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Just in time for the recipe exchange

by Alain Bossé  photography Steve Smith/VisionFire

With the holiday season just around the corner, so too come the usual frantic pursuits often associated with the season: the search for the perfect gifts; the search to find the perfect outfits for the kids’ Christmas concert, your husband’s office party and the annual family Christmas card; trying to fit in all the holiday parties… And then there’s the baking. We place so much emphasis on the baking. So many of us have the image of the perfect Christmas table in our minds—which often mimics those found in magazines and on Instagram—we sometimes get so caught in focusing on the end result that we don’t take time to stop and enjoy the actual process.

In our house, it seems that we put extra expectations on ourselves. Because we’re in the food industry, we often feel that people expect to see a certain quality of food offered; when in reality, we need to realize that our friends and family are there for us and not the offerings on our dining table.

Since we’re so busy at this time of year catering to other people’s holiday festivities, ours often end up lacking. This year we decided that we would try and simplify the process; at least in the baking department. We thought if we came up with one basic cookie dough that was very tasty yet not overly dominant in any one particular flavour, we could use that as a base for several different cookies. This way we’d be able to quickly put together an impressive sweet tray in a matter of hours rather than days.

We felt that a basic sugar cookie recipe might be the best starting point. Many people make their sugar cookies with vanilla extract, but we added a bit of almond just for that little extra something special. The next step was to put on some Christmas music to get us into the spirit; we poured a glass of wine and then we simply relaxed and enjoyed the process. Within about a two-hour period we were able to create six distinct cookies from one batch of cookie dough.

We mixed up our sugar cookie ingredients, then we rolled the dough and cut basic rounds. Some were rolled out using an embossed rolling pin that gave us a fancy finish, and others were decorated using a stencil and some decorating powder. Easy peasy.

For the second variation we rolled the dough and used a rectangular cutter to give us a finger cookie; we dipped half of each in dark chocolate and sprinkled some Christmas candy over top of the chocolate. They looked quite elegant.

Staying with the chocolate theme, we melted some milk chocolate and stirred in some crushed hazelnuts, then poured it into a round cookie cutter that we had placed on parchment paper; we let it cool in the fridge and then placed it on top of our sugar cookie after we had removed it from the pan and set it on the cooling rack. This one was a bit trickier because if you add your chocolate too soon it will melt and if you don’t add it soon enough it will not stick. We found that as soon as the cookies were just warm to the touch we were good to go.

The fourth variation was quite possibly the most fun. We cut out snowflake shapes then used a smaller cutter to take out the center; we found that removing the centre after we had placed the cookie on the parchment lined baking sheet work best, as removing the centre left us with a bit of a flimsy cookie that was tricky to move from counter to pan. We then took some Jolly Rancher candies and broke them up, leaving them quite coarse. We sprinkled those into the middle and baked them. The candies melted and gave us a beautiful window pane effect.

The fifth variation was our Linzer-inspired cookie. We simply cut a top and a bottom, adding a window to our top piece. After baking, we filled the cookie with some raspberry jam, put the two sides together and sprinkled them with a dusting of powdered sugar.

Our last variation was probably the most challenging. We wanted to come up with a savoury cookie; the dilemma was turning sweet dough into a savoury one without actually altering the ingredients in the original recipe. We knew that if we added a bit of heat, the sweetness would act as a nice counterbalance. We decided to use crushed red pepper corns and some crushed fennel for a bit of greenery and as a complimentary flavor to the pepper. We sprinkled sea salt on top and popped them into the oven.

Our original recipe made close to 72 cookies. Depending on the size of your cookie cutters you may end up with a few more or a few less. The whole process was very relaxing and we enjoyed ourselves immensely. We feel that this is the ideal way to prepare for a cookie exchange, not only was it quick, cleanup was minimal compared to making six variations from six different base recipes. In fact, we saw no downside to this process whatsoever!

The Ultimate Sugar Cookies

Makes 6 dozen cookies

The following is the base recipe that we used; all cookies were baked at 350ºF (180ºC) for 9 minutes other than the savoury batch—because they were rolled a bit thicker we baked them for 11 minutes.

2 cups (500 mL) butter

2 cups (500 mL) white sugar

2 eggs

1 tbsp (15 mL) vanilla extract

2 tsp (10 mL) almond extract

4 tsp (20 mL) baking powder

6 cups (1500 mL) all-purpose flour

Cream together butter and sugar until thoroughly combined. Add eggs and extracts and mix well. Sift together baking powder and flour; add to the creamed mixture in thirds. Turn mixture out onto a floured surface and lightly knead to form a soft, smooth dough; use immediately or refrigerate until needed. Allow dough to come to room temperature before attempting to roll.

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