Holiday cookies to slice and bake

Posted Dec. 13, 2011, at 1:13 p.m.
Last modified Dec. 13, 2011, at 6:16 p.m.

For most of the year, I am happy to serve humble drop or bar cookies to family and friends. But as the holidays approach, I aim to create a selection of beautifully shaped, cut-out and decorated cookies that almost always are crowd pleasers. The trick is to choose the right recipes and equipment, organize your time and take a relaxed approach to decorating.

Flavor comes first

No matter how cute the shape of your cookies, if they aren’t delicious, then what is the point? That’s why I use butter instead of vegetable shortening in my gingerbread men and spice up a simple shortbread dough with freshly ground black pepper. Pistachios pull double duty in my Christmas tree cookie dough, coloring it a pretty pale green while giving it great flavor.

Gather your tools

You’ll need a rolling pin, of course. Any style of pin you are comfortable with (some dowel-style pins have tapered ends, a traditional American rolling pin has handles and a steel rod running through the pin to give it a smooth rolling action) will work. A few other inexpensive items also will help. A large offset spatula (that’s the one with the long, thin metal blade) is essential for loosening sticky dough from the countertop as you roll it. Metal cookie cutters with sharp edges work better than plastic ones. A small offset spatula is helpful for spreading melted chocolate and icing over cookies. Have a large supply of parchment paper at the ready, not only for lining baking sheets but for storing unbaked and baked cookies.

Give yourself time

Plan your cookie baking in stages to avoid becoming overwhelmed. Typically, I’ll mix my dough one day, refrigerate it, and roll it and cut it in the next day or two, when I have the time. Then, I’ll place layers of cutout cookies, separated by sheets of parchment paper, on a baking sheet, wrap the whole baking sheet in plastic wrap, and freeze. Frozen cookies, arranged on fresh baking sheets, can be baked right from the freezer in minutes.

Decorate, but don’t overdecorate

Unless you are a whiz with a pastry bag (I am not), planning on piping elaborate decorations is a mistake, since inexpertly applied icing is not pleasing to the eye, and icing itself rarely enhances the flavor of a cookie. Instead, choose simple decorations that taste good. Chocolate shortbread candy canes are improved when spread with a thin layer of melted chocolate and sprinkled with crushed peppermint candy. Snowflake-shaped cookies need just a dusting of confectioners’ sugar before serving for a pretty finish.

Chocolate-peppermint candy canes

To crush the candies, place them in a heavy-duty zipper-lock bag on top of a cutting board and pound with a mallet or rolling pin.

1 ½ cups unbleached all-purpose flour

⅔ cup unsweetened cocoa powder

1 teaspoon salt

1 cup (2 sticks) unsalted butter, softened

1 cup confectioners’ sugar

1 teaspoon pure vanilla extract

¾ cup semisweet or bittersweet chocolate chips, melted and slightly cooled

3 ounces peppermint candies, coarsely crushed

1. Whisk together flour, cocoa powder and salt in a medium bowl. Place the butter and sugar in a large bowl and beat together with an electric mixer on medium until fluffy, about 3 minutes. Beat in vanilla. Mix in flour mixture on low until dough is smooth.

2. Divide dough into 2 portions. Press each into a 5-inch disk, wrap in plastic and refrigerate for at least 30 minutes and up to 2 days.

3. Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Line two baking sheets with parchment paper.

4. Working with 1 disk at a time, roll dough to ¼ inch thick on a lightly floured countertop. Turn the dough often, loosening it from the countertop with a large, offset spatula to prevent sticking.

5. Use a candy cane-shaped cookie cutter to cut the dough, rerolling scraps and recutting until all the dough is used. Transfer cookies to prepared baking sheets, spacing them 1 inch apart. Bake until firm, 13-15 minutes. Slide cookies, still on parchment, onto wire racks to cool.

6. Use a small offset spatula to spread a thin layer of melted chocolate over one side of each cookie. Sprinkle with peppermint and let stand until chocolate is set, about 30 minutes. Store for up to 3 days between sheets of parchment in an airtight container at room temperature. Makes about 32 (3-inch) cookies.

Classic mini gingerbread men

With the clever placement of candies, sprinkles and other sugar decors, it is possible to decorate your gingerbread men by piping royal icing from a pastry bag. For those of you who want to do so, a recipe is included.

