Why It’s Good That Christmas Cookies Taste So Bad

They're one of the few things not subject to postmodern culinary standards

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Dave King

Generally my first instinct is to cringe when I hear the words “Christmas cookies.” It’s not that I don’t like cookies; one look at me, and you can see that much is untrue. Nor am I foot soldier in the war on Christmas, that laughable chimera. No, the problem is that Christmas cookies, at least the traditional ones, are almost always bad.

Now, I know this shouldn’t matter. Christmas cookies are an expression of continuity with previous generations of Americans, better people for whom Christmas was less about discount electronics than it is today. Christmas cookies were, and to an extent, still are, one of the few things not subject to postmodern market standards: they don’t have to be the munchiest, most chocolatey, ultra-decadent cookies the arts of food science can imagine, each one crammed full of sybaritic bliss. Instead, what’s supposed to matter about them is that your friend or relative made them and gave them to you. Or, better still, that you made them and gave them to someone you care about. “The reason a lot of cookies seem bad to you,” Mindy Segal, of Mindy’s Hot Chocolate in Chicago told me, “is that they are a kind of family cooking that you usually don’t see outside people’s houses. And most family cooks are amateur cooks.”

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Most home cooks are generally stretched just to make simple butter cookies (or gingerbread if they’re really ambitious) and shower them with red and green flavor crystals of some kind. These aren’t the only kind they could make, but they’re generally a lot easier to press out in a star or tree than, say, chocolate chip dough, which everyone likes better. That’s not the case for the pro baker though. That’s why it’s such a gross act of bad faith for commercial bakers to reproduce these and then sell them, frequently in those weird circular tins you only see at this time of year. I asked Johnny Iuzzini, the superstar pastry chef, about the holiday trend of store-bought mediocrity, and he explained that “Basically, most commercial bakers just take whatever crap cookies are lying around and sprinkle some stuff on them.” Johnny works with a great organization called Cookies For Kids’ Cancer, which does fundraising bake sales around the country. Those sales are a perfect example of what Christmas cookies should be about. People make cookies as well as they can, every one according to their own ability, and they all get bought and eaten because, really, it’s not about the cookies.

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That, I guess, is what I admire about Christmas cookies. The pressure toward novelty and excellence in the food world has made simple butter cookies, with or without those nasty sprinkles, seem somehow poignant and pathetic, like the cobbled-together toy airplane poor children present their brothers with in sentimental old movies. I like that they are bad. The ability to forget how lousy they are is, in some very real way, a measure of your Christmas spirit. I know there a million recipes for better Christmas cookies by the likes of Johnny Z’s, Christina Tosi, Jacques Torres, and all the other luminaries of modern pastry, not to mention bloggers like Kelsey Banfield, the “Naptime Chef.” Trying to make the cookies you give people as good as you can make them is a generous, even admirable thing, which is why I’m including at the end of this article an excellent recipe from Mindy Segal for those who aspire to do more. But there’s also something almost noble in not even trying to make cookies great; in just letting them be cookies, and letting the feeling matter most.

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Brown Butter Graham Cracker and Eggnog Ganache Sandwich Cookie
Courtesy of Mindy Segal of Mindy’s Hot Chocolate

Yields approximately 24 2-inch sandwich cookies
To make the graham cracker dough:

12 oz (3 sticks) unsalted butter
½ c. light brown sugar
2 eggs
½ tsp. vanilla extract
¾ c. all purpose unbleached flour
¾ c. cake flour
1 ½ c. graham cracker crumbs
1 tsp. Kosher salt

Melt butter in a heavy-duty saucepot until milk solids turn light brown and omit a nutty aroma.

Place brown butter in a plastic container and refrigerate until solidified (approx. 1 hour).

Cream solidified brown butter with brown sugar until light and fluffy.

Scrape the sides of the bowl, add eggs (1 at a time), and vanilla extract.

Scrape sides of bowl again, and mix until homogenous.

Add all dry ingredients and mix to combine thoroughly.

Wrap in plastic wrap and refrigerate until set (approx. 1 hour).

To make the eggnog ganache:

8 oz high quality white chocolate
12 oz heavy whipping cream
rind of ½ an orange
1 whole nutmeg
1 vanilla bean
brandy (to taste)
1 pinch of salt

Place cream, orange rind, vanilla bean (seed and pod) in a heavy-duty saucepot and heat until liquid is hot – do not boil.

Toast nutmeg in 325 degree oven for 5 minutes, crush into small pieces and steep into warm cream (approx. 1 hour to overnight).

Melt chocolate over a double boiler with simmering water.

Strain cream through a fine mesh strainer.

Mix cream and chocolate together to form a homogenous liquid.

Strain again through a fine mesh strainer and refrigerate until chilled (at least 1 hour to overnight).

To assemble the cookie:

Preheat oven to 325 degrees.

Roll graham cracker dough into a rectangle approximately 15”x 14.”

Cut desired shape with a cookie cutter (approximately 2 inches).

Place on a baking sheet with parchment paper and bake for approximately 15 minutes or until light and golden brown. Let cookies cool.

In the bowl of an electric mixer with a whisk attachment, whip the ganache until the mixture resembles whipped cream.

Place in refrigerator until cookies are cooled.

When cookies are cooled, flip half of the cookies over and using a pastry bag with a ¼ inch round piping tip, distribute approximately 1 tablespoon of the cream mixture onto the surface of the inverted cookie, and place the other half of the cookies on top to form sandwiches.

Refrigerate until ready to serve.