German lebkuchen, or gingerbread, is thought to be the first cookie traditionally associated with Christmas. By the 1500s, Christmas cookies were popular throughout Europe. Many countries had developed their own version of a ginger Christmas cookie, as well as other sweets like the German spritz cookie, Austrian linzer and springerle cookies, French Buche de Noel, Stollen or fruitcake, and Christmas pudding.
The earliest Christmas cookies as we know them in America came from the Dutch and English settlers in the 1600s. In the early 20th century, imported kitchenware from Germany introduced cookie cutters of highly stylized images—bells, Christmas trees, camels, and crimped edge shapes.
My favorite thing about Christmas has to do with the special and unique traditions that connect us with our families and make holidays more meaningful. In fact, this has always been the case. I can just see myself as a kid, spirited and strong-willed (to put it nicely). What?! What do you mean we’re not doing ____ for the holidays? IT’S TRADITION.
Although I consider myself more of a cook than a baker, there is something about the cold weather and family gatherings that brings out the baker in me. Spending hours in the kitchen baking holiday sweets (and making a mess) with my mom and sisters is a tradition I cherish. Each year, we bake our usual favorites—holiday biscotti, peppermint brownies, and nutmeg logs—as well as experiment with some new recipes. Our holiday cookie platter was particularly special this year and I feel obliged to share some of my favorites with you.
Nutmeg Log Cookies
These tasty treats are a Sykes-Shipley family tradition. The recipe was passed down to my grandmother who made it a point to make these cookies for every holiday occasion. These cookies are not particularly well known, but a Google search tells me that the all the recipes out there are made in a similar manner and are also known as eggnog log cookies. My family’s nutmeg logs are shortbread-y in texture, sweet, and impart the distinct flavors of eggnog—perfect for Christmas or New Year festivities.
3 cups sifted all-purpose flour
1 teaspoon ground nutmeg, plus more for sprinkling
1 cup butter
2 teaspoons vanilla extract
2 teaspoons rum extract
¾ cup sugar
1 organic egg
For the frosting
3 tablespoons butter
½ teaspoon vanilla
1 teaspoon rum flavoring
2 cups confectioner’s sugar
2-3 tablespoons heavy cream
Preheat oven to 350°F. Combine flour and nutmeg in a large bowl. In a separate bowl, cream butter, vanilla and rum. Gradually add sugar and beat in egg. Combine with dry ingredients. On a lightly floured surface, shape pieces of dough into 3-inch long and ½- inch thick logs. Place on an ungreased cookie sheet at bake 12 to 15 minutes, or until lightly browned.
Meanwhile, cream butter, vanilla and rum extract. Add confectioner’s sugar alternately with cream until mixture is thick and spreadable. Frost cooled cookies, using fork tines to make lines that resemble bark. Sprinkle with nutmeg.
This recipe comes from a well-known bakery in the Boston area, Tatte Fine Cookies and Cakes. These delicious rolled cookies are a take on the popular cream cheese based rugelach cookies. Rugelach was introduced to America by Jewish immigrants from Hungry, Poland, and Yugoslavia and means “little twists” in Yiddish. Like rugelach, these cookies can be made with various sweet fillings like fig paste, raisins and nuts, preserves or flavored jams. This recipe was a particular hit with my family and friends for the holidays, but I see myself enjoying these cookies year-round.
8 ounces (1¾ cups) dates, seeds and chopped
4 cups flour
1 cup confectioner’s sugar, plus more for sprinkling
½ tablespoon baking powder
1 cup plus 2 tablespoons unsalted butter, but into thin slices
2/3 cup cold milk
1 cup chopped walnuts
Preheat oven to 325°F. Line a large cookie sheet with parchment paper. In a small bowl, combine dates and 2/3 cup boiling water; let sit for at least 20 minutes. Pulse dates with water in food processor until a thick paste forms. Set aside.
In a food processor, combine flour, sugar, and baking powder. Add butter and pulse until dough resembles coarse crumbs. Add milk and pulse until dough begins to clump together. Place dough in a large bowl and form into a ball. Divide in half.
Sprinkle work surface with flour. Roll out half the dough into a 14x9 inch rectangle. Spread half of date puree over dough, leaving 1-inch borders along longer sides. Sprinkle half the walnuts evenly over puree. Starting from a long end, loosely roll dough into a spiral. Press gently to smooth seam and pinch ends closed. Place roll, seam side down, on baking sheet. Repeat with remaining dough.
Bake 45 minutes, or until golden. When cool, use a serrated knife to cut into 3/4 inch slices. Sprinkle with confectioner’s sugar before serving.
Lebkuchen (German Christmas Gingerbread Cookies)
Lebkuchen is the earliest traditional Christmas cookie, reportedly invented by Medieval monks in Germany in the 13th century. These spiced ginger cookies can be traced back to the early days of the European spice trade, when spices such as cinnamon, ginger, cloves, cardamom, coriander, and anise reached Nuremberg, Germany via the famous spice routes. In the 1640s, the German city approved the establishment of the Lebkuchen Baker’s Guild with 14 master gingerbread bakers. Since then, traditional lebkuchen recipes have been passed down from generations. These lebkuchen cookies from browneyedbaker.com are one of my absolute favorites, soft and rich with molasses, not too sweet, and deliciously spicy.
3 cups all-purpose flour, plus extra for kneading
1¼ teaspoons ground nutmeg
1¼ teaspoons ground cinnamon
½ teaspoon ground cloves
½ teaspoon ground allspice
1 organic egg
¾ cup light brown sugar
½ cup honey
½ cup molasses
For the Glaze
1 cup confectioner’s sugar
2 tablespoons water
1 tablespoon lemon juice
Preheat the oven to 350°F. Line two baking sheets with parchment paper.
In a large bowl, sift together flour, nutmeg, cinnamon, cloves and allspice. Set aside.
Beat egg and sugar together with an electric beater until light and fluffy, about 2 minutes. Beat in honey and molasses until thoroughly combined. On low speed, stir in flour mixture until just combined. Turn dough onto a well-floured surface. Knead, adding more flour as kneaded, until dough is stiff. Wrap in plastic wrap and chill until firm, about 2 hours.
On a well-floured surface, roll out dough into a 9×12 inch rectangle. Cut into about 18 3×2-inch rectangles. Bake for 10-12 minutes until the edges are browned.
Whisk together confectioner’s sugar, water and lemon juice and spread on cooled cookies. Allow glaze to firm before serving.