I don’t bake cookies very often. There are so many more exciting desserts to be made this time of year – chewy fruit-filled meringues, fancy tarts, densely rich pies and, of course, the boûche de Noël. Cookies seem so… dare I say, ordinary. And, with so many store-bought varieties, well, sometimes I think, why bother? But that is a very one-sided way of looking at it, isn’t it. Cookies are exciting, both in their own right, but more so in feelings they evoke and the excitement of what they represent. Especially if they are the biscuits de Noël. In that case, there really is no choice – they must be homemade. Even better if they are made from old family recipes, passed down through the generations – the cookies you had as a child on Christmas Eve and the ones your grandparents grew up eating. Like all Christmas traditions, Christmas cookies have a profound way of connecting the generations, tying them together like a ribbon on a package. But, as with traditions, there is no harm in sprinkling in a few new ideas, a few new recipes from time to time. Just the ritual of baking cookies, no matter the recipe, brings everyone together in the kitchen. Whether it’s the enticing aromas wafting through the house, or the way cutting out shapes in the dough brings back fond childhood memories, or the promise of biting into a cookie that’s still delectably warm off of the cookie sheet. It never fails that only a few minutes after I place the first sheet in the oven, everyone is in the kitchen.
This is the first batch of Christmas cookies I’ve made this season, (aside from the Kołaczki that I always make with leftover pie dough after Thanksgiving.) They are a good transition between the seasonal desserts of November and the full-blown Christmas cookie overload coming in a few weeks. And, as this recipe makes two different cookies, it’s a good way to get twice the variety with half the work. And who doesn’t love a good two-for-one deal around the holidays? These recipes came from my grandfather’s family who lived outside of Geneva. They are both traditional Swiss cookies – biscuits à la cardamome, which are perfect for cutting into fun shapes and decorating with icing if desired, and bright Mailänderli, little star-shaped lemon cookies that are glazed in egg yolk for a sunny shine.
I make these often in the weeks leading up to Christmas. Some I will tie into festive bundles with seasonal ribbon, to give to the neighbours. The rest will get slathered with icing and adorned with gem-like candies and colored sugars. The kids always go crazy with the cookie decorating, but not before I set aside a few plain ones for myself to have with a cup of tea. Of course, there will be more than just these two varieties in the coming weeks – gingerbread, rum balls, basler brunsli, biscotti, biscuits à l’ansi and my favourite gingersnaps, but those are recipes for another post. This simple recipe is a good re-introduction to the Christmas baking season. (As I always feel I need to get my feet wet before jumping right in to the baking frenzy.) What would Christmas be without a plethora of cookies to choose from?
Biscuits à la Cardamome (base recipe) and Mailänderli (Lemon Stars)
This is a two-in-one recipe for some of my family’s favourite Christmas cookies. The cardamom biscuits are made from the base dough and cut into shapes which can be decorated or left plain. With a few simple additions to the recipe, you have traditional Swiss Mailänderli. Both keep very well in an air-tight container at room temperature.
1 cup unsalted butter, room temperature
2/3 cups white sugar
1 large egg
2 tsp vanilla extract
2 1/4 cups all-purpose flour
1 tsp ground cardamom
1/4 tsp baking powder
1/4 tsp sea salt
Mailänderli (follow the main recipe with these additions)
2 tsp lemon zest
1 egg yolk
a pinch of salt
In a large bowl, cream the butter with the sugar until light and fluffy. Beat in the egg and the vanilla extract. In a separate bowl, whisk together the flour, cardamom, baking powder, and salt. Stir the flour mixture into the butter until the dough just comes together. Divide the dough in half. Form one half into a disk and wrap in plastic wrap. Refrigerate for at least 1 hour.
To the other half, stir in the lemon zest. Wrap the dough in plastic wrap and refrigerate for 1 hour.
When ready to bake, pre-heat the oven to 350 F (180 C). Line two baking sheets with parchment paper.
For the cardamom biscuits: On a well floured surface, roll the dough out to about 3/8th of an inch thick (8 mm). Using cookie cutters, cut into shapes. Place on the baking sheet and bake, one sheet at a time, for 8 – 9 minutes, until the edges just start to turn golden. Re-roll the dough and repeat until all the dough has been used. If desired, ice the cookies after they are completely cool, but I prefer these plain.
For the Mailänderli: Roll the dough out as above only slightly thicker. Use a star shape to cut out the cookies. Place on the prepared baking sheet. In a small bowl, whisk together the egg yolk with a pinch of salt and a few drops of water (just enough to make the yolk spreadable.) Brush the tops of the cookies with the yolk, being sure to cover the cookie completely. Sprinkle each cookie with vanilla sugar. Bake one tray at a time for 10 – 11 minutes, until the edges of the cookies just start to brown.