It’s holiday cookie time

Daniel Neman
St. Louis Post-Dispatch

The merriment of the holidays is built on many things: Cheerful wishes of happiness and goodwill from strangers. Cultural memories of sleigh rides across fields of sparkling snow. Even the joy to be found in giving gifts to friends and loved ones.

But really, what makes the holidays merry and bright are all the cookies. How could they not? Cookies are the ornaments that we hang on the Christmas tree of life.

I started, ominously, with a mistake. I was paging through a French cookbook, saw a recipe for croquets and thought, in my inattentiveness, that it was a recipe for croquantes. In my defense, it was right above a recipe for cream-filled croquantes, so you can understand the confusion.

Croquantes are thin, rolled, buttery cookies, which is why you can fill them with cream. Croquets are thick, hard, crispy cookies that are France’s version of biscotti and cannot be filled with cream or anything else.

So I made the croquets, which have a lovely almond flavor kissed with a hint of lemon. They were light enough that they were easy to eat, which was fortunate because they tasted so good I couldn’t stop at just one. Or two. Or three.

Next, I went ahead and made the cream-filled croquantes, which were more of a treat than I had even hoped.

I began with my favorite recipe for a simple tuile (croquantes are somewhat thicker than tuiles, and therefore crunchier). The trick to rolling tuiles, and also croquantes, is knowing when to begin.

If you start to roll them as soon as they come out of the oven, they will tear. If you wait too long, they will cool down and become too stiff to wrap around a pencil or the handle of a wooden spoon, which is what I used. You will find success if you place them on the parchment paper onto a wire rack immediately after taking them from the oven, and waiting one minute before starting to roll them.

You have to act quickly, though, because they will soon start to harden. That is why I never cook more than four at a time.

Filling them was easy. I made a ganache with creme fraîche instead of cream, and it was a simple matter to pipe it into the rolled cookies. Then I dipped each end into a bowl of chocolate sprinkles to make them more festive.

It wouldn’t be the holidays without chocolate chip cookies, and I simply had to make a batch when I found a recipe with this name: Salted Butter and Chocolate Chunk Shortbread, or Why Would I Make Another Chocolate Chip Cookie Ever Again?

Astonishingly, the cookies actually lived up to their name. I think the secret is that they are made with shortbread _ crisp, buttery shortbread that is somehow just sweet enough. The fact that it is loaded with chocolate certainly helps. And don’t forget the salt on top; it helps to make the flavor explode.

Will I ever make another chocolate chip cookie ever again? Probably. But right now I see no particular reason to.

The most sophisticated cookies I made are so elegant that they were originally called “biscuits.”

Chocolate Sandwich Cookies (I changed the name from the British term) come to us from Claridge’s, England’s toniest hotel. Fancy hotels have fancy restaurants, and fancy restaurants make very fancy cookies.

This particular variety takes two light and moderately chewy chocolate cookies, not unlike a chewy meringue, and puts them around a rich layer of silken ganache. They are simply exquisite and, of course, in impeccable taste.

The next cookie I made was more of a crowd-pleaser, more democratic and every bit as desirable. They are called Sweet Slices, and they are a remarkable demonstration of what can be done with just a few simple, basic ingredients.

All you need are butter, flour, sugar, eggs and a touch of baking soda, plus sanding sugar for decoration (sanding sugar is just sugar in large, pretty crystals and can be found in the baking aisle of grocery stores).

When combined in the proper proportion (i.e., lots and lots of butter), these make surprisingly light, surprisingly crisp cookies with a subtly wholesome flavor and the perfect amount of sweetness.

Those same ingredients, minus the baking soda, are all that are used in the very different Berlin Rings that I made next. These have a European sensibility to them, with a highly refined flavor born from hundreds of years of cookie evolution.

By themselves, they are a little dry. But serve them with ice cream or tea or coffee, and watch how great they can be as an enhancer rather than a solo dessert.

For my final batch, I turned to Thomas Keller, who is considered by many to be the finest chef in America. His recipe for Oatmeal Raisin Cookies won’t make anyone think less of him.

