Christmas is a holiday that holds different meanings for different people, but I'd venture to say that baking and eating sweet things is universal. Some cultures celebrate with traditional cakes, pies, and breads, but I'd have to say again that none of these is as widely understood and loved as Christmas cookies. At some point, probably centuries ago, the words Christmas and cookies became inextricably linked and now their various flavors, shapes and colors bring joy to holiday revelers and bakers everywhere. Despite their simplicity -- that is, compared with other, more complicated desserts -- cookies have become a symbol of holiday cheer, enjoyed by young and old, baked by novice and expert, and used as a currency of love and caring.
What, then, you might ask, makes a cookie a Christmas cookie? The simple answer is that these treats are traditionally baked and served -- and reserved -- for the holiday season. The recipes might reflect age-old family or cultural traditions or might be more recent favorites that have become part of the annual festivities. In either case, the bite-size treats have a way of shaping lasting memories and helping to preserve the magic of the season.
The other reasons why specific cookies are featured at Christmastime are more mundane. For one, their flavors belong to winter. Traditional spices such as cinnamon, nutmeg, ginger and clove and sweeteners such as molasses, honey, and maple syrup make the treats rich-tasting and wonderfully fragrant. Flavors of peppermint and eggnog delight with their once-a-year appearances. Of course, an even more obvious giveaway to those treats destined for the holiday table or festive gift boxes is their familiar shapes and colors. From stars and bells to snowmen and Christmas trees, decorated with red and green sugar crystals, colorful icings, or wintry dustings of powdered sugar, these are cookies dressed in their finest holiday splendor.
What's most important, however, is that all the sweet, buttery, spicy, colorful goodness tastes spectacular. Only the best and freshest ingredients should go into making Christmas cookies. Pull out all the stops and buy the finest chocolate, good-quality butter, and fresh supplies of nuts and dried fruits. Bring out the enchanting aromas of the season by updating your spice rack. Replenish your supplies of flour, sugar and leaveners. And last, but by no means least, make sure all your equipment is in good working order, your cookie sheets and baking pans clean, and all the necessary utensils and holiday cookie cutters handy. Oh, and stock up on parchment paper. It's a pan washer's best friend.
For the holiday baker, the baking ritual is as much a part of the season's preparation as decorating the house and hitting the shopping malls. Over the years I've discovered that Christmas cookie bakers usually fall into one of two categories. The early birds head to the kitchen in October, getting a jump start on the season by piling layers upon layers of cookies in their freezers. These folks subscribe to the useful maxim of "don't put off till tomorrow what you can get done today" and are well stocked months ahead. The other school can best be described as "wait to bake," and its members believe that only in December does holiday baking feel right. This group spends full days and even longer nights in the kitchen, churning out scads of cookies just before a Christmas party or gift-giving occasion.
But no matter what month it is, the holiday cookie baker jumps fearlessly into the kitchen, surrounded by her or his batterie de cuisine and grocery bags loaded with ingredients, primed to scoop flour, beat butter, melt chocolate, and whisk icing. What everyone realizes (usually at some ungodly hour and dozens of cookies later) is that the bounty is best shared. Perhaps this is how the tradition of gifting Christmas cookies began: as the result of overeager production! Yet what could be more heartfelt than to wrap up tins of homemade cookies and shower them upon friends and family? We might also contribute the treats to cookie swaps, bake sales, office parties, and our children's classrooms. Of course, we'll make sure to leave plenty in cookie jars for our family and lucky neighbors to enjoy. Nobody doesn't like Christmas cookies.
Whether you're just starting the tradition of holiday baking or have been doing it for years, all cooks need at least a handful of reliably good recipes that are sure to please. Unearthing new recipes also satisfies an inherent curiosity that I believe all bakers share. My goal in writing this book was to provide cookie bakers everywhere, including the early birds, last-minute bakers, experienced cooks, and novices, with recipes for traditional treats as well as for a few surprises that might soon become favorites.
Don't let the small size of this book fool you. Consider it the best of the best. I baked hundreds of different cookies to come up with these fabulous fifty that include something for everyone: treats for chocoholics, holiday shapes for children (which can be baked and decorated by the little ones, too), luxurious sandwich cookies, and plenty of spiced rounds, buttery wafers, and decadent bars. It's a collection you'll never tire of. In fact, I hope you won't confine yourself to baking these treasures only in the few months -- or weeks -- leading up to Christmas. Many are as wonderful in May as they are in December.
So let's start baking. It's the surest way I know to get into the holiday spirit. Whip up a batch of Chocolate Crinkles, Viennese Crescents, Toffee Bars, or Ginger Coins -- or any other cookie in this book -- and watch your mood soar and smiles come to the faces of those who happily nibble on your creations.
From Christmas Cookies: 50 Recipes to Treasure for the Holiday Season
Copyright © 2008 by Lisa B. Zwirn