One of my earliest memories of what we always called “getting ready for Christmas” is being in my grandmother’s kitchen, learning from her how to decorate the many trays of sugar cookies she’d make.
My aunt and I were allowed to sprinkle colored sugar on stars and tree-shaped cookies, and most exciting of all, she gave us some small dishes of colored butter frosting to spread on Santa and reindeer cookies. We ate almost as much as we spread on the cookies.
We did this every year, joined by my mother and my brat of a baby sister, who tattled on us every time we popped a finger full of frosting or a cookie in our mouths when Grandma wasn’t looking (we thought). We got better, faster and more fanciful with the decorating every year, and by the time we were teenagers, working together in Grandma’s kitchen, we could turn out dozens and dozens of cookies, enough for both our families and many friends, to be enjoyed during the entire Christmas season.
This continued until my aunt and I were finally old enough (whoopee!) to get part-time jobs over the holiday season, trying to make college money, and no longer had time to be in my grandmother’s kitchen.
In the fun and excitement of actually working for pay in the local department store, I didn’t miss the cookie making, then. The flow of cookies didn’t lessen, however, and we were, of course, more than happy to help consume them even if we hadn’t decorated them.
Later, living in a neighborhood of young married couples just starting families, cookie making became a challenge during the Christmas season.
Who would come up with the most unusual cookies; who would put everyone else to shame with artistic, intricately decorated cookies; who would be the first to call and ask us to “drop by” for coffee and Christmas cookies, thereby letting the rest of us know we were already falling behind.
For a brief period, I came to dread the annual “gotta make Christmas cookies now” push and, one year when I was working, had two kids with flu in mid-December, then caught it myself, I actually found myself buying Christmas cookies. “I can’t believe I’m doing this,” I thought to myself, “how low can you get.” I tried not to think about my grandmother’s kitchen, nor what my grandmother would think of my store-bought cookies.
That was the first and last time there were store-bought in the house.
I may not make dozens and dozens, nor are they ornately decorated, but no matter what else doesn’t get done in my kitchen before Christmas, cookies get made.
Over the years, the decorating has been done by my children and their friends, then by grandchildren and their friends, if I can get my hands on them long enough.
Over so many years, we’ve naturally come to have far too many beloved cookies, remembered from other times, which makes it more and more difficult to decide each year which ones will get made.
To make it even harder, I inevitably spot at least one or two new ones
I really must try out. Too bad Christmas cookie baking comes but once a year. Here for your trying out are some of our favorites, but first, one of the brand new, just-tried-out ones
I recently found in Cuisine At Home. A new version (sour cream and a hint of lemon) of the classic sugar cookie; it’s excellent.
SOUR CREAM SUGAR COOKIES
3 ½ cups flour
1 t. baking powder
1 t. salt
½ cup sour cream
2 t. vanilla
2 sticks (1 cup) unsalted butter, softened
2/3 cup sugar
½ cup powdered sugar
Zest of 1 lemon
Sift together flour, baking powder and salt in a bowl. Lightly beat eggs in a small bowl, then whisk in sour cream and vanilla until smooth. Set aside.
Cream together the butter, both sugars and lemon zest in a large bowl with an electric mixer until smooth. Add the egg mixture, beating until blended, then mix in half the flour mixture until well incorporated. Blend in remaining dry ingredients just until mixed.
Divide dough into thirds, wrap each piece in plastic, press into a disk and chill at least 3 hrs. before rolling out. (May be made up to days ahead or frozen up to
1 month at this point.)
Line baking or cookie sheets with parchment paper. Roll out 1 portion of the cookie dough on a well-floured surface to ¼-inch thick, cut out shapes with cookie cutters and transfer to prepared baking sheets, 1-inch apart. (Re-roll scraps and make other cookies, but don’t re-roll more than once; it gets tough.)
Bake cookies in a preheated 350-degree oven until edges are a light golden, 10-12 min., then cool cookies briefly on the pans. Transfer to a rack to cool completely before decorating. (Undecorated cookies can be frozen up to 1 month.) Makes about 5 dozen.
Decorate in whatever manner captures your fancy!
And now, for one very old but treasured sugar cookie from the past; they are fragile, so don’t make good gift cookies, but the flavor is subtle and the cookies melt in your mouth.
1 cup softened (not runny) butter
1 cup sugar, plus additional for sprinkling on cookies
1 egg yolk
1 T. grated semi-sweet chocolate
¼ t. salt
1¼ t. cinnamon
1½ T. Grand Marnier or Cointreau (or other orange flavored liqueur)
2½ cups flour
½ t. baking powder
Finely chopped almonds (optional, depending upon your nut tolerance)
Cream together the butter and sugar, using an electric mixer. Add the egg yolk, chocolate, salt and ¼ t. of the cinnamon. Add the liqueur, flour and baking powder. Mix well with your hands until the dough holds together. Refrigerate, covered with plastic wrap, until dough is firm enough to roll.
Using a very small amount of dough at a time, roll out between two sheets of waxed paper or plastic wrap until very thin. Cut into desired shapes and transfer to a cookie sheet ½-inch apart. (I found this very difficult to manage until I then tried rolling out the cookies on parchment paper, with waxed paper on top, then cutting them, pulling away the excess bits, removing the waxed paper on top, then transferring the parchment paper to the cookie sheet with the cookies on it.)
Sprinkle cookies with a mixture of 2 T. sugar and remaining cinnamon and/or almonds. Bake in a preheated 350-degree oven 10-12 min., or until lightly browned. Remove cookies to a rack to cool, and store airtight. These are excellent with ice cream, mousse, coffee, tea, a late night sweet-tooth attack, etc. Makes 12 dozen small cookies, fewer dozen if your cookie cutters are large.
OK, one more, a quick and easy one that’s for all of us “mocha heads.”
MOCHA NUT BUTTERBALLS
1 cup soft butter
½ cup sugar
2 t. vanilla
2 t. instant coffee powder
¼ cup powdered cocoa
1¾ cup sifted flour
½ t. salt
2 cups finely chopped pecans or walnuts (or toasted hazelnuts, if you want to be exotic)
Confectioners’ sugar, for finishing
In a large bowl, cream together butter, sugar and vanilla until light and fluffy. Add the next four ingredients and mix well. (I find it works best if I sift them together first, or at least mix them together in another bowl.) Stir in the nuts.
With your hands, shape mixture into 1-inch balls and place on cookie sheets. (That’s what my original recipe said, with no indication of baking sheet preparation. I use parchment paper or, better yet, the silicone baking mats now available, but a plain baking sheet does work.) Bake in a preheated 325-degree oven about 15 min. Remove from oven, allow balls to cool on cookie sheet for a few min., then transfer to a rack to cool completely. Roll in confectioners’ sugar and store in airtight container. (I usually don’t roll my butterballs until just before I’m going to serve them or give them to whomever, or else re-roll them at that time, just for a better presentation.) Makes about 6 dozen.