My Favorite Christmas Cookies

The cookies have done me in. You know the feeling, the one that suggests you’ve been insulated internally with several inches of pink blown-in frosting. (I am like an old attic, my rib studs filled with tufts of fiberglass cotton candy.) But until I have what I think is the best sugar cutout cookie, the best shortbread, and the best wildcard caramel cookie in my holiday repertoire, I must press on.

First up, Sugar Cookie Cutouts. I started with a Dorie Greenspan recipe (here) for French Sables and riffed on it, and then pretty much went back to it with a couple modifications: hers was a delicate, very buttery cookie that required baking inside muffin tins to retain shape. I was able to keep the buttery flavor but shore it up (i.e., make it sturdy enough for cut-outs) by adding an egg yolk and a little bit of cornstarch to soften the bite. It’s now my go-to, and when topped with a thin layer of lemony icing, more delicious than anyone expects a sugar cookie to be.

(And you don’t even need that recipe for Royal Icing. Google it if you must, but honestly, you can save time by winging it. Throw two or three egg whites into the mixer and beat until lightened and ploofy, but not stiff. Add powdered sugar until it turns opaque white and thick–about 4 cups–and then continue mixing with the wire whip until it holds peaks, like frosting. Add lemon juice to thin it back out to a consistency you can pipe onto a cookie. If you want “flood icing,” the kind that seeps to the edge of the cookie like a glassy flat plain, just add more lemon juice.)

Tint the icing any color you like.

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With 8-year-old boys, more is more. After he decorated a few cookies (including a deer hunting cookie, flooded with enough red sanding sugar to look disturbingly realistic) he began icing his cars and trains. What a mess, but worth it to watch him get into the process.

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After a couple of hours, your royal icing might soften to flood icing, at which point you can drag t0othpicks through it to create a marbled effect.

For years, a cookie has been haunting me: a brittle sesame sandwich cookie we used to make at Bouley in Tribeca. I left that job without the recipe, so I’ve had to recreate it, and after much fussing, this is it. Sesame Pralines, welcome back.

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I made a quick sesame seed-studded tuile batter (the easiest cookie batter in the world, by the way) and when the delicate caramel disks hardened, I sorted the entire pile into same-sized couples and then sandwiched them together with a buttery peanut butter-tahini filling. They are twice as large as the bite-sized sesame pralines I remember, but just as extraordinary. More like candy than a cookie, the crunchy praline disks collapse into the salty, nutty cream. Guests will remember these.

Finally, I worked on a simple Olive Oil Thumbprint Cookie (pictured at top.) I’d developed a few years ago–a gloriously not-too-sweet cookie, as tender as a sand castle–tweaking it again and again to nudge it in a whole wheat/spice direction. No dice. Adding graham flour and cinnamon made for an earthier cookie, but the flavor of the olive oil was lost. When I added sugar to boost the spices, I lost the flavor of the olive oil and the sandy texture, too. Gah. Forget it. Some things don’t need changing. Although I no longer fill the divots with melted chocolate, much preferring a small button of my homemade black currant jam.

 

Sugar Cutout Cookies 

adapted from Dorie Greenspan’s French Sables

 

8 ounces butter, preferably high butterfat, at cold room temperature

3/4 cup granulated sugar

3 egg yolks

2 teaspoons vanilla extract

2 cups all-purpose flour

1/4 cup cornstarch

1/2 teaspoon fine sea salt

 

Cube the butter and put into a mixing bowl fitted with a paddle attachment. Mix on medium until fully softened, then add the sugar and process until soft and ploofy, about 5 minutes, stopping twice to scrape down the sides of the bowl. Add the egg yolks and vanilla and whip until incorporated.

Combine the flour, cornstarch and salt in a bowl and whisk to combine. Add the flour to the butter mixture in two batches, mixing until just combined. Divide the soft (but not sticky) dough in two and roll out each between two sheets of parchment paper, a little thinner than you do for pie crust. Lay the dough on a baking sheet and refrigerate for a few minutes until firm.

Preheat an oven to 350º F.

Remove the top sheet of parchment and cut out shapes, transferring them to a paper-lined baking sheet. Gather the scraps and reroll. Bake the cookies for 10 to 12 minutes, until golden brown on the edges. Transfer to a baking rack to cool before frosting.

Sesame Pralines

sesame tuile: 

7 tablespoons butter, room temperature

1/2 cup sugar

2/3 cup brown sugar

2/3 cup all-purpose flour

1/3 cup milk

1/2 teaspoon salt

1/3 cup sesame seeds

filling:

4 tablespoons butter

6 tablespoons peanut butter

1/2 cup soft tahini

2/3 cup confectioners’ sugar

big pinch of salt

 

For the tuile cookie batter, soften the butter in a bowl with a rubber spatula. Add the sugars and mix forcefully until slightly lightened. Add the flour and thoroughly combine, then add the milk, salt, and sesame seeds. Chill the batter before baking. (You may make the dough a day or two ahead.)

Preheat the oven to 325º F. Line a couple of baking sheets with a silicone pad or parchment. Drop just 1 teaspoon of tuile batter in a mound onto the sheet, leaving lots of space around each. (I baked only 6 cookies per sheet.) Bake the tuiles, rotating pans once, until the cookies have turned evenly amber, about 12 minutes. Let the tuiles cool before transferring to a baking rack.

For the filling, soften the butter in a small bowl with a rubber spatula. Add the peanut butter and tahini, mixing to incorporate, then add the sugar and salt. Pour the filling into a plastic bag and chill. When ready to sandwich the cookies, snip the tip of the bag and pipe a thin layer of filling in the center of one cookie before topping with another. Let the cookies set in one layer before stacking to store.

Olive Oil Thumprints

2 1/2 cups all-purpose flour

1/2 teaspoon salt

4 tablespoons sugar, plus 1/2 cup more for rolling

6 tablespoons butter, at cold room temperature, cubed

1/2 cup extra-virgin olive oil

1 large egg yolk

1/4 cup whole milk

1/2 cup currant or raspberry jam

 

Mix the dough as for a sable tart crust: In a large bowl combine the flour, salt and sugar, and add the butter. Cut it into the flour with a pastry blender, mixing until it has the texture of coarse meal, finer than you would for pie crust. Add the olive oil and stir swiftly with a fork until mostly combined. Pour 1/4 cup of milk into a liquid measuring cup, add the egg yolk, and whisk with a fork. Add the egg yolk mixture all at once, and mix until the dough comes together. It should be moist, but should hold together when squeezed. If too crumbly, add an additional tablespoon of milk. Press the dough gently into the bowl and let sit at room temperature for thirty minutes.

Preheat the oven to 350º F. Put the remaining 1/2 cup sugar in a small bowl. Scoop the dough by the heaping tablespoon and roll into small balls. Toss each ball in the sugar to coat and place on a baking sheet. With the blunt dowel end of a wooden spoon, press a little divot in the center of each, squeezing to keep the cookie’s shape. Bake until light golden brown, about 25 minutes. Transfer the cookies to a baking rack to cool. Paddle the jam until soft, transfer to a plastic bag, snip the tip, and pipe a button of jam into the center divot of each cookie.