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Deck the halls with tons of cookies

December 1, 2014

December is the month for baking cookies, and lemon icebox crumbles are a great choice for a holiday table.

It’s the most wonderful time of the year, or so they say. But why is this so?

Is it the kids Jingle Belling? Is it everyone telling you "Be of good cheer"? Does that even happen anymore?

No, no and not in my experience. What makes the holidays so effervescently joyous are: cookies.

Think about it. Throughout the month of December, cookies are everywhere. They are unavoidable. They cascade down on us like sweet, crispy, tasty snowflakes. And aren’t we all truly dreaming of a sugar-coated Christmas?

This is the month for baking cookies, bringing them to some friends’ houses, and then eating the cookies they baked for you. It is the month when, if you play your cards right, fresh-baked cookies might be available at your office three days out of five. And let us not forget that cookies are also good to give as gifts.

Who doesn’t enjoy a good cookie? They must be the most-beloved food item in the country. They are such an important part of our culture that one children’s TV character is famous just because he likes to eat them. And this time of year, they are everywhere.

For the holidays this year, I baked seven types of cookies because, you know, once you start baking cookies you never want to stop. Besides, the oven was already preheated.

For each batch I used butter and only butter, because I like my friends.

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Chocolate Chip Cookies — If you think chocolate chip cookies are pedestrian and unworthy of the holidays, you’ve never had these chocolate chip cookies. Everyone should have a recipe for the perfect cookie, and this very well may be it. Chocolate chip cookies require a tightrope-walking balance of sweet and salt, of chocolate and butter and flour. It has to have the right amount of chips, the right amount of nuts. And the best ones use a combination of granulated and brown sugars for the proper amount of sweetness.

Scientists could spend years trying to devise the right formula for the ultimate chocolate chip cookie, and they would not be able to top this one. If any cookie is better on the planet, it was the ones made at the Toll House Inn — and that famous Massachusetts restaurant burned down in 1984. On its site is now a Wendy’s.

CHOCOLATE CHIP COOKIES

Yield: 45 to 50 cookies

1 1/2 sticks (6 ounces) unsalted butter, softened

3/4 cup (5 1/2 ounces) granulated sugar

3/4 cup (6 ounces) firmly packed light brown sugar

2 large eggs, room temperature

2 teaspoons vanilla extract

2 1/4 cups unbleached all-purpose flour

1 teaspoon baking soda

1 teaspoon salt

1 cup semisweet (dark) chocolate chips

1 cup milk-chocolate chips

1/2 cup (2 1/4 ounces) chopped nuts (walnuts, almonds, pecans or hazelnuts), chopped, toasted and completely cooled, optional

1. Preheat oven to 350 degrees and position an oven rack in the center. Line 2 or 3 baking sheets with parchment paper.

2. Place the butter, granulated sugar and brown sugar in the bowl of a stand mixer and beat on medium-low speed until smooth and blended, about 2 minutes (or use a hand mixer and a medium bowl, but it will take a little longer). Scrape down the bowl with a spatula. Add the eggs one at a time and beat until just blended after each addition. Add the vanilla and blend well. Scrape down the bowl.

3. In a medium bowl, whisk together the flour, baking soda and salt. Turn the mixer to the lowest speed and add the flour mixture all at once. Blend just until there are no more patches of flour. Scrape down the bowl.

4. Add the semisweet and milk chocolate chips and the nuts, if using, and blend on low until just combined. Remove the bowl from the mixer and stir gently a few times to make sure there are no patches of unincorporated flour or butter lurking near the bottom of the bowl.

5. Using a small ice-cream scoop or a spoon, portion tablespoon-size mounds onto the prepared baking sheets, spacing them about 2 inches apart. Bake the cookies one sheet at a time, rotating the sheet halfway through, for 10 to 14 minutes. (To bake more than one sheet at a time, position oven racks in top and bottom thirds of the oven; put one sheet on each rack. Halfway through the cooking time, switch the sheets’ positions in the oven and rotate them front to back). Cookies are done when they are golden brown at edges and still a bit pale in the center.

6. Transfer cookies to a cooling rack and let them cool completely before serving. Store in an airtight container at room temperature for 3 to 4 days.

Per serving (based on 50): 110 calories; 5 g fat; 3 g saturated fat; 14 mg cholesterol; 1.5 g protein; 15 g carbohydrates; 10 g sugars; no fiber; 101mg sodium.

Recipe from "The Art & Soul of Baking" by Cindy Mushet.

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Cherry-Chocolate Chip Oatmeal Cookies — Once you have the perfect chocolate chip recipe, every cook needs an equally iconic oatmeal cookie. This version is a good bet and deserves a place in any home cook’s repertoire.

