They say everyone has a story, and during the holidays the same is true for cookies.
Cookies that make a repeat performance every year at our house during the holidays, that is. There are three of them. The crescent cookies with finely chopped pecans, a recipe handed down from my grandmother to my mother, and now to me. And a rolled sugar cookie, which we have named Kathleen’s Sugar Cookies, after my older daughter who choreographed the decorating process of these cookies for many years. I would drape the kitchen floor with old sheets so my three artists – children – could brush, splatter, sprinkle to their hearts’ content. I have shared that cookie recipe in my book, Anne Byrn Saves the Day, but I have not shared the third cookie recipe, which we call Gingerbread Stars.
The recipe came out of a food writers luncheon in the late 1980s. I cannot remember the venue or the rest of the meal, but I fell in love with the cookie, fragrant with orange and deep and dark with cinnamon and ginger. They were crisp and buttery, yet light. And we have always cut the dough into stars.
The secret of making great cut-out cookies is not only the recipe, but the tools you use. First, my maple French rolling pin bought at Dehillerin while in cooking school in Paris. I lugged it back with me in a carry-on bag, something you wouldn’t be able to do today. It is long and tough and can roll anything out as thin as paper. The trick is to bash the dough – not roll – as thinly as you can first. Then roll from the center out to desired thickness. Keep the counter lightly floured, with the help of a stainless steel shaker can, and flip the dough over to prevent it from sticking.
And the pans on which to bake cookies matter, too. You can get by using the restaurant-quality half sheet pans sold in cooking stores and Costco, but if you have a tin metal sheet, the darker ones that are thin and hard to clean, all the better for your cookies. For these bake extra crispy cookies because they bake the cookies quickly. Don’t rush out and buy one – use what you have – but know if you are baking cookies on dark thin cookie sheets you will need to keep the oven light on and check for early browning around the edges. Yum.
Years ago I picked up a set of tin cookie cutters in graduated sizes of stars. I like to cut stars of all sizes not only because they look like one big star family on the platter but also because people like cookies of different sizes.
You have the “I’ll eat only one bite” sort of people, and they choose the small stars. And then go back for a second! And then, you have those folks who say bigger is better and want the biggest cookie on the plate. I relate to both.
To decorate these stars, I whisk together powdered sugar and enough orange juice to make a smooth and slightly thickened icing. Pour this into a plastic squeeze bottle and once the cookies are cool drizzle the icing over the cookies in zig-zags, or however you like! Let the icing dry before storing.
The appeal of cookies, whether crisp or soft, spiced or not, studded with raisins, nuts and chocolate or left completely blank and unadorned, is that they are friendly and unpretentious. They invite us to the plate, to partake, to join in, and no wonder that cookies are a part of some of our most joyous holiday traditions – caroling, inviting friends over for an open house, giving as gifts, or just nibbling with family while you are decorating the tree.
Each year I hope to squirrel away some of my favorite cookies – as in hide them from the cookie monsters at my house – to place on the sideboard for Christmas Eve. These Gingerbread Stars are the star attraction, no pun intended, of course! Happy holidays and happy baking!