Christmas cookies – the beautiful variety of tasty treats lovingly made from recipes handed down through the generations - just epitomize the holiday season.
When I was a kid growing up in Westford, Mass., one of my family's neighbors, Elsie Wilson, made at least a dozen varieties of Christmas cookies each year. It was her tradition.
We were always excited to see Elsie drop by our house with the large plate piled high with a huge assortment of delights.
One of my favorites is her Swedish Almond bars – crunchy with lots of almond and butter flavor.
Elsie's Swedish Almond Bars
½ cup (1 stick) unsalted butter, at room temperature
1 cup sugar
½ tsp. almond extract
1¾ cups flour
2 tsp. baking powder
about 2 Tbs. whole milk
½ cup coarsely chopped almonds
For icing: 1/3 cup powdered sugar, 1 Tbs. milk, and ¼ tsp. almond extract
In a large mixing bowl, beat butter and sugar with electric mixer until fluffy. Add egg and almond extract and beat until well mixed. Add flour and baking powder and on low, mix until thoroughly combined.
Divide dough into four equal sections. On a baking sheet lined with parchment paper or using a Silpat, roll out one section to about 12 inches. Flatten it with a rolling pin until it is about 3 inches wide. Do the same to a second roll, making sure you keep the rolls about 4 inches apart on the sheet. Repeat with third and fourth rolls on a separate baking sheet.
Brush flattened rolls with milk and sprinkle with almonds. Using the rolling pin, lightly press the almonds into the dough.
Bake at 325 degrees, 13-15 minutes. Let cool slightly then slice on the diagonal into one-inch strips. Cool.
Drizzle with icing, let icing dry, then serve.
Makes about 3 dozen bars.
When I lived in Guilford, one of my neighbors, Liz Baechler, hosted a Christmas cookie exchange each year. It was fun and easy. You baked one type of cookie but brought home a large assortment of homemade cookies. It was a win-win.
Liz would gather up a list of who would partake in the exchange, make sure there were no duplicates of cookie types, and we would each make about 8 or 10 dozen of one cookie – depending upon how many were part of the exchange.
At the evening of the exchange, we would sit around the fireplace, admire Liz's Christmas tree, all the while enjoying some wine or coffee and cookies, of course! At the end of the night, we would swap our wrapped cookies to take home. The end result was each of us took home 8 or 10 dozen cookies of every variety – biscotti, gingerbread, Russian tea cakes, etc. to have at the ready for parties, family events and guests.
These Spicy Ginger cookies were a huge hit at the 2000 Christmas cookie exchange.
Spicy Ginger Cookies
2 cups flour
¾ tsp. salt
2 tsp. baking soda
2 tsp. ground ginger
1 tsp. ground cinnamon
1 tsp. ground cloves
1/3 cup crystallized ginger, diced, (see note below)
1 cup packed dark brown sugar
½ cup solid vegetable shortening (like Crisco)
¼ cup (½ stick) unsalted butter, at room temperature
¼ cup molasses
about 3 Tbs. granulated sugar, for rolling
In medium mixing bowl, combine first six dry ingredients (flour, salt, soda, and spices) and whisk to blend. Mix in crystallized ginger, making sure to break up the sticky ginger.
In a large mixing bowl, cream brown sugar, shortening, and butter with electric mixer until fluffy. Add egg and molasses and beat until well blended. Add flour mixture to the sugar/butter mixture and slowly mix until just blended.
Cover and refrigerate dough for at least one hour.
Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Prepare a parchment paper- or Silpat-covered cookie sheet. Place granulated sugar in small bowl. Form cold dough into small, even balls and roll in the sugar. Place on prepared sheets about 1 ½ inches apart.
Bake about 9-11 minutes until cracked on top but still soft to the touch. Let rest on cookie sheet about 1 minute. Remove onto cooling racks.
Makes 3 dozen cookies
Note: Chopping crystallized ginger can be challenging. I have tried a food processor and a hand-held chopper without success. A sharp knife and a dusting of flour on a wooden cutting board works best. The smaller the dices of ginger, the better the cookie.