This time of year signifies a great many things: gatherings of loved ones, thoughtful gift exchanges, feasting galore. It's also the time for long-standing family traditions, whether it's breaking out that precious set of heirloom china for the big holiday dinner, assembling around the piano for a round of caroling after the meal, or baking up a batch of special-occasion cookies to enjoy by a crackling fire at the end of the evening, mug of cocoa in hand.
In fact, to us, nothing says "the holidays" more than these special-occasion cookies. Whether the recipes have been passed down to us from our great, great-grandparents, or brought into the family from a magazine clipping or church cookbook over the years, they usually have a meaningful story, and always bring good holiday cheer.
That's why we're thrilled to share with you the Holiday Cookie Chronicles: a collection of extra-special treats with heartwarming stories to dunk into. In this series, you'll find 31 cookie recipes from every corner of the world, brought to us by the Food52 team, community, and a few star cookie-bakers, too.
Our co-founder, Merrill Stubbs, has been making these buttery, sparkly cookies for years: to package as holiday gifts for her elementary-school teachers, and pick out from the cookie jar once all the gifts were given. She learned the recipe from her mother, who learned it from a woman who learned it from another woman before that—and now, Merrill's taught the recipe to her own kids, and to us, too. We're glad the secret's out.
Carla Lalli Music grew up not in a "decorated cookie" household, but in a "biscotti/gingersnap/shortbread" kind of household. This means that every holiday involved some very delicious salted rosemary shortbread, which her mother baked in quadruple batches and sent home with every guest leaving her parents' house (wait, can we come next year?). When Carla grew up and began hosting holidays of her own, she carried on the tradition of this rosemary shortbread, embracing its savoriness by adding grapefruit zest to the dough, and extra flaky salt on top. Fun fact: This shortbread freezes really well—we're just going to leave that info right here.
Though Chrissy Teigen, by her own admission, has "never been a sweets type of girl," she wowed us with a holiday cookie that's unlike any other in our recipe box. These beauties are made with plush, silky sweet potatoes in syrup, and scented with a hit of allspice. Best yet, they're drizzled with a rummy, buttery glaze that makes things "fun for the adults" while being Luna-friendly, too (thanks, rum and butter extracts!). Chrissy says she likes to make extra glaze for cookie-dipping, and keep a pinch bowl of salt closeby for sprinkling on top of each bite. Chrissy's a smart—well—cookie.
Food writer and recipe developer Emma Laperruque grew up eating "magic middles" for years, before she discovered that the term meant different things to different bakers. There were the (discontinued!) Keebler magic middles, with fudgy insides wrapped in a chewy sugar cookie blanket; there were the Stella Parks revivalist cookies on Serious Eats; and there were the Beta Sigma Chi/church community cookbook/newspaper-clipping versions, with peanut butter bellies and brownie-like outers. This only means good things: You can choose your own adventure when it comes to these cookies. But the chocolate-PB version may be the most delicious adventure to choose.
These macaroons were inspired by Chef Samantha Davis’ favorite treat from her childhood: Jamaican coconut drops, or spicy, candied clusters of fresh ginger and dried coconut. When a craving for them struck, Sam used to pay a visit to her “local” Jamaican store to buy them—traveling to a whole different New York City borough to stock up—but soon found a foolproof way to recreate the flavors in her own home without the long journey. You’ll find Sam with these ginger-coconut macaroons in tow at just about every party she attends, since they’re super-simple to whip up, and a real crowd pleaser.
Back in the '90s, our co-founder, Amanda Hesser, considered starting a
biscotti biz-cotti business around these almondy classics. The recipe, developed by an editor at the Atlantic back in 1987 and based on the Tuscan classic, biscotti di Prato, was just a little sticky and a lot wordy. Amanda, her sister, mother, and grandmother, took it upon themselves to decode and simplify the recipe once and for all, and sharpen their dough-scraping-and folding-moves as they did it. While he Hessers never did start the biscotti-slinging business, they continued making the cookie every holiday season, and luckily for us, shared the recipe. Now, we're excited to bake these for our holiday swapees this season, or hoard them during the December festivities like Amanda's family does.
