What We Talk About When We Talk About Christmas Cookies

Nigel Slater, food writer and fellow atheist, argues beautifully in favor of a shared ownership of Christmas in his (extraordinary) cookbook/holiday diary, The Christmas Chronicles.

“Christmas is a vast steaming pudding of Christianity, folklore, paganism, tradition, and commerce. Those of us who are part of a tolerant, open-minded and intelligent society can make our Christmas whatever we want it to be.”

For this non-Christian who loves Christmas, the modern season is most fully encapsulated in the holiday cookie platter, a generous fantasia where butter cookies decorated like angels mingle with rugelach and rum balls. The cookie platter doesn’t care about your religion, or lack of one. It welcomes everyone and promises that you’ll find something you like. It reflects the kind of inclusive and joyful time that Nigel Slater and I both hope to find during the Christmas season.

A proper cookie platter requires serious labor on the part of the home baker, but the rewards are plentiful. In exchange for a couple of days spent mixing, forming, baking, and decorating cookies, you get miniature sweet buffets that can be the basis for a party (next year!), gifts to share with friends, or a treat for your household.

Growing up, my Aunt Marilyn, the perennial Star Baker of our family, would arrive on Christmas Eve with one of her famous platters of cookies tightly sealed under tin-foil armor. Her cookies were my favorite part of the holiday, which is saying a lot when there are also presents. By the time I’d been born, she’d established a repertoire that worked and we knew what to expect every year. Piles of kolachky filled with fruit and nuts, spritz cookies dipped in chocolate, and pecan shortbread. She always sent my mom and I home with a cardboard shirt box full of cookies that we would continue to feast on for the next week. Those cookies are foundational in my understanding of the potential of holiday cookies.

As an adult, I’ve made cookies my thing in December. I am now the one who arrives with a platter of cookies on Christmas. Earlier in the season we often host a Holiday Cookie Party where friends gather to share cookies and glasses of milk punch. I’ve gained a lot of experience making enormous amounts of cookies in a small kitchen and of course have formed some opinions.

First of all, not every cookie is a Christmas cookie. Christmas cookies are like porn, you know them when you see them. You can’t put a peanut butter cookie into a green tin and think it somehow magically becomes a Christmas cookie. That is bullshit. I know some of you will argue for those peanut butter cookies where you plop a Hershey’s Kiss in the center. Don’t. Same goes for chocolate chip cookies. They are not Christmas Cookies. Oatmeal—not Christmas cookies. Cookies you eat at any other time of year are not Christmas cookies. For me, Christmas cookies are heavy on butter, spices, nuts, sprinklings of sugar, and glazes. They often are a bit fussy, which is why drop cookies don’t cut it for me. Chocolate can play a role, but not a big one. Above all, they are beautiful and enticing.

Ideally, the flavors you choose will all play nicely together. People will likely be eating the cookies at the same time so it is important they pair well. Calls for “variety” are a little off the mark and can lead to culinary whiplash (Mint! Peanut! Lavender!). The variety I am looking for tend to be more textural and aesthetic rather than strong opposing flavors. I think between four to six cookie types is ideal, though I have seen as few as three done beautifully. More than seven and it is unlikely they are all exceptional and why go through the trouble if every cookie is not exceptional? Which I guess is at the core of my philosophy: however many cookies you have, they should all be exceptionally good. It should be a difficult decision for people to choose which cookie they want on a return trip. If one type of cookie languishes uneaten at the end of the season, an obviously less popular cookie, it should not be included again. That cookie did not pull its weight. This is survival of the fittest—cookie-style.

There are two ends of the spectrum when it comes to cookie platter makers. One one end is my Aunt Marilyn and her iconic cookies. She made the same cookies year after year. We knew what to expect and look forward to. One the other end is, I guess, every food magazine that tries to reinvent the wheel each holiday season with a dizzying onslaught of trending flavors. I fall someplace in the middle. I’ve settled on two or three recipes that are repeated every year and try a couple of new ones that fall within the already established general idea. It offers me new challenges and offers the people I love a return to their favorites each year. If I want to include a new recipe, I always test it first.

