Christmas Cookies Win A Trip To The Caribbean

Like most children, I relished the holiday season. There were specials on TV, catalogs full of toys to dream of and the joys of trimming the tree. However, there was never a plate of cookies set out for Santa Claus. No well-meaning friends brought over trays of holiday goodies. Cookies were just not part of the holidays in our home.

Perhaps it was because my parents were immigrants, my mother from Iran and my father from Trinidad, that we didn't eat cookies. In Iran, cookies are eaten mostly at Noruz, the New Year marked by the vernal equinox, and made from bean, rice or nut flours, while in Trinidad cookies are not part of a culinary repertoire that otherwise includes prodigious baking at holiday time.

It was not until I was an adult, preparing for my own Christmas festivities and hosting holiday guests who often came with plates full of holiday cookies they made themselves, that I realized the importance of the sugary morsels.

When I married my husband, I also got his Irish great-aunt's recipe for kiffles, a jam-filled cookie she got from her Hungarian mother-in-law. It was a beginning.

Slowly, I began to incorporate cookies into my holiday baking that, until then, mostly involved making up to 40 Trinidad Christmas fruitcakes for family and friends. Once I resolved to make cookies part of the season, it only seemed right to start with the kiffles. It was part of my in-laws' traditions and also seemed like a singularly American thing to do: a cookie native to Hungary, kept going in an Irish family and passed on to me.

About The Author

Ramin Ganeshram is a food writer and chef whose work has appeared in Saveur, National Geographic Traveler, epicurious.com and many others. She is the author of Sweet Hands: Island Cooking from Trinidad & Tobago (Hippocrene 2010) and the forthcoming kids' culinary novel Stir It Up! (Scholastic 2011).

As a next step, it made sense to use the Christmas baking tradition of my father's Trinidadian heritage as a starting point for my own explorations. So, I adapted Aunt Frances' recipe by adding the merest splash of mixed essence, a must-have flavor in Caribbean baked goods. Then I used guava, mango and passion fruit jams for the fillings.

Once I mastered these, I thought I'd go a bit further. Why not adapt a sugar cookie dough in the same way? Not only could I add mixed essence, with vanilla, almond and other extracts, but also coconut essence, an artificial flavoring, both easily found in Caribbean groceries, and even coconut milk or Caribbean cocoa powder.

It was a radical thought, especially for friends and family who had grown up with comfortingly familiar butter cookies that were the base for multiple adaptations. Having grown up without Christmas cookies, though, I was free to experiment and devise a cookie I could call my own.

Once I got the basic dough down, it occurred to me that I could up the tropical flavor ante further using Caribbean fruit jams to make a tropically twisted thumbprint. I added to the cocoa-based dough West Indian spices such as nutmeg, cinnamon and ginger to make a tea cookie reminiscent of the cocoa tea popular throughout Trinidad, Grenada and the other islands.

A marriage of flavors from my West Indian heritage and homey methods traditional to the country of my birth, my Caribbean Christmas cookies have become a holiday ritual in my home. Now that my 5-year-old daughter is old enough to help, we make our tropical-flavored delights together. In fact, I already have the recipe cards all written out for her to pass down to her own children.

Aunt Fran's Kiffles Redux

Kiffles are a traditional Hungarian holiday cookie filled with fruit preserves such as apricot, cherry or prune. Ground walnuts are also a popular filling. This version goes Caribbean with mixed essence, a traditional West Indian flavoring available from Caribbean markets (or make your own; recipe below), in the dough and tropical jams such as guava, mango or pineapple.

Hungarian cookies filled with prune preserves

This version of the Hungarian kiffles has prune preserves and a decorative edge that's achieved by using a pastry wheel to cut the dough. iStockphoto.com hide caption

itoggle caption iStockphoto.com

Makes 5 dozen

2 1/4 cups all-purpose flour, plus additional for dusting

1/2 teaspoon salt

8 ounces cream cheese, softened

2 sticks (1 cup) unsalted butter, softened

1 teaspoon mixed essence (see Trinidadian Mixed Essence recipe below)

8 10-by-12-inch pieces wax paper

1 cup pineapple, mango or guava jam (see Pineapple-Angostura Cookie Filling recipe below)

1 cup powdered sugar for garnish

Preheat oven to 350 degrees.

Whisk the flour and salt together in a large bowl and set aside.

Cream the cream cheese and butter and sugar together until pale yellow and fluffy, about 6 minutes in a standing mixer, 10 minutes using a hand-held electric mixer or about 12 minutes by hand.

Stir in the mixed essence and whisk about 1 minute more so it is completely mixed in.

Add the flour mixture in three equal batches, stirring until just combined after each addition. The dough will be quite soft but should not be sticky.