Yes, they are only oatmeal raisin cookies. But then again, they are oatmeal raisin cookies as perfected by perhaps the finest chef in America. And they are utterly spectacular.

They are also huge. I’m not going to lie. They are the size of a small Frisbee. You could make them smaller if you want to, but why would you want to?

Baking, like much alchemy, is a matter of precision. Keller and his staff have devised the precise formula for the most satisfying oatmeal raisin cookie, ever. The cinnamon, sugar and butter are balanced in perfect harmony with the oats, flour and eggs. Vanilla brings the flavors together, while the raisins serve as sweet, delightful jewels to treasure throughout the cookie.

Just a bite or two, and you will be looking forward to the holidays as that time of year when you make oatmeal raisin cookies.

French Biscotti (Croquets De Carcassonne)

Note: To make superfine sugar, place granulated sugar in a blender and process on high for about 15 seconds, until almost powdery. Recipe from “The Art of French Baking,” by Ginette Mathiot.

2 cups all-purpose flour, sifted, plus extra for dusting

4 medium eggs, divided

1/2 cup superfine sugar, see note

Grated zest of 1 unwaxed lemon

5 tablespoons unsalted butter, softened

Generous 1 cup whole almonds, roughly chopped

Preheat oven to 325 degrees. Line a baking sheet with parchment paper or grease with additional butter. Pile the flour in a mound on the counter and make a well in the center. Beat 3 of the eggs in a small bowl. Place the sugar, beaten eggs and lemon zest in the flour well and stir with your hand-held like a paddle, gradually incorporating a little of the flour. Stir in the softened butter and almonds and, finally, incorporate the rest of the flour. Work the dough briefly. You can also accomplish this process with an electric mixer on its lowest speed.

Turn the dough onto a floured counter and use a large, heavy kitchen knife to roughly “chop” it until you have broken up the almonds. Knead the dough until it is thoroughly combined; divide in half, and shape it into two thick cylinders. Place these on the prepared sheet and flatten slightly. Beat the remaining egg and use to glaze the dough.

Bake 15 minutes, then raise the oven temperature to 400 degrees. Bake for an additional 10 minutes, or until lightly browned. Using a sharp, serrated knife, immediately cut both “loaves” into 1/2-inch-thick slices. Carefully lay the slices flat on the baking sheet and return to the oven for a few more minutes, turning them once so that they brown lightly on both sides. Makes about 36.

Per piece: 76 calories; 4 g fat; 1 g saturated fat; 22 mg cholesterol; 2 g protein; 8 g carbohydrate; 2 g sugar; 1 g fiber; 7 mg sodium; 15 mg calcium

Chocolate Cream-filled Croquantes

Cookie recipe from “The Art and Soul of Baking,” by Cindy Mushet. Filling recipe from “The Art of French Baking,” by Ginette Mathiot.

1/2cup plus 2 tablespoons (4 1/2 ounces) granulated sugar

1/2 cup sifted cake flour or all-purpose flour

2 large egg whites

3/4 teaspoon vanilla extract

4 tablespoons (1/2 stick) unsalted butter, melted

8 ounces chopped semisweet chocolate

1/2 cup crème fraîche, see note

1/4cup chocolate sprinkles

Note: Creme fraîche is available in the dairy section of fine grocery stores. If you cannot find it, use heavy cream.

Place the sugar and flour in a medium bowl and whisk to blend. Whisk in the egg whites and vanilla until well-blended. Whisk in the melted butter until a smooth, thin batter is formed. Cover and refrigerate for 30 minutes.

Preheat the oven to 350 degrees and position an oven rack in the center. Line a baking sheet with parchment paper or a silicon mat. Drop about 1 tablespoon of the batter onto the mat. Use a thin spatula, preferably offset, to spread the batter into a thin circle about 4 inches in diameter. Make 3 more circles, spacing them 3 to 4 inches apart. Bake 7 to 9 minutes, until the edges are golden brown but the center is still pale.

