As thousands of sourdough-obsessed Americans have discovered during the pandemic, there’s no time like a lockdown to discover the joys of baking. A shift to sweets for comfort and a sense of celebration this holiday season might involve churning out the classics — iced sugar cookies, gingerbread men, red and white pinwheels — to evoke memories of holidays past and strengthen family traditions.
If you are a first-time holiday baker, start with simple drop cookies like snowballs and chocolate crinkles. There are plenty of simple ways to decorate rolled gingerbread cookies without breaking out the pastry bag. And if you are up for the challenge, extra time at home will give you the opportunity to perfect your frosting skills on classic sugar cookies.
Some bakers like to devote a frenzied day or two to holiday baking. Others would rather make and freeze cookie dough in the weeks before the holiday, and bake and decorate them at the last minute. For planners, we’ve included tips for working ahead.
Classic Sugar Cookies
For the cookies:
1 cup (2 sticks) unsalted butter, softened
1/2 cup sugar
1 large egg yolk
1 teaspoon pure vanilla extract
2 1/4 cups unbleached all-purpose flour
¼ teaspoon salt
Royal icing for decoration
Colored sugar or sprinkles for decoration
For the icing:
2 tablespoons meringue powder
5 tablespoons warm water
2 cups confectioners’ sugar
Colored sugar or sprinkles
1. Make the cookies: Place the butter and sugar in a large bowl and beat together with an electric mixer on medium until fluffy, about 3 minutes. Beat in egg yolk and vanilla. Beat in flour and salt on low until dough is smooth.
2. Divide dough into two portions. Press each into a 5-inch disk, wrap in plastic, and refrigerate for at least 30 minutes and up to 2 days.
3. Preheat oven to 375 degrees. Line several baking sheets with parchment paper.
4. Place candies in the work bowl of a food processor fitted with a metal blade and process until finely ground. Transfer candy to a small bowl.
5. Working with one dough disk at a time, knead the disk a few times on a lightly floured work surface to soften it. Roll dough into a 1/4-inch thickness on a lightly floured countertop. Turn the dough often, loosening it from the countertop with a large offset spatula, to prevent sticking.
6. Cut into desired shapes and place on lined baking sheets. Refrigerate the scraps.
7. Bake until cookies are firm and golden around the edges, about 10 minutes. Slide entire parchment sheet with cookies onto a wire rack and let cool completely. Repeat with remaining dough disks and then with the chilled scraps, using fresh parchment paper each time.
8. Make the icing: Whisk together meringue powder and water in a large bowl until frothy. Add confectioners’’ sugar, whisk, and then beat with an electric mixer on high until smooth and shiny, 3 to 5 minutes.
9. Divide icing into small bowls and stir a drop or two of food coloring into each bowl, stirring to incorporate. Use a small spatula or craft stick to spread icing on cookies and then decorate with sprinkles. Alternatively, Place icing in a pastry bag fitted with a small plain tip and pipe it decoratively onto cookies. Let cookies stand until icing is set, about 30 minutes. Store in an airtight container at room temperature, between sheets of parchment to protect decoration, for up to 3 days.
Makes about 35 three-inch cookies
TIP: Plan ahead. Make your dough, wrap it in plastic, and store it in the refrigerator for up to 3 days or in the freezer for up to 1 month. Roll and cut defrosted dough, arrange in single layers with parchment paper in between on a rimmed baking sheet, wrap the baking sheet in plastic, and freeze for up to 1 month before baking straight from the freezer.
Classic Mini Gingerbread Men
2 1/2 cups unbleached all-purpose flour
1 teaspoon baking powder
1 teaspoon ground ginger
1/2 teaspoon baking soda
1/2 teaspoon salt
1/2 teaspoon ground cinnamon
½ teaspoon ground cloves
½ cup (1 stick) unsalted butter, softened
½ cup sugar
½ cup dark (not light or blackstrap) molasses
1 large egg
1 tablespoon white vinegar
Red Hots, sugar hearts, sprinkles, and other sugar décors for decorating
1. Make cookies: Whisk together flour, baking powder, ginger, baking soda, salt, cinnamon and cloves in a medium bowl. Cream together butter and sugar in a large mixing bowl with an electric mixer until smooth. Add molasses, egg and vinegar, and beat until smooth, scraping down side of bowl once or twice as necessary. Stir in flour mixture one cup at a time, until incorporated.
