“I want to take all our best moments, put them in a jar, and take them out like cookies and savor each one of them forever.”
― Crystal Woods
I love spending time in my kitchen all year round, but in December, it’s one of my favorite places to be. For starters, it’s the warmest spot in the house, as both of my ovens are put to work most days. There are twinkly lights and a jingle-bell wreath tied with a satin bow in my favorite color (turquoise) hanging in the window above the sink. There is a playlist of my favorite classical Christmas music playing on repeat from the speaker on my desk. And from my kitchen island, there is a clear view of our Christmas tree and the fireplace in the family room, the tree decorated in icy shades of blue and green and the mantel dressed in silver with four ivory stockings hanging in a row.
But… lest you think from that description that my kitchen is a peaceful, quiet place—in December or at any other time of year—allow me to dispel that image right now: My December kitchen can get quite noisy at times, with the sounds of whirring mixers and beeping oven timers and chatty elves (i.e., my two boys) competing with the music of Vince Guaraldi and Tchaikovsky. It can also get quite messy, with numerous baking sheets stacked precariously on countertops and a fine dusting of flour covering the floor until the cleanup crew (i.e., my patient husband) sweeps up behind me before bed. By mid-December, I start to look like the character Pigpen from the Peanuts comic, but instead of being surrounded by a cloud of dirt and dust, I am enveloped in a cloud of cocoa and sugar (as is anyone else who crosses my path). But I don’t mind the noise or the mess, because the aromas wafting from my kitchen this time of year are heavenly: My December kitchen smells like sugar and spice and chocolate and peppermint, and frankly, so do I. But I’m not even mad about it, because it smells like home to me.
The (loosely) controlled chaos that is my December kitchen started innocently enough, way back in December 2002, with a lovely little book that fell into my hands entitled Martha Stewart’s Favorite Cookie Recipes. That book came into my life at a fateful time, when my husband and I were just settling into our new home in New Hampshire, and I was planning a holiday open house to meet our new neighbors and welcome our old friends into our new residence. I had wrapped up my freelance work for the year early in December, I had no children (yet) to tend to, and so for the first time in months, I had nothing but time… including time I spent feeling nostalgic for the Christmases of my youth. As I flipped through Martha’s beautiful booklet, I recognized a few of the treats from my childhood, which suddenly transported me back in time to those Christmases I spent as a young girl in Pennsylvania, when my mom (and when we were old enough, my sisters and I) would bake several types of cookies that would make an appearance only at Christmastime. As I read the descriptions of the cookies, I could almost taste and smell those holiday treats again. The aromas that filled my childhood home that time of year were like nothing else: The smell of butter and sugar and warm spices mixed with the faint pine aroma of our Christmas tree was the scent of the holidays to me, the scent of home. Before I knew it, as if I were in some sort of Martha Stewart–induced holiday trance, I had mixed, rolled, cut, baked, and decorated dozens upon dozens of cookies and confections, at least 8 different varieties. My house smelled incredible, just as I had remembered, and it made me so happy and excited for the holidays! I couldn’t wait to share these treats with my old and new friends.
At our holiday open house, I set out the treats on my prettiest platters, and although I cooked and served other food that day, what I remember most—and what I still hear about to this day—is the cookies. Almost everyone who came to our open house, from new acquaintances to old friends, commented on how much they loved the cookies: Some told me how much they enjoyed a new cookie they had never had before; others asked me for the recipe of a cookie they enjoyed so much that they wanted to make it with their kids; and others told me how a certain cookie reminded them of one that their mom or grandmother used to make. I guess it shouldn’t have surprised me how much a simple cookie could evoke fond memories and feelings of nostalgia in my guests, because I know it did the same for me. Memories associated with food are a powerful thing, but memories of holiday food? They are even more powerful, more special, as they happen only once a year. Sharing those cookies that day and connecting with old and new friends over a shared love of those sweet treats was one of the highlights of my first Christmas in our new home. And just like that, my December cookie-baking tradition was born.
