Flour, butter, eggs, sugar. Put them all together and you get magic.
Specifically, you get a cookie. And what could be more magical than cookies?
Cookies are the most democratic of desserts, the dessert that is enjoyed by everyone. Some may prefer chocolate chip, some may go for delicate wafers, but everybody loves them. Even people who can’t eat them love them.
This time of year, cookie consumption only increases. Like Christmas songs on the radio, you can’t escape them — they are all around us, like molecules of air, but crispier and with sugar on top.
Plus, they are almost as much fun to make as they are to eat. And you know how it is about making cookies: Once you’ve made one batch you want to make another. And another. And another. And another.
So I made five batches. Six, if you count the recipe that didn’t work out right. Seven if you count the fact that I tried that recipe twice. Ahem.
This year, I didn’t want to go the chocolate-chip route. I’m tired of chocolate chip, even though it is scientifically provable that chocolate-chip cookies are the ultimate baked treat. I didn’t go the oatmeal-raisin route either, despite their unquestionable position as a strong No. 2.
This year, I guess I went a little more elegant. A touch more sophisticated. It’s the holidays, I reasoned — time to live it up.
I began (after those two misfires, which don’t count) with Cinnamon Cookies. Cinnamon is a spice not typically associated with cookies, except snickerdoodles, but it can be a fine choice given the right circumstances.
The right circumstance turns out to be lemon, or at least lemon zest. A bit of lemon zest inside a flaky butter cookie provides just the right background to bring the sugar and cinnamon into delicious relief.
These cookies have a delicate crunch and a subtle flavor, which is what makes them so refined.
Joe Froggers are bolder — much bolder —but they still seem elegant because they benefit from a couple of clever variations on a popular theme.
Apparently named for the man (Joe Brown) who invented them, Joe Froggers begin with a basic ginger snap. But instead of a moderate amount of molasses, this recipe really dumps the molasses into it. And then it finds the perfect foil for all that molasses, a healthy shot of dark rum.
What you end up with is an enticing cookie with an inspired blend of flavors: ginger, molasses and rum.
If you’ve ever had Palmiers – those light and effervescently flaky rolled cookies made from puff pastry – you might think there was no way to improve upon them. Perfection is an absolute, and all that.
But local chef Jeffrey Deutsch has done the seemingly impossible. First, he cuts back on the amount of sugar specified in some recipes (I’m talking about you, Ina Garten) or uses more than the amount suggested in others (that would be you, Martha Stewart). But more significantly, he tempers the sweetness of the sugar with two small lemons’ worth of zest and goes one savory step further by adding a hint of fresh thyme.
Regular Palmiers? Wonderful. But Palmiers buoyed by the taste of lemon and thyme? Spectacular.
Along the same line of taking a great cookie and making it better is one of the favorite desserts we make for guests: Chewy Sugar Cookies.
Credit for these culinary marvels goes to the folks at America’s Test Kitchen, who dedicated themselves to discovering a method to make sugar cookies crisp along the edge and chewy in the center.
As far as I can tell, they achieved this long-desired mix of textures by adding two ingredients to the traditional recipe: cream cheese and vegetable oil. Cream cheese in cookies makes them softer and more chewy. Oil makes them crispy. Put them together and you wind up with cookies that are somehow both at the same time.
Most important, they taste great. Better than great. Amazing, actually.
Finally, I ended with cookies that are perhaps a bit more down-to-earth than the others. With Granola Cookies, you essentially make your own granola bar (oats, almonds, walnuts, raisins and honey bound together with a lot of butter and surprisingly little flour), and then you paint them with melted white chocolate.
I couldn’t stop eating them. Once you eat one, you’ll want to eat another. And another. And another. And another.
Chewy Sugar Cookies
Servings: 36 cookies.
2 1/4 cups all-purpose flour
1/2 teaspoon baking soda
1 teaspoon baking powder
1/2 teaspoon salt
1 1/2 cups plus 1/3 cup granulated sugar, divided
2 ounces cream cheese, cut into 8 pieces
6 tablespoons ( 3/4 stick) unsalted butter, melted and still warm
1/3 cup vegetable oil
1 large egg
1 tablespoon milk
2 teaspoons vanilla extract
1. Adjust oven rack to middle position and heat oven to 350 degrees. Line 3 large rimmed baking sheets with parchment paper (if you don’t have 3 baking sheets, you can reuse a sheet). In a medium bowl, whisk together flour, baking soda, baking powder and salt. Set aside.
2. Place 1 1/2 cups of the sugar and cream cheese in a large bowl. Place remaining 1/3 cup sugar in a shallow bowl or pie plate and set aside. Pour warm butter over sugar and cream cheese and whisk to combine (some small lumps of cream cheese will remain but will smooth out later). Whisk in oil until incorporated. Add egg, milk and vanilla; continue to whisk until smooth. Add flour mixture and mix with rubber spatula until soft, homogeneous dough forms.
