When your holiday to-do list is longer than the tobaggon hanging on the wall in your garage, how do you find the time and energy to enjoy non-critical tasks like making cookies without that activity, too, seeming like just another chore? If you're like me, every year you wish you had the time and gusto to make at least a dozen varieties of Christmas cookies, some from brand new recipes and some from old faithfuls. In theory, the cookie-baking marathon sounds so delightful, doesn't it?
Think about it. There you are, bustling around in the kitchen, carols playing in the background, snowflakes twinkling on the window sill. Maybe you're even wearing that cute apron--the one that's been in a drawer for the past ten years because you've never had the guts to expose it to robust molasses or melted dark chocolate? I know, I know. I've been there. Sometimes the Christmas cookie mega-bake experience is just a pipe dream.
But then again, maybe it's not? I figure the answer to this dilemma is two-fold. It requires breaking the work down into chunks--like making the doughs all in one long work session, and then baking the cookies in another. Of course, even that prospect can be daunting. So if you're really stressed, consider making it easier on yourself by using just one base recipe for a simple but fail-proof cookie that can be adapted with any number of different flavorings or add-ins.
Shortbread is a perfect candidate for this approach because:
- it's comprised of very few ingredients and mixes together fairly quickly
- it handles easily compared to stickier roll-out doughs for gingerbread or sugar cookies
- it can be pressed into tart pans by hand, or rolled out and cut with cookie cutters
- it bakes slowly and at a low temperature, which greatly minimizes the chances of burning the cookies
- it's sturdy and not delicate, thus not problematic to store or ship
- it has a long shelf life and can handle reasonable variations in temperature
- it can be customized with the addition of chocolate, with finely chopped nuts or dried fruits, or any variety of extracts--try vanilla, citrus, or almond
- the finished cookies can be dipped in melted chocolate, glazed with a thin icing, or sprinkled with sugar
Just remember, don't fiddle with the the proportions of flour, sugar, and butter. They're kind of sacrosanct in a scenario like this. But everything else is up for grabs. Really. It's a miracle cookie. It's the original Christmas Miracle Cookie! Not kidding. So don't panic if you committed to producing a zillion cookies for this office party and that church event. Stick with one basic recipe, adjust it to suit your whims, and everything will be fine. These cinnamon cranberry shortbread cut-outs are a case-in-point. Made from a recipe I adapted, they won't let you down.
This is adapted from the classic shortbread recipe in Dede Wilson's book, The Baker's Field Guide to Christmas Cookies.
Cinnamon Cranberry Shortbread Cookies
(For a printable version of this recipe, click here!)
Preheat oven to 325 degrees. Line a couple of cookie sheets with parchment paper.
1 lb. of unsalted butter, softened (4 sticks)
1 cup granulated sugar, plus a little extra for sprinkling
5 cups all-purpose flour
1/4 tsp. salt (a generous 1/4 tsp.; I think a wee bit of salt is vital in a cookie--without it, it's just flat)
3 drops vanilla extract
2 drops almond extract
1/2 tsp. ground cinnamon (or less, if you prefer; more, though, can overpower this recipe)
3/4 cup dried cranberries chopped very small (loosely packed into the measuring cup)
In a large bowl, whisk together the flour, salt, and cinnamon. Set aside.
In the large bowl of your mixer, beat the butter at medium high speed for three minutes, until light and fluffy. Still on medium high speed, slowly pour in the sugar over a period of about 8 minutes (yes, I said 8 minutes), until the mixture is almost white in color and extremely fluffy. Add in the vanilla and almond extracts.
Now on the lowest speed, add in the flour mixture in three portions, mixing just until each portion is incorporated. Pour in the cranberry pieces and beat only until they seem fairly evenly distributed in the dough, not long at all. The dough should not be so soft that it needs to be chilled before rolling.
Divide the dough into thirds. Working with one third at a time, on a lightly floured work surface, roll the dough out to about 1/4" thickness--no thinner. Using small cookie cutters of your choice, firmly cut the pieces and place them carefully onto a parchment-lined cookie sheet. They can be placed pretty close together as they'll spread very, very little in the oven. Sprinkle each cookie with a couple pinches of granulated sugar.
Bake each tray for approximately 15 minutes or more, checking the cookies regularly; remove them from the oven when they just start to turn slightly golden around the edges. They're not supposed to become golden brown all over. Allow them to cool on the pans for 10 minutes before removing them to cooling racks.
Alternately, you can press the dough evenly into 8" or 9" tart pans with removable bottoms. This is a very quick and easy method if you don't feel like using cookie cutters. Sprinkle sugar on top and place the pans on top of cookie sheets to bake. If you make them this way, slice the baked cookies pie-wedge fashion while they're still somewhat warm from the oven; if you wait to slice them until they're cool, they'll be far more prone to breaking apart.
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