The following December, I set out to recreate that holiday cookie magic in my kitchen once again, but instead of sharing the cookies via pretty platters on my dining room table, I decided to spread the cookie love even more and put together little gift boxes of assorted cookies for family and friends. Needless to say, the cookie boxes were a big hit, and over the years, the gift-recipient list has grown and I’ve gradually become known among my family and friends (and the teachers and staff at my boys’ schools) for my cookie gift boxes. Unsurprisingly, everyone seems to have a favorite cookie, and it’s not uncommon for subtle hints to be dropped in my direction soon after Thanksgiving. Although the cookie-tin assortment changes slightly every year—because I am often lured into trying a new recipe from one of the many food-themed magazines that arrive in my mailbox each month (the holiday issues are particularly alluring)—I still try to include everyone’s favorites. Little did I know that when I made 8+ varieties of cookies that December all those years ago, that, due to popular demand, I’d still be making many of those same cookies every year since, going on 15 years now! I have a special folder filled with the tried-and-true recipes that always make the must-bake list: lemon meltaways, cranberry-orange shortbread, cream-cheese sugar cookies, lime sandwich cookies, snowball cookies, and, of course, something featuring chocolate. But at the top of the list every year are these brown-butter shortbread cookies. These are the cookies that I get the most compliments on and the most requests for, year after year. (They also happen to be my husband’s favorite.)
I was first introduced to these cookies when I came across an article by Celia Barbour in the December 2005 issue of Gourmet magazine. (RIP, Gourmet.) It was the author’s description of her many nights in December staying up past midnight baking these cookies that first caught my attention; it was certainly something I could relate to that particular December, when I was a new mom juggling my holiday obligations with caring for a 9-month-old infant, which meant I was doing my holiday baking well past my bedtime after my baby boy was finally asleep in his crib for (most of) the night. And then her description of gifting the cookies to her coworkers further captured my interest. Reading about how they reacted with such awe and gratitude and how that was the whole reason she stayed up late baking these cookies every year validated my own feelings. But then, the clincher was the description of the cookies themselves and the process of browning the butter. By the end of the article, my mouth was watering, and I knew I had to make them. Once my son was tucked into his crib, I headed straight to the kitchen and got to work.
The short ingredient list for these cookies—butter, sugar, flour, vanilla, baking powder, salt— tricks you into thinking that they’ll be rather ordinary, but it’s what you do with those ingredients, particularly the browning of the butter, that makes them surprisingly extraordinary. If you’ve never browned butter in a pan before, you’re in for a treat! This simple technique transforms a stick of butter into a deeply flavored, almost nutty concoction that makes your kitchen smell amazing and provides the base of flavor that elevates the basic shortbread cookie to cult status. Once baked, the cookies are beautifully golden, flecked with bits of browned butter, and they’re at once rich, buttery, and slightly nutty-tasting, with a crumbly, sandy texture that melts on your tongue. I audibly swooned with the first bite, something that usually happens only when chocolate is involved, so that’s saying something! But the cookies weren’t even at their best yet, because then I gilded the lily, sandwiching two halves together with the thinnest smear of jam, which makes them appropriately dressed up for the holidays, but also adds yet another layer of flavor. I like them best with cranberry or fig jam, but I’ve also been known to sandwich them with chocolate-hazelnut spread (aka Nutella), and no one has complained; if anything, that chocolatey spread helped these cookies gain even more fans!
As much as I enjoy baking these cookies and all the rest of the holiday cookies on my must-bake list, at some point every December, I find myself in a panic, anxiously wondering how I’m going to get it all done—not just the baking, but all the other holiday tasks that come with being a mom to two school-aged children. It is fun, festive work, but it is still time-consuming work! So I’ll start to reassess the cookie list: Do I really need to make a batch of [insert name of particularly time-consuming cookies here] this year? Will anyone really miss them if I skip them this year? As we inch closer to Christmas, sometimes the answers to these questions allow me to drop a cookie or two from the must-make list, but these brown-butter cookies? Since 2005, these cookies have never been crossed off the list. They are keepers.
I should also mention that at some point every December, I find myself questioning why I keep up with this tradition of baking and sharing cookies every year, as it isn’t a true reflection of how we eat day to day: a mostly vegetarian, whole-foods diet with plenty of vegetables, greens, and whole grains. During the rest of the year, my baking takes a more nutritious slant, with whole-grain flours, less-refined sugars (and minimal sugar in general), and other better-for-you ingredients. Sure, there are a few holiday cookies that I have successfully modified to bump up their nutritional value and make them a little more healthful without sacrificing flavor, but for most of the once-a-year cookies I bake, I don’t try to “healthify” them, choosing instead to use the best-quality ingredients I can find while letting the butter and sugar take center stage. I feel a twinge of guilt as I continue to foist sugar-laden treats onto my friends and family, and occasionally I will mention to my husband that maybe I should make over some of our holiday offerings. But my wise husband will gently remind me that Christmas comes but once a year, these are special treats not an everyday occurrence, they are still wholesome treats in the sense that I use all-natural, whole-foods ingredients, and, perhaps most importantly, there would likely be a revolt among the gift recipients if I were to change things up, or worse, stop altogether. He’s right, of course, and I know all of this, but I always need a yearly reminder. And so, the tradition continues.
