Spending countless hours trapped in a cold, dimly lit basement is one of my best Christmas memories.
I don't remember gifts I gave or received (except for the year I got my awesome pink Huffy bike). I do, however, remember making Christmas cookies every December with my mom, a ritual that ended in the basement.
Christmas cookie baking was a massive project. Each year, it began by buying obscene amounts of flour, sugar, butter and eggs, which would be transformed into holiday family favorites such as biscotti, pizzelles and macaroons. The cookies would be assembled onto trays, tied with shiny ribbons and given as presents to everyone we knew, including the dry-cleaning guy.
Mom and I would spend days rolling and dipping and sprinkling. We did this until our backs ached and our feet swelled, then we did it some more, fueled by eating the occasional defective chocolate crinkle or Hello Dolly cookie that didn't make the cut.
Then we'd head to the basement, where more than 2,000 cookies in metal tins were stacked on our old air hockey table waiting to be assembled. (I told you, everyone got a cookie tray).
Susan Russo is a food writer in San Diego. She publishes stories, recipes and photos on her cooking blog, Food Blogga. When she isn't writing about her Italian family back in Rhode Island or life with her husband in Southern California, she can be found milling around a local farmers market buying a lot more food than two people could possibly eat.
Culinary historians claim that the earliest cookies as we know them developed from cake baking. In the 7th century, Persians made small sweet cakes, which became the prototype for modern-day cookies. It is believed that at some point, small amounts of cake batter were baked to test an oven's temperature, and eventually these small cakes became treats themselves.
During medieval times, cookie recipes and baking techniques spread from the Middle East to Europe. With the Muslim invasion of Spain and the development of the spice trade, cookies laced with cinnamon, nutmeg, ginger and anise began to appear. By the Renaissance, cookbooks included many recipes for sweet cookies made from eggs, sugar and flour. Indeed, the word "cookie" comes from the Dutch word koeptje or koekje, which means small cake.
Cookies underwent major changes in the 18th and 19th centuries as the price of sugar and flour dropped and chemical leavening agents such as baking soda became widely available. The inventions of the modern refrigerator and oven with thermostat also helped propel the popularity of home-baked cookies.
Though cookies have been associated with feasts and special occasions for centuries, they may be most identifiable with Christmas, dating back to medieval Europe. The first genuine Christmas cookie was likely lebkuchen, a German gingerbread cookie, which was followed by other European cookies including buttery Swedish spritz and speculaas koekjes (Dutch spice cookies).
When European immigrants came to America, they brought along their cookie recipes as well as cookie cutters and decorative molds. Soon, American home bakers excitedly began making Christmas cookies in the shapes of St. Nicholas, Christmas bells and stars.
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Cookies also are the confection most closely associated with Santa Claus. The tradition of leaving cookies for Santa on Christmas Eve began in the 1930s during the Great Depression. Some say it was an inexpensive yet sweet way for nice children to thank Santa, while others claim it was a way for naughty children to bribe him. Either way, cookies remain a beloved Christmas treat for Santa and are an ideal Christmas gift during tough economic times.
Bar cookies are a hectic holiday baker's best friends. All of the ingredients get mixed together, poured into a single pan like a cake, then baked. Brownies, likely the most treasured of bar cookies, are ideal for large gatherings and require minimum effort.
Rolled and cut-out cookies are made from stiff dough that is rolled out then cut into shapes such as hearts. Sugar cookies, pinwheel cookies and shortbread are among the most popular.
Refrigerator cookies are so named because the dough is formed into a cylinder and chilled in the refrigerator before baking. These are great plan-ahead cookies because the dough freezes well.
Molded, shaped or pressed cookies are made from dough that is typically chilled then rolled into logs or balls before being shaped. Some are hand-shaped like crescents, while others, such as madeleines, are made in molded cookie pans.
As the name implies, sandwich cookies are made from two cookies held together by a filling, like an Oreo. Filled cookies such as fig bars are made from dough that is baked with a filling inside.
