Whether it's because there is a little bit of Santa's elf in each one of us, or because the smell of baking cookies just mingles so divinely with the scent of evergreen, even nonbakers dust off their baking sheets this time of the year.
In my family, it just wouldn't be Christmas without cutout sugar cookies. As a young child, I "helped" my mother make these cookies. Sometimes this was simply eating too many scraps of dough. In high school and college, I would have cookie-making parties with friends. As a young single adult living on my own, with a nod toward sophisticated entertaining, I served wine and cheese at my cookie-making gatherings.
Following is my favorite recipe for sugar cookies, developed after years of experimentation. The little bit of light corn syrup seems to make the dough extra easy to work with.
In this recipe, the dough is rolled out between two pieces of waxed paper (not a floured surface). That ensures that the last cookies you bake won't have any more flour than the first batch. (Excess flour can make the cookies tough.) If you have trouble transferring cutout cookies to a baking sheet without ripping or disfiguring them, place the waxed paper with the rolled-out cookie dough on top of a baking sheet and pop it in the freezer for 10 to 15 minutes. This makes the unbaked cookies firmer and sturdier.
Apricot thumbprint cookies have an almond extract-scented dough. They are then rolled in chopped almonds. Apricot preserves fill the indentation in each cookie.
Meanwhile, Successively Excessively Crunchy Peanut Butter Brownies, from Marcel Desaulniers' Death by Chocolate Cookies (Simon & Schuster, $30), live up to their name. Mr. Desaulniers is a chocolate pro, and these cakelike brownies are much too delicious to make only for the holidays.
CUTOUT SUGAR COOKIES
31/2 cups all-purpose flour
1/2 teaspoon salt
1 cup (2 sticks) unsalted butter, softened
3/4 cup granulated sugar
1 large egg
1 tablespoon light corn syrup
1 tablespoon vanilla extract
In a medium-sized bowl, mix the flour and salt.
In a large bowl, cream the butter and sugar. Stir in the egg, then the corn syrup and vanilla extract. One-third at a time, add the flour mixture until thoroughly mixed. Pat the dough into two disks, wrap in plastic and refrigerate for 1 to 2 hours, or until firm enough to roll. If the dough is too firm, let it soften at room temperature for about 5 minutes.
Heat oven to 375 degrees. Roll one disk of dough between two pieces of waxed paper, about ¬-inch thick. Remove the top sheet of waxed paper and cut out the cookies with cookie cutters. Using a metal spatula, transfer the shapes to baking sheets, leaving about 1 inch between cookies. Bake for 8 to 10 minutes, or just until the cookies start to brown lightly around the edges.
Remove the baking sheet to a wire rack and cool for 5 minutes. Using a metal spatula, transfer the cookies to racks and cool completely. Repeat the procedure with the remaining chilled disk of dough. Press together dough scraps, form into a disk and chill if necessary before rerolling the dough. Continue until all the dough is used.
The cookies can be stored in an airtight container in the freezer for up to 1 month and for up to 3 days at room temperature before you frost them. Makes 12 to 50 cookies, depending on their sizes. (Bake cookies of about the same size at the same time for even baking.) Pipe or frost cookies with frosting, if desired.
APRICOT THUMBPRINT COOKIES
21/2 cups all-purpose flour
1/2 teaspoon baking powder
1/4 teaspoon salt
1 cup (2 sticks) unsalted butter, softened
1/4 cup sugar
1/4 cup honey
1 large egg, at room temperature
1/2 teaspoon almond extract
1 cup finely chopped blanched almonds
1/2 cup apricot or other fruit preserves
Heat the oven to 375 degrees. Lightly butter several baking sheets.
In a medium-sized bowl, stir together the flour, baking powder and salt.
In a large bowl, with an electric mixer set at medium-high speed, beat the butter, sugar and honey until light and fluffy. Beat in the egg and then the almond extract. In three additions each, beat in the flour mixture, mixing well after each addition.
Shape the dough into balls that are about 1 inch in diameter. Roll each ball in the chopped almonds until coated and place on a prepared baking sheet, leaving about 11/2 inches between the cookies. Using your knuckle or thumb, press a deep indentation into the center of each cookie. Fill each indentation with 1/2 teaspoon of preserves.
Bake for about 10 minutes, or until the cookies turn golden. Transfer the baking sheet to a wire rack and cool for 2 to 4 minutes. Then, using a metal spatula, transfer the cookies to a wire rack and cool completely. When the cookies are cool, store them in an airtight container with waxed paper between the layers. These cookies freeze well.
Makes about 40 cookies.
SUCCESSIVELY EXCESSIVELY CRUNCHY PEANUT BUTTER BROWNIES
For the batter:
11/2 cups unsalted peanuts
11/2 cups all-purpose flour
11/2 teaspoons baking powder
1 teaspoon salt
1 1/4 cups tightly packed light brown sugar
1 cup creamy peanut butter
1/4 pound (1 stick) unsalted butter, cut into 1-ounce pieces
1/4 cup dark corn syrup
4 large eggs
1 teaspoon pure vanilla extract
For the topping:
3/4 cup heavy cream
6 ounces semisweet chocolate, chopped into 1/4 inch pieces
1 cup semisweet chocolate chips
1 cup peanut butter chips
To make the brownies:
Heat oven to 325 degrees.
Toast the peanuts on a baking sheet in the heated oven until golden brown, about 10 to 12 minutes. Cool the peanuts to room temperature before chopping by hand with a cook's knife into 1/4 inch pieces. Set aside.
In a sifter combine the flour, baking powder and salt. Sift onto a large piece of waxed paper and set aside until needed.
Place the light brown sugar, peanut butter, unsalted butter and the corn syrup in the bowl of an electric mixer fitted with a paddle. Beat on medium for 4 minutes. Use a rubber spatula to scrape down the side of the bowl, then beat on medium for 2 more minutes. Scrape down the bowl. Add the eggs, one at a time, beating on medium for 1 minute and scraping down the side of the bowl after each addition.
Add the vanilla extract and beat on medium for 1 minute. Operate the mixer on low while gradually adding the sifted dry ingredients until incorporated, about 1 minute.
Add 3/4 cup chopped peanuts (the remaining peanuts are for the topping) and beat on medium for 10 seconds. Remove the bowl from the mixer and use a rubber spatula to finish mixing the ingredients until thoroughly combined.
Transfer the batter to a 9- by 13- by 2-inch nonstick baking pan. Use a rubber spatula to spread the batter in an even layer. Place the pan on the center rack of the heated oven and bake for 35 minutes, or until a toothpick inserted in the center of the brownie comes out clean. Remove from the oven and allow to stand at room temperature for 1 hour before finishing with the topping.
To prepare the topping:
Heat the heavy cream in a 11/2 -quart saucepan over medium-high heat. Bring to a boil. Place the chopped semisweet chocolate in a 3-quart bowl. Pour the boiling cream over the chocolate and stir with a whisk until smooth.
Pour the mixture over the cooled brownie. Use a cake spatula to spread the mixture evenly over the entire surface of the brownie.
Combine in a 3-quart bowl the chocolate chips, peanut butter chips and the remaining cup chopped unsalted peanuts.
Sprinkle the chips and nuts evenly over the top of the brownie. Refrigerate the brownie for 1 hour before cutting. This will make the top layer firm enough to cut.
Use a serrated knife with rounded tip to cut the brownie into 24 2-inch squares. For a clean cut, heat the blade of the knife under hot running water and wipe the blade dry before making each cut.
Serve immediately or store the brownies in a tightly sealed plastic container.
Makes 24 brownies.