Divide the dough into four equal pieces and form into a square. Wrap each piece in plastic wrap. Chill for at least 1 hour or until firm. Dough will keep for up to three days refrigerated or may be wrapped tightly and frozen for up to one month.

When dough is thoroughly chilled, liberally flour one of the pieces of wax paper set upon a work surface, and place a square of dough on it. Flour the dough square liberally and place another piece of plastic wrap on top of it. Roll out the dough to a square that is 1/4-inch thick. Using a sharp knife or pastry wheel, cut the dough lengthwise into four equal strips and crosswise into four equal strips so that you have 16 small squares. Repeat with the remaining dough.

Spoon about 1/4 to 1/3 teaspoon of jam in center of each square. Pinch together two opposite corners in the center and then fold the point over to one side and smooth down gently so that the jam doesn't ooze out of the open sides.

Arrange the cookies on cookie sheets lined with parchment paper and bake for 12 minutes. Remove the cookies from the oven and allow to cool thoroughly.

Dust the cooled kiffles thoroughly with powdered sugar by placing the sugar in a fine mesh sieve or flour sifter and shaking over all the cookies. Cookies may be stored in an airtight plastic container in layers with parchment paper between each layer.


Trinidadian Mixed Essence

Makes 1 cup

1 cinnamon stick

1/4 teaspoon freshly grated nutmeg

2 tablespoons dark rum

1/2 cup pure vanilla extract

1/4 cup pear essence

1/4 cup almond extract

2 drops orange blossom water

Using a mortar and pestle, crush the cinnamon stick into small pieces about 1/3 inch long.  Place the cinnamon in a small, sealable container with the grated nutmeg and the rum. Set aside in a cool, dark cupboard for at least one week and up to two. Check the mixture every couple of days to ensure the rum is not evaporating. If necessary, add a bit more rum and reseal to reduce airflow.

Strain the rum mixture into a sealable, dark-colored glass jar and add the remaining ingredients. Seal and shake gently.

Store in a cool, dry place. Use in baked goods in place of vanilla.


Pineapple-Angostura Cookie Filling

This filling also can be used as jam to fill thumbprint cookies. Other fruits such as guava, mango or passion fruit may be substituted for the pineapple.

Makes 1 cup

1 cup crushed pineapple

1/4 cup sugar

1/2 inch stick cinnamon

1 dash Angostura bitters

Combine the pineapple, sugar, cinnamon stick and bitters in a small saucepan over medium-low heat and mix well.

Bring the mixture to a boil and then reduce to low. Allow the mixture to simmer until it is nearly dry, about 15 minutes. Watch carefully so that it does not burn.

Remove the mixture from the heat and allow to cool completely.

Caribbean Sugar Cookies

Mixed essence adds a tropical flavor to this simple sugar cookie dough. It is a flavoring that is used for baking in the Caribbean as Americans use vanilla extract. If you prefer to make your own, a recipe follows. This dough is the basis for a simple cookie or many variations. The dough can be made ahead and frozen for up to one month.

Makes 2 to 3 dozen cookies, depending on size of cookie cutter

2 1/2 cups all-purpose flour

3/4 teaspoon salt

1 1/2 sticks (3/4 cup) unsalted butter, at room temperature

3/4 cup sugar

1 large egg

1 teaspoon mixed essence

Icing (optional), such as Simple Royal Icing (recipe below)

Sift together the flour and salt in a bowl and set aside.

Cream the butter and sugar together until pale yellow and fluffy, about 6 minutes in a standing mixer or 10 minutes using a hand-held electric mixer.

Add the egg and mixed essence and beat until well combined, about 45 seconds.

Add the flour mixture in three equal batches, stirring well after each addition.

Divide the dough into two equal disks and wrap in plastic wrap. Chill for at least 1 hour or until firm. Dough will keep for up to three days refrigerated or may be wrapped tightly and frozen for up to one month.

Preheat oven to 350 degrees.

When dough is thoroughly chilled, flour a work surface lightly and roll each disk out to 1/4 inch thickness. Using cookie cutters, cut the dough into desired shapes.

Arrange the cookies on cookie sheets lined with parchment paper and bake for 12 minutes. Remove the cookies from the oven and allow to cool thoroughly before icing, if desired.


Simple Royal Icing

This icing is ideal for decorating cookies. I like to use food coloring to mix bright tropical colors like lime green, pink, light orange and turquoise.

Makes 2 cups

2 cups powdered sugar

1 1/2 tablespoons meringue powder (powdered egg whites)

1/4 teaspoon dark rum

1/4 to 1/2 cup warm water or as needed

Gel food coloring in various colors

In the bowl of a stand mixer, using the whisk attachment, combine the powdered sugar and meringue powder and whisk for 10 seconds to combine. Alternatively, combine the powdered sugar and meringue powder in a large bowl and whisk together using hand mixer or large whisk.

