How to make 9 types of cookies using 1 basic recipe

December 12, 2016

Sprinkle cookies are perfect for children to make

For many of the years I’ve been baking Christmas cookies, I’ve seen recipes that promise "one dough will do it all" when it comes to variety and versatility. Until this year, I’ve never been tempted to try one.

I found a basic vanilla cookie dough recipe in the 2016 Better Homes and Gardens Christmas Cookies magazine and decided to take the challenge for The Sacramento Bee’s 2016 Cookie Corner baking test. (Every year I test holiday-appropriate cookie recipes so you don’t have to.) This recipe is heavy on butter and doesn’t include baking powder or soda, but does include an egg. The resulting treats in most cases will be closer to shortbread than to sugar cookies.

The refrigerator is your friend with this recipe, I discovered. The basic dough freezes well, though it will take a while to defrost. Chilling at least in the fridge is a must, but some of the varieties will work with as little as 30 minutes of chill time. Anything rolled and cut out, or rolled in coatings, will need at least 60 minutes. The swirl cookies require slightly chilled dough before the filling is added, and then the whole thing is wrapped and frozen (but these can be cut fairly soon after being removed from the freezer).

Also, if your kitchen is warm, the dough might need to be popped back into the fridge for a bit to keep it from being melty.

That all said, this is a great recipe that became, in my tests, nine different cookies, one of which I hope will fill the bill for a cookie plate or cookie exchange in your holiday plans.

Don’t be afraid to experiment with this dough; I thought of a couple more ideas just while putting this package together.

A FEW BAKING TIPS

Experienced bakers will know these already, but it doesn’t hurt to repeat my favorite advice for the Christmas cookie baker, and for this recipe in particular.

— Check all your supplies ahead of time, particularly your spices, which should be fragrant. Replace them if they’re not. Freshness also is a must for nuts; taste one or two pieces if you’re not sure.

— Look for nuts, dried fruit and other supplies in the bins of your supermarket or natural foods store. Generally they’re cheaper this way, and you can buy the amount you want, not the amount the packager wants to sell you.

— I use parchment paper on my baking pans, which eases cleanup as well as removal of the baked cookies. This buttery recipe doesn’t require greased pans, except where noted.

— Speaking of butter, it’s very important here that it’s softened but not melted, so that air can be whipped into it, alone and then with the sugar. Don’t use the microwave to soften butter; it’s too easy to melt it.

— Use a timer on these cookies. They bake quickly, and you don’t want to burn them. Also, if you’re using a conventional oven, change the pans’ position in the oven halfway through, especially if you’re baking two pans at a time.

— Most of these cookies will store well in tightly covered tins or plastic containers. Some don’t stack well – they’ll stick together — so allow for that.

— Want to split the dough evenly into two or three varieties? If you have a kitchen scale, it’s easy. One full basic batch will weigh about 24 ounces (1.5 pounds), so divide accordingly.

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BASIC VANILLA DOUGH

Makes 30-40 cookies, depending on which variety is chosen

This basic recipe is adapted from the Better Homes and Gardens 2016 Christmas Cookies magazine. Note: Gluten-free 1-for-1 baking flour, such as the Bob’s Red Mill variety, also works; see notes under the cinnamon roll cookie variation, where I tested it.

1 cup (2 sticks) unsalted butter, softened at room temperature

2/3 cup granulated sugar

1/2 teaspoon salt

1 egg

1 tablespoon vanilla

2 cups unbleached all-purpose flour

In a large bowl, beat the butter with a mixer on medium speed for 30 seconds. Add the sugar and salt, and continue beating on high for 2 minutes, scraping bowl as needed. Stir in the egg and vanilla until combined.

Blend in the flour, 1 cup at a time, until thoroughly incorporated.

Depending on what you want to do next, either wrap the whole batch or the divided dough in plastic wrap and chill it, or wrap it and freeze to use later. Best results, if you’re baking soon, come from a 30- to 60-minute chill.

The dough freezes well — I made some for this project nearly three weeks beforehand – but remember there is a lot of butter in it, and it will be very solid, requiring more time to defrost than you might guess.

PISTACHIO STICKS

Makes 24 cookies

This variation is directly from the Better Homes and Garden Christmas Cookies magazine. It’s a nice not-too-sweet cookie. I used a food processor to chop the pistachios and cranberries together. And be careful when dunking cookies in the melted white chips — a couple of my test cookies snapped in mid-dunk. If you want to make an entire batch of this variation, just triple the amount of mix-ins and the dunking ingredients.

