childhood, Cooking, Food

Christmas Cookies

Christmas baking
Covered in flour and sugar – maybe we should bake her?

I’ve been cooking for thirty years now. I can vividly remember the first thing I baked from scratch by myself: a three-layer german chocolate cake with coconut-pecan icing. My father’s favorite, and I was nine. Skipping forward a few years to high school, and in a small school with an hour study hall, where you are allowed to bring snacks… it becomes a cooking competition among the students. Well, at least for us it did. My sister and I, once every couple of weeks when it was our turn, would spend a weekend creating goodies. We called it having a baking orgy, and it was nothing to do a couple of pies, a half-dozen different sorts of cookies, and I can remember poring over the cookbook to find the recipes it said were the most difficult to master, which is how I came to make an angel food cake from scratch.

Kids cooking
Floury monster hands, Aaaah!

Springing forward in time a few more years, to motherhood. I started teaching my kids how to cook as soon as they could stand on a milk crate and reach the counter. They could help with measuring, and stirring before the batter got too stiff… and Christmas baking became a family tradition. For a few years, we would do bread, and cookies, and nut roll, and fudge, and make up baskets of goodies, with jars of jam made earlier in the year, for family and friends. I think we drove around dispensing 24 baskets one year! I miss that, but this year I won’t be attempting to recreate it. For one thing, I’m going to try and lose some weight before the wedding next year. So I’m dieting (in my own odd way. Eating in moderation, upping the exercise. Radical, I know).

Christmas cookies
Flour Monster!

But I can look through the recipe box and share the best of the cookies we made over the years. I can tell which ones are the favorites from the sticky fingerprints permanently stained onto the cards. And I believe I have some throw-back memory photos to include along with the recipe, of those little hands, now grown much bigger.

Sugar Cookies

Of course! Half the fun for the kids was using our ever-expanding collection of cookie cutters. One year, using a special cutter, we created Chris-Moose cookies for the holiday. We did learn that if you are making little shapes, they should be baked separately from the bigger ones (like the 6″ moose cookie!) so you don’t overcook the little ones (like the 2″ tall gingerbread people (we had bigger ones, too, but these let the kids make families)). Seems obvious, but it’s one of those things that didn’t occur to me in the heat of the moment until too late for the first batch. 

  • 3 c flour
  • 3/4 tsp baking powder
  • 1/4 tsp salt
  • 1 c unsalted, softened butter (room temp is fine)
  • 1 c sugar
  • 1 egg, beaten
  • 1 tbsp milk
  • powdered sugar for rolling out dough

Preheat oven to 375degF. Cream together butter and sugar, beat in egg, then milk. Slowly mix in the dry ingredients, don’t over mix, or you will toughen the cookies. This dough can be refrigerated overnight before using for best results, and tightly wrapped to keep it from drying out, can be refrigerated or frozen for quite some time. I have a note to bake for 7-9 min, but they are delicate and should be watched, remove when they just begin to brown at the edges. Cutting in shapes changes the cooking time, so keep an eye on it! Frugal mom’s cookie cutter note. With a clean tin can, label removed, and both ends cut off, you immediately have a round cutter. With a nice needle-nosed plier, you can have a heart shape in no time (I used a sweetened condensed milk can for years as round on one side, heart on the other for cookies and biscuits) and with some creativity, other shapes too.

Chocolate Peppermint Pinwheel Cookies

I think I may have gotten this recipe from Alton Brown’s Good Eats. But I didn’t make a note on the card, so my memory may be faulty. 

  • 1 batch sugar cookie dough (see above)
  • 3 oz unsweetened chocolate, melted (or equivalent of semi-sweet choco chips)
  • 1 tsp vanilla
  • 1 egg yolk
  • 1 tsp peppermint extract
  • 1/2 c crushed candy canes

Divide the dough in half, right after you make it, don’t chill first or this step will be difficult. Add chocolate and vanilla to one half and incorporate well. This works best by kneading it in with your hands. Messy! Add egg yolk, peppermint extract, and crushed candy to the other half. The kids will have a blast creating crushed candy with a heavy-duty ziploc and the meat tenderizer, or you can do the boring less-messy way and pulse it in the food processor.

Side note: to make your own peppermint extract, cut peppermint before it fully blooms, on the hottest summer day is best for full oil production, and pack a mason jar as full with it as you can. Pour vodka over it to within 1/4″ from rim, tightly cap with lid and ring, and shove into the back of the pantry. Near Christmas time, pull it out and filter through several layers of cheesecloth or a coffee filter. Bottle in small decorative vials (I used new spice jars I bought at my local spice outlet). Gift at Christmas in the baskets, with a little card tied to them that has ideas on how to use, like cookies and in cocoa and….

Where was I? oh, yes. Re-chill the dough, in separate balls. Roll out the dough to 1/4″ thick, individually (I really loved the little spacer rings on my rolling pin, they are like thick rubber bands and make a very accurate dough thickness). Place peppermint on top of chocolate, and press together around the edges. Using a sheet or waxed paper or a flexible cutting board for support, roll dough into a log. Wrap with saran wrap, giving the log a little squeeze to compress, and chill again (I think this is the most complex cookie I make, sorry!). Preheat oven to 375degF, cut the chilled log into 1/2″ slices, and bake on parchment paper for 12-13 min. They come out beautiful, and taste so good, they are well worth the effort.

Brandy Snaps

One of my favorites at any time of the year, they lend themselves well to cutting into shapes, are wonderfully flavored, and store very well when packed in tins, which is why they often got made for gifting. 

  • 2 3/4 c flour
  • 1/2 c butter (unsalted)
  • 1 1/3 c brown sugar, packed
  • 3/4 c white corn syrup
  • 1/8 tsp salt
  • 1 1/2 tsp ginger

Preheat oven to 400degF. I use parchment paper to line my cookie sheets, especially when mass-baking like this, so I don’t have to wash pans frequently, and can keep batches rotating through the oven and cooling racks rapidly. Place all ingredients but the flour in a double boiler; place over boiling water and stir until butter melts and ingredients are well blended (note, I would often do this just by microwaving the butter to melt and then stirring them all together while it was hot). Remove from heat and cool slightly, then stir into flour in a bowl in 2-3 portions, mixing well. Remove dough to waxed paper, form into ball, and chill thoroughly. Cut dough into four sections, and roll out one at a time, leaving the remaining dough in the refrig to chill. Roll out very thin – about 1/16th of an inch (that’s almost paper-thin. Think pasta dough). Cut (don’t use complicated shapes for this dough) and lift carefully with floured spatula onto the covered sheets for baking. Bake 5 minutes (and keep an eye on them!), then allow to stay on the sheet a minute or two before removing to rack to cool. This recipe make about 11 dozen 2″ rounds. (original recipe from 1954 ed Meta Given’s Modern Encylcopedia of Cooking).