buttery vanilla bean cookies

Christmas Cookie-palooza: Hazel’s vanilla bean cookies.

This Christmas cookie comes from my great-grandmother’s recipe box, and it’s marked with the name ‘Hazel’ in the upper corner. It’s no doubt one that my great-aunt Hazel (my grandmother Dorothy’s sister) made. I love that it’s handwritten in ink on a simple lined index card. And there are helpful notes, like this: “You really need butter to make them good.” And “Half this recipes makes a lot of cookies.”

Indeed: Half the recipe made A LOT of cookies, nearly 90 of them. And yes, you really do need all that butter (Hazel’s original recipe calls for a full pound).

I just love these simple Christmas cookies — they’re small and pretty enough to feel really special, but not at all fussy and decorative. The butter and almonds make for a tender cookie that’s more flavorful than shortbread. And they’re easy to make ahead and store; like most all-butter cookies, they get better after a day or two.

Add these to your lineup of Christmas cookies this year!

Great Aunt Hazel's vanilla bean cookies

makes about 7 dozen

1 whole vanilla bean (see Note)
2 cups powdered sugar
1 cup raw slivered blanched almonds, ground fine
2 sticks unsalted butter, softened at room temp
1/2 cup granulated sugar
2 cups all-purpose flour
1/4 teaspoon salt

Place powdered sugar in a medium bowl and grate the vanilla bean over the sugar using a fine microplane grater. (See Note.) Whisk to combine Set aside.

In the bowl of a stand mixer (or in a large bowl using a hand mixer) cream the butter and granulated sugar together until light and fluffy, about 3 minutes. Add flour, ground almonds and salt and stir to combine. Divide the dough into thirds and roll each piece into a log about 1 1/4 inch in diameter; use your hands to firmly press the dough together as you roll to prevent holes in the middle. Wrap each roll in waxed paper and chill at least 2 hours, up to 1 day.

Preheat oven to 350°; line two baking sheets with parchment paper. Slice the dough with a sharp knife into slices no thicker than 1/4 inch. Place the slices on the prepared baking sheets about 1 inch apart. Bake for 10–12 minutes or until the cookies are just barely beginning to show a bit of golden brown around the edges, rotating the pans halfway through baking. Let the cookies cool just slightly, then gently coat them in the vanilla powdered sugar. Let them cool completely on a wire rack, then again coat them in powdered sugar. Store in an airtight container at room temperature, up to 1 week, or freeze up to 3 months.

Note: Grating a vanilla bean is kind of tedious. I found it much easier to grate an older vanilla bean that I'd had for a while than the fresh one I bought; it was easier to grate the bean that was somewhat dried out. If you have vanilla beans that are soft, or get frustrated by the process, then simply scrape the seeds from 1 1/2 whole beans over the powdered sugar and whisk to combine.

Got leftover vanilla sugar? Use a medium mesh strainer to sift out any cookie crumbs; store the sugar and use it to flavor whipped cream, dust over pancakes or make glaze or icing for your holiday baking.

Christmas cookie inspiration.

So you’ve loaded up on butter, flour and sugar, and you’re ready to start baking batches of Christmas cookies to share with friends, family and cookie exchange parties. I’m working on a really great variety of Christmas cookie recipes to share with you in the next couple of weeks. In the meantime, here’s a selection of my best cookie recipes from Christmases past. Even though it’s not on my to-do list, I may have to bake up a batch of Salty Pretzel Seven Layer Bars — just because!

old-fashioned Spritz butter cookie recipe | writes4food.com

Getting ready for Christmas baking.