1/3 batch basic vanilla dough (about 8 ounces, if you have a kitchen scale)

1/2 cup finely chopped shelled pistachios

1/4 cup chopped dried cranberries

For dunking:

1/2 cup white baking chips

1 teaspoon vegetable shortening

1/2 cup additional chopped pistachios, cranberries, or both

Stir 1/2 cup pistachios and 1/4 cup cranberries into the cookie dough. Cover and chill dough 30 to 60 minutes or until easy to handle. (Dough can be frozen at this point and defrosted when ready to bake)

Preheat oven to 375 degrees. On a slightly floured surface, roll the dough to an 8-by-6 inch rectangle about 1/2-inch thick. Cut length-wise into eight 3/4-inch-wide strips. Cut each strip into thirds crosswise. Place cookies 1 inch apart on an ungreased baking sheet (or a baking sheet covered with parchment paper).

Bake 8 minutes or until edges just start to brown. Cool on cookie sheet 1 minutes. Remove to a wire rack and allow to cool completely.

Place baking pieces and shortening in a small bowl. Microwave 1 minute or until melted and smooth, stirring once. Dip ends of cookie sticks in melted chips to coat; place on waxed paper. Sprinkle coated ends with additional chopped pistachios or cranberries, or both. Let stand or chill until set.

KATHY’S TOFFEE NUT BARS

Makes 36-40 bars

This is the richest of the variations here, and is likely to be the most popular, as it was in my test. These cookies were gone before I even realized it. One taster described them as resembling pecan pie. You’ve been warned.

Nonstick cooking spray

One batch basic vanilla dough, slightly chilled

1 cup toffee bits, such as Heath brand (sold in bags)

1 jar or can (at least 14 ounces) prepared dulce de leche

1 1/4 cups pecans, chopped

For drizzle:

1/3 cup dark chocolate chips

1 teaspoon vegetable shortening

Preheat oven to 375 degrees. Line a 13-by-9-inch baking pan with foil so that it extends over two edges of the pan; lightly butter or grease the foil.

Mix toffee bits into the basic dough. Spread the dough evenly over the bottom of the pan, holding foil in place while spreading. Bake 15 minutes or just until starting to brown. Transfer pan to a wire rack to cool briefly.

Turn oven temperature down to 350 degrees. Stir the dulce de leche and spread it evenly across the baked dough (you may not need it all). Sprinkle chopped pecans over the dulce de leche, pressing them in gently.

Bake 15-18 minutes, until dulce de leche is bubbling lightly. Allow cookies to cool. If desired, at this point the pan can be covered and chilled until ready to serve.

To serve, use edges of foil to lift uncut bars out of pan. Transfer to a cutting board. Cut into bars or triangles and separate slightly (peeling off foil) before drizzling with chocolate.

To add the drizzle, melt chocolate chips and shortening together in a small bowl. Using a fork, drizzle the chocolate over the cut bars. Allow to set briefly before serving.

CINNAMON ROLL COOKIES (WITH GLUTEN-FREE OPTION)

Makes about 4 dozen

This was the recipe I used to test a gluten-free cookie, adapted from the Better Homes and Gardens version. It worked beautifully, though the basic dough was just slightly drier than the one made with regular flour. The cookies were a hit and no one was the wiser than they were gluten-free.

Note: I rolled out the dough on a flour-covered baking cloth, then used the cloth to help roll up the filled dough.

One batch basic vanilla dough, made (if desired) with 1-for-1 gluten-free baking flour mix, such as Bob’s Red Mill brand

1 egg, lightly beaten

1/2 cup packed brown sugar

1 teaspoon ground cinnamon

1 teaspoon pumpkin pie spice (or more cinnamon)

Cream cheese icing:

2 ounces softened cream cheese

1 tablespoon softened butter

3/4 cup powdered sugar

2 to 3 tablespoons milk

Make sure the basic dough has been chilled at least 30 minutes. On a flour-covered surface, roll dough into a 15-by-10-inch rectangle. Brush dough with egg. Stir together the sugar and spices; sprinkle evenly over the dough. Roll up from a long side.

Place roll, seam side down, on baking sheet or tray, cover and freeze about 30 minutes or until very firm. (Alternately, wrap roll tightly in wax paper, then plastic, and freeze until ready to bake.)

When ready to bake, preheat oven to 375 degrees. (If dough has been frozen more than 1 hour, remove from freezer before preheating oven.) Line cookie sheets with parchment paper. Slice roll into 1/4-inch slices. (I use a finely serrated knife.) Place cookies 2 inches apart on prepared sheets. Bake 8 to 10 minutes or until edges are lightly browned.

Cool on cookie sheets 1 minutes. Remove; cool on wire racks. Top cookies with cream cheese icing.

To make icing: Beat cream cheese and butter together until smooth. Beat in the powdered sugar and enough milk to make desired consistency. Spread on cooled cookies.

CRANBERRY CHERRY PINWHEELS

Makes about 4 dozen

The filling recipe comes from "The Joy of Cookies: Christmas Cookies" (Scribner, 1996). Because of the amount of filling, these cookies were softer than some of the others.

