This is not the recipe that I planned for my final instalment of the 12 Bakes of Christmas, but for one reason that was very clear to me and will become obvious, it certainly felt like the right one to do.
We spent Christmas this year with family in Scotland, enjoying a frosted landscape, a crystal-clear Christmas day, good times and lots of lots of food. On Christmas Eve, I was in the kitchen with my son making cookies as we’d decided that asking a four-year-old to focus on an activity the night before getting presents was a really great idea! We also got a suggestion from school that this would be a great activity to try together over the holidays, so here we were. As we worked through the process of weighing out the ingredients, making the dough (after ensuring that hands were scrubbed and scrupulously clean!) and then rolling and shaping them, it occurred to me that this was what I should use to finish off this year’s serious. Maybe they’re not the most glamorous, the most sophisticated or the most unusual cookies in the world. But they are a first for me as I don’t think I’ve ever done a joint festive bake with someone else before, and definitely not with someone who is four-and-a-half.
Now, I’ll level with you. There was a high degree of oversight going on here. The making of the dough was messy fun and I was pretty related about that. It took less than 5 minutes so it was suited to the attention span of someone who was very, very excited.
But the cutting out of the cookies…aargh, that was a bit more of a battle of wills. The wee lad was enjoying himself with the same small bit of dough that was becoming mankier and mankier as it was worked repeatedly and got too soft as the butter in it melted. Sticky fingers went into his nose at least twice (and how do those hands get sticky right after being washed?). He managed to roll the dough out wafer-thin and cut in a manner that I’ll generously describe as creative. But never mind – he was having great fun with it. I was on the other side of the table, diligently rolling (clean) chilled dough out between sheets of parchment so that the cookies would hold their shape and bake properly. My assistant then happily came round and pressed down the various cutters, but wandered off to look at something to do with toy trains when it was time to transfer them to the baking sheet and deal with things like timers and making sure they were properly baked.
The dough recipe is very simple – it’s a basic shortbread-type cookie which I’ve flavoured with vanilla. However you can vary it a little bit too – add a few drops of almond extract instead, or flavour with grated lemon or orange zest. You can even swap some of the white caster sugar for soft brown sugar and add some mixed spices if you don’t feel you’ve yet had enough of ginger, cinnamon and cloves for the year.
If you’ve ever found yourself wanting to make one of those plates filled with many different types of cookie, this is a great recipe. The only limit is your imagination. I made this at my parents’ house where my mum had a set of circular and scalloped cutters. So here’s how we improvised:
To make moons: use a larger circle cutter, then take a smaller circle, offset it, and voila – you’ve got a moon shape.
To make wreaths or rings: use a circular or scalloped cutter to cut a shape, then use something small and circular to form the hole – be creative, it could be a large piping nozzle, an apple corer or the tube your vanilla pods come in!
To make hexagons: trace around a hexagonal jam jar.
To make squares: freestyle them with a good sharp knife.
To make triangles: again, freestyle!
For decoration, again you are only limited by your ingenuity. Here are a couple of ideas you can use before the cookies go in the oven:
For the almonds wreaths: I just brushed them with a little milk so the surface was tacky (actually I used my index finger). Then I sprinkled some with crushed flakes almonds.
For the sugar rings: brush them with some milk, then sprinkle with granulated sugar (the bigger crystals give a bit more sparkle and crunch).
For the nut stars: brush them with milk, then sprinkle with some finely chopped pecans in the centre, and cover with more granulated sugar. I also drizzled them with some white icing once they had baked and cooled.
Once you’ve baked your cookies, there is another quick trick that makes simple cookies seem more fancy. Use dark or milk chocolate, as I did on some other stars, and drizzle it in stripes. I think it makes them seem quite sophisticated. Before the chocolate sets you can also sprinkle over some nuts – flaked almonds, chopped hazelnuts of pieces of pistachio.
Buuuuuuut…of course the main show is cookies covered in a sweet coating of icing. I think tis is what springs to mind for many people when they think of sugar cookies. I’ve seen those little films on YouTube where someone using little piping bags to create amazing intricate designs, and while I can definitely recognize the skill that goes into that, it is not really my thing. If you want to do that, you need to use royal icing. I prefer the lazier route, which means mixing up a simple thick water icing, and just applying it carefully using a spoon or a table knife as neatly as I can. It’s fairly easy – you want it to be thick and only just settle back and go smooth when you stop touching it. The key here is to add less water than you think you need – if the stuff is flowing easily from your spoon, you’ve got too much liquid in there. Once the consistency is right, add some sprinkles and you’re done.
And that’s how I made this impressive platter of shapes and cookie types from a single batch of dough and with a bit of ingenuity in the kitchen. The one thing I have not mentioned is where that bright pink came from. I kid ye not, this was made from the skin of about 10 black grapes. I peeled them, mixed them with a bit of water, blitzed them in the microwave for a minute, then pulverized them with a spoon. I mixed the resulting liquid with the icing sugar and a few drops of lemon juice, and I got that lovely deep shade of fuchsia.
Now that that we’ve got white icing and pink icing, you might be able to guess how I did those marbled cookies – I just covered one half with the white icing, the other with the pink, then used the back of a spoon to roughly mix the two of them to end up with the duotone effect.
And with that, it’s time for me to sign off from the 2019 edition of the 12 Bakes of Christmas! As in previous years, I’ve had great fun making these recipes, and I hope you’ve enjoyed reading about them and seeing the pictures of the fruits of my efforts. I’ll be hanging up the apron for a little while, and will take the chance to reflect on what I’ve managed to learn this time around!
To make sugar cookies (makes around 30-35 cookies depending on size)
For the dough
• 115g unsalted butter
• 100g white caster sugar
• 1 medium egg
• 1 teaspoon vanilla extract
• pinch of salt
• 240g plain flour (plus more if needed)
• 1 teaspoon baking powder
• 100g icing sugar
• colouring (optional)
1. Put the butter, sugar and salt in a bowl. Beat until light and fluffy.
2. Add the egg and whisk well until the mixture of smooth and light. Beat in the vanilla (or other flavourings if using).
3. Combine in the flour and baking powder, then add to the bowl. Mix with a spoon, then finish with your hands. Add more flour if necessary to get a soft dough that is not sticky, and comes away from the bowl. Wrap in cling film and chill for at least an hour, or overnight.
4. When you’re ready to bake, preheat the oven to 180°C (355°F) and line two baking sheets with greaseproof paper.
5. Roll the dough to around 1/2 cm thickness, and cut out whatever shapes take your fancy. Transfer them to the baking sheet, the pop the sheet in the fridge for 2 minutes. I recommend baking cookies of a similar size on the same sheet – if you bake small and large together, the smaller ones can burn before the big ones are ready.
6. Bake the cookies for around 12 minutes, turning half-way to get an even colour. They are done when they are lightly browned around the edges, so go by eye and keep a close watch. Remove from the oven and transfer to a wire rack to cool completely.
7. To make the icing, put the icing sugar in a bowl. Add some colour and then water, a few drops at a time, until you get a smooth but very thick paste. When you stop stirring, it should slowly fall back and the surface should be smooth. If it is at all runny, it is too thin – add more icing sugar. Put some in the middle of the cookie, then use a spoon to spread it evenly. When you’re happy with it, add sprinkles before starting the next cookie. Alternatively, you can put some icing in a small piping bag or drizzle it from the back of a spoon to make lines across the cookie.