Oh Christmas treats

Oh Christmas treats:

These 12 cookie recipes will bring comfort and joy to rookie, traditional and sophisticated bakers alike.

Cookies can be crisp, chewy, cut-out, dropped, misshapen, too brown or not brown enough, crunchy, plain or fancy, but they all speak the same language. Every warm cookie says, "I love you." For those who think they should be cookie-cutter, these sweet treats will convince them to reconsider.

Cut-out cookie dough also can be a source of baking anxiety, especially when you're pressed for time and have tiny helpers who want to be part of the action. Watch this video to master the art of making cookie dough. (Steve Mellon/Pittsburgh Post-Gazette)

Christmas Sugar Cookies

PG Tested

1 cup (2 sticks) butter
1 cup powdered sugar
1 egg, beaten
1½ teaspoons almond extract
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
1 teaspoon salt
2½ cups sifted flour

In bowl of stand mixer fitted with paddle attachment, cream butter. Add powdered sugar. Blend in egg, almond and vanilla extracts, salt and flour. Chill dough until firm, at least 1 hour.

Roll dough to ¼-inch thickness on well-floured surface. Cut into desired shapes with cookie cutters. Place cut-outs on greased cookie sheets. If decorating with colored sugar, sprinkle sugar on top of cookies.

Bake cookies at 375 degrees for 8 to 10 minutes. Cookies should not brown. Frost and decorate when cool with Royal Icing (recipe follows).

Makes 40 cookies.

Royal Icing

4 cups powdered sugar, sifted
2 tablespoons meringue powder
5 tablespoons water

Combine all ingredients in the bowl of a stand mixer fitted with the paddle attachment. Mix on low speed until the sheen has disappeared and the icing has a matte appearance (about 7 to 10 minutes). Transfer the contents of the mixing bowl to an air-tight container. This will be the stiffest consistency of the icing, and at this point it still will be too stiff to use for decorating.

Add more water, a very small amount at a time, and stir by hand until fully incorporated. Continue until the icing has reached a consistency appropriate for piping. (Remember, if you are having any difficulty piping, it is still too thick. Add a little more liquid and try again.)

Using a pastry bag, pipe around the edges of each cookie. Let it stand so the icing will set. Make sure to keep the leftover icing covered at all times when not in use so that it does harden.

Once all the cookies have been edged, transfer some of the remaining icing to a separate air-tight container. Thin out by incorporating a small amount of water at a time, until the icing drips off the spoon easily when lifted and then smooths in with that still in the bowl. If the icing is too thin, add more sifted powdered sugar to thicken it again. Once the icing has reached the desired consistency, transfer it to a squeeze bottle (or a plastic bag with a hole in one corner), and flood the area surrounded by the piping on each cookie. If it does not completely spread to the edges, use a toothpick to help it along. Allow to set.

Use the remaining thicker icing for piping decoration as desired. Gel icing color is best as it does not add a significant amount of liquid. Liquid food coloring can be used as well. Add powdered sugar as needed to compensate for any thinning that occurs.

— Jennifer Waters, via Annie-Eats.com

Cookies for the rookie

Novice bakers usually start with the chocolate chip cookie recipe on the back of the package. From there, it’s no stretch to swap out ingredients because the drill is pretty much the same: measure, measure, measure, add, mix, stir, portion and bake. Get comfortable with it, because once you start making cookies, there will always be a demand.

Tips for a rookie:

• Use fresh unsalted butter, and let it stand at room temperature until malleable, but not too soft. To speed up softening time, cut butter into tablespoon-sized pieces. Place in a metal bowl, a good heat conductor, instead of glass, to speed up the process even more.

• Use room temperature eggs. If you forget to do that, submerge them, still in the shell, in a cereal bowl of warm tap water for about 5 or 10 minutes.

• Use unsifted all-purpose flour. Lightly spoon the flour into the measuring cup and level it off with a straight edge such as a ruler or the back of a knife. Accuracy is your friend.

• Look for a smooth mixture when creaming butter and sugar. If it looks granular, it means the butter is too cold or you need to beat the mixture a bit longer.

• After mixing the dough, allow it to rest. Put it in the fridge for a few hours or overnight.

