A Quartet of Holiday Cookies 

Three top East Bay bakeries share recipes for their most prized desserts.

One decade ago, Cheryl Lew, the pastry chef and proprietor of Oakland's Montclair Baking, found herself with a load of leftover hard peppermint candies after decorating a large gingerbread house. To use them up, she came up with her ingenious Chocolate Peppermint Pinwheel Cookies, which she now bakes every December.

After mixing up her cookie dough, she divides it in two. Melted chocolate and cocoa powder are stirred into one half of the dough, and the other half gets mixed with the crushed peppermint candy canes. After chilling, each dough is rolled out and layered over one another, before being rolled up pinwheel-style, and then cut into slices for baking. The result is one eye-catching spiral cookie.

Brightly wrapped gifts, bottles of bubbly, and a bountiful roast ham, prime rib, turkey, or tofurkey are must-haves for any festive gathering, but nothing truly says "holiday" like beautiful homemade cookies. After all, special occasions deserve a sweet ending, and cookies have a way of putting a smile on anyone's face — whether young or old, naughty or nice.

To get you in the baking mood, we asked three top East Bay bakeries to share their recipes for their most prized holiday cookies.

Agnes Hsu's Feisty Ginger Cookies are just that — loaded with ground ginger, cloves, cinnamon, and a whopping 1-1/2 cups of chopped crystallized ginger. For Hsu, founder of Teacake Bake Shop in Emeryville, Lafayette, and Corte Madera, no holiday is complete without these fragrant, spicy cookies that warm you inside and out.

Those who can't tolerate wheat flour can still enjoy a holiday classic with a gluten-free version of Viennese Crescents. Patti Furey Crane started her artisan gluten-free bakery, Mariposa in Oakland, after she was diagnosed with her own gluten allergy. These melt-in-your-mouth cookies dusted with powdered sugar are addicting, no matter if you're gluten-intolerant or not.

Finally, there's this can't-miss cookie that I've been baking for the past ten years. If I don't, friends and family rebel. That's how good these Italian Macaroons are.

Wheat-free, they're made without flour — just egg whites, sugar, and almond paste. Form the sticky, sweet dough into balls that get coated liberally in slivered almonds. They emerge from the oven golden, with crispy edges and an interior as chewy as all get out.

The dough for the first three cookies can be made ahead of time and then frozen until you're ready to bake. All four cookies also freeze well after baking. Just store them carefully in sealable plastic bags or containers. Leave them in their sealed containers to defrost on the countertop.

Arrange the cookies on a fancy platter or wrapped in pretty cellophane bags tied with a ribbon or tucked inside gold-colored tins. No matter how you serve them, there's no more delectable way to say "Happy holidays.''

 

Chocolate Peppermint Pinwheel Cookies

(Makes about 4 to 6 dozen pinwheel cookies, depending upon how thick you slice them)

3 ounces bittersweet or semi-sweet chocolate, melted

2 tablespoons boiling water

3 tablespoon unsweetened cocoa powder

3 cups unbleached all-purpose flour

1/2 teaspoon salt

1/4 teaspoon baking powder

1/4 teaspoon baking soda

10 ounces unsalted butter (1 1/4 cups)

1 1/4 cups sugar

1 egg

1 1/2 teaspoons vanilla

4 ounces hard peppermint candy, unwrapped and crushed into pieces the size of rice

 

Gently melt the chocolate in a heatproof bowl in the microwave. Set aside, keeping it warm but not too hot.

Mix the boiling water and the cocoa powder together; set aside.

In another bowl, mix flour, salt, baking powder, and baking soda; set aside.

In the bowl of a stand mixer fitted with a paddle attachment, cream butter on low speed with the sugar until light and creamy. Add eggs and vanilla. Mix until well combined, scrape the bowl down at least once. Don't over-mix. Add dry ingredients to the mixture. Beat on low speed until combined. 

Remove 2 cups of dough and set it aside.

To the dough remaining in the mixing bowl, add the melted chocolate and the cocoa-water mixture. Mix just until combined. Remove chocolate dough from the mixer and form into a square about 1-inch thick. Wrap in plastic wrap and refrigerate for 20 minutes to firm up.

Wash and dry the mixing bowl. Put reserved 2 cups of dough and the peppermint hard candy in the bowl and mix on low speed until combined. Remove peppermint dough from the mixer and form into a square about 1-inch thick. Wrap in plastic wrap and refrigerate this dough for 20 minutes, too.

Remove both dough squares from refrigerator and divide each piece into 4 pieces. Roll each piece of dough out into a 7-inch square. You will have eight pieces of dough — four of each flavor. Align one flavor on top of the other so that you have four squares with one of each flavor on top of each other. Roll up the dough layers into a pinwheel. Wrap each log in plastic wrap and refrigerate until completely firm, about 2 hours. At this point, you also can freeze the logs for up to two months.

