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Holiday Style | Magazine

Classic holiday cookie recipes from Boston-area bakers

The secret ingredient in these classic cookies? Nostalgia.

Macaroons, Christmas wreaths, almond crescents, and Italian natale cookies bring on the warm memories.
Macaroons, Christmas wreaths, almond crescents, and Italian natale cookies bring on the warm memories.(Photograph by Anthony Tieuli; Styling by Sheila Jarnes)

All great holiday cookies rely on one essential ingredient. It’s not unsalted butter at just the right temperature, or a better-quality chocolate than you’d use the rest of the year, or even fine extracts that can perfume an entire batch of dough. (Though all of those are important.)

Baked into every spectacular holiday cookie is a heartwarming spoonful of nostalgia. These are the cookies of your childhood, made by someone who loved you. You’ll never outgrow your longing for their special aroma, texture, and flavor.

Cookie memories might begin in an unadorned kitchen, with you at the elbow of a home baker assigning you small tasks. What you made together appears on the holiday table, and as far as you’re concerned, it should be on the table forever.

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Laura Raposa, owner of The Foodsmith bakery and cafe in South Duxbury, knows all about this. She has stayed up on Christmas Eve into the wee hours making labor-intensive cookies because she can’t appear at the next day’s feast without them. But tucked away in tins, baked earlier in the week, are coconut-orange macaroons that take very little time to put together. They go onto The Foodsmith’s holiday cookie platters along with gingersnaps, chocolate-mint balls, and other small confections. The coconut-packed creations aren’t the least bit precious and will keep for days.

“This is a cookie that has some shelf life,” says Raposa, whose Italian grandmother gave her the recipe (her Portuguese grandmother passed down others). Her grandmother left them plain, but Raposa drizzles the tops with melted chocolate. “I have a friend who had a cookie contest every year, a big party, and one year these won,” she says.

Cambridge resident Jeri Quinzio is a writer who specializes in food history and recently published the book Dessert: A Tale of Happy Endings, which explains how the sweet course in the meal evolved. She inaugurated her own tradition years ago after coming across a recipe for Christmas wreath cookies that “explained that if you couldn’t get pistachios, you could dye walnuts green,” she recalls.

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Her father thought the little rounds were wonderful. Says Quinzio, “I would make them and put some out for the family and put some aside for Grandpa Nick.” Eventually the treats, which resemble classic thumbprint cookies (with real pistachios, not dyed walnuts), were named for him.

Even now, says Quinzio, though her father has been gone for some time, her kids will ask, “Are you making Grandpa Nick’s cookies?”

My mother also brought nostalgia to the holiday kitchen. We lived in Europe when I was a girl, and someone gave her a recipe for Viennese crescents, made with ground almonds and sprinkled generously with confectioners’ sugar. Around the holidays, she gave them away in Table Talk Pie pans, which she lined with foil, filled with cookies, and covered with plastic wrap. And there was always a tin in the freezer to pull out for visitors. The crescents are similar to other buttery cookies, like Greek kourabiedes, and look quite festive on the table.

Italian Natale cookies are knots shaped from cream cheese dough, their glazed tops sprinkled with rainbow nonpareils. “We used to call them ‘Natale’ ” — Italian for Christmas — “because my parents made them at Christmas,” says caterer Linda Marino, who started La Bonne Maison, now in Newton, over 30 years ago. “My cousins and I would also call them ‘mother cookies,’ because all our mothers made them. There was a little competition going on.”

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Raposa made the same cookies using a recipe from her grandmother that adds aniseed, a flavoring that’s not universally liked. Based on orders for Foodsmith cookie platters, she soon realized they weren’t popular. “I only have two customers who like them,” she says.

Even nostalgia, it turns out, is a matter of taste.

(photograph and styling by sheryl julian)

CHRISTMAS WREATH COOKIES

Adapted from Jeri Quinzio

Makes 24

½      cup (1 stick) butter, at room temperature

1/3        cup granulated sugar

1         egg, separated

Jeri Quinzio.
Jeri Quinzio.(John Tlumacki/Globe staff)

½      teaspoon vanilla extract

¼      teaspoon almond extract

1         cup flour

½      teaspoon salt

¾      cup skinned unsalted pistachios, finely chopped and spread on a plate

About 2 tablespoons strawberry, cherry, or other red jam

Preheat the oven to 300 degrees. Line 2 baking sheets with parchment paper.

In an electric mixer at medium speed, beat the butter until creamy. Beat in the sugar, followed by the egg yolk and the vanilla and almond extracts. With the mixer set on its lowest speed, beat in the flour and salt until a dough forms.

Use a teaspoon to scoop up pieces of dough. With your hands, shape into small balls. Set them on the baking sheets.

In a wide, shallow bowl, use a fork to lightly whisk the egg white. Dip each ball of dough into the egg white, then roll it in the chopped pistachios.

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Arrange the cookies 2 inches apart on the sheets. Use your finger to make an indentation in the center of each ball.

Transfer to the oven and bake for 20 to 25 minutes or until set and starting to brown. Remove cookies from the oven and, while they’re still warm, fill the centers with jam.

(photograph by Anthony tieuli; food styling by sheila jarnes)

COCONUT-ORANGE MACAROONS

Adapted from Laura Raposa

Makes about 22

1         can (14 ounces) sweetened condensed milk

Laura Raposa.
Laura Raposa.(David L. Ryan/Globe staff)

2        egg whites

1         tablespoon vanilla extract

Grated rind of 1 navel orange or scant ¼ teaspoon orange oil

½      teaspoon kosher salt

2½   cups flaked, unsweetened coconut

3¼   cups flaked, sweetened coconut

1½    cups (9 ounces) bittersweet chocolate chips

Preheat the oven to 350 degrees. Line 2 baking sheets with parchment paper.

