Making Christmas Cookies

By joe george, Feb 17, 2010 | |
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    I really believe that food likes and dislikes are ingrained in your memory and on your palate at an early age. The sense of taste and smell are supposed to carry a person's strongest memories. This undoubtedly is one of the reasons home-style meals and "comfort foods" are such big business today. It's "comforting" to recall times gone by when things were simpler, before faxes, e-mails, and wireless everything. Food can really transcend time, for however brief a period. A kitchen in the winter with steamed up windows, for example, gives me vivid memories of when I was a child. The smell of baking cookies does this also, especially around the holidays. They conjure up special and rosy memories.

    My love of baked goods was certainly initiated by my mother and grandmother who were both avid and excellent bakers. As a child, Christmas brought not only the anticipation of gifts from Santa but also platters of cookies and kuchen. It seemed as though my mother began her "cookie production" weeks before Christmas (it was probably just a few days). She baked them by the dozens and dozens. The cookies were stored in plastic bags within a large metal can, which was "off limits" until Christmas. For someone like myself, with a sweet tooth from day one, it was pure torture knowing that that old metal can was stuffed with cookies. To this day I really believe that my mother had a sixth sense when it came to hearing that can open. She could hear it being slowly and gingerly opened no matter where she was in the house. Needless to say the can of cookies never made it to Christmas before being opened. My mother would always relent and allow my sisters and I some pre-Christmas treats.

    Some of my memories of cookies are not all together pleasant. It was with cookies, in fact, that I first felt what it was like to be burned. I couldn't have been more than 4 or 5 years old (I have only vague recollections of this but my sisters have told this story to my young son—who has inherited his father's love of cookies—on several occasions). My mother had just removed a tray of cookies from the oven and set them on the counter to cool. She told me not to touch them, but no sooner did she turn her back that, in an attempt to reach the cookies, I grasped the edge of the hot pan with both hands. And as a teenager I remember grabbing a chocolate chip cookie straight from the oven (even though my sister told me not to) and burned my lip on the molten chocolate. This happened the night before we were to have class pictures taken at school. In some stashed box somewhere I still have that picture, which clearly shows my blistered lip. Since then I've learned to let cookies cool…a little.

    To this day I feel lucky about the foods that I had while growing up. Our family was, some may say, "financially challenged," but there was always food on the table, and plenty of it. And around the holidays there were always mountains of homemade cookies.

    Cookies are not a dieter's food, or for people who fear food; two of the main components to most cookies are butter and sugar, but that's what makes them so good. Most cookie recipes, in fact, begin by chanting the cookie mantra: "Cream the butter and sugar, add the eggs…" This is the basis on which cookie making is founded. Like fine little pastries their ingredients and preparation methods are everything. Cooking in general is clearly an art form but it can also be a precise science, especially when making and baking sweets. As with many baked goods, when making cookies the emulsification of the butter, sugar, eggs, and eventually flour is often an exact ratio. And each of the basic ingredients serves a very definite and distinct function. 

    Take butter and sugar, for example. Simply said, without these two ingredients there would be no cookies (yikes!). Oh alright, sure you could replace the butter with another fat, such as shortening or oil, but the cookies would not have the same flavor. And yes there is the possibility of substituting butter with a fat alternative, such as fruit purée, but then the outcome would be quite different—it would not be an equal comparison. Personally I would rather eat the real thing or none at all.

    The sugar in cookies adds moister and flavor as well as sweetness; the type and quantity of sugar will determine the cookie's flavor and texture. Eggs bind the ingredients with the flour and add richness and also a small amount of leavening action. Speaking of which, cookies are generally leavened with a chemical agent such as baking soda or baking powder, opposed to bread-type products that often contain yeast. And with all bakedgoods, flour is what makes up their substance, it creates its body, so to speak.  Utilizing these few ingredients—along with a little salt—can produce a seemingly endless variety of cookies. Any number of ingredients can be added—cocoa, chocolate, spices, dried fruit, etc.—to determine the type of cookie.

    Almost as important as the ingredients themselves is the method in which cookies are made, and when doing so the most essential step is creaming the butter, sugar, and eggs. There's sometimes a misconception that this step is difficult (it's not) or that it incorporates the use of cream (it doesn't). Creaming butter and sugar is simply another name for the action of vigorously beating the two ingredients together. It incorporates air into them and they take on a creamy appearance, hence the name. Today this is most often done with the aid of an upright electric mixer, but it can also be done the old fashioned way—with a bowl and wooden spoon. Creaming is the initial action that pulls all of the ingredients together into an emulsification and forms a homogenous mass; the ingredients become one. And the small amount of air that is incorporated into the dough lends a lighter and more delicate texture to the finished cookie.

    There are more varieties of these tiny pastries that fall under the heading "cookie" than any other type of bakedgood, and they have been around for a very long time. Interestingly, the English word cookie is derived from the Dutch koekje, meaning "little cakes". Cookies are said to date back thousands of years to ancient Persia, which was one of the first countries to cultivate and utilize sugar.

    The origin of gingerbread can be traced back to the ancient Greeks and Romans. Ginger was most likely added to dough not only for flavor but also medicinal and preservation purposes, and quite possibly as a status symbol during times when spices were worth as much as actual currency. Ditto for gingerbread's first cousin, the German cookie known as pfeffernusse, which translates to "peppernuts" in English and uses ground black pepper as one of its ingredients.

    A much more recent addition to the "cookie repertoire," and originating closer to home, is the humble chocolate chip cookie (my personal favorite). These delectable little morsels were invented by Ruth Wakefield during the 1930's. She ran the Toll House Restaurant in Massachusetts and in a supreme moment of inspiration she added chopped chocolate to her butter cookie dough. The rest, as they say, is history.

