If you like to bake, it’s likely that you’ve participated in a holiday cookie swap. Like many holiday traditions, the origin of this delicious custom lies ages ago in solstice rituals conducted long before Christmas became the huge commercial holiday it is today, according to history.com.
Winter solstice festivals have been held for centuries, across the world, to celebrate the changing of the seasons. By the Middle Ages, the Christmas holiday had overtaken solstice rituals throughout much of present-day Europe, the website states. However, the old feast traditions remained, although pastry underwent tremendous changes. Spices like nutmeg, cinnamon, and black pepper were just starting to be widely used, and dried exotic fruits like citron, apricots, and dates added sweetness and texture to the dessert tray, according to the history website. These items, along with ingredients like sugar, lard, and butter, would have been prized as expensive delicacies by medieval cooks. Only on the most important holiday could families afford treats like these, which led to a baking bonanza to prepare for Christmas. And unlike pies or cakes, cookies could be easily shared and given to friends and neighbors. Our modern Christmas cookies date back to these medieval gifts.
Cookies have come a long way since medieval times, although some things haven’t changed. Many Christmas cookies are still heavily spiced. We think of traditional Christmas baking flavors like cinnamon, ginger, and nutmeg, and those are the same spices medieval cooks would have used in their cookies ages ago, according to history.com. Gingerbread is a classic Christmas cookie, and yet it’s also a cookie that would have tasted strikingly similar back in the Middle Ages. And gingerbread uses molasses as a sweetener, something that medieval cooks would have appreciated, as refined sugar would have been very expensive. Medieval bakers would not have made gingerbread men, however. The first person to try that was Queen Elizabeth I of England, who had the cookie molded into the shapes of her favorite courtiers, the website states.
In the spirit of the holidays, then, we have compiled some of our own writers’ favorite holiday cookie recipes to share with our readers … our own holiday cookie swap, if you will. Enjoy, and happy baking!
Nana’s Italian Spice Cookies (Adapted from Betters Homes & Gardens)
Submitted by Karen Soucy
(Makes about 36 cookies)
My nana’s kitchen was the heart of our family. She loved to cook and love was a key
ingredient in everything she made. While she never, ever wrote down a recipe, my mother and aunts would stand beside her and watch every move she made … every pinch of this and stir of that. A few of her recipes are still made by my family today and her Italian Spice Cookies is one of them. I hope you enjoy them as much as we did.
3 c. all-purpose flour
1 c. sugar
2 t. baking powder
¼ c. unsweetened cocoa powder
1 t. ground cinnamon
1 t. ground cloves
1 c. butter
½ c. strong coffee, cooled
1 t. vanilla
½ c. chopped walnuts or pine nuts
1 recipe Powdered Sugar Drizzle*
Line baking pans with parchment paper; set aside. In a large bowl, stir together flour, granulated sugar, baking powder, cocoa, cinnamon, and cloves. Using a pastry blender, cut in butter until mixture resembles coarse crumbs. Make a well in the center of the flour mixture.
In a medium bowl, whisk together eggs, cooled coffee, and vanilla. Pour egg mixture into flour mixture and stir to combine. Stir in nuts. If necessary, cover and chill dough until it’s easy to handle (about 1 to 2 hours).
Preheat oven to 375 degrees F. Shape dough into walnut-sized balls (about 1 1/4 in. in diameter). Place balls about 2 inches apart on baking pans. Bake for 8 to 10 minutes or until edges are firm. (Cookies may still appear soft. Do not overbake.) Transfer cookies to a wire rack and let cool. Drizzle with icing.
*Powdered Sugar Drizzle
1 c. powdered sugar
1 to 2 T. milk
In a small bowl, stir together powdered sugar and enough milk (1 to 2 tablespoons) to make an icing of drizzling consistency.
Raspberry Crumb Bars
Submitted by Jeannette Ross (Adapted from The Family Baker cookbook by Wilton native Susan G. Purdy)
This is my daughter’s hands-down favorite cookie for Christmas.
