Wednesday, December 28, 2011

The Fourth Day of Christmas ― Baking Favorite Christmas Cookies

On December 26, the “Second Day of Christmas,” I offered my observation that for many Americans, the day after Christmas ― the twenty-sixth of December ― is the end of the Christmas season.

Though we are not a religious family, we enjoy many Christmas traditions. I resolved to enjoy all the Twelve Days of Christmas, from Christmas Day until Epiphany on January 6th, and to do so in part by writing a bit each day about some aspect of the Christmas season. All the essays may be read here.

Of course, Christmas means, in part, “special, delicious food.” In our household, three baked goods must be had at Christmas: soft white rolls for dinner, pecan pie(s) for D, and sugary-vanilla Christmas cookies, cut into fanciful shapes and decorated with colored sugar.

Though I did most of my Yuletide food preparations in the days immediately before Christmas, I haven’t had a chance to write about any of it until now. For today, the Fourth Day of Christmas, I’ll share my favorite recipe for Christmas cookies.


In the three decades since I’ve been keeping my own kitchen, I’ve tried plenty of recipes for Christmas cookies. The one I’ve come to favor is my own slight adaptation of “King Arthur’s Special Roll-Out Sugar Cookies,” from the King Arthur Flour Cookie Companion (Woodstock, VT: Countryman Press, ©2004, page 59).

This is a marvelous cookbook, full of practical information and helpful illustrations alongside a wealth of really good recipes. The sugar cookie recipe is easy to mix, shape, bake, and store. The recipe doubles well; the amounts shown below are doubled from the original recipe. The baked cookies keep well in a tightly closed container for two weeks. Yield: About six dozen small- to medium-sized cookies.

In a large flat-bottomed mixing bowl, combine 2 cups soft butter, 2 cups sugar, 1.5 teaspoons salt, 1 tablespoon baking powder, and 4 teaspoons vanilla extract. [I omit the almond extract called for in the original recipe.]

Beat these with an electric mixed until light and fluffy. Add 2 eggs and beat well.

Add ½ cup heavy cream, 6 tablespoons cornstarch, and 6 cups King Arthur unbleached all-purpose flour. (Don’t bother with other flour brands; King Arthur is, quite simply, the best flour you can buy.) Mix just until thoroughly blended. Do not over-mix, as this will toughen the dough.

Turn the dough out onto a lightly floured surface. Using a light touch, work the dough with your hands (I hesitate to say “knead,” as this implies a mechanical process) just until the mixture is smooth and completely blended. This should take no more than 8-10 seconds. Divide the dough into four equal portions. Again using a light touch, roll or flatten each piece into a circle about ¾” thick.

Stack the rounds in a baking pan, separating each round with a piece of plastic wrap, and covering the whole stack carefully to prevent drying:

Refrigerate the dough for at least an hour; this will make it easier to roll out.

When you’re ready to bake, pre-heat the oven to 350˚F, and prepare the baking sheets. I use baking parchment, which facilitates even browning, catches all the drips and drops and bits of sugar, and makes for a quick and easy clean-up.

When rolling and cutting, work with just one piece of dough at a time; leave the others closely covered in a cool place.

Sprinkle just a bit of flour on the rolling surface (the nice cool marble counter top is great for buttery cookie dough), and gently roll out the dough to between 1/8 and ¼ inch thick. If it’s too thin, it will brown too quickly and may burn. If it’s too thick, the cookies will be doughy instead of crisp.

Use sharp, clean cutters to cut the dough into your preferred shapes. Some of these cutters have been in my family for generations; they’re a bit battered but I wouldn’t trade them for anything.

Transfer the cookies to the prepared baking sheets.

Dampen the top of each cookie with a tiny amount of water, using a fine-bristled brush; this will help the decorations stay on instead of rolling all over the pan. Damp, not wet.

We prefer simple colored sugars and little rainbow dots, sprinkled with a liberal hand.

Bake the cookies for 10-12 minutes, until they are a light golden color. Watch them carefully after about five minutes. If you are baking two sheets at a time, you may need to rotate them part way through the baking time, to ensure even baking.

Some might say that the cookies in the next photo are overdone and too brown on the edges, but I like them that way.

Remove the cookies to a rack, and let them cool completely before storing them in a tightly closed container.

All my recipes may be viewed here:

They are further organized as follows, with some overlap:

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