It comes from the same source as the chocolate chip cookie recipe ("The Art & Soul of Baking," by Cindy Mushet, a must-have for any baker), and it is made in much the same way. But this cookie has oatmeal in it, plus baking powder for a little extra rise. Plus, of course, chocolate chips and dried cherries, making it that much more fun to eat.

CHERRY-CHOCOLATE CHIP OATMEAL COOKIES

Yield: About 30 cookies

1 stick (1/2 cup) unsalted butter, softened

1/2 cup (4 ounces) firmly packed light brown sugar

1/4 cup plus 1 tablespoon (2 ounces) granulated sugar

1 large egg

1 teaspoon vanilla extract

1 cup (5 ounces) unbleached all-purpose flour

1/4 teaspoon baking soda

1/4 teaspoon baking powder

1/4 teaspoon salt

3/4 cup (3 1/4 ounces) old-fashioned rolled oats

3/4 cup (3 1/2 ounces) dried sour cherries, see note

1/2 to 3/4 cup chocolate chips — dark chocolate, milk chocolate, white chocolate or a combination

Note: Instead of cherries, you can use cherry-flavored dried cranberries, other dried cranberries, raisins or any moist dried fruit of your choosing.

1. Preheat oven to 350 degrees and position an oven rack in the center of the oven. Line 2 baking sheets with parchment paper.

2. Place the butter, brown sugar and granulated sugar in the bowl of a stand mixer and beat on medium speed until smooth and blended, about 2 minutes (You can also use a hand mixer in a medium bowl, but it will take a little longer). Scrape down the bowl with a spatula. Add the egg and vanilla and blend well.

3. In a medium bowl, whisk together the flour, baking soda, baking powder and salt. Add to the butter mixture all at once. Turn the mixer to the lowest speed and blend slowly, just until there are no more patches of flour. Scrape down the bowl.

4. Add the oats, cherries and chocolate chips and blend on low just until combined. Remove the bowl from the mixer and stir gently a few times with the spatula to make sure there are no patches of unincorporated flour or butter lurking near the bottom of the bowl.

5. Use a small ice cream scoop or a spoon to portion tablespoon-size mounds onto the prepared baking sheets, spacing them about 2 inches apart. Bake the cookies one sheet at a time, rotating the sheet halfway through, for 10 to 14 minutes. (To bake more than one sheet at a time, position oven racks in top and bottom thirds of the oven; put one sheet on each rack. Halfway through the cooking time, switch the sheets’ positions in the oven and rotate them front to back). Cookies are done when they are golden brown at edges and still a bit pale in the center.

6. Transfer cookies to a cooling rack and let them cool completely before serving. Store in an airtight container at room temperature for 3 to 4 days.

Per serving: 97 calories; 4 g fat; 3 g saturated fat; 15 mg cholesterol; 1 g protein; 14 g carbohydrate; 7 g sugar; 1 g fiber; 40 mg sodium; 13 mg calcium.

Recipe from "The Art & Soul of Baking" by Cindy Mushet.

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Chocolate-Pistachio Spiral Cookies — Of all the batches I made, this is the one that is the most festive. It has a swirl of chocolate inside a swirl of pistachio, making it look like a much smaller version of those giant all-day lollipop suckers. And the combination of chocolate and nuts is always a winner.

Making these cookies takes a little bit of work, especially if, like me, you are not particularly adept at rolling out dough. But the result is well worth it. These cookies put a smile on everybody’s face — and when they eat one, the smile only gets bigger.

CHOCOLATE-PISTACHIO SPIRAL COOKIES

Yield: 48 cookies

6 tablespoons shelled, unsalted pistachio nuts

2 cups unbleached all-purpose flour, plus more for working the dough

1/2 teaspoon baking powder

1/2 teaspoon salt

2 sticks (1 cup) unsalted butter, room temperature

3/4 cup granulated sugar

1 large egg

2 teaspoons vanilla extract

3 ounces semisweet chocolate, melted and cooled

1 tablespoon unsweetened Dutch-process cocoa powder

1. Place the nuts in a food processor and pulse until finely ground (they should look like coarse sand). Set aside. Combine the flour, baking powder and salt in a medium bowl. Set aside.

2. Place the butter and sugar in a large bowl and beat together with an electric mixer on medium-high until fluffy, 2 to 3 minutes. Add the egg and vanilla and beat until smooth. Beat in the flour mixture on low until just incorporated.

