Use plenty of butter and spice to make the best bite-size holiday treats
By Sam Gugino
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When I was a kid, no one could escape from our house during the holiday season without at least having a cup of coffee and some cookies made by my mother and those made by my Aunt Sandy. There were giuggiuleni (little footballs covered with sesame seeds), corral islands (our term for the jelly-filled thumbprint cookies), butterballs (a stubbier version of Mexican wedding cakes), triangles (thin, crisp wafers with walnuts and a hint of cinnamon) and mochas (nut crescents filled with cocoa and coffee). And if you didn't come to us, we came to you with plates covered in colorful plastic wrap and tied with both red and green ribbons.
Only the stoniest of hearts can resist a Christmas cookie. In fact, the allure of Christmas cookies is so pervasive it even seduces people for whom Christmas has no religious significance. "Christmas cookies are like turkey with Thanksgiving. It's what we think about for a holiday which is as much cultural as it is religious," says Rose Levy Beranbaum, who so loves Christmas cookies she authored Rose's Christmas Cookies, despite the fact she is Jewish. "Nothing represents the spirit of loving, nurturing and giving more than a homemade cookie," Beranbaum writes.
Beranbaum's ecumenical approach to Christmas cookies allows her to list rugalach as her favorite. This crescent-shaped cookie made with cream-cheese dough and a fruit-and-nut filling is a traditional Hanukkah cookie. Hanukkah? Christmas? Close enough. But rugalach isn't exactly bursting with the color and pizzazz we associate with Christmas cookies. "Some people think Christmas cookies have to have spangles and all that kind of stuff," she says. "But most people think of Christmas cookies as their best cookies, when they want to offer something special."
Although Nick Malgieri, author of Cookies Unlimited, agrees with this untraditional view, he feels that certain spices (such as allspice, cinnamon, ginger and nutmeg) are still strongly associated with the season. "When we smell something baking with those spices, we say, 'It smells like Christmas,'" he notes. His family hails from southern Italy, as his cookie memories will attest. "A lot of the cookies we had, like biscotti, came from leftover dough used for pies like pizza rustica. Nobody had recipes written down. They just made cookies the way they were shown," he says.
What makes a great Christmas cookie? "Christmas cookies are usually richer so it's OK to pull out all the stops at holiday time," Beranbaum says. For her that means butter, not margarine, and premium butter at that, because its lower moisture content yields a crisper result.
Even experienced bakers would do well to follow this tip from Flo Braker, author of The Simple Art of Perfect Baking: "So many times people will inadvertently double a recipe or leave out an ingredient. So roll out, form and bake just one cookie first. In eight minutes you'll know if you made a mistake," says Braker, whose favorite cookie is a simple strawberry jam-filled "little gem" topped with a pecan half, which she remembers from her childhood in Evansville, Ind.
Put 8 ounces butter, a pinch of salt, 1/2 cup sugar and 1 1/2 cups flour in a food processor. Pulse 3 times and add 4 1/2 tablespoons ice water. Pulse until a ball forms. Refrigerate for 20 minutes. Preheat oven to 425 F. Roll out dough between two pieces of plastic wrap dusted with flour, until dough is about 1/4-inch thick. Remove plastic wrap and cut dough into 1-inch disks, with a round cookie-cutter. Brush the top of each cookie with water and sprinkle with turbinado sugar. Bake for 10 to 15 minutes or until the cookies are golden brown. Makes 20 to 24 cookies.
Hazelnut cookies: Reduce butter to 4 1/2 ounces, add 6 ounces of finely ground, toasted and peeled hazelnuts to the dough. Lightly push a whole toasted and peeled hazelnut into each cookie before baking. Drizzle baked cookies with 2 ounces of melted chocolate.
Lemon pepper cookies: Add 3 tablespoons grated lemon zest and 1 tablespoon coarsely ground black pepper to the dough.
Linzer cookies: Replace hazelnuts in the dough with blanched and toasted almonds and substitute 2 tablespoons of the ice water with 2 tablespoons brandy. Also add 1/2 teaspoon cinnamon, 1/4 teaspoon each allspice and nutmeg, and 1 tablespoon grated lemon zest. Bake half the cookies. Before baking, cut a 1/4-inch hole (the small tip of a pastry bag is helpful) in the middle of each cookie from the second half of the batch. Put a small amount of raspberry jam (1/2 teaspoon or less) on the cookie halves without holes. Top with the other halves. If desired, dust with powdered sugar.
For a beverage, milk fits the Rockwellian image. But adults need something more bracing to drink with cookies. Campbell serves hot chocolate made with French Valrhona chocolate. Beranbaum likes eiswein or Sauternes with nonchocolate cookies and Moscato di Pantelleria for chocolate ones. Heatter's favorite afternoon snack is cookies and Chardonnay. And why not? Malgieri says, "Nobody has codified cookies yet, so you can pretty much do what you want."
Sam Gugino, Wine Spectator's Tastes columnist, is the author of Low-Fat Cooking to Beat the Clock, to be published in December.
For the complete article, please see the Dec. 31, 2000, issue of Wine Spectator magazine, page 17.
Cookies by Design
(800) 452-6654; www.cookiebaskets.com
Dean & Deluca
(800) 221-7714; www.deandeluca.com (winter cookies in the shapes of snowmen, mittens and gift packages)
(877) 972-9273; www.payard.com Willow River Farms
San Felipe, Texas
(800) 939-3720; www.gingersnaps.org (gingersnaps only; proceeds benefit those with developmental disabilities)