I got invited to a cookie exchange! My friend Heidi hosts one with her mom every year, and it has always sounded like so much fun. This year, thanks to John—who has saved me from myself by taking on some of the extra stuff I shouldn’t have taken on in the first place—I get to go to my first cookie exchange ever! I am very excited. I hear there will be cookies.
The party is on Sunday, but since my weekend is busy, I already did my baking. I can’t tell you how much I’ve been looking forward to this. It’s an excuse to bake a staggering number of my favorite Christmas cookies, these little Italian shortbread cookies that remind me so much of home. Of course, when I make them at home with my mom, they’re a lot prettier. She has artful dessert decorating talent and patience that I did not apparently inherit. Where she carefully drizzles and dips and arranges, I tend to fling sprinkles haphazardly like emergency supplies from a helicopter, and smother everything in bizarre gobs of chocolate. But I try.
Even in the hands of someone as hopeless-ish as me, these cookies are hard to mess up. They have a radiant natural beauty. Plus you get to shoot them out of a cookie press, which is obviously great fun, and there are infinite acceptable ways to decorate them, and best of all, they melt in your mouth with awesome butteriness and rich chocolatiness without the overwhelming sweetness of some holiday-time treats. Shortbread, you are so good. I luh you, shortbread.
Pardon me, did I say buttery?
I meant MADE OF BUTTER.
I’ll tell you how much butter two pounds of butter is: a whole lot. It’s a whole lot of butter. I think you have to see it in person. That much butter, all naked like that in one place, is downright scandalous. That’s how you know these cookies are good for you.
The fun thing about them is that they’re quick and naturally uniform, so each cookie sheet looks like an accomplishment. The lousy thing is that while it may only take 30 seconds to fill a tray, every kitchen presumably has a finite number of ovens, so you’re constantly cycling sheets through, baking, cooling, refilling and baking again. I used three cookie sheets, two timers and one oven, decorating the cooled cookies in between batches. For four solid hours. It was kind of intense.
The decorating can be done both pre- and post-baking. It’s easy and fun, but with limited space, it starts to get crazy. While one tray was in the fridge waiting for the chocolate to set, several batches had to wait around all over the counters and the dining room table. My house hasn’t looked this much like the kitchen exploded in a long time. At least a week.
I drizzled some with chocolate, coated the backs of others, dipped a few halfway, and sprinkled random ones with gold sugar, or toffee bits, or almond-flavored crunchies. I placed a chocolate chip in the center of half the stars before they baked. I used milk chocolate, semisweet chocolate, and green-tinted white chocolate in various combinations to drizzle and dip. I sandwiched apricot jam between pairs of identical cookies, then chocolated some up and left some alone. All together, they ended up looking pretty fancy—and just imagine how fancy a decent cookie-decorator could make them look!
I needn’t have worried.
I lost count almost immediately. Four hours after tossing the first sticks of butter into the mixer, I was on a hunt for rogue cookies, having stashed them seemingly everywhere once I’d run out of fridge/freezer/counter space. It was when I spotted the nearly-forgotten pile of gold-sprinkleds on the balcony that I figured I could just assume I had enough and call it a night.
To package them for the party, I put a little assortment of six cookies into a fold-top sandwich bag and tied it up with ribbon, a little sparkly gold ornament, and a special tag designed for the occasion. The tags print four to a sheet, and you can cut them out, fold them in half, make a slit in the top and string them onto anything you like. You can download them here as a PDF.
Since I didn’t have the usual recipe handy, I copied a shortbread cookie from Christmas-Cookies.com that closely resembles what I’ve used in the past. I doubled the recipe and increased the vanilla—you’ll see why—and the yield is variable, depending on your cookie press and which plates you use. I used mostly one-click plates like the star and the tree, and got about one million cookies. If you would like to make only a quasi-normal quantity, consider using their recipe.
Christmas Spritz Cookies
Makes at least 8 dozen assorted cookies
- 2 pounds (8 sticks!) unsalted butter, softened
- 2 cups powdered sugar
- 1 Tablespoon vanilla extract
- 1/4 teaspoon salt
- 1 cup cornstarch
- 6 cups all-purpose flour
- Preheat oven to 350 F.
- In a bowl no smaller than 5 quarts (ideally, for your sake, the bowl of a stand mixer), cream together butter, sugar, vanilla and salt. Gradually add cornstarch and flour and beat until fluffy.
- Fill cookie press with batter and press cookies out onto cool baking sheet. Leave them some breathing room, because they will spread out slightly as they bake. If you plan to decorate these cookies with a chocolate chip, chocolate kiss, or piece of fruit, now is the time!
- Bake 12-15 minutes, or until the edges just begin to turn yellow. Let cool 2 minutes on baking sheet, then remove to wire rack to cool completely. Allow your baking sheets to cool before pressing the next batch of cookies, or the cookies will be thin.
- Mix and match any of the following decorating techniques for a beautiful variety of cookies, or make up your own!
- Tint white chocolate: Place white chocolate chips in a bowl and microwave for 15 seconds at a time, stirring in between, until just smooth. (if it won’t get smooth, stir in a few drops of vegetable oil.) Add food coloring and stir, one drop at a time, until you like the color. Use this colored chocolate along with milk and/or semisweet to drizzle, coat, or sandwich.
- Drizzle: Arrange cookies close together on a tray covered with wax paper. Fill a pastry bag (or sandwich bag) with melted chocolate and use a small round decorating tip (or cut a tiny hole in the sandwich bag). Drizzle chocolate over all the cookies, and sprinkle with any sugars, nonpareils, toffee, or other sprinkly-natured thing you like, as desired. Remove the cookies to another tray covered with wax paper before the chocolate sets. This prevents the chocolate from joining them all into one giant mass, which you won’t enjoy trying to sort out. Place the tray in the fridge or freezer until the chocolate is set.
- Coat: Melt chocolate in a shallow bowl. Gently lay a cookie face-up on top of the melted chocolate, then lift it out very carefully, lay it face-down on a wax-paper-covered-tray and refrigerate to set. If you find too much chocolate adhering to the cookie, you can either try to scrape some off with a spatula, or add a bit of vegetable oil to the chocolate to thin it slightly. Also, make sure your chocolate stays hot; cool chocolate makes thicker coats.
- Dip: Melt chocolate in a bowl to about 1″ depth. Carefully dip the cookie straight down into the chocolate, lift straight up, hold for a moment to allow the excess to run off, and lay it face-up on wax paper. Sprinkle with sprinkles or nonpareils, if you like. Refrigerate to set.
- Sandwich: Select two identical cookies. Hold them together to make sure they line up. Spread a very small amount of jam, preserves, or chocolate on the back of one cookie, press the two together gently back-to-back, and refrigerate until set. (Now is a great time to dip the sandwiches in chocolate, but I mean, up to you.) By tomorrow, the jam will have slightly softened and flavored the cookies.