Lifestyle

Holiday treats mean taste & tradition

Chocolate rugelach for Hanukkah is made with rich pastry dough wrapped around chocolate chips fills a plate with frosted and decorated butter cookies for Christmas. Benne cakes for Kwanzaa are made with brown sugar and sesame seeds. - Chad Coleman/Mercer Island Reporter
Chocolate rugelach for Hanukkah is made with rich pastry dough wrapped around chocolate chips fills a plate with frosted and decorated butter cookies for Christmas. Benne cakes for Kwanzaa are made with brown sugar and sesame seeds.
— image credit: Chad Coleman/Mercer Island Reporter

Along with all the various traditional food items served during this magical time of year, there is always an abundance of irresistible desserts that so sweetly enhance holiday celebrations. Cookies — lots of them, and many different varieties — are one of the most popular sweet treats loved by all, no matter how diverse our backgrounds may be.

I have cherished childhood memories of baking with my grandmother, being in awe of how exquisitely delicious the cookies that we made together always tasted. Children love the activity of baking cookies, which is a wonderful way for families to come together and have fun. It’s also a perfect opportunity for children to proudly give something special that they created.

I was recently at Walgreens on Mercer Island and noticed their great assortment of holiday tins in various sizes and shapes. These would make great containers for gifts of home-baked cookies.

So whether you’re hosting guests, going to a cookie exchange party, wanting to give a homemade baked gift, or just having fun being creative in the kitchen, here are some sure-to-please cookie recipes for the celebrations of Hanukkah, Christmas and Kwanzaa.

Hanukkah arrived early this year, on the eve of Dec. 11, and will last for eight nights. One of the most absolutely delicious cookies that I’ve ever had the pleasure of eating is rugelach: a delectable-tasting pastry dough wrapped around either apricot or raspberry jam, cinnamon combined with sugar, or, my all-time favorite, chocolate.

This divinely scrumptious cookie is often made with chopped nuts, which enhance its flavor and texture, but are optional. Even if you choose to omit the nuts, the rugelach will still be fabulous.

Chocolate Rugelach

Makes 48 for smaller cookies or 32 for larger

Ingredients:

2 cups all-purpose flour

¼ cup white granulated sugar

¼ teaspoon salt

1 cup (2 sticks) unsalted butter

1 8-ounce package of cream cheese

1/3 cup sour cream

1 teaspoon vanilla extract

1¼ cup semi-sweet chocolate chips (mini size)

¾ cup finely chopped pecans or walnuts (optional)

Confectioners’ sugar for sprinkling

Directions:

Cut the cold butter and cream cheese into small pieces. In the food processor, pulse flour, sugar, salt, butter, cream cheese, sour cream and vanilla extract until crumbly. Shape the crumbly dough mixture into four equal disks. Wrap each disk in plastic wrap and chill for at least 2 hours or up to two days.

When ready to bake, roll each disk into a 9-inch round, keeping the other disks chilled until ready to roll them. With a pizza cutter or large sharp knife, cut the dough into 12 even-sized wedges for smaller cookies or 8 wedges for larger ones, which is the size that I prefer making.

I like to cut the dough before putting on the filling because it’s easier to see the sizes I’m making. You want them to be as even as possible.

Combine the chocolate chips with the chopped nuts in a bowl. Beginning about an inch in from the outside edge, lightly sprinkle the dough with about a half cup of the chips and nuts, pressing down just slightly to secure into the dough. You might have extra chips and nuts left over, which can be used another time.

Roll each wedge from the wider outside edge toward the center, ending with the point on the outside of the cookie. Place the cookies on baking sheets lined with parchment paper (with the point side down). Chill rugelach for 20 minutes before baking.

Preheat the oven to 350 degrees with the rack placed in the middle. Bake for 22 minutes or until lightly golden. Cool on a wire rack and store in an airtight container. Rugelach freezes well. I lightly sift confectioners’ sugar over them prior to serving.

Baking Christmas cookies is a delightful tradition treasured by generations and generations of families. Children thoroughly enjoy being active participants in the whole process, especially when the recipes call for the cookie dough to be rolled, cut out and decorated.

This delicious butter cookie recipe is not overly sweet and has enough richness to satisfy the taste of adults, along with the simplicity preferred by children.