OK, whew! Thanksgiving is behind us, so we can get down to serious business: Baking Christmas cookies. I’m already working on four fantastic Christmas cookie recipes to share with you. As you’re gathering your Christmas cookie recipe inspiration, here are a few tips to help you prepare for your holiday baking:

Freshen up your ingredients. That half-empty bottle of vanilla extract in the pantry? Sure, it’ll make decent cookies. But for real, intense flavor, you’ll want to purchase fresh vanilla (and also peppermint, almond or other extracts you may need for holiday baking). I recently opened a fresh bottle of almond extract and was surprised by the depth of its flavor compared to the old bottle it replaced. I like Penzey’s extracts for quality and taste.

While you’re at it, pick up fresh canisters of baking powder and baking soda; when you get home, use a Sharpie to write the month and year on the lids. These baking essentials lose their leavening power quickly, and it’s recommended that you replace them every six months.

Ditto flour. If you don’t go through it quickly, replace that old bag of all-purpose. Whole-wheat flours especially tend to go “off” with storage of more than 10–12 months, as their oils can get rancid (you can keep whole-grain flours in the freezer to extend their life).

Ditto baking spices. Most spices have a shelf life of 2 years, max. If you’re not sure how long that tin of ground ginger has been lurking in the spice rack, might as well buy fresh. Some groceries and independent spice shops  sell small quantities, so you don’t wind up with more ground cloves than you need. Fresh spices make a huge difference in flavor, and this is the season when you especially don’t want to skimp.

Plan and shop ahead. Bookmark (online and off-) the recipes you want to make, and create a shopping list that aggregates all the ingredients you’ll need. There’s nothing worse than being an egg short when you’re in the middle of a baking project. Too, consider which of your Christmas cookie recipes can be made ahead and frozen.

On Monday, I’ll post a gallery of my past Christmas cookie recipes. And starting next week, I’ll begin sharing this year’s Christmas Cookie-palooza recipes, so stay tuned — and happy baking!

Easy nibbles for pre-Thanksgiving dinner.

Putting the finishing touches on your Thanksgiving menu? Here are my best Thanksgiving appetizer recipes to keep folks happy before you all sit down to the big feast. Just don’t overdo it on these great holiday nibbles — you’ll spoil your appetite!

Best Thanksgiving side dishes.

Wondering what kind of side dishes to make alongside your Thanksgiving turkey (or ham, if that’s how you roll)? It’s kind of overwhelming, right? All the recipes out there, the cooking magazines, the newsletters and blog posts … there’s too much to choose from.

We travel for Thanksgiving, so I’m not in charge of planning the menu. But if I were hosting, here’s my selection of great Thanksgiving side dishes that would put a refreshing spin on this most traditional of meals. These side dish recipes feature seasonal vegetables, hearty grains and fresh flavors. I especially love the fennel-apple slaw recipe and the charred carrot salad recipe. Try the broccoli brown rice bake for vegetarians at your Thanksgiving table. The Lyonnaise salad would make a lovely first course. And there’s really nothing better than homemade biscuits on the Thanksgiving table!

Happy cooking, dear readers!

best chocolate chip bar cookies EVER | writes4food.com

Sea salt chocolate chunk bar cookies.

OK, it’s happened. Fall has officially landed. After stretches of sunny, warm weather through October and into early November, it’s now mid-50s, gray, blustery. Leaves have dropped. I’m wearing a coat. Inside.

So it’s officially time for these amazing chocolate chunk sea salt bar cookies. (Did I mention amazing?) Crisper and lighter-textured than your average chocolate chip pan cookies, more like a shortbread studded with chocolate and kissed with sea salt, these are, in fact, yet another chocolate chip cookie recipe that you need.

Time to whip up a batch of these this weekend, no?

salty chocolate chunk bar cookies

(makes about 30, if you're stingy)

1 cup (2 sticks) unsalted butter, softened at room temperature
3/4 cup sugar
1 1/2 teaspoons pure vanilla extract
2 cups all-purpose flour
1 teaspoon table salt
1/2 cup chocolate chips (see Note)
1/2 cup chocolate chunks, divided
1/2 cup good quality toasted unsalted pecans, coarsely chopped
1/4 teaspoon good-quality flaky sea salt

Note: Use a combination of dark, milk or semi-sweet chocolate in this recipe. I like Barry Callebaut chocolate chunks from King Arthur Flour; if you don't have chocolate chunks on hand, just use 1 cup of chocolate chips, reserving 1/4 cup for topping as directed below.

