Monday, December 10, 2012

Sweet Sights and Smells of Christmas

Just as the opening declaration of ‘Gangnam Style’ elicits an immediate response to jump out of your chair and dance, the first signs of the holiday season prompt sweet tooths the world over to stock up on cookie baking ingredients and rummage through their cookie cutters.

Baking Christmas cookies is a holiday tradition that has been shared from generation to generation.  While my mother certainly took part in Christmas cookie baking, it was actually my father who really seemed to enjoy this pastime with his daughter.  I fondly recall mixing the dough and selecting the various shapes to fit into an old cookie press that belonged to my chef grandfather.  Many years later, my mother-in-law presented me with the gift of a new cookie press kit of my own.  Of course, as does anyone with a loving grandmother, I have happy memories of visiting Grandma’s home where she would often be waiting with a new cookie recipe in and for the two of us to try out.  Years later, during my first holidays in marital bliss, I partook in the labor-intensive full afternoon in the kitchen, evidenced in the photo here of my mother preparing to carry out her assistant’s duty and sample the wares that we prepared one day in my condo more than fifteen years ago.  Just look at all of those plates of cookies we made strewn all over the table! I have continued to uphold the tradition of Christmas cookie creation, although these days I do tend to bake one or two types a week.

Some families embark on an all-day and into-the-night massive cookie-baking marathon, extracting sheet after sheet of the tasty treats from the oven.  Anywhere from six to upwards of a dozen different recipes are mixed, formed, baked and then trimmed with the intricate creativity that goes into any artistic presentation.  These epic baking projects are generally oriented toward the goal of gift giving.  Once plated and wrapped in red or green cellophane wrapping and secured with a flowing ribbon, or used to fill gift bags bearing various Christmas designs, these home baked packages of joy never fail to bring smiles to any recipient.

What defines a cookie as a Christmas cookie?  Several variables lend yuletide influence, including shape, color, ingredients used and even the origin of the recipe in question.  If a cookie recipe has been made at Christmastime by, say, your great grandmother and has been made by subsequent generations every Christmas, then that certainly qualifies regardless of appearance.  Seasonal ingredients such as peppermint, ginger, dried cranberries or winter spices also help to allocate a recipe to the Christmas lineup.

The dead giveaway, however, often comes in the form of shape and color.  Cookie cutters are available in such shapes as candy canes, fir trees, stockings, snowmen, gingerbread men, Santa Claus and flying reindeer.  Add a snowflake and a mitten to your inventory and those two will carry you through the entire winter when the snow is blustering outside and you’re seeking some fun in the warmth of the kitchen.  The cookie press offers another method for shaping cookies.  Disc-shaped stencils fit onto the end of a cylindrical shaped gun-like device, and the dough is pressed through the stencil onto the baking sheet.  Christmas trees, wreaths, stars and candy canes are but a few of the shapes available for this option.  Pressed cookies are generally smaller than the average cut cookie, but neither is really complete without a finishing touch of holiday dazzle.  Once frosted with icings and sprinkled with red, green or silvery casting sugars, nonpareils, chocolate sprinkles, red candies and dragees, the final presentation can serve as the perfect tabletop or countertop decoration in and of itself, at least very temporarily until the entire lot is consumed.  Hand-shaped cookies can also be trimmed for seasonal intrigue, as when creating rolled log-shaped cookies to be coated with white icing and drizzled with chocolate until they resemble logs of winter white birch.  One of Brian’s favorites is a peanut butter cookie topped with a Hershey’s kiss in the center.  The cookie is formed by rolling the dough into balls; I’ve given them some holiday sparkle by rolling the balls in green and red sugars before setting them on the baking sheet.

When planning your Christmas cookie-baking day, select a variety of recipes – some old, some new, some with chocolate, some without, some shaped and some dropped.  Poll family members to weigh in on their past favorites.  Stock up on plenty of ingredients for the batters and trimmings.  Visit a kitchen supply shop and pick up a couple new cookie cutter shapes to keep things new and exciting.  I also highly recommend baking sheet liners, such as Silpat or silicone liners; by making this investment you will never burn another cookie again and cleanup is a snap.  When the big day comes, set up a separate decorator station with bowls of icings and sprinkles and toppings.  Be prepared to make multiple batches of each cookie so that you’ll have plenty to share and enough to keep, and remember to leave some out for Santa’s visit.

While I honestly believe that you must have access to a file of cookie recipes that your family has tried over the years that of worthy of revisiting, I’ll start you off with a basic recipe for cookie cutter-friendly cookies.

Christmas Objects Cookies

3 sticks butter, softened at room temperature
1 cups sugar
1 teaspoon vanilla or almond extract, whichever is your preference
3 1/2 cups flour
¼ teaspoon salt

Preheat oven to 350 degrees.  Using an electric mixer with the paddle attachment, combine the butter, sugar and vanilla.  On a low speed, add the flour and salt and mix until the ingredients are combined and the dough begins to form.  Turn out the dough onto a floured surface and quickly shape the dough into a disc.  Wrap the disc in plastic wrap and refrigerate for about half an hour.

Place the chilled disc onto a floured surface, flour a rolling pin and roll the disc until the dough is about ¼ inch thick. 

Cut out various holiday shapes using large cookie cutters and carefully place the cookies onto a lined baking sheet.  Bake for 20-25 minutes until the edges begin to turn golden.  Using a spatula, transfer the cookies to a cooling rack and allow to cool to room temperature.

Next, prepare the icing.

1 pound confectioners’ sugar
4-5 tablespoons water (approximately)
Food coloring tints of your choice
Casting sugars, sprinkles, red cinnamon candies, nonpareils, dragees, miniature chocolate chips and any other trimmings of your choice

Adding a tablespoon of water at a time, stir together the confectioners’ sugar and the water until the sugar has melted and the result is a smooth icing that isn’t too thick to work with.  Divide into multiple proportions and tint each one a different color, if desired.  Thinly spread the icing over each cookie, one at a time, and add the sprinkles of choice immediately before moving on to the next cookie.  Allow the icing to dry before serving.  Makes about 20 cookies.

Food for Thought
Making homemade candies has also become increasingly popular during the holiday season.  Perennial favorites include peppermint bark and fudge, both of which are easy to produce.  Barks are as simple as melting chocolate, spreading it over a baking sheet that has been lined with foil, sprinkling the topping over the whole thing and chilling until firm.  Once the bark is hardened, simply break off pieces and it’s ready to enjoy.  Peppermint bark begins with chilling a layer of dark chocolate, then spreading a layer of molten white chocolate and topping with chopped candy canes before returning the baking sheet once again to the refrigerator to harden.  For a satisfying combination, try making a bark with dark chocolate, topped with chopped smoked almonds and very lightly sprinkled with sea salt crystals.  Fudge and truffles both offer the guilty pleasure of infinite combinations, from dark chocolate truffles laced with orange, mint or raspberry liqueurs to fudge created with white chocolate and peanut butter and studded with chopped peanuts.  Ah, such divinely, sublimely sweet essences of Christmas!  While these confections may be easy to make, they will not be easy to keep around.  The holiday season comes around once a year, so enjoy the sweet array of treats without guilt.