    The recipe for the gingerbread cookies listed below is courtesy of my friend, executive pastry chef Tony Songin. The aniseed cookie recipe was given to me by one of my sisters. She received it from our mother, who learned it from her mother, who learned it from her mother.

    If you find yourself with an overabundance of cookies (something I personally can not imagine) store them in plastic bags in the freezer to keep them fresh. Alternately, if the storage is intended for a shorter period of time, store them in plastic bags inside a large metal can. This will make them more accessible to the kids who cannot yet reach the freezer.

    Myra's Aniseed Christmas Cookies
    Yield: About 4 dozen
     4 ounces unsalted butter, softened
     1 cup granulated sugar
     1 large egg
    1/2 cup milk
     1 tablespoon aniseed
    1/4 teaspoon salt
    1/2 teaspoon baking soda
     3 cups all-purpose flour

    In a large bowl combine the butter and sugar and beat with a wooden spoon (or alternately, cream the butter and sugar in an electric mixer that is fitted with a paddle attachment). Add the egg, then the milk and mix until combined. In a separated bowl combine the aniseed, salt, baking soda, and flour, mix well then add this mixture to the first bowl. Mix the dough until it forms a dough, then knead together just until it forms a smooth ball. Wrap the dough in cellophane and refrigerate it for at least 1 hour.

    Preheat an oven to 350 degrees Fahrenheit. Roll the dough out to approximately 1/4 inch thick and cut into desired shapes. Bake the cookies on a lightly oiled cookie sheet in the preheated oven for approximately 10 minutes, or until light golden-brown. Cool on a wire rack and, if desired, ice the cookies with simple sugar icing.

    Viennese Sugar Cookies

    Yield: About 3 dozen
    4 ounces unsalted butter, softened
    1 cup granulated sugar
    3 large egg yolks
    1 teaspoon vanilla extract
    1/4 teaspoon salt
    2 teaspoons baking powder
    1-1/2 cups all-purpose flour

    In a large bowl combine the butter and sugar and beat with a wooden spoon (or alternately, cream the butter and sugar in an electric mixer that is fitted with a paddle attachment). Add the egg yolks and vanilla extract, mix until combined. In a separate bowl, mix together the salt, baking soda, and flour, mix well then add this mixture to the first bowl. Mix the dough until it forms dough, then knead together just until it forms a smooth ball. Wrap the dough in cellophane and refrigerate it for at least 1 hour.

    Preheat an oven to 350 degrees Fahrenheit. Roll the dough out to approximately 1/4 inch thick and cut into desired shapes. Bake the cookies on a lightly oiled cookie sheet in the preheated oven for approximately 10 minutes, or until light golden-brown. Cool on a wire rack and, if desired, ice the cookies with a simple sugar icing or drizzle with melted chocolate.

    Pepper Nuts
    (Pfeffernusse)
    Yield: About 4 dozen
    8 ounces unsalted butter, softened
    1 cup granulated sugar
    1/4 cup dark molasses
    1 large egg
    3-1/2 cups all-purpose flour
    2 teaspoons baking soda
    1/2 teaspoon salt
    1/2 teaspoon ground black pepper
    1/4 teaspoon ground cloves
    1/4 teaspoon ground cardamom
    1/4 teaspoon ground allspice
    powdered sugar

    In a large bowl combine the butter and granulated sugar and beat with a wooden spoon (or alternately, cream the butter and sugar in an electric mixer that is fitted with a paddle attachment). Add the molasses and eggs and mix thoroughly. In a separate bowl, mix the flour, baking soda, salt, pepper, cloves, cardamom, and allspice; add this mixture to the first bowl. Mix the dough until it  forms dough, then knead together just until it forms a smooth ball. Cut the dough into small pieces and roll the pieces into 1 inch balls. Place the balls on a lightly greased cookie sheet and refrigerate for 1 hour.

    Preheat an oven to 350 degrees Fahrenheit. Bake the pfeffernusse in the preheated oven for 12-14 minutes or until they expand slightly and are golden brown. Cool the cookies on wire racks and roll them in powdered sugar.

    Tony's Gingerbread Cookies

    Yield: 2-3 dozen
    4 ounces unsalted butter
    1/2 cup brown sugar
    1 large egg
    1/2 cup molasses
    1/4 cup honey
    2-1/2 teaspoons ground ginger
    1/4 teaspoon nutmeg
    1/2 teaspoon salt
    1/2 teaspoon baking powder
    3 cups all-purpose flour

    In the bowl of an electric mixer that is fitted with a paddle attachment, cream the butter and sugar until light and fluffy. Add the egg, molasses, and honey, and mix thoroughly. Scrape down the bow with a rubber spatula.

    Sift together the salt, baking powder, and flour, and add it to the creamed ingredients. With the mixer operating on slow speed, mix the ingredients just until it forms a thick dough. Wrap the dough in cellophane and refrigerate it for at least 1 hour.

    Preheat an oven to 350 degrees Fahrenheit. Roll the dough out to approximately 1/4 inch thick and cut into desired shapes. Bake the cookies on a lightly oiled cookie sheet in the preheated oven for approximately 10 minutes, or until they begin to brown around their edges. Cool on a wire rack and, if desired, ice the cookies with simple sugar icing.


    Sugar Icing
    Pour a small amount (1/4 cup) of cool milk or water into a bowl and stir in enough powdered sugar to form a thick batter. Store any unused icing in a sealed container at room temperature (if made with water), and in the refrigerator (if made with milk).

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