Years ago, I met a woman whom I called the “Christmas cookie queen.” Each December, she kept me up-to-date on the progress of her Christmas baking. Her goal was to make two dozen different kinds of cookies, which she packaged in pretty, flat boxes and gave as gifts. She baked a batch of cookies every day — little fancy cookies that she nestled into bonbon cups like chocolates.
Each year, she gave them away to friends and neighbors. I tried to emulate my cookie queen but ended up with too many cookies, and especially this year, when we are limited in interactions with others, I have decided to really cut back.
Instead of making all these batches of butter cookies, I bake cookies my “lazy way” by shaping a basic cookie dough many different ways. With this basic dough, I can make four different cookies using a quarter of the dough for each variety.
Also, I can’t resist passing on a downsized version of Finnish pulla, the cardamom-flavored braid that is quintessential for our holiday season.
Basic Butter Cookie Dough (4 ways)
1 cup (2 sticks) unsalted* butter, softened
½ cup sugar
½ teaspoon salt
1 egg yolk
2¼ cups all-purpose flour
In a large bowl, beat the butter, sugar, salt and egg yolk until smooth. Mix in flour. Form the dough into a ball and flatten, wrap and refrigerate, covered, overnight or for up to four days so that flavors can blend. Divide chilled dough into four equal parts.
*Unsalted butter, even though you add salt later in the recipe, will result in a smoother dough.
On a lightly floured surface, roll one piece of dough to one-eighth-inch thickness. Cut into shapes using 2-inch cutters. Repeat with remaining dough. Bake on ungreased cookie sheets at 350 degrees until edges are lightly browned, 9 to 12 minutes. Cool on wire racks.
To decorate cookies, mix about 1 cup powdered sugar with enough liquid (juice, water, milk or coffee) to make a thin glaze. Put into a heavy-duty, zip-top bag and close the bag. Clip a small hole in a corner and press onto cookies. Have a plate of colored sprinkles or sugar ready. While icing is still wet, dip the cookies into the sprinkles.
Make the basic dough. Using one-fourth of the dough, shape into round balls the size of large marbles. Place on a parchment-covered baking sheet. Bake at 350 degrees for 8 to 10 minutes. Roll the hot cookies in powdered sugar and store in an airtight tin.
Candy Cane Cookies
Make the butter cookie dough and divide into two parts. Mix a few drops of red food coloring and 1 teaspoon anise or spearmint extract into one part. Chill the two parts separately. Working with a small amount of each batch at a time, roll dough into 14-inch-wide strips and trim to even the sides. Cut the strips into 3-inch lengths and twist a red strand with a white strand for each cookie. Place on the baking sheet 2 inches apart and shape into candy canes. Bake for 8 to 10 minutes or until just barely browned.
Prepare the basic cookie dough. Shape each of the 4 parts into quarters to make 16 pieces of dough. Shape each into a half-inch thick strand, about 10 inches long. Place on a cookie sheet about 2 inches apart.
With the edge of a saucer or wooden spoon, press a groove along the center of the strand. Bake for 10 minutes.
Meanwhile, fill a pastry bag (or a plastic bag) with about one-third cup seedless raspberry jam and cut about ¼ inch off one corner of the bag. Remove the cookie strips from the oven and press jam along the grooves of the partially baked cookie strands. Return to the oven and bake 5 to 10 minutes longer or until the edges are lightly browned.
In a small bowl, mix about ½ cup powdered sugar with enough lemon juice or water to make a glaze. Drizzle over the hot cookies alongside the raspberry jam. While still warm, cut into diagonal cookies about 2 inches long.
My favorite Pulla for Christmas
This buttery yeast dough is flavored with cardamom. I remember some old ladies saying that the cardamom just doesn’t taste like it used to. I recommend ALWAYS using cardamom seeds that are freshly broken out of pods, and the second choice is to buy cardamom seeds in the little packets that you can find usually near the produce section of a supermarket in little clear bags.
Cardamom that is already ground and packaged in glass jars has already lost most of its flavor in the packaging process. If you grind the seeds yourself, you will experience a huge difference in flavor. It’s alright to use the coffee grinder. (I don’t mind the residual flavor in the next brew of coffee.)
2 packages active dry yeast
¼ cup warm water
1/3 cup sugar, divided
2 teaspoons freshly ground cardamom seeds
2 room temperature eggs
½ teaspoon salt
1 cup whole milk, at room temperature
4 cups all-purpose flour
¼ cup (½ stick) soft or room temperature butter
1 egg, beaten for glaze
Crushed sugar cubes or pearl sugar for garnish
In a large bowl or in the work bowl of a food processor with the steel or dough blade in place, soften the yeast in the warm water, a tablespoon of the sugar and the cardamom. Let stand until the yeast begins to foam then add the eggs, salt, remaining sugar and the milk. Stir in about half of the flour to make a very soft dough.
Let mixture stand for about 15 minutes until it begins to rise. Stir in the butter and remaining flour to make a smooth dough.
Turn out onto a flour covered work space, or leave the dough in the food processor and knead or process until dough is smooth, about 25 turns on the food processor, or for about 5 minutes if kneading by hand. Let dough rise until doubled, about 1 hour.
Divide the risen dough into two parts. Cut each part into three pieces. Shape each piece into a rope by rolling between your hands and the work surface. Braid three pieces together to make a pulla loaf.
Place onto parchment paper-lined cookie sheet. Let rise until doubled, about 1 hour. Preheat the oven to 350 degrees. Beat one egg until smooth and brush loaves to glaze. Sprinkle with coarsely crushed sugar cubes or pearl sugar. Bake for 25 minutes or until lightly golden. Makes 2 loaves.
Beatrice Ojakangas is a Duluth food writer and author of 31 cookbooks. Find her online at beatrice-ojakangas.com.