A Christmas Cookie Manifesto

Each December when I was growing up, my mom would attend a cookie exchange hosted by one of her friends. She would bring home a plate spilling over with cookies, and my brother and I would gaze greedily upon the bounty.

And then we would actually eat the cookies. And as the dry shortbread crumbled to dust in our mouths, we would look up at our mother with confusion and shame. “What have we done to deserve this?” we beseeched her. “Why must you punish us during this time of giving and good cheer? Send us to bed without our supper if you must, but please never bring home nut crescent cookies again!”

***

I realize I have to tread a bit lightly here. Each family has its own favorite Christmas cookie, and your favorite cookie might not be mine. I don’t think it’s out of line, however, to say that many Christmas cookies just aren’t that good!

I have my own biases, to be sure. I am 100 percent in the chewy cookie camp, and many of the traditional favorite Christmas cookies aren’t chewy. That’s to their detriment, because the main flaw with Christmas cookie bakers is they aren’t thinking realistically about the time it will take for their cookies to be consumed.

Christmas cookies need to be hearty, and taste almost as good on day seven as they did on day one. I’m willing to bet money that the first night my wife, brother and I return home for the Christmas holiday, my mom will pass around a picked-over tin of cookies she has collected over the previous weeks – from students, neighbors and cookie exchanges. We’ll each try one cookie, conclude it is stale, and reach for other desserts during the rest of our visit. Desperate to get rid of stale cookies, my mom will offer them to unsuspecting guests.

So, what makes a good Christmas cookie? Simple. It has to have bold flavors, and it has to keep well. If it isn’t one of those two things, it has to look so delicious as to guarantee immediate consumption.

Delicate cookies don’t belong in the Christmas cookie tin. Not only does a delicate cookie go stale faster, but it absorbs other odors and flavors quickly. Ever tried a sugar cookie that had been sitting next to peppermint bark and molasses spice cookies? The resulting flavor combination is not appetizing.

To illustrate the flaws in some traditional cookies, I’m going to count down my least favorite  Christmas cookies:

Honorable mention: Any type of biscotti. Biscotti is great for many things, including dunking in hot chocolate or coffee. Are those beverages typically around when consuming Christmas cookies? Not necessarily. Does anyone want to gnaw on five-day-old biscotti and risk breaking a tooth when the dentist is on vacation? No. The worst kind of biscotti is easy to pick: pistachio.

Third Place: Linzer cookies. The linzer cookie is a perfect example of the most insidious type of Christmas cookie: The cookie that looks more delicious than it actually is. In linzer cookies, jam is sandwiched between two layers of dough – typically sugar cookie or nut cookie dough. One half of the sandwich has a cutesy window cut out so you can see the jam underneath. These cookies are a production to make for very modest results. Even with different types of jam, they usually all end up tasting the same.

Second place: Frosted or dyed sugar cookies. A plate of green and red candy cane cookies isn’t clever, it’s tacky. Simple sugar cookies are never going to taste as delicious as a gingersnap or piece of fudge, and no amount of frosting is going to change things. Plus, your average sugar cookie frosting has even less flavor than the cookie itself.

First place: Nut Crescents. These cookies are sometimes called pecan balls. I’m talking about anything that is a combination of flour and ground nuts, covered in powdered sugar (see also: some types of linzer cookies). These cookies aren’t that good on the day they were baked, but their decay rate is especially fast. They don’t have much flavor – nuts work best as a complement to other flavors, not the star of the show. Thanks to the preponderance of nuts in the dough, these cookies don’t hold together well and stale easily. They are also notorious flavor and odor sponges, making them even less appetizing.

So I’ve outlined what makes a bad cookie – what are some alternatives? Over the next two and a half weeks (or 12 publishing days) I’m going to be running a Christmas cookie recipe each day. Call it the 12 days of Christmas cookies. I’ll be publishing some family favorites and offering my own recipes, in which I try to create the perfect Christmas cookie. I’ll evaluate the cookies against the high standards I’ve set for myself, taking special care to note how long they keep.

Tomorrow is December 1. Christmas cookie season has begun.

  • avid fan

    I found you a short while ago in a frenzied search for the REAL solution for getting hard water off shower doors. One sparkling clean shower door later, I am an avid fan and promote your site whenever I can. Not only are your posts informative, but the voice of your writing is so enjoyable. Let the cookie countdown begin!

  • Robert

    Awesome position statement (even if I disagreed, which I don’t)! Your voice is clear and engaging. I’ll be back for (each of) the 12 Days of Christmas Cookies.

  • Sweetness

    I also found your site by using Google to find a solution about the shower doors!! I’m with you on the cookies.  I’m a huge baker, and I’ve usually avoided any Christmas cookie recipes because they tend to just be, well, gross.  Linzer cookies?  Does anyone really eat those things?  I use a sugar cookie recipe that turns out quite well, especially since sugar cookies can often taste like manila folders.  In my neck of the woods, people tend to get downright thrilled to receive any kind of from-scratch cookie, and chocolate chip, peanut butter, and other classics win hands down.

  • Jesse

    Hey Mark — having just returned home and enjoyed a sampling of my mom’s various Christmas cookies, I have to disagree with the disparaging comments about the pecan balls.  They’re delicious!  I’m not sure if she just has a good recipe, but how can you honestly go wrong with flour, sugar, and butter?  Throw in some pecans (the tastiest member of the nut family) and cover the whole deal with powdered sugar… that’s a recipe for success.  Yes, they crumble easily, but that should only incentivize you to eat the whole thing in one bite.

    Hope you’re eating well for the holidays.  Merry Christmas!

  • Sandy

    Hi, I’m a new reader, just discovered your blog today so I’m a bit behind, catching up on all your interesting posts!  I just had to comment on the cookies. I agree with you that cookie exchanges are terrible, I never go, I don’t waste my good cookies on people who bring awful, cardboardy, tough cookies to trade. Most are like eating rocks, and as you say, they look better than they taste.
    But I have to say that the pecan balls, or butter balls as we call them, are delicious WHEN  they are made right…which means NEVER roll the dough in your hands! (In fact, that goes for every cookie). Touch it as little as possible just to push the chilled dough off the spoon in a mostly rounded shape. (We make ours rounded, not in crescents which require too much handling.) These cookies almost melt in your mouth. My mom was “famous” for her butter ball cookies at Christmas and she taught me that technique.
    Another thing I learned is that cookies have to be stored separately. My neighbor was fond of baking, and she stored probably 20 varieties in a huge pretzel tin…and every cookie tasted the same, blah.
    Sometimes I make just a couple types of cookies for Christmas, and when they are gone I’ll make a couple more. Or I’ll freeze them so I can take out just a few at a time to serve.  

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