Cooking the Books: Christmas Cookies!

VeryMerryCookiePartyFrom time to time, Bas Bleu’s editorial staff “samples” recipes from cookbooks and other culinary guides found in our catalog. Our efforts are amateur at best: If you’re looking for advanced epicurean know-how or glossy food photography, you’re about to be disappointed. We’re humble home cooks, you see, like (most of) you—pressed for time, with non-matching cookware and the tendency to scatter flour everywhere. But we know delicious when we taste it, and if you try your hand at these recipes we think you’ll agree!

The holiday season is in full swing, and to celebrate, Bas Bleu’s editorial staff gathered on a chilly December afternoon to bake Christmas cookies. Because we were feeling particularly festive (or maybe because the bubbly was flowing freely!), we decided to tackle not one but three recipes from Very Merry Christmas Party by Barbara Grunes and Virginia Van Vynckt. We’ve reprinted all three recipes here for you to try at home, along with a few pictures of our efforts. Not all of the finished products turned out exactly like the cookbook’s photos—dexterous with gingerbread dough we are not—but each treat sure was tasty!

Stained-Glass Ornaments
Makes 30 cookie ornaments

Use fruit-flavored Life Savers, sour balls, or similar hard candies for the “stained glass.” It is fun to make your own design for the ornaments. For example, if you want to make a holly leaf or a dove, draw the shape on a piece of cardboard—about 3 inches in diameter is a good size—and cut it out. Edge the gingerbread strips around the design on the cookie sheet. Continue until all the gingerbread has been used.

To crush the candies, use a food processor or place the candies between 2 pieces of waxed paper and crush with a rolling pin.

Cookie Exchange Tip: To make this cookie into a tree ornament, attach a loop made from the dough to the top of the cookie before baking. After the cookie is baked, thread a piece of ribbon through the loop and tie the ribbon in a bow. To make these ornaments at a party, prepare the cardboard patterns in advance.

3 cups all-purpose flour
1 teaspoon baking soda
¼ teaspoon salt
¾ teaspoon ground cinnamon
½ teaspoon ground ginger
⅛ teaspoon ground nutmeg
3 tablespoons unsalted butter, at room temperature
½ cup firmly packed dark brown sugar
¾ cup unsulfured molasses
⅓ cup water
6 ounces translucent hard candies in colors of choice, crushed

1. In a large bowl, whisk together the flour, baking soda, salt, cinnamon, ginger, and nutmeg. Set aside.

2. In a large bowl, with an electric mixer, beat the butter on medium speed until creamy. Add the sugar and molasses and beat for 2 minutes. Beat in the water. On low speed, beat in the flour mixture until a soft dough forms.

3. Gather the dough into a ball and wrap in plastic wrap. Refrigerate until firm, at least 1 hour or up to overnight.

4. Preheat the oven to 350°F. Line cookie sheets with aluminum foil.

5. Divide the dough into thirds. [It will be sticky. Periodically dip your hands in water to keep the dough manageable.] Divide each third into 10 equal pieces. Using your palms, roll each piece on a lightly floured work surface into a rope ¼ to ½ inch in diameter. [We suggest the thinner the better; the dough puffed up a good bit.] Gently trace the design of your choice onto the prepared cookie sheets (a wooden spoon handle or chopstick works well for tracing on foil). Outline each design with a rope of dough, pressing the ends together to seal securely.

6. Sprinkle the inside of each design with the crushed candies [we used Life Savers], dividing the candies evenly among the outlined designs and creating an even layer.

7. Bake in the center of the oven or until the edges of the cookies are golden and the candy has melted, 6 to 9 minutes. Let the cookies cool on the cookie sheets on wire racks until the candy hardens, about 5 minutes. Gently peel the foil away from the cookies and transfer to the racks to cool completely.

Toffee Squares
Makes 48 squares

To heighten the toffee flavor, substitute toffee baking bits for half of the chopped almonds. [We went half-and-half. Wise choice.]

