Christmas cookies: speculaas, fatigmann (purchased from Larson's Bakery),
and "Santa's whiskers" with candied cherries, pecans, and coconut.

Sugar Cookies

Two rounds with anise; see photo just below, and March posting. Then, I made the Anise and Sesame Cookies from Gourmet. They had a lovely, buttery crispness, but I didn't feel the sesame really added much. To save time and headache, I chilled the dough in a log rather than a disc, and then simply sliced the log thinly to make rounds. Next time, I will sprinkle them with finishing sugar instead of the sesame seeds. I also might try grinding the anise and mixing it in to the batter that way, rather than the whole seeds. I didn't thing the whole seeds packed much of a flavor-punch, and the texture detracted somewhat from the otherwise delightful texture of these cookies.

Cornmeal cookies with dates and anise - see March, 2011.
Cranberry Thumbprints
I still had some leftover thyme-tempranillo cranberry sauce from Thanksgiving (see Thanksgiving post 11/26/10 for recipe) and thought it would make delicious thumbprint cookies, which are so perfect for the holidays anyway, because the jam just sparkles like ornaments on a tree. I looked through a lot of recipes, but ultimately decided on a dough I've used before and loved for its rich sweetness from brownsugar and lovely sandy texture from cornmeal. I replaced the jam called for in this cookie recipe with my cranberry sauce for fabulous results.

The finished thyme-tempranillo-thumbprint cookie.

Filled, but before baking.

Cookie dough, pre-print (I actually use
my pinkie finger for a deeper depression.)

And check out this beautiful adaptation of a traditional thumbprint cookie!

Mocha Cookies
We were invited to dinner at a friend's house, and of course I offered to bring dessert. While my offer was warmly accepted, it didn't come with any hint as to what the rest of the meal or evening might contain, so I wanted to make something relatively "all-purpose." I decided on cookies for a number of reasons: each person can choose how much or how little they want; they are easy to serve and don't require any special plating, utensils, or garnishes; it is simple to leave behind the leftovers (and generally much-appreciated!)

I wanted something a little elegant, and a little different. I turned to Maida Heatter's Book of Great Desserts. It's an older book, though I never realized until now just how old it is; my version is from 1980, but it was originally published in 1965. Often, simply reading a recipe gives away its era, though this is perhaps less true with baking. I never had the sense of datedness when perusing this book, though the title of these cookies - which I am referring to as mocha due to their mix of chocolate and coffee - is certainly a hint: Maida calles them "mulattoes" and they appear on page 163. I also took Black Pepper Cookies (see bottom of linked post).

The batter is very thin, much like cake batter, so unlike most times I bake cookies, when I save some of the dough to bake up fresh on another day, I wasn't sure how this would keep so I baked them all together. The recipe says it makes 36, but I always like to make them small so they are bite-sized and easy to taste even after a large meal when you're not too hungry, so I was able to make 45.

I was amazed at how meringue-like they came out of the oven, given as they contain whole eggs and flour. I wasn't entirely thrilled about this either, since I'm not a huge fan of meringue, and it wasn't at all what I expected these cookies to be. However, as they cooled (and they are even better the next day), they developed a truly unique character that I haven't experienced in another cookie. They do have a crisp, crunchy outer shell similar to meringue, but the inside is rich and fudgy. These were not underbaked, this was due to the shavings of truffle chocolate loaded in the batter. In fact, although Maida specifically says to not overbake, I was initially concerned by the softness of the interior on my first batch, so the second batch was overdone by a couple of minutes, and while the consistency did not change, the taste did develope a burned bitterness.

The third sheet I baked (not photographed) for some reason cracked more evenly than those pictured above. I really don't know what would cause this, though I thought they were more attractive that way. They looked more like "crinkle cookies" instead of the above that seem like they were almost right and then broke. It's possible that it was because they were just a little bit larger, or because the sheet was a little bit warmer and the batter spread more before setting.

I can't place exactly what it was that made the cookies seem better after sitting overnight, but in any case, they keep well if made ahead. The recipe below is very close to Maida's, but I've shown it using the slight modifications I made to ingredients. Months later, I checked out from the library Dorie Greenspans Baking: From my home to yours and was interested to find her "chocolate chunkers" cookie recipe is "grandchild" of this recipe.