Transfer cookies to a rack and let cool for 1 minute, until they can be loosened and lifted from the sheet without tearing. Wrap the cookies loosely around a clean pencil, small dowel or the handle of a wooden spoon until they harden. Allow to cool completely before adding filling.

Place the chocolate in a small heatproof bowl set over a pan of barely simmering water. Heat, stirring occasionally, until smooth. Remove from heat and add the creme fraîche, stirring well. If using heavy cream, place the chopped chocolate in a heatproof bowl, heat the cream to just under boiling and pour it over the chocolate. Allow the mixture to stand for 1 minute, then stir until smooth.

Let the filling cool slightly and place into a pastry bag or resealable plastic bag fitted with a large plain tip. Pipe the filling as far as possible into both ends of all the cookies, and then coat the rims of each cookie on the outside with the filling. Dip the ends of each cookie into a bowl of the chocolate sprinkles. As the filling cools, they will adhere firmly. Makes about 14 cookies.

Per piece: 208 calories; 12 g fat; 8 g saturated fat; 20 mg cholesterol; 2 g protein; 26 g carbohydrate; 20 g sugar; 1 g fiber; 14 mg sodium; 13 mg calcium

Salted Butter And Chocolate Chunk Shortbread

Recipe from “Dining In,” by Alison Roman.

18 tablespoons (2 1/4 sticks) salted butter, cut into 1/2-inch pieces

1/2 cup granulated sugar

1/4 cup light brown sugar

1 teaspoon vanilla extract

2 1/4 cups all-purpose flour

8 ounces semi- or bittersweet dark chocolate, chopped into chunks (do not chop too fine)

1 large egg, beaten

Demerara or turbinado sugar, for rolling

Flaky sea salt, or kosher salt

Line one or two rimmed baking sheets with parchment paper.

Using an electric mixer and a medium bowl or a stand mixer fitted with the paddle attachment, beat the butter, both sugars and vanilla on medium-high until it’s very light and fluffy, 3 to 5 minutes. Use a spatula to scrape down the sides of the bowl. With the mixer on low, add the flour, followed by the chocolate chunks, and beat just to blend.

Divide the dough in half, placing each half on a large piece of plastic wrap. Fold the plastic over so that it covers the dough (this will protect your hands from getting sticky). Use your hands to form the dough into a log shape about 2 to 21/2 inches in diameter. Rolling it on the counter will help smooth it out; it does not have to be perfect. Refrigerate until very firm, about 2 hours.

Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Brush the outside of the logs with the beaten egg and roll them in the demerara or turbinado sugar.

Slice each log into 1/2-inch-thick rounds, place them on the prepared baking sheets about 1 inch apart and sprinkle with flaky or kosher salt. Bake until the edges are just beginning to brown, 12 to 15 minutes. Cool on the baking sheet for 1 minute, then transfer to a wire rack. Makes about 32 cookies.

Per cookie: 147 calories; 9 g fat; 5 g saturated fat; 23 mg cholesterol; 1 g protein; 17 g carbohydrate; 9 g sugar; 1 g fiber; 55 mg sodium; 8 mg calcium

Sweet Slices (tranches Sucrees)

Recipe from “The Art of French Baking,” by Ginette Mathiot.

7 tablespoons butter, chilled and diced

1 2/3 cups all-purpose flour, plus extra for dusting

3/4 cup superfine sugar, see note

2 eggs, divided

1/2 teaspoon baking soda

2 tablespoons sanding sugar (decorating sugar)

Note: To make superfine sugar, place granulated sugar in a blender and process on high for about 15 seconds, until almost powdery.

Preheat oven to 400 degrees. Line a baking sheet with parchment, or grease it with additional butter.

Place the chilled butter and flour in a mixing bowl and rub together until the mixture resembles bread crumbs. Stir in the sugar, 1 egg and the baking soda. Do not add water, because the dough should be firm. Knead the dough briefly until it all comes together.