• Use cookie trays or low-sided baking sheets, not some gnarly, beat-up oven pan. Buy two. Old, dented or dark pans can burn cookies, and there goes all your hard work.

• Line pans with parchment paper (buy at the grocery store.) No, it’s not an extravagance. The paper keeps dough from sticking or burning, and it can be reused over and over.

• “Form balls of dough the size of a walnut,” they say, or use two teaspoons to pick up dough blobs and “drop” the dough onto the cookie sheet. But to make it easier on yourself, invest a couple of dollars in, say, two scoops, a walnut-sized one and a smaller one. Scooping dough makes for efficient, fast work.

• Set cookies far enough apart to allow for spreading.

• Bake one sheet at a time. Yes, it’s a pain, but easier in the long run.

• Allow hot baked cookies to rest for two minutes on the baking sheets. The baked dough needs to relax and settle. Then transfer them to racks to cool.

• Don’t eat raw cookie dough; it could make you you sick.

Marlene Parrish: marleneparrish@icloud.com or 412-481-1620.

Cocoa Walnut Butter Bites

PG Tested

Every cookie platter needs something chocolate. My kids used to call these cookies “fudgies.”

1 cup all-purpose flour
½ cup natural or Dutch-processed cocoa
¼ teaspoon baking powder
½ teaspoon baking soda
½ teaspoon fine salt
6 tablespoons unsalted butter, at room temperature
2 tablespoons vegetable shortening
½ cup packed brown sugar
½ cup granulated sugar
1 large egg
1 teaspoon vanilla
¾ cup chopped walnuts

Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Line 2 baking sheets with parchment paper. In a medium mixing bowl, combine flour, cocoa, baking powder, baking soda and salt. Mix thoroughly with a whisk.

In a large mixing bowl, beat the butter and shortening on medium speed until creamy. Add the sugars until well-combined. Beat in the egg and vanilla. Mix in the flour mixture until just combined; mix in the nuts.

Drop heaping teaspoonfuls of batter about 1½ inches apart on the prepared baking sheets. Bake for 10 to 12 minutes. The cookies will puff up and then settle down slightly when done. Cool on the baking sheets for 2 minutes. With a metal spatula, transfer the cookies to a rack to cool completely.

Makes about 48 cookies.

— Alice Medrich

Easy Peasy Peanut Butter Cookies

PG Tested

That’s right, only four ingredients. No, there’s no flour. Don’t even think about “improving” this recipe. It’s just perfect as is. Use a small “ice cream scoop” for even-sized cookies. The cookies should be small and dainty because they are crisp; a large cookie would be fragile.

1 cup peanut butter (creamy or chunky), Jif brand preferred
1 cup sugar
1 large egg
1 teaspoon baking soda

Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Line cookie sheets with parchment paper. In a medium bowl, beat together all ingredients until well mixed. Roll teaspoons of dough into balls or portion with small scoop. Arrange about 1-inch apart on baking sheets. With tines of a fork, flatten balls making a cross-hatch pattern.

Bake in batches in the middle of the oven until puffed and golden, about 10 minutes. Do not bake too dark; the sugar on the bottoms of the cookies will scorch. Cool cookies on the sheets for 2 minutes before transferring to a rack to cool.

Makes about 60.

— Urban Legend

Raspberry Linzer Squares

PG Tested

Fast and easy to make with a few ingredients, these goodies are just the ticket for the office party, bake sale or cookie jar. Precut, plate and garnish the pan with a sprig of holly, and you are all set.

1½ cups (3 sticks) butter, plus 2 tablespoons, at room temperature
1⅔ cups granulated sugar
2 large eggs
3½ cups flour
1⅔ cups hazelnuts or pecans, toasted and chopped
2 cups seedless raspberry preserves

Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Grease a 9-by-13-inch baking pan. In a large bowl, cream the butter and sugar until fluffy. Add the eggs, beating well. Add the flour mixing just enough to incorporate. Mix in the nuts until just blended.

Press about ⅔ of the mixture into the pan; spread with the preserves. Crumble the remaining dough on top of the preserves.

