Best Christmas cookie recipes, and a giveaway.

As this year’s installment of Christmas Cookie Palooza winds to a close, and as a way to thank you for your support and readership, I’d like to offer you a gift. Or, rather, an opportunity to win a gift: A copy of “The Findlay Market Cookbook” and the Holiday issue of Edible Ohio Valley magazine, packaged in a fun burlap Edible Ohio Valley tote.

Here’s how it works: In the comment box below, post your favorite Christmas cookie (whether it’s a recipe you’ve discovered here, or your longtime family standby). NOTE: You must include an e-mail address so I can contact you if you win. At noon (ET) on Tuesday, December 23, I will randomly draw one winner from among the people who’ve commented. You’ll receive your gift before the end of the year.

Thanks for reading, and happy holidays to you!

seven layer bar cookies with pretzel crust recipe | writes4food.com

Christmas Cookie Palooza: 7(ish) layer bars.

If I dig waaaaayyyy back in the recesses of my memory, I can imagine a scene from a long-ago Christmas Day: a gathering of extended family (second- and third-once-removed cousins, great aunts and uncles), with the adults crammed around the table in a small dining room somewhere in Indianapolis. At the center of the table, inevitably, is a platter of homemade cookies … and at the center of the platter, inevitably, is a pile of seven layer bars.

I remember seven layer bar cookies: teeth-shatteringly sweet and filled with coconut — which I could not then and cannot now abide. But still, c’mon … they’re seven layer bars.

This, then, is a super-hacked recipe for seven layer bar cookies. I started with a recipe from the new “Special Collector’s Edition America’s Test Kitchen Best-Ever Christmas Cookies” magazine — which, by the way, I highly recommend. ATK recipes are dynamite, of course, and foolproof. But given my less-than-sweet tooth and aversion to coconut, I altered this recipe in quite a few ways.

Most notably, I cut the recipe in half. Because, really, two people Do. Not. Need. a full 9-inch-by-13-inch baking dish full of seven layer bars. These things are like candy. I halved the recipe and baked the bars in a 9-inch baking pan, and ended up with 36 1-inch squares, which is plenty, truly.

Second, I replaced the traditional graham cracker base with crushed pretzels. (Cue heraldic trumpets.) Hello, salty sweetness! Finally, I omitted the toasted shredded coconut, which you could certainly include.

Give this updated recipe a try and let me know what you think of the tinkering!

seven layer bars with pretzel crust

makes about 3 dozen 1-inch squares

1/2 cup Heath milk chocolate toffee bits
3/4 cup crushed thin pretzels (from a generous 1 1/2 cups thin pretzel sticks)
4 tablespoons unsalted butter, melted
4 ounces milk chocolate, chopped
1/2 cup crisped rice cereal (see Note)
1/2 cup chopped toasted pecans
1/2 cup semisweet chocolate chips
1/2 cup toasted sweetened flaked coconut (optional, see Note)
1 14-ounce can Eagle Brand sweetened condensed milk
1 1/2 teaspoons vanilla extract

Preheat oven to 350°. Line a 9-inch square baking pan with foil, leaving several inches of overhang so you can lift the cookies from the pan. Spray the foil well with baking spray. In a food processor, process the toffee bits until they're pulverized almost to a powder. Transfer to a bowl. Put the 1 1/2 cups thin pretzel sticks into the processor and pulse repeatedly until the pretzels are finely chopped; measure out 3/4 cup. Combine the toffee bits, pretzels and melted butter; press the crust mixture into the bottom of the prepared pan. Bake for 10 minutes. Remove the pan from the oven and sprinkle the milk chocolate over the crust; let sit for about 2 minutes to melt the chocolate, then spread it into an even layer. Scatter the rice cereal, then the pecans, then the chocolate chips, then the optional coconut. In a small bowl, whisk together the condensed milk and vanilla; pour this mixture evenly over the bars. Bake until very golden brown, about 25 minutes, rotating the pan halfway through baking time. Transfer the pan to a rack and cool the bars completely (a couple of hours). Use the foil overhang to remove the bars from the pan, and cut into 1-inch squares.

Note: If you omit the coconut, use 1 cup of crispy rice cereal.

chocolate sea salt shortbread cookies | writes4food.com

Christmas Cookie Palooza: Snowy chocolate sea salt shortbread.

When I was thinking about posting a chocolate shortbread Christmas cookie recipe, I had in mind something fancy, with a drizzle of melted chocolate and some crushed peppermint candies. But when I sampled a smidge of this chocolate shortbread dough [you do that too, right?] I decided that it wanted nothing more than a dusting of snowy flake sea salt.

Salt and chocolate isn’t a new thing, of course. But the sweet-salty combination never fails to land me hook, line and sinker. You’ll want a very flaky sea salt for this cookie, to give the impression of freshly fallen snow.

I’ve had this recipe forever and recently rediscovered it in my recipe box as I was scouting ideas for Christmas Cookie Palooza. It was handwritten by a long-ago colleague whose script I don’t recognize on a page of Story magazine stationery (Story being a now-defunct literary magazine published by my former employer).