In an electric mixer, combine the condensed milk, egg whites, vanilla, orange rind or oil, salt, and unsweetened and sweetened coconut. Beat on low speed, scraping down the sides of the bowl often, until thoroughly incorporated.

Scoop 2 tablespoons of the batter (a small ice cream scoop works well) onto a baking sheet, and continue making mounds, leaving 1 inch between them. Dip your fingers into a bowl of cold water and shape the dough into mounds, smoothing out any feathery edges.

Bake the macaroons for 18 to 20 minutes, or until they are light golden brown. Let them cool on the baking sheets.

Meanwhile, fill a saucepan with several inches of water and bring to a boil, then reduce heat to low. Place the chocolate chips in a heatproof bowl that will fit neatly into the pan without touching the water. Melt the chocolate in the bowl, stirring occasionally. Remove the chocolate from the heat and wipe the bottom of the bowl dry.

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Dip a fork into the melted chocolate and drizzle it over the macaroons in a crisscross pattern. Let the chocolate cool on the cookies. Use a wide metal spatula to remove the cookies from the baking sheet. Store in an airtight container for up to 3 days.

(photograph by Anthony tieuli; food styling by sheila jarnes)

NATALE COOKIES

Adapted from Linda Marino

Makes 42 

These cookies taste better the day after baking. Getting the hang of knotting the dough takes a cookie or two, but it’s easy.

COOKIES

2½   cups flour, plus extra for sprinkling

½      teaspoon salt

1         tablespoon baking powder

½      cup (1 stick) butter, at room temperature

Linda Marino.
Linda Marino.(Lane Turner/Globe staff)

4        ounces cream cheese, at room temperature

½      cup sugar

3        eggs

1         teaspoon vanilla extract

1         teaspoon orange extract

ICING

½      cup confectioners’ sugar

1½    teaspoons milk

1½    teaspoons orange juice

2        tablespoons rainbow nonpareils or sprinkles or colored sugar, for decorating

In a bowl, whisk the flour, salt, and baking powder to blend. In an electric mixer, cream the butter and cream cheese at medium speed until well combined. Add the sugar and beat until smooth. Beat in the eggs, one at a time, followed by the vanilla and orange extracts. With the mixer set on its lowest speed, blend in the flour mixture just until no white patches show.

Scrape down the sides of the bowl. Cover the bowl with plastic wrap and refrigerate for 1 to 2 hours or until the dough is cold.

Preheat the oven to 350 degrees. Line 2 baking sheets with parchment paper.

On lightly floured counter, pinch off a generous teaspoon of dough. Roll it under your palm into a rope about 6 inches long. Gently knot the rope to create a round. Set knots on the baking sheets with the ends tucked under, about 1 inch apart. Continue rolling and shaping knots until all the dough is used.

Bake the cookies for 20 minutes, or until they are set and starting to brown. Transfer the parchment sheets to wire racks; leave the cookies to cool.

Make the icing: Sift the confectioners’ sugar into a small bowl. Add 1 teaspoon of the milk and 1 teaspoon of the orange juice and stir until the mixture forms a smooth icing. Add the remaining milk and orange juice and stir until the icing falls easily from a spoon.

Remove the parchment sheets from the wire rack. Set 1 rack on a rimmed baking sheet. Pick up a cookie, turn it upside down, and dip it into the icing. Set it right side up on the wire rack. Continue until all the cookies are dipped. Sprinkle with nonpareils, sprinkles, or colored sugar. Leave to cool completely.

(photograph and styling by sheryl julian)

VIENNESE ALMOND CRESCENTS

Adapted from Doris Julian

Makes 42 

In Vienna, the name for these crescents is kipferl; they’re a Christmas tradition in the Austrian capital, where they’re often sprinkled with vanilla sugar.

2        cups flour

Doris Julian and Sheryl Julian.
Doris Julian and Sheryl Julian. (pam berry)

½      teaspoon salt

1¼    cups unsalted raw almonds

1         cup (2 sticks) unsalted butter, at room temperature

1         cup confectioners’ sugar, plus extra for sprinkling

2        teaspoons vanilla extract

Preheat the oven to 325 degrees. Line 2 baking sheets with parchment paper.

In a bowl, whisk the flour and salt to blend.

In a food processor, pulse the almonds until they are finely ground.

In an electric mixer, cream the butter until softened. Add the confectioners’ sugar and beat until well blended, scraping down the sides of the bowl. Beat in the vanilla. With the mixer set on its lowest speed, blend in the nuts and the flour mixture.

Remove the bowl from the mixer stand. Use a small spoon to scoop up the dough and with your hands, shape it into 1 ¼-inch balls. Roll the balls in your palms into 3-inch logs. As you place them on the baking sheets, curve the logs and pinch the ends slightly to form crescent shapes. Set them 1 inch apart on the baking sheets.

Bake the crescents for 18 to 20 minutes, or until they are set and starting to brown.

Let the crescents cool on the baking sheets for 5 minutes. Slide the parchment onto wire racks and sprinkle generously with confectioners’ sugar while cookies are still warm.


Sheryl Julian is the former food editor of the Boston Globe. Follow her on Twitter @sheryljulian. Send comments to magazine@globe.com.