Monday, December 22, 2008

What's Cooking Wednesday (early): A Jew Does the Cookie Thing

Please go to Shan's place for more What's Cooking Wednesday participants.

Like so many Americans, I'm proud to proclaim myself a "mutt". Maybe not racially, but in terms of my heritage. On one side I'm Irish/German Protestant and on the other side I'm Polish/Belarus Jewish. Add in a little bit of Welsh and maybe a Brit or two, and stir well.

Spiritually? Who knows... I'm still trying to figure that out. Culturally? I feel like what I am - a blend of things.

It's taken me a long, long time to feel comfortable with this. That's all I'm going to say right now.

Anyway, Christmas cookies were never a part of my experience growing up. I think that had more to do with my mother's lack of interest in baking than anything else. Also, too, we both lit the candles for Hanukkah and had Mom's family over for Christmas, and I think there was just too much to do.

Lovely early food memories were receiving a huge, heavy tin of Mrs. Brown's shortbread that we'd receive each Christmas time. That was the sum total of my understanding of Christmas cookies.

My first year as an elementary teacher I was presented with the best plate of Christmas cookies I've ever tasted. Maybe they were that much better because I'd made it through my first semester, but no Christmas cookies have touched these since, and those cookies first intrigued me with the whole Christmas cookie idea.

So our Christmas plans changed this year, and all of a sudden more presents were needed and also all of a sudden we were plunged into grief and chaos. Shopping completely stresses me out and I really felt a strong need to stay close to home. Finally, Christmas cookies seemed to be the answer. Making things would be relaxing.


Well, it was interesting, although after my first morning of baking I had herring and pickles for lunch - I think my Jewish side was rebelling against all this sugar and excess.

I planned my cookies carefully. I planned a swap. I searched recipes. I read tons of blogs. I haunted the Food Network and Epicurious.

Finally, this is what I came up with:

The bottom layer - traditional Christmas cookies, apricot-chocolate biscotti, espresso crinkles, candied walnuts with orange rind and chocolate

And this is what I came up with:

The top layer - pistachio-raspberry ribbon cookies, mincemeat swirls, cherry shortbread and peppermint bark.

For a first year, these were not bad. Did I make my own recipes? Heck no, I'm definitely not ready for that, yet.

Here's what I did make:

Traditional Christmas Cookies using a sugar cookie dough by Alton Brown. The reviews said that the cookies were bland, so I added 1 TBS rum and 1 tsp vanilla to the dough. I still found them bland, but C and his friend K loved them. And they are Christmas cookie fans, so who am I to judge? For the coatings I mixed a glaze of powdered sugar, water and rum. It was fine - the cookies were decorated by D and C, with some being decorated by me. The dough was PERFECT to work with. The recipe worked exactly as stated and rolling out and cutting out the cookies was easy (and I STINK at rolling and cutting). My new silpat pastry mat may have helped, too.

Apricot-Chocolate Biscotti: I used this recipe from Giada De Laurentiis, but I obviously changed the add-ins and I switched from lemon rind to orange rind. I used a TBS of Grand Marnier and 3 TBS of orange juice as flavoring, and added in 1/2 cup of chocolate chips, chopped fine, and 2/3 cup chopped apricots. Again, the dough and the recipe was perfect. If I had these to do over again, I'd use more oj and skip the Grand Marnier. There was a slightly bitter taste, and I think this would resolve it.

Espresso Crinkles. These were from Cooking Light. Don't. Bother. For chocolate lovers and children only. They're *okay* and C likes them fairly well, but they're not all that pretty and don't taste good enough and they were a pain to make. 'Nuff said.

Candied Walnuts with Orange Rind and Chocolate - I got these off an e-mail list, and I don't want to print the recipe without permission, but these ROCKED. I will find the author and get this to you. Promise. They were a tiny bit bitter, but cutting back on the orange rind would take care of it, I think.

