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Sweet traditions, dusted with love

December 19, 2016

Linzer Cookies (Vegan) are among the Top 5 cookies from the 6th Los Angeles Times Holiday Cookie Bake-Off, on December 9, 2016.

For those of us who love to bake, the holidays can be an especially sweet time of year. This is the season we stock up on festive cookies and family favorites to set out at parties and share with those closest to us. But beyond the colorful icing and sugar rush, these homemade creations are about so much more, speaking to memories, traditions and what it means to come together. This is true when you’re gathered in the kitchen baking, and it’s true when you’re lucky enough to receive a plate of homemade favorites. It’s also true when you’re running a cookie bake-off.

This fall, we asked Los Angeles Times readers to share their special recipes and stories with us for our sixth Holiday Cookie Bake-Off, and then to vote for their favorites. We received 130 submissions, and close to 20,000 votes were cast.

We took the top 20 recipes and judged them to come up with our five favorites. It wasn’t easy. There were so many wonderful entries, some traditional, some novel, some homey and some ornate, each inspired by family history and memories. On Monday, we invited the finalists to The Times’ Test Kitchen to celebrate their recipes and stories.

Deborah Pappalau’s Mexican chocolate Christmas cookies

are inspired by the cinnamon sugar-dusted churros and rich Mexican hot chocolate that signify the holidays for her family. "My husband and kids think these cookies taste like Christmas," Pappalau said.

For Suki Wada and Fiona Marshall, the cookies are all about fun. Wada uses gingerbread people cookie-cutters, elaborately decorating each cookie. "They’re fun to make, and decorating the cookies is even more fun," she said. Marshall, who at 15 is our youngest finalist, paired her great-grandmother’s snickerdoodle recipe with her father’s love of salted caramel ice cream. An avid baker, she created her salted caramel snickerdoodle cookies as a special Christmas surprise for him, forming each cookie around a square of caramel.

Jessica Levy’s cookies take their inspiration from the nut-based Austrian Linzertorte, a spiced, almond-based buttery crust filled with jam and covered with a lattice top. Her almond- and hazelnut-based Linzer cookies feature cutouts revealing a layer of raspberry preserves. But instead of butter, Levy uses coconut oil for a vegan option. She also flavors the cookies with pumpkin spice, and as they bake away in the oven, the aroma for her is the smell of the holidays.

Beth Corman Lee’s rose, cardamom and pistachio snowballs represent tradition, her family’s various cultural backgrounds and a bit of a mystery. The snowballs were a cookie her mother-in-law used to make, but when she died, she left no recipe. Lee experimented with various recipes to come up with the cookie her husband remembered from his childhood, then added spices and nuts inspired by the Middle Eastern cookies called ghraybeh. "These cookies represent our family’s past, our present," said Lee, "and hopefully, a long future appreciating the diversity of our heritage and the new flavor memories we will make for generations to come."

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HOLIDAY KIDS

About 1 hour, plus decorating time. Makes about 21/2 dozen

(4-inch) cookies

SUGAR COOKIES

1 cup (2 sticks) butter

3/4 cup plus 2 tablespoons sugar

1 egg

1 1/2 teaspoons vanilla

1/4 teaspoon butter, almond or lemon flavor, or as desired

1/2 teaspoon salt

3 cups (14 1/2 ounces) flour

1. Heat the oven to 350 degrees.

2. In the bowl of a stand mixer fitted with the paddle attachment, beat together the butter and sugar until light and fluffy. Beat in the egg until fully incorporated, then beat in the vanilla, flavoring and salt. Slowly beat in the flour to form a smooth dough.

3. Roll out the dough to just under 1/4-inch thickness on a lightly floured surface or between 2 sheets of parchment paper to keep the dough from sticking. (The dough can also be made ahead of time and refrigerated or frozen in a sealable plastic bag until ready to use.) Cut into desired shapes and space about an inch apart on parchment-lined baking sheets.

4. Bake the cookies until set and barely colored on the edges, 12 to 14 minutes (timing will vary depending on the size and shape of each cookie).

