A Celebration of Christmas Cookies
(Photos courtesy of Shutterstock.com)
From Medieval Times to Today
By Mary Abitanto
Christmas cookies are a symphony of vibrant colors and glorious smells that awaken our senses. From the fragrant smell of sugar cookies or the aromatic scent of gingerbreads wafting from the oven; to the cookies bejeweled with colorful sprinkles or shaped into meticulously crafted gingerbread houses; to the crunch of a chocolate chip; and of course, at last, that long-awaited scrumptious bite that melts in your mouth — they are simply irresistible.
You may wonder where the Christmas cookie tradition began.
According to history.com, it dates to medieval times when farmers celebrated the winter solstice. They would gather and store their harvest and as a community come together to share food and celebrate. Think of it as a time of dormancy when you couldn’t farm, and the ground was frozen. You had time to enjoy the fruits of your labor, so to speak. Celebrating with cookies was a popular choice as refrigeration methods were limited, so cookies were made to last on the kitchen table for weeks at time to welcome visitors. Cookies — which were prepared more like a biscuit from harvested grain and water paste — were made on hot stovetops and the cookies we know today (now sweetened with sugar) are said to be descendants of these first cookies/biscuits.
By the 16th century with the spread of Christianity, the Christmas biscuits had become popular across Europe, with lebkuchen (gingerbread cookies) being favored in Germany and pepparkakor (spiced ginger cookies) in Sweden, while in Norway krumkake (thin waffle cookies) were popular, using similar ingredients as their ancestors like cinnamon, ginger, black pepper, almonds, and dried fruit. By the 17th century Dutch immigrants, from a mostly Catholic-dominated country at the time, were said to have brought over Christmas cookies to America. The Dutch word koeptje (cookie) means small cake, and this was the start of the Christmas cookies we have come to know, love, (and eat!) today. And although things change, the more they stay the same in terms of spices used in modern-day Christmas cookies.
Princeton is a cultural mecca (one of the things I love about this town), so although we have our own interpretation of Christmas cookies based on our family traditions and heritage, we can agree that these are some classic holiday cookies: sugar cookies, snickerdoodles, spritz cookies, gingerbread cookies, pizzelles, Linzer cookies, thumbprint cookies, soft chewy ginger cookies, chocolate crinkle cookies, peanut butter blossoms, pecan snowballs, chocolate chip cookies, coconut macaroon, meringues,
Back in the day, my Italian aunts and grandmother, who were neighbors to one another, would bake cookies a few days leading up to Christmas. The Italians are known for making mounds of cookies for their large families. This was how we celebrated every Christmas Eve. As they say, many hands make light work. Most of us don’t live near one another, so family baking marathons aren’t always practical, and more planning is necessary. Of course, I know families who still gather to bake.
Planning your Cookie Baking
Create a shopping list for essential baking ingredients like flour, sugar, flavoring, and spices.
Organize the pantry: Fill glass containers with flours, oats, sugars, nuts, raisins, chips, and cocoa for easy baking and accessibility.
Buy cookie cutters like reindeer, gingerbread men, snowmen, stars, angels, candy canes, bells, and Christmas trees.
Buy cookie tins (at the dollar store) and cookie boxes (available online) for gift giving. Also purchase decorative ribbon and string, along with cardstock to use as box dividers, cupcake holders as liners, and festive food safe paper sheets.
A stand mixer is a great investment for large batch cookie making, otherwise the hand mixer works fine.
Make a schedule: Work in batches — for instance, make a double batch of gingerbread cookies. While the dough is chilling, start another batch like chocolate chip and prepare that dough. For each batch set out all the ingredients so you don’t forget an essential ingredient — we’ve all been there! The good news is that most cookies can be frozen (without icing or powdered sugar) for at least a month in advance.