Pistachio-Raspberry Ribbon Bars and Mince Pinwheel Cookies. Both of these recipes are by Marye Audet, and these were my two favorite cookies. Hands down. My only additions were that I used more jam and more Mince than Marye called for. The Mince Pinwheel Cookies may be my all-time favorite cookie, after Tollhouse Chocolate Chips. If you're a mince fan, you will LOVE these. The Ribbon Bars can be found here and the Mincemeat Swirls here.

Cherry Shortbread... hmmm... this did not work as well as I would have liked, although D thinks it's great. I used this shortbread recipe from the Hearty Boys, omitting the espresso aspects and stirred in one cup of chopped, dried cherries. The cherry flavor came through beautifully, but the shortbread really refused to set. I think I'd add 1/4 cup of flour the next time, due to the moistness of the cherries.

Peppermint Bark - easy-peasy and delicious! Just melt a cup and a half of bittersweet chocolate in the microwave, pour it on a parchment-lined, large cookie sheet with a lip, and sprinkle crushed candy canes on top. Let set. Break. Yum.

Phew. I'm exhausted.

I leave tomorrow morning for family and love and good fortune and I can't wait. See you in a few days. Merry Christmas, Happy Hanukkah and Happy Kwanzaa for anyone celebrating those holidays!


Korie said...

Send me some?
Although the beauty of living this far away is seeing that sort of stuff and not being able to eat it.
No matter how bad I want to.

Marianne Arkins said...

WOW... you made a TON of stuff! LOL... you're braver than I am, and I bake cookies every year.

Jen said...

That's a good point, Lilac. It would be much better for me if I lived far away from it, too.

Well, Marianne, I'm probably braver because I don't know what I'm doing.

Keri Mikulski said...

Yum!!! :)

anno said...

Mmmm..... YUM!!!
Safe journeys... and (because I can never get cards out, either) best wishes for peaceful & joyous holidays!!

Anonymous said...

Love the title! haha

Mae Travels said...

that looks like an enormous accomplishment!

Núria said...

Good lord Jen!!!! How many hours you spent in the kitchen?????? That is a lot of cookies!!!!! Need any help to eat them? He, he!

Differences make us richer and with that heritage... you rock girl!!!!

Merry Xmas, Happy Holiday, have fun and be happy♥♥♥

April said...

Did I tell you about the cookie party we had at work? We were supposed to make and bring in cookies from our favorite recipes. Mine was the cookie dough I got from Sylvia's last school fundraiser!

Anonymous said...

Rum makes EVERYTHING better. ;)

I think sugar cookies, in general, are bland, so the topping flavors can stand out.

We made spritz cookies last night, with dark chocolate butter frosting between them, but our dough was too wet and I wasn't into the mood to fuss with it, so we just spooned them onto the baking sheet. The kids didn't care what they looked like, only that they had cookies to eat.

Cookies are good.

Brittany | the Home Ground said...

I made some molasses cookies the other day, but that's as far as I got! I'll be doing more for the family probably. Sounds like you were super busy, and they look so so so good!!!

Virtualsprite said...

I am so jealous! I haven't even baked any cookies yet this year... and it's looking very unlikely that I will.

I will be constructing a red velvet cake tonight.. .wish me luck!

Have a very happy holiday!

Shan said...

Do you love your silpat? I have been thinking about getting one.

Momisodes said...

I think you did a fabulous job! That is quit a yummy assortment you have there. I also never grew up with the cookie traditions, but we tried this year. Our sugar cookies turned out alright, and I think a little lemon extract went along way :)

I just love Giada's recipes. I also tried a biscotti recipe of hers. One that had pistachios and cranberries (to have green and red flecks), and it was awesome!

Wish you safe travels and a wonderful holiday season :)

Meg said...

Wow! I tend to bake those prepared frozen cookies--I mean, someone has to support the various school fundraisers, right?

Happy Holidays!

Liz Dwyer said...

Whew! I feel like a TOTAL Christmas slacker after seeing all these tasty goodies you've made. I excuse it by saying that I'm not Christian, but I don't go all out on Baha'i holidays either! :)

Have a lovely holiday and safe travels!

