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Holiday cookies

All Photos: Virginia Willis

These three cookies will help you bake up a fun holiday party

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Learn how to make the 3 simple holiday cookies Virginia Willis is baking this year

Baking cookies is a time-honored holiday tradition in the South. In this month's column from award-winning chef and cookbook author Virginia Willis, learn how to make simple, yet still stunningly beautiful holiday cookies that are perfect for both parties and cozy nights in.

When I was a little girl, my sister and I always left out cookies and milk for Santa and a carrot or two for Rudolph. And, every Christmas morning without fail, the plate we left for Santa held but a few crumbs and the glass was drained and empty. Rudolph had gnawed most of his carrot, leaving only the stem end. It was positively magical. I remember our wide-eyed wonderment as we ran squealing into the living room.

Cookies are synonymous with the holidays. There are cookies for Santa, cookie swaps at school or work, cookies and cider after church on Sunday, and even the familiar store-bought blue tins of butter cookies. How wonderful is it to receive a tin of homemade cookies in the mail or for a kind neighbor to drop off a wrapped plate? There’s nothing like a batch of freshly baked cookies to spread the holiday cheer. Every family has their favorite — sugar cookies, spritz cookies, even fruitcake cookies!

When I was the kitchen director for Martha Stewart Living Television, we were pretty much holiday cookie central. Martha is well known for her beautiful, elaborately decorated holiday sugar and cookie-press cookies, garnished with sparkling sugar and silver and gold dragées. Of course, to accomplish this feat, we had entire teams of pastry chefs and bakers that were dedicated to spending hours and hours meticulously creating cookies that were incredible works of edible art. All the Martha elves came out during the holidays.

Plate your cookies on this festive platter

Then, we cooked up a TV segment called Cookie of the Week and Martha would share her favorite cookies with viewers. We ran through her tried and true favorites fairly quickly, so my team started testing and tasting new recipes. The standards were typically Martha — absolute perfection was expected. We baked and baked and baked those cookies for Martha to taste and approve. Sometimes, I’d offer her a selection and she’d take a glance at the plate and dismiss them on looks alone without even tasting them. Cookie and soul-crushing defeat.

I have to be completely honest: My love of cookies dimmed just a bit. Well, actually a lot. It was cookie overload. But, in the end, I realized Martha was right — good cookies are wonderful, but a bad cookie is simply bite-size sadness.

Since my life doesn't involved pastry chef elves doing all of my work for me, my favorite holiday cookies these days are super simple to make. No rolling, cutting, pressing, slicing or decorating. A small ice cream scoop makes shaping a breeze. Even though there are no dragées in sight, Martha would approve — this trio of cookies both looks and taste fantastic.

Here's the perfect gift for the baker in your family

My wedding cookies, sometimes called Mexican wedding cookies or meltaways, are a holiday classic. They are essentially shortbread made with chopped pecans and are super simple to make with children. Chocolate snowcaps are a chocolate lover’s dream. The key is a double whammy of cocoa and bittersweet chocolate. Lastly, spicy gingersnaps have freshly ground white pepper as their secret ingredient and are perfect with a steaming cup of tea. These cookies are delicious, beautiful, and guaranteed showstoppers at any cookie swap or festive holiday party. Whip up a batch or two of for teachers, hostess gifts, colleagues, or for you and your family to enjoy on a cozy night in.

Bon Appétit, Y’all!
Virginia Willis


Wedding Cookies
Makes: About 4 dozen
Hands-on time: 30 minutes
Total time: 1 hour, plus cooling time

Ingredients
1 cup (2 sticks) unsalted butter, at room temperature
1/4 cup granulated sugar
1 teaspoon vanilla
2 cups cake flour (not self-rising)
1 cup chopped pecans
1/2 teaspoon fine sea salt
1 cup powdered sugar, for rolling

Instructions
Heat the oven to 300 degrees. Line two rimmed baking sheets with silicone baking mats or parchment paper.

In the bowl of a stand mixer fitted with the paddle attachment, beat the butter, granulated sugar and vanilla on medium speed until light and fluffy. Gradually add the flour, pecans and salt, beating on low speed after each addition until well blended. Using a small ice cream scoop, shape the dough into 1-inch balls. Place half of the dough balls 1 1/2 inches apart on the prepared baking sheets.

Bake until the bottoms of the cookies are lightly browned, about 30 minutes. Transfer to a wire rack to cool slightly.

Place the powdered sugar in a medium bowl and, while the cookies are still warm, roll in the sugar until evenly coated. Transfer to a wire rack set on top of a rimmed baking sheet to cool completely.

Repeat with the remaining dough balls. Serve immediately or store in a tightly-covered container at room temperature for up to 1 week.


