Christmas Sugar Cut-Outs

Per usual, I went a bit overboard with Christmas baking. Gingerbread and shortbread for colleagues, pear tart and spice cake for Christmas day dessert, and these sugar cut-outs and some Russian tea cakes for my trip to Deep Creek to see my cousin Barb and her family this past weekend. I’ve eaten an inordinate amount of sugar in the past few weeks, even for me.

These Christmas sugar cut-outs may be a bit over the top, but seriously, how can you resist a cookie that looks like this? I also made some trees and stars, but the houses pictured here were my best creations. I used a gingerbread house cookie cutter and decorated them to look like little village houses, complete with snow-covered rooftops and evergreens.

Ingredients

For the cookies

  • 8 tablespoons butter, softened
  • 1 cup sugar
  • 1 egg
  • 2 cups flour
  • 2 teaspoons baking powder
  • ½ teaspoon salt
  • 3 teaspoons vanilla

For the frosting

  • 1/4 cup shortening
  • 1-2 teaspoons vanilla extract
  • 2 tablespoons water
  • 2 1/4 cups powdered sugar
  • Red, green, yellow, and black food coloring (gel coloring is best)

Preparation

Stir together flour, baking powder, and salt in a medium bowl; set aside.

Cream together butter and sugar until fluffy. Add egg and beat well. Add vanilla and about half the flour mixture, beating until combined; beat in remaining flour. Form dough into a ball, then flatten out into a square; refrigerate until just barely firm, about 20-30 minutes.

Preheat oven to 375 degrees. Line several baking sheets with parchment paper.

Roll dough to about 1/8 to 1/4 inch thickness and cut into desired shapes; I made stars, trees, and houses. Place same-shape cookies on each baking sheet to ensure even baking. For example, make all the stars on one sheet and all the houses on another so you don’t burn the stars while the houses are still baking.

Bake for 8-10 minutes, until just golden. Cool on a wire rack.

To make the frosting, in a mixing bowl, combine shortening, vanilla extract, water, and 1 cup powdered sugar. Mix on low speed, then increase to medium-high and beat for 10 minutes, until smooth. Add remaining powdered sugar and additional teaspoon of vanilla extract, beating until smooth.

Reserve a portion of untinted frosting for snow, windows, and doors of houses. Divide remaining frosting into small portions for your other colors; I used yellow for my stars, green, yellow, and red for my trees (which featured stars and garland), and red, white, green, and black for my houses. Fill piping bags and decorate as you like; I used a star tip to make the snow and evergreens on my houses above and plain tips to pipe the windows, doors, and window/door outlines.

Allow frosting to set before storing cookies between sheets of waxed paper in airtight containers at room temperature. Makes about 2 dozen, depending on cutter sizes.

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Gingerbread Dog House

Watching the Great British Baking Show will make you want to build something spectacular out of gingerbread. As I’m a gingerbread structure amateur, I decided to forego the Taj Mahal and Hogwarts Castle for a cute little dog house.

I recently bought the Wilton three-piece gingerbread house cutter set at the craft store and yesterday I tried it out. While it’s a very convenient tool, I wish I’d had a larger quantity of gingerbread from the recipe I used. Next time, I’ll either make smaller templates out of cardboard, or choose a larger-quantity recipe. Either way, this was a fun project. While I’d made a gingerbread house before, I wanted a better-tasting recipe this time, and I found this one at Food Network.I deviated from their instructions for baking a bit, but it turned out very well.

Ingredients

For the house

  • 1/2 cup butter, at room temperature
  • 1/2 cup dark brown sugar
  • 1/4 cup light molasses
  • 1 tablespoon cinnamon
  • 1 tablespoon ground ginger
  • 1 1/2 teaspoons ground cloves
  • 1 teaspoon baking soda
  • 2 cups all-purpose flour
  • 2 tablespoons water

For the royal icing

  • 3 3/4 cups powdered sugar, sifted
  • 1/2 teaspoon cream of tartar
  • 3 egg whites, at room temperature

Preparation

In a mixing bowl, cream the butter, brown sugar, molasses, cinnamon, ginger, cloves and baking soda together until the mixture is smooth. Blend in the flour and water to make a stiff dough. Chill at least 30 minutes or until firm.