Mocha Cookies8 ounces semisweet chocolate chips
2 tablespoons butter
1/4 cup all purpose flour
1/4 teaspoon baking powder
1/8 teaspoon salt
2 eggs
1/2 cup + 2 tablespoons sugar
2 teaspoons instant coffee
1/2 teaspoon vanilla extract
6 coffee chocolates cut into tiny pieces (such as Frango "truffles" - I used the Seattle brand, Dilettante, which makes wrapped chocolates and sells them in a mixed box of latte, mocha, and espresso. A 10-oz box was recently on sale at Bartells for $6.)

Melt chocolate and butter (you can do this in the microwave, set for one minute, then stir, then 30 seconds, and stir, then stir every 10-15 seconds until smooth.) Set aside to cool completely.

Sift together flour, baking powder, and salt. Set aside.

Beat eggs, sugar, coffee, and vanilla until well-mixed, then add chocolate. Mix in dry ingredients just until blended. Stir in chocolate pieces, then drop by spoonfuls onto ungreased cookie sheet about 1-inch apart.

Bake 10 minutes, until tops are dry. Centers will still be soft. Carefully remove to rack to cool completely, so centers are firm.

Molasses Bats and Sugar Jack-O's

I was invited to a Halloween Party potluck and offered to bring cookies. Halloween is exactly the season - much more so than Christmas - where the appropriate cookie has to include cut-out shapes. The two shapes I already have are a bat and a pumpkin.

I've read horror stories about black frosting, and although chocolate frosting would work instead of black frosting to indicate bats, I knew I could save myself a lot of time (because I had to make enough cookies for 20 people) and potentially make an even better cookie if I used brown dough instead of frosting. I first looked for a good chocolate cookie recipe that would work as a roll cookie; I came across a fantastic cookie (see chocolate cookies posting earlier this month) but it wasn't going to work for roll cookies. I then decided to go with a Moravian Spice cookie, which is very similar in seasonings to a molasses cookie which seems a good palate for fall.

For years, I have oogled the photos of the "Moravian Molassas Cookies" in Martha Stewart's Christmas. But as I've had disappointing results with some of her recipes before, I didn't want to be swayed by a photo alone. To compare, I consulted my trusted Joy of Cooking which also offers a "Moravian Molasses Thin" - the ratio of ingredients was virtually identical, except for the spices which were two to three times greater in the Joy version, so that's what I used. 
These are made with shortening (or lard) and I'm sure they came out exactly as they are supposed to - soft and chewy. That in itself I found pleasant, although they convey an air of under-doneness, while the recipe is very specific to not over-bake them lest they become bitter. The texture did not work well for the large, side bat-cutter I used... the cookie is too floppy, without a crisp edge to support the shape. These poor bats if you pick them up by one wing, the other wing limps down like it's been injured!! But the richness of spices in these is marvellous. It might be too strong for young children, but I loved the cinnamon, cloves, and anise in the dough. Will decorated each of these with two grains of Scandanavian pearl sugar and that was the only detail they required - the dark brown color of the baked cookies looked just like a spooky creature!

I didn't need all the dough for cookies for the party, so with what was remaining, I just rolled into a 1 1/2" diameter log and sliced. These small coins baked up perfectly and are a much better use for this soft dough.

Moravian Molasses Thins
about 80 2-inch cookies
From The Joy of Cooking, (75th Anniversary Edition) page 773

Whisk together:
1 cup all-purpose flour
1/2 teaspoon baking soda
pinch salt
1 1/2 teaspoons ground cinnamon
1 teaspoon ground ginger
1/2 teaspoon ground cloves
1/4 teaspoon ground cardamom

Beat in a medium bowl until blended:
1/3 cup molasses
1/4 cup shortening or lard
1/2 cup packed dark brown sugar
1 teaspoon vanilla

My Instructions Stir together flour mixture and molasses mixture until smooth. Divide dough in half, roll in plastic into logs. Let stand at room temperature for 6 -12 hours or refrigerate up to 4 days. Return to room temperature before using.

Preheat oven to 300 degress. Slice logs into 1/8" thick slices, and arrange on cookie sheet 1" apart. Bake, one sheet at a time until set, 6-9 minutes. Let cool slightly on sheet, then remove to rack.

For the pumpkins, I did use a recipe from Martha Stewart's Christmas (1989), because I have tried so many other recipes, I really wanted to find one that will work. Unless the photo was a complete fabrication - I could tell at least that these cookies would hold their shape without puffing or shrinking too much during baking. She used some relatively intricate cutters whose details were retained in the finished cookie. Some of the other tasty recipes I've tried do not hold their shape.