Preheat oven to 375°. In the bowl of a stand mixer (or using a bowl and hand-held mixer), cream the butter until it's smooth; add the sugar and cream together until fluffy, about 2 minutes. Mix in vanilla extract. Add flour and table salt, mix gently to combine thoroughly. Add chocolate chips, 1/4 cup chocolate chunks and chopped pecans; mix to combine—the dough will be more crumbly than your typical cookie dough.

Line a rimmed 12-by-9-inch baking pan with parchment paper (alternately, use a 13-by-9-inch glass baking dish, though I'm not sure if that will alter the texture of the finished cookie). Place a plastic baggie over your hand (to prevent sticking) and use that to press the crumbly dough evenly into the paper-lined pan. Scatter the remaining 1/4 cup of chocolate chunks over the dough and sprinkle with 1/4 tsp. of flaky sea salt. Bake for 25 to 28 minutes, or until cookies are nicely browned and pulling away from the pan slightly. Cool for about 30 minutes, then use the parchment paper to carefully lift the cookie out of the pan and cut into squares. (These cookies get crispy, and cutting them after they're fully at room temperature is messy; better to cut them when they're just slightly warm.)

easy vegetable minestrone soup recipe

Clean-out-the-larder minestrone.

Over the summer, I accumulated a random assortment of vegetables in the larder: a handful of green beans that weren’t enough to make a meal, leftover frozen broccoli from a client recipe project, some sweet corn that I froze LAST summer, a couple of almost-soft new potatoes. What to do? Make clean-out-the-larder minestrone. This super-easy vegetable soup recipe is more a suggestion than a directive. Simply scope out what you have on hand, toss it in a stockpot, simmer for 30 minutes or so, and BAM! Soup.

Really, it’s the perfect fall soup recipe: lighter and fresher-tasting than pureed butternut squash soup (which, don’t get me wrong, I will be making once the weather turns truly frosty). You can add any fresh or frozen vegetable you have on hand or you find at the farmers’ market. Zucchini or yellow squash, butternut squash, any kind of canned bean, okra, snap or shelling beans or limas. Fresh or canned tomatoes. Any kind of pasta; this soup recipe is a great way to use up random half-portion remnants of dried pasta.

Two secrets to making great homemade soup:

1) add a square of Parmesan rind … WHAT? You don’t save those hard rinds from Parmesan cheese? Start doing this, immediately. Cut the rinds into 1-inch-ish pieces stash them in a zip-top freezer bag. Add a piece of Parmesan rind to any soup, sauce or stock, and you’ll add flavor, umami and richness.

And 2) make the soup a day before you plan to serve it. There’s no soup known to mankind that doesn’t improve over time. I made a batch of this easy minestrone on Sunday and plan to have it for lunch all week.

clean-out-the-larder minestrone recipe

serves 6

1 tablespoon olive oil
1/2 onion, thinly sliced into slivers
1 red bell pepper, roughly chopped
4 cups vegetable broth (preferably homemade) or tomato broth
1 can (drained) chickpeas or white beans
2 ripe tomatoes, peeled, seeded and roughly chopped (or a 14-ounce can of diced tomatoes with juice)
1 generous cup broccoli florets (fresh or frozen), roughly chopped
1 cup green beans (fresh or frozen), cut into 1-inch pieces
1 cup corn (fresh or frozen)
4 small new potatoes, cut into 1/2-inch dice
1 Parmesan rind
1 bay leaf
2 generous handsful chopped greens (spinach, kale, Swiss chard)
1/2 cup (ish) uncooked pasta (smashed into pieces if large)
1/2 cup fresh parsley
Salt and freshly ground pepper

