Every year on the day after Thanksgiving, my neighbors on the corner start putting their Christmas lights up. Even though I'm firmly in the don't-rush-it camp of holiday festivity, I'm always thankful for their readiness. It makes me smile. And it gets me thinking about our own plans for the holidays.
I love the festivity of the season, but I definitely prioritize our projects. I'm temped to make my own wreaths, right, but I usually ditch that idea/effort/expense in favor of more all-purpose baked goods. Cookies are big for me - I love the small but sweet gesture of a gift of cookies at the holidays, and how pretty they look piled onto a platter. I also just really love to plan, because I am a nerd. That's why, despite not officially starting to decorate and bake until a little later in the month, I'm making my plans now. Here's what I do:
Think through the spread.
How many types of cookies do I want to bake? I shoot for 3 to 5 types and balance the list in terms of flavors, colors, shapes, and (importantly) - level of effort. From there, I figure out the occasions I want cookies (like the annual cousins Christmas party or the night we decorate the tree): this helps me figure out how many to make. And it depends on my bandwidth, too.
Block out the time.
This time of year is so hectic, if things don't get on the calendar, they don't happen. I block out a few hours over the course of the month and set them aside for baking.
Break down the steps.
Once I've settled on the types of cookies I'm making, I break down the remaining tasks into bits and do them separately. I: 1) Make a global grocery list and go through the house to see what's already on hand. 2) Hit the store. 3) Make the dough. My favorite trick is to make the dough for all of the cookies in one fell swoop - then wrap, label, and refrigerate until it's time to bake. 4) Shape and bake - the kids get in on the job at this point. 5) Decorate and store. I bag different types of cookies and freeze them as needed - they thaw quickly and are no worse for wear. Then I can pull them when needed - like I do every Christmas Day for dessert (which saves me from the dessert-making effort at a key moment, hurrah). Point is - when I spread out the tasks, it's less overwhelming and much more fun.
Know your limits.
Not everyone feels the call to sanding sugar the way I do at the holidays. The big baking production is one of my rituals - as much for me as for my kids - but. You do you!
Here are a few links to lovely holiday cookie recipes I've used in the past or want to try:
Do-everything-dough, for cut-outs, slice-and-bakes - the kind of cookie you can glaze, paint and sprinkle and all that good stuff.
These are a delight. I especially like the 6th instruction in the recipe - useful. And who doesn't want a chocolate-filled cookie?
Here's a recipe for ginger-rye crinkles. I added these into the annual rotation a few years ago after finding the original recipe in a cookie book I picked up at a flea market. They're simple (no chilling or stamping dough) nut-free (good for teacher gifts), and they taste and smell like a very festive December should (imo). The dough is easy to work with, even when refrigerated - so you can easily bake off as many as you want at a time.
Makes about 48 cookies
1 1/3 cups all-purpose flour
1 1/3 cups rye flour
1 teaspoon baking powder
1 teaspoon baking soda
1/2 teaspoon ground cinammon
1/2 teaspoon ground cloves
1/4 teaspoon ground allspice (optional)
1/4 teaspoon salt
1/4 cup (half a stick) unsalted butter, room temperature
1 cup granulated sugar
1 tablespoon grated fresh ginger
1/4 cup molasses
1 large egg
1/2 cup sanding sugar (decorative sugar)
>Heat the oven to 375°F and line two baking sheets with parchment or a silicone mat. Whisk together the flours, baking powder and soda, spices and salt in a medium bowl. Set aside.
> In a standing mixer fitted with the paddle (or use a handheld mixer and a large bowl or even a wooden spoon and some elbow grease), beat together the butter and sugar on medium speed until well-combined. Beat in the ginger, followed by the molasses and egg. Once everything is combined, slowly add the dry ingredients - about 1/3 at a time, mixing until combined.
>Pour the sanding sugar into a small bowl. Roll dough into 1-inch balls and toss to coat in the sugar. Place cookies about 2 inches apart on the baking sheets. Bake for 8-10 minutes until the cookies are crackled on top and firm around the edges. Transfer to a rack to cool.
[Adapted from Cookies for Christmas, Jennifer Dorland Darling, 1999]