‘Tis the season for Christmas goodies

December 17, 2021

We only have a few more days until Christmas, and tomorrow is reported to be the busiest shopping day of the holiday season. If you haven’t yet selected gifts for the hostess of an upcoming party or your favorite neighbor, there are plenty of pre-packaged gift baskets available at places like The Fresh Market, Marshalls, Home Goods, and Kitchen & Company.

The items in the photo came from a basket called Elf Munchies and included various chocolate treats, hard candy, coffee and a cocoa mix. The diminutive reference in the name was appropriate, as each of the items represented just a single serving. They were stacked tightly together in a box fitted with an insert to raise them high enough to require yards of cellophane to wrap them.

Although handy in a pinch, the price point for an item like this is fairly high. Instead, consider assembling a basket that is tailored for the recipient. For example, dog or cat treats for the animal lover, different types of mustard for the Grey Poupon connoisseur or British items from Lewes Gourmet for the expat missing home. A wine basket is another option, especially nice if it features an opener or decorative stopper.

Of course, the most personal gift basket would be one filled with goodies you have made yourself, especially a selection of home-baked cookies in festive tins or bags. This time of year, both print and online media have been full of “best” cookie recipes, so you will have hundreds from which to choose. But, before breaking out the mixer, here are some tips for successful cookie baking.

You may have heard that the word “cookie” comes from the Dutch word koekje, which means little cake. A cookie batter is typically based on sugar (brown or granulated, or both) creamed into a fat (usually butter). This process mixes the sugar into the butter so thoroughly that it seems to vanish, and the butter becomes light and fluffy. Next, you mix in eggs and a flavor extract before blending in the dry ingredients.                                         

The final addition will include flour and a leavening agent (baking soda or baking powder, or both). Baking soda is a base which will bubble when it comes into contact with an acid, which begins immediately in your mixing bowl. Baking powder reacts twice (hence the description on the label: double acting). The initial reaction occurs when it is wet, which is the moment it hits the batter. The second reaction is in response to heat, when the cookies are placed in the oven to bake.

Putting all this together, you have given your batter three ingredients that affect texture: baking soda, baking powder and butter. If the fat is still solid when the chemical leavening agents react, the cookies will rise nicely. If, however, the butter is too soft when the cookies begin to bake, the dough will flatten and spread. This is why many recipes call for resting the dough in the refrigerator.

The cookies in the photo were from a company called Dewey’s out of North Carolina, not as pretty as the ones drawn on the packaging, but quite tasty. I’ve included three cookie recipes that have been perennial favorites for snacking or gifting. Be sure to save some for Santa!

Peanut Butter Cookies

1 C peanut butter (creamy or crunchy)

2/3 C sugar

1 egg

Preheat oven to 350 F. Line cookie sheet with parchment paper; set aside. Cream together peanut butter and sugar. Lightly beat the egg; mix it into the peanut butter until combined. Use a melon-baller or spoon to place balls of dough on cookie sheet about one inch apart. Lightly flatten each cookie with the tines of a fork to create a grid pattern. Bake for 12 minutes. Cool slightly before removing to a rack to finish cooling. Store in an airtight container. Yield: About 1 1/2 dozen cookies.

Mexican Wedding Cookies

1 C butter

1/2 C sugar

2 t vanilla

1 C finely chopped pecans

2 C flour

1/2 C confectioners sugar

Preheat oven to 325 F. Line a cookie sheet with parchment paper; set aside. Cream butter and sugar in a large bowl. Stir in vanilla. Add flour and nuts, mixing well to combine. Roll pieces of dough into walnut-sized balls and place on prepared cookie sheet. Bake until set, about 18 to 20 minutes. While cookies are still hot, use a mesh strainer or sieve to coat them with confectioners sugar. Yield: 3 dozen cookies.

Sand Tarts

1 C sugar

1/2 C butter

1 egg

2 C flour

1 egg white

1 t water

colored sugar (optional)

Preheat oven to 350F. Line cookie sheets with parchment paper; set aside. In a large mixing bowl, beat butter and sugar together until light and fluffy. Add egg and continue beating until incorporated. Add flour and beat mixture until dough holds together; the consistency will be like wet sand. Using your hands, form the dough into a ball and place on a flat surface. Roll out to 1/4-inch thickness and cut into shapes with a cookie cutter. Place cookies on prepared baking sheet about one inch apart. Whisk together egg white and water. Lightly brush the top of each cookie with the egg wash and sprinkle with colored sugar (if desired). Bake for 10 minutes and remove to a rack to cool. Store in an airtight container. Yield: 3 1/2 dozen cookies.



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