In the weeks leading up to Christmas every year of my growing up, my stepmother, Susan, would steal away in the late afternoons and evenings to bake batches upon batches of Christmas cookies. Most she learned from the Italian women of her family, and all were irresistible. As she loaded trays and tins with fig cookies, anisette cookies, chewy chocolate-chip cookies and gingerbread, she sometimes had to shoo us away from eating them as fast as she turned them out.
I loved them all, but my favorite was her simple Italian butter cookie — light and almost lemony, even though it contains no citrus. Unfortunately, with my tendency to be far from home, I only learned the basic strokes of her recipe before she passed away. She had written down some recipes, but this one was lost. I've tried to recreate it, though, if only to capture Christmases gone by. It's one of the mysteries of food — how certain dishes can transport us directly back to the past.
Though I can't exactly replicate Susan's version, this recipe comes close. It's adapted from my basic knowledge of her technique, as well as a few other sources. These cookies are extremely versatile — you can dust them wih colorful nonpareils, stick hazelnuts or jam in their middles, dip their sides in chocolate, or even roll out the dough and cut shapes of your choosing. A warning, though: they're like the potato chips of cookies. Once you start eating them, you can't stop.
Simple Butter Cookies
2 sticks of butter
1/2 cup superfine sugar
1 egg, beaten
2 cups all-purpose or pastry flour
2 tsp. vanilla extract
1 tsp. almond extract (optional)
1.5 tsp. baking powder
1/4 teaspoon salt
Preheat the oven to 350 degrees. Cream butter and sugar with electric hand mixer until smooth, about 4 to 5 minutes. Add egg and vanilla, and mix to combine. Spinkle over baking powder and salt. Add flour gradually, mixing well to combine each addition. The dough will appear mealy at first — keep blending (a pastry cutter works well) until a smooth dough forms.
If you're handy with a pastry bag, press dough through a decorative tip to make scalloped designs. Otherwise, shape dough into 1-inch-wide balls and space generously on a baking sheet. Smoosh balls with fingertips to make roughly 1/2-inch high discs; then, press the back of a fork several times into each cookie to score. Sprinkle with nonpareils (they add texture), rainbow sprinkles, or anything else that strikes your fancy, and place tray in oven. Bake for 10-12 minutes until beginning to brown at the edge — be careful, as these delicate cookies can brown quickly. Remove to single layer on plate and let cool. Enjoy, and happy Christmas!
Makes about 3 dozen cookies.