Butter Cookies

Makes about 3 dozen, using 3-inch cookie cutters

Cookie ingredients:

1 cup (2 sticks) butter, softened

¾ cup granulated sugar

1 egg

2 tablespoons orange juice

1 tablespoon vanilla

2½ cups all-purpose flour

1 teaspoon baking powder

Frosting ingredients:

2½ cups confectioners’ (powdered) sugar, sifted

½ cup (1 stick) butter, softened

1 teaspoon vanilla extract

1 to 2 tablespoons milk

Food coloring (optional)

Various decorative sprinkles and colored sugars

A tip for softening butter for baking is to cut it into chunks and allow it to soften at room temperature for about an hour or more if needed. If the butter is not thoroughly softened, it won’t be the best consistency for blending ideally with the sugar.

Cookie directions:

Combine 1 cup softened butter, sugar and egg in a large bowl. Beat at medium speed until creamy and very well blended. Add the orange juice and vanilla, mixing well. In another smaller bowl, with a whisk or fork, mix the baking powder with the flour. Reduce the speed to low, then add the flour and baking powder mixture about a half a cup at a time, beating until well mixed.

Divide the dough into three disks; wrap each one in plastic wrap and chill in the refrigerator for at least two hours.

When ready to bake, preheat the oven to 400 degrees with the rack placed in the middle. Take one dough disk and roll it out on a lightly floured surface to about a ¼-inch thickness. Keep the other two disks in the refrigerator until rolling time.

Cut with a cookie cutter and place 1 inch apart on a baking sheet lined with parchment paper. The dough will cut considerably better and release easier from the cookie cutters when it’s chilled. It works best to roll out the extra dough between two pieces of plastic wrap, ready to be cut, then put back in the refrigerator until it is firm again. You can even lay it in the freezer for a short while.

Bake for about 8 to 10 minutes or until the edges are lightly browned. Cool completely on wire racks.

Frosting directions:

Combine sifted confectioners’ sugar, butter and vanilla in a medium-sized bowl. Beat slowly at first until blended, then increase the speed to mix thoroughly, scraping down the sides of the bowl often. Add enough milk for desired consistency.

If you don’t have a pastry bag, a quart-sized plastic storage bag works perfectly well. If using a storage bag, squeeze the frosting all the way down to the bottom of the bag, working it as closely down to one bottom corner as possible, then seal it by first removing the air.

Twist the top of the bag so that the frosting can push out evenly, then use scissors to cut off one of the corners just a tiny bit to start. It’s best to begin small, then increase the cut if you want the line to be wider. If you’ve made the cut too large, switch to the opposite corner.

Food coloring can be added to different batches of frosting. If you prefer to use only colored sugars and sprinkles, put those on prior to baking.

When the cookies are cooled, decorate with frosting and add other decorating sprinkles on top, gently pressing them onto the frosting. The decorating part is a perfect time to be as creatively expressive as you want and have fun in the process.

There are seven days of Kwanzaa, beginning on Dec. 31, joining with New Year’s Eve. I found a recipe for delicious cookies that are a favorite treat eaten during the Kwanzaa celebration. They are called Benne cakes, which is a bit deceiving because they are actually cookies, not cake. Originating from West Africa, benne means sesame seeds, which are traditionally eaten for good luck.

Kwanzaa Benne Cakes

Yields about 1½ dozen

Ingredients:

1 cup light brown sugar, very loosely packed

¼ cup (½ cube) butter, softened

1 egg, beaten

½ teaspoon vanilla extract

1 teaspoon freshly squeezed lemon juice

½ cup all-purpose flour

½ teaspoon baking powder

¼ teaspoon salt

1 cup toasted sesame seeds (the place to get them for the best price is Uwajimaya’s)

Directions:

Preheat the oven to 325 degrees with the rack placed in the middle.

Mix the brown sugar and softened butter together, and beat until creamy. Add in the beaten egg, vanilla extract and lemon juice, mixing well. In a smaller bowl, place the flour, baking powder and sesame seeds, then blend them with a fork; add this to the sugar and butter mixture, and mix well.

Drop the dough by rounded teaspoons and place 2 inches apart onto an ungreased baking sheet or one lined with parchment paper. Bake for 15 minutes or until the edges are browned. Cool on a wire rack. These cookies also freeze well.

Whether you celebrate Hanukkah, Christmas, Kwanzaa or all of them, may the blessings of joy, peace and love fill your heart and soul this holiday season. Enjoy!

Cynthia Shifrin can be contacted at cyns0117@aol.com.

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