Lentils are so November.
It's December, people, which I'm pretty sure in middle English originally meant something like 'Bring on the butter!'. Being a medieval history major, I take these things seriously, so seriously, in fact, I nearly didn't make it over this week. Flour under the fingernails, stacks of half-sheets, tins accumulating, you understand.
But being an enabler, I'm not about to let December pass me by without talking cookies. And I do mean in plural. We've got a few weeks, yet.
To get things rolling, for you and me both—and in recognition of the fact that this site's organization is L-O-U-S-Y. A re-org is on my list. For next year. After cookies.—I thought I'd lead off with a little compendium. Because I realize half our best cookies are squirreled away here, and I, for one, am tired of click-click-clicking to find them. So:
- Lemon Bars
- Cocoa Nib Brittle + Macadamia-Cashew Brittle
- Drei Augen (Red Currant Linzer Cookies)
- Almond Roca Bars
- Butterscotch Shortbread
- Cardamom Shortbread
- Our Favorite Sugar Cookie Cut-Outs + Pomegranate Buttercream (!!)
- Raspberry Thumbprints + Chocolate Buttersweets
- Meringues (spoon them up small, plain, or spiked with peppermint, and/or with grated unsweetend chocolate, or cocoa nibs, or nuts, or...)
- Big-Batch Intensely Chocolate Brownies
- Classic Chocolate Chip Cookies
- Caramel (to tuck between chocolate shells and ganache tops)
- Foolproof Lemon Curd (to beat into buttercream and fill tarts)
- Cornmeal Biscotti with Orange, Rosemary + Heaps of Nuts
Just to get you started.
For our part, we've made progress on 2, 3, 5, 6, 7, 8 and 12, and with any luck will have ticked 13 by afternoon's end. We've also candied the bejeebers out of 8 oranges' peels, and double-batched our bittersweet English Toffee, and tucked away another half-dozen discs of dough.
Between those two sentences, and the gingerbread "shorties" coming momentarily, it's beginning to smell a lot like Christmas around here.
I really do think that's my favorite part. I mean, the eating's good (better be, all that butter...), but I do believe nose trumps tastebuds, here. Candles are nice, and store-bought cookies can be grand, but it's awfully hard to beat The Coming In. You know the one, you bake, leave the house, return, BOOM!
It's that swell juxtaposition, entirely lost on me while elbow-deep in dough, between the ever-crisper out-of-doors, and that warm heady wall that smacks you upon entry, that spice-heavy, orange-drunk, caramelized air.
(I should report that it's also beginning to look a bit like Christmas, which I've learned to address before the flour bins come out.
Tree's up, sparkle's on, stockings are at attention. Old ornaments have been hung, and new paper ones made. [And, along with them, one amazing mess of the kitchen table. And, along with them, one tremendously happy three-year-old.] Thrifted quarter-a-pop gold garlands from the Ballard goodwill have been discovered and put to entirely new and probably unintended uses.
Santa's got a new, battery-operated sled, complete with one heckuva headlight. Christmas lists have been written and posted. "[L]asere beams, safe, spie car [sic]" are the stated requests, though I'm hoping the elves consider adding "two front teeth".
The first paper snowflakes of the season have been snipped, and the first actual snowflakes spied. Briefly. They melted on impact, and haven't returned. Though it isn't for lack of lobbying on our part. If only the precipitation and cold temps would cross the aisles, I'd change that "a bit" to "a lot", ASAP. Come on, clouds!)
(And if you think this all looks a little too lovely, rest assured: my basement is a capital-e Explosion, of unfinished business, and laundry, and projects in the queue to make/wrap/do.)
(Also, remember, dinner's strictly December Rations: soup concocted from frozen stock, those turkey pot pies, noodles and more noodles, and of course, chili. And I should mention I wholly endorse the idea that fresh bread + smoothies = a complete, balanced meal. I've two loaves rising, as I type.)
(And if you really must know, my intent to omit butterscotch shortbread was a fail. Because after years of searching, I finally found red noses! Not cinnamon red-hots, which look great but ruin everything, but sweet, small red discs! From a $1.39 grocery store tub of "holly berry" sprinkles, no less. For what it's worth, I did concede the boozy Christmas cakes. I'm all about the spirit, not the letter, of the resolution.
But back to that smell, and the ways to create it, and gingerbread. Or shortbread. Rather, neither. Really, both. Let's begin again.
Gingerbread: Is there anything more iconic, more Christmas, than rows of grinning, gussied-up gingerbread men? I wasn't always of this opinion, mind you. Like cut-outs, these are the kind of cookies a grown-up can pass right on by, before children. I mean, given my druthers, I'd eat benne wafers and panforte and cardamom acorns and call it a Christmas. But cue the big eyes and the tiny small fingers, and a few (hundred) readings of "run, run, as fast as you can!", and pretty soon it becomes all but irresponsible not to bake up a batch of your very own.