The lingering, nibbling, and conversation that happens after a meal was—and still is—cookbook author, food stylist, and photographer Aran Goyoaga's favorite part of the holidays. There is a Spanish word for just this, sobremesa (literally "over the table"): a time to talk about current affairs and gossip, to deeply connect, and for Aran's family, who owned a pastry shop in Basque country—always accompanied by madeleines. Aran's take on her family-favorite treat is deeply nutty and toasty, thanks to the brown butter, with a zip of freshness from a good amount of orange zest. The recipe is gluten-free, too.
Writer and cookbook author Priya Krishna has finally made peace with the fact that she doesn't have a set job at holiday gatherings. She's okay with just being the "floater" in the room—running out to grab forgotten cups, roasting off backup vegetables, greeting guests as they file in—because she knows she's got this foolproof, crowd-pleasing cookie up her sleeve. The recipe, originally from popular vegan food blogger, Isa Chandra Moscowitz (aka Post Punk Kitchen), combined all her family's favorite flavors—warming spices like ginger, cardamom, cinnamon, and cloves—in a thick and chewy package. Priya lightly adapted the recipe to amp up the spices, and switched out non-dairy milk for its creamy, traditional counterpart. She landed on a real winner—a back-pocket cookie that always ends with an empty platter.
When recipe developer and cookbook author Sarah Kieffer was in middle school, her grandmother gave her and her brother a framed photograph of grandma as a Christmas gift. Confused and disappointed, Sarah still hung that photo up in her room...then her dorm, and then her first apartment with her husband. She still has that framed photograph; grandma is still watching. And though grandma might not like the glaze in this pistachio-fied version of her pecan cookies, Sarah thinks she would approve overall.
Give the people what they really want this holiday season: A queen-sized cookie from the Queen of Cookies herself, Dorie Greenspan. She's crispy, chewy, and properly baked ("French baked," to achieve maximal butter nuttiness and caramelized-sugar toastiness). Her vast (read: sheet-sized) cookie landscape is studded with chocolate, laced with espresso, and disrupted by nuts and spices. Or not; it's totally the eater's choice. There are no rules to this cookie here, only that you must share it with family and friends.
Whether at her husband's grandparents' home in Battle Creek, Michigan, or her own grandparents' home in Tabriz, Iran, cookbook author Naz Deravian finds some things to be the same: the smells and sounds of a busy kitchen, the hubbub of preparing the holiday meal, post-meal digestive silence, and cookie-fueled evening card games. As almond lovers, these are the cookies Naz and her mother-in-law look forward to baking most. Naz makes Grandma Stauss's recipe her own by substituting dried cherries for candied.
Before tahini and halvah were cool, Melissa Clark was eating the stuff every Sunday morning as a kid, after weekly bagels and lox brunch with her family in Brooklyn. No matter the size of slice of halvah they took home from the store, it managed to disappear by end of day, crumble by crumble. (And faster still when they discovered there existed a chocolate flavor.) Years later, as a grown-up food writer, Melissa had the genius idea to fuse her two loves, new and old: buttery shortbread with chocolatey halvah. And so, this recipe was born.
For managing editor Brinda Ayer's family—all excellent cooks, but more-hesitant bakers—these simple-as-can-be cookies were the perfect addition to the table during the December holidays, Deepavali, or Hari Raya. Derived from a traditional Malaysian treat, sugee biscuits, these crumbly, buttery confections are made with fine semolina, all-purpose flour, a pinch of salt, and a lot of ghee, then baked until crackly topped. The resulting cookies have a melt-in-your-mouth consistency (which is why they're lovingly known as "Old Man Biscuits" in Brinda's family) and keep in an airtight container for...well...they've never lasted long enough to find out.
During the holiday cookie season, cookbook author and baker extraordinaire, Shauna Sever, is guided by one belief, and one belief only: that the cookie tin should be well-balanced. Growing up, her family's tin always featured a cookie for everyone: something buttery, something chocolatey, something spiced, and the classic chocolate chip—but never the cocoa-heavy, chocolate-on-chocolate cookie Shauna really wanted. This all changed when she got married 17 years ago, and she began her own cookie-tin tradition. Now, there's always this double-chocolate cookie in the mix. It's such a simple, fuss-free recipe that Shauna will even make them outside of cookie-tin season.