Bake until the top is lightly browned, about an hour. Check at 50 minutes. Put the pan on a rack to cool. Cut the bars into 1½-inch squares.

Makes 48 bars.

— Community Cookbook

Cranberry Oatmeal Chewies

PG Tested

Since most cookies are eaten by family in any season, I make sure our goodies are full of healthy things like cranberries, oats and nuts. These “chewies” get that way from the honey that holds their moisture. Toss in red cranberries and green pistachios for some holiday color. For extra sparkle, dust with a little colored sugar before baking.

1½ cups flour
1 teaspoon baking soda
½ teaspoon fine salt
½ teaspoon cinnamon
2½ cups old-fashioned oats
1 cup (2 sticks) butter, at room temperature
1 cup packed brown sugar
½ cup granulated white sugar
2 large eggs
1 tablespoon honey
2 teaspoons vanilla
1⅓ cups dried cranberries
1 cup chopped nuts (pistachios, walnuts or pecans)

Preheat the oven to 350 degrees. Lightly grease 2 cookie sheets or line them with parchment. In a medium bowl, mix the flour, baking soda, salt and cinnamon; stir in the oats.

In a large bowl, beat the butter and both sugars on medium speed until light and fluffy. Beat in the eggs, scrape down the sides of the bowl, and add the honey and vanilla. Beat until blended. Add the flour mixture in two additions, beating until well combined. Stir in the cranberries and nuts. The dough can rest in the fridge until you are ready to bake.

Drop the dough by heaping tablespoonfuls about 2 inches apart onto the cookie sheets until the sheets are full (you’ll need to bake the cookies in two batches).

Bake until the centers of the cookies are soft and no longer look damp, 9 to 11 minutes, rotating the sheets if necessary for even browning. Repeat with remaining dough.

Let the cookies cool on the sheets for 5 minutes; this is important. Transfer to a rack to cool completely.

Makes about 48 3-inch cookies.

— Fine Cooking


Cookies for the sophisticated

For my holiday cookies, I think of flavor first. While I’m enchanted by decorated cookies with lacy piping it’s not something I enjoy doing. So I don’t. I make cookies that taste wonderful but aren’t fussy. Cookies such as the Coconut Stars or Norwegian Christmas Cookies might seem a touch plain compared to cookies gilded and bejeweled, but wait until you bite into one. They’re tender, buttery and delicate. They're sophisticated in flavor, not just sweet, and to me, they're so much easier to make, rather than fooling with icings and a piping bag. Try one, you’ll love it.

Tips to amp the flavor:

• If you bake only occasionally check your ingredients before starting. Baking powder can lose its potency after a year or so. Spices will lose their pungency after about a year. Give them a sniff and purchase new ones if the aromas have faded.

• To add more vanilla flavor to a plain sugar cookie, bury a vanilla bean in some sugar for four or five days and use that sugar before baking. Or if you are rushed, process the sugar for the recipe with a cut-up vanilla bean in a food processor until very finely ground.

• Plain cookies also can be enhanced with freshly grated citrus zest added to the batter. Then ice them with a powdered sugar glaze prepared with a squeeze of juice from the same citrus fruit.

• To gussy up a butter cookie, add some colored sanding sugar on the top. The sugar will add a crunch and sparkling effect.

• Buy fresh nuts for baking and keep them frozen in zip-top freezer bags. Toast them before using to deepen their flavor.

• Ginger cookies will be even more deeply flavored if you add some finely chopped crystallized ginger to the batter along with ground ginger.

• Spice cookies will benefit from a touch of ground fresh pepper as a backdrop flavor.

• Switch up the flavor in a chocolate cookie by using a darker chocolate. Even bittersweet. Deepen the flavor by adding a little instant espresso powder to the batter, or if it calls for some liquid use strong brewed coffee.

Miriam Rubin: mmmrubin@gmail.com or on Twitter @mmmrubin.

Candied Fruit Slices

PG Tested

My mother always made these cookies for the holidays. Most likely, the recipe came from an old issue of Woman’s Day magazine. When she sent me the recipe she wrote at the bottom, “Send Some To Me!!” I promise, Mom.