1 c. (2 sticks) unsalted butter, at room temperature, cut up, plus extra for preparing pan
½ c. sifted confectioners’ sugar
2 c. unsifted all-purpose flour
½ t. salt
½ c. old-fashioned rolled or quick-cooking oats (not instant)
½ c. (2 oz.) chopped walnuts
¾ c. seedless raspberry preserves
Position a rack in the center of the oven and preheat it to 375 degrees. Butter a 9×9-inch baking pan.
In a large mixing bowl using a sturdy spoon or an electric mixer, beat together the butter and confectioners’ sugar until completely smooth and well blended. Sift on the flour and salt and blend all together just until the dough forms crumbs or large clumps. Turn the dough out onto a piece of wax paper. With lightly floured hands, squeeze the dough into a rough ball. The warmth of your hands will help soften the butter and will bring the dough together.
Divide the dough ball into thirds. Crumble one portion into a bowl and press the remaining portions in an even layer on the bottom of the prepared pan. Bake 15 to 18 minutes, or until golden brown around the edges and pale gold on top. Remove the pan to a heat-proof surface and let it cool.
Add the oats and nuts to the dough in the bowl and pinch it all together to form crumbs. Spread the preserves over the baked dough in the pan — don’t go all the way to the edge — then top, evening with the crumbs. Pat down gently.
Return the pan to the oven to bake an additional 20 to 24 minutes, or until the crumbs are golden brown on top. Cool the pan on a wire rack, then divide each side into quarters and cut into 16 bars. When the bars are cold, use a spatula to lift them onto a rack or plate or serve them directly from the pan. The bars are extremely fragile when warm.
Submitted by Joanne Greco Rochman
(Makes about 2 dozen cookies/bars)
Proust had his aunt’s delicate madeleines on his mind when he wrote his great poetry, but I have my mom’s Split Seconds on hand when I’m writing articles and they are just as memorable as Proust’s fond remembrances. These cookies are so perfectly named. They are easy to make, include ingredients that you almost always have in the house, and bake up quickly. My mom baked these not only for the holidays because the pretty red jelly just looks like Christmas, but she baked them whenever she wanted to surprise me and my sister with a special treat. I don’t know where she got the recipe, but the aroma of these simple and delicious cookies wafts through the house straight to your heart. Enjoy.
2 c. flour
½ t. of baking powder
⅔ c. sugar
¾ c. soft butter
2 t. vanilla
⅓ c. strawberry jelly
In a bowl, sift together flour, baking powder, and sugar. Blend in butter, egg, and vanilla.
Place on floured board. Divide into four parts. Shape each into a roll — 13 inches long and ¾ inch thick. Place on ungreased cookie sheet — 4 inches apart and 2 inches away from edge of sheet. Make a depression ¼ to ⅓-inch deep lengthwise. Fill each depression with jelly.
Bake at 350 degrees for 15 to 20 minutes. While warm, cut into bars and cool.
Chocolate Chip Meringue Cookies
Submitted by Lisa Sullivan
(Makes about 14 cookies, but you can easily double this recipe)
My grandmother, Ida Wertheimer, and mother, Lois Cutler, both made these cookies for the holidays. They are so easy and look so pretty (everyone thinks they took hours to make) that I continue the family tradition throughout the year, and particularly during the holidays.
2 eggs whites, room temperature
1 t. vanilla
⅛ t. salt
⅛ t. cream of tartar
¾ c. of sugar
1 6-oz. package semi-sweet chocolate morsels
Preheat oven to 300 degrees. Line a cookie sheet with parchment paper. Beat first four ingredients with electric mixer (I use whisk attachment) until soft white peaks form. Gradually add sugar while beating until stiff white, glossy peaks form. Fold in chocolate morsels with a spatula. Drop cookies by large spoonfuls onto cookie sheet (they won’t spread), about an inch or two apart.
Bake for 22 to 25 minutes, until the outsides of the meringues are firm to the touch, and just about to turn very slightly golden. Cool for five minutes, and remove from cookie sheet to cool on wire rack. Store in tightly sealed container until ready to serve.
