Have Christmas cookies run their sugary course?

Dan Curd says "Bah, Humbug!" to Christmas cookies

‘Tis the season of excess. Don’t get me wrong, there’s still a lot I enjoy about the holidays, even though the observance starts earlier and earlier each year. But overeating and excessive imbibing have become unwelcome traditions, as have Christmas cookies. It’s not that I don’t appreciate many of them individually, but collectively they are a mess. These fussy things are cut into the shapes of stars and bells and sprinkled with red and green sugar — worse yet, with little silver balls that can crack your teeth.

Granted, they make lovely gifts, artfully arranged on one of those throwaway plastic tree-shaped trays and covered with cling wrap. Unfortunately, all those flavors from chocolate to peppermint end up tasting the same. Inevitably they show up at office parties – another holiday custom I could do without. I realize kids like to bake them, but their time would be better spent crafting paper chains or greeting cards – things that doting relatives don’t have to eat and pretend to adore. Just as with some Christmas trees, these cookies seem to hang around long after “ho ho ho” succumbs to the tomb of winter.

I don’t mean to be a Scrooge, but sometimes less can be more at this manic time of year. For me, certain holiday desserts, like pumpkin pie and red velvet cake, offer the greatest appeal. The same is true when it comes to cookies. I love crisp, buttery, rich sugar cookies that need no gilding but are just perfect plain. Better yet is shortbread. A mere three ingredients – butter, flour and sugar – combine to work magic. Easy to make, shortbread’s only enemies are under- or overbaking.

These seasonal treats come in different variations, including crescents, nut butter balls, Russian tea cakes and Mexican wedding cookies. What they all have in common is loads of butter and ground nuts. Though the shape and flavorings vary, they all get dusted with a blizzard of powdered sugar. Walnuts, hazelnuts and almonds are used, but pecans can’t be beat.

Scandinavian food isn’t all lutefisk and lefse – rosettes being a noteworthy example. More a crunchy pastry than a cookie, this fried and sugared confection is pretty without being over the top. Rosettes do
require special equipment to concoct: a rosette iron (available at Orange Tree Imports) and a deep fryer or deep frying pan. A fallback plan is to buy them at Schubert’s Downtown Restaurant in Mount Horeb or Fosdal Home Bakery in Stoughton.

Another European specialty is pfeffernüsse, a spice cookie that includes pepper. Its bite can be subtle or downright assertive depending on the baker’s preference, but it has a personality all its own. Good Shepherd Catholic Parish, which is associated with Madison’s Italian-American community, creates thousands of them every year, to sell at its Good Shepherd Family Fall Festival at St. James Church. German immigrants started this annual cookie-making ritual in 1905. The parish started making pfeffernüsse in 1976 when the festival had a German theme, and Parishioners have continued rolling the cookies ever since.

Regardless of how you feel about Christmas cookies, the holidays are a time to share good food and fond memories with family and friends. That’s no humbug!

Dan Curd is a Madison-based food writer who has written for the magazine for more than 20 years.