Christmas kind of snuck up on me this year. Normally, I’d be at least a week into a meticulously worked-out plan to make a dozen different edible gifts and send them all over the country. It started in high school, when I’d bake a dozen kinds of cookies, carefully selected to represent a balance of chocolate/fruit/nuts/mint and a variety of shapes and colors and textures. Last year, I got excited about giving people mulled wine kits with little cheesecloth bags of mulling spices and made four different kinds of chocolate-covered buttercreams. This year, it wasn’t until a week before the holiday that I had the sudden realization that if I didn’t make cookies right now, I would not be making any Christmas cookies at all this year.
The upside of having to pare my usual holiday efforts down to a bare minimum is that it made me discover what my traditions are—the recipes that have become my “standards,” the things I absolutely have to make in order to feel like the holidays are happening. So instead of scouring the internet for new ideas or comparing half a dozen different recipes to find the common denominator, this year I’m relying on tried-and-true favorites, a combination of inherited recipes and new favorites discovered somewhere along the way:
- Old-fashioned Sour Cream Sugar Cookies with Buttercream Frosting
- Date-Nut Pinwheels
- Soft Molasses Cookies (recipe coming soon in Part II of “Holy Crap it’s Christmas! Cookies”)
- Cheese Straws
- Spiced Nuts
Why Date-Nut Pinwheels Make the Cut
My grandmother made these every year at Christmas: a rich sugar cookie dough filled with a mixture of dates and walnuts or pecans, simmered with sugar and water until they’re like a thick jam. The cookie dough calls for half brown sugar and half white sugar, so it has just a hint of warm molasses flavor. It also calls for half butter and half shortening, so the texture is in between soft and crispy. Normally, I like cookies baked just until they’re barely done and gooey in the middle when they’re hot. But one of my uncles likes these almost “overdone,” and in this case, I think he’s onto something. The date mixture keeps them soft in the middle, but the edges get crisp and the deeper color represents more caramelization and the slightly-nutty flavor of browned butter.
You could use all butter, which will result in a slightly flatter and crisper cookie (due to the water content in the butter), or all shortening/lard, which will result in a slightly softer and puffier cookie without the buttery flavor. I like the flavor and texture you get by using half and half.
They’re not quite as simple as a drop cookie, but also not really designed to impress anyone. The logs are never quite perfectly circular and the ends are always a little wonky. I was never a big fan as a kid, but I’ve gotten increasingly fond of them. They seem to symbolize the caring labor of holiday baking. They’re something you make because they’re someone’s favorite, because they’re familiar, because your grandma made them, not to show off. And although the combination of butter, dates, and pecans may not be inventive or aspirational, it’s still pretty delicious.
- 1/2 cup butter (8 T.), softened
- 1/2 cup shortening or lard
- 1 1/2 cups white sugar (divided)
- 1 cup brown sugar
- 3 eggs
- 4 cups. all-purpose flour
- 1/2 teaspoon salt
- 1 teaspoon vanilla extract
- 1 teaspoon baking soda
- 2 1/2 cups dates, pitted and chopped
- 1 cup water
- 1 cup chopped pecans or walnuts
1. Chop up the dates and nuts and place them in a saucepan with the water and 1/2 cup sugar. Simmer gently over medium heat until the mixture is thick, like jam. Let cool, and add water if necessary to make it a spreadable consistency. This step can be done in advance, just refrigerate it and then let it come back to room temperature before assembling the cookies.
2. Blend together the butter, shortening/lard, and sugars until light and fluffy (I use a stand mixer, but an electric whisk or some vigorous arm power would work too). Add the eggs and vanilla and continue whisking until well combined.
2. In a separate bowl, whisk together the flour, salt, and baking soda. Add that to the butter mixture and stir until just combined.
3. Divide the dough into 3 equal sections, and roll each one in to a log about 1.5-2” in diameter. Cover them in plastic wrap and refrigerate for at least an hour.
4. Roll each log into a rectangle between 1/4” and 1/2” inch thick—I do this directly on the same piece of plastic wrap I originally wrapped it in. Spread a third of the cooled (not cold) filling evenly over the surface, leaving 1/2” plain on one of the long ends and roll it up jelly-roll style, starting from the opposite long end. The plastic wrap can help you roll.
Repeat with the remaining 2 logs of dough, re-wrap them in plastic wrap and chill for at least an hour or up to a week. Or double-wrap them and freeze for up to 3 months.
5. Preheat the oven to 400F. Slice the chilled rolls into 1/4”-1/2” thick pieces using a serrated knife and place at least 2” apart on ungreased baking sheets (lined with parchment paper if desired). Bake for 10-12 minutes or until a little brown around the edges. Turn your baking sheets halfway through if your oven is uneven.
6. Let cool on baking sheets for 10 minutes, and then remove to wire racks or paper towels. When completely cooled, store in an airtight container.