To bake the cookies, preheat the oven to 350 degrees. Line cookie sheets with parchment; do not use wax paper. Cut the cold cookie logs into 1/4-inch thick slices. Set the rounds of cookie dough 1 inch apart on cookie sheets. Bake 12 to 13 minutes. Don't let the edges get too brown. 

Cool cookies on a wire rack.

If you are using frozen logs of dough, let them defrost overnight in the refrigerator before slicing, then baking.

 

From Montclair Baking, 2220 Mountain Blvd. Ste. 140, Oakland, 510-530-8052, MontclairBaking.com

Feisty Ginger Cookies

(Makes approximately 2 dozen 4-inch cookies)

4 1/2 cups all-purpose flour

2 teaspoons baking powder

1 teaspoon baking soda

1/2 teaspoon salt

2 tablespoons ground ginger

1 teaspoon ground cloves

1 teaspoon ground cinnamon

2 cups brown sugar

1 1/2 cups (3 sticks) unsalted butter, softened

1/2 cup molasses

2 eggs

1 1/2 cups chopped crystallized ginger

White sparkling sugar for rolling cookie dough (or substitute plain white sugar)

Preheat oven to 375 degrees.

In a bowl, mix together flour, baking powder, baking soda, salt, ginger, cloves, cinnamon, and brown sugar.

In the bowl of a stand mixer fitted with a paddle attachment, cream together butter, molasses, and eggs. Add dry ingredients, beating on low speed until blended. Add crystallized ginger and mix on low speed just until combined.

Using an ice cream scoop, form 2-ounce balls of dough. Place white sparkling sugar in a small bowl. Roll each ball in the sugar until well coated.

Place dough balls on cookie sheets lined with parchment, patting them down slightly until they are mounded, thick disks. Don't put them too close together because they will spread as they bake.

Bake for 15 to 20 minutes. Let cool on pan for a few minutes, and then transfer to a wire rack to cool.

From Teacake Bake Shop, 5615 Bay St., Emeryville, 510-655-0865, see TeacakeBakeShop.com for other locations

Gluten-Free Viennese Crescent Cookies

(Makes 2 dozen cookies)

2 cups gluten-free flour mix (see note)

1 cup butter, softened

1 cup natural almond meal (see note)

1/2 cup powdered sugar, sifted

1/8 teaspoon salt

1/2 teaspoon guar gum (see note)

For vanilla sugar:

2 cups powdered sugar, sifted

1 vanilla bean

Combine gluten-free flour mix, softened butter, almond meal, 1/2 cup sifted powdered sugar, salt, and guar gum in a mixing bowl of a stand mixer fitted with a paddle attachment. Beat on low speed until combined.

Form dough into a ball, wrap with plastic wrap, and chill for 1 hour in the refrigerator.

Preheat oven to 325 degrees.

Using your fingers, roll dough into small balls. Roll each ball into a rope. Pinch ends to form a crescent shape.

Place on parchment-lined cookie sheets. Bake for 8 to 10 minutes.

While cookies are baking, make vanilla sugar mixture by scraping vanilla seeds out of vanilla bean pod. Add seeds and pod to 2 cups sifted powdered sugar in a bowl.

After removing cookies from the oven, allow them to cool for 2 minutes. Then while they're still warm, coat them one at a time in the vanilla sugar mixture.

Note: Gluten-free flour mix is available in well-stocked markets. Almond meal can be purchased at health food stores and at Trader Joe's. Guar gum is available at health food stores.

From Mariposa Baking Company, 5427 Telegraph Ave., #D3, Oakland, 510-595-0955, MariposaBaking.com

Italian Macaroons

(Makes about 5 dozen)

1 pound almond paste

1 3/4 cups sugar

4 large egg whites

About 1 pound slivered almonds

Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Line 2 or 3 baking sheets with parchment paper or lightly butter sheets.

Be sure to measure the almond paste accurately, as too little paste will create a super sticky dough that will be harder to work with. Break almond paste into pieces. Place in bowl of a food processor with the sugar. Pulse until almond paste is finely crumbled, and evenly combined with sugar.

In a separate bowl, beat egg whites to soft peaks. Stir a little of the egg whites into the almond mixture; it will be fairly dry. Fold in remaining whites.

Place almonds in a shallow bowl. Roll almond paste mixture into 1-inch balls, keeping them as round as possible. If mixture is too sticky, alternately drop heaping teaspoonfuls into the bowl of almonds; use your fingers to roll the dough ball around until coated evenly with slivered almonds. Place on prepared baking sheets, spacing 1 inch apart.

Bake cookies until evenly pale gold, 15 to 17 minutes.

Cool cookies in pans on a wire rack for about 5 minutes. With a spatula, very carefully transfer cookies to the rack to cool completely. These macaroons keep well; store in an airtight container. You also can freeze the cookies in sealable plastic bags.

Adapted from "Classic Home Desserts" by Richard Sax

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