12/20/2012 - Cookies are the tastiest of holiday traditions.
After any holiday meal, we know to leave room for sugary snowmen, jam-filled thumbprints and snowballs. The elegant simplicity of the cutout cookie, shaped to resemble bells, Mrs. Claus or reindeer, has stood the test of time, as have fancier treats, like fruit-filled tartlets.
This year, we went to the experts for advice on how to win the cookie swap and for tips on gluten-free and vegan cookies so that everyone can join in the fun. Everyone wants to bring the best cookie of the bunch, but those of us who don’t have endless time — or money — need to consider the ratio of deliciousness to difficulty.
Below are nine Christmas cookie recipes provided to the Hippo, with each baker providing a little background about how that cookie made it to the top of the “must bake” list. Some of what follows began as mistakes; others are refined hand-me-downs passed on generation to generation. More still are the product of relentless experimentation.
For a little extra fun, our staff — some experienced bakers, some not so much — put them to the test, making them in our own kitchens and reporting back on the experience. And yeah, we taste-tested ‘em all too, and voted on our favorites. Four of the cookies tied for first, with the rest garnering at least one vote.
Gone Baking’s “The O.C.” Oatmeal coconut chocolate chip cookie
The OC cookie is a three-classic mash-up, perfect for enjoying any time of year, says Gone Baking (Bedford, 305-6026, gonebaking.com) owner Jenny Cheifetz, but its origins are rooted in Christmas.
“It’s a sentimental choice,” she said. “They are a coconut creation that I made for my dad.”
Before she opened her retro-looking baking van, which vends cupcakes, cookies and other goodies most of the time and handles catering during winter months, Cheifetz had been baking for her father. He was one to lay off sweets, but a fan of coconut, and come the winter she began making him cookies regularly. At the same time, she was learning a thing or two about oatmeal raisin cookies.
“People liked the oatmeal base, but I have friends that don’t like the raisins. The texture of one is nutty and then the raisins are soft, and people also don’t like how they’re healthy. Chocolate chips sounded better to me,” she said.
With the squishy, dried grape perpetrators out of the picture, the nuttiness combined with the gooey chocolate chips made for a nice compliment to the refreshing coconut, her dad’s favorite flavor. And the rest is history.
Cheifitz doesn’t celebrate Christmas, but the tradition of baking for her father, and in her business making and decorating holiday platters chock-full of festive cookies is another excuse to eat cookies, and that isn’t a bad thing.
“I am eating them year round, but the holidays are a great time for cookies, especially for sharing them,” she said.
Interestingly, Cheifitz says her father is in the minority when it comes to The OC audience — most people who request them are women.
I lucked out getting this recipe, because I actually had all of the ingredients on hand, except for vanilla (which I didn’t realize until it was too late. Oops). I have a tendency to skim recipe directions and not measure ingredients precisely, and while my goal was to follow this one to the letter, the fact is that I had four super excited kids, ranging in age from 4 to 7, begging me to help. So, yeah, things got crazy up in my kitchen. I know I tossed in a few extra chocolate chips, because, well, who doesn’t love extra chocolate? And also because the recipe calls for 1½ cups, and a standard bag has 2, so, with the exception of the handful that wound up in the mouths of my little kitchen elves, the whole bag went in.
The cookies came out perfectly, despite the lack of vanilla and the fact that someone (OK fine, I think it was me) used the wrong size measuring cup at one point. All four kids, two of whom swore they hated coconut, devoured them, and they were a hit among the adult crowd too. They were easy to make, and I always like a recipe that ends in deliciousness even if you fudge a few things.
— Meghan Siegler, managing editor
Just Like Mom’s Snowballs cookies
At Just Like Mom’s Pastries (353 Riverdale Rd., Weare, 529-6667) cookies are but a small part of what their catering and cake construction business does, but owner Karen Car, like many bakers, has cookies close to her heart.
“Almost all my recipes are my mothers, but the snowball recipe is from my mother in-law, who was born in Germany,” she said.
Snowball cookies are a relatively simple, relatively global holiday staple, Car said. Hers call for walnuts, but depending on what part of the world they’re being made, or where the bakers got the recipes from, people will use almonds or pecans or other nuts.