Finally, there are specialty cookies, such as cloud-like meringues and elegant curved tuiles (French lace cookies).
If you want to make Christmas memorable for your kids this year, skip the mall and spend a day or two baking Christmas cookies with them instead. It may be the only gift they remember 20 years from now.
Tips For Baking, Storing
Before you begin baking, make sure you have all requisite ingredients as well as baking utensils, pans and parchment paper. Baking requires precision, so unless you're an old pro, it's best to use the exact ingredients specified in a recipe rather than make substitutions that can adversely affect both texture and flavor.
• In general, cookie dough should be mixed by hand or with an electric hand mixer. Avoid overmixing the dough, which can lead to tough cookies. Stir in ingredients such as chocolate chips, nuts and dried fruits by hand.
• Use sturdy, aluminum baking sheets with or without a rim. Rather than greasing sheets, line them with parchment paper. This helps the cookies bake more evenly, makes it easier to slide them onto a cooling rack and allows for quick cleanup.
• Always preheat the oven and space cookies at least 2 inches apart.
• Bake one sheet of cookies at a time, which allows the oven's heat to circulate evenly and prevents cookies from becoming too browned on the bottom. If you must bake more than one sheet at a time, then place sheets in the top and bottom thirds of the oven and rotate midway through. Never place cookies on a hot baking sheet, as they will spread; either let the sheet cool or run it under cold water before re-using it.
• If cookies spread too much, chill the remaining cookie dough in the refrigerator for 10 to 15 minutes before baking.
• Unless otherwise noted, transfer cookies immediately to a cooling rack. Just slide the parchment paper with the cookies on it directly onto the rack. Cookies will firm up a bit as they cool. Allow them to cool completely before frosting.
When it comes to storing and freezing cookies, keep these tips in mind:
• Make sure cookies are cooled completely before storing. Metal tins keep cookies crisper and firmer than plastic containers.
• Store soft cookies like macaroons in a separate container from hard cookies like biscotti. Otherwise, you'll end up with all soft cookies.
• Layer cookies between sheets of waxed or parchment paper to maintain freshness and to prevent them from sticking together. Sturdy cookies such as biscotti can be stored without the paper.
• Use the same storing principles when giving gifts of cookies. Festive decorative tins are both attractive and practical.
• Most types of cookie dough can be frozen raw then baked later, though drier cookie dough, such as shortbread, freezes better. Place formed cookies on a parchment-lined baking sheet and freeze until firm, about 1 hour. Place cookies in a freezer bag and freeze for up to 3 months. There is no need to thaw them; just add a few minutes to the baking time.
• To freeze baked cookies, place them in single layers separated by sheets of waxed or parchment paper and store in a freezer-proof, air-tight container. Baked cookies can be frozen for up to 6 months and should be defrosted on the countertop before serving.
My mom has been baking these lemon egg biscuits for more than 40 years. Infused with lemon extract and coated with a sweet, crunchy lemon icing, these cookies are light, cakey and refreshingly citrusy.
Makes 72 cookies
6 cups all-purpose flour
1 1/2 cups granulated sugar
3 tablespoons baking powder
1 teaspoon salt
6 large eggs
4 tablespoons lemon extract
1 cup canola oil
1/2 cup whole milk
2 1/2 cups confectioners' sugar
2 tablespoons lemon extract
A few drops of whole milk
Colored candy sprinkles (optional)
Preheat the oven to 325 degrees, and position a rack in the center of the oven.
Line four large cookie sheets with parchment paper.
In a large bowl, mix flour, sugar, baking powder and salt.
In a small bowl, lightly whisk eggs, lemon extract, oil and milk.
Add the wet ingredients to the dry ingredients. Using a rubber spatula, mix until a dough starts to form. Using your hands, lightly squeeze and knead the dough. If it seems a bit dry, then add 1 teaspoon of milk at a time until it reaches desired consistency. The dough should be somewhat sticky and elastic.