2. Scrape dough onto countertop, shape into a 5-inch disk, wrap in plastic, and refrigerate for at least 30 minutes and up to 3 days.
3. Preheat oven to 375 degrees. Line several baking sheets with parchment paper. Roll dough into a ¼-inch thickness on a lightly floured countertop. Turn the dough often, loosening it from the countertop with a large offset spatula, to prevent sticking. Use a 3-inch gingerbread man cookie cutter to cut dough, rerolling and cutting scraps. Place cut cookies on prepared baking sheets, 1 inch apart. Press sugar decorations and candies into cookies to make eyes, mouths, buttons, etc.
4. Bake until firm, 8 to 10 minutes. Slide cookies, still on parchment, onto wire racks to cool completely. Store in an airtight container at room temperature, between sheets of parchment to protect decoration, for up to 3 days.
Makes about 30 3-inch gingerbread men
TIP: With the clever placement of candies, sprinkles, and other sugar décors, it is possible to decorate your gingerbread piping royal icing from a pastry bag.
2 cups unbleached all-purpose flour
1/2 teaspoon baking powder
1/2 teaspoon salt
1 cups (2 sticks) unsalted butter, softened
¾ cup sugar
1 large egg
1 ½ teaspoons pure vanilla extract
Red food coloring
2 teaspoons cold water
1 large egg white, lightly beaten
1 cup red, white, and green nonpareils
1. Combine the flour, baking powder and salt in a medium mixing bowl.
2. Combine the butter and sugar in a large mixing bowl and cream together with an electric mixer on medium-high speed until fluffy, 2 to 3 minutes. Add the egg and vanilla and beat until smooth. Stir in the flour mixture until just incorporated.
3. Divide the dough into two equal portions. Return one portion to the mixer and beat in several drops of food coloring so the dough is uniformly bright red.
4. Spread a large piece of plastic wrap on a work surface and sprinkle lightly with flour. Use a rolling pin to roll the white dough into a rough 8 1/2-inch square. Trim the edges of the dough so that it is a neat 8-inch square. Repeat with the red cookie dough.
5. Brush the white cookie dough with the water. Carefully invert the red cookie dough onto the sugar cookie dough so that the two doughs are lined up. Use the plastic wrap to push and roll the doughs into a neat, tight log. Tightly wrap the dough in plastic and freeze until firm, at least 2 hours and up to 2 weeks.
6. Preheat the oven to 350 degrees. Pour the nonpareils into a shallow rectangular dish. Brush the log all over with egg white. Carefully lift the log into the dish. Gently roll it around until the outside is completely coated with nonpareils.
7. Slice the dough into 1/3-inch-thick rounds, rotating the dough often so it doesn’t become flattened as you cut. Place the cookies on parchment-lined baking sheets at least 2 inches apart. Bake them until they are pale golden around the edges but still soft on top, 13 to 15 minutes. Let them stand on the baking sheet for 5 minutes and then remove them with a metal spatula to a wire rack to cool completely. Pinwheel cookies will keep in an airtight container for 2 to 3 days.
Makes 24 cookies
TIP: Plan ahead. Wrap red-and-white dough logs in a double layer of plastic wrap and freeze up to 1 month. Defrost overnight in the refrigerator before brushing with egg white, decorating with nonpareils, slicing and baking.
1 ½ cups pecans
2 ¼ cups unbleached all-purpose flour
1 teaspoon salt
1 cup (2 sticks) unsalted butter softened
½ cup granulated sugar
2 teaspoons water
1 1/2 teaspoons pure vanilla extract
1/3 cup confectioners’ sugar
1. Preheat the oven to 325 degrees. Line several baking sheets with parchment paper. Spread the pecan halves in a single layer on one of the sheets and toast until fragrant, 8 to 10 minutes. Remove from oven and let cool completely.
