Northern Europeans are serious about their Christmas cookies. Almost every country has its own, made only during the holidays, and a household will spend days shopping, baking, and decorating—a seasonal undertaking as important as turning over the garden in the spring or closing up the house for summer vacation. Take, for example, basler leckerli, a spiced cookie with candied citrus, which is a classic part of Christmas in Germany. It needs to be baked several weeks ahead of time and then left to sit and soften—you make it in November to eat in December. A friend of mine from close to Weimar who still uses her grandmother’s recipe from the 1930s puts hers in a deep earthenware crock with a slice of apple and covers them with a wooden board, so that the moisture from the fruit is slowly absorbed and the flavors fuse. The result is a parable of patience, an edible lesson in delayed gratification.
“The Northern European winter is dark, oppressively dark, and the way to make the season cozy and magical is a lot of candlelight—and a lot of cookies,” says Luisa Weiss, an American food writer who lives in Berlin. “The German tea-and-cake break in the afternoon is so important, especially during Advent. It’s a time to socialize, to go from house to house. You’ll always have at least five different cookies.” That means devoting several weekends to baking. Weiss recalls one friend who produces seventeen varieties every year. That’s unusually prolific, but everybody bakes.
Weiss is the author of Classic German Baking, which was published this past fall. It’s a gorgeous introduction to one of the most sophisticated and least-celebrated baking cultures in the world. The longest chapter is about Christmas. In it you will find a recipe for lebkuchen, a gingerbread cookie dough you let rise and ripen for two months before baking. “When I was writing the book, I wondered if two months makes a difference,” she says. “It really does.” She tried the recipe with shorter rests, and the cookies didn’t have the right complexity. It wasn’t just their flavor, it was the texture, and German baking is as attuned to the consistency of a cookie as Italian cooking is to the toothsome doneness of pasta.
Germany isn’t the only country fixated on holiday cookies. Head up to Norway, and a household will make at least seven kinds and start setting them out on December 1. Many are sugar cookies, differentiated by a slight variation in flavor (such as cardamom) and shape. There are berlinerkranser (formed into small wreaths), serinakaker (marked with your thumb), kakemenn (shaped like little men), goro (pressed with an ornamental iron). Others are more distinctive. There’s the Sarah Bernhardt, which is said to have originated in Denmark after the French actress visited Copenhagen. It’s a meringue cookie layered with chocolate buttercream and dipped in chocolate. Or there’s the kransekake, a tower of almond-cookie rings held together with icing and decorated, usually, with tiny Norwegian flags on toothpicks. Walk into a Norwegian home at Christmas, and there will be a kransekake on the table.
There was nothing so intricate in my home when I was growing up, but there were always cookies: gingerbread men, date pinwheels, sugar cookies that we carefully decorated—and that my father ate as quickly as the frosting set. My favorite were pecan sandies (our name for what some call Russian tea cakes and others call Mexican wedding cookies), which were coated with confectioners’ sugar that stuck to your fingers and that dissolved in your mouth. We were in no way an observant household, and making Christmas cookies had nothing to do with faith. It was a familial tradition, and one of the happiest times of the year. When my mother rummaged through the kitchen cabinets to find the cookie cutters, I felt a Pavlovian surge of joy.
The activity, the smells, the warmth radiated by the oven, the tables covered with platters piled with intricate shapes. Humanity’s ingenuity is to turn the shortest, coldest days of the year into the most delicious and welcoming.
New York’s Milk Bar, the game-changing bakery opened by Christina Tosi, doesn’t really make holiday cookies. The classic cornflake-chocolate-chip-marshmallow cookie gets a shot of peppermint extract and a handful of crumbled candy canes, but that’s it. This is not an oversight. Tosi doesn’t think you should buy holiday cookies from her—she thinks you should make them yourself. “There’s an untouchability about Christmas cookies,” Tosi says over the phone. She’s in Los Angeles, filming the new season of Fox’s MasterChef. She tells me that the best cookies are simple and humble and homemade. “They’re memories, childhood memories,” she says. “My favorite is a straight-up, cutout sugar cookie that one of my grandmothers used to make. It’s butter, light brown sugar, flour, and salt—only four ingredients, and it’s perfectly what it is and not meant to be improved. It’s not meant to be turned into a business.”