Chocolate Snowcaps
Note: Bake the cookies immediately after rolling them in powdered sugar; if they sit, the sugar absorbs into the dough and the rich chocolatey cookies lose their snowcapped look.

Makes: About 5 dozen
Hands-on time: 45 minutes
Total time: 3 hours, plus cooling time

Ingredients
8 ounces bittersweet chocolate, chopped
1 1/4 cups all-purpose flour
1/2 cup Dutch-process cocoa powder
2 teaspoons baking powder
1/4 teaspoon fine sea salt
1/2 cup (1 stick) unsalted butter, room temperature
1 1/3 cups dark brown sugar, firmly packed
2 large eggs
1/2 teaspoon vanilla
1/3 cup whole milk
1 cup powdered sugar, for rolling

Instructions
Place the chocolate in a medium bowl and heat in the microwave at 50-percent power until melted, about 1 minute. In a second medium bowl, sift together the flour, cocoa, baking powder and salt.

In the bowl of a stand mixer fitted with the paddle attachment, beat the butter and brown sugar until light and fluffy. Use a rubber spatula to scrape down the sides of the bowl. Add the eggs and vanilla, and beat until well combined. Beat in the melted chocolate. With the mixer on low speed, add one-third of the flour mixture, followed by half of the milk. Add another third of the flour mixture, followed by the remaining milk and then the remainig flour mixture. Continue to mix just until combined.

Divide the dough into quarters, wrap in plastic wrap, and chill in the refrigerator until firm, about 2 hours.

When ready to bake, heat the oven to 300 degrees. Line two rimmed baking sheets with silicone baking mats or parchment paper.

Remove the dough from refrigerator. Using a small ice cream scoop, shape half of the dough into 1-inch balls. Place the powdered sugar in a medium bowl and roll the dough balls in the sugar a few at a time to completely and thoroughly coat.

Place the rolled dough balls 2 inches apart on the prepared baking sheets. Bake until cookies have flattened and the sugar splits, 12 to 15 minutes. Transfer to a wire rack to cool completely.

Repeat the shaping, rolling and baking steps with the remaining dough. Serve immediately or store in an airtight container for up to 1 week.


Spicy Golden Gingersnaps
Makes: About 4 1/2 dozen
Hands-on time: 45 minutes
Total time: 2 hours, plus cooling time

Ingredients
2 1/2 cups all-purpose flour
2 1/4 teaspoons baking soda
1 tablespoon ground ginger
1/2 teaspoon fine sea salt
1/2 teaspoon ground allspice
1/2 teaspoon freshly ground white pepper
1/4 teaspoon ground cinnamon
1 cup (2 sticks) unsalted butter, at room temperature
1/2 cup firmly packed dark brown sugar
1/2 cup granulated sugar
6 tablespoons unsulfured molasses
1 large egg, at room temperature
1/2 cup sanding or granulated sugar, for rolling

Ingredients
In a medium bowl, whisk together the flour, baking soda, salt, ginger, allspice, pepper and cinnamon.

In the bowl of a stand mixer fitted with the paddle attachment, beat the butter with the brown sugar and granulated sugar until light and fluffy. Use a rubber spatula to scrape down the sides of the bowl. Beat in the molasses and the egg. On low speed, beat in the flour mixture until just combined. Cover and refrigerate until firm, at least 1 hour.

When ready to bake, heat the oven to 300 degrees. Line two rimmed baking sheets with silicone baking mats or parchment paper.

Remove the dough from refrigerator. Using a small ice cream scoop, shape the dough into 1-inch balls. Place the sanding sugar in a medium bowl and roll the cookie balls in the sugar a few at a time to completely and thoroughly coat.

Place half of the dough balls 2 inches apart on the prepared baking sheets. Using the bottom of a drinking glass, flatten the cookies until they measure about 1/4 inch thick. Bake until browned, 10 to 12 minutes. Transfer to a wire rack to cool completely.

Repeat with the remaining dough balls. Serve immediately or store in an airtight container for up to 2 days.

Visit the Shoppe at Southern Kitchen for holiday gifts and more


Author image

Georgia-born, French-trained chef and food writer Virginia Willis has made cookies with Dwanye “The Rock” Johnson, catered a bowling party for Jane Fonda, foraged for herbs in the Alps, and harvested capers in the shadow of a smoldering volcano in Sicily -- but it all started in her grandmother’s country kitchen. Her legion of fans loves her knack for giving classic French cooking a down-home feel and re-imagining Southern recipes en Français. Her most recent cookbook, "Lighten Up, Y’all: Classic Southern Recipes Made Healthy and Wholesome," received a 2016 James Beard Foundation Award of Excellence. Learn more about Virginia and follow her culinary exploits at VirginiaWillis.com.

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