The yearly holiday cookie bake is full of hand-me-down recipes and vintage classics, but I still make room for the new. I love how many memories and cultures can represent themselves on one festive plate of cookies — Grandma’s brown butter oatmeals, my mother-in-law’s Norwegian favorites, Mom’s Nanaimo bars. The list goes on.
Fortunately, I’ve found two cookbooks in which to hunt for this year’s newbie.
I started with the obvious, “Dorie Greenspan’s Cookies,” and escaped overwhelmed by brightly photographed and delicious-looking goodies. I opted to reinvent a favorite of mine with her double-ginger molasses cookies, and was wooed by the delicate combination of rose and hibiscus in her shortbread.
The Wednesday Chef blogger Luisa Weiss’s second cookbook also is out — “Classic German Baking.” Her cookie recipes are full of almondy goodness, often with hints of citrus and festive spices. But none caught my eye like her cinnamon-almond stars topped with meringue, glistening at me from the book’s pages. Added to list? Check.
I’m always eager to add a gluten free cookie to the mix, and preferably one that was designed to be so by its creator. Weiss’s stars are a lesson in patience and cookie-baking skill, but she promises they’ll be the most popular cookie on the plate. Plus, just as I like, they’re totally gluten free.
It’s no small feat narrowing down your list each season, and I apologize in advance for making it even more difficult. Happy baking!
Cinnamon-almond meringue stars
These beautiful cookies are called “zimtsterne” in Germany and promise to be star of the show (OK, a little pun intended). Although they’ll take up a majority of your baking day effort, along with an overnight drying period, don’t be deterred. As Weiss says in her book, “Just the mention of them never fails to elicit deep, longing sighs.”
Who should bake these? Any cookie baker lacking that seasonal showstopper.
3 egg whites
1⁄8 teaspoon salt
1½ cups plus 2 tablespoons confectioners’ sugar
2¼ to 3 cups finely ground raw almonds
2 teaspoons ground cinnamon
Place the egg whites and salt in the bowl of a stand mixer fitted with the whisk attachment. With the motor running on medium-high speed, begin whisking the egg whites. Pour in the sugar slowly and whip for 7 minutes, or until the mixture is glossy and stiff. Measure out ¾ cup and set aside.
Fold 2¼ cups of the ground almonds and the cinnamon into the remaining egg whites mixture. Add more of the ground almonds, up to 3 cups total, until you have a firm, only slightly sticky dough. Depending on the precise size of your egg whites and the grind of your almonds, you may not need the full amount of almonds. Wrap the dough in plastic wrap and refrigerate for 30 minutes.
Getting ready to bake: Line two baking sheets with parchment paper. Unwrap the dough, leaving the plastic wrap underneath it. Place a second piece of plastic wrap on top of the dough and roll it out to ¼-inch thickness. Discard the top piece of plastic wrap. Using a 1½-inch cookie cutter in the shape of a star, cut out the cookies, dipping the cutter in cold water every so often to keep the dough from sticking. Place the cookies on the prepared baking sheets.
Using a pastry brush and a spoon or a toothpick, spread the reserved meringue evenly over each star, taking care to drag it out to the points of the stars. Then let the cookies sit at a cool room temperature for 12 to 24 hours. The meringue will be dry to the touch.
Heat the oven to 350 degrees and position a rack in the bottom of the oven. One baking sheet at a time, bake the cookies for 3 to 4 minutes, or until the meringue is set but still snowy white. Remove the baking sheet from the oven and place on a rack. Let the cookies cool completely on the baking sheet. Repeat with the second baking sheet.
Storing: Stored in an airtight container, zimtsterne will keep for up to 1 month. Makes about 55 cookies.
Reprinted with permission from “Classic German Baking“ by Luisa Weiss.
Rose-hibiscus shortbread fans
Greenspan’s fans require a sensitive touch with the rose extract (you can substitute equal amount rose water as needed). Inspired by French pastry superstar Pierre Hermè and his love of rose essence, these caught my eye with the unique addition of hibiscus.
Who should bake these? Bakers with a love of Paris or in need of a unique teatime treat.
For the shortbread:
¾ cup all-purpose flour
½ cup white rice flour
1⁄3 cup sugar
2 teaspoons hibiscus tea leaves
1 stick (8 tablespoons) unsalted butter, cut into chunks, at room temperature
¼ teaspoon fine sea salt
½ teaspoon pure vanilla extract
¼ teaspoon pure rose extract
For the icing (optional):
½ cup confectioners’ sugar, sifted
1 to 2 tablespoons milk
Rose-colored sanding sugar, for dusting
Baking the shortbread: Center a rack in the oven and preheat it to 350 degrees. Butter an 8-inch round cake pan, dust with flour and tap out the excess. Whisk both flours together. Toss the sugar and tea into a stand mixer, or into a large bowl in which you can use a hand mixer. Rub the ingredients together with your fingertips until fragrant.
If using a stand mixer, fit it with the paddle attachment. Add the butter and salt to the bowl and beat on medium speed until the mixture is smooth, about 2 minutes. Beat in the vanilla and rose extracts. Turn off the mixer, add the flour all at once and mix on low speed.
After 3 to 4 minutes, you’ll have a bowl of soft, moist curds and crumbs. Squeeze a few curds, and if they hold together, you’re good to go. (You don’t want to mix the dough until it comes together uniformly.)
