teaspoon kosher salt
¼ teaspoon baking powder
For the Icing:
2 cups powdered sugar
¼ to ½ cup half-and-half
1 tablespoon vodka
1 teaspoon almond extract
Pinch of kosher salt
To make the cookies:
Cream together the butter and sugar with an electric mixer. Add the egg, followed by both the vanilla and almond extracts. Add the flour, salt and baking powder, and mix until just combined.
Use your hands to separate the dough into two roughly equal balls. Flatten slightly. Roll out each ball between pieces of parchment paper to a ⅛-inch thickness. Place on a baking sheet and chill for at least 1 hour.
Preheat oven to 350 degrees.
Carefully peel off the top piece of parchment paper from one of the slabs of dough. Turn it over and peel off the bottom piece of paper. Use cookie cutters to cut out your dough. Place on a parchment lined baking sheet, and bake for 13-14 minutes (cookies should just begin the brown around the edges). Repeat with the second half of the dough.
While your cookies are cooling, make the icing. Stir together all of the ingredients except for the food coloring. Cohen says to use ¼-cup half-and-half, but I found it necessary to add a bit more to make the icing the correct consistency.
When you are ready to ice your cookies, add a few drops of blue food coloring into the icing. Use a knife or a skewer to swirl — but not stir — the food coloring into the icing. You want pretty swirls of color.
Dip the top of each cookie into the icing, and place on a sheet of waxed paper to dry.
This article originally appeared on Iowa City Press-Citizen: Holiday baking month is here. Do your part with these cookie recipes