Add the rum to the mixture along with 1/4 cup of the water and whisk for 5 to 7 minutes using stand mixer, 8 to 10 minutes with hand mixer, or 12 minutes by hand adding more water as necessary to form a thick glossy icing.

Test the consistency by spooning up some of the icing and allowing it to drizzle back into the icing on the bowl; if it remains on the surface for a few seconds before being absorbed it is ready.

Divide the icing into smaller bowls and use the desired food colorings to achieve different hues. If not using the icing immediately, cover the bowls with plastic wrap, laying the plastic wrap right up against the surface of the icing so it does not form a skin.

Tropical Jam Thumbprints

Easily one of the most iconic cookies of the holiday season, thumbprints most often employ common preserves such as apricot or raspberry. Guava, mango and pineapple jams give these beloved nibbles a Caribbean twist.

Tropical Jam Thumbprints i i
Jean Paul Vellotti for NPR
Tropical Jam Thumbprints
Jean Paul Vellotti for NPR

Makes 2 to 3 dozen cookies, depending on size of cookie cutter

1 recipe Caribbean Sugar Cookie dough

1/3 cup of tropical jam such as guava, mango, passion fruit or pineapple

Powdered sugar for dusting (optional)

Preheat oven to 350 degrees.

When dough is thoroughly chilled, flour a work surface lightly and roll each disk out to 1/4-inch thickness. Using cookie cutters, cut the dough into desired shapes.

Using your thumb or the end of the handle of a wooden spoon, make a small indentation in the center of each cookie. Place about 1/2 teaspoon of jam in the indentation.

Arrange the cookies on cookie sheets lined with parchment paper and bake for 12 minutes. Remove the cookies from the oven and allow to cool thoroughly before dusting with powdered sugar, if desired.

Chocolate Chili Stars/Chocolate Ginger Stars

A riff on the idea of cocoa tea, known to many as Mexican hot chocolate, these cookies dipped in melted dark chocolate have the merest hint of chili powder and cinnamon. Finely chopped candied ginger sprinkled on the still-wet chocolate is another spicy-sweet variation.

Chocolate Chili Stars/Chocolate Ginger Stars on a cooling rack i i
Jean Paul Vellotti for NPR
Chocolate Chili Stars/Chocolate Ginger Stars on a cooling rack
Jean Paul Vellotti for NPR

Makes 2 to 3 dozen cookies

1 recipe Caribbean Sugar Cookie dough

8 ounces semisweet or other dark chocolate, ideally with high percentage of Trinidad cocoa beans, chopped into small pieces

1 teaspoon cinnamon powder

1/2 teaspoon ground cayenne pepper

1/4 cup candied ginger, minced

Preheat oven to 350 degrees.

When dough is thoroughly chilled, flour a work surface lightly and roll each disk out to 1/4-inch thickness. Using star shaped cookie cutters, cut the cookies out of the dough.

Arrange the cookies on cookie sheets lined with parchment paper and bake for 12 minutes. Remove the cookies from the oven and allow to cool thoroughly.

Place the chocolate into a small, deep, microwave-safe bowl, and microwave on high for 1 minute. Remove and stir well so that all the chocolate is melted.

Dip one half of each chocolate star into the melted chocolate, or leave the cookies on the parchment paper and spoon the melted chocolate over one side.

Take a small pinch of cinnamon and sprinkle onto the white part of the cookie and across the chocolate in a line. Repeat with the cayenne pepper. Allow the chocolate to set and get hard before serving.

Alternatively, sprinkle candied ginger on the wet chocolate and allow the chocolate to get hard before serving.

Coconut Sugar Cookies

The key to the rich coconut taste in this sugar cookie dough comes from layering flavors. Coconut milk, coconut extract and dried grated coconut are all used to make an aromatic, buttery cookie that can be the foundation for a number of variations.

Makes 2 dozen to 3 dozen cookies

2 3/4 cups all-purpose flour

1/4 cup finely grated dried coconut (not sweetened)

3/4 teaspoon salt

1 3/4 sticks (3/4 cup) unsalted butter, at room temperature

3/4 cup sugar

1 large egg

1/4 cup coconut milk

1 teaspoon vanilla

1 teaspoon coconut extract

1 cup shredded sweetened coconut

Using whisk, stir together the flour, dried coconut and salt in a large bowl and set aside.

Cream the butter and sugar together until pale yellow and fluffy, about 6 minutes in a standing mixer or 10 minutes using a hand-held electric mixer.

Add the egg, coconut milk, vanilla and coconut extract and beat until well combined, about 45 seconds.

