Simple and celebratory treats

Homemade cookies (like these chocolate crinkles) are a gift that says caring. Homemade cookies (like these chocolate crinkles) are a gift that says caring. (Food styling/Karoline boehm goodnick; Michele McDonald/Globe Staff)
By Lisa Zwirn
Globe Correspondent / December 10, 2008

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Why certain cookies are designated as holiday cookies is largely a matter of cultural and family tradition, with a dash of whimsy and nostalgia thrown in. Compared to everyday cookie-jar treats, holiday confections might contain a little extra butter, a fancy sugar, a wintry spice, or a technique too cumbersome for the rest of the year - like rolling, stamping, and decorating.

Even if you don't bake much, having a holiday cookie tradition helps preserve the spirit and the aromas of the season. There's nothing quite like the scent of buttery rounds baking, chocolate melting, and fragrant spices releasing their scents in the winter kitchen.

To turn out the best treats, use the freshest nuts; real extracts; unsalted butter; and top-quality chocolate. Buy new jars of cinnamon and ginger if yours are more than a year old. Many confections have so few ingredients that quality counts. There's no magic to baking, but there is science. Follow a recipe to the letter the first time you make it, keep an eye on the treats as they bake, and you should be successful.

The job isn't done when the cookies emerge from the oven. While the notion of an old-fashioned cookie jar filled with all kinds of decorated shapes may seem irresistible, you'll find your precious baking hours gone to waste if you mix varieties in one container. Softies will shamelessly spread their moisture to crisp confections, spiced rounds will perfume mild-flavored cookies. Store different types separately in airtight containers. Rectangular plastic works well for storing cookies; layer them with waxed paper; use small tins for giving away.

Most bakers like to share their bounty, which may be how the tradition of giving holiday sweets began. Today, some bakers who don't want to work alone host a cookie-making party to get family members, friends, and neighbors in on the fun. That's what pastry chef Maura Kilpatrick does, typically on the Sunday before Christmas. About 10 friends arrive with their equipment and ingredients in tow, and churn out hundreds of sweets.

This year Kilpatrick, pastry chef at Oleana restaurant and Sofra Bakery and Cafe, both in Cambridge, is planning to make Syrian shortbread thumbprint cookies filled with a dollop of quince jam. Other holiday favorites include rich, chewy molasses rounds; chocolate "earthquake" cookies; and powdered sugar cookies made with browned butter. "Because cookies are just a few bites, they have to be perfect," says the chef. "I want people to be immediately happy."

When she packages them for gifts, Kilpatrick wraps cookies in decorated cardboard boxes that she hopes the recipients will use again. Wrapping them festively, she says, "means you're giving more of yourself in the present."

Long-time baker Vicki Lee Boyajian, owner of Vicki Lee's Bakeshop in Belmont, makes mini versions of her customers' favorites, including ginger crisps, paper-thin hazelnut lace cookies sandwiched around chocolate mint, and linzer cookies with raspberry jam. She slips them into little cellophane bags tied with ribbon. When her customers pick up their holiday orders, Boyajian presents them with the cookie-filled bundles, she says, "as a thank you and appreciation of their business."

Homemade cookies are a simple gift, but also a currency of caring. We can all be rich.

Lisa Zwirn, author of "Christmas Cookies: 50 Recipes to Treasure for the Holiday Season," will be decorating cookies at 2 p.m. Saturday at Barnes & Noble at Boston University, 660 Beacon St., Boston, 617-267-8484.