In a big soup pot, warm the olive oil over medium heat until it shimmers; reduce heat to medium-low and add onion, bell pepper and a pinch of salt. Cook, stirring occasionally, until the vegetables start to soften, about 5 minutes. Add broth, beans, vegetables, Parmesan rind and bay leaf. Bring mixture to a boil, then reduce heat to a slow simmer and cook, partially covered, until the vegetables start to become tender, about 20 minutes. Add greens and pasta; simmer for 15 minutes more, until pasta is tender. Add parsley. Season well to taste with salt and pepper. Soup improves over a couple of days and freezes well.

chai spiced biscotti

Chai spiced biscotti.

Honestly, I don’t know where the jones to make biscotti came from, nor am I certain what got me thinking of chai spices. But I just really had a taste for biscotti to go with my morning coffee, a tender cookie with warm, seasonal spices. So I came up with this easy recipe for chai spiced biscotti.

I’ve tried baking biscotti before, with limited success. Mostly, I got hung up on the step of cutting the par-baked dough into individual biscotti; they’d crumble and break or smoosh and flatten.

Leave it to the folks at King Arthur Flour to figure this out. The base recipe here stems from “The King Arthur Flour Cookie Companion” (it’s an “American” style of biscotti that’s less tooth-shattering than the harder Italian style). The key technique is to spritz the baked log of dough with water and let it sit for a few minutes before slicing it into biscotti. Use a serrated knife to gently and easily slice the individual cookies on the diagonal.

The chai spices here are lovely; you could add a pinch more black pepper if you want more of a kick. They keep well at room temperature for up to 2 weeks.

chai spiced biscotti Recipe

makes 14

6 tablespoons unsalted butter, softened
2/3 cup (packed) light brown sugar
1/4 teaspoon salt
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
1 1/2 teaspoons baking powder
2 large eggs
2 cups all-purpose flour
1 3/4 teaspoons ground cardamom
3/4 teaspoon ground cinnamon
1/2 teaspoon ground ginger
1/8 teaspoon ground nutmeg
1/8 teaspoon ground black pepper

Preheat oven to 350°; line a baking sheet with parchment paper. In a bowl, whisk together the flour and spices. In the bowl of a stand mixer (or in a bowl using a hand mixer), combine the butter, brown sugar, salt, vanilla extract and baking powder until smooth. Add the eggs and mix to combine (the mixture may look clumpy). Add the flour and spices and stir to combine thoroughly. Use a scraper to transfer the dough to the baking sheet and roll/stretch/press the dough into a log 14 inches long by 2 1/2 inches wide by 3/4 inch high. Bake 25 minutes. Remove from oven; lower temperature to 325°. Let the dough rest for 20 minutes. Spray the top and sides of dough with water; let sit 5 minutes. Use a serrated knife to cut the log, on the diagonal, into 1/2-inch slices. Separate the slices, still standing up, about 1 inch apart. Bake 25 minutes. Transfer to a wire rack to cool. Store tightly covered.

late summer cheddar and tomato gratin | writes4food.com

Tomato-cheddar gratin.

Around here, ripe tomatoes are still abundant at the farmers’ markets. For a few weeks more, I’m thinking, given our current stretch of warm, sunny days. And while late-season tomatoes are still around, do yourself a favor: Make this cheddary tomato gratin recipe. At least once.

Hell, let’s call it what it is: A super cheesy tomato casserole. There’s nothing fancy about it. This recipe hails from my battered old copy of the “Colorado Cache Cookbook,” one of those Junior League cookbooks you’ll find in practically every midsized city in the country. This cookbook was a bridal shower gift from a long-ago colleague who hailed from Denver. It’s a whopper: More than 400 pages of recipes of various types and qualities.