3. Form balls of dough about 2 tablespoons each (or use a No. 40 portion scoop). Working in batches, roll balls in reserved sugar to coat and space evenly on prepared baking sheet, 12 dough balls per sheet. Using the bottom of a drinking glass, flatten dough balls until they are 2 inches in diameter. Sprinkle tops evenly with sugar remaining in shallow dish, discarding any unused sugar.
4. Bake, 1 tray at a time, until edges are set and just beginning to brown, about 13 minutes, rotating tray after 7 minutes. Cool cookies on baking sheet 5 minutes. Using wide metal spatula, transfer cookies to wire rack and cool to room temperature.
Per cookie: 111 calories; 5 g fat; 2 g saturated fat; 12 mg cholesterol; 1 g protein; 16 g carbohydrate; 10 g sugar; no fiber; 71 mg sodium; 12 mg calcium.
Recipe by America’s Test Kitchen
Servings: About 60 cookies.
12 1/2 tablespoons (just over 1 1/2 sticks) unsalted butter, at room temperature
1/2 cup plus 2 tablespoons granulated sugar, divided
1/3 cup light brown sugar
Grated zest of 1 lemon
2 1/3 cups all-purpose flour
1 teaspoon baking powder
2 tablespoons plus 1 teaspoon cinnamon, divided
1 tablespoon plus 1 teaspoon vegetable oil
1 teaspoon water
1. Preheat oven to 350 degrees and line a baking sheet with parchment paper.
2. In the bowl of a stand mixer fitted with the paddle attachment, beat the butter, 1/4 cup plus 2 tablespoons of the granulated sugar, brown sugar and lemon zest together on medium speed until the mixture becomes pale and fluffy. Add the flour, baking powder and 1 tablespoon of the cinnamon and mix until combined. Then add the oil and water and mix until fully combined.
3. Place the dough on plastic wrap and roll it into logs that are 2 inches in diameter. Smaller logs are easier to work with than one long one – it may be helpful to use about a baseball-sized portion of dough to form each log. Twist the ends of the plastic wrap as you would to wrap a candy to help you achieve an evenly round log. Freeze for about 2 hours or until the logs are chilled all the way through. You can freeze the logs, well wrapped in plastic and stored in an airtight container, for up to 1 month. Defrost frozen logs before using, but be sure they are still chilled all the way through.
4. In a small bowl, whisk together the remaining 1/4 cup granulated sugar and the remaining 1 tablespoon plus 1 teaspoon cinnamon until well combined.
5. With a sharp knife, slice the logs into 1/4-inch-thick slices and arrange them on the baking sheet. Sprinkle with the cinnamon-sugar mixture, then bake for about 10 minutes or until the cookies begin to pick up a little color along the bottom edges. Remove cookies from the oven and let them cool completely on the baking sheet or a cooling rack, then store in an airtight container in a cool, dry place for up to 1 week.
Per cookie: 55 calories; 3 g fat; 2 g saturated fat; 6 mg cholesterol; 1 g protein; 7 g carbohydrate; 3 g sugar; no fiber; 9 mg sodium; 10 mg calcium.
Recipe slightly adapted from “Payard Cookies” by Francois Payard and Anne E. McBride
Servings: 36 cookies.
14 tablespoons (1 3/4 sticks) unsalted butter
6 tablespoons honey
1/4 cup water
3 cups rolled oats
1 1/4 cups sliced almonds
1 cup walnuts, chopped
2/3 cup raisins
3 1/3 cups powdered sugar
2/3 cup all-purpose flour
8 ounces white chocolate, melted
1. Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Spray a 9-by-13-inch glass baking dish with nonstick spray, line it with parchment paper, and spray it again.
2. In a small pot, combine the butter, honey and the water over medium-low heat, stirring a couple of times to ensure that the butter and honey melt evenly without burning.
3. In a large bowl, stir together the oats, almonds, walnuts, raisins, confectioners’ sugar and flour. Once the butter and honey mixture is completely melted and hot, pour it over the granola mixture and stir until fully combined. Work fast; the dough will set quickly. Pour the dough into the prepared dish and spread it out evenly with an offset spatula. If the dough becomes hard to spread evenly, place the dish in the oven; after 5 to 10 minutes the dough will soften and you’ll be able to just shake the dish to get everything to even out.
4. Bake for about 15 minutes, or until the dough becomes light brown. Remove from the oven immediately once it becomes light brown to stop the cooking. Be careful not to overcook the dough. Let the cookie cool completely in the dish.
5. Once the cookie has cooled, invert the dish over parchment paper to remove the cookie. Use an offset spatula to spread a thin layer of melted white chocolate across the bottom in an even and flat layer. Let the cookie set in a cool, dry place.