And then, to watch as they all go uneaten. In my case, anyway.
My kids, it seems, aren't big traditional gingerbread fans. Chalk it up to tender palates, or personal tastes, or being part of the chocolate generation, but their excitement always dimmed after decorating. And, after several years of chucking stale cookies, my excitement pretty much followed suit.
Until, one year, I stumbled on ginger shortbread, and the solution to our longstanding gingerbread logjam. The problem, as it turns out, was not spices per se, but the molasses the classic dough always calls for. I myself rather love its dark murky mystery, but my kids, not so much. Shortbread skips it. That's the first win. The first among many...
Shortbread's neat butter-sugar-flour backbone makes for pleasant rolling, a quality I deeply admire in a dough. There's a bit of chilling involved, a few hours or days, as suits, but beyond that, it's user-friendly, neither sticky nor stubborn. It's rich enough to flour early and often, and can be re-rolled without compromise, right through the last scraps.
It holds its shape well, and doesn't spread much, a boon to any dough destined for cookie cutters. It bakes up into that storied crumb, that fine crisp crunch and crumble that melts famously on the tongue. And because shortbread includes no eggs or leavening, the supply list is short and the shelf-life, long. I love a cookie that improves with age, and shortbread's the poster child, spiced shortbread most especially.
The taste! Did we talk yet about the taste? Eegads, so sorry. I'm a bit of a baking policy wonk.
It's the taste, after all, that first caught my attention, and that every year steals my heart.
Minus the molasses, the spices speak clearly, warm and rich and articulate. Butter, being a fat, carries their flavor beautifully, somehow mellowing and encouraging, at the same time. So while there's ample ginger, plus cinnamon, nutmeg, clove, cardamom and pepper, the end result is not Spicy but merrily spiced, fragrant, well-rounded, ecumenical, right. They taste like they were always meant to be. Like Christmas. Like more please. Like something worth running after.
And when you return, and open that door, and BOOM!, well. That's just the baker's bonus.
You've earned it. Welcome home.
adapted from an ancient Martha Stewart Living
yield: 2-4 dozen, depending on size
Let's see, a bit of housework: I cream my butter cold, in tablespoon-sized slices, though if you have a handheld mixer, you'll want to take the chill off first. For tips on rolling, see the end of this post.
As to the spices, feel free to tweak or substitute, as suits. The original included only the ginger, plus clove and pepper pinches, but I prefer the full complement, below. That said, you can easily add allspice, include orange zest, omit nutmeg, etc. I can never bear to level spices, always measuring them with rounded tops, hence the "generous" prefix below. Also, I've taken to adding my spices (or zests, or herbs, any solid flavorings) during creaming, as I find this releases and better distributes all those heady oils throughout the dough.
Finally, when it comes to decorating, we keep it simple. Royal icing doesn't suit shortbread (or me), but sprinkles and dragees can be pressed into the dough before baking, or sugar (turbinado, granulated) tossed quickly over all. Or just leave them plain. They are anything but.
8 ounces (2 sticks) salted butter
1/2 cup dark brown sugar, packed
1 very generous teaspoon ground ginger
1/2 generous teaspoon cinnamon
1/2 generous teaspoon ground nutmeg
1/4 generous teaspoon cardamom
1/4 teaspoon ground cloves
freshly ground black pepper, a few turns of the mill
1/4 teaspoon salt
2 cups unbleached, all-purpose flour
sprinkles, dragees, and/or sugar, for decorating (optional)
In a mixer fitted with the paddle attachment, cream butter, brown sugar and spices until light and fluffy, scraping sides once or twice, 3-4 minutes. Add flour and salt, and combine on low, scraping once, just to combine. Knead dough a few turns in the bowl, to bring together, then turn out onto waxed paper and form into a disc, 1" thick. Chill 2 hours, or up to 5 days, in the refrigerator.
When ready to roll cookies, remove dough from refrigerator 30 minutes before you wish to roll it, and preheat oven to 325°. Dough is ready to roll when you can make a gentle indentation with your thumb.
On a clean, lightly floured surface, roll dough to 1/4" thick, sprinkling surface with flour as needed and turning as you roll, to prevent sticking. Run an offset spatula underneath dough to release from surface, then cut into shapes, as desired, placing 1/2" apart on baking sheet (these don't spread significantly). Combine scraps, and re-roll, until all dough has been cut. Decorate with dragees, sprinkles or sugar, if using, then bake until fragrant, firm, no longer shiny on the surface, and darkening slightly around the edges, 20-28 minutes, depending on thickness. Use your senses, here, and bear in mind shortbread's always better crisp and browned than soft-centered.
Let cool on trays 10 minutes, then cool completely on racks. Packed in tins, gingerbread "shorties" keep beautifully for at least 3 weeks.