3. Divide the dough in half in the bowl. Remove one piece, place it on a sheet of waxed paper, and knead in the ground pistachios so they are uniformly distributed. Turn back to the dough still in the bowl and beat into it, on the lowest speed, the melted chocolate and cocoa powder.

4. Divide each piece of dough in half again (you will have 4 pieces) and press each into a 6-inch square. Wrap each dough square in plastic and refrigerate it for at least 2 hours, or up to 24 hours.

5. Remove one piece of the pistachio dough and one piece of the chocolate dough from the refrigerator and let them sit on the countertop until soft enough to work, about 15 minutes. Spread a large piece of plastic wrap on a work surface and sprinkle it lightly with flour. Use a lightly floured rolling pin to roll the pistachio dough into a rough 8 1/2-inch square. Using a sharp knife, trim the edges of the dough to create a neat 8-inch square. Repeat with the chocolate dough.

6. Brush the pistachio cookie dough with about 1 teaspoon cold water. Carefully invert the chocolate cookie dough onto the pistachio cookie dough so that the two doughs are lined up and flush. Use the plastic wrap to push and roll the doughs into a neat, tight log. Repeat the process with the remaining pistachio and chocolate doughs.

7. Tightly wrap each dough log in plastic and freeze until firm, about 2 hours (or double wrap in plastic wrap and then a layer of heavy-duty foil and freeze for up to 2 weeks. Defrost dough in the refrigerator at least 5 hours or overnight before proceeding to step 8).

8. Place the dough logs on the countertop and let stand until softened slightly, about 15 minutes. Meanwhile, preheat oven to 350 degrees.

9. Slice the dough into 1/3-inch thick rounds, rotating often so it doesn’t become misshapen as you cut. Place the cookies at least 2 inches apart on ungreased baking sheets.

10. Bake the cookies until they are lightly golden around the edges but still soft on top, about 12 minutes. Let stand on the baking sheet 5 minutes before removing them with a metal spatula to a wire rack to cool completely. Store in an airtight container at room temperature for 3 to 4 days.

Per serving: 82 calories; 5 g fat; 3 g saturated fat; 14 mg cholesterol; 1 g protein; 9 g carbohydrate; 4 g sugar; no fiber; 31 mg sodium; 6 mg calcium.

Recipe adapted from "Cookie Swap!" by Lauren Chattman.

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Lemon Icebox Crumbles — I love lemon in baked goods. The tart acid cuts through the rich butter before being tempered by the sugar. Add a bit of egg yolk and you have an unbeatable combination.

The lemon flavor is subtle in these delightfully crumbly cookies, but the hint of citrus is enough to keep you coming back for more. And more. But that desire is easy to fulfill, because these cookies are so small, just two or three bites, that you can eat a handful without feeling the guilt. Too much.

LEMON ICEBOX CRUMBLES

Yield: About 44 cookies

1 stick (1/2 cup) unsalted butter, softened

1 1/2 cups all-purpose flour, sifted

Grated zest of 2 lemons

3/4 cup granulated sugar

2 large egg yolks

Lemon juice or cold water, if needed

1. In a mixing bowl, combine the butter, flour and lemon zest with a pastry blender or 2 knives until the mixture is crumbly.

2. Add the sugar and egg yolks. With floured fingertips, quickly and gently work the mixture into a smooth dough, gathering it together in the bowl. If the mixture is too dry to cohere, add a few drops of lemon juice or cold water as needed. Cover the bowl with plastic wrap; chill until firm, about 30 minutes.

3. Preheat the oven to 350 degrees. Lightly butter 2 baking sheets; set aside. Break off small pieces of dough and roll each into a 1-inch bowl. Place the balls about 2 inches apart on the prepared baking sheets. Flatten each ball with the back of a fork, making a crisscross pattern with the tines. Bake the cookies until very pale gold, about 12 to 15 minutes.

4. Cool the cookies on the baking sheets for 2 minutes; transfer to a wire rack and cool completely. Store in an airtight container.

Per serving: 50 calories; 2 g fat; 1 g saturated fat; 14 mg cholesterol; 1 g protein; 7 g carbohydrate; 3 g sugar; no fiber; 1 mg sodium; 3 mg calcium.

Recipe by John Thorne in "Classic Home Desserts" by Richard Sax.

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Cigarettes — Looking for a bit of sophistication? Of elegance? Try these spectacularly light and sweet cookies, which get their name from their cylindrical shape. Pepperidge Farm takes the same idea and calls them Pirouettes, but this homemade version is even better because it includes a secret ingredient: ground almonds.