These and other varieties were part of the bunch of recipes her mother taught her to make, often around the holidays because of the snowball association with the weather. Since opening Just Like Mom’s 25 years ago, snowballs have proved themselves a best seller, beating out thumbprints and butter cookies and finding a place on nearly every cookie tray.
“A lot of people will say the cookie is unhealthy because of the butter, but the butter makes it better, and you can make them any size really,” Car said.
Shortly after starting this recipe, or rather, in the grocery aisle, I realized I have been eating these holiday cookies for years. My Aunt Jan makes a similar recipe each year, inspired by those found at an old IGA Supermarket Bakery in Hudson, Mass.
They are remarkably easy cookies to make. My only altercation was cutting the walnut amount in half (I only bought two cups worth). The hardest part? Getting them to form a ball shape. Although many come out looking like smooth, dome-like teacakes, my first pans-worth looked more like snowbanks than snowballs.
After conferring with my aunt, I found her recipe calls for a two hour refrigeration period after making the dough. This makes for an even thicker base, which can be hand rolled into balls and cook more spherical shape.
Other than that, they tasted just fine, and the recipe is simple and very easy to shop for. Snowballs go great with coffee and last for months, although I am sure I’ll need to whip up another batch for Christmas Day.
— Luke Steere, staff writer
Just Like Mom’s gluten-free Coconut Macaroons
Car has also been adding on vegan and gluten-free options to her menu, tackling the complexities of restrictions: some will eat egg whites, some can have oil or sugar, others can’t eat butter.
“Usually I just try and substitute chocolate or something, but getting pie crust, for example, to bind with all sorts of ingredients like tapioca starch takes away from the flavor. I am still not there where I can make it fast enough and taste good,” she said.
Still, Car seems to have perfected her gluten-free macaroon recipe, which she said sell well around the holidays.
My wife and I had never made any type of macaroons, so we had a little trouble with the recipe instructions, but we both thought these came out great.
These cookies would be great for a coconut lover. They tasted very sweet and rich, even though there is no fat, other than the egg whites, in the ingredients. It was good to have a teammate while whipping the mixture over boiling water for 20 minutes. It helped to stand on a step stool while whipping for better leverage.
They were worth the effort, and we’ll certainly be making these again.
— Jeff Mucciarone, staff writer
Wild Orchid Brown Butter Thumbprint Cookies
Erin Gardner’s Wild Orchid Baking Co. (1 Washington St. No. 1013, Dover, 964-2253) is now a custom cake studio, but two years ago, when she first opened, she was serving cookies and other baked goods retail.
“We still do cookies on occasion. They’re something I’ve been doing even back when I was working in restaurants as a pastry chef,” said Gardner, the bakery’s owner and head pastry chef.
Her go-to holiday cookie, Brown Butter Thumbprints, has been very popular for her family, friends and customers during her 13 years baking, she said.
“You’re actually browning the butter, melting it and then allowing it to brown to make for a nutty, smoky flavor. You let that set back up and it tastes exceptional,” Gardner said. “It’s one of my personal all-time favorites.”
As with all thumbprints, the depressions are filled with a range of things, but to hitch up with the browned butter, Gardner said Wild Orchid used to go with milk chocolate caramel, chocolate ganache or raspberry jam. Of course, she added, people usually fill them with whatever they want.
“When it comes to cookies, you want to give people options,” she said.
The key lime idea thrilled me; I love the sweet, tart idea. However, lime curd was nowhere to be found, not in any regular grocery store around Concord or Manchester, so I decided to give lemon curd a try.
Now, the big challenge seemed to be deciding if the butter was brown before it actually turned black … I think I just made it. Then I should have poured it into a large shallow dish to refrigerate, as I underestimated how long it would take to turn solid. Once it did, I proceeded to mix it with the sugar, salt and flour. I dropped teaspoonfuls onto my sheeted baking sheets then stuck my thumb into each one.
After baking they were extremely delicate, had no more thumbprint, and I lost four that just crumbled when I tried to move them. Once they cooled, I turned them in more confectioners’ sugar and dropped a dollop of lemon curd on them. They were sweet for my tastes, but they turned out to be a winner at the office’s informal taste testing.
