Most of our Christmas cookies (and cookies in general, really) are all variations on a theme. They are rich, buttery cookies with various ingredients added for flavor – extracts, nuts, frosting, chocolate, etc. Another similarity with our cookies is that making the dough, by and large, is pretty easy. It’s shaping the cookies that takes practice and patience.
Links to all our traditional recipes are at the bottom of this post.
To make the dough, you follow the same basic method for most cookies. You cream the butter and the sugar; sometimes you add an egg; usually you add some flavorings. Then you mix the flour with some spices and slowly mix it in. Then you chill the dough, shape the cookies and bake.
While it’s theoretically possible to make cookies with a hand mixer and a bowl, you can’t expect to make more than a batch or two without burning out the motor. I remember the Christmas in the late 70’s when my mom (Grandma Karen) tried it. She burned out her hand mixer and ended up having to spring for the Harvest Gold KitchenAid mixmaster that sat on our kitchen counter for the next 25 years. It’s an expensive appliance, but well worth the investment. I bought a white one for myself shortly after graduating from college for about $300, I think? And it still works good as new, almost 30 years later.
Cream the butter and the sugar. This is an important first step for every cookie. Creaming the butter and sugar adds lightness to the dough, and generally takes about 4 minutes to get it really nice and fluffy with plenty of air incorporated.
Make sure you let the butter soften for 30 minutes on the counter first. If you forget to take it out of the fridge it’s possible to warm it in the microwave – but only do it for like 3 seconds at a time. Any longer and you’ll melt it – and melted butter is entirely different than solid butter, when it comes to the chemistry of successful baking.
At least once during the process of creaming the butter and sugar, scrape down the bowl with a rubber spatula. If you don’t, there will be a thin layer of butter along the bowl that doesn’t get fully incorporated.
Beat in the eggs. Don’t ever crack an egg directly into a mixing bowl with the beater going. The obvious reason is that if you drop in a shell – or even a chip of a shell – it’s immediately incorporated into your batter. Instead, crack the eggs into a bowl and then slide them into the bowl with the beaters going. Start the mixer on slow as you slide in the eggs, then after about 10 seconds when the liquid is incorporated, speed up the mixer to high for another 60 seconds or so.
Halfway through, stop the beaters and scrape down the bowl with a rubber spatula. Same reason as when you’re creaming the butter and sugar – you don’t want that thin layer closest to the bowl to not get fully incorporated.
Sift the dry ingredients. Sifting your flour is an essential step because it adds lightness. It also changes the quantity slightly – if you weigh a cup of unsifted flour it will weigh a bit more than a cup of sifted flour. So if you don’t sift your flour, you’ll actually be putting a bit more flour into the dough than called for, which will give it a heaviness and a density that isn’t desirable.
If you’re making a bunch of cookies, start by spreading waxed paper on a counter and sift a big mound of flour onto it. (or if counter space is at a premium, you can sift the flour into a big bowl). Then you can just dip into your mound of sifted flour for each new batch of dough you make.
Almost always, the recipe calls for spices, salt or baking soda. You always want to stir these into the flour, rather than dumping them straight into the dough. The reason is that it’s easy to distribute a 1/2 t of cinnamon into 2 cups of flour, and much more difficult to distribute it evenly in a bowlful of sticky dough.
Add the flour slowly. Once all your dry ingredients are sifted together, you’ll need to incorporate them into the butter, sugar and eggs in your bowl. Do this on the lowest speed of your mixmaster. If you don’t, the flour will fly all over the place.
You also want to add just 1/2 c at a time, let it mix in for 10-15 seconds and add another 1/2 c of dry ingredients, repeating until all your dry ingredients are incorporated. This is the best way to assure that it all gets incorporated evenly.
Once all your flour is incorporated into the dough, stop and scrape down the bowl (don’t want that thin layer), then beat the dough for at least 20-30 seconds to make sure everything is fully mixed. Do this before adding any chocolate chips or nuts that the recipe might call for.
Chill the dough. This is important in recipes containing lots of butter. When the dough is first finished, the butter will be very soft and can be hard to work with. Chilling it for a bit solidifies the butter. But don’t let it stay in the fridge so long that it gets rock hard! To chill, simply gather the dough into a ball and wrap in Saran.
Note: this step isn’t necessary for drop cookies like chocolate chip, only for cookies that you’re going to shape by hand.
Most of our cookies can be stored in the fridge for a week or more. I sometimes make up all my doughs over Thanksgiving weekend and wrap them tightly in the fridge so they’re ready whenever I have a free weeknight to shape some cookies and get them ready for Christmas.
Bake. The most important thing to remember with all of our traditional cookies is that they shouldn’t brown. The bottoms and far edges might get the teeniest bit dark, but that’s it. A browned sandbakkle is a burned sandbakkle!