For the cookies:

2 ½ cups unbleached all-purpose flour

1 teaspoon baking powder

1 teaspoon ground ginger

½ teaspoon baking soda

½ teaspoon salt

½ teaspoon ground cinnamon

½ teaspoon ground cloves

½ cup (1 stick) unsalted butter, softened

½ cup sugar

½ cup dark (not light or blackstrap) molasses

1 large egg yolk

1 tablespoon white vinegar

Red Hots, sugar hearts, sprinkles and other sugar decors for decorating

For the icing (optional):

1 tablespoon meringue powder

2 ½ tablespoons warm water

1 cup confectioners’ sugar

1. Make cookies: Whisk together flour, baking powder, ginger, baking soda, salt, cinnamon and cloves in a medium bowl. Cream together butter and sugar in a large mixing bowl with an electric mixer until smooth. Add molasses, egg yolk and vinegar and beat until smooth, scraping down side of bowl once or twice as necessary. Stir in flour mixture 1 cup at a time, until incorporated.

2. Scrape dough onto countertop, shape into a 5-inch disk, wrap in plastic, and refrigerate for at least 30 minutes and up to 3 days.

3. Preheat oven to 375 degrees. Line several baking sheets with parchment paper. Roll dough to ¼ inch thick on a lightly floured countertop. Turn dough often, loosening it from the countertop with a large, offset spatula to prevent sticking. Use a 3-inch gingerbread man cookie cutter to cut dough, rerolling and cutting scraps. Place cut cookies on prepared baking sheets 1 inch apart. Press sugar decorations and candies into cookies to make eyes, mouths, buttons, etc.

4. Bake until firm, 8 to 10 minutes. Slide cookies, still on parchment, onto wire racks to cool completely.

5. Make icing, if desired: Whisk together meringue powder and water in a large bowl until frothy. Add confectioners’ sugar, whisk and then beat with an electric mixer on high until smooth and shiny, 3-5 minutes.

6. Scrape icing into a pastry bag fitted with a small, plain tip and pipe additional decorations onto cookies. Let cookies stand until icing is set, about 30 minutes. Store for up to three days between sheets of parchment in an airtight container at room temperature. Makes about 30 (3-inch) gingerbread men.

Espresso snowflakes

Instant espresso powder gives these simple shortbread cookies powerful flavor. Dust them with confectioners’ sugar just before serving for the prettiest presentation.

1 cup (2 sticks) unsalted butter, softened

¾ cup packed light brown sugar

2 tablespoons instant espresso powder

½ teaspoon salt

2 cups unbleached all-purpose flour

⅓ cup confectioners’ sugar

¼ teaspoon ground nutmeg

1. Cream together butter, brown sugar, espresso powder and salt in a large bowl with an electric mixer until smooth, 3 to 5 minutes. Add flour, ½ cup at a time, until incorporated, scraping down sides of bowl as necessary. Divide dough into two portions. Press each into a 5-inch disk, wrap in plastic wrap, and refrigerate for at least 30 minutes and up to 2 days.

2. Preheat oven to 300 degrees. Line several baking sheets with parchment paper. Roll dough to ¼ inch thick on a lightly floured countertop. Turn dough often, loosening it from the countertop with a large, offset spatula to prevent sticking. Use a 3-inch snowflake cookie cutter to cut dough, rerolling and cutting scraps. Place cut cookies on prepared baking sheet, 1 inch apart. Bake until firm, 15-18 minutes. Slide cookies, still on parchment, onto wire racks to cool completely. Store cookies in airtight container at room temperature up to 3 days.

3. Place cookies on rimmed baking sheets (this will contain the mess). Whisk together confectioners’ sugar and nutmeg in a small bowl. Spoon mixture into a fine strainer and shake strainer over cookies to dust heavily just before serving. Makes about 36 (3-inch) cookies.

Pistachio shortbread Christmas trees

Look for dragees at specialty foods stores and baking supply shops, or use small red and green nonpareils instead.

½ cup unsalted pistachios

1 ½ cups unbleached all-purpose flour

½ cup plus 2 tablespoons confectioners’ sugar

½ teaspoon salt

¾ cup (1 ½ sticks) unsalted butter, cut into 12 pieces, chilled

1 large egg yolk

½ teaspoon pure vanilla extract

1 ounce milk chocolate, melted

½ cup white chocolate chips, melted

Dragees (optional)

1. Place pistachios in work bowl of a food processor and finely grind. Add flour, confectioners’ sugar and salt and pulse once or twice to combine. Add butter, egg yolk and vanilla and process until dough comes together into a smooth ball. Divide dough into two portions. Press each into a 5-inch disk, wrap in plastic, and refrigerate for at least 30 minutes and up to two days.

