All during the year, I think about what I will be making for my friends, my colleagues, and my family members for Christmas. In the past, I have made plum puddings and hard sauce, fruitcakes, and bread puddings with sour lemon sauce, and I have given out baskets full of jars of homemade jams and jellies and homegrown honey. This year, inspired by our wonderful and inventive "Cookies" book, I decided to perfect a few more cookie recipes delicious enough to be included in a sequel, if we ever decide to publish one. Of all the welcome gifts one can make, cookies are perhaps the simplest to prepare in quantity and the easiest to package in festive wrappings.
For years I have religiously used only unsalted butter and unbleached flour and the very best Belgian or French chocolate in my cookie doughs. Now I find myself even more studiously searching for ever finer ingredients that will make each morsel of every cookie the best, the most mouthwatering. I now use organic, natural sugars and imported Irish or French or local artisanal butters.
My daughter, Alexis, is a wonderful baker, and we discuss not only ingredients and where to find the best, but also the wrapping materials and how to source them or make them. One can never, ever say that a cookie is as good as it can be, because the addition of one little thing, such as a sprinkling of Maldon salt crystals or a teaspoon of Madagascar vanilla extract or a grating of fresh ginger instead of the store-bought powdered spice, can pretty much blow the taste buds away.
I have been somewhat of a faux-bois freak during the past few years, so the wood-grain design became central to this year's cookie theme. Not only did we design some fabulous metallic faux-bois wrapping paper for our crafts line, but we also discovered a new tool (a potter's tool) that can imprint wood grain and other patterns right onto rolled-out dough.
Once I figured out the cookie recipes and determined the look and size of each of the cookies-and this can be a challenge -- it was time to make the samples, taste them, decorate or fill them, and then decide how the cookies would be presented: Would they be boxed, like the spiced cardamom Christmas tree and reindeer cookies? Would they be incorporated into a more elaborate gift, like the crisp anise cookies, presented in footed compotes that can be used after the cookies are eaten? Or would some, like the thumbprint cookies -- fresh Key lime or chocolate ganache, each in its protective pleated paper cup -- never make it into a box or onto a platter at all, but instead be eaten by family members as they were filled and left out to set?
The Meyer lemon lace tuiles, a very delicate rolled cookie, should be packed in a shallow box, in one or two layers, spaced with thin parchment or glassine. Then simple ribbons and cords are all it takes to make such delicious gifts look really beautiful.
The doughs for the cardamom and thumbprint cookies can be made in advance, and the cardamom cookies can actually be baked a couple of weeks in advance, as their flavor improves with age. The anise cookies can be baked up to a week before enjoying their licorice flavor, but I suggest not baking the thumbprints or tuiles more than a couple of days prior to eating them -- or giving them away.