Like all good shortbread, these cookies are intensely buttery, and they keep well at room temperature for several days. To make them last through the holidays, freeze them in a plastic container.

Sure, you could gussie them up with a drizzle of melted semisweet chocolate and some crushed peppermints. But they’re great under a little snowy white salt.

sea-salt chocolate shortbread cookie recipe

makes about 4 dozen

2 cups all-purpose flour
1/3 cup unsweetened cocoa powder
1/4 teaspoon table salt
1 cup unsalted butter, softened at room temperature
3/4 cup granulated sugar
Coarse sea salt flakes, for finishing

Line two baking sheets with parchment paper. Sift together the flour, cocoa and salt into a medium bowl. In the bowl of a stand mixer (or in a large bowl using a hand mixer) cream the butter until it's very soft, about 30 seconds. Add the sugar and cream together until the mixture is light, about 1 minute. Spoon 1/4 cup of the dry ingredients into the mixing bowl and stir to completely blend. Continue adding the dry ingredients, 1/4 cup at a time (unless you want your kitchen to be enveloped in a cloud of flour and cocoa), until the dough is completely blended. In a small bowl, whisk together a couple of tablespoons each of flour and cocoa for dusting the dough and rolling pin (this will prevent unsightly white flour residue on the cookies). Divide the dough in half; roll one half of dough out to 1/4 inch thick. Use a cookie cutter (I used a 2-inch fluted square) to cut shapes; reroll scraps. Place the cookies on the parchment-lined baking sheet. Repeat with second half of dough. Cover the cookie sheets and refrigerate 3–4 hours or overnight. Preheat oven to 350°. Just before baking, sprinkle the cookies with flaky sea salt. Bake cookies for 12–15 minutes, or until cookies are dry and set. Cool for a few minutes, then transfer to a wire rack.

almond butter dark chocolate blossom cookie recipe | writes4food.com

Christmas Cookie Palooza: dark chocolate almond blossoms.

This time of year, I turn into a real tradition freak. I adore the Christmas ornaments that I’ve had since I was a child. I break out the same wintery faux garland for over the mantel that I’ve used forever. I carefully unpack the sequinned, hand-stitched Christmas tree skirt that I made the first holiday season after Rob and I were married.

And I’m a traditionalist when it comes to Christmas cookies, too — making the same favorites from one year to the next.

But for the first of several upcoming posts on Christmas cookie recipes, I’m going to upend tradition. Only a little bit. Stay with me here: This update of the classic peanut butter blossom cookie recipe, if I may say so, totally rocks. The idea to use dark chocolate kisses came last Friday when I hung out with my cousin Liam and his friend Ariel, who raved about how great the dark chocolate was on the two batches of peanut blossom cookies they’d made last week. Of course, what pairs better with dark chocolate than almond?

So this unconventional Christmas cookie recipe updates the traditional peanut butter-chocolate blossom — a recipe I’ve used for decades — with bittersweet chocolate and almond butter. Give it a try, and let me know what you think!

dark chocolate almond blossom cookie recipe

makes about 4 dozen

1 (11-ounce) package Hershey's Special Dark kisses
1/2 cup vegetable shortening or solid coconut oil
1/2 cup smooth almond butter
1/3 cup (lightly packed) brown sugar
1/3 cup granulated sugar + more for rolling
1 large egg
1/2 teaspoon pure vanilla extract
1/2 teaspoon pure almond extract
1 3/4 cup all-purpose flour
1 teaspoon baking soda
1/2 teaspoon table salt

Preheat oven to 350°. Lay parchment paper on two baking sheets. Unwrap 48 chocolate kisses; pour about 1/2 cup of granulated sugar in a shallow bowl. In the bowl of a stand mixer (or in a large bowl using a hand mixer), cream together the shortening/coconut oil and almond butter until well-combined. Add the sugars and beat until light and fluffy, about 2 minutes. Add the egg, vanilla and almond extract and blend well. Add the flour, baking soda and salt, and stir to combine thoroughly. Scoop teaspoons of dough and use your hands to roll them into balls no more than 1 inch in diameter. Roll the balls in granulated sugar to coat; arrange them on the baking sheets about 2 inches apart. Bake for 12 minutes, rotating the pans halfway through baking time. Remove the baking sheets from the oven and top the cookies with Hershey's kisses, pressing lightly. Bake 5 minutes more. Cool before transferring cookies to a wire rack. Store 3–5 days at room temperature, or up to 3 months in the freezer.

Findlay Market cooking demo

Upcoming book signings and events.

Cincinnati friends: Here’s an open invitation to join me in December for a whole bunch of fun food events featuring yummy recipes and stories from “The Findlay Market Cookbook!” I’ll be sampling recipes at Findlay Market during the festive Holiday Market, signing books in OTR and teaching a class at Midwest Culinary Institute.