You need to be strategic when picking recipes for practical reasons too. In addition to a variety of flavors, textures, and designs, there should be both simple and challenging recipes. Ideally you will have a combination of three kinds of cookies, to make things easier on yourself. Some cookies that can be formed in advance and frozen, allowing you to bake them off at the last minute so you have fresh cookies with minimal fuss—think: rugelach or sables. Another valuable cookie are ones with a long shelf life, like shortbread and biscotti. Finally there are cookies that need to be made just prior to sharing. These are often the intricately decorated showstoppers, requiring extra work or skill. I find that a mix of these three types allows for a great platter, and a satisfied baker. You want to impress, but you don’t want to be miserable and spend too much time in the kitchen.

Once your cookies are baked and decorated, you need to store them. And this, sadly, is where too many good people fuck it all up. Cookies cannot be stored together without flavor and moisture transferring between them, often leading to a muddled mess. If you put a crisp shortbread and a soft gingerbread cookie into the same container, not only will the shortbread end up tasting like spice, it will also become soft. If you put a peanut butter cookie in a tin of Christmas cookies, you have bigger problems (see above), but everything will taste of peanut butter. Who wants that? Don’t even get me started on mint-flavored things.

How to deal with this? First of all, store the cookies you are making in separate airtight containers until you are ready to share them with someone. Ideally they are stored someplace cool, but not in the refrigerator. A room with poor heating (hello, Chicago apartments!) or a cold window ledge is great. If you are bringing a platter to an event, you can arrange them on the platter before you leave and cover it with foil or plastic wrap. They will be fine if they will only be together for a few hours. If you are putting together a box or a platter for someone that needs to last for a few days, you have some options. You can simply choose cookie recipes that go well together and won’t adversely affect each other. But many of us might want to include a spice or chocolate cookie on our platter. In that case, you should put groups of cookies into little cellophane bags to keep them fresh and their flavors contained. If all of your flavors jive (imagine an iced butter cookie, a shortbread, and a snowball) but you want to include one mint flavored cookie, you can simply put the mint cookie in its own bag. If you do not, your cookies will be all muddled and weird within a day or two. Do not let this happen!

The final consideration is how your cookies are presented. I am fond of my white rectangular platter which allows the cookies to be neatly arranged in rows. If I am giving them as gifts I usually use a brown bakery box of some kind and clear cellophane bags. I’ll maybe tie a ribbon around it at the end. I’ve seen people line their tins with colored tissue paper, which makes me very anxious. Please don’t put glitter anywhere near your cookies.

If I sound dogmatic, especially for someone who opened with a quote about tolerance and open-mindedness, it is simply because I want the best for you. None of this really matters—so little does. Christmas, like this entire year, will be a challenge, and who am I to get in the way of any potential pleasure. Small things, like tins of cookies delivered to friends and families we can’t spend time with, will make a difference. Even if you do it all wrong.

Here are some ideas for ideas for your cookie platter:

Soft Gingerbread Tiles

This recipe (pictured above) from Yotam Ottolenghi and Helen Goh is a real showstopper. It requires some fancy cookie stamps but the investment really pays off with the praise you will get for your these beauties. They keep really well (at least 5 days with no noticeable change in quality), and you definitely could form the cookies and freeze them and bake from frozen if that helps.

Honey Walnut Bars

This is one of my all-time favorite recipes. They are bonkers. Make them.


Found this random biscotti recipe from someone I follow for unknown reasons (he’s cute) on Instagram. They are really, really good. My favorite (so far!) of this type. Lasts for weeks and could definitely be shipped.

Glazed Butter Cookies

A perennial favorite in our house. I usually keep the decorating simple, but these taste like proper holiday cookies to me and have lots of decorating potential.