Still, out of the public eye, holiday cookies are a big deal at Milk Bar. Every December the staff has a homemade cookie swap. “Everyone,” Tosi says. “If you’re a driver or work in the back or in bookkeeping. You see who’s crazy inventive. You get a tin of cookies that has so much personality—it’s amazing to see what comes out. This is about digging deep into a memory and exposing yourself to others—you become an open book. I’m always asking, ‘So what’s this about? Where is this from?’ It’s this cheesy, sweet, amazing moment, and then you have a connection with them forever.
“The holidays are about giving something more of yourself than you normally would,” Tosi continues. “Besides, anyone will eat a misshapen cookie.”
Right now, Dorie Greenspan is spooning sugar into the bowl of the stand mixer in my narrow Manhattan kitchen. This is a little like having Renée Fleming stop by to sing Christmas carols—Greenspan wrote a baking book with Julia Child, another with Pierre Hermé, and has enough James Beard Foundation awards to fill a trophy case. She has just returned from a short stay in Paris, where she keeps an apartment with her husband, and she’s dressed like Audrey Hepburn in Funny Face: black pants, black top, colorful silk scarf expertly tied around her neck. Her only sartorial nod to the twenty-first century is her footwear, a pair of Vans lace-ups printed with a picture of the Milky Way.
We’ve been discussing the holiday cookies she likes the most—and whipping egg whites for her snowballs, which she calls a gateway cookie, an easy introduction to the more intricate creations I want to make from the pages of her latest cookbook, Dorie’s Cookies, which was published this fall and is one of those books you buy in pairs: one for you, one for a friend. I’ve set out empty platters for buttercream-filled waffles, white pepper–spiced cookies called pfefferneusse, Christmas spice cookies, and meringue snowballs. We’ve cleared the day for cookies.
The basic snowball recipe—egg whites, sugar, cream of tartar—can be flavored with almonds or rose extract or coffee, and colored so that the snowballs have the soft pastel tones of faded T-shirts. You can make the simplest version or you can turn it into a more complex task, which I’ve decided to do. I candied orange peels the night before for one, bought some Valrhona chocolate for another.
According to the instructions, you must add the sugar one tablespoon at a time, which means this step has the methodical pace of a tea ceremony. “This is going to take forever!” Greenspan says with a smile. “Who would tell you to do such a thing?”
The truth is, I’m not an intuitive baker. When I was a cook I worked on the line, not in pastry, and when I make a cake or a pie I feel as if I’m speaking a language I studied in college but never fully understood. Still, I can follow directions, and I find measuring out ingredients in grams is extremely satisfying.
The pat phrase is that baking is a science, but that’s not exactly right. It’s more expressive. “Marie-Antoine Carême is considered the father of modern pastry, and he said it’s the sister art of architecture,” Greenspan tells me. “You’re constructing, you’re building. If you take butter, sugar, eggs, and put them on the counter you have no idea what they will become,” in the same way that wood and glass and stone could become a chapel or a school or a weekend house in the mountains. “It’s different from a steak,” she says with playful contempt. “You just grill a steak.”
The meringues go in the oven, and I pull out an electric pizzelle maker for a cookie she calls Bruno’s New Year’s Waffles, which are the size of a stylishly small business card and taste like brown sugar and rum. The recipe is her interpretation of a classic cookie from the north of France, and making them is intensely gratifying. She rolls the hard dough into small balls, which I then press in the pizzelle maker so that they’re thin and lacy, then lay on a baking rack to let cool. Later, we ice them with coffee buttercream and press them into tiny, sweet sandwiches.
Sometimes Greenspan and I are fully engaged in our conversation; sometimes, we fall into comfortable silence. When she sees a cookie she thinks is particularly pretty, she can’t help herself and lets out a happy chirp. There’s a lot of work to be done, and a lot of dishes to wash. I think maybe I’ve tried to do too much with our day together, but we get through the recipes, and she leaves me with the meringue snowballs in the oven, where they are to bake for more than three hours, a little over one hour at a low temperature and another two with the heat turned off and the door propped open with a wooden spoon.
