Santa has always had a monopoly on the good cookies. But it took Julia Usher a while to ponder the bigger issue: Why should the winter holidays get all the gingerbread? And why should something as deliciously fun as a cookie exchange be relegated to December?
Her answer unfolds in mouthwatering fashion in the new book Cookie Swap: Creative Treats to Share Throughout the Year.
Cookie exchanges are about more than shared calories, Usher says.
“It’s an opportunity to draw family and friends into the kitchen and swap memories and recipes,” she says by phone, halfway through a national book tour. “It’s one thing to take the cookies home. It’s even better when you can take the stories home. A lot of the cookie swap tradition is about carrying on what’s been important into the future — giving and sharing, handing down the legacy of recipes.”
And what’s important to Usher — at least at this time of year — are tiny vine-festooned pumpkins, meringue ghosts and a gingerbread house that would send Hansel and Gretel scampering back up the breadcrumb trail.
Usher went to grad school at the University of California at Berkeley and Stanford University, worked in San Francisco and lived in San Jose, Calif., for more than a decade before embarking on an entirely new — and tasty — career path. She opened a bakery in St. Louis.
The career switch may seem a bit dramatic for some, but Usher says it wasn’t that big a stretch.
“We were a very avid baking and cooking family. Nothing came into the house that wasn’t made from scratch,” she says. “Mom would go crazy making jams and jellies. Same thing with breads. Often those things were made and swapped around the holiday time.”
Now, if Usher has her way, they’ll be swapped all year long. The new book offers eight different cookie party ideas — including a bridal shower and bunnycentric spring party — with something for every level of expertise.
Take the Giant Pumpkin cookie recipe, she says, which can be decorated with fondant flourishes or simply dipped in orange icing. “It’s a lovely spice cookie that’s really suitable for the fall season,” she says.
And the Meringue Ghosts can be piped over a chopped date cookie base, or directly onto parchmentcovered cookie sheets. Add mini-chocolate chips for eyes and tuck the adorable, ridiculously simple results into a warm oven for an hour.
Usher also offers up clever ideas for invitations, decorations and take-home containers. And yes, there are plenty of winter holiday cookies for Santa, too.
GREAT PUMPKIN COOKIES
Makes 3-4 dozen cookies
2 1/4 cups all-purpose flour
2 tablespoons cornstarch
1 teaspoon baking soda
1 teaspoon baking powder
2 1/2 teaspoons cinnamon
1 teaspoon ground cloves
1 teaspoon grated nutmeg
3/4 teaspoon ground ginger
3/4 teaspoon salt
1 cup granulated sugar
3/4 cup packed brown sugar
1/2 cup plus 2 tablespoons unsalted butter, softened
1 large egg
11/4 cups pumpkin puree
11/2 teaspoons vanilla
11/2 cups walnuts, coarsely chopped, optional
11/4 cups raisins, optional
Fondant or marzipan, cinnamon sticks to garnish
2 pounds powdered sugar
1/2 teaspoon cream of tartar
5 large egg whites
1/2 to 1 teaspoon water
Orange soft gel food coloring
1/2 teaspoon orange extract
4 tablespoons orange juice
1. Preheat the oven to 350 degrees, and line your cookie sheets with parchment paper.
2. Combine the flour, cornstarch, baking soda, baking powder, spices and salt in a bowl. Set aside.
3. In a mixer, cream the sugars and butter on medium-low speed. Add the egg and beat on medium-high until light and fluffy, 1-2 minutes.
4. Turn mixer to low and beat in pumpkin puree and vanilla, scraping down the sides of the bowl as needed.
5. Stir in the flour mixture, followed by the walnuts and raisins. Using a small scoop or tablespoon measure, drop small balls of dough onto the prepared cookie sheets. Bake 15-20 minutes, or until dry and firm on the outside. Transfer to wire racks and let cool.
6. For the icing, mix the powdered sugar and cream of tartar in the bowl
of an electric mixer. Add the egg whites and beat on low speed to
blend, then on medium-high for about two minutes, or until the icing is
silky, thick and very white.
Scoop out a half cup and blend in 1/2 to 1 teaspoon of water to reach a
good piping consistency. Stir in a single drop of orange food color.
Seal with plastic wrap, pressing it against the surface of the icing,
and set aside.
Add the orange extract to the remaining icing, and enough food coloring
to reach a deep orange tint. (Adding a few drops of red and brown will
give it a burnished shade.) Add enough orangejuice to make a thick glaze.
Set a wire rack over a sheet of parchment paper. Dip each cookie in the
glaze, gently shaking to remove excess, and place on rack to dry.
Insert a small piece of cinnamon stick or a chocolate chip in the top
to make a stem. Let dry.
Add contours by piping lines with the reserved, pale orange icing. Use
green-tinted fondant or marzipan to make leaves and vines, if desired.
— Julia Usher, “Cookie Swap” (Gibbs Smith 2009) (c) 2009, Contra Costa Times (Walnut Creek, Calif.). Via McClatchy-Tribune News Service.