Dust the counter with flour and roll out the dough to a thickness of 1/4 inch. Beat the remaining egg and brush over the dough to glaze. Cut into rectangles, approximately 21/2-by-11/4 inches. Sprinkle generously with the sanding sugar, then place on the prepared baking sheet and bake for 15 to 20 minutes (watch carefully, because they quickly burn). Makes about 36 cookies.

Per cookie: 58 calories; 3 g fat; 2 g saturated fat; 16 mg cholesterol; 1 g protein; 8 g carbohydrate; 3 g sugar; no fiber; 22 mg sodium; 3 mg calcium

Oatmeal Raisin Cookies

Recipe from “Bouchon Bakery” by Thomas Keller and Sebastien Rouxel.

1 cup plus 1 teaspoon all-purpose flour

1 tablespoon ground cinnamon

1 1/4 teaspoons kosher salt

1 1/2 teaspoons baking soda

1/2 cup plus 1 1/2 tablespoons granulated sugar

1/2 cup plus 3 1/2 tablespoons lightly packed light brown sugar

11 tablespoons unsalted butter, room temperature

1/4 cup beaten eggs

1 1/4 teaspoons vanilla extract or paste

2 cups old-fashioned oats

1 cup raisins or mix of black and golden raisins

Place the flour in a medium bowl. Sift in the cinnamon and baking soda, add the salt and whisk together. Whisk together the granulated and brown sugars in a small bowl, breaking up any lumps.

Place the butter in the bowl of a stand mixer fitted with the paddle attachment. Turn to medium-low speed and cream the butter until it is the consistency of mayonnaise and holds a peak when the paddle is lifted. Add the sugars and mix for 3 to 4 minutes, until fluffy. Scrape down the sides and bottom of the bowl. Add the eggs and vanilla and mix on low speed for 15 to 30 seconds, until just combined. The mixture may look broken, but that is fine (overwhipping the eggs could cause the cookies to expand too much during baking and then deflate).

Add the flour mixture in 2 additions, mixing on low speed for 15 to 30 seconds after each, until just combined. Scrape the bottom of the bowl to incorporate any dry ingredients that have settled there. Stir in the oats and raisins until thoroughly combined. Refrigerate the dough for 30 minutes.

Position the racks in the upper and lower thirds of the oven and preheat to 325 degrees. Line 2 baking sheets with silicone baking mats or parchment paper.

For gigantic cookies, use a 21/4 -inch ice-cream scoop to divide the dough into 6 equal portions. For large cookies, divide dough into 12 equal portions. Roll each portion into a ball between your hands.

For gigantic cookies, place 3 of these dough balls on each prepared baking sheet, placing each one as far away from the others and the sides as possible. For large cookies, place 6 balls on each prepared sheet.

Bake until golden brown, 21 to 23 minutes for gigantic cookies (15 to 17 minutes in a convection oven) or 18 to 20 minutes for large cookies (14 to 16 minutes in a convection oven). Reverse the positions of the pans halfway through baking. Set the pans on a cooling rack and cool for 5 to 10 minutes, then transfer the cookies to the rack to cool completely.

The cookies are best the day they are baked, but can be stored in a covered container for up to 3 days. Makes 6 enormous cookies or 12 large cookies

Per cookie (based on 12): 301 calories; 12 g fat; 7 g saturated fat; 47 mg cholesterol; 4 g protein; 46 g carbohydrate; 26 g sugar; 2 g fiber; 257 mg sodium; 38 mg calcium

Erlin Rings (Couronnes De Berlin)

Recipe from “The Art of French Baking,” by Ginette Mathiot

4 eggs, divided

1/2 cup superfine sugar, see note

2 cups all-purpose flour, sifted

10 tablespoons (1 1/4 sticks) unsalted butter, softened

2 tablespoons sanding sugar (decorating sugar)

Note: To make superfine sugar, place granulated sugar in a blender and process on high for about 15 seconds, until almost powdery

Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Line a baking sheet with parchment, or grease with additional butter.