5. Cool before decorating with royal icing.

ROYAL ICING

1 pound powdered sugar

3 tablespoons meringue powder

2 tablespoons light corn syrup

Warm water

Gel food coloring

In the bowl of a stand mixer fitted with the whisk attachment, beat together the powdered sugar and meringue powder to combine. Slowly beat in the corn syrup and 1/4 cup warm water over high speed until the icing is light and fluffy and forms stiff peaks, 4 to 5 minutes. This makes about 3 cups icing. Divide the icing and color as desired, thinning as needed with additional water.

Note: From Suki Wada. Meringue powder and gel food coloring are available at many cooking and baking supply stores, as well as online.

LINZER COOKIES

1 hour, plus chilling and cooling times. This makes about 11/2 dozen (21/2-inch) cookies

3/4 cup coconut oil, softened but not melted (refined, expeller-pressed)

2 tablespoons cane sugar

1/2 cup powdered sugar, plus more for dusting, if desired

1 teaspoon vanilla extract

1 teaspoon lemon zest

1/2 teaspoon cinnamon

1/4 teaspoon pumpkin pie spice

1/2 cup hazelnut meal

1/2 cup almond meal

1/2 teaspoon salt

1/2 teaspoon baking soda

2 cups (91/2 ounces) flour

1/4 cup almond milk, or as needed

Raspberry preserves

1. In the bowl of a stand mixer fitted with the paddle attachment, beat together the coconut oil, cane and powdered sugars, vanilla, lemon zest, cinnamon and pumpkin pie spice until fully incorporated and smooth. Beat in the hazelnut and almond meals, then the salt and baking soda. Slowly beat in the flour until fully combined. If the dough feels a little dry, beat in almond milk, a few tablespoons at a time, until the dough comes together but is not soggy. Divide the dough in half, cover and refrigerate until firm, at least 1 hour.

2. Heat the oven to 350 degrees and line baking sheets with parchment paper. Remove half of the dough at a time from the refrigerator and roll out until it is about 1/4-inch thick (do this on a floured surface or between two sheets of parchment paper to prevent the dough from sticking). Cut out rectangles, circles or other shapes, then use another cookie or biscuit cutter to cut out a smaller design on half of the cookies to make a "window." Repeat until all of the dough is used.

3. Space the cookies about 2 inches apart on the baking sheets and bake, 1 sheet at a time, until the edges of the cookies are slightly golden, 10 to 15 minutes. Remove and cool.

4. Spread a thin layer of preserves over the solid cookies, then top with one of the "window" cookies. For an additional decorative touch, dust the "window" cookies with powdered sugar before topping.

Note: From Jessica Levy. The coconut oil should be the refined variety, as it won’t impart any flavor of coconut. For a vegan recipe, use vegan sugar.

MEXICAN CHOCOLATE CHRISTMAS COOKIES

1 hour, plus chilling and freezing times. Makes about 16 cookies

11/2 disks (41/2 ounces) Mexican chocolate, preferably Abuelita or Ibarra

3 tablespoons heavy cream

1 cup (2 sticks) butter, softened

1 cup powdered sugar

1 teaspoon Mexican vanilla

2 cups (91/2 ounces) flour

3/4 teaspoon salt

2 teaspoons cinnamon, divided

1/4 teaspoon ground nutmeg

1/4 cup plus 2 tablespoons granulated sugar

1. In a small saucepan, melt the Mexican chocolate with the heavy cream over low heat, gently stirring until the mixture is smooth. Pour the chocolate into a small bowl and refrigerate until chilled and firm, 30 to 40 minutes.

2. Line a small baking sheet with parchment. Remove the chilled chocolate from the refrigerator and scoop the mixture into teaspoon-sized balls . Place the chocolate balls on the baking sheet and freeze until frozen, about 1 hour.

3. Heat the oven to 350 degrees. In a stand mixer fitted with the paddle attachment, beat butter and powdered sugar until light and creamy, then mix in the vanilla.

4. In a bowl, sift together the flour, salt, 1 teaspoon cinnamon and nutmeg. With the mixer running, slowly add the flour mixture to the butter to form a smooth dough.

5. In a shallow bowl, whisk together the remaining cinnamon with the granulated sugar.

6. Assemble the cookies: Divide the dough into 16 portions (or 1 portion for each chocolate ball), about 11/2 tablespoons of dough each. Remove the frozen chocolate balls, and wrap 1 portion of dough around each, forming a ball. Place the formed dough balls onto parchment-lined baking sheets, spacing them about 2 to 3 inches apart.