2. Preheat oven to 325 degrees. Line several baking sheets with parchment paper. Roll dough to ¼ inch thick on a lightly floured countertop. Turn the dough often, loosening it from the countertop with a large, offset spatula to prevent sticking. Use a 3-inch Christmas tree cutter to cut dough, rerolling and cutting scraps. Place cookies on prepared baking sheets, 1 inch apart. Bake until gold around edges, 13-15 minutes. Slide cookies, still on parchment, onto wire racks to cool completely.

3. Place cookies, still on racks, on top of rimmed baking sheets. Use a small offset spatula to spread milk chocolate over trunks of trees. Dip a fork into white chocolate and wave back and forth over cookies to decorate. If desired, place some of the dragees on the chocolate so they adhere. Let stand until chocolate is set, about 30 minutes. Store between sheets of parchment in an airtight container at room temperature for up to three days. Makes about 24 (3-inch) Christmas tree cookies.

Black pepper-shortbread moons with citrus glaze

You can really taste the black pepper in these cookies, and it contrasts wonderfully with the lemony glaze.

For the cookies:

2 ¼ cups unbleached all-purpose flour

¼ cup cornstarch

2 teaspoons ground black pepper

¼ teaspoon salt

1 cup (2 sticks) unsalted butter, cut into pieces and chilled

½ cup sugar

For the glaze:

1 cup confectioners’ sugar

2 tablespoons plus

2 teaspoons lemon juice

1 teaspoon grated lemon zest

1 teaspoon grated orange zest

1. Make the cookies: Whisk together flour, cornstarch, pepper and salt in a medium bowl. Cream together butter and sugar in a large bowl with an electric mixer until smooth, 3-5 minutes. Add flour mixture, ½ cup at a time, until incorporated, scraping down sides of bowl as necessary. Divide dough into two portions. Press each into a 5-inch disk, wrap in plastic and refrigerate for at least 30 minutes and up to two days.

2. Preheat oven to 325 degrees. Line several baking sheets with parchment paper. Roll dough to ¼ inch thick on a lightly floured countertop. Turn dough often, loosening it from countertop with a large, offset spatula to prevent sticking. Use a 2-inch star cookie cutter to cut dough, rerolling and cutting scraps. Place cut cookies on prepared baking sheet, 1 inch apart. Bake until firm, 11 to 13 minutes. Slide cookies, still on parchment, onto wire racks to cool.

3. Make glaze: Whisk together confectioners’ sugar, lemon juice, lemon and orange zest in a small bowl until smooth. Use a small, offset spatula to spread a thin layer of glaze over each cookie. Let cookies stand until glaze is set, about 30 minutes. Store between sheets of parchment in an airtight container at room temperature for up to three days. Makes about 50 (3-inch) cookies.

Stained-glass star cookies

Be sure to let these cool completely on the baking sheets before moving them, to allow the cookies to set up and the candy centers to harden. Red or green hard candies may be substituted for the butterscotch candies, if you’d like. Or skip the stained-glass decoration and use the dough to make cut out sugar cookies to decorate with sprinkles and sanding sugar.

1 cup (2 sticks) unsalted butter, softened

¾ cup sugar

1 large egg yolk

1 ½ teaspoons pure vanilla extract

2 ½ cups unbleached all-purpose flour

¼ teaspoon salt

3 ounces butterscotch candies, unwrapped and ground fine in a food processor

Coarse white sanding sugar

1. Place the butter and sugar in a large bowl and beat together until fluffy with an electric mixer on medium, about 3 minutes. Beat in egg yolk and vanilla. Beat in flour and salt on low until dough is smooth.

2. Divide dough into two portions. Press each into a 5-inch disk, wrap in plastic, and refrigerate for at least 30 minutes and up to two days.

3. Preheat oven to 375 degrees. Line several baking sheets with parchment paper.

4. Place candies in work bowl of a food processor fitted with a metal blade and process until finely ground. Transfer candy to a small bowl.

5. Working with 1 dough disk at a time, roll dough to ⅛ inch thick on a lightly floured countertop. Turn dough often, loosening it from the countertop with a large, offset spatula to prevent sticking.

6. Use a 3-inch star-shaped cookie cutter to cut the dough, and then use a 1-inch star-shaped cookie cutter to make a star cut in the center of each cookie. Transfer cookies to prepared baking sheets. Reroll and re-cut scraps until all of the dough is used.

7. Use a very small spoon (I use my ¼ teaspoon measure) to fill each small star cutout with candy, spreading it with your finger or the back of the spoon to fill, but not overfill, cavity. Sprinkle cookies with sanding sugar.

8. Bake cookies until golden around the edges, about 8 minutes. Let cool completely on baking sheets. Store in an airtight container at room temperature, between sheets of parchment to protect decoration, for up to three days. Makes about 40 (3 ½-inch) cookies.

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