Later, I email her to let her know how it went: The waffles are perfect, as are the pfefferneusse, and the Christmas spice cookies look laser-cut. But the snowballs collapsed into snow patties. It might have been the food coloring I insisted on using, which seemed a little heavy for the whites she had beaten so beautifully, but I wanted the candied orange snowballs to be orange, the mint-chip snowballs to be green. Next time, I’ll be more careful. Still, they taste like Christmas. I decide to crumble them over ice cream, and although it’s not what I planned, the result is so delicious it could become a new tradition.
Recipes adapted from Dorie’s Cookies, by Dorie Greenspan, published by Rux Martin Books, an imprint of Houghton Mifflin Harcourt.
3⁄4 cup (150 grams) plus
1 T granulated sugar
2 T confectioners’ sugar
3 large egg whites, at room temperature
1⁄4 tsp. cream of tartar
Pinch of fine sea salt
1. Preheat the oven to 250˚ F. Line a baking sheet with parchment or a silicone baking mat.
2. Sift the 1 T of granulated sugar plus the confectioners’ sugar through a fine-mesh sieve. Set aside.
3. Working with a stand mixer fitted with a whisk attachment (or in a large bowl with a hand mixer), beat the egg whites, cream of tartar, and salt at medium-high speed until the whites form soft peaks, about 3 minutes. Slowly add the 3⁄4 cup (150 g) of granulated sugar, 1 T at a time; it will take 5 minutes, or even longer, to get all the sugar into the whites, but it will be worth your patience. After all the sugar is incorporated, beat for another 2 minutes or so. You will have stiff, glossy, beautiful peaks. Using a flexible spatula, fold in the sifted granulated sugar and confectioners’ sugar.
4. Using a cookie scoop or a serving spoon, shape the meringue and place on the parchment-lined baking sheet. You want the meringue to be piled high with a nice round top. Be sure there are at least 2 inches of space between each one.
5. Bake the meringues for 1 hour and 15 minutes. Don’t open the oven! The snowballs will have puffed and cracked but not colored (although they might be pale beige, and that’s fine). Turn off the heat and prop open the oven door with the handle of a wooden spoon and leave for at least 2 hours so that the meringues will finish baking and dry out.
Christmas Spice Cookies
1⁄4 lb. (115 grams) unsalted butter,
cut in chunks, at room temperature
1⁄3 cup (65 grams) sugar,
plus extra for sanding (optional)
1⁄4 tsp. fine sea salt
1⁄2 egg white, at room temperature
1 tsp. pure vanilla extract
1 cup (135 grams) all-purpose flour
1⁄4 tsp. ground cinnamon
1⁄4 tsp. ground ginger
Pinch of ground cloves
Pinch of ground allspice
1. Working with a stand mixer fixed with the paddle attachment (or in a large bowl with a hand mixer), beat the butter, sugar, and salt together on medium speed until smooth and creamy, about 3 minutes. Reduce the speed to low and blend in the egg white, followed by the vanilla. Still working on slow speed, add the flour in 3 or 4 additions, beating only until it is almost incorporated each time before adding more; scrape down the sides and the bottom of the bowl as you work, then continue to mix until the flour disappears into the dough. Add the spices, and blend evenly.
2. Roll soft dough between two sheets of wax paper until 1⁄4-inch thick. Place wax paper–layered dough on a baking sheet, and let chill in the refrigerator for 3 hours, or in the freezer for 1 hour.
3. Preheat oven to 350˚. Line a baking sheet with parchment paper or a silicone baking mat.
4. Remove dough from refrigerator and peel away both sheets of wax paper. Place dough back on one of the sheets, and cut into shapes with cookie cutters. Place them on lined baking sheet 11⁄2 inches apart. If you’re using sanding sugar, sprinkle over shapes. Bake for 19 to 21 minutes, rotating the sheet after 10 minutes, or until the cookies feel firm to the touch. Cool on the baking sheets for 5 minutes before lifting them onto a rack to cool completely.