7. Bake the cookies until they are dry to the touch and the bottom of each cookie is lightly golden, 8 to 10 minutes. Cool the cookies on the baking sheet until they are set, then gently remove each cookie and dip into the cinnamon sugar to coat.

Note: From Deborah Pappalau.

ROSE, CARDAMOM AND PISTACHIO SNOWBALLS

40 minutes, plus chilling time. Makes about 2 dozen cookies

1/2 cup (1 stick) butter, softened

1/4 cup sifted powdered sugar, plus more for coating

1/2 teaspoon rose water, or to taste

1/4 teaspoon ground cardamom, or to taste

1/8 teaspoon salt

1 1/8 cups (53/4 ounces) sifted flour

1/2 cups finely chopped toasted pistachio nuts

1. In a stand mixer fitted with the paddle attachment, beat together the butter and powdered sugar until light and fluffy. Beat in the rose water, cardamom and salt, then slowly beat in the flour until fully incorporated. Beat or stir in the nuts.

2. Cover and refrigerate the dough until chilled, at least 1 hour.

3. Heat the oven to 400 degrees.

4. Break off and form the dough into 1-inch balls. Place the cookies about 2 inches apart on a parchment-lined baking sheet. Bake until set but not browned, about 8 to 12 minutes (bake the cookies longer for darker color). While the cookies are still warm, roll them in powdered sugar to coat. Dust the cookies again with powdered sugar, if desired, before serving.

Note: From Beth Corman Lee.

SALTED CARAMEL SNICKERDOODLES

1 hour, 10 minutes, plus chilling time. Makes about 3 dozen cookies

CINNAMON SUGAR

2 tablespoons sugar

1 tablespoon cinnamon

In a small bowl, whisk together the sugar and cinnamon. Set aside.

CARAMEL TOPPING

1 cup brown sugar

1/4 cup heavy cream

Pinch of salt

1/4 cup (1/2 stick) salted butter, softened

1 1/4 teaspoons of vanilla extract

Cornstarch slurry (1/2 to 2 teaspoons cornstarch mixed with about 1 tablespoon water), if desired

In a heavy-bottom saucepan, combine the brown sugar, heavy cream and salt over medium-low heat. Cook, stirring with a heat-proof spatula until the brown sugar is fully dissolved. Stir in the butter until it is melted and the mixture comes to a slow boil. Cook the caramel for 5 to 7 minutes, stirring frequently, then remove from heat and stir in the vanilla. Set the mixture aside until ready to drizzle over the cookies. Rewarm the caramel before drizzling. For thicker caramel, whisk in a little cornstarch slurry while the mixture is warm.

SALTED CARAMEL SNICKERDOODLES

2 3/4 cups (14 ounces) flour

2 teaspoons cream of tartar

1 teaspoon baking soda

3/4 teaspoon salt

1 cup (2 sticks) butter

1 1/2 cups sugar

2 eggs

1 (11-ounce) bag caramel candy squares

Cinnamon sugar mixture

Caramel topping, warmed

1 tablespoon coarse sea salt, for garnish

1. In a large bowl, whisk together the flour, cream of tartar, baking soda and salt.

2. In a separate mixing bowl, beat together the butter and sugar until light and fluffy, 3 to 5 minutes. Beat in the eggs, 1 at a time, until fully incorporated. Slowly beat the dry ingredients into the batter to form the dough.

3. Cover and refrigerate the dough until well-chilled, at least 2 to 3 hours and preferably overnight (the dough must be well-chilled or the caramels will sink to the bottom of each cookie and burn). Meanwhile, remove the wrappings from the caramel squares. Cut each one in half so the squares are long and thin.

4. Heat the oven to 350 degrees.

5. Form the cookies: Roll about 11/2 tablespoons chilled dough into a ball and bury a caramel square so the candy is closer to the top of the ball than the bottom (this is so the caramel does not seep through the bottom of the cookies as they bake). Roll the balls in the cinnamon sugar mixture and place the cookies about 3 inches apart on parchment-lined baking sheets.

6. Bake the cookies until set and the edges are golden brown, 12 to 14 minutes. Remove and cool the cookies.

7. Drizzle the warm caramel sauce over the cookies and sprinkle over sea salt to garnish.

Note: From Fiona Marshall.

 

 


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