Charity Tahmaseb said...

Wow, I'm way impressed. I hope you have a lovely holiday!

Goofball said...

hi Jenn,

I think "christmas cookies" are more a anglo-saxon tradition than a christian one.

Yours surely look wonderful, even though I'm not a sweet person neither a cookie lover.

Unknown said...

These all sound fabulous!

Carol said...

They look delicious! Happy holidays to you and your family!


Luisa Perkins said...


Cornstarch might help that cherry shortbread, too. Or rice flour.

Missing you!

Anonymous said...

Hope you had an awesome holiday! When I recover from baking rather mundane (yet delicious) cookies from prior to Xmas Day, I will attempt some of your gorgeous cookies.

Shopping and baking don't mix. Next year, maybe I'll just bake?!

peter said...

My Jewish half and yours are on the same page about the sugar; as good as those cookies look (very) I'm boycotting sweets for the forseeable future.

Anonymous said...

this whole concoction of cookies looks delectable! we never grew up eating cooking for Christmas either but with the addition of brothers' girlfriends that constantly bring different kinds of treats, I've learned to expect them during the holidays!

nyc/caribbean ragazza said...

Wow you went all out!!!

The cookies look amazing.

Anonymous said...

Wow. Maybe this is my boring mostly Waspy heritage, but when we bake Christmas cookies, it's either sugar or gingerbread and that's it.

Though we decorate with much frosting and every sprinkle known to mankind.

Still, I'm sure yours were much, much tastier.

Jen said...

Oy... I can't believe I didn't respond until now!

Keri - thanks!

Anno, the travels were great, thanks!

Maryann - it was too much fun to resist!

Mae, it was an interesting undertaking... and fun most of the time.

Nuria, I hope you had lovely ones, too. The cookies were my main gifts this year, so I wanted them to at least be decent. And music goes a long way towards helping time spent in the kitchen!

April - good use of that fundraiser stuff!

Amy - I agree, cookies are good and rum DOES make everything better!

Brittany, I'm going to have to do something molasses or ginger next year, because those are D's faves.

Jen said...

Virtual - we LOVE red velvet cake - that is a great treat, too!

Shan, I DO love my silpat - the one I use for rolling dough that has measures, circles, etc. It's allowed me to be a roller for the first time successfully. I haven't baked on silpat yet, though.

Momisodes - that was the same one I did - I just switched out the pistachios and cranberries because my SIL is famous for her pistachio/cranberry biscotti.

Meg - C goes to a school that doesn't do that sort of thing, so we're saved the frozen cookie dough. I'd probably use it if I had it, though.

Los A - this had nothing to do with my religious stuff - I guess it was baking away a very stressful fall and choosing to make, rather than buy, this year.

Charity, I now know that you and yours had a lovely time, too - and thanks!

Goofball - I don't really think so - springerle? Speculoos? I learned about Christmas cookies from my German grandmother, my German exchange daughter and my Swedish daughter. I think the decorated sugar cookies may be more anglo-saxon.

Thanks, Cindy!

Thanks, Carol - I'm glad you finally got off the road!

Luisa, thanks so much for the tip - missing you, too, and I'm still hoping for a New York rendez-vous.

Oh, this is what I did this year. Bake, make music mixes and make donations. I just couldn't deal, financially or in terms of dealing with some other things with the shopping insanity this year.

Peter, you and me, both... oy!

Bren, this is one of the things I love about the U.S. - the blending of cultures and traditions.

NYC - thanks! They were fun to make.

Jersey - we do those for C, who insists on them, but since they're not my faves, taste-wise, I enjoyed putting these together!

Grimm said...

Good grief - I may be old fashioned, but those look a little complicated for me.

Whatever happened to just plain sugar cookies? :)

Anonymous said...

Yeah, I know the whole Jew making Christmas cookie thing - in fact, I just bought my first Christmas cookie cutters. But I do have Hanukkah ones. And my friend gave me a Chocolate Crinkles cookie recipe that I am trying out this week. But I think you were very courageous to make all those cookies!