2. Place the pecans in a food processor and process until they are finely chopped. Combine the chopped nuts, flour and salt in a medium mixing bowl and set aside.
3. Cream the butter and sugar together in a large mixing bowl with an electric mixer on medium-high speed until fluffy, 2 to 3 minutes. Beat the water and vanilla into the butter mixture. Stir in the nut-and-flour mixture until just combined.
4. Scoop up tablespoonfuls of dough and roll it between your palms to form a ball. Place the balls on a parchment-lined baking sheet, leaving 1 ½ inches between each cookie. Bake the cookies until they are cooked through but not dry, 18 to 20 minutes. Remove the cookies with a metal spatula to a wire rack to cool.
5. Place the confectioners’ sugar in a shallow bowl. When the cookies are completely cooled, roll each one in the sugar to coat. Snowball cookies will keep in an airtight container for 2 to 3 days.
Makes about 3 dozen cookies
TIP: Plan ahead. Place balls of dough next to each other on a parchment-lined baking sheet, freeze, transfer frozen dough balls to a zip-top plastic freezer bag, and freeze for up to 1 month. Let thaw for a few minutes, still in the bag, while the oven heats up.
Chocolate Crinkle Cookies
1 1/3 cups semisweet chocolate chips
8 tablespoons (1 stick) unsalted butter, softened and cut up into 8 pieces
2/3 cup granulated sugar
3 large eggs
2 teaspoons pure vanilla extract
1/2 teaspoon baking powder
1/4 teaspoon salt
1 2/3 cups unbleached all-purpose flour
1/2 cup confectioners’ sugar
1. Combine the chocolate and butter in a microwave-safe bowl, and microwave just until the butter melts. Whisk until the chocolate is melted and the mixture is smooth.
2. Combine the sugar, eggs and vanilla in a large mixing bowl. With an electric mixer on low speed, mix until combined. Mix in the chocolate mixture, baking power and salt. Mix in the flour, 1/3 cup at a time, until combined. Cover the bowl with plastic wrap and refrigerate at least 3 hours and up to 1 day.
3. Preheat the oven to 325 degrees. Line several baking sheets with parchment paper.
4. Place the confectioners’ sugar in a shallow bowl. Roll tablespoonfuls of chilled dough between your palms and place balls, several at a time, into the confectioners’ sugar, tossing to coat well. Transfer to prepared baking sheets, 2 inches apart, and repeat with remaining dough.
5. Bake until cracked on top but still soft in the middle, 11 to 13 minutes. Do not overbake. Slide entire parchment sheet with cookies onto a wire rack and let cool completely. Chocolate Crinkle Cookies will keep in an airtight container for 2 to 3 days.
Makes about 32 cookies
HOW TO PACKAGE FOR GIFT-GIVING
Holiday parties and in-person cookie exchanges may be on pause, but we can still celebrate the season with baked goods. Spread holiday cheer by mailing cookies to family members or dropping them off on your neighbors’ doorsteps. A few tips on packaging:
Bake hardy: If your cookies will be traveling long distances, make sure they are sturdy enough to survive the trip. Snowballs and chocolate crinkle cookies, which can be jostled without too much damage, are good choices. Delicately decorated sugar cookies probably aren’t.
Package small: If you have a lot of locals—friends, neighbors–on your list, pick up small containers and keep the focus on quality rather than quantity. It will save you time in the kitchen and small indulgences are always appreciated at this time of year, when it’s difficult to get through the day without overeating. Craft stores are stocked with a wide selection of miniature buckets and baskets, takeout boxes, wax paper bags, and other cute cookie containers. If your containers aren’t airtight, wrap them in a colorful piece of cellophane tied with a bow, to keep the cookies fresh.
Safe travels: Preserve your cookies’ freshness by packing them in an airtight container. Then place your container in a box, surrounding it with packaging material (crumpled newspaper, bubble wrap, packing peanuts), so it can’t move around. Finally, mark your box as “perishable” and “fragile” and indicate “This Way Up,” so it is lightly handled as it makes its way to its destination.