Scoop 1 tablespoon of cookie dough and roll between your palms until a smooth ball forms. Place the balls on a parchment-lined baking sheet 2 inches apart.
Bake cookies for 15 to 20 minutes, or until lightly browned on the bottoms. The tops will be white but cooked through. Transfer to a rack and cool completely before frosting.
To make the icing, whisk the confectioners' sugar and the lemon extract in a small bowl. Add a few drops of milk and continue whisking until the icing is smooth and opaque and clings to the back of a spoon. Taste and add more lemon extract, if desired. When it's ready, pour icing through a fine-mesh sieve to remove any tiny clumps of confectioners' sugar.
For easy cleanup, place a sheet of parchment paper under a cookie rack before icing cookies. Dip the top of the cookie in the icing, then place on the rack. Decorate with colored candy sprinkles, if desired. Allow to dry completely before storing in an airtight tin or plastic container. Place waxed paper or parchment paper between layers to protect the icing and sprinkles. Properly stored, cookies should last seven to 10 days.
If you want to give chocolate lovers on your Christmas list a special treat, make them a batch (or two) of my mom's choco-nut cookies. They're like a sophisticated version of a chocolate chip cookie. Crisp walnut- and chocolate-studded cookies are dipped first in thick, creamy chocolate, then in chocolate sprinkles or chopped nuts. Whether ball- or log-shaped, they are a beautiful addition to any Christmas cookie tray.
Makes about 45 cookies
3/4 cup softened unsalted butter
3/4 cup granulated sugar
1 1/2 teaspoons pure vanilla extract
1 large egg
1 teaspoon salt
2 cups all-purpose flour
1/2 cup semi-sweet mini chocolate chips
2 cups finely chopped walnuts
1 1/2 cups semi-sweet chocolate chips (any size)
1 tablespoon butter
1 1/4 cups chocolate sprinkles or chopped nuts such as pecans or walnuts (or as much as needed to coat all of the cookies)
Preheat oven to 350 degrees, and position a rack in the center of the oven. Line two large cookie sheets with parchment paper.
In a large bowl, combine butter, sugar and vanilla. Beat well with an electric hand mixer. Add egg, salt, flour, mini chocolate chips and chopped walnuts.
Using your hands, shape 1 tablespoon of dough into a 2-inch-long log or into a 1-inch round ball. Bake for 10 to 12 minutes, or until lightly browned. Place on a rack to cool completely before frosting.
For the chocolate coating, melt the chocolate chips and the butter in a double boiler. If you don't have a double boiler, fill a small, deep pan with water and bring to a low boil. Place a glass bowl over the simmering water, but not touching it. Place the chocolate and butter in the bowl. As soon as the chocolate begins to melt, remove the pan from the heat and stir with a spoon until it becomes smooth and silky. (If the heat is too high or you leave the chocolate on the heat too long, it will become thick like frosting.)
Meanwhile, place chocolate sprinkles or chopped nuts in a small bowl. For easy cleanup, place a sheet of parchment paper under a cookie rack before dipping the cookies in the chocolate. Dip the top of the cookie in the chocolate, then dip it in the chocolate sprinkles or chopped nuts until completely covered. Place on a rack and dry completely before storing in an airtight tin or plastic container. Place waxed paper or parchment paper between layers to protect the chocolate and sprinkles. Properly stored, cookies should last seven to 10 days.
Biscotti (pronounced bis-caught-tee) have been around since Roman antiquity. The name is from the Latin biscoctus, meaning "twice-baked," since they were baked twice in the oven. My mom's recipe for traditional Italian almond biscotti is a winner. Rather than baking the cookies twice, she simply places the sliced cookies inside a warm oven for 30 to 60 minutes (click here to see a how-to), which renders the biscotti satisfyingly firm rather than jaw-breakingly hard. Chock-full of toasted whole almonds and laced with fragrant orange zest, these biscotti are ideal with a glass of sweet wine or a hot brewed espresso.
