Friday, January 1, 2010

- Top (Cookie) Chef … or “Pack your butter and go” (gently revised in 2016)

This year was our first Christmas season in Texas, and I’ve decided I can definitely get into the spirit even when the temperature is in the 70s. Meliss and Jake flew in from St. Louis on a cool, clear Christmas afternoon … much better weather than their October venture. Meg and Paul hosted dinner at their house, serving us an amazing surf and turf of prime rib and lobster tails, with asparagus, horseradish potato cake, and salad with fig balsamic dressing, pine nuts, red grapes and feta.

We had Christmas cookies for dessert, a tradition from the many years we spent celebrating with the Laroche family. Don decided that a competition for Top Cookie would liven up the festivities, and designed a ballot for the four entrants which were to be judged on taste, texture and presentation.
First up, my Mom’s shortbread, which I’ve often imitated, but never duplicated. Though we made shortbread using a recipe from my Grandma Munson (born Scotswoman Jesse Watson, who surely knew what she was doing) when I was a child, Mom changed recipes once I left home, so I never got to watch her make it … she just brought it with her each year when she and Dad came to Williamsburg to celebrate Christmas with us. This time around my version wasn’t quite as crisp as hers, a bit thicker than it should have been and I dosed it with a too much sugar, but it was still recognizable and the sentimental favorite.

Next, a perennial entry: Greek Kourambiades, which I first made in high school as part of a social studies assignment to create a Middle Eastern dish. [A side note on my high school: it was different, to say the least. No substitute teachers, for one. Instead, we had a choice of guest speakers, open study halls, or Watergate hearings to watch. Even better, our teachers had virtually unlimited sick leave … and used it since they didn’t have to write sub plans. But I digress]. While others brought falafel and pita bread to the Middle East luncheon, my research focused on finding a dessert with lots of butter. Some things never change. The recipe replaced Aunt Yetta’s pinkie cookies as the go-to nut cookie recipe and came with me when I started making my own cookies as a young bride in Virginia (32 years ago this week).

The Mocha Christmas Tree Cookies were also a high school find, from a New York Times cookbook that I read at our next door neighbor’s in East Williston. I’m not quite sure how I came to be reading a cookbook in the Presti’s kitchen, but the recipe has gone through a number of revisions over the years, all good. Meliss prefers her cookies sans chocolate (making them coffee cookies rather than mocha) … a plainer presentation to be sure, but toothsome just the same. And I used my grandmother’s Mirro cookie press, one of my favorite inheritances.

Last, but far from least, was a new entrant: LaCoursier family Nutmeg Logs courtesy of Meg’s husband Paul. I got a bit nervous as I made these, realizing I’d never actually seen or tasted the original cookies and was setting myself up by making substitutions in a recipe I never made before. But I bluffed my way through and hoped for the best. And best they were, winning the Top Cookie prize when all the ballots were counted. I’m guessing it was the Haitian Barbancourt Rhum substituted for the rum extract in the recipe that put them over the top. Of course, ¾ of a pound of butter didn’t hurt either. Whatever. Nutmeg Logs are destined to be part of the Ackert family Christmas cookie rotation in perpetuity.

Nana Ruth’s Shortbread

½ lb. butter (salted)
½ cup sugar
2 cups flour

Cream butter and sugar. Mix in flour. Divide into three parts, flattening each into a circle about ¼” thick on parchment paper. Score into 8 wedges and prick with a fork. Bake 25 minutes at 325. Sprinkle with sugar while still warm. Cut into wedges along the scored lines. Pack in an airtight container with wax paper.

Kourambiades (I have no idea how to pronounce this)

½ lb. melted butter (salted)
¼ cup sugar
½ cup chopped walnuts (I use the food processor)
2 cups flour
1 tsp. baking powder

Mix ingredients together. Shape into small balls (1 tsp.) Bake on parchment paper for 15-20 minutes at 350 until slightly golden on the bottom. Cool slightly, then sift confectioners on top (being very generous as some will fall off when the cookies are moved).

Mocha Cookies (but only if you include the chocolate ... otherwise they're Espresso Cookies)

8 ounces butter (salted, softened)
¾ cup sugar
1 small egg
1 tsp. vanilla
¼ cup espresso powder (the original recipe called for 1 Tbs. of instant coffee)
2 cups flour
1/8 tsp. baking powder
4-6 oz. Ghirardelli 60% or Guittard chocolate chips
Nonpareils (Mom also used chopped nuts on hers)

Beat egg in a cup with vanilla and espresso powder. Cream butter and sugar. Beat in egg mixture. Fold in flour and baking powder. Dough will be soft and may need a bit more flour to keep it from being sticky … but be careful not to overdo it. Use a Christmas tree or wreath template in a vintage Mirro cookie press … be assertive, quickly twisting the handle 180 degrees and rapidly lifting the press between cookies. If you use one of those new-fangled cookie presses you're on your own. Bake 9-10 minutes at 375 until crisp.

When cookies come out of the oven, carefully place a few chocolate chips on each one, spread the chocolate as it melts to cover each cookie, then sprinkle with whatever suits your fancy (or leave them plain … which is much easier, and Meliss would approve).

Joyce Levine's Nutmeg Cookies

½ lb. butter (salted, softened)
¾ cup sugar
1 egg
2 tsp. vanilla
1 Tbs. Barbancourt rum (this is non-negotiable … just ask the Laroche family)
2 ½ cups flour
1 tsp. freshly grated nutmeg
¼ tsp. salt

Cream butter and sugar. Beat in egg, vanilla and rum. Fold in flour, nutmeg and salt. Roll into “snakes” about ½ inch in diameter. Cut into pieces about 2 inches long. Bake on parchment paper for 12-15 minutes at 350 until golden brown. Cool while making the frosting.


4 Tbs. butter (1/2 stick)
1/2 tsp. vanilla
2 Tbs. Barbancourt rum
1 cup confectioner’s sugar
Freshly grated nutmeg

Soften the butter in the microwave (30 seconds at 50% power). Beat in remaining ingredients. Spread over cookies and grate nutmeg over the top.