Some Unexpected Cookie Combinations
Try crushed potato chips mixed into the chocolate chip cookie dough and sprinkle some potato chips on right before baking. How about browning the butter before making the chocolate chip cookies? These are next-level chocolate chip cookies. If you like things savory, try adding tahini to your chocolate chip cookie dough. For a spin on a classic sugar cookie, try lavender or lemon-infused sugar cookies.
I have 10 Christmas cookie recipes in my cookbook, Gather For The Holidays, including Browned Butter Chocolate Chips and the most irresistible Santa & Mrs. Claus cookies. There is a delicious Raspberry Linzer Cookie on my blog at marioochskitchen.com.
My cookbooks are available on Amazon.com. Follow me on Instagram @marioochcooks where I share baking and cooking tips.
Holiday Cookie Boxes for Gift Giving
Whether you are baking homemade cookies, buying store-bought, or using a combination of the two, choose a variety of shapes, sizes and flavors, about four to six different cookies. As they say, “Variety is the spice of life!” The more cookies the merrier. If shipping them, be sure to choose a sturdy cardboard box and cookies that will hold up well.
If you are pressed for time, check out Milk & Cookies located in the heart of Princeton. They have a variety of delicious sweet and savory cookies. For delicious Greek cookies, check out Ellinikon Agora & Coffee Delicatessen, also in Princeton.
Assembling the Cookie Boxes
Use colorful kitchen string to tie up four or five cookies and place them in a cupcake holder inside the box/tin. Add a variety of cookies that have difference textures and sizes. Add chocolates and mini candy canes. Use decorative ribbon to tie the box.
Almond Thumbprint Cookies
Makes 16 cookies
Thumbprint cookies are well known for the indentation made by the thumb on the top of the cookie. These adorable cookies originated from Sweden where they are called Hallongrotta, which means raspberry cave. Raspberry thumbprint cookies, Hallongrotta, are the most popular in Sweden during Christmastime.
This recipe combines almond flour that is gently toasted until fragrant, along with all-purpose flour. The cookies are flavored with almond extract and crushed almonds. I used a French fruit spread that was filled with raspberries and had a thick consistency. Topping the cookie with almond slices is a nice decorative touch.
- 1 cup almond flour, toasted (spooned and leveled) Bob’s Red Mill
- 1 1/4 cups all-purpose flour plus 2 tablespoons flour (spooned and leveled) (or gluten-free flour)
- 1/2 cup granulated sugar plus more for dusting
- 1 stick salted butter, softened
- 2 tablespoons cream cheese
- 1 teaspoon almond extract
- 1/2 teaspoon baking soda
- 1 large egg
- 1/3 cup raspberry fruit spread or jam
- 1 tablespoon crushed almonds
- 1/4 cup sliced almonds
- Powdered sugar
- Small nonstick frying pan
- Stand mixer with paddle attachment or hand mixer
Preheat the oven to 350 degrees.
Add the almond flour to a small frying pan. Toast the almond flour for about 6 minutes on low heat, until fragrant. Take it off the heat and set it aside.
Baker’s tip: Whisk the almond flour to break up any clumps and then measure.
In the bowl of stand mixer, cream the sugar and butter on medium speed. Add the almond extract and cream cheese and mix on medium. Add the premixed egg and continue to mix.
In a separate bowl, combine flours and baking soda and whisk.
Add the dry ingredients to the wet ingredients in the stand mixer. Mix until well combined. Last, add in the crushed almonds.
Baker’s tip: Cookie dough should not be sticky. If you find that yours turns out that way, just add 1 tablespoon of flour at a time until the dough is easier to work with. When you shape it into balls, add a little tiny bit of flour to your hands.
Chill the cookie dough for at least 30 minutes.
Prepare 1 large plus 1 small baking sheet lined with parchment paper. Roll the cookie dough into 16 balls, slightly smaller than a golf ball size. Slightly flatten the cookie and add a little flour to your finger to make the tiny imprint in the center. It should be large enough for 1/2 teaspoon of jam. Using the end of the spoon — you read that right — scoop up the jam and pour it into the hole. (The spoon end is too wide.) Try to contain the jam in the hole or “cave” as it’s known in Sweden. Space cookies 2 inches apart. Any overflow can go onto the smaller baking sheet.
