This time of year, everyone seems to be just a little bit more cheerful than usual. Ask around, and most people will be more than happy to tell you what it is about this month that puts that spring in their step, that unsuspecting grin on their face, and makes the stresses of everyday life seem a little less overwhelming. Some will say it’s the twinkle of lights on an evergreen tree that do it; others will think of faraway friends and family members flying home for the holidays; for some, it’s simply the seemingly magical reprieve from work and school that comes between Christmas and New Years.
That’s right. Christmas Cookies.
But not just eating them, no. It’s more or less everything about them. Baking them alone, baking them with friends, or family – especially my mom, with whom I’ve shared this holiday tradition since childhood. Smelling them as they toast up in the oven, licking batter off a spoon (salmonella is just a myth, if you ask me), rolling out ball after ball of sugar cookie dough and helping my 4-year-old cousin press a gingerbread man-shaped cutter into the soft buttery sheet. Taking a few of each variety and piling them into holiday tins, which would soon be wrapped in colored cellophane and ribbon, and handed out to family members so the magic of Christmas could continue on, even if just a little, past December 25th.
Yes, Christmas Cookies are infallible in my eyes. Which is why, on approximately November 29th, with Thanksgiving firmly behind me and nothing but four-packs of butter and ten-pound bags of flour standing between me and the big day, I sent the following email to my family:
In the spirit of the holiday season, and the spirit of writing about holiday cookies, I’ve decided to call roll (re: rolling-pin pun intended!) on our cookie list for this Christmas already. So, without further adieu, I give you this year’s line-up:
The Fruity (for all us FRUITS in the family)
- Diane’s Classic Lemon Shortbread Cookies
- Jenna’s (i.e soon to be Chris’s) Lemon Bars (http://eatliverun.com/big-sur-lemon-bars/)
- Diane’s Raspberry Bar Cookies
- Classic raspberry Linzer Tarts (http://eatliverun.com/classic-linzer-cookies/)
The Christmas Classics
- Gingerbread Men
- Frosted Holiday Sugar Cookies (using Deedle’s pre-mix adaptation)
- Struffoli with Sprinkles
- Chocolate Chips for the Kids!
The Wintery Flavors Parade
- Cinnamon Roll-Up Cookies
- Maple-Nut Cookie Cups
So that’s what I’ve got. Nothing two crazy, just a nice even variety of Ten Classic Cookies. Take a deep breath and accept your fate. An aggressive season of cookie baking is upon us.”
Unfortunately, I was quickly reminded by the matriarchal head-baker of my family that many of these recipes are family trade-secrets, and sharing them might put a slight ding in my future bakery-opening plans (hey, a girl can dream!). At first, the idea of not sharing these recipes on my blog seemed very sad, as I know the merriness they bring my family and could possibly bring others. But then, I realized that this was really an opportunity – a chance to branch out from the stand-by recipes my family and I turn to every year, and give some other cookies a chance, while experimenting with adding my own holiday flare.
This past friday, my favorite co-chef and I took a time-out to experiment with a Toffee Bar cookie recipe from Epicurious, one of the “25 Days of Christmas Cookies” featured on the site. Add a couple of candy canes, and this recipe provided the perfect early morning sweet-snack to fuel a pack of hungry New Yorkers for this year’s annual SantaCon(vention):
Okay, so I didn’t try and feed all of them. Even I know better than to give sugar to that many Manhattanites. But those who did try these cookies seemed pretty satisfied. These toffee bars remind me of a cross between a Yorkshire, a sweet sugar cookie, and an old-fashioned toffee candy. They’re rich, but small, which means you can eat a couple without feeling guilty; at the same time, if you only want to try one (and leave room for other types), you’ll still get that satisfying sweetness. Not to mention, they take only about 15 minutes of prep, and then 5 minutes to finalize on the back-end, making them one of the speediest holiday cookies around! Feeling excited? How ’bout Holly-Jolly? Then without further delay, here’s how you make ‘em:
Gather your freshest ingredients (adapted from Epicurious):
- 1 cup (2 sticks) unsalted butter, at room temperature
- 1 cup firmly packed light brown sugar
- 1 large egg yolk
- 1 teaspoon vanilla extract
- 1/4 teaspoon salt
- 2 cups all-purpose flour
- 7 to 8 ounces milk chocolate, broken into pieces, or 1 1/2 cups milk chocolate chips
- 1 cup chopped almonds, toasted
- 6 large candy canes, crushed
Start by preheating your oven to 350°F. Line a 9-by-13-inch baking pan with parchment, or if you don’t have parchment, coat very well with non-stick cooking spray.
Next, prepare the crust by beating together the butter and sugar on medium speed until light, about 2 minutes, with an electric mixer (or super-strong co-chef armed only with pastry cutter. This method works surprisingly well). Beat in the egg yolk, vanilla, and salt. On low-speed (re: slower hand-mixing), gradually beat in the flour just until mixed.
The dough will be stiff. Your arm will be sore. Gather your remaining strength and pat the dough evenly over the bottom of the baking pan. Then, simply pop the pan into the center of the oven and bake until pale gold on top, about 20 minutes.
Once the crust is firm and golden, remove the pan from the oven and scatter the chocolate pieces evenly over the crust.
Return the pan to the oven for 1 to 3 minutes, checking often to see how well the chocolate is melting. Once it has softened sufficiently, remove the pan again and, using a knife, spread the chocolate evenly over the crust. Sprinkle evenly with the almonds and candy canes, and press gently into the melted chocolate with the back of a spatula.
It’s very important that once you add the topping, you let the pan and its contents cool completely before cutting. The recommended method is to just set the pan on a wire rack and leave it alone until cool.
Once cool, use a sharp knife to cut into small squares, then carefully remove from the pan with a small offset spatula or an icing spatula. Then proceed to enjoy with family and friends, and might I recommend – a cup of coffee with Bailey’s or some spiced apple cider?
Oh, and keep the serving tray on a firm, stable surface. Trust me, these cookies don’t have quite the same appeal when they’re face down on the floor covered in orange juice. Not that this happened to me or anything. I’m definitely not that clutzy.
Just sayin’…. Happy Holidays!