My maternal grandparents were the true cooks and bakers growing up. During Christmastime my grandmother would make two traditional Italian cookies: anise cookies with lemon icing (my favorite), and strufoli: deep fried balls of dough drizzled with honey and sprinkled with nonpareils. My grandfather would always make his famous Ricotta Italian cheesecake. During this time of year, I sorely miss their delicacies. My mother on the other hand, did not inherit their skill in creating Italian confections; instead, she got a cookie recipe from a neighbor who swore this would be — the something sweet— that everyone (including my brother John and I) would always remember: Cheese Dainties; a light crumbly cookie made with flour, butter, cream cheese and preserves.
I will never forget the first day my mother decided to make these cookies. It was two days before Christmas (no real wiggle room for error, considering she was making 10 trays for family and friends), I was eleven years old and my brother John was 9. She truly needed an army to complete the unknown, and we were it. In those days, no one had the modern comforts of stand mixers, and if you were lucky, you had a trusty hand held. We had neither. So my brother John and I mixed the butter and cream cheese by hand until smooth; we did this repeatedly, until the wee hours of the night, while mom folded in the flour, shaped the dough, dolloped with preserves (apricot or raspberry) and folded. I will never forget how messy the kitchen was. Somehow, the butter and cream cheese ended up on the ceiling, the flour was all over the counters and in crevices (took days to clean up afterwards) and our tiny hands were so tired. We giggled plenty, whined at points of exhaustion, but in the end, these dainties were worth the magnanimous effort.
To this day, when my mother even brings up the words cheese dainties, I cringe at the thought of how labor intensive it seemed. And you would think, that recipe would have been passed on to me, to make for the holidays—not! Just as my mom did not try and replicate my grandparents’ recipes, nor did I seek out the delectable cheese dainties.
My graphic design background plays a big role in my holiday cookie escapades. I create “cookie-concepts”; a cut-out desired shape for a cookie, relate that to a message (a designed card of some sort) and packaging. Sugar cookie flavors like ginger molasses, lemon, chocolate and simply, butter have been cut into shapes like sunflowers, snowflakes, and my favorite —bells. The bell concept is called: Let’s Ring in the New Year. I cut the cookies into small and large bells and decorate with icing, silver dragées, white sugar glitter, and nonperils. I place the cookies in a blue metallic box with white and silver confetti. A long accordion card that has the New Year countdown on one side and the song, Auld Lang Syne on the other accompanies the cookies. And on the outside of the box I tie a silver bell with metallic string. The butter cookie recipe is from Cooks Illustrated. What I love about this recipe is the cream cheese that adds a depth of richness, and also, it reminds me of my Mother’s cheese dainties; an old friend who I have parted with and in a strange sense have met again because of one simple ingredient.
Ring in the New Year Sugar Cookies
Ingredients (for the butter cookie dough; adapted from Cooks Illustrated):
- 2 ½ cups all-purpose flour
- ¾ cup superfine sugar
- ¼ teaspoon table salt
- 16 tablespoons unsalted butter (2 sticks), cut into sixteen ½-inch pieces, at room temperature
- 2 teaspoons vanilla extract
- 2 tablespoons cream cheese, at room temperature
Ingredients (for the glaze):
- 1 tablespoon cream cheese, at room temperature
- 3 tablespoons milk
- 1 ½ cups confectioners’ sugar
Directions (for the cookies):
- In bowl of standing mixer, mix flour, sugar, and salt on low speed until combined, about 5 seconds. With mixer running on low, add butter 1 piece at a time; continue to mix until mixture looks crumbly and slightly wet, about 1 minute longer. Add vanilla and cream cheese and mix on low until dough just begins to form large clumps, about 30 seconds.
- Remove bowl from mixer. Turn out dough onto countertop and knead. Then divide in half, pat into two 4-inch disks, wrap each in plastic, and refrigerate until they begin to firm up, 20 to 30 minutes. (Can be refrigerated up to 3 days or frozen up to 2 weeks; defrost in refrigerator before using.)
- Adjust oven rack to middle position; heat oven to 375°. Roll out 1 dough disk to even 1/8-inch thickness between 2 large sheets parchment paper; slide rolled dough on parchment onto baking sheet and chill until firm, about 10 minutes. Meanwhile, repeat with second disk.
- Working with first portion of rolled dough, cut into desired shapes using cookie cutter(s) and place shapes on parchment-lined baking sheet, spacing them about 1 1/2 inches apart. Bake until light golden brown, about 10 minutes, rotating baking sheet halfway through baking time. Repeat with second portion of rolled dough. (Dough scraps can be patted together, chilled, and re-rolled once.) Cool cookies on wire rack to room temperature.
Directions (for the glaze):
- Whisk cream cheese and 2 tablespoons milk in medium bowl until combined and no lumps remain. Whisk in confectioners’ sugar until smooth, adding remaining milk as needed until glaze is thin enough to spread easily. Drizzle or spread scant teaspoon glaze with back of spoon onto each cooled cookie, as desired.
- Decorate with Dragées, nonperils, and white sugar glitter.