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’Tis the Season

Our favorite holiday sweets

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Margrit Young, Sarah Sampson, Anna Sampson

BAKING LEGACY Margrit Young is teaching her daughter Sarah Sampson and granddaughter Anna Sampson how to make Swiss Christmas cookies. (Photo: lawellphoto.com)

’Tis the season for cookies, and this year we are showing up early with our bells ready to jingle. Because it’s been a funky year. And what’s more of a guaranteed pick-me-up than a sweet holiday cookie? We’ve gathered some of our neighbors’ best here.

Here’s to happier times, and to happy baking.

Honoring tradition: Swiss Christmas cookies: Margrit Young came to Houston in 1969, the year her daughter Sarah Sampson was born in Switzerland, where Margrit grew up. “Ron [Margrit’s late husband] finished medical school in Switzerland the week Sarah was born,” Margrit says. “He got a job in Houston, so we came here for one year. It’s been a long year.”

Margrit, who was the Swiss consul in Houston for 11 years, brought Sarah and her three boys home to Switzerland every year, making sure they knew the traditions she grew up with. 

“We have a big tradition in Switzerland of making certain cookies only for the holidays,” Margrit says. “I grew up after the war, and people were very excited about baking cookies for Christmas. A lot of them have nuts and honey, because that’s what we had in Switzerland 100 to 150 years ago. I usually make two kinds, and they will last for at least a month.”

Margrit explains that many of the cookies’ names end in li: mailaenderli, brunsli. “Li means ‘small’ in German,” she explains. “So the cookies are small.”

For her part, Sarah says she looks forward to the Swiss cookies every year. But because Margrit’s recipes are mostly written in grams, she hasn’t learned the recipes. “As much as I’ve always baked, I was never doing them on my own, because I wasn’t translating the recipes.”

Margrit has now done the work and is sharing it with us all.

Swiss Christmas cookies (Photo: lawellphoto.com)

Zimtsterne (Swiss Christmas cookie) 

From Margrit Young 3 egg whites
2 cups powdered sugar
1½ Tablespoons cinnamon
1 Tablespoon Kirschwasser (kirsch) or lemon juice
3 cups finely ground hazelnuts (or ground almonds)
Granulated sugar (for rolling out cookies)

Beat the egg whites until stiff peaks form. Carefully fold the powdered sugar into the beaten egg whites. Set aside 1⁄3 cup of the mixture to use as a glaze.

Fold the remaining ingredients into the powdered sugar-egg white mixture to form a dough, and shape it into a ball. Dust the countertop lightly with granulated sugar. Roll the dough so that it is ¼- to ½-inch thick. Use a star-shaped cookie cutter to cut out cookies. Brush the tops of the cookies with the reserved glaze. Refrigerate the cookies for at least 30 minutes.

Preheat the oven to 450 degrees. Bake the chilled cookies for 3 to 5 minutes. Cool before serving. When stored in an airtight container, the cookies will stay fresh for a month.

 Joy Yeager has fond memories of making these Peanut Butter Tarts with her mom Kathy Archer at Christmastime. (Photo: lawellphoto.com)

Fond memories: Mother-daughter baking: Joy Yeager says her mother’s middle name could be “Baker” (her real name is Kathy Archer). “My mom always baked a wonderful array of Christmas cookies,” says Joy, who is a mother of two girls. “And may I add that her mother was the pastry chef in a hotel in St. Cloud, Minnesota, about a century ago.”

Joy says Christmas cookies are “dear to my heart. Year to year, the assortment stayed fairly consistent. Sugar cookies with red and green sugar were a favorite.”

Mostly, though, Joy remembers her mother’s “Peanut Butter Tarts,” which consist of a simple mix of Pillsbury pre-made dough and Reese’s Peanut Butter Cups. “The best part for me was placing a peanut butter cup in each circle [of cookie dough],” Joy remembers. “I loved the little puff that occurred as I placed the peanut butter cup in the hot baked cookie dough.

“I’d highly recommend Peanut Butter Tarts as a universal favorite, one that is perfect for child bakers everywhere.”

Peanut Butter Tarts (Photo: lawellphoto.com)

Peanut Butter Tarts

From Joy Yeager and Kathy Archer ½ of a 16½-ounce roll Pillsbury refrigerated sugar or peanut butter cookie dough
24 Mini Reese’s Peanut Butter Cups, unwrapped

Preheat the oven to 325 degrees. Spray a mini muffin pan with nonstick spray.

Cut the cookie dough into 24 pieces. Place one piece of dough into each muffin cup. Bake for 11 to 13 minutes.

While the cookies are still hot, gently push a peanut butter cup into the top of each. Let the cookies cool for 5 minutes, then use a spoon to scoop each one out of the muffin tin. Cool the cookies on a rack, and then refrigerate them so that the candy becomes firm, about 30 minutes.

