This has been a big year for Christmas cookies. With a COVID-induced revival of the culinary arts, chief among them the cult of sourdough (even I, though late to the party, now have my own bannetons!) and massive canning and preservation on all fronts, it was inevitable that homebaked Christmas cookies would see an uptick. Every major food writer has promulgated their recommendations as to what constitutes the perfect cookie platter, and I’m determined to get my two cents’ worth in. After all, I have lived in areas where the cookie exchange was so pervasive that friends bearing cookies, passing on the road en route to each other’s houses, slammed on their brakes and completed their handoffs by the side of the road. So I do feel somewhat qualified to chime in here.
First, what is the proper number of cookies needed to make up a platter or gift tin? At least five, if not more. Unless you have a specialty, like that insanely good buttercrunch toffee or a particularly good peanut butter fudge, in which case, a generous quantity can stand alone.
Further, I strongly feel this is not the time for frosting or jams, unless you are presenting your cookies in person and they are artfully arranged on a Christmas plate or tray, with no danger of jam or frosting contaminating the whole lot. It wouldn’t be the end of the world to have messy cookies: when I was in college, my mother sent me a care package containing both chocolate chip cookies and some of those pretty glass jars of Sau Sea shrimp cocktail. One of the jars leaked all over the cookies, giving them a light tomato-horseradish glaze, which did not deter ravenous college students from devouring them. By comparison, a bit of errant jam will not make your cookies inedible, but this is the time to go for max eye appeal, so extra care is warranted.
After much pondering, looking through cookbooks, and consulting with my former co-cookie bakers, I’ve decided on this selection for 2020 — drumroll, please. For a bit of international flare, amaretti and chocolate-walnut biscotti. The amaretti are round, crackly on the outside and chewy inside. The biscotti, made no bigger than the length of my index finger, are crunchy, perfect with coffee, tea or milk (Santa: get your request in early). I use a standard chocolate biscotti recipe made with cocoa powder and add mini chocolate bits and toasted chopped walnuts.
No cookie platter is complete without a thin, rolled sugar or ginger cookie cut into star, bell, tree, dog bone or angel shapes. You can make a pre-baking hole with a chopstick for hanging them, and this is where you can get your fix of colored decorative sugar sprinkles in — red and green only, of course. No yellow or blue sprinkles, unless you’re Swedish.
I like to include a simple, nostalgic old-fashioned cookie in the mix, such as snickerdoodle or peanut butter. The peanut butter cookie recipe should have lots of peanut butter. Although I do recall a Bon Appetit recipe that uses an entire 16-ounce jar of peanut butter to a quarter cup of butter, I’m pretty satisfied if the amount of peanut butter used is double the amount of butter. Use the creamy, natural type of peanut butter that contains only peanuts and salt; you don’t want palm oil in your cookies. If I haven’t included a crisp ginger cookie, I could go with a soft ginger cookie with three forms of the Christmasy spice: powdered, freshly grated and chips of preserved.
Finally, there must be a bar cookie. Sometimes it’s the ever-popular lemon bar, with the shortbread crust, but this year I’m killing two birds — coconut and dried cranberries — with one cookie, in the form of coconut-cranberry bars.
As I mentioned, if you have Christmas trays or paper plates and are doing an in-person exchange, you can display your wares easily. If you want to package them, you can stack six or so of each variety and roll them in a tube of plastic wrap, then gather the top of the wrap up and tie with colorful ribbon or baker’s twine. The tubes can then be corralled in a gift bag or in a brown paper sack with the top rolled down so that all the tempting contents can be seen.
Here are two recipes for your cookie buffet. Don’t forget to let the kids help, and stay warm and safe over the holidays.
A M A R E T T I
- 23⁄4 cups almond flour
- 1 cup plus 1⁄3 cup granulated sugar
- 1⁄4 tsp. sea salt
- 3 egg whites
- 1⁄4 cup Amaretto liqueur or 1 Tbsp. almond extract
- 1⁄3 cup confectioner’s sugar
- 1⁄4 cup sliced almonds
Preheat oven to 325° F. In a large bowl, whisk together almond flour, 1 cup granulated sugar and sea salt. Beat egg whites on high speed until stiff peaks form. Pour in the Amaretto or almond extract and continue to beat until combined. Add the dry ingredients to the egg whites and gently fold the mixture until it forms a dough. Spread 1⁄3 cup of granulated sugar and confectioner’s sugar on separate plates. Form dough into one-inch balls and roll in granulated sugar until coated, and then roll in the confectioner’s sugar. Place on a parchment-lined baking sheet. Use the bottom of a glass to slightly flatten the cookies. Press a few almond slivers onto each cookie. Bake for 13 to 15 minutes, or until edges are just starting to brown. Cool for 10 minutes on pan before transferring to a wire rack to cool completely.
C R A N B E R R Y – C O C O N U T B A R S
- 13⁄4 cups firmly packed light brown sugar (Note: if you have white sugar and molasses, you can make brown sugar. One tablespoon molasses mixed into a cup of white sugar equals a cup of light brown; two tablespoons of molasses yields a cup of dark brown)
- 1 cup plus 3 Tbsp. flour
- 1 stick butter, melted and cooled
- 11⁄2 cups sweetened flaked coconut
- 1 cup dried sweetened cranberries
- 2 large eggs, beaten lightly
- 1 tsp. vanilla
- 1⁄4tsp. salt
Preheat oven to 350°F. In a bowl with a fork stir together 1⁄2 cup brown sugar, 1 cup flour, and butter until combined well. Press the mixture evenly onto the bottom of a 9×13-inch baking pan and bake in the middle of the oven for 10 minutes. In same bowl with the fork combine remaining 1 cup brown sugar, remaining 3 tablespoons flour, coconut, dried cranberries, eggs, vanilla and salt, and blend the mixture well. Spread coconut mixture evenly over the crust and bake for 20 minutes, or until it is pale golden. Cut the mixture into bars and let them cool completely in the pan on a rack.