What is up with America’s national obsession with “Christmas cookies”?
It only recently occurred to me to wonder. I was discussing this with Tram, like, “duh, we should do a Christmas cookie post,” and she was like, Okay, sounds good! “So… can you explain to me what the deal with Christmas cookies is? Is there a religious reason?” (Ha! As if any Christian holiday traditions are based on religious reasons.)
I could not immediately answer Tram’s question, so I reviewed my own experience with this particular variety of baked good. I quickly traced its origins back to popular Santa mythology, and the notion that a child must give Santa a plate of cookies before bed on Christmas Eve in order to receive his gifts the next day. (Only Jesus himself knows the origins of that custom.) But this, obviously, is a tradition aimed at children. It does not explain the assault of cookie-related activities—“cookie exchanges,” “cookie decorating parties,” “cookie calendars,” etc.—with which many adults must contend each December. Surely Santa, this fictional fat man in a comical felt suit, does not need more than one batch of chocolate chip cookies per house? After much contemplation, I realized I have no idea what the deal is with Christmas cookies or why they’re such a thing.
After informally surveying my friends for some answers, all I can conclude is that the phrase “Christmas cookies” serves as a psychological trigger that leads many people to go temporarily insane. One friend’s mom bakes twenty-five different types of cookies, which she then sends to approximately fifty people, whose cookie selection she determines in a highly political ranking system inexplicable to all but her innermost confidantes. (Read: Her daughter and possibly her husband.) I should note that I have benefited from several of this mother’s Christmas cookie care packages and that it is worth it to stay on her good side.
Another friend tells me of a cookie exchange party—organized several years ago among a group of professional peers—at which guests were expected to come bearing nine dozen cookies. After some grumbling, that number was reduced to… seven dozen cookies. Emails flew back and forth for weeks over this affair. Friendships were questioned. In the end, most people just skipped the thing.
My own experience is a little simpler, if equally mystifying. Every year following our Christmas Eve dinner, my family sits around the living room coffee table. My dad plays an audio cassette of Father Something-or-other singing classic Christmas jams (you know, in Latin), which he bought from our church back in the days when he still demanded we all go to church, which is to say at least 20 years ago. Then my mother puts out an enormous selection of cookies. The cookies sit on a big platter, and there are many varieties of them, which various family members have ostensibly helped to bake. Of course, by this point in the season we are all utterly sick of cookies, having been bombarded with them for weeks on end, and so instead of actually eating them we just politely pick at them. According to my mom, we consume so few actual Christmas cookies that whole tins of them will occasionally be forgotten—until the next year, when she opens them to store a new batch.
Historically speaking, the family cookie-eating is followed by last minute present-wrapping, which is followed by a huge fight over whether or not we children must attend Midnight Mass. Midnight Mass is like regular church except that—at least at my childhood institution—it is done in three languages and includes a Bengali dance break halfway through. (To be fair, that last part is not bad.) But because my parents eventually bailed on the whole church thing, we now spend the rest of the night teasing each other about other things, such as the time several decades ago when my brother wrapped his presents in tin foil on Christmas morning while the whole family stood outside his door screaming at him. We can all sleep easy knowing that years worth of cumulative therapy-going and prescription drug treatments have not destroyed our longstanding ability to annoy each other on Christmas Eve.
Anyway, here’s a recipe for a cookie I may or may not get around to baking for this year’s platter, but which is delicious. I adapted it from this Bon Appetit recipe to include a note of espresso, because after a long night of eating and drinking I like my cookies to have enough caffeine to keep me up past 9 pm.
CHRISTMAS MOCHA COOKIE CRISPS
Makes about 24 small cookies
1 1/4 sticks (10 tbsp) unsalted butter
1 1/3 cups flour
3 tbsp unsweetened cocoa powder
1 tbsp instant espresso powder
1/4 tsp baking soda
1/4 tsp baking powder
1/2 tsp salt, plus more for dusting
1/3 cup sugar
1/3 cup light brown sugar
2 tbsp + 2 tsp light corn syrup
2 tbsp whole milk
1 tsp vanilla extract
1/3 cup semisweet chocolate chips
Melt the butter and transfer it to the fridge to cool while you move on to your next step.
In a medium-sized bowl, mix the flour, the cocoa powder, the espresso powder, the baking soda, the baking powder, and a scant 1/2 tsp salt.
In a second medium-sized bowl, mix the butter (now room temperature), the sugars, the corn syrup, the milk, and the vanilla. Whisk together until smooth. Gradually add your flour mix, whisking to integrate it into the liquid mix, until fully combined. Cover your bowl with tin foil or saran wrap and cool for at least 4 hours in the fridge.
Preheat the oven to 325 degrees F
Once your dough is cool, line a cookie sheet with a piece of parchment paper.
Sprinkle a little bit of sea salt (preferably something classy like Maldon) atop the cookies. This is why you reserved a bit; it gives the cookie a nice little salty kick, adding some depth to the flavor.
Bake for about 9 minutes. Don’t overcook, because that will result in a tough and overly chewy little cookie. When you pull them from the oven, the cookies will still be slightly soft in the center. They’ll get crispier as they cool.
Remove the cookies from the oven and let cool on a rack.
In the meantime, in a double boiler, melt your chocolate chip cookies. Once the chocolate is as close to a liquid consistency as you can get it, take a spoon (or fork, or both, depending on your artistic ability) and artfully squiggle some chocolate atop each cookie. You are aiming for a design that is Jackson Pollock meets Martha Stewart. I myself am rather bad at the squiggling, but I suspect Tram would be very good at this. Make sure to drizzle the chocolate on the cookies while they’re still warm; otherwise the drizzle won’t set properly.
Let cool for at least 30 minutes. Then you may bring 9 dozen of these cookies to a cookie exchange; you may allow your family members to eat them; or you may just hang out around the house with your cat and have a little Christmas party for one (human). Hey, man, it’s your life!