What makes them so light (and malleable enough to be wrapped around a pencil or a dowel to give them their shape) is that they are made with whipped egg whites. But the ethereal whites are brought back down to earth by the almonds, lending the cookies an additional layer of flavor beyond even that which you find in tuiles, the classic French cookies they resemble.

They may take some effort to get right, but these cookies are a show stopper.

CIGARETTES

Yield: 30 cookies

4 large egg whites

3/4 cup superfine sugar

Scant 1/2 cup all-purpose flour

Pinch of salt

1 teaspoon vanilla extract

1/2 cup ground toasted almonds

5 tablespoons unsalted butter, room temperature

1. Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Line a baking sheet with parchment paper or a silicone baking mat, or grease with nonstick spray or butter.

2. In a bowl, whisk egg whites vigorously for 1 minute, until they form soft peaks. Add the sugar, flour, salt, vanilla extract and almonds and stir with a wooden spoon until smooth. Add the softened butter and continue to stir until well-combined.

3. Spoon batter onto prepared baking sheet in discs about 2 inches in diameter, making no more than 6 or 8 cookies in each batch. Leave plenty of space between each cookie. With an offset spatula or table knife, spread the batter into a thin circle.

4. Bake 7 to 10 minutes until a pale golden brown. Use a spatula to carefully detach the cookies, one at a time, and curl each one while still hot around a pencil-size cylindrical object, such as a pencil.

Per serving: 56 calories; 3 g fat; 1 g saturated fat; 5 mg cholesterol; 1 g protein; 7 g carbohydrate; 5 g sugar; no fiber; 13 mg sodium; 5 mg calcium.

Recipe adapted from "The Art of French Baking," by Ginette Mathiot.

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Helenettes — Another classic French cookie that speaks volumes about the virtues of refinement. This is the essence of cookie-making; just five ingredients go into making them — flour, butter, sugar, egg yolk and ground almonds or hazelnuts. But it is the proportions that make all the difference.

It is hard to believe that something so good takes so little effort. I toasted my almonds first for extra flavor, and that was actually the most difficult part of the process.

HELENETTES

Yield: 15 cookies

1 egg yolk

1/4 cup superfine sugar

3 tablespoons butter, softened, plus more for greasing

1/3 cup plus 1 tablespoon all-purpose flour

1/2 cup ground almonds or hazelnuts

1. Preheat oven to 400 degrees. Grease a baking sheet with butter.

2. In a bowl, beat the egg yolk and sugar for 1 minute. Stir in the butter, followed by the flour and the ground almonds or hazelnuts. Arrange the mixture in small mounds on the prepared sheet, well-spaced apart.

3. Bake 8 to 10 minutes, until golden.

Per serving: 67 calories; 4 g fat; 2 g saturated fat; 18 mg cholesterol; 1 g protein; 7 g carbohydrate; 3 g sugar; 0 g fiber; 1 mg sodium; 11 mg calcium.

Recipe from "The Art of French Baking" by Ginette Mathiot.

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Wiesbaden Cookies — The derivation of these cookies seems obscure; they are apparently little known, though an Internet search turned up at least one man whose grandmother used to make something similar and called it Wiesbaden Brot (bread from Wiesbaden, a German city).

What drew me to them is the option to make them two ways, with cinnamon or lemon. I chose cinnamon, because I had already made the Lemon Icebox Crumbles, but they would be good either way. And how many recipes lend themselves to either cinnamon or lemon?

What the heck, it’s the holidays. Why not go ahead and make both? After all, the oven is already preheated.

WIESBADEN COOKIES

Yield: About 28 cookies

2 cups all-purpose flour, sifted

Scant 1/2 teaspoon baking powder

2/3 cup superfine sugar

9 tablespoons unsalted butter, softened, plus more for greasing

2 eggs plus 1 egg yolk, divided

1/2 teaspoon ground cinnamon or grated zest of 1 unwaxed lemon

1. In a bowl, combine the flour and baking powder. In a separate bowl, mix together the sugar, butter, 1 whole egg and the egg yolk, then add the cinnamon or lemon. Add to the dry mixture and mix well; then work the dough by hand and shape it into a log. Let rest 30 minutes at room temperature.

2. Preheat oven to 350 degrees and grease a baking sheet with butter. Cut the dough into 1/2-inch slices. Beat the remaining egg lightly and brush over the cookies to glaze. Bake 20 to 25 minutes.

Per serving: 91 calories; 4 g fat; 3 g saturated fat; 30 mg cholesterol; 2 g protein; 12 g carbohydrate; 5 g sugar; no fiber; 15 mg sodium; 11 mg calcium.

Recipe adapted from "The Art of French Baking," by Ginette Mathiot.

 

 


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