It is appropriate that the first week in December is National Cookie Week, as it is at this time of year that I think about the cookie baking that I will do for the holidays. I love going through old recipes, from family and friends, as well as experimenting with new recipes that sound intriguing. Through the years, I have participated in cookie swaps, spent one whole day painstakingly painting icing on butter cookies, taught Girl Scouts how to make gingerbread houses, and generally baked my way through the holidays. Every country, too, has its special seasonal delights, and I enjoyed finding them when I went on a Christmas Market tour a few years ago through France, Germany and the Netherlands. Below is Schneeballen, a confection made of shortcut pastry and sugar. They last for weeks, and just one can be difficult to consume, as it is so big and rich.
These days, my holidays are less hectic, but I still enjoy making cookies. There's something about having the counters filled with flour, sugar, and spices, and the aroma of sweet butter and sugar being blended together. The cookie tins - most adorned with seasonal decorations - are dragged out, so that the cookies are kept fresh and crisp for serving over the ensuing days. I love being able to bring a plate of luscious and colorful cookies to friends as a special holiday treat. It's interesting these days, too, since I gave up sugar three years ago, and so I don't even eat any cookies. But baking them is still fun, and I have found a few recipes that use dates and other dense fruits as a sugar replacement.
One cookie that I always include is an anise cookie whose recipe was given to my grandmother by her friend, and Italian woman named Phyllis Madonna. The two worked together when they were younger, and the friendship continued through the years. It was Phyllis who taught me how to make squash flower pancakes, and her garden, tended to by her brother, encompassed her whole front yard. They also had grape vines - of course! - and made wine in the basement. I always regret that I never heard that they got rid of the grape press. I would have jumped at the opportunity to take it away. After my grandmother passed away, my mom and I continued to visit periodically, and Phyllis, the consummate hostess, always had an interesting goodie to share. It turned out, in a quirk of fate, that I became friendly with Phyllis' niece, Donna, with whom I worked as a Girl Scout leader. We became good friends, and I visited Phyllis later after she was transferred from her beloved home to am assisted living facility. So, making these cookies brings me way back to when I was a little girl, visiting and enjoying a culture a little different from what I was used to experiencing.
Makes about 60.
1/2 cup sugar
1/4 lb. unsalted butter, softened
2 teaspoons anise flavoring
5 teaspoons baking powder
1 lb. (3 1/5 cup s) flour
Cream together sugar and butter. Add the anise flavoring and blend well. Sift together the baking powder and flour. Add to sugar/butter and mix well. Drop by tablespoon onto greased cookie sheet. Bake in pre-heated oven at 350 for 15 - 18 min. When cooled, you can glaze them and decorate. I mix confectioner's sugar with a little water until it is a little runny, but not too much so. Spread onto cookies and sprinkle with colored sugar or nonpareils.
Another cookie I love, because it is so versatile and herb-inspired, is my friend Susan Belsinger's Herbal Butter Cookie, from her book not just desserts. I make this often, using whatever herbs I fancy, from sweet Thai basil to rosemary to lemon thyme. They freeze well, too.
Herbal Butter Cookie
Makes about 3-4 dozen
12 tablespoons unsalted butter, softened
2/3 cup sugar
1 large egg
1/2 teaspoon vanilla extract
2 cups unbleached white flour, sifted
2 to 3 tablespoons minced fresh herbs
Pinch of salt
Cream the butter and sugar. Beat in the egg and the extract. Gradually mix in the flour, and stir in the minced herb and a pinch of salt. The dough will be soft. Divide the dough into two parts. Using plastic wrap to shape the dough, roll each part into a cylinder about 1-1/4 inches in diameter. Chill the rolls for an hour, or place in freezer for 20 min.
Preheat oven to 350 F. Remove the plastic wrap and slice the dough into 1/4-inch rounds. Place the cookies on ungreased baking sheets and bake for about ten min. until the cookies are a light golden brown. Remove from baking sheets while they are hot and cool on racks.
Enjoy your holidays, and keep them herbal!
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