Turn the crumbs into the pan and pat them down evenly. If you’d like to smooth the top, “roll” the crumbs using a spice bottle as a rolling pin. (You can also tap down the crumbs with the bottom of a small measuring cup.) Be firm but not forceful; the point is to knit the crumbs together and just lightly compress them.
Using the tines of a dinner fork and pressing down so that you hear the metal tap against the pan, prick lines of holes in the dough to create a dozen wedges. Finish by pressing the bottom of the tines horizontally around the edges of the dough, as though you were crimping a piecrust.
Bake the shortbread for 25 to 27 minutes, rotating the pan after 15 minutes, or until the top feels firm to the touch and the edges have a tinge of color; the center should remain fairly pale. Transfer the pan to a rack and allow to rest for 5 minutes.
Prick the holes you made again, then carefully run a table knife between the pan and the shortbread and even more carefully turn the shortbread over onto the rack. Then invert it onto a cutting board and use a long sturdy knife or a bench scraper to cut the shortbread along the pricked lines. Lift the pieces back onto the rack and allow the fans to cool before icing or serving.
Making and adding the icing (optional): Put the confectioners’ sugar in a small bowl, add 1 tablespoon milk and stir to blend. If the icing is too thick to brush or spread smoothly and easily, add more milk drop by drop. Using a pastry brush or a small icing spatula, ice each shortbread wedge.
You can ice the whole wedge or leave a thin border, my preference. Or just swipe one long side of each fan with icing. Sprinkle a few grains of sanding sugar on each fan and let the icing set.
Storing: The shortbread will keep for at least 1 week in a tightly covered container at room temperature. If you omit the icing, you can freeze the shortbread for up to 2 months. Makes 12 cookies.
Double-ginger molasses cookies
I feel the holiday isn’t the holiday without a little gingerbread. Here Greenspan doubles down with studs of crystalized ginger and the unique additions of cocoa and espresso. I have my favorite molasses snap recipe, but hers has wooed me to try something new.
Who should bake this? Gingerbread lovers everywhere.
2¼ cups all-purpose flour
2 tablespoons unsweetened cocoa powder
1 to 2 teaspoons instant espresso, to taste (optional)
1½ teaspoons ground ginger
1 teaspoon ground cinnamon
¼ teaspoon ground cloves
½ teaspoon baking soda
½ teaspoon fine sea salt
1½ sticks (12 tablespoons) unsalted butter, cut into chunks, at room temperature
1⁄3 cup sugar
1⁄3 cup packed light brown sugar
1 large egg yolk, at room temperature
½ cup unsulfured molasses
1½ teaspoons pure vanilla extract
1⁄3 cup chopped crystallized ginger or 2 tablespoons minced fresh ginger mixed with 2 teaspoons sugar
7 ounces semisweet or bittersweet chocolate, chopped chip-size
Sugar, for rolling
Whisk the flour, cocoa, espresso (if using), spices, baking soda and salt together. Working with a stand mixer fitted with the paddle attachment, or in a large bowl with a hand mixer, beat the butter and both sugars together on medium-low speed for about 3 minutes, scraping the bowl as needed, until fully blended.
Add the yolk and beat for 1 minute, then add the molasses and vanilla, beating until smooth. Turn off the mixer, add the dry ingredients all at once and pulse the mixer until the risk of flying flour passes.
Working on low speed, mix the dough until the flour is almost but not completely incorporated. Add the crystallized ginger (or the sugared fresh ginger) and chocolate and mix until the dry ingredients disappear into the dough and the ginger and chocolate are evenly distributed. If you’ve got bits of dry ingredients on the bottom of the bowl, mix them in with a flexible spatula.
Gather the dough into a ball, flatten it and wrap it in plastic. Refrigerate for at least 2 hours.
Getting ready to bake: Position the racks to divide the oven into thirds and preheat it to 350 degrees. Butter or spray regular muffin tins or, if making free-form cookies, line two baking sheets with parchment paper or silicone baking mats.
Have a medium cookie scoop at hand. Alternatively, you can use a rounded tablespoonful of dough for each cookie. If you’re using tins, find a jar or glass that fits into them and can be used to flatten the dough; cover the bottom in plastic wrap. Spoon some sugar into a wide shallow bowl.
For each cookie, mold a scoop or spoonful of dough into a ball between your palms, then turn it in the sugar to coat and put in a muffin cup or on a baking sheet, leaving 2 inches between each ball of dough. If using tins, use the jar or glass to flatten each ball until it almost reaches the sides of the cup. If it’s freeform, press to flatten to about ½ inch thick.
Bake the cookies for about 13 minutes, rotating the tins or sheets top to bottom and front to back after 7 minutes. The cookies should be lightly set around the edges and softer in the center. Transfer the tins or sheets to racks and let the cookies rest for 15 minutes before unmolding them and/or placing them on racks to cool completely.
If you’re baking in batches, make certain to start with cool tins or baking sheets.
Storing: You can refrigerate the dough for up to 3 days. You can also scoop out the dough, shape into balls and freeze the balls on baking sheets; when they’re firm, pack them airtight and keep frozen for up to 2 months. Remove the dough from the freezer and let the balls sit at room temperature for at least 15 minutes, then roll in sugar and bake.
The baked cookies can be kept in a sealed container at room temperature for up to 4 days. They’ll get a little drier and a little less chewy, but that will make them even better for dunking. Makes about 36 cookies.
Reproduced with permission from “Dorie’s Cookies,” by Rux Martin/ Houghton Mifflin Harcourt.