By Celia Barbour
For children of a certain age (and raised in certain families), the very word “Christmas” is highly volatile, capable of setting off little explosions of effervescent joy in their souls. Over the course of the past month, my daughter has grown adept at casually working it into comments about, say, the day of the week or the arrangement of the furniture, after which, she just can’t help it, she squeaks with private delight.
The same incantation is less effective on those of us who have lived through more than a few holiday seasons. Say “Christmas” several times, and you might notice something more like an anxiety attack setting in. I do, anyway. And so I spend these early December weeks looking for other ways to trick myself into feeling merry. I stop to admire the neighbors’ holiday lights and the decorations along Main Street. I shop for presents, pick out wrapping paper, RSVP to holiday parties (and even go to them if I can figure out what to wear).
But eventually a moment comes when I have to face up to a truth I realized long ago: The Christmas spirit doesn’t just seep into me, through osmosis. I have to roll up my sleeves and get busy making it.
And for the next eight days, my primary construction materials will be butter, sugar, and flour.
Christmas cookie baking is not like other kinds of baking. In addition to the precision, patience and artistry demanded by all the pastry arts, it also requires high-level strategic thinking. Every year, I make multiple batches of several different types of cookies, most of which we box up and give away to friends.
Each contains my cornerstone cookie, the Spoon Cookie, which became something of a legend after it went off to find its way in the world seven years ago. That’s when I wrote about it in Gourmet magazine, and the recipe survives on the Epicurious website to this day, garnering comments both snarky and sweet, and bearing the website’s prestigious blue ribbon. But it is also a massive pain in the neck to create, requiring several nights’ work from start to finish.
So I need its companions in the cookie box to be much less taxing but still delicious enough to appear in its lofty company. Because Spoon Cookies improve after a few days, the other cookies should also be able to be thrown together at the last minute.
For many years now I have been searching for a chocolate cookie that would fit the bill. Not because I am obsessed with chocolate — I’m not, and moreover I find it a bit too dark and messy to be completely at home among the season’s sugar, peppermint and ginger. But I realize how essential chocolate is to others’ happiness and would hate to deprive anyone of it.
For the last few years, I’ve made a chocolate sandwich cookie with a white-chocolate-and-peppermint ganache filling. It scores high on both looks and flavor, but simple it is not. So this year, I decided to try adapting a cookie that I’d made in summertime. It has a super-tender, melty texture, somewhat like a Mexican wedding cookie, plus a big fat wallop of chocolate flavor and gooey richness, thanks to two cups of jolly old chips.
The originals were chunky lumps, however, and would have stood out in the lineup like Shrek at a beauty pageant. So I revived a technique I’d adored as a kid: smearing the bottom of a flat-bottomed glass with butter, dipping it in sugar, and using it to flatten the cookie — and leave a sparkling surface. Then I added a half-pecan to the top of each. The results are still a bit lumpy, but they are pretty lumps. And when I bit into one, I very nearly squeaked for joy.
½ cup pecans, plus more for decorating
2 tablespoons sugar, plus more for decorating
1½ cups flour
1/3 cup plain unsweetened cocoa powder
½ teaspoon baking powder
½ teaspoon salt
1 cup butter, at room temperature, plus more for decorating
1 cup powdered sugar
1 tablespoon vanilla
1 tablespoon brandy, rum, or cooled espresso
2 cups chocolate chips
- In a food mill or food processor, grind the pecans and 2 tablespoons of sugar until they have the texture of coarse meal.
- In a mixing bowl, sift together the flour, cocoa, baking powder and salt. Set aside.
- Using an electric mixer, cream 1 cup of the butter and the powdered sugar until light and fluffy. Beat in the vanilla and brandy or rum. Add the nut mixture, mix briefly, then add the dry ingredients and mix just until combined. Stir in the chips. Refrigerate the dough for one hour.
- Preheat the oven to 325 degrees. Pour some sugar onto a saucer. Generously butter the bottom of a very flat-bottomed glass. Roll the dough into 1-inch balls, dip the glass into the sugar, and press it into the dough to flatten. Repeat with the remainder of the dough (you may need to re-butter the glass from time to time). Add a pecan half to the top of each cookie, and bake for 9 minutes. Cool at least 10 minutes on the pan before transferring to a wire rack to finish cooling.