The merriment of the holidays is built on many things: Cheerful wishes of happiness and goodwill from strangers. Cultural memories of sleigh rides across fields of sparkling snow. Even the joy to be found in giving gifts to friends and loved ones.
But really, what makes the holidays merry and bright are all the cookies. How could they not? Cookies are the ornaments that we hang on the Christmas tree of life.
This season, I made seven batches of cookies (so far). That’s a lot of sugar and butter, some of which ended up on the floor, but it was worth it.
I started with a recipe for croquets followed by cream-filled croquantes.
Croquantes are thin, rolled, buttery cookies, which is why you can fill them with cream. Croquets are thick, hard, crispy cookies that are France’s version of biscotti and cannot be filled with cream or anything else.
It wouldn’t be the holidays without chocolate chip cookies, and I simply had to make a batch when I found a recipe with this name: Salted Butter and Chocolate Chunk Shortbread, or Why Would I Make Another Chocolate Chip Cookie Ever Again?
Astonishingly, the cookies actually lived up to their name. I think the secret is that they are made with shortbread — crisp, buttery shortbread that is somehow just sweet enough.
Will I ever make another chocolate chip cookie ever again? Probably. But right now I see no particular reason to.
The most sophisticated cookies I made are so elegant that they were originally called “biscuits.”
Chocolate Sandwich Cookies (I changed the name from the British term) come to us from Claridge’s, England’s toniest hotel. Fancy hotels have fancy restaurants, and fancy restaurants make very fancy cookies.
This particular variety takes two light and moderately chewy chocolate cookies, not unlike a chewy meringue, and puts them around a rich layer of silken ganache. They are simply exquisite and, of course, in impeccable taste.
The next cookie I made was more of a crowd-pleaser. Sweet Slices are a remarkable demonstration of what can be done with just a few simple, basic ingredients.
A very different cookie, Berlin Rings, is what I made next. These have a European sensibility to them, with a highly refined flavor born from hundreds of years of cookie evolution.
By themselves, they are a little dry. But serve them with ice cream or tea or coffee, and watch how great they can be as an enhancer rather than a solo dessert.
For my final batch, I turned to Thomas Keller, who is considered by many to be the finest chef in America. His recipe for Oatmeal Raisin Cookies won’t make anyone think less of him.
Yes, they are only oatmeal raisin cookies. But then again, they are oatmeal raisin cookies as perfected by perhaps the finest chef in America. And they are utterly spectacular.
Just a bite or two, and you will be looking forward to the holidays as that time of year when you make oatmeal raisin cookies.
French Biscotti (Croquets de Carcassonne)
Recipe from “The Art of French Baking,” by Ginette Mathiot. Yield about 36.
2 cups all-purpose flour
4 medium eggs, divided
1/2 cup superfine sugar
Grated zest of 1 unwaxed lemon
5 tablespoons butter, softened
1 cup roughly chopped almonds
Note: To make superfine sugar, place granulated sugar in a blender and process on high for about 15 seconds, until almost powdery.
Preheat oven to 325 degrees. Line baking sheet with parchment paper or grease with additional butter. Pile flour in a mound on counter and make well in the center. Beat 3 eggs in a small bowl. Place sugar, beaten eggs and lemon zest in the flour well and stir with your hand held like a paddle, gradually incorporating a little of the flour. Stir in the softened butter and almonds and, finally, incorporate the rest of the flour. Work dough briefly.
Turn dough onto floured counter and use a large, heavy kitchen knife to roughly “chop” it until you have broken up the almonds. Knead the dough until it is thoroughly combined; divide in half, and shape it into 2 cylinders. Place these on the prepared sheet and flatten slightly. Beat the remaining egg and use to glaze the dough.
Bake 15 minutes, then raise temperature to 400 degrees. Bake 10 more minutes, or until lightly browned. Using a sharp, serrated knife, cut both “loaves” into 1/2-inch-thick slices. Carefully lay slices flat on baking sheet and return to the oven for a few more minutes, turning them once so that they brown lightly on both sides.
Chocolate Cream-filled Croquantes
Cookie recipe from “The Art and Soul of Baking,” by Cindy Mushet. Filling recipe from “The Art of French Baking,” by Ginette Mathiot. Yield: About 14.
1/2 cup plus 2 tablespoons granulated sugar
1/2 cup all-purpose flour
2 large egg whites
3/4 teaspoon vanilla extract
4 tablespoons (1/2 stick) unsalted butter, melted
8 ounces chopped semisweet chocolate
1/2 cup crème fraîche or heavy cream
1/4 cup chocolate sprinkles
Place sugar and flour in a medium bowl and whisk to blend. Whisk in egg whites and vanilla until well-blended. Whisk in melted butter until a smooth, thin batter is formed. Cover and refrigerate for 30 minutes.
