(c) 2018, The Washington Post, Becky Krystal
The world of cookies is a wonderful and wide-ranging place. In a decade-plus of publishing holiday cookie packages, The Washington Post's Food section alone has shared more than 300 recipes. We have options for almost any taste, diet and ingredient, inspired by a globe's worth of flavours.
But we also believe there is a certain Cookie Canon. You know, the classics, the old reliables, the cookies that can appeal to a crowd. They're also basic recipes that provide great ways to learn a variety of baking techniques that will serve you well no matter what other types of cookies you want to make in the future.
After combing through our archives and other trusted sources - and after conducting a lot of taste tests - our team settled on these nine essential cookies.
Classic Chocolate Chip
Is there a more quintessential cookie than the classic chocolate chip? Something about a buttery, sweet dough punctuated with chocolate just makes magic. Our search for the best chocolate chip cookie last year crowned a slightly unorthodox winner from Joy the Baker that included pecans, molasses and brown butter, but we decided a bit more research for something even purer was in order. Chocolate Chip Crunch Cookies from Alex Levin, executive pastry chef of Schlow Restaurant Group, filled the bill and then some. In a slight departure from the expected formula, the chocolate is a mix of milk and dark chocolate (he uses chopped, but chips work, too). The genius tweak involves the inclusion of toffee bits for ample caramel flavour. These beautifully domed, chewy cookies are our new favourite, hands down.
Heather Chittum's Sugar Cookies
At this time of year, the sugar cookie is ubiquitous. Unfortunately, so are bland, hard-to-work-with sugar cookies. We wanted a cookie whose flavour would hold its own and be appealing enough to enjoy even without icing. Well, it turns out we already had that kind of gem in our archives. First published in The Post a decade ago, Heather Chittum's Sugar Cookies are our platonic ideal for both eating and decorating. They're sturdy (the pastry chef even made sleighs and wreaths out of them), crunchy and buttery. Plus, the recipe easily scales up or down for big or small crowds. Make a batch of the dough the day before, and then invite your friends and family over to decorate.
Gingerbread is another must-have in the holiday season. The big question is whether you want - or need - them soft or crunchy. In the two database recipes we pitted against each other, soft came out on top. Sherrill's Secret Soft Gingerbread Boys, a copycat from a long-departed Washington eatery, won out for both texture and a spiced, but not overpoweringly so, flavour. These are simply decorated with a glaze and currants or raisins, but there's nothing stopping you from getting fancy with your favourite icing.
Peanut Butter Cookies
Much like chocolate chip cookies, there is a powerful nostalgia associated with peanut butter cookies. They're the type of treat your mom might have left you for an afternoon snack, to be enjoyed with a glass of milk while running your fingers over the little nubs created by the crosshatch action of a fork. You've seen the popular three-ingredient version (we tried a variation for this test), and it's nice and easy. But the addition of flour and, yup, shortening here took these to the next level without complicating things. Enter these Classic Peanut Butter Cookies from King Arthur Flour. They're a delightful mix of chewy and crumbly, and full of pure peanut butter flavour. If you like, crunchy peanut butter is an option for an even more peanutty bite.
There are a few vocal critics here at The Post's Food section who would prefer their oatmeal cookies not be sullied by raisins. I happen to love raisins, but I can sort of see their point. Once you add raisins, the cookies can turn into more of a raisin cookie than an oatmeal cookie. Ditto spices - cinnamon or nutmeg are often too eager to take over the party. Not in this recipe, though. Salted Oatmeal Cookies make the oats the star of the show in this chewy treat, with a restrained amount of cinnamon and a sprinkling of sea salt to round things out. If you want to add raisins, I won't tell.
A snickerdoodle is like the day-to-evening little black dress. It's simple enough to be an excellent everyday cookie but with enough pizazz and spice to be right at home on a holiday table. (Fun fact via Stella Parks at Serious Eats: Snickerdoodles actually started as coffee cake.) The spice is usually cinnamon, but Post Food editor Joe Yonan makes a brilliant, easy swap: Cardamom. His Cardamom-Brown Sugar Snickerdoodles are soft and aromatic and just different enough to be interesting rather than recklessly radical. (Ground cardamom does tend to lose flavour even faster than other spices, so try to use a fresh jar or even grind your own pods.) Brown sugar also adds depth of flavour and keeps the cookies especially soft.
Brown sugar happens to be the MVP in our favorite shortbread, the type of cookie that is simple but elegant and right at home with a cup of tea or coffee. In this Brown Sugar Shortbread, the star ingredient lends more of a toffee flavour to the cookie, not to mention moisture, meaning it's not quite as dry and crumbly as a more traditional shortbread you might find in, say, Scotland. Nothing would be amiss either if you wanted to add spices or garnishes to suit your own taste.
There's something particularly festive about boozy baked goods during the holiday season, which is why you often come across rum or bourbon balls right about now. Not that we'd turn down these Rum Balls at any other time of year, because they'll bring that feeling of a special treat no matter when you serve them. With five ingredients, very little work - always have a no-bake cookie in your arsenal - and a long shelf life, you have every reason to work these into your regular rotation and keep an extra stash in the freezer for your last-minute entertaining needs.
The wedding cookie
A reliable nut-based cookie deserves a place in your repertoire. The wedding cookie/polvorones route is always an option - their snowball look is appealing for winter - but our taste test prompted us to settle on another variation: Pecan Sandies. With a wonderful, buttery, melt-in-your mouth texture and almost maple-y flavour from the pecans, these are a classic with good reason. Add bacon if you must, but a dusting of demerara sugar and sea salt is all the glam needed.
Featured Image: Tom McCorkle, The Washington Post