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Christmas Cookies: Create Your Own

Drop, cutout or slice-and-bake cookies with your choice of flavors, icings, and decorations

by Abigail Johnson Dodge

from Fine Cooking
Issue 120

If you're a baker, choosing which cookies to make for the holidays is a pretty big deal. I typically bake at least 30 dozen cookies to give away, and my expectations are high: The assortment needs to be attractive, and the textures and flavors have to be diverse enough to please plenty of palates. It’s a tall order. So this year, to avoid spending hours selecting recipes, I streamlined the process and came up with one recipe that creates a zillion different cookies.

That’s right, using one basic cookie dough, you can make just about any cookie you can think of, from easy drop cookies to classic cut-outs. Simply choose your dough flavor (like vanilla, mint, chocolate, or holiday spice), pick a style (drop, slice-and-bake, or cut-out), and bake. Then comes the fun part—decorating the cookies. With a simple glaze and royal icing (which can be flavored and colored to your liking), you can create countless gorgeous holiday treats. So, hit that baking aisle and get your holiday cookie groove on. A choose-your-own-cookie adventure awaits you.

Holiday cookies

Yields about 4 dozen drop cookies or 2-inch slice-and-bake cookies, or 3 dozen 2-inch cut-out cookies

Make the dough

Use this base recipe for classic vanilla cookies, or choose one of the flavor options below.

In a medium bowl, whisk together 9 oz. (2 cups) unbleached all-purpose flour1/2 tsp. baking powder, and 1/2 tsp. table salt.

In a stand mixer fitted with the paddle attachment (or in a large mixing bowl with a hand-held electric mixer), beat 6 oz. (3/4 cup) softened unsalted butter and 1 cup granulated sugar on medium speed until light and fluffy, 3 to 4 minutes. Scrape down the bowl and beater with a rubber spatula as needed.

Add 1 large egg (at room temperature) and 1-1/2 tsp. pure vanilla paste or extract and continue to mix until well blended, about 1 minute. Reduce the speed to low, add the flour mixture, and mix until well blended, about 1 minute more.

Cookie flavor variations

  • coffee beans
    Coffee: Dissolve 1 Tbs. instant espresso in the vanilla extract before adding with the egg.
  • slivered almonds
    Almond: Reduce the vanilla to 1 tsp. Add 1/2 tsp. pure almond extract and 1/3 cup (1-1/2 oz.) finely chopped toasted slivered almonds with the egg.
  • chocolate
    Chocolate: Reduce the flour to 6-3/4 oz. (1-1/2 cups) and add 2 oz. (1/2 cup) unsweetened natural cocoa powder, sifted if lumpy, to the flour mixture. Increase the sugar to 1-1/4 cups.
  • lemon zest
    Lemon: Reduce the vanilla to 1 tsp. Add 1-1/2 Tbs. finely grated lemon zest with the egg.
  • mint
    Mint: Reduce the vanilla to 1 tsp. Add 1/4 tsp. peppermint extract with the egg.
  • orange zest
    Orange: Reduce the vanilla to 1 tsp. Add 2 Tbs. finely grated orange zest with the egg.
  • cinnamon
    Spice: Add 1-3/4 tsp. ground cinnamon, 3/4 tsp. ground ginger, 1/8 tsp. ground nutmeg, and a pinch of finely ground black pepper to the flour mixture.
Shape and bake the dough

Now that the dough is made, you can cut or shape it three different ways.

Drop Cookies:
These tender little cookies are the easiest route to holiday cookie success because they require no rolling, chilling, or cutting.


Slice-and-Bake Cookies:
For more texture and flavor, you can roll logs of raw slice-and-bake dough in finely chopped nuts or coarse sanding sugar before slicing and baking them.

Cutout Cookies:
These classic holiday cookies can be cut into any size and shape and decorated countless ways with icing and toppings. Have fun with them!

For drop cookies

Position racks in the upper and lower thirds of the oven and heat the oven to 350°F. Line 2 or more cookie sheets with parchment or nonstick baking liners.

Using a 1-tablespoon ice cream scoop (or two tablespoons), drop rounded balls of the dough about 1-1/2 inches apart on the prepared sheets. (At this point, you can cover and refrigerate the dough overnight, or freeze until firm on the sheets and then transfer to zip-top freezer bags and freeze for up to 3 months. Thaw in single layers on cookie sheets for at least 3 hours in the refrigerator before proceeding.)

Bake two sheets at a time, rotating and switching their positions halfway through, until the edges and bottoms of the cookies are golden (or darker brown for chocolate cookies), 11 to 13 minutes. Let the cookies cool on their sheets on wire racks for about 5 minutes, and then transfer them to the racks to cool completely.

