Pursuit of the Perfect Christmas Cookie

Cookie 1

To make tri-color butter cookie swirls, start with a basic butter cookie batter. Recipe below. Mitchell M. Berger hide caption

itoggle caption Mitchell M. Berger
Cookie 2

Next, saturate the dough with color. Mitchell M. Berger hide caption

itoggle caption Mitchell M. Berger
Cookie 3

Roll each color between sheets of wax paper or parchment. Mitchell M. Berger hide caption

itoggle caption Mitchell M. Berger
cookie 4

Rolled and baked, this cookie sheet is filled with Peggy's tri-color swirls. Mitchell M. Berger hide caption

itoggle caption Mitchell M. Berger

I am on a quest to find the perfect Christmas cookie.

It doesn't matter that I don't even celebrate Christmas or that my goal is unattainable — after all, the complete holiday cookie would feature chocolate and a bit of gingerbread as well as a dash of peppermint and a hint of marzipan, a combination that would be just awful.

My search through the cookie universe is worth it, however, and I'm not alone.

Every year, a group of fellow NPR staff members, our families and friends gather in mid-December to bake and decorate more than a thousand cookies to eat and give away. We make at least seven different types and usually some homemade candy, too. It's a day covered in flour, food coloring, and way too many varieties of sugar, and when the only things more eagerly shared than bits of gossip are the samples of raw cookie dough and icing.

For some of the participants, Cookie Day is exactly that, a day devoted to cookies. But a few of us remain alert for the cookie throughout the year. We consult magazines and cookbooks, experiment with recipes and decorating techniques — all to create the perfect combination of beauty, flavor and ease of preparation.

What we want is a cookie that will elicit: "Oh what a pretty cookie and mffff taftes goog too!" as our friends pop crisp little gems in their mouths.

The cookie to emerge from my auditions this year is a tri-color butter cookie: a layer of red, green and white dough rolled and sliced into a gorgeous swirl. What's not to like? I think the group could manage the careful roll. The one knock against it was that the recipe called for the dough to be refrigerated for 8 hours before baking. Too long for Cookie Day, so experimentation was in order.

I combined the requisite butter and other ingredients and then divided the dough into three equal parts. Here's where I hit my first snag: the food coloring. Now, Cookie Day sophisticates know that a colored Christmas cookie lives or dies by the quality of its red and green. You don't want to mess around with shades such as "forest green" or "magenta." And you certainly don't want to use those weak-sister colors from the supermarket — they just don't saturate the way discriminating cookie cooks demand.

Try a food coloring from a cooking store once, and you'll never go back. Trust me, I made the audition batch with a combination of supermarket colors and almost-dried-up paste color from last year, and only the knowledge that I could improve the color kept me going.

Now came the tricky part: "Roll the dough to equal rectangles." Hmm. I got out a ruler and trimmed a lot, rolling and trimming and then rolling again until I had three different colored dough rectangles of approximately the same size.

Next, the experimental part. I did not want to "refrigerate for 8 hours." I don't play by those rules. I chilled for just 4 hours (the maximum window for Cookie Day, so that folks will be around to bake them and put them in their tins). And, after I sliced and baked, they held together! Cheating on refrigeration time sometimes pays off.

The test batch was crisp and buttery, and they did manage to look good even if the colors were off. A taste test at the office paid off, but then again, when you put journalists and free food in the same room together — with all due respect to those famous NPR names you know — the stalest, ugliest cookies will disappear in a flash.

So we'll see what the Cookie Day mavens think. But, you know, they're still not perfect. Maybe I should try that black raspberry and chocolate cookie I heard was a snap to make and…

Tri-Color Swirls

The recipes says it will make 4 dozen, but as Cookie Day experts can attest, you never get as many as the recipe claims. I got 37 cookies.

In a large bowl of an electric mixer, at medium speed, cream:

2 sticks of unsalted butter, softened

1 1/2 cup confectioners' sugar

1 large egg

1 teaspoon vanilla

Add and mix at low speed until well combined:

2 1/2 cups flour

1 teaspoon baking soda

1 teaspoon cream of tartar

1/4 teaspoon salt

Have on hand: red and green food coloring

Whisk and set aside: 1 egg

Remove 1/3 of the dough and tint it red by kneading a few drops at a time of red liquid, gel or paste color into the dough until you have the desired color. Remove another 1/3 of the dough and tint it green in the same manner. Go for maximum saturation; don't skimp on the food coloring. Keep the remaining dough uncolored. Chill the dough for 30 minutes.

On a lightly floured board, roll each color of dough out to a rectangle of equal size, 1/4-inch thick. Lightly brush the red dough with the beaten egg, being careful to leave no puddles. Stack the green rectangle directly on top of the red one, pressing lightly to adhere. Brush the green layer with the beaten egg and stack the white layer on top. Press lightly to adhere. Roll lengthwise into a tight log. Wrap in plastic wrap and chill for 8 hours or overnight. Four hours worked fine for me.

When you are ready to bake, preheat the oven to 350 degrees.

Butter two cookie sheets. Cut the log into 1/4-inch slices and arrange them 1-inch apart.

Bake 8-10 minutes or until lightly colored. Let cool in the pans for 5 minutes then transfer to a wire rack and cool completely.

About the Author

Peggy Girshman is a founding member of the NPR Holiday Cookie Group and assistant managing editor of NPR News. She has also written about cookies and chocolate for The Washington Post.

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