Preheat oven to 375 degrees. On a very lightly floured surface, roll out dough to about 1/4 inch thickness. Using the cutter set (or your own templates), cut sides, roof panels, and front/back panels.

Place panels on a baking sheet lined with parchment paper a few inches apart; cookies will spread when baking. Bake for 12-15 minutes, until the dough feels firm – the cookies can burn, so keep a close eye on them.

Remove from oven and immediately trim off any uneven sides; you’ll want your sides as straight as possible for construction. Place cookies on a wire rack and allow to cool completely.

To make royal icing, place sifted powdered sugar and cream of tartar in a mixing bowl fitted with the whisk attachment. Add egg whiles and beat on low for a few seconds to combine, scraping the sides of your bowl to get all the powdered sugar evenly incorporated. Whip on high speed for 7-10 minutes; you want the icing to hold peaks.

Working quickly, place icing in a piping bag; cover any unused icing with plastic wrap to prevent it from drying out. Beginning with one of the side panels, pipe a line of icing on the bottom and side, then press it gently onto your platter or cake plate. It helps to have someone hold the panels for you so they stay upright during construction. Repeat with the front panel, then add another side, the back panel, and your roof. Decorate as you like; I added very simple doors and windows, along with some snow on the roof. And of course, the resident dog.

Store at room temperature; royal icing will harden as it dries, keeping your house upright (at least we hope so).

Toasted Almond Shortbread

Shortbread is a great holiday treat. It’s easy to bake and easy to embellish, making it a great canvas for fun flavors and decorations. These toasted almond shortbread cookies went to the graphic design team in my office – along with some plain and chocolate versions – as a special thank-you for all they do for me and my team throughout the year.

You’ll want to keep a close eye on your almonds as they toast; nuts can go from toasted to burnt in a matter of seconds. I toast mine in the oven, but I’ve also had success toasting them in a frying pan over medium-low heat. Whatever you decide, the almonds are done when they’re golden brown and very fragrant. As they cool, they’ll make a faint crackling sound – I usually put mine in the freezer for a few minutes to help the cooling process.

Ingredients

  • 1 cup unsalted butter, slightly softened
  • 3/4 cups sugar
  • 1 teaspoon salt
  • 1 teaspoon vanilla extract
  • 10 ounces (about 2 1/3 cups) flour
  • About 1 1/2 cups powdered sugar
  • 1 1/2 teaspoons almond extract
  • 2-4 teaspoons water
  • About 1/3 cup flaked almonds, toasted and cooled

Preparation

Preheat oven to 300 degrees. Lightly grease two 8-inch round cake pans.

In a mixer fitted with the paddle attachment, cream together butter, sugar, salt, and vanilla extract. Add flour and beat to combine completely. The dough will be ready when it pulls away from the sides of your mixing bowl.

Divide dough in half and press into the bottom of each cake pan, using the palm of your hand to create an even surface.

Bake for 32-35 minutes, until the edges are golden brown. Remove from oven and gently loosen the sides, then allow to cool in the pans for 5 minutes. Gently flip onto a cutting board and slice into 16 wedges, then place wedges on a wire rack to cool completely.

Once cookies are cool, make your drizzle: combine powdered sugar, almond extract, and 2 teaspoons water in a small bowl, stirring until smooth and adding additional water if necessary; you want a thicker drizzle, so don’t go too far with your liquids. Drizzle over cookies, then top with flaked toasted almonds, gently pressing the nuts into the drizzle so they won’t fall off.

Makes 32.

Chocolate Peppermint Shortbread

Chocolate and peppermint make a great flavor pair. These chocolate peppermint shortbread cookies are an elegant-looking treat that’s very easy to make and great for holiday baking.