For slice-and-bake cookies

Turn the dough out onto a lightly floured work surface and gently knead until it’s smooth, with no air pockets. Using a large piece of plastic wrap as an aid, shape the dough into a 12-inch-long, 2-inch-wide log. Twist the ends of the plastic to compact and secure the log. To help the dough keep its shape, set it in an empty cardboard paper towel tube that’s been slit lengthwise and freeze until very firm, at least 2 hours. Alternatively, give the log a quarter turn every 15 minutes during the first hour of freezing to keep it from flattening on one side (At this point, the dough can be frozen for up to 1 month. Thaw in the refrigerator for 1 hour before slicing and baking.)

Position racks in the upper and lower thirds of the oven and heat the oven to 350°F. Line 2 or more cookie sheets with parchment or nonstick baking liners.

Using a sharp, thin knife, slice the dough a scant 1/4 inch thick and arrange the cookies about 1 inch apart on the prepared sheets. If the dough becomes too soft to hold its shape when slicing, refreeze until firm; if it’s too hard to slice, let it sit at room temperature until sliceable.

Bake two sheets at a time, rotating and switching their positions halfway through, until the edges and bottoms of the cookies are golden (or darker brown for chocolate cookies), about 10 minutes. Let the cookies cool on their sheets on wire racks for about 5 minutes and then transfer them to the racks to cool completely.

For cut-out cookies

Divide the dough into thirds and form each piece into a 5-inch square. Wrap in plastic and chill until firm, about 30 minutes.

Using a rolling pin, roll a dough square between 2 pieces of parchment to about 1/8 inch thick and 11 inches square. Slide the dough and parchment onto a cookie sheet and refrigerate; repeat with the remaining dough, stacking the squares sandwiched in parchment on top of each other on a single cookie sheet, and refrigerate until very firm, about 45 minutes. (At this point, you can refrigerate the dough, wrapped well in plastic, for up to 3 days or freeze for up to 1 month. Thaw at room temperature for 10 to 15 minutes before cutting out shapes.)

Position racks in the upper and lower thirds of the oven and heat the oven to 350°F. Line 2 or more cookie sheets with parchment or nonstick baking liners.

Working with one square of dough at a time, remove the top piece of parchment and cut out shapes with a floured cookie cutter. Arrange them about 1 inch apart on the prepared sheets. Freeze until very firm, about 20 minutes.

Bake two sheets at a time, rotating and switching their positions halfway through, until the edges and bottoms of the cookies are golden (or darker brown for chocolate cookies), about 11 minutes. Meanwhile, press the dough scraps together, reroll, chill, and cut more shapes; freeze. Repeat until all of the dough is used. Let the cookies cool on their sheets on wire racks for about 5 minutes and then transfer to the racks to cool completely.

Decorate the cookies

And now, the fun part. Mix and match the royal icing and glaze below with the toppings to create beautiful holiday cookies.

Royal Icing

A mixture of egg whites and confectioners’ sugar, royal icing hardens to a durable, crunchy consistency as it dries, which makes it ideal for cookies that you plan to give away. Royal icing can be plain, or you can choose from three flavors (below). Get the recipe for Royal Icing for full instructions.

Creamy Glaze

This creamy glaze won’t set up as firmly as royal icing, but it’s still packable, and it has a wonderful melt-in-your-mouth texture. Like royal icing, it can be flavored three ways (below). Get the recipe for Basic Glaze.

Icing/Glaze flavors

  • vanilla extract
    Vanilla (1/4 tsp. pure vanilla extract or paste)
  • lemon zest
    Lemon (1 tsp. finely grated and minced lemon zest)
  • orange zest
    Orange (2 tsp. finely grated and minced orange zest)

Watch our video for pointers on how to decorate cookies with royal icing.

Add sparkle with decorative toppings

Iced or glazed cookies are beautiful on their own, but you can give them some bling with toppings (see options below).

Sprinkle the cookies with one or more of the following while the glaze or icing is still wet. Let sit for about 10 minutes, then invert to remove any excess topping.

Choose cookie toppings

  • sanding sugar
    Coarse or fine sanding sugar

  • dragees
    Edible dragées
  • chopped nuts
    Finely chopped toasted nuts
  • crystallized ginger
    Finely chopped crystallized ginger

You can freeze undecorated baked cookies in an airtight container for up to 1 month; thaw in the refrigerator before decorating. Decorated cookies can be kept at room temperature for up to 3 days.

Packing pointers

If you’ve spent time making beautiful holiday cookies, you definitely want to take the time to package them with care. Cookies with royal icing are durable enough to ship through the mail, but glazed cookies are best left for hand delivery. Here’s how to do it:

For iced cookies: Pack each cookie in individual cellophane envelopes and layer between sheets of thin foam in a cookie tin or box.

For glazed cookies: Arrange the cookies in snug single layers between parchment or waxed paper in a cookie tin or box.


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