My family does not have a grand cookie-making tradition around the holidays. After the myth of Santa Claus had evaporated and my brother and I were over the age of 12, my Buddhist family didn’t care that much about Christmas. My mom put up a beautiful tree that we all refused to help her decorate, and on Christmas, we exchanged a few relatively modest gifts and called it a day. It meant far more to me to snuggle together and watch the movie Selena than to sing Christmas carols. (Selena is the only movie in the history of time that’s been able to keep all four of us entertained at once.)
What we did relish, though, were the gifts my mom received as a Montessori preschool teacher. Each year she brought home a mountain of presents from her students: scented candles, planners, sweaters and scarves, homemade mugs—and cookies galore. She would set up camp at the base of the pile with a notepad in hand, and my brother and I would tear into the wrappers like raccoons burrowing through trash, yelling out names so that my mom could address her thank-you cards. Perhaps it was the sheer volume that made it fun—we unwrapped and moved on with such fervor that scraps of paper flew around the living room like many-colored birds.
Then we’d hit one of those blue tins of Danish butter cookies, and we’d stop. Jackpot! These were our family’s favorite cookies—super simple with a buttery base and crunchy sugary topping; and not frilly, unless you count the white paper cups they came in. They were just perfect for a cup of tea, and another viewing of Selena.
Years later, after my brother passed away, and we stopped celebrating Christmas altogether, I thought a lot about those butter cookies. Our love for them was outsized because they gave us something else. They gave us a reason to put everything aside and open mom’s presents together, laughing the entire time. There gave us another reason to make more tea and laugh some more. (Except, of course, when we were all shedding tears for Selena.) Because they were gifted by my mother’s lovely students, we spent exactly zero hours working for them in the kitchen. They were the cookies we enjoyed while we hung out and enjoyed each other’s company. And those were the best of times.
My homemade version takes a bit more effort than opening up a blue tin, but they are worth it. Just like the classic, they are both buttery and crisp. I’ve amped them up with plenty of lemon zest and dried currants but kept the classic crunchy sugar topping. Bake them for your family today, but make sure the cookies are done by the time they arrive. Don’t waste one extra minute in the kitchen when you could be out among them, doling out tea and hugs. —Samantha Seneviratne
In a large bowl, with an electric mixer on medium speed, beat the butter and granulated sugar until combined and creamy, about 3 minutes. Add the egg, lemon zest, and vanilla and beat until combined. Beat in the flour, currants, baking soda, and salt until just combined.
Preheat the oven to 350°F (180°C).
Line a rimmed baking sheet with parchment paper. Transfer about one quarter of the dough to a piping bag fitted with a 1/2-inch (1.2cm) star tip. Pipe small rings, about 1 ¾ (3.6cm) inches in diameter, onto the prepared baking sheet. Repeat with the remaining dough. Freeze until firm, about 20 minutes.
Line 2 rimmed baking sheets with parchment paper. Tip a little bit of sanding sugar into a small bowl. Quickly dip the cookies into the sugar to coat, then transfer them, about 1 inch apart, to the prepared baking sheets. Return the remaining cookies to the freezer.
Bake the cookies until golden around the edges, 13 to 18 minutes, rotating sheets halfway through baking. Transfer the baking sheet to a wire rack to cool. Repeat with the remaining cookies.
Keep the cookies in an airtight container at room temperature for 3 days or in the freezer for up to 2 months.