This season, we’re Making Magic, bringing you a series of easy transformations to embellish already-wonderful things, from cakes to presents to trees. Today, we’re taking a break from the Cookbook Cookie Parade to bake—and decorate—cookies: Slide back and forth on the image below to see the magic happen.
Cookies are as much a part of the holiday season as snowmen, twinkling lights, and way too many radio DJs playing Feliz Navidad. They’re ideal make-ahead party treats, last-minute gifts, or even (temporary) ornaments. But as a kid, cookies had one purpose: bribing Santa into forgetting past transgressions.
I wasn’t a bad child, but I was a bossy older sister, and my parents turned to fear-mongering to keep me in line. Just after Thanksgiving, they would start warning me: “Santa is watching, Katie.” If I wanted any gifts, I needed to be generous and thoughtful and (most importantly) listen to my parents. Once, after I stubbornly refused to share a toy with my sister, they even called the North Pole, asking Santa to skip our house (this was pre-Elf on A Shelf). Some profuse apologizing and tears smoothed things over, but the naughty list was always on my mind.
Christmas Eve was my last-ditch effort, a moment where I could remind Santa that I was a good girl with a heartfelt letter and, of course, cookies. Some years my mom, sister, and I spent hours making sugar and gingerbread cutouts. On a busier Christmas, we once picked up Oreos from Walmart. All that mattered was that Santa got his sugary fix. (We’d also leave carrots for his reindeer.)
Whether you’re baking cookies for Santa or your annual holiday party, you want to make sure they’ll really please the crowd (they’re getting you off the naughty list, after all). Baking extraordinaire Erin McDowell’s Roll-Out Sugar Cookies do exactly that. These chewy cookies have a rich buttery base (to really cream the butter, make sure to mix for at least 4 minutes on medium-low speed), can be made chocolate by a simple cocoa powder addition, and take beautifully to marbling by combining the two doughs (which I highly recommend).
These cookies are simple, so it’s important to pay attention to the details. To cut perfectly shaped cookies, you need to do a couple of things:
Relax (the dough): To keep the dough from shrinking when it’s rolled, cut, and baked, the protein strands that developed during mixing need to relax in the refrigerator. Plus, if you’re using a cookie cutter with lots of nooks and crannies, cold dough is more likely to hold the shape. Erin also cools her cookies for 5 to 10 minutes in the freezer (or 15 in the fridge) after cutting to reduce spreading.
Cut with care: It’s best to cut cookies from the same evenly rolled sheet of dough. Make sure to lightly flour your cutter and cut as close together as possible. Don’t forget you can change your cookie cutter’s angle or direction to get the most out of your roll-out.
These cookies taste so good that they don’t even need frosting, but if you do want a little more magic, simply dip your cookies in melted chocolate and add any fun toppings you like—we like lots of colored sugars, sprinkles, candy pearls, toasted nuts, or crushed peppermints (not only do they add some sparkle, they’ll also cover up any mistakes). Just make sure the cookies are completely cool first or your decorations will melt off.
Every year, my cookies magically came through, and Santa left lots of presents under the tree. If the cookies I baked when I was 10 did the trick, I can only imagine what these stunners would do.
Makes about 2 dozen cookies
cups (15 ounces) all-purpose flour (or 2 3/4 cups all-purpose flour and 1/2 cup cocoa powder, for chocolate cookies)
teaspoons baking powder
pinch ground cinnamon
sticks (8 ounces) unsalted butter, at room temperature
cup (6 ounces) granulated sugar
teaspoon vanilla extract
cup (8 ounces) dark chocolate, milk chocolate, or white chocolate chips (or the equivalent in bars, roughly chopped), optional