To make Chocolate Swirl Cookies, melt the chocolate morsels in a separate bowl in the microwave, rather than fold them into the batter. Then, using a spoon, drop some of the chocolate over the batter and swirl it slightly; with a tablespoon, drop the cookies in big dollops onto the cookie sheets. Keep adding the chocolate until all the batter is used up. Then bake as you would according to the recipe above.
Raspberry Thumb Prints
Submitted by Polly Tafrate
This recipe was adapted from a Smucker’s ad, but tweaked over many years to my family’s satisfaction.
1 c. butter, at room temperature
1 ½ c. sugar
1 egg, beaten before adding
1 ½ t. vanilla extract
2 ½ all-purpose flour
1 t. salt
Red raspberry preserves — I use Smucker’s but if substituting should be of high quality.
Cream together butter and sugar until light and fluffy. Add egg and vanilla. If batter gets too hard to handle, mix with hands to make a smooth dough. Form into a ball and refrigerate 2 hours.
Preheat oven to 350 degrees. On a lightly floured board roll out dough to about ⅛-inch thickness. Cut with a 2 ½ inch cookie cutter. I use a donut cutter or ravioli cutter, but a small glass works well too. Press your index finger gently into center of cookie to make a small dent. Smear a small bit of the raspberry preserves into it. Bake on lightly greased cookie sheet for 6 minutes at 350 degrees. Watch closely — you want them slightly brown at the edges. Cool on rack.
Cashew Triangles (Adapted from Betty Crocker’s Cookbook)
Submitted by Andrea Valluzzo
This recipe is my version of the cashew triangles recipe I got from my Betty Crocker cookbook that I think I got when I was about to be or newly married (1991), and I have been making them for about 20 years.
1/2 c. butter softened
1/4 c. granulated white sugar
1/4 c. packed brown sugar
1/2 t. vanilla extract (I only use pure)
1 egg, separated
1 c. all-purpose flour
1/8 t. salt (skip if using salted butter)
1 t. water
1 c. chopped cashew nuts
1 4.25 oz. Hershey’s Special Dark chocolate bar or gourmet dark chocolate bar
(Note: to fill a 13 x 9 rectangular stone or pan, I triple the above recipe so the cookies have a decent thickness. So you’d need 3 eggs, 1 1/2 cups butter, etc…)
Heat oven to 350. Mix butter, sugars vanilla and egg yolk. Stir in flour and salt. With floured hands, press the dough into an ungreased 13 x 9 rectangular pan (I like to use a Pampered Chef 13 x 9 baking stone and my recipe tweak is that I take a large sheet of parchment paper and cover the entire pan with it, including the sides of the pan so that there’s no mess to cleanup and cookies come out easy). Beat egg whites and water; brush over dough. Sprinkle the dough with cashews to evenly cover and press down slightly into the batter.
Bake until light brown about 25 minutes; let cool for 10 minutes. Adjust time if tripling the recipe as you may need a few more minutes than what the original recipe calls for. Cut cookies into triangles or squares, but leave them in pan (I prefer squares because it’s easier). Break chocolate bar into pieces and melt chocolate either using a double boiler or in microwave. Drizzle chocolate onto the baked cookies. Set tray into freezer or fridge and let cool until chocolate is hardened. Cut again through previous cut lines and store cookies in fridge or in a cool room.
Submitted by Polly Tafrate
As a teacher, I sometimes received a delicious basket of homemade cookies from a parent at Christmas. This cookie was so good that I asked the mother for the recipe. Now I make these every year.
1 c. margarine or butter
¼ c. sugar
1 T. water
2 t. vanilla
2 c. sifted flour
1 c. chopped pecans
Preheat oven to 325 degrees. Cream margarine or butter and sugar thoroughly. Add water and vanilla. Mix flour and pecans and add to mixture. Roll into small balls. Bake on ungreased cookie sheet about 20 minutes at 325 degrees. When cool sprinkle powdered sugar over cookies.