1 cup (16 tablespoons) unsalted butter, softened
1 cup powdered sugar, sifted after measuring
1 large egg, at room temperature
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
½ teaspoon fine table salt
2¼ cups all-purpose flour, spooned into cups and leveled off
1 cup each red and green candied cherries, cut in half
1 cup pecan halves

In stand mixer, with paddle, beat butter and powdered sugar at medium speed until light and creamy. Beat in egg and vanilla; scrape sides. Mixture may look curdled, if so, mix in 1 tablespoon flour and scrape the sides again. Mix in salt. At low speed, mix in flour, in 2 batches, just until blended.

With a wooden spoon, or sturdy scraper, mix in candied cherries and pecans. Dough will be stiff. Cover and chill 1 hour.

Divide dough in thirds. On separate sheets of waxed paper, shape dough into rolls 12-inches long. Roll up logs, overwrap if necessary, and place on rimmed baking sheet. Chill at least 3 hours (or quick-chill in freezer for 1 or 2 hours).

Preheat oven to 325 degrees. Cut rolls in about ⅛-inch-thick slices and place 1-inch apart on ungreased cookie sheets. Bake 12 to 14 minutes, or until delicately browned on edges. Transfer to wire racks to cool.

Store in airtight containers or freeze.

Makes about 7 dozen cookies.

— Dianne Rubin

Coconut Stars

PG Tested

This superb butter cookie has a mild coconut flavor. The dough is very easy to work with and you can freeze half of it if you don’t want to make all the cookies at one time. The recipe made 1-inch star cookies but I preferred a bigger cookie and used a 2-inch cutter instead.

1 pound (2 cups) unsalted butter, softened
2 cups powdered sugar
1 cup plus 2 tablespoons almond flour
1½ cups unsweetened desiccated coconut
1 teaspoon salt
2 large eggs, at room temperature
4 ½ cups plus ⅓ cup all-purpose flour, spooned into cups and leveled off

In stand mixer fitted with paddle, beat butter and powdered sugar on low speed until creamy and blended. Scrape sides. Add almond flour, coconut and salt; mix until combined. Gradually add eggs and mix until combined, scraping the sides. Add flour and mix only until the dough just comes together. Be careful not to overmix.

Wrap dough in plastic wrap, and refrigerate for about 2 hours, or until chilled all the way through. You can also freeze it, well wrapped in plastic in an airtight container, up to 1 month.

Preheat oven to 350 degrees and line two baking sheets with parchment paper.

On floured surface, roll dough until about ½-inch thick. Use a floured 1-or 2-inch star-shaped cookie cutter (or any shape you’d like) to cut cookies, transfer to lined baking sheets. Bake about 8 minutes, or until bottom edges of cookies turn a very light golden brown. Repeat with remaining dough, rerolling the scraps. Dough gets soft very quickly.

Let cool completely on baking sheets, then store in an airtight container in a cool, dry place for up to 2 weeks, or freeze.

Makes about 12 dozen one-inch cookies, 6 dozen 2-inch cookies.

— Adapted from “Payard Cookies” by Francois Payard (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2015, $30)

Fig and Fennel Seed Biscotti

PG Tested

2¼ cups all-purpose flour, spooned into cups and leveled off
½ cup granulated sugar
¼ cup packed brown sugar
2 teaspoons baking powder
2 teaspoons fennel seed, chopped (chop on a slightly damp cutting board with a slightly damp knife so seeds won’t slip)
½ teaspoon kosher salt
5 ounces dried Calimyrna figs, stemmed and finely chopped (about 1 cup)
1 cup chopped walnuts
3 large eggs, lightly beaten
Decorative or sanding sugar, for sprinkling

Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Line 2 baking sheets with parchment paper.

In large bowl, whisk together flour, sugars, baking powder, fennel seeds and salt. Stir in figs and walnuts. With portable electric mixer, beat in eggs on medium speed until dough is evenly moistened, 1 to 3 minutes. Gather dough into a ball.

Halve dough, and using slightly wet hands, roll each half into 10-inch log. Set logs on one of the prepared baking sheets at least 2 inches apart. Flatten each log to 2½ inches wide. Sprinkle tops with decorative sugar.