Sprinkle the cookie with a tiny pinch of granulated sugar. Then add 3-6 almond slivers to each cookie. You can add 3 right on top of the jam or create a flower pattern and add the almonds to the cookie, in this case use 6 slices.
Bake on middle rack for 22-24 minutes until edges slightly brown. Turn halfway through. Bake 1 cookie tray at a time.
Let the cookies remain on the baking sheet for 5 minutes, then transfer to a cooling rack. Once completely cooled you may add powdered sugar.
These freeze well. Add to a baking tray and freeze for 1 hour. Then place them in a freezer bag and place parchment paper between the cookies so the rows do not stick.
Peppermint Meringue Cookies
Makes 90 meringues
French meringue is simply a mixture of beaten egg whites whipped with sugar until the volume increases and stiff peaks form. I hope you have much success with this show-stopping French cookie that would have impressed Julia Child!
Watching your meringue develop is a great science lesson for the kids. My friend who has a Ph.D. from UC Berkeley in synthetic organic chemistry discussed with me the chemistry/physics of this process: “The whipping of the egg whites denatures the egg proteins and generates micro air bubbles, creating a foaming effect. The cream of tartar stabilizes the bubbles that are formed by the egg maintaining the meringue structure.”
- 1 cup granulated sugar
- 4 large eggs, room temperature
- 1 teaspoon peppermint extract or clear vanilla extract (I like Casa Bella Vida Vanilla)
- 1/2 teaspoon cream of tartar
- 1/8 teaspoon table salt
- 2 silicone baking mats or parchment paper
- 2 medium-sized baking sheets
- High-speed blender
- Stand mixer with whisk attachment, preferred method
- Green or red gel food dye
- Food-safe paint brush
- ATECO 866-star tip
- Large piping bag
Preheat the oven to 225 degrees.
Separate the eggs. Set aside the egg whites for about 1 hour at room temperature.
Note: Be very careful when separating the eggs. If you get any yolk in the egg whites, you’ll need to start over.
Add the granulated sugar to the blender and pulse on medium-high speed for
2 minutes. I like working with the sugar a little finer.
In the bowl of the stand mixer, add the egg whites, cream of tartar, and salt and mix on low speed until it starts to foam. If the cream of tartar and salt clump, stop the mixer, break them up with the back of a spoon, and then proceed. Once it gets foamy, crank the speed up to high and add 1 teaspoon of sugar at a time, waiting 10-15 seconds between spoonfuls.
It’s a tedious process, but necessary to create beautiful meringue cookies. You can check for grittiness by stopping the mixer and rubbing some of the meringue between your fingers. Once you are completely done adding the sugar, you can add the flavoring. The meringue is done once it has formed a large stiff peak at the end of the whisk attachment and it is super glossy.
Pipping the Meringue:
Squeeze a little food dye onto a paper plate. Dab the paint brush into it, then inside the piping bag, paint 4 vertical stripes. Then quickly load the meringue into the bag. Be sure to get out all the air.
Start squeezing about 1/2-inch from the silicone-lined baking sheet. Pipe evenly and steadily, making a quarter-sized cookie. Do the first 2 on a plate as a test run, then go for it!
You will make enough to fill 2 baking sheets, with a little left over. If you want to use the remaining meringue keep piping!
Bake on the middle and bottom racks for 1 hour. Do not open the oven door. After 1 hour, turn the oven off and keep the meringues in the oven an additional 55 minutes to 1 hour or longer. This time may vary based on oven temperatures.
The meringue should be crispy and feel as light as air. Meringue does not like moisture, so do not refrigerate. And if it’s humid and you make these, they will stick together, so cool immediately and place in a container with a piece of parchment paper and secure with a lid and store on your counter.