Preheat oven to 350 degrees and position oven rack in the center. Line a baking sheet with parchment paper or a silicon mat. Drop about 1 tablespoon of batter onto mat. Use a thin spatula, preferably offset, to spread the batter into a thin circle about 4 inches in diameter. Make 3 more circles, spacing them 3-4 inches apart. Bake 7-9 minutes, until edges are golden brown but center is still pale.
Transfer cookies to a rack and let cool for 1 minute, until they can be loosened and lifted from the sheet without tearing. Wrap cookies loosely around a clean pencil, small dowel or the handle of a wooden spoon until they harden. Allow to cool completely before adding filling.
Place the chocolate in a small heatproof bowl set over a pan of barely simmering water. Heat, stirring occasionally, until smooth. Remove from heat and add crème fraîche, stirring well. If using heavy cream, place chopped chocolate in heatproof bowl, heat cream to just under boiling and pour it over chocolate. Allow mixture to stand for 1 minute, then stir until smooth.
Let filling cool slightly and place into a pastry bag or resealable plastic bag fitted with a large plain tip. Pipe filling as far as possible into both ends of all cookies, and then coat the rims of each cookie on the outside with the filling. Dip ends of each cookie into a bowl of chocolate sprinkles. As filling cools, the sprinkles will adhere firmly.
Salted Butter and Chocolate Chunk Shortbread
Recipe from “Dining In,” by Alison Roman. Yield: About 32 cookies.
2 1/4 sticks salted butter, cut into 1/2-inch pieces
1/2 cup granulated sugar
1/4 cup light brown sugar
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
2 1/4 cups all-purpose flour
8 ounces semi- or bittersweet dark chocolate, chopped into chunks (do not chop too fine)
1 large egg, beaten
Demerara or turbinado sugar, for rolling
Flaky sea salt, or kosher salt
Line 1 or 2 rimmed baking sheets with parchment paper.
Using an electric mixer and a medium bowl, beat the butter, both sugars and vanilla on medium-high until it’s light and fluffy, 3-5 minutes. Use spatula to scrape down sides of the bowl. With mixer on low, add flour, followed by chocolate chunks, and beat just to blend.
Divide dough in half, placing each half on a large piece of plastic wrap. Fold plastic over so that it covers dough. Use your hands to form dough into a log shape about 2-2 1/2 inches in diameter. Rolling it on the counter will help smooth it out; it does not have to be perfect. Refrigerate until very firm, about 2 hours.
Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Brush outside of the logs with beaten egg and roll them in demerara or turbinado sugar.
Slice each log into 1/2-inch-thick rounds, place them on prepared baking sheets about 1 inch apart and sprinkle with flaky or kosher salt. Bake until edges are just beginning to brown, 12-15 minutes. Cool on baking sheet for 1 minute, then transfer to a wire rack.
Chocolate Sandwich Cookies
Recipe from “Claridge’s: The Cookbook,” by Martyn Nail and Meredith Erickson. Yield: 30 cookie sandwiches.
11 3/4 ounces dark chocolate (at least 55 percent cocoa solids) broken into pieces, divided
3 ounces heavy cream
1/2 tablespoon honey
2 tablespoons butter, softened
3/4 cup demerara or turbinado sugar
3 1/2 tablespoons butter
6 tablespoons plus 1 teaspoon bread flour or all-purpose flour
1/4 teaspoon baking powder
Pinch of salt
Make the ganache: Melt 2 3/4 ounces of the chocolate in a double boiler (heatproof bowl placed over a saucepan of simmering water) or in the microwave. In a small saucepan, bring cream and honey to a boil over medium heat, then remove from heat. Pour a third of hot cream into the melted chocolate. Using a spatula, stir briskly to incorporate the cream. The chocolate might look grainy and split at this point — don’t worry if it does. Repeat twice more, adding another third of the cream at a time. The chocolate should be smooth and glossy. Add 2 tablespoons of softened butter and stir well.
Use spatula to scrape down sides of the bowl and place a sheet of plastic wrap directly on the surface of the ganache to prevent a skin from forming. Let sit at room temperature for at least 6 hours, preferably 12-24 hours.
Make the cookies: Preheat oven to 350 degrees. In a medium bowl, whisk eggs and sugar together until just combined. Leave this to rest for 20 minutes.
Over low heat, melt remaining 9 ounces chocolate and 3 1/2 tablespoons of butter together in a pan, stirring until well-combined. Whisk melted chocolate into egg and sugar mixture. Once incorporated, stir in flour, baking powder and salt. Cover with plastic wrap directly touching the surface until mixture sets, about 10-20 minutes (do not refrigerate it).
While dough is resting, use a pencil to draw 30 circles 1 1/4 inches in diameter (about the size of a 50-cent piece) on each of two sheets of parchment paper, allowing room between them for the cookies to spread. Flip parchment over on two baking sheets, so the pencil drawings are face down. Use a piping bag and tip (or a resealable plastic bag with a small hole cut in one corner for the tip) and pipe out the mixture to cover each of the circles. Use a wet finger or the back of a spoon to smooth tops of these mounds, as needed.