Bake until golden brown and puffed, and toothpick inserted in center comes out clean, 25 to 30 minutes. Tops will look dry and cracked. Let cool on sheet on a rack until easily handled. Reduce oven temperature to 325 degrees.

On a cutting board, with serrated knife, cut logs into ¼-inch slices. Arrange slices cut side down on baking sheets. Bake until lightly browned and beginning to crisp, rotating sheets halfway through, about 20 minutes. Transfer to racks to cool completely.

Store in airtight container about 1 week, or freeze for a month.

Makes about 3 dozen biscotti.

— Adapted from “The New Sugar and Spice: A Recipe for Bolder Baking” by Samantha Seneviratne. (Ten Speed Press, 2015, $27.50)

Norwegian Christmas Cookies

PG Tested

Tender and buttery, this recipe makes a ton of little cookies, but the dough keeps in the fridge for a couple of days so you don’t have to bake them all at once.

2 large eggs, divided
1 cup granulated sugar
4 cups all-purpose flour, spooned into cups and leveled off
1 teaspoon baking powder
½ teaspoon fine table salt
3 sticks (1½ cups) unsalted butter, cut up and softened
½ cup sugar cubes, coarsely crushed, or decorative or sanding sugar

In stand mixer, with paddle, beat 1 egg and the granulated sugar on medium-high speed until thick and pale. Add flour, baking powder and salt and mix on low speed until almost blended. Mixture will be clumpy. Add butter and mix on low speed, scraping sides as needed, until dough forms.

Transfer to another bowl, cover and refrigerate at least one hour or overnight. (Dough gets hard when cold but it’s easy to work with.)

Preheat oven to 350 degrees.

Beat remaining egg in a small bowl. Roll level teaspoons (or a little bigger) of dough into balls and arrange 1 inch apart on ungreased baking sheets. Press thumb into center of each ball to flatten, leaving a depression, and brush lightly with beaten egg. Sprinkle crushed or decorative sugar in centers.

Bake until golden at edges, 12 to 18 minutes. Transfer to wire racks to cool.

Store in airtight containers or freeze.

Makes about 12 dozen cookies.

— Adapted from Gourmet Magazine

Cookies for the traditionalist

I make a lot of cookies for Christmas because I just enjoy the process of baking and have a sweet tooth that won’t be ignored. My favorites are those that have been given to me by family or friends, or the cookies themselves have become favorites of the people I give them to. Either way, while the kitchen fills with the aromas of the holidays, I’m remembering the people closest to me and making new memories.

Tips for group baking:

For a long time I was a solitary Christmas cookie baker. But over the past few years I have learned that it’s more fun when there’s more than one. My mom and my sister have helped me many times to spice nuts, roll truffles and bake sweets, and it’s fun, faster and a nice time to bond. Here are some tips for group baking:

• Obviously, a plan ahead of time is crucial. You don’t want everyone making the same kind of cookie. Take inventory of your individual pantries and agree on ingredient assignments.

• Get together at the person’s house with the largest kitchen. The host should provide the more perishable ingredients (such as milk, butter and eggs) because of the access to a refrigerator. If you have a card table, bring it along.

• Set up stations for different activities — mixing, rolling, cutting out or shaping, and decorating. That’s where the card tables come in handy. Try to stagger the activities at the stations so not everyone is trying to use the oven at once. If you are baking with children, park them at a station.

• Make sure you have enough mixers, mixing bowls and pans. Also have enough containers and trays for separating and storing the finished products. You don’t want your peppermint drops mingling with peanut butter bars. Have plenty of parchment and waxed paper on hand. And you can never have too many paper towels for spills and clean up.

• If you are the cookie host, it will be up to you to feed this crowd. Keep it simple: Have muffins in the morning and order pizza or other takeout for lunch. You’ll want a break, but you also don’t want to lose the momentum.

Karen Carlin: kcarlin@post-gazette.com or 412-263-2588.


PG Tested

This recipe was adapted by Susan Marsula from a Betty Crocker recipe. I have never seen a nicer holiday cookie tray than hers, and I consider her my cookie queen!

