I know, I know, Thanksgiving dinner isn’t even on the table yet, and here we are talking about Christmas cookies.
But the next holiday is just over the hill. Anyone who wants to handle the accelerated schedule with aplomb will appreciate a few things that can be done ahead of time.
Cookies are the perfect candidate. For many types, especially butter-based, the dough can be made days or weeks ahead of baking day; it keeps beautifully in the fridge (which also enhances the flavors) or the freezer.
I test cookie recipes every year, with an eye toward expanding my repertoire. The refrigerator cookie recipe here was given to me by my sister, who had saved it from a Sunset magazine.
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The problem was the name: fruitcake cookies. Not everyone likes traditional fruitcake (including me) and might be scared off by the title, but they might like dried fruit and nuts in a nice buttery cookie. So the name became “fully loaded Christmas refrigerator cookies.”
One revelation when I was hunting down the ingredients: Candied orange peel commands $49 per pound at an upscale grocery store. The only other type I found was swimming in high fructose corn syrup.
So I searched for a recipe to make my own. (See below.) It proved to be easy – and you can dip the leftovers in melted chocolate, for gifts or for yourself.
TIPS FOR COOKIE BAKING
Favorites collected by Kathy Morrison:
Organizing and assembly
• Read the entire recipe before you start. Take an inventory of equipment and ingredients. Check freshness of spices.
• For marathon baking sessions, get an early start. Also, make or plan what you’ll have for lunch in advance; it will keep you from picking at nuts and chocolate all day.
• Cane sugar (white or brown) is recommended for baking.
• Check the bins in the natural-food aisles for bargains on nuts, dried fruit and specialty grains or flours.
• Invest in parchment paper and a wide metal spatula. The first aids in cleanup; both help prevent broken cookies.
• “Room temperature” butter should be soft, but not too soft or it won’t hold air when you beat it. Don’t soften it in the microwave – it’s too easy to melt it.
Baking and storing
• Know your oven: Find out whether it heats from the top or the bottom.
• To guard against burning cookies that are baked on the lower or even middle rack, place a similarly sized empty baking sheet on the bottom rack (to absorb some heat).
• Don’t put cold dough on a hot cookie sheet – it’ll melt before it reaches the oven.
• When baking chewy cookies, pull them out of the oven 1 minute before you think they are done. Overbaking will ruin their texture.
• To make sure your clean cookie cutters are completely dry before putting them away till next year, place them in a 180-degree oven for about 3 minutes.
Fully loaded Christmas refrigerator cookies
Prep time: 45 minutes plus at least 8 hours to soak fruit and nuts and 2 hours chill time for dough
Cook time: 15 minutes per batch
Makes about 8 dozen cookies
If you want to try two (or more) fruit-nut combination, divide the dough after the egg and extracts are mixed in. Recipe adapted by Kathy Morrison from Sunset magazine.
One 8-ounce package chopped dates (about 1 3/4 cups)
4 ounces candied orange peel, diced (about 1 cup)
11/2 cups chopped nuts, such as pecans, walnuts or macadamia nuts
1 cup dried currants
2 tablespoons orange liqueur
2 tablespoons dry sherry
1 tablespoon fresh orange juice
1 tablespoon honey or agave sweetener
1 cup unsalted butter, softened
1/2 cup sugar
1/3 cup packed light brown sugar
2 tablespoons fresh orange zest
1/2 teaspoon salt
1 egg, lightly beaten
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
1 teaspoon orange extract
22/3 cups unbleached all-purpose flour
In a medium bowl, combine the dates, orange peel, nuts, currants, orange liqueur, sherry, orange juice and honey or agave. (You should have about 4 cups fruit and nuts.) Cover with plastic wrap and allow to sit at room temperature for 8 hours, or up to overnight.
In a large bowl, using a mixer on medium speed, combine the butter, sugar, brown sugar, orange zest and salt, and blend until smooth, about 3 minutes.
