The Holiday Cookie Tray

Starting in October home and cooking magazines, blogs, websites, and even newspapers begin displaying gorgeous selections of holiday cookies.  Usually the photos show a wide variety of perfect looking cookies, artfully decorated, color coordinated, arranged enticingly on an expensive platter, and not a bad calorie in sight.  As the weeks pass into November and December, I begin feeling the need to emulate the chefs who made those fancy cookies.  The problem is, I can’t—easily.  Turning out perfect cookies while working, looking after a family, and doing multiple other things, isn’t as easy as the photos suggest.  But I have tried.   

 

What I’ve discovered in my many attempts at cookie making is something similar to what a former boss told me years ago when I was agonizing over a writing project.  He said, “don’t let the perfect be the enemy of the good.”  So, while I can’t achieve the perfection of all those stunning cookie trays, I can turn out some pretty tasty cookies that look nice on a plate.  I’ve also found that my family could care less about the cookies in the photos or even how the cookies look on the plate.  They want good tasting cookies, preferably the ones they traditionally associate with Christmastime.  Those preferred cookies are not the exotic, fancy ones in the photos—no kumquat infused spice cookies with chipotle peppers and silvery glaze for my family.  Nope.  Leave those to the food critics.  My family wants the same sorts cookies they’ve had for years—especially maple-nut, molasses or ginger, and some type of sugar cookies—all easy and not “new, weird, and different.”   

 

On this website (below and check the blog posts), I will offer you some fairly simple cookie recipes, all of which are quite tasty.  Many of the cookies are inexpensive to make and, although hardly "health food," aren't too terribly bad for you as long as you don't eat too many.  So, try as many of the recipes as you like, but don’t feel that you have to go overboard in the cookie production process.  Here are some ideas that have helped me through the years:

 

  • Make the dough or batter one day and refrigerate or freeze it to bake later.  If you make all the cookies the day you prepare the dough, you’ll have a lot of work, a messy kitchen, and probably stale cookies before you can eat them all.  Instead, I usually make two or three types of cookie dough on one day and stash the dough, ready to bake later.  Making several types of dough at once also is quick when you have all the ingredients—sugar, flour, eggs, leaveners, spices, etc.—already at hand.

 

  • Choose 1-3 types of cookies that you and your family feel that you “must have.”  Make those.  Save the other recipes for later.  The cookies will be great to make on a cold day in January or February—or even a warm day in July.

 

  • If your family likes a particular type of cookie, but it’s not “Christmasy,” make it anyway and ignore the media mavens who say you must make only “Christmas cookies.”  Chocolate chip, oatmeal, and peanut butter cookies, for instance, are great any time of year, especially when they’re homemade.

 

  • Balance more complex recipes with those that are simple or require few ingredients.  If you make cookies that require a lot of rolling and decorating, try others that you pat in a pan and cut up.

 

  • Find someone else in your home who would like fresh-baked cookies and tell them they can have some as soon as they help clean up the kitchen.

  • On "Cookie Baking Day" plan on having leftovers for dinner.  Too many cooking projects on one day facilitates "cook meltdowns." 

 

  • If you do go overboard and make dozens of cookies and multiple varieties (okay, sometime I do), be sure to share them with others.  Many people no longer bake and would enjoy some homemade cookies rather than a tray of store-bought cookies that looks great but features pretty tasteless cookies.

A Few Recipes to Get Started

​Maple-Pecan Cookies – Makes 24+

 

I’ve been making these cookies since I was first married.  They are quick to mix up, don’t require exotic ingredients, and are really, really good.  I usually make a double batch, baking one roll of dough and keeping the other in the refrigerator or freezer to bake later. 

 

¾ cup of dark brown sugar

½ cup of Smart Balance (or butter), softened

1 teaspoon of maple extract

1 cup of white whole-wheat flour

½ cup of flour

½ teaspoon of cinnamon

1 teaspoon of baking powder

¼ teaspoon of salt

1 cup of chopped pecans

 

In a large bowl, combine the brown sugar and Smart Balance (or butter) well.  Mix in the maple extract.  Stir in the remaining ingredients.  On a piece of waxed paper or plastic wrap shape the dough into a log, roughly 12-14 inches long.  Wrap the log and refrigerate it for at least a couple of hours, preferably overnight.  When you’re ready to bake the cookies, preheat the oven to 375 degrees and coat cookie sheets with nonstick cooking spray or line them with parchment paper.  Cut the log into ¼ inch slices.  Place the slices about 2 inches apart on the prepared sheets, and bake the cookies about 10 minute or until the edges are brown.  Let the cookies sit on the baking sheets a couple of minutes before loosening them.  Then remove the cookies and let them cool completely. 

Almond and Jam Cookies – Makes 24

 

These are favorite Christmas cookies at my house.  They are bite-sized little cookie-tarts—simple, sweet, and pretty.  The cookies also are a good way to use up left over egg yolks, if you have any.  The yolks give the cookies richness and aid their texture.  Try the cookies with raspberry or apricot jam, but whatever type you have lingering in your refrigerator will do. 

 

¼ cup of Smart or Earth Balance (or butter)

½ cup of confectioners’ sugar

¼ cup of sugar

2 egg yolks

½ teaspoon of vanilla

½ teaspoon of almond flavoring

½ teaspoon of butter flavoring

½ cup of yogurt

1 cup of flour

1 cup of almond flour (or ground almond meal)

1 teaspoon of baking powder

¼ teaspoon of salt

½ teaspoon of cinnamon

½ cup of seedless raspberry or apricot jam

 

Preheat the oven to 350 degrees and line cookie sheets with parchment paper or coat them with nonstick cooking spray.  In a large bowl, mix the Smart Balance and the sugars.  Add the egg yolks, the flavorings, and the yogurt and mix to blend everything well.  Stir in the flour, almond meal, baking powder, salt, and cinnamon, mixing them in well.  Form the dough into marble-sized balls and place them on the prepared baking sheets, about an inch apart.  Make little craters in the center of each ball and fill the craters with a dot of the jam.  Bake the cookies for 15-20 minutes until just beginning to brown.  Let the cookies cool on the cookies sheets a few minutes before removing them to cool completely. 

