Holiday Cookies-Best Recipes and Practices

posted in: Cook

Holiday cookies have been a long-standing tradition in my family. Every year it is THE holiday event that the entire family enjoys. But choosing the right cookie recipe and icing isn’t always easy. Santa won’t be happy with just any old cookie, so here are some best recipes and practices.

There are several camps on holiday cookies, some people call them sugar cookies, others butter cookies and still others prefer something different all together, gingerbread cookies. Choices like royal or buttercream icing and what sugars, sprinkles, and coloring to pick can make for cookie madness. It’s a big production, but here’s a few things to help you along.

Butter cookies, a danish invention are not to be confused with the shortbread butter cookie that has become popular in the US. Danish butter cookies (like those that come in a blue tin, you’ve seen them, I’m sure) are a difficult cookie to bake because high butter content requires you to keep them cold up until the second they go into the oven. Danish Butter cookies are often made using a cookie press. Like any butter cookies, most butter based cookie doughs perform better once refrigerated. Sugar cookies, on the other hand, often made with shortening (instead of butter) tend to be lighter, crisper and perhaps obviously, sweeter than the traditional butter cookie and do not require refrigeration.

Personally, I am a true butter cookie fan. I like the butter-shortbread kind (less work than the Danish cousin) and Land-o-Lake’s is my favorite butter cookie recipe. The recipe includes a little bit of orange juice. The acid of the juice brings a bright flavor and makes the butter flavor more pronounced. Try them and tell me what you think.

Now, as far as icing goes, you might have guessed, I prefer buttercream icing. This is a simple butter, powdered sugar and milk mixture that can sometimes take a dash of vanilla (but beware of white icing becoming ecru with that addition-seek out white vanilla flavoring at Michael’s or your local baking supply store). Buttercream icing is similar to icing used on cakes and therefore is more difficult to work with than it’s sibling royal icing. Buttercream icing can handle sprinkles and sugars on top for added details. I often add flourish to my cookies with pastry bags (or zip-loc bags with the corner cut off like a pastry bag), but keep in mind when using buttercream icing your cookies will look home-made.

Royal icing is preferred by most cookie artisans because of it’s ability to create intricate designs. Royal icing is almost always used on gingerbread cookies and houses. It is made with egg whites, milk and powdered sugar and sometimes vanilla. It is thinner than buttercream icing and requires drying time. Between drying periods you can add more colors and decorate intricate designs such as paisley patterns, chevron and more. Toothpicks help you to drag colors through each other and add marbling details and flourishes. While royal icing is pretty, it is somewhat flavorless. Royal Icing will harden onto your cookies which you may or may not like. Cookies iced with royal icing are easier to transport/store and ship. Note: sprinkles and sugars will need to be applied before drying or they will not adhere to the icing.


My #1 tip is to look at pictures of other iced cookies online to inspire your creations.

My #2 tip is to be sure to chill your dough. Do not skip this step.

My #3 tip is to watch your cookies bake. They should not brown, AT ALL. Cooking them in the middle of your oven, one sheet at a time will help you attain cookie perfection.

It’s a big process, and one that will likely take 4 hours plus 2-3 hours chilling time, but make the dough today, freeze it and save yourself a few steps in two weeks.

I hope your cookies make Santa happy!