Italian Jam Tart

I have long loved this recipe and they look nice on a cookie tray. While you technically can use any jam, I really believe apricot is the best and do not endorse any others. When using any store bought jam, consider adding a squeeze of lemon juice and a pinch of salt to liven them up. Some of them can be a little flat and sweet.


29 comments to “What We Talk About When We Talk About Christmas Cookies”

  1. Ava George Stewart says:

    December 14th, 2020 at 1:57 pm

    What are the cookies on your trays?

    You actually made me contemplate doing it this year again. #Somuchwork

  2. I love this. You are a visionary and doing an important public service with this work. I’m definitely going to make the jam tart this weekend; it looks delicious. My dad is a pastor so we received a lot of holiday baked goods when I was growing up. As you can imagine, there is a broad spectrum between cookie trays I anticipated with glee and those that received none of my attention, leaving me wondering what even was the point… I never understood why people liked fudge and “divinity,” which I found to be abominations. But the snowballs, spiral candy cane cookies made with two doughs, and so many other complex cookies were just amazing. Anyway, this post brings lots of memories. I love it.

  3. I had to pause after reading your opinion on peanut butter cookies, chocolate chip cookies, and oatmeal cookies not being holiday cookies. Hallelujah! You said it. Regular cookies have no business on holiday platters. Imposters.
    P.S: Welcome back.

  4. I think I waited all year to read this post. It made me smile. You are correct about all of it — some cookies aren’t for Christmas, separate containers are a must, no glitter near the food, and ultimately a tin of cookies to friends and family (especially in 2020) will make all the difference (even if you do it wrong)!

  5. Thank you for the list of cookie platter cookies. I’ve printed them but could not get to the Cantucci recipe because I’m not on Instagram yet. It doesn’t seem easy to get on. I’m not sure I want to give them my Facebook password. If you have the recipe could you print it or does telltalefood have a blog?

  6. Hi Joan: Unfortunately it only exists on Instagram and half of the recipe is in video format. But totally respect you not wanting to join! Happy baking.

  7. Great post! I feel the same in regards to holiday cookies. Thank you for writing it.

  8. So good to see a post from you Tim!! Making cantucci (quaresimale) now!

  9. Love this. COMPLETELY agree with you on non-xmas cookies being exiled. Yes! to the fussy, extra-delicious, special cookies that you only eat for a couple weeks once a year. Going to try a couple new ones (to me, at least) from Luisa Weiss’s book this year. Biberle, anyone? And that Italian jam tart looks amazing.

  10. As someone who fondly remembers Christmas cookies made by my Grandma (who I sorely miss!) that were also kept in cardboard shirt boxes (just inside the backdoor, for freshness!) – thank you for this post, it touched my heart…

  11. I completely agree, cookies this time of year need to be special. I make shortbreads which always disappear, gingerbread, pecan crescents dusted with sugar, jam thumbprint cookies rolled in walnut crumbs and cranberry biscotti. I would rather not eat a cookie than eat one that wasn’t made with great ingredients and was appropriate for the season. I also know who among my friends is a good baker and those are the cookies I choose. FYI when using nuts for rolling cookies chop walnut halves or pecans, pre-chopped could have bits of shell and no one wants to chip a tooth his time of year. Happy Baking!! And happy baking!

  12. Sorry, meant to say Happy Holidays and happy baking! 😊

  13. Yeeeesssssss! I agree with all of this,including that Julius is cute. My only complaint is that we already have our holiday cookie repertoire, and I want to try several of the ones you’ve shared! Thank you for this perfect post. If only everyone who needed to see it would!

  14. Oh my god this post was absolutely perfect. Thank you.

  15. The fig and date swirls you posted ages (!?) ago are on my cookie platter every Christmas. This year they’ll be wrapped in cellophane for my buds along with those honey walnut bars. Thanks, as always!

  16. Such a brilliant post. Looking at the top photo I can make out Dorie’s Jammers but am failing to identify the other three? They ALL look divine and being the greedy monster I am I now want all of them…

  17. I can’t describe my joy at seeing a post from you. I love your writing so much. Also very excited about the cookie recipes.