But even beyond all of those reasons for continuing this sweet tradition, I think it’s more than that. Seeing someone’s face light up when he takes a bite of a cookie I made, hearing that audible swoon, listening to a friend tell me how the cookies I made reminded her of her childhood or a loved one or a holiday memory…. This, THIS is why I spend much of December in my kitchen baking dozens and dozens of cookies every year and gifting them to appreciative family and friends. And, as a parent, I love how excited my kids get when I pull a tray of their favorite cookies from the oven, or when one of them will recall when I made the cookies last December: “Remember that day when we made those cookies together and it was snowing outside and then we watched Elf on TV? That was so fun!” That’s what it’s all about, isn’t it? Creating lasting memories through traditions and rituals and food.
I sometimes wonder what my kids will remember about the holidays many years from now: Will they remember the gifts they got from Santa, or will they remember baking cookies with me in the kitchen? Will they have fond memories of December, or will they recall a frazzled and exhausted mom? Will they remember the taste of their favorite cookies so vividly that when they take a bite as an adult, it will instantly transport them back to their childhood? Will they think of me whenever they catch a whiff of browned butter? Or melted chocolate?
I’d like to think that these small acts of baking cookies and sharing them with others at the holidays actually mean something, not just to the recipients, but also to my boys. That in some small way, making and sharing cookies, connecting over food, gathering around the holiday table, while all seemingly simple acts, can have a profound and lasting impact on my loved ones, creating enduring traditions and shaping memories, filling not just their bellies but also their hearts. Maybe, as with most things I do, my expectations are too great, but I don’t let that stop me. In my December kitchen, I find peace and purpose while covered in flour and sugar and smelling like butter and chocolate, and although I’m sometimes left feeling exhausted and frazzled, at the end of the day, I’m always grateful for that time spent in the kitchen, creating and sharing not just sweet treats but also sweet memories. My cookies won’t save the planet or create world peace, but I’m going to keep on baking and sharing them anyway.
The hardest part about making these cookies—and it’s not so much a difficult task as it is a tricky task that requires close supervision—is browning the butter. The first couple of times I did it, I was distracted and browned the butter to the beyond-salvageable blackened stage, so learn from my mistakes and watch it closely. Celia Barbour’s description of the process of browning the butter in her original recipe is spot on, so I duplicated her instructions below. (If you’d like a visual guide to browning butter, this video is also helpful. However, in my experience, browning the butter from start to finish takes closer to 10 minutes than the 3 to 5 minutes mentioned in the video.)
The original recipe in Gourmet instructed bakers to form the cookies using a teaspoon; hence, their original name, “Spoon Cookies.” I made the cookies using this method for several years and found it to be a tedious, albeit somewhat meditative, task. But then inspiration arrived (once again) from a Martha Stewart publication: In the December 2012 issue of Martha Stewart Living, I came across a strikingly similar recipe to the spoon cookies (sans the jam filling), but instead of forming each cookie individually with a spoon, Martha’s recipe used a much simpler slice-and-bake technique. I made the cookies that year following Martha’s directions, and I’ve never looked back. The recipe instructions below are a hybrid of Celia Barbour’s recipe and Martha’s recipe, along with my own tweaks from over the years. It’s really the best of both worlds.
Yield: Approximately 44 cookies, to make 22 sandwiched cookies
- -- 1 cup (2 sticks/16 tablespoons/8 oz.) unsalted butter, cut into pieces
- -- ½ cup natural cane sugar
- -- 2 teaspoons pure vanilla extract
- -- 2 cups unbleached all-purpose flour
- -- ½ teaspoon baking powder
- -- ¼ teaspoon kosher salt
- -- heaping ⅓ cup fruit jam of your choice (and/or chocolate-hazelnut spread) *
- Have a large heat-safe bowl ready (I use a glass bowl) into which to pour the butter when it is browned (to stop the cooking process and prevent further browning). (You will also add the rest of the ingredients to this bowl and mix up the dough in it, so choose one that is large enough.)