Makes 36 cookies
3 cups whole almonds, skins removed if desired
1 cup granulated sugar
1 cup light brown sugar
1/2 teaspoon ground cinnamon
2 teaspoons baking powder
2 1/2 cups all-purpose flour
3 jumbo eggs
1 teaspoon pure vanilla extract
Zest of 1 large orange (1 to 2 teaspoons)
Egg wash from 1 large lightly beaten egg
Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Position oven racks in the upper and lower thirds of the oven. Line two large baking sheets with parchment paper.
Place almonds in a single layer on a baking sheet and toast in the 350-degree oven for 10 minutes, or until light golden and aromatic. Remove and set aside.
In a large bowl, hand mix toasted almonds, sugars, cinnamon, baking powder and flour.
In a small bowl, whisk eggs. Add the vanilla and orange zest and whisk until well-blended. Add to the flour mixture.
Work the batter together with lightly floured hands. The mixture will be sticky, but persevere. Keep squeezing the batter with your hands until a dough starts to form. Once the dough is firm, form it into a ball. Divide the ball into four equal pieces.
Place one piece of dough on a lightly floured surface. Using your hands, roll it into a log that is approximately 8 inches long, 2 inches wide and 3/4 of an inch high. Repeat with remaining three pieces of dough. Place two logs on each baking sheet. Brush loaves all over with egg wash.
Bake for 40 minutes, rotating pans midway through. The tops of the loaves will be shiny and deep golden. Cool on a rack for about 20 minutes.
Place a loaf on a cutting board, and using a large serrated knife, slice cookies 3/4 of an inch thick on the diagonal. If the cookie crumbles, let it cool for a few more minutes. Don't let it rest too long, however, or it could become too hard to slice.
Place slices on their sides back on the baking sheets. Place in the still-warm oven with the temperature off and the door closed for 30 to 60 minutes. The longer they stay in the oven, the harder they will become. Remove from oven and cool completely before storing in an air-tight container, preferably a metal tin, which helps keep them crisp. Stored properly, biscotti will last up to a month.
My mom's coconut macaroons are some of the least fussy and most flavorful cookies you'll find. All of the ingredients are simply mixed by hand, then baked. A crisp exterior gives way to a soft, chewy interior that is deliciously rich and nutty. You can eat them without the chocolate coating (though you won't want to do that), or for a variation, you can place a whole almond or maraschino cherry in the center of each cookie before baking.
Makes 26 to 28 cookies
4 egg whites
1 teaspoon pure almond extract
1 (14-ounce) bag sweetened, shredded coconut
2/3 cup sugar
6 tablespoons flour
1/4 teaspoon salt
12 ounces chocolate of your choice (I use semi-sweet)
Preheat the oven to 325 degrees, and position a rack in the center of the oven. Line two baking sheets with parchment paper.
In a small bowl, combine egg whites and almond extract.
In a large bowl, mix coconut, sugar, flour and salt. Mix by hand until well-blended. Stir the egg mixture into the coconut mixture until it becomes thick and sticky.
To form cookies, use a tablespoon (coated with cooking spray) to scoop up the cookie mixture. Using your hands, shape the cookie into an oval. Place on the parchment-lined baking sheet.
Bake for 20 to 25 minutes, or until the tops are light golden brown. They should be crisp on the outside, yet soft on the inside. Place on a rack and cool completely before dipping in the chocolate.
Melt chocolate in a double boiler. If you don't have a double boiler, fill a small, deep pan with water and bring to a low boil. Place a glass bowl over the simmering water, but not touching it. Place the chocolate in the bowl. As soon as it begins to melt, remove the pan from the heat and stir with a spoon until the chocolate becomes smooth and silky.
(If the heat is too high or you leave the chocolate on the heat too long, it will become thick like frosting.)
For easy cleanup, place a sheet of parchment paper under a cookie rack before icing cookies. Dip half of the cookie in the melted chocolate, place on a rack and cool completely before serving or storing in an airtight container. The macaroons are best eaten within five to seven days.