— Charlene Cesarini, sales manager
Concord Food Co-op Coconut-Cranberry Macaroons
Although they usually leave the cookie swap up to the masses who join them in the store each holiday season, the pastry chefs at the Concord Food Co-op’s Celery Stick Cafe (24 South Main St., Concord, 225-6840) certainly hold their own. Each December, the Co-op’s cookie swap draw’s local residents with scores of cookies, each one swapping and exchanging recipes. Rarely do the pastry chefs participate for that event, but heck, they’re doing it the rest of the year, and are no doubt instilling inspiration with their creations.
“Our bakery case is constantly changing to offer traditional and unique desserts. Everything is made from scratch with only natural ingredients,” said the Co-op’s Maria Noël Groves.
Just like the philosophy that drives the store, the bakery sources locally. Their cookies contain flour milled in New England, dairy from Concord and butter from a northeast farmer co-op, Groves said, and they don’t use any artificial colors, flavorings, preservatives or hydrogenated oils.
Many of their recipes are brought in by the pastry chefs, then refined or redesigned for the cafe.
I altered the recipe by adding an extra ⅓ cup of coconut, because the bags only come in sizes of 1 and ⅔ cups for some reason. Also, I used moist flakes by accident and not dried coconut, which made the batter stickier and sweeter than it probably would have been otherwise.
For the orange zest I used a teaspoon but it seemed very orange flavored, so if you’re not into orange, I would change that to maybe half a teaspoon. Also, I thought it would be a fun recipe to try without cranberries and lemon zest instead.
This recipe was very easy and not time consuming at all. It was a lot of waiting around for them to be done, mostly. I would make them again, and they seemed to be a big hit. They are a very sweet cookie, so less is really more.
The cost was about $12, but I had to buy what most people would already have, like sugar, eggs and vanilla. The main things one would have to buy are the coconut flakes and cranberries.
— Ashley McCarty, graphic designer
Concord Food Co-op Flourless Chocolate Cherry Cookies
The Co-op, and with it The Bakery Box, are run by a large group of members who often request specialty desserts. Basics like cookies, cupcakes, muffins, scones and more can be ordered for parties or with coffee, but many of their recipes are refined.
Pastry chefs or others bring in recipes to be redesigned for the cafe. Gourmet takes on cheesecakes, pies, galettes and tiramisu are in stock, as are vegan recipes and flourless, gluten-free desserts. Oftentimes, many of the hard-to-find ingredients their cookies call for can be found right in the store, which allows those with diet restrictions to be able to enjoy holiday classics like chocolate-cherry cookies.
Being a team player is important, so when assignments were being handed out at Hippo Headquarters to make cookies to bring to the office as part of this cover story, I of course volunteered to take on a recipe. What my co-workers didn’t know is that I had never baked anything before in my life.
My first reaction upon receiving the recipe for the Concord Community Co-op’s Flourless Chocolate Cherry Cookies: What the hell is blanched almond flour?
After deferring to a more culinarily inclined friend, she suggested I check out the A Market (125 Loring St., Manchester, 668-2650, myamarket.com), for both the blanched almond flour and dried cherries. All of the other ingredients were either already in my cabinet or found easily at Stop and Shop.
I picked up my two items at A Market, which ran me close to $20, and went home ready to bake. With some help from my friend, the baking process was actually quite easy and really only took about 45 minutes in all. Just be prepared to get an arm workout. When the wet ingredients were added to the mix, it became extremely thick and difficult to fold.
But the final product came out great. I still have some blanched almond flour left over, so maybe I’ll find my way back to the oven for another round.
— Cory Francer, staff writer
Tomina’s gluten-free Snickerdoodles with vegan option
Tina Birdsall and her husband Tom began Tomina’s (tominascookiedough.com) less than a year ago, but with all baking ventures, especially those focused on restricted diets, there was a lot of experimentation.
The idea behind the company, Tina Birdsall said, is about making unique cookies that can be enjoyed by everyone, no matter their dietary needs. Nowadays, they sell specialty flavors like warm orange spice, spicy ginger oat and lemon grassy sugar, but for the six to eight months before beginning their company, they were tweaking the classics, making gluten-free and vegan chocolate chip or gingerbread cookies taste great.
“Our strategy is to make them as close to conventional as possible. Usually the only difference is that there is no butter flavor. We have friends who have baked them for holiday parties and tell us people have no idea that they’re gluten free or vegan,” Tina Birdsall said.
