My favorite Christmas present arrived early this year.
My mother-in-law gave me her collection of old-fashioned metal cookie cutters, the kind that have practically become antiques since cheaper (and less efficient) plastic cutters edged them out of the market a few years ago.
I’ve already given them a trial run, too.
While I bake at no other time of year, I love making Christmas cookies. It’s a tasty tradition that allows me to pull out some dogeared, stained recipe cards. These are old favorites that call for loads of butter and sugar. (After all, there’s time for being good at the first of the year.)
The sugar cookies you roll out and turn into trees, stars and big, fat Santas are my favorite. But as long as the kitchen is already caked in flour, I dedicate one afternoon every December to making lemon bars, melt-in-your-mouth Mexican wedding cakes, molasses drops and, if I’m really ambitious, three-layered fudge brownies.
At the end of the exhausting day, I remember why baking is just a once-a-year event.
This year, my bake-a-thon was especially meaningful because I had lots of “help” from my 4-year-old daughter.
Here are a few tips I picked up for baking with underage prep cooks:
Expect a mess. If you’ve just mopped the floor, throw down a plastic drop cloth. Then have junior roll up his sleeves and put on an apron before diving into the dough.
For rolled cookies, prepare a double batch and have it chilling in the fridge. If you’re really on top of things, you can make even more dough and freeze for future use.
While the cookies are baking, organize decorations such as sprinkles and small candy in a muffin pan for easy access. Make a work space on the counter for every kid.
Don’t expect the finished product to look as if it belongs on the cover of Gourmet magazine. Let kids be creative. When I was fretting that our gingerbread man looked more like the bulbous Michelin tire guy, my daughter set me straight: “Nonsense, Mom. It looks good.”
Remember, imperfections can be hidden under a layer of frosting and a generous dose of sprinkles. And cookies that look homemade have their own special charm.
Once we’ve got our cookies baked and decorated, it’s time to package some of them up to give as gifts to neighbors and friends. With this task, you can be as creative or as informal as you like:
For an easy but festive-looking package, arrange cookies on a pretty paper plate using one of the plastic wraps that have holiday decorations on them. Add a bow or tie it up in colorful ribbon.
There are plenty of nostalgic-looking tins that make nice containers, but if you want to make it even more special, place an assortment of cookies on a keepsake plate. Shop for old plates at antique markets or at garage sales.
For a thrifty approach, save old oatmeal tubs and wrap them in Christmas paper. Place tissue paper or foil between layers.
Customize a gift for children by loading cookies into a toy dump truck or arranging them within a pretend tea set.
If you’re lucky enough to have friends or family who share your enthusiasm for holiday baking, revive the tradition of a cookie exchange.
Marcia Johnson, a business administrator in a Spokane medical office, has helped coordinate a cookie exchange among her co-workers for several years.
“People really look forward to it. Everyone has a special cookie they are known for,” Johnson said.
She suggests having a sign-up sheet to avoid duplication. Everyone should bake a dozen cookies for each participant and include their recipe. That means, if there are 10 bakers, you’ll have 10 dozen different cookies to enjoy over the holidays.
Johnson said her office makes an occasion out of the exchange, combining it with a lunch hour when sampling is encouraged.
“We really enjoy it because we love to eat,” she said.
But even if you’re just doing it for your own family, making Christmas cookies has its rewards. Home-baked treats taste best because they’re made with love.
The following recipes are from the files of Dorothy Dean, the erstwhile “homemaker” whose column appeared for a number of years in The Spokesman-Review.
Mom’s Rolled Molasses Cookies
I prefer these to gingerbread because they don’t have quite as much of a bite. They look pretty decorated, too.
1/4 cup butter
1/4 cup shortening
1/2 cup sugar
1/2 cup molasses
2-3/4 cups sifted flour
1 teaspoon soda
1/2 teaspoon cloves
1/2 teaspoon ginger
1/2 teaspoon cinnamon
1/2 teaspoon salt
1/4 cup water
Cream butter, shortening and sugar. Add egg and molasses; mix well.
Sift flour, soda, spices and salt. Add to creamed mixture alternately with water. Chill dough several hours.
Roll out dough a little at a time, keeping the rest refrigerated, to 1/8-inch thickness on well-floured board. Cut in shapes as desired.
Bake at 350 degrees on ungreased cookie sheet for 6-8 minutes. Let stand a minute before removing from cookie sheet.
Yield: About 7 dozen cookies, depending on size.
Russian Tea Cakes
These shortbread-like treats are also known as Mexican wedding cakes.
1 cup soft butter
1/2 cup powdered sugar
2 teaspoons vanilla
2 cups flour
1 cup chopped walnuts, pecans or blanched almonds
Cream butter, sugar and vanilla. Stir in flour and nuts; blend thoroughly. Chill dough for several hours.
Shape into 1-inch balls, mounds or crescents. Place on ungreased cookie sheet. Bake at 325 degrees for about 20 minutes. Roll in powdered sugar while warm; cool on rack.
Yield: About 4 dozen cookies.
Candy Cake Cookies
This recipe is a little more involved, but these look pretty on the plate.
1/2 cup butter
1/2 cup shortening
1 cup sifted powdered sugar
1 teaspoon vanilla
1-1/2 teaspoons almond extract
2 cups sifted flour
1 teaspoon salt
1/2 teaspoon red food coloring
Cream butter, shortening, sugar, egg and flavorings. Sift dry ingredients; stir in. Divide dough in half; blend red food coloring into one part.
On floured board, with palms of hands, roll one teaspoon of each color into strips of 4 inches long (make strips for one cane at a time). Place strips side by side, press together lightly; twist like rope.
Place on ungreased cookie sheet; curve top for handle of cane. Bake at 375 degrees for 8 to 10 minutes until lightly browned.
Yield: About 4 dozen.
These add a bright, tart contrast on a plate of sweeter cookies.
1 cup butter
1/2 cup powdered sugar
1/4 teaspoon salt
2-1/4 cups sifted flour, divided
4 eggs, well beaten
2 cups sugar
1/4 cup lemon juice
1 teaspoon grated lemon rind
Cream butter, powdered sugar and salt; stir in 2 cups flour. Press mixture over bottom of 9-by-13-inch pan. Bake in pre-heated 325 degree oven for 25 minutes.
Combine eggs, sugar, remaining 1/4 cup flour, lemon juice and rind. Spread over baked mixture. Continue baking for 30 minutes. Sprinkle with powdered sugar. Cool; cut in bars.
Yield: 4 dozen.
, DataTimes ILLUSTRATION: Color photo
MEMO: This sidebar appeared with the story: HERE’S HOW TO PACK COOKIES To help ensure that your gift of homemade cookies won’t arrive as a box of crumbs, follow these shipping tips from the Land O’Lakes Holiday Bakeline: Bar, drop or fruit cookies can best withstand mailing. Use a sturdy cardboard box or empty coffee can as a mailing container. Line container with aluminum foil or plastic food wrap. Wrap four to six cookies of the same size together in aluminum foil, plastic food wrap or plastic food bags. Seal securely with freezer tape. Repeat until container is full. Place heaviest cookies at the bottom of the container. Layer the wrapped cookies with crumpled paper towels around them. Bubble wrap can be used to line container and divide layers or cookies. Seal container with freezer, plastic or masking tape. Wrap container with an outer paper wrapping. Brown mailing paper or a cut grocery bag works well. Print mailing address and return address on the package in waterproof ink. Mark the package “Perishable Food” to encourage quick and careful handling. The Associated Press
Subscribe to the Spokane7 email newsletter
Get the day’s top entertainment headlines delivered to your inbox every morning.