You can buy peppermint candy bits at most craft stores and dollar stores around the holidays, but if you can’t find them, simply get some of the traditional red and white “star mint” style peppermints and crush them yourself. Give the chocolate just a moment to start to set once you’ve dipped the cookies; this helps the crushed candies adhere better without sliding off once you’ve placed the cookies on your cooling sheet.

Ingredients

  • 1 cup unsalted butter, slightly softened
  • 1 teaspoon salt
  • 3/4 cup plus 2 tablespoons sugar
  • 1 teaspoon vanilla extract
  • 1 ounce (about 1/3 cup) Dutch-process cocoa
  • 7 1/4 ounces (about 1 3/4 cups) flour
  • 8 ounces chocolate candy coating
  • About 3/4 cup crushed peppermint candies

Preparation

Preheat oven to 300 degrees. Lightly grease two 8-inch round cake pans.

In a mixing bowl, cream together butter, sugar, salt, and vanilla, then beat in cocoa powder and flour.

Divide dough into two 12-ounce portions and press each portion into the bottom of the cake pans, using the palm of your hand to flatten the dough as evenly as possible.

Bake for 32-35 minutes, until it appears done around the edges. Remove from oven and loosen the sides with a knife, then cool in pans for 5 minutes.

Carefully turn one shortbread round out onto a cutting board and cut into 16 wedges; place wedges on a wire rack to cool. Repeat with the second round.

Once cookies are cool, place crushed peppermints on a plate or in a shallow dish. Melt your chocolate coating in a saucepan over very low heat, stirring until smooth.

Working quickly, dip the wide edge of each wedge into the chocolate and gently shake off the excess; hold over the pan for about 20 seconds just to let the chocolate begin to set, then dip in crushed peppermints.

Place on waxed paper or parchment and allow to set completely before storing.

Makes 32.

Note: shortbread will break if you try to cut it once it’s cool, so you must cut the rounds into wedges while they’re still warm.

Amanda’s Holiday Spice Shortbread

What do you do when you’re a baker and your bestie is allergic to cinnamon? You develop a cinnamon-free spice mix just for her. Behold, Amanda’s Holiday Spice: a blend of ginger, nutmeg, cloves, and cardamom. It’s sort of like gingerbread spice meets apple pie spice, a wonderfully warm blend of some dynamite flavors.

I’m a big fan of making your own spice mixes, so here’s how you make this one: take 1 teaspoon ginger, 1/2 teaspoon nutmeg, 1/8 teaspoon cloves, and about 1/4 teaspoon cardamom; mix it all together and taste. I added a few dashes more of nutmeg and cardamom for a total of about 2 teaspoons of spice. Store homemade spice mixes in small jars right alongside your regular spices so you can toss them into recipes whenever you like.

P.S. – these treats are on their way to Amanda and her family in California right now as a Thanksgiving gift, because I’m more grateful for her than I can say.

Ingredients

  • 1 cup unsalted butter, slightly softened
  • 3/4 cups sugar
  • 1 teaspoon salt
  • 1 teaspoon vanilla extract
  • 10 ounces (about 2 1/3 cups) flour
  • 2 teaspoons Amanda’s Holiday Spice Blend
  • Demerara sugar, for sprinkling

Preparation

Preheat oven to 300 degrees. Lightly grease two 8-inch round cake pans.

In a mixer fitted with the paddle attachment, cream together butter, sugar, salt, and vanilla extract. Add flour and spice mix and beat to combine completely. The dough will be ready when it pulls away from the sides of your mixing bowl.

Divide dough in half and press into the bottom of each cake pan, using the palm of your hand to create an even surface. Sprinkle the top with Demerara sugar, about 1/8 cup on each, then gently press the sugar into the top of the dough.

Bake for 32-35 minutes, until the edges are golden brown. Remove from oven and gently loosen the sides, then allow to cool in the pans for 5 minutes. Gently flip onto a cutting board and slice into 16 wedges, then place wedges on a wire rack to cool completely.

Store at room temperature for up to 5 days (or mail to your best friend).