OK, so I have made some cookies in my 12-year life before, but never snickerdoodles.
I found them easy to make, and the unusual ingredients were available at Granite State Natural Foods (164 North State St., Concord, 224-9341). They were delicious, but you have to let them cool completely because they crumble. (Or you could simply feed the crumbs directly to your mouth. They are that good.)
I am glad that I can bring the cookies in for Secret Santa, as a few of my classmates are vegan.
— Ian Macaig, son of Roxanne, advertising and sales associate
Tomina’s gluten-free Ginger Molasses Cookies
Tomina’s also sells a popular gluten-free ginger molasses cookie.
“The base of this cookie is rice flour, which gives it really nice crunch, and the flavors are traditional gingerbread flavors. The mouth feel of this cookie is rich, and has you coming back for more,” Tina Birdsall said. “Everyone enjoys a good cookie, and you don’t have to be be gluten free to enjoy one that is gluten free. If it’s full of flavor people will enjoy it.”
Ginger molasses cookies have become a staple of the pair’s holiday cookie giving, she added, and not just because they can be rolled and cut into holiday shapes, but because they have a vegan option.
This is the first gluten-free recipe I’ve ever attempted. I had been wanting to try gluten-free cooking and, with this in mind, had been shopping weeks before in the “interesting flours section” of the food store. It seemed to me that Bob Mills recommended millet flour for baking, so that’s what I had walked home with that day, and what I used in this recipe despite the instructions.
The recipe went off without a hitch; throwing all the ingredients into a bowl and stirring is pretty easy in my book. I have little patience, so I didn’t chill the dough and went straight to baking. Ten minutes later, the little balls of dough on the cookie sheet had more than doubled their size and were at this point growing into an indiscriminate mass of molasses (the pictures are from the second batch - the first batch I had to cut into hexagons). So beware, they balloon out (although maybe the chilling would have prevented this?).
The final product was akin to a crispy gingerbread cookie, but very powdery tasting. Not powdery texture, but it seemed that the millet flour really had a distinct taste. So I would say that on the scale of one to Kevin Bacon, my version of this cookie was only a 5. I think that by following the recipe strictly, you could make a very tasty cookie that would hit up to 8 or 9. Maybe not quite a Kevin Bacon, but close.
— Beth Page, graphic designer
Black Forest Cafe Raspberry Linzer Thumbprint Cookies
When it comes to cookies, the Black Forest Cafe (212 New Hampshire 101, Amherst, 672-0500) needs little introduction. The NH Magazine Best cookie award has lauded the cafe 11 years running thanks to its cookie collection, which includes this linzer thumbprint.
“The linzer is a traditional Austrian dessert, usually a torte, but it’s been modified many different ways,” said co-owner Martha Walters. “We’ve done it as a whole dessert, as bars and as a cut-out cookie for different holidays.”
Her and her husband Bruce’s acquired reputation for cookie greatness comes from a philosophy that gleans creativity from ordinary comfort foods.
“Bruce is the baker in charge. He is an experiment-on-the-fly kind of guy. He’ll get an idea or see a recipe he likes and try it, maybe change it. He has a lot of confidence when it comes to that. It always comes out great, but he has years and years of experience,” Martha Walters said.
Throughout December, the Black Forest Cafe will sell thousands of cookies, she said.
“We make a lot, usually mixed assortments, and they’re not all super time consuming. The thumbprint is a fun one to make with kids. It doesn’t require a lot of baking skill, and what kid doesn’t like to stick their hand in a ball of dough?”
I was hesitant about these: thumbprints give cookies an extra, no-nonsense little something on top, but raspberry jam is not a favorite of mine. Peanut butter cups or Hershey’s Kisses are always the better occupant — but I’d never tried them with a linzer.
The two cups worth of ground almonds, though a stressful find in the grocery store (make it easy if you can, and just use a food processor to ground up sliced almonds), compliment the raspberry taste well. Plus, it should be noted how elegant these cookies look on a dessert table. Almond extract and cloves, perhaps, are other left-of-center ingredients, but the rest — eggs, flour, sugar, and so on — are in most kitchens already. Also, the 20 minutes total baking is split into two halves, which I feel is a bit more lively.
— Luke Steere, staff writer