A few weeks back I wrote about how the holidays can be too much about consumerism and offered some non-shopping alternatives to gift giving. One of the ideas was to bake cookies to share; I love doing this! Starting in November when butter goes on sale, I start stockpiling it and putting it in the freezer. The first year my husband and I were together and I spotted a sale, I asked him to get me some on his way home from work; he didn't believe me when I said I needed at least 10 pounds of butter. Now, many years later, he knows that 10 pounds of butter is the minimum I need.
It makes me so happy baking dozens of cookies: the warmth of the oven, the smell of vanilla and spices filling up the house, listening to the holiday music I grew up with. All of our neighbours, friends, family, people we work with, the dentist, the barber, etc., all get a dozen cookies. This is a tradition from my Mom (and probably her Mom before her), so it always makes me feel close to her as I putter around the kitchen, even though we're miles apart. I always remember her singing or humming along with the music, and sometimes I got to help her and we would wear matching aprons. It's a wonderful memory that makes me smile.
Certain spices in some of those cookies, such as cinnamon, cloves and nutmeg, have a long history of use specifically at Christmas time. Spices started to become popular in Europe in medieval times when soldiers and traders brought them back from all corners of the globe. Their rarity made spices a prized commodity, reserved mostly for the rich and royalty. Since Christmas was a time of great feasts, many spices became synonymous with this time of year, with traditional dishes given an exotic twist with the introduction of some amazingly fragrant and flavourful spices. Christmas was also a time to be a little indulgent with food, so other expensive items in medieval times, such as dried fruit likes raisins, were used in dishes as well; this is where the "traditional" stollen, figgy/plum pudding, christmas cake and mulled wine comes from.
I try to limit myself to baking around 8 (oops, I miscounted, make that 9) kinds of cookies; I fight the temptation to look at recipe books, because I will always think, "Oh! That one looks good. I should try that!" and end up baking until midnight or later. One of my favourite cookies to make is soft molasses cookies with spices. They smell and taste so good! Any cookies with molasses or honey in them usually need to have the dough refrigerated for a few hours, so I will make a few kinds of dough, keep them in the fridge and bring them out when I have a spare hour or two to make them. Here is my recipe for them, which you can double if needed.
3/4 cup unsalted butter, softened
1 cup dark brown sugar, packed
1 large egg
1/2 cup blackstrap molasses
2 1/2 cups all purpose flour
1/2 teaspoon salt
2 teaspoons baking soda
1 teaspoon ground cinnamon
1 teaspoon ground ginger
1 teaspoon ground allspice
1 teaspoon ground nutmeg
Cream the butter and brown sugar together; add egg and molasses and mix well. In a separate bowl, mix the rest of the ingredients and fold into the butter mixture. Cover and chill dough in fridge for about 2 hours. Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Roll dough into small balls and roll in white sugar until covered. Place on parchment lined cookie sheet and bake for 10 minutes. Let cool.
The trick with these is not to overcook them; they may seem really soft when you take them out of the oven but they will firm up, trust me. I'm not going to put the nutrition information with this recipe as who really wants to know how bad cookies are for them? Someone once asked if I could make Christmas cookies healthy, and while I could, I wouldn't want to as it's a bit of indulgence to enjoy.
So whatever you're doing this holiday season, bake up a little love from the oven!