- Brown the butter (if you’re new to the task of browning butter, see notes below for more tips and guidance **): Add the butter to a medium-sized heavy saucepan and set over medium heat. Melt the butter and cook, stirring occasionally, until the butter turns golden and smells nutty and flecks on the bottom of the pan turn a rich caramel brown, about 10 to 12 minutes. (Butter will initially foam a bit, then dissipate. A thicker foam will appear and cover the surface just before the butter begins to brown; turn the heat down to low and stir more frequently once this occurs.) Immediately remove the pan from the heat and pour the butter into the large bowl. Let the butter cool to room temperature, about 10 minutes, stirring occasionally.
- Whisk the sugar and vanilla into the butter.
- In a medium bowl, whisk together the flour, baking powder, and salt. Add to the butter mixture and stir until a dough forms. Shape the dough into a ball, then set the ball of dough onto parchment paper. Using your hands, form and roll the dough into a log about 14 inches long and about 1½ inches in diameter. (Dough will be crumbly, but will come together when pressed into a log and chilled.) Wrap the dough log in parchment, and refrigerate until firm, about 1 hour.
- Preheat the oven to 325°F. Line 2 rimmed sheet pans with parchment paper.
- Remove the dough log from the refrigerator and unwrap. Using a sharp knife, slice the dough into approximately ⅜-inch rounds, and transfer them to the parchment-lined pans. The cookies will not spread much, so you can space them about an inch apart on the pans. (If the dough is crumbling too much when you slice it, let it rest at room temperature for a few minutes, then try again. It is a shortbread dough, so it will be somewhat crumbly, but it is easily pressed back together. I’ve found that if the dough is too stiff/cold, it can be a little more difficult to slice. Letting it sit for a little while at room temperature should help though.)
- Bake the cookies until firm, slightly puffed, and just pale golden, about 8 to 12 minutes. (To help ensure that the cookies bake evenly, rotate the pans front to back and top to bottom about halfway through the baking time.) Remove the pans from the oven, and let the cookies cool on the pans for 2 to 3 minutes to set up before carefully transferring them to wire racks to cool completely.
- While the cookies cool, heat the jam in a small saucepan over low heat until just runny. Pour and press and scrape the jam through a sieve into a small bowl to remove seeds and solids. Cool completely. (I know this step seems fiddly, but it makes it easier to spread a thin layer of jam on the cookies when the jam is smooth and it doesn’t contain a bunch of seeds and other solids hindering its spreadability.)
- Spread the flat side of a cookie with a thin layer of jam. Sandwich with the flat side of a second cookie. Continue with the remaining cookies and jam. Let the assembled cookies stand at room temperature until the jam is set, about 45 minutes. Transfer cookies to an airtight container and wait 2 days (ideally, but who can really wait that long?) before eating to allow the flavors to develop. (The cookies are yummy that first day, but the next day, and 2 days later, they are even better. If you can wait 2 days, your patience will be deliciously rewarded!) Cookies can be stored in an airtight container at room temperature for up to 2 weeks.
** Here are Celia Barbour’s brown-butter tips from the original recipe in Gourmet (December 2005), which I still find incredibly helpful to read every year when I make these cookies:
“Browning butter is not difficult…. Still, there is a way to do it right. First, the pot shouldn’t be too deep or too broad. If it is too deep, you cannot see through the bubbling butter to the bottom, where the browning takes place. If it is too broad, the butter cooks quickly, and you may wind up with milk solids stuck hard onto the pan. So for one stick, a small saucepan is fine. Four sticks, try a little stockpot.”
“Cut up cold butter and set it over moderate heat. When it is all golden liquid, start stirring as the butter begins to simmer. Next, a froth appears on the top; this soon gathers into little clouds, which then dissipates as the milk proteins separate from the fat, cook, and harden into tiny grains that fall to the bottom of the pan. There they’ll sit, turning brown—first pale caramel (beurre noisette), then tea-leaf (beurre noir), and finally, after about 10 seconds, black (garbage). I always leave the pan on the stove a few beats beyond rosy caramel to give a deeper flavor to the cookies.”
Recipe adapted from Gourmet, December 2005, and Martha Stewart Living, December 2012.
Do you have a favorite holiday cookie recipe that you make every year? Did you make this recipe?
I’d love to hear all about it! Leave a comment below and/or share a picture on Instagram with the hashtag #wholesomefamilykitchen or #wholesomefamilycookies!