  18. I needed this post – straight talk and cookies – thank you.

  19. what a solid post. I am so curious (greedy) – what are the cookies in your pictures? I was thinking of making marlow & sons brown sugar walnut shortbread (major thanks for sharing the recipe – so delicious), but would happily consider detouring for some of these.

  20. Hi all! Good to hear from you. The cookies that aren’t linked above: First photo: Lebkuchen from The Joy of Cooking (the book) and the almond tart from Chez Panisse. Bottom photo only cookie not linked is (I think) whatever that Allison Roman recipe was that made the rounds a couple of years ago. Happy baking!

  21. Thank you for so eloquently speaking out about the atrocities of a chocolate chip,and/or a peanut butter kiss cookie appearing on a holiday cookie plate! I share your strong feelings about this and lemon zest. If you have never tried an Ice Cream Kolacky- I highly recommend. If you need a recipe for them I will be happy to share. Peace and health to you and Brian.

  22. I’ve been following your blog forever now and have never left a comment but I LOVE this post so much!! I recently made a few batches of cookies after a bit of a baking hiatus and it ended up being a great boost to my spirits. Thanks for the great advice and recipes!

  23. I transcribed the Cantucci recipe from Instagram. Looks like classic biscotti preparation.

    Today a recipe for cantucci. My favourite of the Italian biscuits, great with a coffee in the morning or dunked in Vin Santo in the evening. Studded with almonds, pistachios, orange zest and fennel seeds they are just divine and last forever sealed in a jar.

    I’ll post a walk through of the method on my stories but here are the ingredients for you below. Anyone dairy free, they work just as well without the butter. 

    160g of almonds, pistachio and hazelnuts
    250g flour
    230g golden caster sugar 
    2 eggs
    30g melted butter
    1 teaspoon of baking powder
    2 teaspoons of toasted fennel seeds
    2 lemons zested
    1 orange zested

    Smash nuts into small chunks with pestle inside large bowl of stand mixer.Add flour, sugar, baking powder, eggs, zest of 2 lemons, zest of 1 orange, fennel seeds, and melted butter.Mix in stand mixer with paddle.Divide dough in half. Roll out each half into a log, using powdered sugar to prevent dough from sticking.Transfer to baking sheet lined with parchment.Bake 20-25 minutes at 180 degrees C until spread out and golden brown.Let rest 10 minutes to cool enough to slice, but still warm.Slice into biscotti about 3/4 inch wide. Place back on baking sheet.  Bake at 160 degrees C for about 20 minutes. Don’t let them get too dark. Flip each cookie during the baking. Biscottis should completely dry out. Serve with coffee or sweet wine.

  24. Jessie! We don’t deserve you! Thank you so much.

  25. Okay I made these chocolate chunk peppermint cookies the other day as pre-christmas cookies. This post has really made me consider my association of this cookie with christmas. I have thought about this about daily since Monday.

  26. Thank you for this glorious post! So nice to read you again.

  27. Thank you Tim. Christmas has been cancelled in the UK with no travel between England where my parents live, and the Scottish Highlands, where I live. I wallowed for about 45 minutes last night when I found out, but have decided to sublimate any unhelpful emotions by baking for my friends, neighbours and colleagues and trying to spread a little cheer. Cookie tins are not a big thing here, and I came to your site to get the whole wheat shortbread recipe (my most favourite ever) and found this hugely helpful guide.I shall think of you this week as I bake, compose and distribute. Merry, Merry Christmas. Jessica

  28. Glad to see your cookie post and agree with you 100%. I make an exception for Carole Walter’s “Spanish Peanut Saucers”. And I’m glad that there’s now an extra 2 T butter in the Sweet “Soft Gingerbread Tiles” as the original recipe was too short. I’ll have to bake the almond tart from Chez Panisse soon as it looks delicious. Happy New Year.

  29. Preach! Lol funny and on point. Nice to read you again!

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