By Chef K. Marie Paulk

The holidays have come and will soon be gone again. Halloween and Thanksgiving have both passed us by. Christmas and the New Year’s Day will soon follow suit. This can be such a stressful and hectic time of the year, to the point where one can almost wish for the holidays to be over. Personally, I don’t really start to feel the true holiday season until Christmas Day or the day after. The gift giving, cooking, and baking can take a backseat for me, and I can sit in my PJ’s, with my feet up, enjoying a warm drink and a few cookies while admiring the Christmas tree.

What better present for the foodie in your life than food and wine. This is the year that I may tackle a Bûche de Noël, a Gingerbread and White Chocolate Mousse Trifle, or maybe a Carmel Croquembouche. But these desserts all take a special effort, and therefore, they need a special setting. I know quite a few people who feel it is all about Christmas cookies, not just eating them, but getting a group of people together and making them. A friend of mine has her annual Christmas cooking exchange, so I took about five different types of my mother’s recipes; however, I should have brought the Carmel Croquembouche.

The word “cookie” is derived from the Dutch: koekje or koekie, which mean “small cake.” A cookie is classified according to how the dough is shaped prior to baking.  There are eight classifications:

  1. Bagged – Piped out cookies
  2. Bar – Flattened into bars and baked (Biscotti)
  3. Drop – Dropped by spoonfuls (no need to flatten, Chocolate Chip)
  4. Ice Box/Refrigerator – Shaped into bars and chilled (sliced to bake Sable)
  5. Rolled – Rolled with shapes cut out (butter sugar cookies)
  6. Molded – Fixed into desired shapes and then baked (Mexican Wedding Cakes)
  7. Sheet – Spreaded batter into pans (Lemon Bars)
  8. Stencil – Batter is spread out over a stencil and then baked (Tuile Nut Lace)

In my opinion, dessert is the most essential and anticipated part of the meal. Whenever I go out to dinner, I always eye the desserts first to determine if I should leave the room or not—especially during the holidays.  So, here is a crazy idea for you … why not have a “dessert party”?  It can be an easy way to entertain, because everything can be made ahead. The only work you would need to worry about is how to platter your treats.

When planning your platter layout, keep in mind balance:

  • Height
  • Color
  • Shapes
  • Portion Sizes
  • Negative / Positive Space
  • Line Flows
  • Curves
  • Straight Lines
  • Shape of Platter: Round, Oval, Square

Place the tallest item in the back with each row getting shorter in size.

Break up the color sequence in each row.

Make each row with the same item; do not mix and match the rows unevenly.

Plan your layout before placing the item on the platter, as you will have cleaner presentation.

Now, I can go on and on with recipes of my favorite Christmas cookies—and I have many—but since I have limited space here, I’m going to give you just one: shortbread. I know what you’re probably thinking: “…really?” But, I love shortbread cookies! They are the best in my opinion and need to be crumbly, tender, and moist. For those keeping track, shortbread cookies fall into the “bar” classification. Shortbread is an easy cookie to make and it tastes even better a day or two after baking, which makes it great for gift giving. Plus, the recipe can be versatile. You can shape them, dip them into chocolate, add a flavoring: ginger, cinnamon, espresso, lemon, cardamom, and/or lavender.

Shortbread dates back to medieval Scotland and was originally a sweet yeast biscuit. To avoid paying the taxes that were levied on biscuits at the time, Scottish bakers classified their yeasted biscuits as “bread.” The short in shortbread is a reference to its texture. These cookies have a high ratio of butter to flour and a low moisture content, which inhibits the development of gluten in the dough and keeps the cookie tender and crumbly.

The recipe I like is a vanilla shortbread cookie, yielding about 40 rectangular cookies.

12 oz. of unsalted butter

15 oz. unbleached AP flour

2 Tbs. cornstarch

1 tsp. table salt

5 3/8 oz. confections sugar

1 Tbs. pure vanilla extract

Lightly butter the bottom of a 9×13 baking pan

Combine the flour, cornstarch and salt in a medium bowl.  Using a paddle, beat the butter, sugar, and vanilla on medium speed until smooth and creamy (about 2 to 3 minutes). Add the flour and mix on low until the dough begins to clump (about 1 minute). NOTE: Mixing too long will make the dough tough.

Press the dough into your prepared buttered pan and form an even layer.

Use a bench knife or paring knife to cut the dough all the way through into 40 bars. Then, gently prick the dough with a fork, spacing the holes evenly and on the diagonal. This helps them to bake evenly and gives the cookie a traditional look.

Freeze the dough while your oven heats to 325°F.

Bake the dough, rotating the pan halfway through (about 30 minutes), until the top looks dry and golden brown. Immediately recut the cookies along the lines.

I hope I have gotten your entertaining and baking juices flowing. All the cookie recipes I have reviewed have certainly inspired me … the only other thing I have to decide is what adult beverages to serve!

Happy Holidays, and cheers!