When asked for a special family cookie recipe, assistant editor, Erin Alexander, was totally stumped. She doesn't have many memories of cooking with her family (sorry, mom and dad!). What she does remember, and treasure, are the moments outside the kitchen—especially watching Will and Grace reruns with her mom, after all the homework was said and done, both armed with mint-chip ice cream with a splash of milk on top. These mint-chip Oreo meringues are a cookie-fied version of that tradition, and Erin won't be passing these down, but up: Over the holidays, she'll be making these with her mom (before sitting down to ice cream and TV, of course).
Blogger and cookbook author Hetal Vasavada started Milk and Cardamom so her daughter could recreate the comfort foods of her childhood (and, someday in the future, share them with her kids). While growing up, Hetal felt like every family but hers had an heirloom cookie recipe. By re-imagining Jacques Torres's chocolate chip cookies with Indian flavors and ingredients, she arrived at a recipe that perfectly captures the feelings, flavors, and scents of her grandmother—one that can be passed down for generations to come.
What's more traditional for this time of year than a cutout cookie? Cookbook author Nik Sharma's genius addition of buckwheat adds an alluring, almost-bitter toastiness that bats back and forth with the sweet icing. Despite being tempted with—and simultaneously terrorized by—holiday cookies for days on end, the test kitchen team couldn't help but sneak bites of these cookies that had been "accidentally broken," or "a little too dark," or "iced a little too perfectly."
In the decade since Table for One columnist Eric Kim bit into his inaugural Magnolia Bakery red velvet cupcake, a lot has changed. He's settled into his N.Y.C. self and home, forgotten the name of the boyfriend that so broke his heart, and watched the cupcake craze come and go. These red velvet crinkle cookies are an homage to his first 10 years spent in the Big Apple—nostalgic and bittersweet (but mostly sweet).
To food stylist and cookbook author, Samantha Seneviratne, Christmas was less about Santa Claus and cookie-making, and more about snuggling, watching Selena, and tearing through the mountain of gifts given to Sam's mother, a Montessori-school teacher. Each year, Sam and her brother unwrapped the gifts speedily and wildly, taking great pleasure in the way the wrapping paper littered the room like colored birds, until hitting jackpot: a blue tin of Danish butter cookies. Perfect fuel for yet another family movie session.
These cookies—so glossy, crackled, and bumpy in all the right ways—are made without butter, oil, and flour. How could this be? This recipe's curious proportions made our Genius Recipes columnist and creative director, Kristen Miglore, do a double, double-take. She's since discovered the original recipe can be credited to François Payard, who—not wishing to compete with the American chocolate chip or snickerdoodle in his first Manhattan patisserie—instead riffed on the classic French macaron.
Andrea Nguyen, of the beloved Viet World Kitchen, gifted us with two recipes hidden in one. First, almond-perfumed cookie dough gets balled, rolled in an egg yolk caramel, and baked off until cratered and crisp. Then, after the cookie swaps are said and done, return to this thorough introduction to Nước Màu, a Vietnamese caramel sauce that serves as the base for many savory braises, glazes, and marinades.
Molly Yeh grew up celebrating everything. Her family threw Chrismukkah parties and dumpling-making shindigs and invited everyone they knew. Nowadays, December is just as festive for Molly, especially when you add in her husband's family's traditions (hello, lefse). The only catch: There aren't enough Hanukkah cookie recipes out there. So, this year, Molly is creating her own. These cutout cookies are hazelnut-based, which makes them extra-nutty and extra-tender, like shortbread. Once they're out of the oven and cooled, you top them with circles of melted milk chocolate (gelt!) and shower gold sprinkles like we're celebrating something. We are.
Throughout the year, recipe developer and blogger, Jerrelle Guy, is pretty good at planning ahead. Every time she makes cookies, she mixes up extra dough—rolling scraps into logs that she then stashes in the freezer. But to her, holidays are not about streamlining, but about loosening up a little. Two years ago, instead of making a brand-new batch of cookies, she reached into the freezer, mashed two odd logs of cookie dough together, and voila: a centaur cookie was born. The flavor combinations are inspired by her family's mashed-up favorites: her dad's love of milk and cookies, her sister's of pretzels and strawberries, and somewhere mixed in all that, her mom's love of coffee. For maximum holiday cheer, Jerrelle recommends attaching the cookies right down the middle for a very visually pleasing effect.
