Here it is, the last day of November, and the first Christmas cookie exchange of the season has already landed on my calendar. (Actually, the first first exchange happened in November, but I was overwhelmed and came empty-handed.) If you've ever found yourself worrying about upcoming cookie exchanges, I thought I'd share three tried-and-true recipes for different situations. But first, if you have any turkey left, may I recommend enchiladas? I tried this homemade sauce and it made the Pinterest cut because I'll certainly be making it again.
Okay, so much for Thanksgiving. Back to cookies. Use a stand mixer for these, if you have one. Three recipes, three cookie exchanges--or three treats for you!
Your Basic Sugar Cookies
1 cup (two sticks) butter
2 c sugar
2 Tbsp milk
1 tsp vanilla
1 tsp salt
4 tsp baking powder
4 c flour
Cream butter and sugar until fluffy. Add eggs, milk, and vanilla until well-combined. Sift together dry ingredients and add to wet mixture until well-incorporated. Refrigerate dough at least one hour. (I usually divide the dough into four portions and wrap them individually in plastic wrap, so I don't have to process all the cookies at once.) Roll out dough on floured surface to 1/4" thickness and cut out. Bake at 350F for 10 minutes.
When completely cooled, you can freeze the cookies to frost later, or go ahead and frost. We like to do a thinner frosting that hardens: 1 cup powdered sugar, 1/2 tsp almond extract, 1-2 Tbsp milk, and artificial coloring, if desired.
(Thank you to M. V. for this now-traditional family recipe! Don't freeze this dough, or it will spread, but they keep in the fridge nicely overnight if you don't have time to do all the cookies at once. After they're frosted they can still be frozen, but they won't be as pretty.)
If you're looking for something even more arduous than frosted sugar cookies, I guarantee no one at your cookie exchange will have the following recipe, which I used to make for my husband's grad school advisor, a Jewish man from the Upper East Side (i.e., someone who knew his rugelach).
Polish Rugelach (adapted from Dec 1996 Bon Appetit)
1 c butter, room temperature
1 8-oz pkg cream cheese, room temperature
1/2 c sugar
2-3/4 c flour
1 tsp salt
1 c sugar
1 c dried cranberries, diced
1 c chopped, toasted walnuts
2 Tbsp + 1/2 c melted butter
2-1/2 tsp ground cinnamon
1-1/4 tsp allspice
For dough: beat butter and cheese until light. Add sugar and beat until fluffy. Mix in flour and salt. Gather dough into a ball and knead until smooth. Divide into 8 equal pieces. Flatten each into a disk, wrap in plastic and chill at least 1 hour. (As with the sugar cookies, you can make the dough a day ahead.)
For filling: mix all and set aside.
Preheat oven to 350F. Roll out a disk of dough until it's an 8" round. Spread 3 Tbsp filling over it, leaving 1/2" border. Cut the round into 8 wedges, like a pie. Starting at the wide end of the wedge, roll it up tightly like a crescent roll. Place cookies, tip pointing down, on ungreased baking sheet. Brush cookies with egg and sprinkle with additional sugar. Bake 20 minutes, or until golden. Cool on racks.
The rugelach freeze well and are unbelievably tasty. Don't even waste your time eating bakery rugelach because you'll go away thinking you don't like rugelach, when, really, you don't like bakery cookies because they skimp on butter and expensive ingredients.
And then, lastly, I leave you with a relatively simple recipe that I usually whip up because it's the easiest but still looks festive. This one comes from Betty Crocker's Best Christmas Cookbook.
2/3 c butter, softened
1/2 c brown sugar, packed
1/2 c corn syrup
1 tsp vanilla
2 c flour
1/2 tsp salt
1/3 c brown sugar, packed
1/3 c corn syrup
1/4 c butter
1/4 c heavy cream
1 tsp vanilla
1 cup sliced almonds
Preheat oven to 350F. Butter a 15-1/2" x 10-1/2" x 1" jelly roll pan or line it with aluminum foil.
Mix butter, sugar, corn syrup, vanilla and egg in large bowl. Stir in flour and salt. Spread in prepared pan. Bake 18-20 minutes until light golden brown.
Meanwhile, cook the 1/3 c brown sugar and 1/3 c corn syrup in a small saucepan over low heat, stirring constantly, until sugar is dissolved. Stir in 1/4 c butter and the cream. Heat to boiling. Remove from heat and stir in vanilla.
Sprinkle almonds over the baked layer. Pour the cooked mixture over the almonds and spread evenly. Bake 15-20 minutes or until light brown and set. Cool completely. Cut into 6 rows by 4 rows; cut squares diagonally in half.