Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas
It's been cold enough here that whispers of a white Christmas begin drifting in like errant snowflakes - could we really get snow in San Francisco?
But no, while the nights have made burrowing under electric blankets and comforters a delight, the skies remain an icy scrubbed blue in the diamond-clear winterlight of day. As afternoon passes and the pink and purple dusk creeps in, I find myself drawn to downtown, just blocks from my apartment. Lack of snow hasn't made it any less chilly, or thinned the thronging crowds taking up even more space than usual, covered as they are with bulky coats and innumerable packages.
I don't mind the crowds. I like seeing Union Square aglow with lights and glitter, the tourists taking pictures in front of the giant outdoor Christmas tree, the children with their noses pressed to the window displays, the couples dressed in their holiday finery going to dinner, the Christmas music drifting out of all the hotel lobbies, the sense of happiness pervading the air. It is, for me, the most wonderful time of the year.
And, when it gets too cold and my fingers are going numb, there is always the prospect of baking cookies waiting at home.
Besides a peppermint-enhanced version of the World Peace Cookies, here are a couple of the other cookies that have been keeping the kitchen fires going the last few days:
Thick and Chewy Gingerbread
Taken from Baking Illustrated, this is not the thin, crispy gingerbread you use for decorating trees. This is a soft, moist version that is delectably spicy and delightfully chewy in your mouth. The "thick" might be a little misleading: it's not chocolate chip cookie thick (otherwise any shapes you cut out will just grow into formless blobs) but it's got enough dimension to make it a pleasure to sink your teeth into.
The dough is a cinch to make in the food processor, and it comes out so sticky-soft that rolling it out between sheets of parchment paper is really the best bet. As a plus, using the parchment sheets makes it easy to stack and store the dough once you've rolled it out: just stick them in the freezer and pull out when you're ready to bake. Although gingerbread traditionally comes in the form of cute little guys with royal icing buttons, I went for a minimalist look this year with a sprinkling of sparkling sugar.
Cranberry-Cherry Icebox Ribbons
From Nancy Baggett's The All-American Cookie Book, a dazzling collection of classic American cookies, this little gem is both visually appealing and evocative of the holidays to me. Layers of a sweet, vanilla-and-almond-scented shortbread-like dough sandwich a tangy cranberry and cherry filling. This cookie is perfect for teatime and as a lovely counterpoint to all the other chocolatey and spicy holiday cookie offerings. Any number of fruit fillings could also be substituted for the cranberries and cherry jam.
Like all the best icebox cookies, most of the work is done in the assembly of the dough and filling layers, and once you pop it in the freezer it keeps extremely well and is ready to bake off at a moment's notice.
Thick and Chewy Gingerbread Cookies
from Baking Illustrated
makes about 30 cookies
3 cups all-purpose flour
3/4 cup packed dark brown sugar
3/4 teaspoon baking soda
1 tablespoon ground cinnamon
1 tablespoon ground ginger
1/2 teaspoon ground cloves
1/2 teaspoon salt
12 tablespoons softened unsalted butter, cut into pieces
3/4 cup molasses
2 tablespoons milk
In a food processor, combine the flour, brown sugar, baking soda, cinnamon, ginger, cloves, and salt. Process about 10 seconds until combined.
Scatter the butter pieces over the dry mixture and process again until the mixture is fine and sandy, about 15 seconds.
With the machine still on, slowly pour in the molasses and milk and process until the dough forms a soft moist mass, about 10 seconds. It will be VERY soft and sticky. (This dough can also be made in a stand mixer).
Divide the dough into roughly two portions. Place one portion between two sheets of parchment paper, and roll out to about 1/4" thick. Repeat with the other portion of dough.
Leaving the dough between sheets of parchment, stack on a baking sheet and freeze until firm, about 15 to 20 minutes.
Preheat the oven to 350 degrees F. Line 2 baking sheets with parchment paper. Take one of the dough sheets from the freezer and peel off the top parchment sheet, then replace. Flip the dough over and remove the other parchment sheet.
Use desired cutters to cut shapes out of the dough, and transfer to the baking sheets with a metal spatula. The scraps may be gathered and rerolled to be cut into more shapes.
Bake cookies until they just slightly give in the middle when pressed, about 8 to 11 minutes, rotating sheets halfway. Do not overbake or they will became hard crispy gingerbread.
Let cool on sheets for a couple of minutes, then remove and finish cooling on wire racks.
Store cookies between sheets of parchment paper in an airtight container for up to 1 week.
Cranberry-Cherry Icebox Ribbons
from The All-American Cookie Book
makes about 30 cookies
About 3 ounces dried cranberries
Generous 1/3 cup sour cherry preserves
1 1/2 tablespoons sugar
1/8 teaspoon almond extract
2 cups plus 2 tablespoons all-purpose flour
1/4 teaspoon baking powder
1/4 teaspoon salt
3/4 cup sugar
2/3 cup unsalted butter, softened
1 large egg
2 1/4 teaspoons vanilla extract
1/2 teaspoon almond extract
For the filling: Combine the cranberries, cherry preserves, and sugar in a food processor. Process until coarsely pureed.
Transfer the mixture to a medium saucepan and cook over medium heat, stirring to avoid burning, until the mixture comes to a boil.
Remove from heat and add almond extract. Cover and refrigerate for an hour.
For the dough: Combine the flour, baking powder, and salt in a bowl and set aside.
In a mixer, combine the butter and sugar and blend together until smooth and creamy.
Add the egg, vanilla, and almond extract and beat until combined. Add the flour mixture and beat just until incorporated. Let the dough stand for about 10 minutes to let it firm up.
Line a 4 1/2 x 8 1/2 inch loaf pan with foil, letting the foil overhang the long sides so you can easily remove the dough from the pan. On top of the foil, line the pan with two sheets of plastic wrap laid crosswise and overhanging the longer sides as well.
Divide the dough into quarters. Shape one portion into roughly the size of the loaf pan and pat into the bottom. It may help to have a dough tamper to get the dough in evenly. Spread one-third of the cranberry filling over the dough with a small spatula. Repeat with the remaining three portions of dough and two portions of filling.
Fold the plastic wrap over the dough, completely covering it. Freeze the dough in the pan for at least 1 1/2 hours, until firm.
Preheat the oven to 350 degrees. Line several baking sheets with baking paper.
Take the loaf out of the freezer and unwrap the dough. You can allow it to warm up a bit for a few minutes, but don't let it get too soft or it will be difficult to cut neat slices and the filling will start squishing out.
Using a sharp knife, trim the sides so that the sides of the loaf are straight up and down. Wipe the knife off between cuts. Cut the loaf into thirds on its long side.
Cut each third into 1/4 inch slices that are about 2 3/4 inches long. Transfer the slices carefully to the baking sheets, placing them about 2 inches apart.
Bake one sheet at a time for about 9 to 14 minutes, until the edges are just starting to darken and firm up. Transfer the cookies to wire racks and let them cool completely.
Store cookies between layers of parchment paper in an airtight container for up to 1 week.