 

Chewy Maple Cookies

Looking for a cookie with subtle maple flavor? Look no further than this chewy maple cookie, a recipe I adapted from the King Arthur Flour Cookie Companion’s Vermont Maple Cookies. They’re crunchy at the edge, but soft and chewy in the middle, making for a wonderful textural experience.

Once you read this recipe, you’ll wonder: just where do I find maple sugar? You can order it online from various sources including King Arthur Flour and Amazon, but local specialty food shops may also be a good source. I got mine at a creamery near Deep Creek Lake in Maryland, which produces its own ice cream and cheese and offers locally made honey, syrup, jellies, and fortunately, maple sugar. Just a few things to note: the next time I make these, I’ll scoop smaller balls of dough; the cookies ended up much larger than I intended.

Ingredients

  • 1 cup unsalted butter
  • 1 cup plus 2 tablespoons pure maple sugar, divided
  • 1/2 plus 2 tablespoons cup granulated sugar, divided
  • 1 teaspoon cream of tartar
  • 1/2 teaspoon salt
  • 2 eggs
  • 1/2 teaspoon baking soda
  • 2 teaspoons maple extract
  • 2 3/4 cups flour

Preparation

In a mixing bowl fitted with the paddle attachment, cream butter, 1 cup maple sugar, 1/2 cup granulated sugar, cream of tartar, eggs, baking soda, and maple extract, scraping your bowl often. Add flour and beat until combined.

Cover dough and chill for about 30 minutes, until easier to handle. Meanwhile, preheat your oven to 400 degrees and line three baking sheets with parchment.

In a small bowl, combine remaining two tablespoons of maple sugar and granulated sugar. Using a 2-inch cookie scoop, scoop dough and roll into balls, then dip into maple sugar mixture to coat. Roll again to press the maple sugar mixture into the dough.

Place on prepared baking sheets about 2 inches apart; cookies spread a good deal when baking. Bake for 10-12 minutes, until cookies are light golden brown. Remove from oven and allow to cool on baking sheets for about 5 minutes, then remove to a wire rack to cool completely.

Store in an airtight container at room temperature for up to 3 days. Makes 27.

Pumpkin Spice Shortbread

I had to, you see. Less than 24 hours into fall, and I had to bake something pumpkin-themed. These pumpkin spice shortbread cookies, adapted from a recipe from The Cafe Sucre Farine, sounded too delicious to pass up.

While the original recipe called for adding a candy pumpkin (the delicious cousins of candy corn) to each baked cookie, I chose to leave mine plain, with just the recommended coating of Demerara sugar for a lovely, crunchy texture. You could use turbinado sugar if you don’t have Demerara, but I highly recommend Demerara for its large crystals. You can find it in most grocery stores in the baking aisle. I also highly recommend eating candy pumpkins!

Ingredients

  • 2 cups flour
  • 1 1/2 teaspoons pumpkin spice*
  • 1/2 teaspoon salt
  • 1 cup butter, at room temperature
  • 2/3 cup light brown sugar
  • 1/2 teaspoon vanilla extract
  • Demerara sugar, for rolling

*You can make your own pumpkin spice by combining 1 teaspoon cinnamon and 1/2 teaspoon each ginger, allspice, and nutmeg. This makes more than 1 1/2 teaspoons, so just save whatever you have left in a small jar. 

Preparation

In a medium bowl, combine flour, pumpkin spice, and salt; set aside

In a mixer fitted with the paddle attachment, cream together butter, brown sugar, and vanilla extract. Add flour mixture and beat until completely combined.

Chill dough for about 15 – 20 minutes, allowing it to firm up slightly. Preheat oven to 350 degrees and line three baking sheets with parchment paper. Place Demerara sugar in a small bowl.

Using a 1-inch cookie scoop, scoop dough and roll into balls, then dip each ball into Demerara sugar. Place about 2 inches apart on the baking sheets and bake for 14-16 minutes.

Remove from oven and allow to cool on baking sheets for about 5 minutes, then remove to a wire rack to cool completely. Store in an airtight container at room temperature.

Makes about 30 cookies.