Sugar Cookies
Makes 2 dozen

1/2 cup (1 stick) unsalted butter
1 cup granulated sugar
2 cups sifted all-purpose flour
1/4 teaspoon salt
1/2 teaspoon baking powder
1 large egg, lightly beaten
2 tablespoons brandy
1/2 teaspoon vanilla extract

Cream butter and sugar. Sift together dry ingredients. Add to the butter mixture and beat well. Add egg, brandy, and vanilla and beat again until well incorporated. Shape dough into two flattened rounds, wrap in plastic, and refrigerate at least 1 hour.

Preheat oven to 350. Roll out dough to 1/8" thickness. Cut into shapes and set on baking sheets 1 inch apart. Bake 10 minutes, do not allow to brown. Cool on racks then frost as desired.

I made a double recipe as it says it made 2 dozen, but I only used 1/2 the recipe and made about 40 3-inch pumpkins. I also substituted Amaretto for the brandy which gave the most very slightest almond flavor, and would be delicious paired with an almond frosting. I used vanilla frosting this time, and decorated with chocolate sprinkles for the faces and dipped the stem in green granulated sugar.

I am so pleased to finally have found just the right sugar cookie recipe. These are sweet enough to warrant the name "sugar" in the title, while still having a buttery crispness in the texture and just the right properties to easily roll and cut with shapes. They are delicious uniced (though not as cute!) and they last longer without icing; the moisture in the icing is absorbed by the cookie and they lose some of their crispiness.

All of your ghouls and vamps will adore them!

I volunteered to bring cookies for a Halloween party next weekend, and I thought it would be fun to do pumpkin-shaped sugar cookie cut-outs, and bat-shaped brown cookie cut-outs. I have a sugar cookie recipe, but I needed a recipe for the bats that would come out dark so I could decorate them simply with a bit of frosting or sprinkles for eyes. I was thinking a molasses cookie could work (though they are usually made in drops that spread into very even rounds). As I was perusing recipes, I came across this chocolate cookie recipe that sounded promising because one of the other reviewers on said it had worked a roll cookie (the instructions call for slicing the dough log into rounds).

I mixed up a batch as printed, using one 3.5 ounce bar of Lindt Madagascar (a 62% dark chocolate with vanilla tones that I love for baking). The recipe calls for 5 ounces, but I found the one bar to be ample given that it is a flavorful variety. I made the chunks of chocolate pretty small because I didn't want them to cause lumps if I ended up rolling out the batter. To simply slice the dough into rounds though, I could have made them bigger. Also, the recipe warns that the dough will be crumbly, and it was; larger chocolate chunks would exaggerate this.

These come out of the oven looking slightly underdone, but crisp up on the pan as they cool. They have a fabulous texture that is crispy around the edge and tender in the center, with every mouthful an intense but not overwhelming chocolate. I learned from Rose Levy Beranbaum in The Cake Bible that non-alkalized cocoa in cakes can give a bitter taste when it interacts with baking soda, but that using Dutch-processed (alkalized) cocoa will avoid this. I think that the use of Dutch-processed cocoa (I used Droste) in this recipe is what gives these cookies such a chocolately richness without any burn or aftertaste.

Decorated cookies have to be some of the cutest, most festive desserts.  And although I always say they are NEVER worth the work that goes into them, somehow, I continue to make them.  They are virtually never appreciated enough by the people who eat them but nevertheless, everyone always loves them.

I should add that I have iced my way through skads of "sugar cookies" and "cut out cookies" and "butter cookies" looking for just the right plain cookie for decorating. It has to be smooth and flat and hold its shape during baking (many recipes will puff or shrink). It has to be crisp and buttery, but not too fragile or it won't hold up to repeated handling of the decorating process. Some sugar cookies - especially the softer ones that are often recommended for cut-out cookies taste floury to me. It also has to be sweet.  Not too sweet, because the icing will add a lot of sweetness, but the cookie itself needs to have some sweetness whether it's from vanilla or orange or something else.

Right now, I'm settling for this recipe, but I'm not that loyal... if you have a favorite sugar cookie recipe (not just the one you use, but one that you LOVE) please share.

These were for yet another shower at work, where we combined a baby shower and a wedding shower - hence the bottles and bells.

Christmas cookies are the absolute monster of cookie decorating.  So many options, so many designs and decorations to try, so many many many hours of investment. I don't do this every year, but here are two different years' worth of examples.