One batch basic vanilla dough, slightly chilled, until easy to handle

Filling:

1 1/2 cups (6 ounces) dried cranberries

1 cup cherry jam or preserves

1/4 cup water

1/2 teaspoon ground cinnamon

Combine the filling ingredients in a medium saucepan over medium heat. Simmer, stirring frequently, for 5 to 8 minutes, or until mixture is soft. Remove from heat and allow to cool a bit; mixture will thicken as it cools.

Transfer mixture to a food processor and process until smooth. Cover and refrigerate until cool, up to 48 hours before using. Let return to room temperature and stir well before completing cookies.

On a flour-covered surface (preferably a cloth or piece of parchment paper), roll dough into a 15-by-10-inch rectangle. Spread the filling evenly over the dough. Roll it up from a long side, using the cloth or paper to help.

Place roll, seam side down, on baking sheet or tray, cover and freeze about 30 minutes or until very firm. (Alternately, wrap roll tightly in wax paper, then plastic, and freeze until ready to bake.)

When ready to bake, preheat oven to 375 degrees. (If dough has been frozen more than 1 hour, remove from freezer before preheating oven.) Line cookie sheets with parchment paper. Slice roll into 1/4-inch slices. (I use a finely serrated knife.) Place cookies 2 inches apart on prepared sheets. Bake 10 minutes or until edges are lightly browned.

Cool briefly on baking sheets. Remove; cool completely.

CHAI SPICE ALMOND ROUNDS

Makes 18

These are delicate and pretty little spice cookies with a bit of crunch from the almonds. Inspired by a Better Homes and Garden variation.

1/3 batch basic vanilla dough

1 teaspoon ground cardamom

1/4 teaspoon ground ginger

1/4 teaspoon ground cinnamon

Dash ground cloves

1 egg white, lightly beaten

2/3 cup sliced almonds

Powdered sugar, for sprinkling

Mix the spices together in a small bowl, then stir the mixture into the dough. Flatten dough into a disk; wrap and chill 30 to 60 minutes.

Preheat oven to 375 degrees. Roll out dough on a flour-covered surface to 1/4-inch thick. Use a 2-inch round or fluted cookie cutter to cut out dough.

Place cookies 2 inches apart on ungreased or parchment-covered baking sheets. Brush cookies with egg white and sprinkle with sliced almonds. Bake 8 to 10 minutes or until edges are just starting to brown.

Cool cookies on sheet 1 minute. Remove and cool on wire racks. Sprinkle lightly with powdered sugar (I use a fine sieve) before serving.

THUMBPRINTS — 4 VARIATIONS

Makes about 2 dozen per variation

I put these four versions together because they use the same basic method of creation. These work best as teeny cookies, but make them larger if you wish.

1/2 batch basic vanilla dough per variation

Mix-ins and/or filling of choice as listed below

Basic thumbprint baking instructions: Preheat oven to 375 degrees. Scoop out chilled dough with teaspoon; roll into 1-inch balls. Place 2 inches apart on ungreased or parchment-covered baking sheets. Bake 5 minutes; remove pan and gently press down in the middle each cookie with a wooden spoon handle, your thumb or (my preferred way) the back of a 1-teaspoon measuring spoon. Return pan to oven and bake 4 or 5 more minutes, removing when cookies are just starting to color at the edges. You can also re-indent the cookies now if needed. Cool 1 minute on sheets, then remove and cool on wire racks. Fill as desired.

Lemon poppy seed thumbprints: Before chilling dough, mix in the zest from 1 lemon, plus 1 generous tablespoon poppy seeds. Chill at least 60 minutes. Follow baking instructions as listed above. Fill baked cookies with scant 1 teaspoon of prepared lemon curd. (You’ll need about 1/2 cup curd total).

Chocolate mint thumbprints: Before chilling dough, mix in 1 1/2 tablespoons finely grated dark chocolate. Chill at least 60 minutes. Follow basic baking instructions as listed above. Fill baked and cooled cookies with a mixture of 2 tablespoons butter, 1/2 cup powdered sugar, 1/4 teaspoon mint extract, 2 drops green food coloring and enough milk (about 2 tablespoons) to achieve frosting consistency.

Jam thumbprints: Chill plain dough at least 60 minutes. Bake as in the basic instructions above. When cookies are cool, fill indentations with seedless strawberry jam (you’ll need about 1/2 cup). Sprinkle with powdered sugar. Wet your finger and gently touch the jam centers to melt the sugar and make the jam reappear. (Note: I tested this variation with a 1 1/2-inch dough balls, but I like the smaller ones better.)

No-thumbprint sprinkle cookies: This one works with any size batch of dough. Chill plain dough at least 60 minutes. Before baking, form 1-inch balls of dough and roll each thoroughly in multicolored sprinkles (a.k.a. jimmies). Place on ungreased or parchment-covered baking sheets. Bake 8 to 10 minutes in preheated 375-degree oven (no need to make indentations), until edges are just starting to color. Cool as directed.

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