THE QUESTION: My girlfriend’s family is really into holiday cookies. Any tips on how to impress them via baking?
The key to great holiday cookies (and all baking, really) is to give yourself enough time. And, ideally, to truly enjoy the process. I have no tips from personal baking experience on the topic of holiday cookies; growing up in the midwest all of ours came from Germanic traditions. This means they were crisp and mostly sickly sweet. Two things I dislike in cookies.
However, I do have some ideas on how to design a theme for your tray that will impress. I’ve interspersed some of the most exciting cookie recipes I’ve seen in recent food publications for some extra help (disclaimer: I have not actually tried these recipes but they look solid). If you need any additional inspiration, I highly recommend binge watching the season of the Great British Baking Show that is currently on Netflix.
Theme Idea 1: Celebratory cookies of the world.
Theme Idea 2: Make basic cookies and candies look fancy by creating uniform, bite-sized versions.
If you’re an experienced baker or have lots of time to experiment, the ideal would be to make a traditional variety of holiday sweets: a spice cookie (like gingerbread), a caramel, a fudge or toffee, and a fruit cake. Then elevate the appearance by cutting everything into 1/2inch cubes. Bonus points if you also try a mini peppermint stick whoopie pie. If you're less experienced, make some easy cookie bar recipes with different flavors, they will be easier to slice into tiny uniform bites.
Theme Idea 3: The too beautiful to eat tray.
If you're better with a pen or brush than the oven, make a basic sugar cookie dough. Then, instead of the kid-centric Santas, stars, and trees decorate geometric shapes with restrained, Modernist flair. Spend some time in the baking aisle of your favorite arts & crafts store to get design ideas for your cookies. If the icings and sprinkles don’t speak to you, look up some Rothko, Josef Albers, or other paintings for inspiration.
Something like Bon Appetit’s ombre cookies would also work well. As would decorating sugar cookies or shortbread with candied fruits, nuts, or hearty herbs. Citrus, specifically citrus peel, is great candied. Pictured above, I’ve candied slices of clementines and ginger to go atop gingerbread for my little brother’s teacher gifts using this method I got from Bon Appetit last year (they are a great holiday entertaining resource). And I’m seriously thinking about candying some rosemary soon.
Theme Idea 4 (what I would actually do): GO SAVORY!!!
Make a tray of several savory choux pastries to give everyone’s palates a break from the sweet stuff. They’re usually called gougeres when they're savory, although some argue that gougeres are specifically cheese choux puffs. The best part about this idea is that choux pastry is still mostly butter and egg so they won’t be too different from most of the cookies that everyone else will be making. Pictured below, I made some guacamole flavored bites recently, creamy with a hit of pickled jalapeños, so addictive, I think I was using this recipie from The Splendid Table as a guideline. If the stovetop bit scares you there were some German cheese cookies in the Washington Post Food Section this week.
- The most impressive holiday cookie I’ve ever seen is Divinity. Pictured below is my Grandma Marilyn's recipe. She makes these perfect teardrop shaped sugar clouds that mesmerized me when I had more of a sweet tooth. However, it is a difficult thing to make in Virginia, only attempt if the humidity is below 50% and optimally as close to zero as possible.
- The full “holiday cookie round-up” from the Washington Post is here and there are some pretty interesting things in there. Particularly the basil sandwich shortbread. .
- When you’ve finished your bake-to-impress tray share it on social media as part of the "bake it forward" campaign with the Food Network and No Kid Hungry to help feed those in need.