This tomato cheddar gratin is a favorite recipe around here (it was dubbed Tomatoes Somerset in the book). I can’t believe I haven’t shared it here before. It’s the perfect summer-to-fall transitional recipe, when you’re not ready to say goodbye to tomatoes but you’re needing something heartier to do with them as the weather chills.

Those tomatoes sitting on your windowsill? Yep, this is what you’re gonna do with them.

tomato cheddar gratin

serves 4

3 medium ripe red tomatoes, peeled and thickly sliced
1 cup shredded sharp cheddar (see Note)
2 tablespoons chopped red pepper
3 tablespoons chopped onion
1/4 cup butter, melted
1 cup saltine or Ritz cracker crumbs
1 teaspoon salt
Dash of paprika
3–4 red pepper rings

Preheat oven to 350°; butter a baking dish. Toss all the ingredients except the paprika and red pepper rings in a bowl to combine. Transfer to the baking dish and top with a sprinkle of paprika and the pepper rings. Bake until the cheese is bubbly and the top is browned, about 40–45 minutes. Let cool slightly before serving.

This dish is even better reheated the next day.

Note: For my money, the best cheese for this kind of dish — where you want it to melt creamy and smooth — is Hoffman's super sharp cheddar. You'll find it in the grocery deli section or at J.E. Gibbs or Silverglade's at Findlay Market. It's also our go-to burger and grilled cheese sandwich cheese.

chocolate pecan cookie granola recipe | writes4food.com

Chocolate cranberry pecan cookie granola.

The thing about blogs is that once a post moves off the homepage, you’re not so likely to find it again. Sure, blogs are searchable. But there’s that old adage: Out of sight, out of mind. Heck, even I have trouble keeping track of the recipes I’ve posted here.

So when I was browsing through some very long-ago posts and found this amazing recipe for cookie granola, I had to re-post it so you’ll see it again. It’s THAT good.

My friend and fellow food blogger Alison of Two of a Kind Cooks sort of invented this granola-cookie mashup (she calls it cranola), and was on a kick making different variations. If you’ve spent any time around here, you know that I’m a bit obsessed with granola (see my various granola recipes here, here and here). So Alison and I tossed this recipe back and forth in a kind of recipe tennis.

Seriously, you really have to make a batch … soon!

pecan cranberry chocolate cookie granola recipe

makes about 4 cups

½ cup chopped pecans, divided
½ cup granulated sugar
¼ cup coconut oil, room temperature
1 large egg
½ teaspoon vanilla extract
1 cup all-purpose (or white whole-wheat) flour
½ teaspoon cinnamon
½ teaspoon baking soda
¼ teaspoon salt
2½ cups old-fashioned oats
¼ cup dried cranberries
¼ cup milk or semi-sweet chocolate chips

Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Line a baking sheet with parchment paper or a silicone baking mat. In a food processor, pulse ¼ cup pecans and the sugar until coarsely ground. In the bowl of a stand mixer (or in a large bowl using a hand mixer), beat the coconut oil and pecan/sugar mixture on high speed until creamy, about 3 minutes. Add the egg and vanilla extract and beat until well combined. Add the flour, cinnamon, baking soda and salt and mix until just combined. Add the oats and remaining pecans and stir; when the mixture gets stiff, use your hands to continue mixing until the oats and pecans are evenly incorporated into the dough. Use your hands to squish irregular chunks of dough onto the baking sheet; if you have any mixture that doesn't want to clump together, just add that to the baking sheet (it'll be delicious on yogurt). Bake the cranola for 15 minutes, remove from the oven and stir gently. Bake for another 10 minutes, remove from the oven and stir gently. Bake for an additional 5–10 minutes until the clumps are dry. Remove the baking sheet from the oven and scatter the cranberries over the hot cranola. Let cool for 15 minutes and then scatter the chocolate chips over the cranola. Let cool completely before stirring (or the chocolate chips will melt).
Store the cranola in an airtight container at room temperature for up to a week, if it lasts that long.