Debbie Robbins likes to make her mom's recipe for festive Holiday Mint Stick Brownies for Hanukkah and Christmas celebrations. (Photo: lawellphoto.com)

A new twist: Experimenting with flavors and ingredients: Debbie Robbins is a tutor, a mother of three and a student becoming certified as a health and wellness coach. She is also an avid baker.

“My mom always had things baking and freezing, and I learned from her, being in the kitchen and watching. She is one of those who will come across a recipe and will say, ‘I’m going to try this tonight,’” Debbie says of her mother, Ingrid Eastman.

Savory baking is a favorite of Debbie’s. She recently learned how to make bagels. “I’m revising recipes, trying to make healthier versions that are still really, really yummy. So I’m experimenting with whole wheat and almond flours.”

For cookies – that aren’t necessarily healthy – Debbie says she bakes a lot of chocolate chips. “But I’ll add caramel to them, so they’ve evolved into something like a chocolate chip-caramel cookie,” she says. “I like to take a basic recipe and throw other things into it, whether that’s nuts or caramel or Craisins. Whatever I find in the pantry. I’ll find myself on the baking aisle [in the grocery], saying, ‘Oh, I do need a bag of mint chocolate chips!’” During the holidays, Debbie likes to make her mother’s Mint Stick Brownies.

Holiday Mint Stick Brownies

From Debbie Robbins 2 squares Baker’s Chocolate
½ cup butter
2 eggs, well beaten
1 cup sugar
¼ teaspoon peppermint extract
½ cup all-purpose flour
1/8 teaspoon salt
½ cup chopped nuts (I prefer walnuts)
Mint Frosting (see below)
Glaze Topping (see below)

Preheat the oven to 350 degrees. Butter a 9-inch square pan.

In a small saucepan over medium heat, melt the chocolate and butter together. Cool completely.  Add the beaten eggs, sugar, peppermint extract, flour, salt and nuts. Pour the batter into the prepared pan and bake for 20 to 25 minutes. Cool the brownies completely.

When the brownies are cool, frost them with a double layer of Mint Frosting. Drizzle the Glaze Topping over the frosting, and carefully tilt the pan back and forth so that it covers the surface (or very carefully spread with a rubber spatula). Refrigerate the brownies until the glaze sets, about 30 minutes. Cut and display on a pretty holiday platter. Note: This recipe can be doubled for a 9-by-13-inch pan.

Mint Frosting 2 Tablespoons butter, softened
1 cup sifted powdered sugar
1 Tablespoon heavy cream
½ teaspoon peppermint extract

A few drops of green food coloring (festive for a Christmas party; change to blue if you are having a Hanukkah party!)

Beat all of the ingredients together using a stand or hand-held mixer. Refrigerate while you make the glaze.

Glaze Topping 1 square Baker’s Chocolate
1 Tablespoon butter, softened

In a small saucepan over medium heat, melt the butter and chocolate together. Stir to combine.

Sampling recipes: Finding new favorites: Pediatrician and mother of four Susan Danziger says she bakes “whatever hits my fancy. I’m not that person who does the same thing over and over.”

She sources recipes from Facebook or New York Times emails. “I use that a lot. Smitten Kitchen, I also use. I barely use cookbooks anymore except for the old recipes I have. They’re too much work.”

Last year Susan happened upon a Nigella Lawson recipe for Forgotten Cookies that she loved. “They’re merengue, and you leave them in the oven overnight,” she says, “which I think is why they call them ‘forgotten.’ They’re really different tasting, crunchy and with spice.”

With all the recipes she tries, Susan finds it hard to keep track. “I make it, I like it, and then I forget to make it again!” she says. For help, she’s been using an app called CookBook – The Recipe Manager. “You can download recipes from different places or type in your old recipes,” she says. “And my kids can go in and see my recipes so I don’t have to read them to them.”

Forgotten Cookies

From Nigella Lawson

2 large egg whites, at room temperature
1 pinch of fine sea salt
7/8 cup caster sugar
1 teaspoon cornstarch
1 teaspoon cider vinegar or white wine vinegar
¼ teaspoon ground cardamom
2/3 cup mini chocolate chips
2/3 cup finely chopped pistachios

Preheat the oven to 350 degrees. In a grease-free bowl, whisk together the egg whites and salt until you have soft peaks. Whisk in the sugar a little at a time until thick and gleaming.

By hand, fold in the cornstarch, vinegar and cardamom, then add the chocolate chips and most of the pistachios, and very gently fold these in.

With a spoon, drop mounded blobs of the mixture, 1½ to 2 inches in diameter, onto a large baking sheet lined with parchment paper. Sprinkle with the remaining pistachios.

Put the cookies into the oven, shut the door and turn off the oven immediately. Let the cookies sit in the turned-off oven overnight.

These are best eaten within 24 hours but can keep up to five days stored in airtight containers. They also can be frozen for up to 1 month.

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