In a former life as a pastry chef, I baked many elaborate things on a daily basis: hand-pulled Austrian strudel dough, sheet cakes seven-layers tall to be cut into painfully precise 1-inch squares and, of course, cookies.
While cookies in and of themselves weren’t the most challenging thing I made on a daily basis, it was a different story around the holidays. People came to expect something dramatic and festive, code for “overly complicated.”
It was a similar story when I became an editor at a food magazine. Holiday cookies were expected to scream “special.” This was good for newsstands and “social engagement,” but I can tell you who it wasn’t good for: anyone who didn’t consider themselves an especially gifted baker — or anyone who had, you know, other things to do in December. I’ve been complicit in this, creating more than a few cookie recipes that I look at now and think, “Yeah, I’m not gonna do that.” But ever since my work kitchen became my actual kitchen and the oven in my (otherwise wonderful) apartment barely fits a sheet tray, I’ve become more realistic about what I’m willing to do when it comes to “festive” and “special.”
To me, festive and special shouldn’t require an M.F.A., or even a stand mixer. Cookies should make you feel proud and accomplished, not panicked and stressed. Below are three cookies, appropriate for those who swear they “can’t bake,” and meant to make you feel simultaneously festive and relaxed while you watch “Love, Actually” for the ninth time this week. Now doesn’t that sound nice?
In these cookies, unsweetened coconut adds faintly nutty notes without the tropical flavor.CreditCon Poulos for The New York Times. Food Stylist: Rebecca Jurkevich.
TOASTED COCONUT SHORTBREAD
If you’re at all familiar with last year’s popular salted butter chocolate chunk shortbread, then you may recognize that this recipe for unassuming, extremely tender coconut shortbread borrows from that base. (I wrote both, so it’s not stealing, don’t worry!)
Here, a bit of unsweetened shredded coconut is swapped for some of the flour, and there’s no chocolate, though that wouldn’t be a bad addition. The coconut adds fat for an even more buttery cookie (if you can imagine) with faintly nutty notes and no noticeable tropical flavor.
It may seem annoying to dip each otherwise straightforward slice-and-bake cookie into a pile of sanding sugar before baking, but it’s necessary for the sweet and salty balance of the finished product. Plus, it’s pretty fun, and if that’s the hardest thing you have to do all day, then consider it a good day.
The result is something with the taste and texture of one of those Danish holiday cookies that come in the sweet little (and harder-to-open-than-they-should-be) blue tins, the sleeper hit of every cookie table.
If you, like me, have wondered what it would taste like if a brownie and a spiced molasses cookie were one instead of two, then good news: You can make these, and find out for yourself. All you need to shape this dead simple one-bowl dough are your hands (and maybe a helper or two). Decidedly more “grown up” in flavor — both the molasses and cocoa give bitter notes that play off the spiciness of the fresh ginger — the cookies are tiny in size by design to complement their intensity. For rolling, any coarse decorative sugar works, as would Demerara or an unrefined sugar.
SALTED PISTACHIO SHORTBREAD
This is one of those rare doughs that’s better when made in a food processor. Dense, buttery, salty and nutty, the cookies call for pistachios, but swap in walnuts, pecans or hazelnuts, if you prefer. One thing to note: These cookies are best sliced after baking, not before. Fresh out of the oven, the cookie is very tender and easy to cut. Do it almost immediately, as the baked cookie hardens quickly. The result is an extremely pleasing arrangement of crisp-edged triangles that may look just a little like a Danish modernist interpretation of a Christmas tree (unintentional, I promise).