Add the flour mixture in three batches, stirring well after each addition.

Divide the dough into two equal disks and wrap in plastic wrap. Chill for at least 1 hour or until firm. Dough will keep for up to three days refrigerated or may be wrapped tightly and frozen for up to one month.

Preheat oven to 350 degrees.

Place the shredded, sweetened coconut into a small shallow bowl.

When dough is thoroughly chilled, use a 1-ounce ice cream scoop and drop the dough into the shredded coconut. Using the back of a spoon press down on the dough so that it is flattened to about 1/3-inch thickness and pressed into the coconut. Turn the dough over and press gently so both sides are coated; repeat until all the dough is used. If you do not have a 1-ounce ice cream scoop, drop tablespoons of the dough into the shredded coconut and repeat until all of the dough is used.

Arrange the cookies on cookie sheets lined with parchment paper and bake for 14 minutes. Remove the cookies from the oven and allow to cool thoroughly.

Chocolate Coconut Thumbprints

Coconut and dark chocolate are two classically paired flavors. Trinidad’s cocoa is prized on the world market for its fruity, complex taste. Here it makes up the filling in the thumbprint.

Coconut Thumbprints, two variations: with jam and with chocolate i i

The Chocolate Coconut Thumbprints (right) are one variation using the Coconut Sugar Cookie dough; jam can also be used as a filling (left). Jean Paul Vellotti for NPR hide caption

itoggle caption Jean Paul Vellotti for NPR
Coconut Thumbprints, two variations: with jam and with chocolate

The Chocolate Coconut Thumbprints (right) are one variation using the Coconut Sugar Cookie dough; jam can also be used as a filling (left).

Jean Paul Vellotti for NPR

Makes 2 dozen to 3 dozen cookies

1 recipe Coconut Sugar Cookie dough

8 ounces semisweet or other dark chocolate, ideally with high percentage of Trinitario cocoa

Trinidad cocoa beans, chopped into small pieces

Using your thumb or the end of the handle of a wooden spoon, make a small indentation in the center of each cookie. Place about 1/2 teaspoon of the chopped chocolate in the indentation.

Arrange the cookies on cookie sheets lined with parchment paper and bake for 12 to 14 minutes. Remove the cookies from the oven and allow to cool thoroughly.

Cocoa Tea Cakes

High in the mountains of Trinidad's mountain ranges, Trinitario Fine Flavor Cocoa is harvested using methods largely unchanged since the 18th century. While most of the cocoa is exported for use among the world's best chocolatiers, the "second tier" beans are left behind and ground, along with local spices, into a paste that is formed into balls and dried. The dried cocoa ball is then grated into boiling water to form a drinking chocolate locally known as cocoa tea. This take on a traditional tea cake makes use of pure Trinidad cocoa powder, available in Caribbean markets, and ground dried spices to mimic the taste of that native drinking cocoa in a cookie.

Cocoa Tea Cakes i i
Jean Paul Vellotti for NPR
Cocoa Tea Cakes
Jean Paul Vellotti for NPR

Makes about 42 cakes

2 1/2 cups all-purpose flour

1/4 cup unsweetened cocoa powder, preferably made with Trinitario beans

1/4 teaspoon ground nutmeg

1/2 teaspoon ground cinnamon

1/4 teaspoon ground ginger

1/8 teaspoon ground bay leaf

3/4 teaspoon salt

1 1/3 sticks (3/4 cup) unsalted butter, at room temperature

3/4 cup sugar

1 large egg

1 teaspoon mixed essence

Granulated sugar for a garnish

Sift together the flour, cocoa powder, nutmeg, cinnamon, ginger, ground bay leaf and salt in a bowl and set aside.

Cream the butter and sugar together until pale yellow and fluffy, about 6 minutes in a standing mixer or 10 minutes using a hand-held electric mixer.

Add the egg and mixed essence and beat until well combined, about 45 seconds.

Add the flour mixture in three equal batches, stirring well after each addition.

Divide the dough into two equal disks and wrap in plastic wrap. Chill for at least 1 hour or until firm. Dough will keep for up to three days refrigerated or may be wrapped tightly and frozen for up to one month.

Preheat oven to 350 degrees.

When dough is thoroughly chilled, use a 1-ounce ice cream scoop and drop the dough onto cookie sheets lined with parchment paper. Using the back of a spoon, press down on the dough ball so that it is flattened to about 1/3-inch thickness; repeat until all of the dough is used and all of the cookies are made.

Bake the cookies for 14 minutes, or until firm but not browned. Cookies may be lightly browned around the edges. Remove from the oven and allow to cool for 5 minutes before sprinkling with granulated sugar, then allow to cool thoroughly. Serve with tea.

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