Cookie Exchange Tip: This is another of those always-popular cookie-exchange selections: Toffee-laced squares appeal to just about everyone. Dress them up a little by weaving lengths of gold metallic ribbon through the stacked cookies.

Crust:
1 cup (2 sticks) unsalted butter, at room temperature
1 cup firmly packed light brown sugar
1 large egg yolk
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
¼ teaspoon salt
2 cups all-purpose flour

Topping:
7 to 8 ounces milk chocolate, broken into pieces, or 1½ cups milk chocolate chips
1 cup chopped almonds, toasted

  1. Preheat the oven to 350°F. Line a 9-by-13-inch baking pan with parchment.
  2. Prepare the crust. In a large bowl, with an electric mixer, beat together the butter and sugar on medium speed until light, about 2 minutes. Beat in the egg yolk, vanilla, and salt. On low speed, gradually beat in the flour just until mixed. The dough will be stiff. Pat the dough evenly over the bottom of the baking pan.
  3. Bake in the center of the oven until pale gold on top, about 20 minutes.
  4. Remove the pan from the oven and scatter the chocolate pieces evenly over the crust. Return the pan to the oven for 1 minute. Remove the pan again and, using a knife, spread the chocolate evenly over the crust. [Do this immediately, before the chocolate and crust begin to cool.] Sprinkle evenly with the almonds [and toffee bits, if you’re using them—use them!].
  5. Let cool completely in the pan on a wire rack. Using a sharp knife, cut into small squares, then carefully remove from the pan with a small offset spatula or an icing spatula. [We just lifted out the whole mass via the parchment paper. Once it’s out, fold back the edges of the paper and the slab is freed for slicing.]

Kolacky
Makes 36 cookies

Various Central European countries have their own variations on these popular filled cookies, sometimes spelled kolache or kolace. Some are made with a yeast dough, others with cream cheese or even ice cream. The cream cheese dough is the most popular for the Polish version of these rich cookies.

Cookie Exchange Tip: The sweet fillings of kolacky peek through the golden dough and resemble beautiful stained glass windows in a cathedral. Play up this resemblance by using different fillings and arranging the cookies on a tray in a starburst pattern.

6 ounces (about ¾ cup) cream cheese, at room temperature
1 cup (2 sticks) unsalted butter, at room temperature
1 tablespoon sugar
2½ cups all-purpose flour
About ¾ cup prepared poppy-seed, apricot, or prune filling or thick jam of choice [We opted for Smuckers Strawberry Jam]
Sifted confectioners’ sugar for dusting

  1. In a large bowl, with an electric mixer, beat together the cream cheese, butter, and sugar on medium speed until light, about 2 minutes. On low speed, gradually beat in the flour just until mixed. The dough will be soft and sticky.
  1. Divide the dough in half. Pat each half into a thick disk and wrap separately in plastic wrap. Refrigerate until firm enough to handle, at least 1 hour or up to 1 day. [We refrigerated for several hours, and it took another hour or so for the dough to soften up again for rolling.]
  1. Preheat the oven to 350°F. Lightly grease or spray cookie sheets.
  1. Dust a pastry cloth or board with flour or confectioners’ sugar. Remove 1 dough disk from the refrigerator and place it on the pastry cloth. Keep the remaining dough disk refrigerated. Roll out the dough into a square or rectangle ⅛ inch thick. Cut into 2½-inch squares.
  1. Place 1 teaspoon of the filling in the center of each square. Pull 2 opposite corners of the square into the middle, and pinch the edges together to seal. Place the cookies on the prepared cookie sheets, spacing them about 1½ inches apart. Repeat with the remaining dough and filling.
  1. Bake in the center of the oven until lightly golden, 12 to 15 minutes. Let cool on the cookie sheets for 1 to 2 minutes, then transfer to wire racks. Dust the tops with sifted confectioners’ sugar while still warm, then let cool completely.

(All recipes: Barbara Grunes and Virginia Van Vynckt, Very Merry Cookie Party: How to Plan and Host a Christmas Cookie Exchange, Chronicle Books (2010))

 

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