¾ cup shortening
1 cup brown sugar
1 egg
¼ cup molasses
2¼ cups all-purpose flour
2 teaspoons baking soda
1 teaspoon cinnamon
1 teaspoon ginger
½ teaspoon cloves
¼ teaspoon salt
Granulated sugar

Mix thoroughly shortening, brown sugar, egg and molasses. Add remaining ingredients except granulated sugar and mix. Chill dough overnight.

Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Shape dough by rounded teaspoonfuls into balls. Roll each ball in granulated sugar. Place up to 3 inches apart on lightly greased baking sheet or on parchment paper. Bake 10 to 12 minutes or just until set. Immediately remove from baking sheets.

Makes 3 dozen cookies.

— Adapted from a Betty Crocker recipe


PG Tested

These cookies go by a few names — Mexican wedding cakes, Russian tea cakes, Swedish tea cakes (which I prefer because I am a little bit Swede). But they look like snowballs, so that’s what I call ’em. These are a favorite of my brother and a dear friend, and their holiday tins can’t be without them.

1 cup butter or margarine
½ cup powdered sugar
1 teaspoon vanilla
2¼ cups all-purpose flour
¾ cup finely chopped nuts
¼ teaspoon salt
Powdered sugar

Preheat oven to 400 degrees.

Mix butter, ½ cup powdered sugar and the vanilla in a large bowl. Stir in flour, nuts and salt until dough holds together.

Shape dough into 1-inch balls. Place about 1 inch apart on ungreased cookie sheet.

Bake 10 to 12 minutes or until set but not brown. (I have found 8 minutes to be enough time.)

Roll warm cookies in powdered sugar; cool on wire rack. Roll in powdered sugar again.

Makes 4 dozen.

— Betty Crocker


PG Tested

These are the first holiday cookies I can remember making with my mom.

½ cup firmly packed light brown sugar
1 cup or 1 stick all-vegetable shortening (any variety)
3 large eggs, separated
¼ cup water
1½ teaspoons vanilla extract
¼ teaspoon salt
2 cups all-purpose flour
2 cups finely chopped pecans
1 cup preserves or jam, any flavor

Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Adjust rack to middle position. Spray cookie sheets with no-stick spray.

Beat brown sugar and shortening with an electric mixer at medium speed for 2 minutes or until fluffy. Scrape down sides of bowl. Add egg yolks, water, vanilla and salt and beat until well combined. Add flour on low speed until well blended.

Beat egg whites in a shallow bowl until foamy. Place chopped nuts in a separate shallow bowl.

Divide dough into 48 equal portions. Form into balls by rolling between your palms. Dip each ball into egg whites then roll into nuts and place on prepared cookie sheet. Using the back of a teaspoon or your thumb, make a rounded indentation in the top of each cookie.

Bake cookies for 10 minutes. Remove from oven. It may be necessary to press the indentation once again. Fill each cookie with a scant teaspoon of jam or preserves. Return cookies to oven; bake another 5 to 7 minutes or until lightly browned on the bottom. Remove from oven; allow cookies to cool on baking sheet.

Makes 4 dozen.

— Smuckers

Chocolate-Peanut Butter Bars

PG Tested

My father loves buckeyes, but they can be labor intensive, with all the rolling and chilling and dipping. My cousin’s recipe for this bar cookie comes to the rescue — it’s like a pan-sized buckeye.

1½ cups crushed graham crackers
3 cups powdered sugar
1½ sticks (¾ cup) butter
2 cups peanut butter
1 bag (12 ounces) chocolate chips

In a large mixing bowl, combine graham crackers and sugar. Set aside.

In a saucepan over low heat, melt butter. Take pan off the heat and add peanut butter. Stir until smooth.

Pour peanut butter mixture into cracker/sugar mixture. Stir with a spoon, but then you will have to knead with your hands to thoroughly mix together. It will be thick. If the mixture is runny, add more sugar and continue to knead. Pat the mixture evenly in a layer on the bottom of a 13-by-9-inch pan.

In a glass bowl, melt chocolate chips on medium in the microwave, 15 seconds at a time, stirring between each interval, until smooth.

Spread melted chocolate evenly over the layer in the pan. Let it set. Cut into squares.

— Adapted by Cathy Kaup

Design: Kelly Mills

Development: Zack Tanner

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