Cream Cheese Sugar Cookies – Makes 24+

 

Cream cheese cookies are a tradition in many households during the Christmas season.  These cookies use lower fat cream cheese, and they taste quite tangy and rich with far less fat than the usual version.  Yes, I know the fancy chefs don't like low-fat cream cheese.  Too bad.  How many of those chefs take their turns on the Stairmasters?  Besides, the lower fat version of the cookies is great.  I certainly haven't had any complaints about them at my house.  You can bake the cookies plain and decorate them once they’ve baked with the frosting or icing of your choice.  Alternatively, you can sprinkle the cookies with sugar—plain, tinted, or sparkly—before you bake them for a quick, beautiful cookie.  I like to use white, silver, and gold sparkly sugar on my cookies.  The cookies look quite impressive with minimal work.  

 

2 ¼ cups of flour

1 teaspoon of baking powder

½ teaspoon of baking soda

½ teaspoon of salt

1 ¼ cup of sugar

8 ounces of low fat cream cheese, softened

1/3 cup of canola oil

1 egg

2 teaspoons of vanilla extract

Extra sugar for sprinkling (optional)

 

Preheat the oven to 350 degrees and line cookie sheets with parchment paper or coat them with nonstick cooking spray.  In a large bowl, combine the flour, baking powder, baking soda, and salt.  In another large bowl, combine the softened sugar and cream cheese beating them well.  Add the canola oil, egg, and vanilla, beating until they are thoroughly incorporated.  Add the flour mixture gradually until it is just incorporated.  Roll tablespoons of dough into balls and place them about 2 inches apart on the prepared cookie sheets.  Flatten the cookies a little and sprinkle them with sugar, if you’d like.  Bake the cookies for 10-13 minutes or until set.  Cool the cookies for 5 minutes before removing them from the cookie sheets to finish cooling. 

Deep Dark Chocolate Cookies – Makes 18

 

These are “chocolate fix” cookies.  They are, as the name suggests, deep, dark, and rich, but the cookies aren’t as full of fat and sugar as you might think.  The cookies have a depth of chocolate flavor from whole-wheat flour and cocoa powder.  A little canola oil, rather than butter, is sufficient when combined with richly flavored dark brown sugar and white corn syrup to provide moisture and density.*  Walnuts, dark chocolate, and cocoa nibs stud each tender bite of cookie, making only one or two of these cookies perfect for a quick “chocolate fix.”  

 

¼ cup of dark brown sugar

¼ cup of white corn syrup

¼ cup of canola oil

1 teaspoon of vanilla

1 egg

¾ cup of white whole-wheat flour

¼ cup of cocoa powder

½ teaspoon of baking powder

¼ teaspoon of baking soda

¼ teaspoon of salt

½ teaspoon of cinnamon

¾ cup of walnuts, preferably toasted

¾ cup of dark chocolate chunks or chips

¼ cup of cocoa nibs

 

In a large bowl, mix the sugar, corn syrup, oil, vanilla, and egg well.  Add the flour, cocoa powder, baking powder, baking soda, salt, and cinnamon and mix until everything is incorporated.  Fold in the walnuts, chocolate chips, and cocoa nibs.  Chill the dough for at least an hour and preferably overnight.  When you’re ready to bake the cookies, preheat the oven to 375 degrees and line cookie sheets with parchment paper or coat them with nonstick cooking spray.  Drop large marble-sized balls on the prepared cookie sheets and flatten the balls slightly with your hands (first dampen your hands with a little water to prevent the dough from sticking).  Bake the cookies for about 10 minutes.  They will be soft, almost squishy, in the centers.  Let the cookies cool on the cookies sheets a few minutes before removing them to cool completely.

Maple Dream Cookies – Makes 24+

 

These little cookies are basically Swedish dream cookies with a few changes.  I’ve added maple extract and cinnamon to give them a different, more pronounced, flavor from the original.  The cookies are meant to be light in texture.  Don’t worry if they don’t brown.  They’re not supposed to cook that long. 

 

1 2/3 cups of flour

1 teaspoon of baking soda

½ teaspoon of cinnamon

½ cup of Earth Balance (or butter), softened

¼ cup of canola oil

1 cup of sugar

½ teaspoon of maple flavoring

½ teaspoon of vanilla extract

2-3 tablespoons of raw (turbinado) sugar (optional)

 

Preheat the oven to 350 degrees and line cookie sheets with parchment paper or coat them with nonstick cooking spray.  In a large bowl, beat the Earth Balance (or butter) and sugar until well combined, light in color, and a little fluffy-looking.  Mix in the canola oil, maple flavoring, and vanilla extract until smooth.  In a plastic bag or another bowl, mix the flour, baking soda, and cinnamon.  Add the dry to the wet mixture and stir until just combined.  Divide the dough into 24 portions, placing them about 2 inches apart on the prepared baking sheets.  With dampened hands, shape each portion into a little mound.  Sprinkle each mound with a little of the raw sugar, if you are using it.  Bake the cookies for 12-15 minutes until they are just set.  Cool the cookies for 5 minutes before removing them from the cookie sheets to finish cooling. 

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