6. Once the cookie is firm, place it on a cutting board. With a large chef’s knife, cut the cookie into 1 1/2 -by-2-inch bars. Store cookies in an air-tight container in a cool, dry place for up to 1 week, with parchment paper between each layer to keep the cookies from sticking.
Per cookie: 210 calories; 11 g fat; 4 g saturated fat; 13 mg cholesterol; 3 g protein; 27 g carbohydrate; 20 g sugar; 2 g fiber; 7 mg sodium; 27 mg calcium.
Recipe slightly adapted from “Payard Cookies,” by Francois Payard with Anne E. McBride
Joe Froggers (Ginger Rum Molasses Cookies)
Servings: 36 to 48 cookies, depending on the size of the cutter
4 cups all-purpose flour
1 1/2 teaspoons salt
1 1/2 teaspoons ground ginger
1/2 teaspoon freshly ground nutmeg
1/2 teaspoon ground cloves
1 teaspoon baking soda
4 tablespoons ( 1/2 stick) unsalted butter
1/4 cup vegetable shortening
3/4 cup firmly packed dark brown sugar
1/4 cup granulated sugar
1 1/4 cups molasses
3 tablespoons dark rum
Coarse sugar for decorating
1. Whisk the flour, salt, ginger, nutmeg, cloves and baking soda together. Set aside.
2. In the bowl of a standing mixer fitted with the paddle attachment, beat the butter and shortening together until there are no visible lumps. Add both sugars and beat until just incorporated. Scrape down the bowl, add the molasses, and beat until the mixture is uniform in color.
3. Prepare 1/3 cup very hot water. Add the flour mixture to the butter mixture, alternating with the hot water, in three parts, beginning and ending with the flour mixture. Scrape down the bowl, add the rum, and mix for 15 seconds. Cover the bowl and chill for at least 3 hours or overnight.
4. Preheat the oven to 375 degrees. Line 2 baking sheets with parchment paper. Dust a work surface and a rolling pin with a sprinkling of flour. Roll the dough into a 1 / 4-inch round. Cut out the cookies with a 2- to 3-inch round cookie cutter and transfer them to the prepared baking sheets. Sprinkle a tiny bit of coarse sugar onto each cookie.
5. Bake for 8 to 12 minutes, until they are set (the cookies will be chewier at 8 minutes, crispier at 12 minutes). Place the baking sheet on a wire rack to cool for 5 minutes. Use a spatula to transfer the cookies to the rack to cool completely. Store in an airtight container for up to 3 days.
Per cookie (based on 48): 100 calories; 2 g fat; 1 g saturated fat; 3 mg cholesterol; 1 g protein; 19 g carbohydrate; 11 g sugar; no fiber; 104 mg sodium; 22 mg calcium.
Recipe from “Baked Explorations; Classic American Desserts Reinvented,” by Matt Lewis and Renato Poliafito
Servings: 48 cookies.
1 cup plus 2 tablespoons granulated sugar, divided
Zest from 2 small lemons, chopped
1/4 teaspoon fresh thyme leaves, chopped
2 sheets puff pastry, thawed but still chilled
1. Preheat oven to 450 degrees. Line 2 baking sheets with parchment paper.
2. In a bowl, combine 1 cup of the sugar, lemon zest and thyme. Spread 1/2 cup of this mixture onto a counter or other flat surface. Unfold one sheet of puff pastry onto the mixture (keep the other sheet in the refrigerator for the time being) and spread 1/4 cup of the mixture on top of it, covering the pastry evenly. With a rolling pin, roll the dough into a 13-by-13-inch square, pressing the sugar mixture into it on both sides.
3. Fold the sides of the square toward the center so they go halfway to the middle (that is, they fold over to the 1/4 mark on both sides). Fold them again so the two folds meet exactly at the middle of the dough. Then fold one half over on the other half, as though closing a book. You will have 6 layers.
4. Slice the dough into 3 / 8-inch slices and place the slices, cut side up, on the prepared baking sheets. They will spread while they cook, so leave an inch or two between them. Lightly sprinkle the cut sides with a total of 1/2 tablespoon of the remaining sugar. Do not clean up the sugar mixture that remains on the counter or flat surface.
5. Bake the cookies for 5 to 7 minutes until caramelized and lightly brown on the bottom. Turn with a spatula and lightly sprinkle the new sides facing up with 1/2 tablespoon of sugar. Bake for 3 to 5 more minutes, until caramelized on the other side. Transfer to a baking rack to cool.
6. Add 2 tablespoons of the sugar mixture to the sugar that remains on the counter or flat surface. Repeat the process with the second sheet of puff pastry. You can prepare the second group of cookies while the first one is baking.
Per cookie: 75 calories; 4 g fat; 1 g saturated fat; no cholesterol; 1 g protein; 9 g carbohydrate; 5 g sugar; no fiber; 26 mg sodium; 1 mg calcium.
Recipe by Jeffrey Deutsch, adapted from Ina Garten