My mom was an excellent baker; every Christmas she would put out a magnificent display of her culinary talents with impressive trays of holiday cookies. She always made her famous shortbread that everyone fought over, there were never enough of her mini pecan tarts or thumbprint cookies; her iced cut out cookies was sheer holiday decadence and everyone would wrestle for her mincemeat tarts.
Sometimes she would make her luscious chocolate and mint squares, her festive dried fruit icebox cookies, Italian pitzel’s or anything else that caught her eye that season. She would even craft the most beautiful gingerbread house that adorned our table, begging to be nibbled at throughout the season.
My favourite holiday gift from her was a tin filled with her cookies because it represented a gift from the heart. Holiday baking is more about sharing than about eating. At this time of year these irresistible cookies become icons of enchantment, perfect for gifting, decorating the tree and of course, leaving for Santa.
I try my best to bake during the holiday season but her shoes are big ones to fill. My house is filled with my moms traditional cookies and I’ve also added my own cookie traditions with the Toblerone Shortbreads, Niagara Biscotti and Cream Cheese Sugar Cookies. For younger children, nothing says Christmas more than sugar cookies cut out into holiday shapes and iced with different coloured icing and sprinkled with red and green sugar or multicoloured little candy beads. They’re not only great for eating, but can you imagine anything more festive than a beautiful Christmas tree decked out with sugar cookies?
The kind of cookie you bake is not as important as the flavour. If you like that “melt-in-your-mouth” burst of flavour decadence in a cookie, nothing gives that to you better than butter. I’ve discovered through trial and error however, that cookies made with shortening hold their shape better. It must be because butter melts at lower temperatures, body temperature in fact and that makes the cookie spread out over the baking time. I don’t use margarine, but if you do, never use a whipped margarine, the solid sticks are much better for baking and besides they’re easier to measure anyway.
If you’re a fan of chewy cookies you can melt the butter before adding it to the sugars and of course, cook them a few minutes shorter than the recipe calls for. Brown sugar will give you a chewy cookie while white sugar makes them crisper. If you like your cookies crispy, try using two egg yolks instead of a whole egg.
As children grow up holiday cookies evolve from iced sugar cookies to gourmet and chocolate renditions. A new trend in cookies is making their way into the holiday season; they’re the small round one-bite sandwich cookies with creamy filling mounded between two little puffy cookies. They come in hundreds of flavours and colours. All around the world there are upscale little boutique stores that sell nothing but these little pillows of deliciousness simply called meringues.
Wine in holiday cookies should be a natural for Niagara home cooks who spill a little Chardonnay into a saucepan or Merlot into a roasting pan. Cookies with a vinous flair include Black Chocolate Baco Noir Cookies, Lavender, Raspberry Cassis Cookies and Cabernet Crescents. Even the trendy pillow cookies take on a Niagara flair with framboise cream between two little raspberry coloured cookies and champagne cream in light gold cookies.
Christmas is a hectic time of year, a time when people who usually don’t bake find themselves in the kitchen trying out new recipes. If you are new to baking you can start with some of these easy recipes.
If you don’t have time to bake perhaps this years festivities will include a cookie class. Southbrook Vineyards in Niagara-on-the-Lake and the Niagara Culinary Trail have teamed up to offer a cookie class creating some delicious holiday cookies that include fine Southbrook wines, delicious fruit wines and some cookies that just taste good with wine. Adult Cookies for the Holidays takes place December 13 at 1:30. I will be teaching the class and will be giving a few lucky people beautiful boxes of holiday cookies for enjoying or gift giving. For more information call Southbrook Vineyards at 905.641.2548.
Black Chocolate Cabernet Cookies
1 1/2 cups (375 mL) all-purpose flour
3/4 cup (180 mL) cocoa powder
1 teaspoon (5 mL) baking soda
1 teaspoon (5 mL) salt
½ cup (125 mL) butter, softened
3/4 cup (180 mL) granulated sugar
3/4 cup (180 mL) packed brown sugar
1 large egg
1 teaspoon (5 mL) pure vanilla extract
1/2 cup (125 mL) Cabernet Sauvignon or dry red wine
1 cup (250 mL) dark chocolate, broken into chunks
Preheat oven to 375F (190C). Whisk together flour, cocoa powder, salt and baking soda in a bowl. In a bowl of an electric mixer combine butter and sugars until fluffy. Add egg, vanilla, and wine and beat until well mixed. Slowly add the flour mixture until just combined. Fold in the chocolate. Place a heaping tablespoon of dough for each cookie about 2 inches apart from each other. Bake 8 to 10 minutes. Makes about 3 dozen cookies.
Niagara Holiday Biscotti
½ cup (125 mL) butter
1 cup (250 mL) sugar
1 teaspoon (5 mL) pure vanilla extract
2 cups (500 mL) all purpose flour
1 ½ teaspoons (7.5 mL) baking powder
dash of salt
1 cup (250 mL) Niagara walnuts
½ cup (125 mL) dried cherries
Preheat oven to 325F (160C). Beat the butter, sugar and eggs in a large bowl of an electric mixer until light and fluffy. Meanwhile, whisk flour, baking powder and salt together. Add dry ingredients to the whipped butter mixture and stir only to incorporate. Add the walnuts and died cherries.
Shape the dough into 2 logs on a baking sheet. Flatten the logs into ¾- thickness. Bake for 30 minutes. Remove from the oven and reduce the temperature to 300F (150C). Slice the log into 1-inch slices and place each slice on its side. Bake for 10 minutes, remove from oven, turn the cookies over and bake another 10 minutes. Remove from oven and cool. Makes approximately 4 dozen cookies.