Bake 10 minutes, or until cookies feel crisp on edges but are still soft in the middle. The surfaces will look cracked. Leave to cool on the baking sheets.
To assemble, match cookies in equal-sized pairs. Use a piping bag and tip, a plastic bag and tip, or just a small spoon to portion out about 1 teaspoon of the ganache on to the center of the flat side of half the cookies. Then top with the remaining cookies and gently press the ganache to the edges. The cookies will keep for three days at room temperature in an airtight container.
Sweet Slices (Tranches Sucrees)
Recipe from “The Art of French Baking,” by Ginette Mathiot. Yield: About 36 cookies.
7 tablespoons butter, chilled and diced
1 2/3 cups all-purpose flour
3/4 cup superfine sugar
2 eggs, divided
1/2 teaspoon baking soda
2 tablespoons sanding sugar (decorating sugar)
Preheat oven to 400 degrees. Line a baking sheet with parchment, or grease it with additional butter.
Place chilled butter and flour in a mixing bowl and rub together until mixture resembles bread crumbs. Stir in sugar, 1 egg and baking soda. Do not add water, because dough should be firm. Knead dough briefly until it all comes together.
Dust counter with flour and roll out dough to a thickness of 1/4 inch. Beat remaining egg and brush over the dough to glaze. Cut into rectangles, approximately 2 1/2-by-1 1/4 inches. Sprinkle generously with sanding sugar, then place on the prepared baking sheet and bake for 15-20 minutes (watch carefully, because they quickly burn).
Berlin Rings (Couronnes de Berlin)
Recipe from “The Art of French Baking,” by Ginette Mathiot. Yield: About 18 cookies.
4 eggs, divided
1/2 cup superfine sugar
2 cups all-purpose flour, sifted
1 1/4 sticks butter, softened
2 tablespoons sanding sugar (decorating sugar)
Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Line a baking sheet with parchment, or grease with additional butter.
Hard cook two of the eggs. Remove their yolks and mix these thoroughly with the yolks of the two remaining raw eggs, retaining the raw egg whites. Discard cooked egg whites. Stir superfine sugar into yolk mixture, and then, adding a little at a time, the flour and butter. Knead dough until it is smooth.
Break off large, walnut-sized pieces and roll these out, using the palms of your hands, to form cylinders. Join their ends to form rings and place on the prepared sheet. Whisk the remaining raw egg whites until they form soft peaks and brush over the cookies to glaze. Sprinkle with sanding sugar and bake for 20-30 minutes.
Oatmeal Raisin Cookies
Recipe from “Bouchon Bakery” by Thomas Keller and Sebastien Rouxel. Yield: 6 enormous cookies or 12 large cookies.
1 cup plus 1 teaspoon all-purpose flour
1 tablespoon ground cinnamon
1 1/4 teaspoons kosher salt
1 1/2 teaspoons baking soda
1/4 cup plus 1 1/2 tablespoons granulated sugar
1/2 cup plus 3 1/2 tablespoons lightly packed light brown sugar
11 tablespoons unsalted butter, room temperature
1/4 cup beaten eggs
1 1/4 teaspoons vanilla extract or paste
2 cups old-fashioned oats
1 cup raisins
Place flour in a medium bowl. Sift in cinnamon and baking soda, add salt and whisk together. Whisk together granulated and brown sugars in a small bowl, breaking up any lumps.
Place butter in bowl of a stand mixer fitted with the paddle attachment. Turn to medium-low speed and cream butter until it is the consistency of mayonnaise and holds a peak when the paddle is lifted. Add sugars and mix for 3-4 minutes, until fluffy. Scrape down sides and bottom of bowl. Add eggs and vanilla and mix on low speed for 15-30 seconds, until just combined. The mixture may look broken, but that is fine (overwhipping the eggs could cause the cookies to expand too much during baking and then deflate).
Add flour mixture in two additions, mixing on low speed for 15-30 seconds after each, until just combined. Scrape bottom of the bowl to incorporate any dry ingredients that have settled. Stir in oats and raisins until thoroughly combined. Refrigerate dough for 30 minutes.
Position oven racks in the upper and lower thirds of the oven and preheat to 325 degrees. Line two baking sheets with silicone baking mats or parchment paper.
For gigantic cookies, use a 2 1/2-inch ice-cream scoop to divide dough into six equal portions. For large cookies, divide dough into 12 equal portions. Roll each portion into a ball between your hands.
For gigantic cookies, place three of these dough balls on each prepared baking sheet, placing each one as far away from the others and the sides as possible. For large cookies, place six balls on each prepared sheet.
Bake until golden brown, 21-23 minutes for gigantic cookies (15-17 minutes in a convection oven) or 18-20 minutes for large cookies (14-16 minutes in a convection oven). Reverse positions of the pans halfway through baking. Set pans on a cooling rack and cool 5-10 minutes, then transfer cookies to the rack to cool completely.
The cookies are best the day they are baked, but can be stored in a covered container for up to three days.