Saturday, December 6
11:00–1:00 — cooking demonstration during Christmas @ the Market, south side of Findlay Market

Sunday, December 7
11:00–1:00 — book signing at Park & Vine, Main Street, Over-the-Rhine

Thursday, December 11
6:00–9:00 — Creations cooking class and “girls night out” at Midwest Culinary Institute

Saturday, December 13
11:00–1:00 — cooking demonstration during Christmas @ the Market, south side of Findlay Market

Terrific Thanksgiving starters and desserts.

Rob and I travel for Thanksgiving, and enjoy the feast in two different ways with family in Indiana. So my contribution to the festivities tends toward either a starter or a dessert. Sometimes, I’ll bring a cheese spread for a Thanksgiving appetizer and add homemade crackers. Sometimes, I’ll bring an alternative to the traditional pumpkin pie.

I’m not yet sure what I’ll be making, but I’ve browsed through the writes4food archive to gather some ideas for Thanksgiving appetizers and desserts. Here’s hoping you might find inspiration in these ideas:

In this season of bounty, I wish you and your family a lovely Thanksgiving Day!

Easy Thanksgiving salads and sides.

So, we’re a week away from Thanksgiving … if you’re much of an advance planner, you probably have the table set and the serving dishes labeled with little notes to indicate their contents. Or, perhaps you haven’t given any thought at all to your Turkey Day menu.

I’m in the advance planning camp. So I combed back through the writes4food archives to find a few fresh-tasting salad and side dish recipes to bring a little unconventional home-cooked love to your holiday table. If you’re planning a vegetarian Thanksgiving dinner, then the broccoli-brown rice bake would be fantastic. (It remains one of the most popular vegetarian recipes around here.) The apple-fennel slaw recipe I shared last week would be terrific for Thanksgiving: super seasonal and very bright-tasting, a nice contrast to the heavier holiday foods. I’ve also included a couple of easy homemade bread recipes.

apple fennel slaw

Apple-fennel slaw with pecans.

Recently I met my friend and fellow Edible Ohio Valley collaborator Karen Gibson for lunch at the delightful LaSoupe in Newtown. (You’ll want to bookmark Karen’s amazing recipe blog SoupAddict.com for future and frequent reference.) Karen recently wrote about LaSoupe, its founder Suzy DeYoung and its mission to repurpose discarded produce and feed hungry neighbors. Suzy is not only a generous soul, but she makes damn good soup. A bowl of soup, some salad and conversation with Karen made for a fantastic lunch.

While the soup filled my belly in the most delicious of ways on that crisp fall day, the salad really made me extra happy. It was so simple: thin matchsticks of apple and fennel and a few toasted pecans in a bright vinaigrette. I just loved it.

I had all the ingredients in my refrigerator and pantry — including homemade mayonnaise, which I highly recommend for this recipe — so I got out my handy mandoline and started slicing.

If you don’t have a mandoline, you could cut the fennel and apple into wedges and then into very thin slices. But I’d advocate for acquiring a mandoline — it’s a highly effective, multipurpose kitchen tool that I use for everything from slicing potatoes paper-thin to make oven chips to shredding vegetables into matchsticks. Mine is a Swissmar model that set me back all of 40 bucks, a worthy investment.

This salad is packed with fall flavors — both apple and fennel are in season locally right now. It would make a fantastic addition to your Thanksgiving table, and can be made a day ahead.

Thanks to LaSoupe for the inspiration!

apple-fennel slaw with pecans recipe

makes 4 servings

1 large apple
1 fennel bulb
3 tablespoons mayonnaise (preferably homemade)
3 tablespoons champagne vinegar or rice wine vinegar
1/3 cup finely chopped toasted pecans
1 tablespoon snipped fresh chives
1 tablespoon minced fresh tarragon
1 tablespoon minced fennel fronds
Salt to taste

Quarter the apple and remove the seedy core. Cut the fennel bulb in half and remove the core. Use a mandoline to slice the apple and fennel into matchsticks; transfer to a bowl. In a small bowl, whisk together the homemade mayonnaise and vinegar. Drizzle the dressing over the apple and fennel, tossing to coat well. Add the toasted pecans, herbs and salt to taste. Serve immediately, or let sit for an hour or so.

FindlayMarketCookbook Cover

It’s here: The Findlay Market Cookbook.

Finally, about almost a year, it’s here: The Findlay Market Cookbook. I’m just overwhelmed and proud of the project.

It’s everything I hoped it would be: A celebration of this wonderful place where Rob and I spend practically every Saturday morning. A compelling argument for embracing local food. A love letter to the farmers, vendors and producers who bring us those delicious products. A snapshot of Cincinnati’s current food scene, with recipes from some of our finest chefs and mixologists. You’ll find it exclusively at Findlay Market through early 2015, and then at bookstores in our area. Most important: Proceeds support the nonprofit Corporation for Findlay Market, which manages and sustains this cultural icon. Catch a sneak preview of a few recipes from the cookbook here.

[And yes, it would make a lovely Christmas gift for your family and friends.]

Rather than blather on about it, I thought I’d share a few pages that I love:

Dean's

Gibbs

Market Wines

Pho Lang Thang