Christmastime is a season of giving, of loving, and appreciating. But most of all, it is a season of baking cookies until you reach the point of collapse. Or at least, that's how it's always been at my house. Every year, the kitchen would transform into a cookie factory in the days leading up to the holiday. And while the baked sweets were of course delicious and exceptionally pretty, they were also a mechanism of extraordinary power. For everyone knows that the better your cookies are, the more Santa will recognize how good you've been.
No one was more cognizant of this power than she who wielded it, the great Baker of Cookies and High Priestess of the Altar of the Claus. Or as we like to call her, Mom. One of my earliest Christmas memories was of being in kindergarten, executing a homework assignment to write a letter to Santa. These letters would presumably be sent to the North Pole upon completion, though how my teacher had an in with the big guy I never quite understood.
So there I was, sitting at the table, writing on the scratchy-as-pure-wood-shavings recycled paper they give to 5 year-olds, and wondering what I wanted. I decided I wanted a pet snake (don't ask). I believe I was reading it to my mom as I was writing, indicating that for Christmas I would please like "a snake and snake food." After the slightly dismaying revelation that "snake food" consists of live rodentia, I was a little disgusted, but undeterred. Until Mom uttered the fatal words: "If Santa brings you a pet snake, I'm never baking him another cookie again." And suddenly -- poof! -- desire for a snake, gone!
I don't remember what it was I asked for instead, but I remember feeling no remorse, knowing that it was much better to pick one of the many other things that would make me happy than to jeopardize my standing up at the Pole. And now that I'm old enough to bake my own cookies (and old enough to know that a pet snake is a terrible idea for a kid as flighty as I was), I like to think of the delicate sugared butter cookies I make each year as both a bringer of joy and a bringer of peace. Joy to the kids I may someday have, who will hopefully (thanks to the cookies, of course) get what they want... and peace to me, should I ever need to wield my power if they ask for something similarly absurd/dangerous.
A butter cookie topped with crystal sugar, this recipe is simple and delicious. There are no leavening agents added, and although the dough calls for egg yolk only, the decoration makes use of the egg white so nothing goes to waste. They are labor-intensive, in that the dough needs to chill and that it's a bit hard to work with when first removed from the fridge. But their taste makes them a standard in my family every year, and I don't mind the trouble when I get to pop a few into my mouth as a reward.
Adapted from a recipe in the Los Angeles Times, with Mamafications
Yield: ~ 4 dozen small cookies
1/2 lb. butter, softened (2 sticks)
1/2 cup sugar
1 egg, separated
1/2 tsp. vanilla extract
2 1/4 cups flour
coarse "pearl" sugar (I like this kind, which can be found at Ikea)
crystal sugar of the colors of your choice
1. In a large bowl, beat butter with a wooden spoon or mixer until creamy.
2. Beat in sugar and egg yolk (set egg white aside and refrigerate in a bowl, beneath plastic wrap). Add vanilla and mix in until combined.
3. Gradually work flour into the mixture to form a dough (I do it in about 3 or 4 parts).
4. Chill the dough for at least 2 hrs. Can be chilled up to 24 hours.
When you're ready to roll the dough:
Set out: baking sheets, parchment paper, wax paper for your work surface, pearl sugar, colored sugar, reserved egg white, a pastry brush, spoon, butter knife, and a bowl or shallow dish with sides
Preheat oven to 350 degrees F.
5. Lay out wax paper on a work surface and line baking sheets with parchment paper. Use a regular teaspoon to carve out smaller pieces of the big chilled chunk of dough to make it easier to work with. Using a few bits at a time (a small handful), quickly soften the dough slightly by kneading it between your fingers and palms. Then roll dough into ropes about 1/2" in diameter (these can be long or short, but I find making longer ones speeds up the decorating process) on the wax paper. Do not flour your surface, or your cookies will become dry. Wax paper will prevent sticking.
6. Set out the bowl or a shallow container with sides at least 1" high and mix a bit of the colored sugar with the pearl sugar. Use your discretion -- don't use all your colored and pearl sugar at once because they'll probably get dirtied with egg white.
7. Using a butter knife, cut the dough ropes into lengths about 1" long (about the length of your thumb). Use a pastry brush dipped in the egg white and lightly brush the tops of each of the pieces.
8. Before the egg white dries on the dough, dip each of the brushed pieces in the sugar mixture and place them on the lined baking sheet, with at least 1 " between them.
9. Baking one sheet at a time, bake the cookies for 15 to 20 minutes, or until the ones on the edge of the pan are SLIGHTLY golden at the edges. IT IS VERY EASY TO BURN THESE, so if your oven tends to run hot, check them instead at 13 minutes first. A good rule of thumb is to judge the smell -- when your kitchen starts to smell like cookies, that's a sign you should start preparing your cooling racks.