With the mixer on the lowest speed, add the egg, vanilla extract and orange extract, and mix until combined. Add the flour slowly, mixing until combined. Add the fruit-and-nut mixture, and stir to combine.
Divide the dough in half. Form each half into an 18-inch-long rectangular log (2 inches wide by about 11/2 inches tall). Wrap and refrigerate for 2 hours, or until firm. (Dough can be frozen, tightly wrapped, at this point for up to 6 months.)
Preheat oven to 350 degreees. Line two baking sheets with parchment paper.
Cut logs into 1/4-inch-slices. Place cookies on prepared baking sheets, spacing 1/2 inch apart. (They don’t spread.)
Bake for 12 to 15 minutes, or until light golden brown. Let cool on baking sheets for 10 minutes, then transfer to wire racks to cool completely. Store in airtight container.
TESTING AND TASTING
• This recipe is easy to tailor to personal tastes. I made half a batch following the recipe, using pecans for nuts; the other half incorporated dried pineapple instead of dates, pistachios instead of pecans, and dried tart cherries instead of currants.
• I use Cointreau for the orange liqueur; Grand Marnier would give the cookies more of a brandy taste, which some people might prefer. If you don’t want to use liqueurs, stir the orange extract into the fruit-nut mixture, and don’t add more while mixing the dough.
• When preparing to create the dough logs, pull out a piece of plastic wrap about 22 inches long. On top of that, put a piece of wax paper 18 inches long – this will give you a guide for the length of the log. Wrap the whole thing up together.
• Use a serrated knife to slice the dough – it will do better with chunks of nuts.
• I baked these cookies on insulated sheets; they took about 14 minutes, but this is when knowing your own oven is crucial.
• I got a lot of notes from the newsroom volunteer tasters. Many liked the original recipe. An example: “Nice blend of flavors. Love how moist. The way to get a ‘fruitcake’ experience without the fruitcake!” Some tasters thought there was too much orange in both recipes. (I did too, and would back off on the orange extract, I think.) Other tasters preferred the pineapple version, which came off a little moister/chewier. It’s also less of a holiday-flavor combination. One taster’s comment: “Mellow flavor – I was hoping for more of a punch, but the flavor does linger!”
Candied orange peel
Prep time: 30 minutes, plus drying time
Cook time: 1 hour 40 minutes
Makes about 14 ounces
Adapted by The Bee’s Kathy Morrison from a Food Network recipe.
3 navel oranges, rinsed
1 1/2 cups sugar, plus more for rolling
Score the oranges lengthwise in quarters, cutting through the pith but not into the flesh. Peel the oranges; you should have 12 quarters of orange peel. Wrap and save the peeled oranges for another use.
Cut the orange peel quarters into strips about 1/4-inch wide. Place the strips in a large saucepan (nonstick if you have one) and just cover them with cold water.
Bring water to a boil, then drain off the water. Repeat this process two more times. After the final blanching, remove the strips from the pan and set aside.
Combine the 1 1/2 cups sugar with 3/4 cup water in the saucepan. Over medium heat, bring to a simmer. Adjust heat so that the mixture continues to simmer without advancing to a hard boil.
Cook 9 minutes, scraping down the sides occasionally, to create a simple syrup.
Add the orange peel strips to the syrup and simmer on medium-low for 45 minutes to 1 hour, until the strips are translucent. Do NOT stir the mixture; doing so will cause it to crystallize. If you need to move the strips around to keep them in the syrup, swirl the pan.
Sprinkle a flat dish or rimmed cookie sheet with 1 cup of sugar. Using a slotted spoon, remove the strips from the syrup and roll them in the sugar. (There might not be much remaining syrup in the pan; what is left can be used in tea or over ice cream.)
Place sugared strips on a rack set over another cookie pan. Allow to dry overnight at room temperature or about 4 to 5 hours in a barely warm (170 degrees) oven.
Store in airtight containers (tins or glass jars preferred).