Hard cook 2 of the eggs. Remove their yolks and mix these thoroughly with the yolks of the 2 remaining raw eggs, retaining the raw egg whites. Discard the cooked egg whites. Stir the superfine sugar into the yolk mixture, and then, adding a little at a time, the flour and butter. Knead the dough until it is smooth.

Break off large, walnut-sized pieces and roll these out, using the palms of your hands, to form cylinders. Join their ends to form rings and place on the prepared sheet. Whisk the remaining raw egg whites until they form soft peaks and brush over the cookies to glaze. Sprinkle with the sanding sugar and bake for 20 to 30 minutes. Makes about 18 cookies.

Per cookie: 164 calories; 10 g fat; 6 g saturated fat; 65 mg cholesterol; 3 g protein; 15 g carbohydrate; 5 g sugar; 0 g fiber; 17 mg sodium; 11 mg calcium

Chocolate Sandwich Cookies

Recipe from “Claridge’s: The Cookbook,” by Martyn Nail and Meredith Erickson

11 3/4 ounces dark chocolate (at least 55 percent cocoa solids) broken into pieces, divided

3 ounces heavy cream

1/2 tablespoon honey

2 tablespoons unsalted butter, softened

2 eggs

3/4 cup demerara or turbinado sugar

3 1/2 tablespoons unsalted butter

6 tablespoons plus 1 teaspoon bread flour or all-purpose flour

1/4teaspoon baking powder

Pinch of salt

Make the ganache: Melt 2 3/4 ounces of the chocolate in a double boiler (heatproof bowl placed over a saucepan of simmering water) or simply in the microwave. In a small saucepan, bring the cream and honey to a boil over medium heat, then remove from the heat. Pour a third of the hot cream into the melted chocolate. Using a spatula, stir briskly to incorporate the cream. The chocolate might look grainy and split at this point — don’t worry if it does. Repeat twice more, adding another third of the cream at a time. The chocolate should be smooth and glossy. Add the 2 tablespoons of softened butter and stir well.

Use the spatula to scrape down the sides of the bowl and place a sheet of plastic wrap directly on the surface of the ganache to prevent a skin from forming. Leave to sit at room temperature for at least 6 hours, preferably 12 to 24 hours.

Make the cookies: Preheat oven to 350 degrees. In a medium bowl, whisk the eggs and sugar together until just combined. Leave this to rest for 20 minutes.

Over low heat, melt the remaining 9 ounces chocolate and the 3 1/2 tablespoons of butter together in a pan, stirring until well-combined. Whisk the melted chocolate into the egg and sugar mixture. Once incorporated, stir in the flour, baking powder and salt. Cover with plastic wrap directly touching the surface until the mixture sets, about 10 to 20 minutes (the cooler the spot the less time it takes, but do not be tempted to refrigerate it).

While the dough is resting, use a pencil to draw 30 circles 1 1/4 inches in diameter (about the size of a 50-cent piece) on each of 2 sheets of parchment paper, allowing room between them for the cookies to spread. Flip parchment over on 2 baking sheets, so the pencil drawings are face down. Use a piping bag and tip (or a resealable plastic bag with a small hole cut in one corner for the tip) and pipe out the mixture to cover each of the circles. Use a wet finger or the back of a spoon to smooth the tops of these mounds, as needed.

Bake 10 minutes, or until the cookies feel crisp on the edges but are still soft in the middle. The surfaces will look cracked. Leave to cool completely on the baking sheets.

To assemble: Match the cookies in equal-sized pairs. Use a piping bag and tip, a plastic bag and tip, or just a small spoon to portion out about 1 teaspoon of the ganache on to the center of the flat side of half the cookies. Then top with the remaining cookies and gently press the ganache to the edges. The cookies will keep for 3 days at room temperature in an airtight container. Makes 30 cookie sandwiches.

Per cookie sandwich: 127 calories; 8 g fat; 5 g saturated fat; 22 mg cholesterol; 1 g protein; 12 g carbohydrate; 8 g sugar; 1 g fiber; 19 mg sodium; 19 mg calcium