When we imagine Christmas as children, we envision a glorious profusion of things: presents, candy canes, decorations, jingle bells, stockings, elves, mangers, angels and so forth. But the holiday that many of us actually experience when we grow up has less to do with things — nouns — than it does with verbs. We make lists, shop, tidy, decorate, wrap, beribbon, address, stamp, mail, cook, carol and bake, just for starters, with each tidy little verb representing a huge whirlwind of effort. We walk down Main Street or board Metro-North with bags bulging around us like antebellum petticoats. We stand by the oven as our gingerbread browns and our feet swell. We untangle string lights and drape them from eaves and shrubbery, address and stamp a hundred envelopes, then rush to the post office to drop them in the mail before the place closes.
And we do all this on top of the ongoing tasks of our everyday lives, which don’t go on holiday for the holidays.
Yet part of the joy of this time of year is that our collective toils come to fruition all at once, in a shared moment of bright appreciation and wonder. We celebrate the holidays together. And that’s no small miracle in lives that, for all their busyness, can often feel out of sync; in which a victory for one of us sometimes coincides with gut-punch news for another.
I finally got COVID two weeks ago and the flu three weeks before that, so my holiday activities have been curtailed. One thing I won’t forgo, however, is baking. It’s not so much that I love it — no matter how deep my pleasure may be, it starts to wane 60 cookies into my first triple-batch of four recipes. But, along with decorating the tree, baking is the “doing” that generates Christmas for me.
My mother used to deliver gorgeous arrays of Christmas cookies to friends. On colorful paper plates, she’d arrange six or seven types of homemade cookies, then wrap them in plastic wrap and deposit them on doorsteps. I’ve taken up the ritual, adapting it to my tastes and lesser culinary ambitions (at 89, she still makes puff pastry from scratch for her tarts).
Several years ago, I wanted to add a cookie to my repertoire that felt different from the rest, which were mostly variations on the classic butter-and-jam, butter-and-frosting themes. Chocolate seemed like a good choice, but I worried it wasn’t quite seasonal enough. Perhaps peppermint and chocolate could fit the bill?
I didn’t have to look far for inspiration. My husband and kids will gobble up packages of Mint Newman-O’s no matter how many batches of homemade cookies are cooling on the counter. So I developed a chocolate sandwich cookie with peppermint buttercream. It’s yummy enough to have earned its place in the Christmas rotation.
Here’s a confession: The batches I made to photograph for this column didn’t come out right. Judging by their lacy edges, I miscalculated and added too little flour. I didn’t have time to shop for more ingredients and make them again, though, so what’s done is done. If you follow the recipe, yours should come out more like pretty little discs. I did sample a few, and enlisted my husband to do so, too, just to confirm that the flavor was good. Eating cookies, after all, is one holiday activity that’s a celebration in itself.
Chocolate Sandwich Cookies with Peppermint Buttercream
For the cookies:
- 2 cups all-purpose flour
- ¾ cup unsweetened cocoa powder
- ¼ teaspoon baking soda
- ½ teaspoon salt
- 1 cup sugar
- 14 tablespoons (1 stick plus 5 tablespoons) unsalted butter, cut into pieces and softened slightly on the counter
- 1 teaspoon vanilla extract
- 1 to 2 tablespoons whole milk
In the bowl of a food processor, combine the flour, cocoa powder, baking soda, salt and sugar, and pulse to combine. Add the butter pieces and mix until well-blended. With the motor running, add the vanilla, then enough milk so that the dough begins to come together.
Turn out the dough onto a surface and knead a couple of times to form a uniform lump. Divide in two, and roll each into a log about 1 inch in diameter and 16 inches long. Wrap in waxed paper and refrigerate at least an hour, or overnight. (Meanwhile, make the buttercream, below.)
Heat the oven to 325 degrees. Slice a log of dough into ¼-inch slices and arrange on a baking sheet lined with parchment paper or a silicone liner. Bake about 10 minutes. Cool 10 minutes before transferring to a rack to cool completely.
When cool, spread one cookie with about a tablespoon of the buttercream, top with a second cookie and press together gently.
For the buttercream:
- 1 stick (8 tablespoons/4 ounces) butter
- 3½ cups confectioners’ sugar
- ¼ teaspoon peppermint flavoring
- 4 tablespoons (2 ounces) vegetable shortening
- ½ teaspoon vanilla
- 1 tablespoon water, rum or brandy
In the bowl of an electric mixer, combine the butter and shortening and mix until thoroughly blended. Add the confectioners’ sugar and mix, starting on low and increasing the speed gradually — the mixture will seem very dry at first but will soon come together. Add the peppermint and vanilla, and the water or rum, and mix until light and fluffy.