Chef, restaurateur, and cookbook author Marcus Samuelsson was, like most kids, on a constant quest for cookies growing up. One of his holiday favorites was a ginger-citrus cookie inspired by his grandmother, Helga. Spending time in the kitchen with Helga was about more than just baking; it was about spending time together, hearing her stories, and contributing to the julbord, the traditional Swedish holiday spread. Cooking across generations is a tradition Marcus hopes his son, Zion, will pass down to his own family one day, along with the recipe for these snappy ginger cookies.
Food writer and recipe developer Ella Quittner is a dessert maximalist—something that she has in common with her sisters and dad. Her mother, on the other hand, is a dessert minimalist—perhaps because she's the granddaughter of Vina Slatalla, whose Depression-era devil’s food cake is exceptionally simple, yet magnificent. Naturally, if there's one holiday dessert everyone in the family can agree on, it would be Vina's golden, bonbon cookies, stuffed with a whole nut, a piece of dark chocolate, or fancy maraschino cherry, depending on what you liked the best. They’re decadent, just the right amount sweet, and best of all, they offer something for everyone.
The Tough One, a poem of found text by food writer, Peter Meehan:
"I eat so many / I feel like the moon man waxing toward maximum weight when they are in the house /the only consolation from the sadness that accompanies their absence is that at least I am not eating cookies all day long. / Until she makes them again."
But in all seriousness, these cookies are our muse, go make them.
Sometimes, there's only one cookie that will really do it, that will truly hit the spot. No, not chocolate chip, but a cake-crumbed vanilla cookie, thickly frosted with buttercream. This holiday season, when your energy level is slightly higher than buying pre-made but much lower than piping meringue florets, this is the cookie for you. Food & Wine's Senior Food Editor, Mary-Frances Heck, recommends pairing them with a glass of milk or bourbon, depending on who's enjoying these treats.
Baker and cookbook author Fany Gerson made a few small, super-clever tweaks to the traditional crinkle that really made her version stand out" Ground cinnamon and chipotle paste take bittersweet and dark chocolate to new heights, resulting in a super-fudgy, complex cookie that still doesn't end up feeling like an overload of cocoa. The dough not only gets rolled in powdered sugar for the snowy effect, but first granulated, then powdered. The granulated sugar provides a barrier between the fatty dough and powdered sugar, so the final effect and crinkle is even downier.
When food editor and stylist Jesse Szewczyk was just 12 years old, he entered a version of his mom's linzer cookies into a local baking competition (and won!). These are an updated version. Trading linzer dough for a spiced shortbread, jam for a cranberry curd, and the heart-shaped cookie cutter for a piglet-shaped one (a nod to Jesse's Midwestern upbringing), Jesse's all but ensured your cookie prowess at every swap this year.
One of Food52 Senior Editor Arati Menon's favorite holiday traditions took place not during the holidays, but right after, when she'd return from break to her all-girls college in Bombay. Each January, she and her friends would return with more luggage than they left with: suitcases and duffels filled with festive treats their moms would send to share. One year, a friend came back with several boxes of a kind of biscuit she'd never heard of before. It was from a family-owned bakery in a city three hours away, and stamped with the word "SHREWSBURY." This sweet and buttery shortbread was light, crisp, and wonderfully crumbly. Years later, she's developed her own recipe—an amalgamation of several—that's as close as one can get to the real thing.
Growing up, Ben knew to rely on Aunt Dolly's four, famed cookies come holiday season: the crisp and chewy oatmeal raisin, crumbly and snowy wedding cookies, nutty and salty chocolate mounds, and these: orbs of Bisquick-bound sausage and cheese. Ben never explicitly calls these the "palate-cleanser course," but as the only savory option, these sausage balls—especially when enjoyed with coffee—were everyone's favorite treat, a welcome respite from sugar, the much-needed break before diving back in.
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