In my opinion, one of the highest forms of altruism is working with individuals with special needs, especially those with behavioral challenges. It's hard work, and it usually doesn't pay very well, either.
The teachers at my daughter's school deserve a much better Christmas present than I could ever give them -- and there are so many teachers and therapists who interact with her that I could never afford to buy each individual a gift. Thus, slight compensation though it may be, I try every year to bake up a big cookie tray for the staff.
But this year I decided my cookie list was getting stale. Every year I have baked almost the same things. Cutout cookies with frosting and Maple-Pecan Twists always have been always on the list, and I love both, but I figured we were due for something new this year.
So I cobbled together a stack of some of the most recent cookie cookbooks on the market and tried to pick one yummy-sounding recipe from each.
I ended up with quite a variety -- everything from the very traditional Easy Apricot-Walnut Rugelach to a weirdo but delicious cookie, Peanut Browned Butter Banana Bacon Cookies (see recipe). And I consulted quite a variety of cookbooks, too, from standard holiday books to a book called "Cookies for Grown-Ups," which predictably involved boozy cookies but also a lot of savory ingredients: chorizo, cheeses, onions, jalapenos, herbs.
The cookbook I consulted that would be most appropriate to give as a holiday gift was probably "The Daily Cookie: 365 Tempting Treats for the Sweetest Year of Your Life" by Anna Ginsberg. The premise is that people bake only for "occasions" (birthdays, Christmas, office parties), so the author provides an excuse to bake cookies for every day of the year. For instance, the "occasion" that spawned the PB-banana-bacon cookies is Elvis's birthday on Jan. 8 (remember his reputed love for grilled PB & banana sandwiches?). The book includes an assortment of recipes from the traditional (oatmeal cookies, chocolate chip cookies, brownies) to the unusual (chipotle beer brittle, pomegranate swirl cheesecake bars).
My kids' favorite cookie was the Stained-Glass Cookies, which fascinated them because of the transparent Jolly Rancher centers. The kids loved holding up two circular cookies to their eyes -- one with cherry Jolly Rancher centers and the other with sour apple (green) Jolly Ranchers -- to look like 3-D glasses.
My husband's favorite cookie was "A Sweet Moment and a Salty Tongue," a chocolate thumbprint cookie with salted caramel in the thumbprint. It's a crowd-pleaser.
I think my favorite was the banana-bacon cookies. Now it's certifiable: I'm weird.
More holiday food
Holiday Cookie Extravaganza: Cookie-baking class for children ages 6 to 10. 9 a.m. to noon Saturday ($35) or 6 to 8 p.m. Monday ($30) at Sweetwater Center for the Arts, Sewickley. sweetwaterartcenter.org.
Holiday Open House Class: Learn to make roasted shrimp cocktail, crab imperial, pork tenderloin crostini, individual pasta frittatas, mini honey fruitcakes, linzer cookies and more. 1 to 4 p.m. Saturday at Crate, Scott Township. $50. cratecook.com.
Ugly Sweater Bar Tour: Don your tackiest holiday sweater and join Young Professionals of the Alleghenies on a bus trip to Doylestown for a bar crawl. Meet the bus at 7 p.m. tomorrow at Shanagan's on Scalp Avenue in Johnstown; the bus will return at 1 a.m. $20 includes pizza and goodies on the bus. Reservations: 2012uglysweater.eventbrite.com.
White Chocolate Mendiants
A candy item adds something a little different to your cookie tray. Instead of melting the white chocolate on the stovetop, we did it in the microwave on half power, stopping frequently to stir.
-- Rebecca Sodergren
7 ounces good-quality white chocolate, broken into pieces
1 cup assorted dried exotic fruits and nuts
A few flakes of edible gold leaf, to decorate (optional)
Line a large cookie sheet with parchment paper.
Gently melt the white chocolate in a heatproof bowl placed over a saucepan of barely simmering water, making sure the bowl does not touch the surface of the water.
Place teaspoonfuls of the chocolate on the paper and smooth into 2-inch disks. Working quickly, scatter the dried fruits and nuts onto the disks, and then flakes of the edible gold leaf, if using.
Leave for at least 30 minutes in the refrigerator to set before serving. Makes about 18.
-- "Cox Cookies & Cake" by Eric Lanlard and Patrick Cox (Octopus, Sept. 2012, $21.99)
A Sweet Moment and a Salty Tongue
Warning: The caramel centers of these cookies will remain very sticky. I tried to stack these cookies for storage in a container between sheets of wax paper, but the caramel stuck to the paper. If you are going to store these or give them as gifts, you'll need to leave them in a single layer.
-- Rebecca Sodergren
1 cup unsalted butter, softened
3/4 cup sugar
2 cups all-purpose flour
1 teaspoon baking powder
1/2 teaspoon baking soda
1/3 cup unsweetened cocoa powder
1/2 cup chopped high-quality milk chocolate bar
2 tablespoons milk
30 to 36 caramels
3 tablespoons heavy cream
2 tablespoons coarse salt
Preheat oven to 325 degrees. In a large bowl, using an electric mixer, cream together butter and sugar until light and fluffy, about 3 minutes.
Whisk together flour, baking powder, baking soda and cocoa powder in a medium bowl and add to butter mixture. Beat until just incorporated. Fold in chopped chocolate. Add milk, 1 tablespoon at a time, until dense but not sticky.
Shape dough into 1-inch diameter balls and place 11/2 inches apart on a parchment-lined or nonstick baking sheet. Bake for 5 minutes. Remove from oven, then using your thumb, press a small indentation into each. (If you prefer a lot of caramel, you can deepen the thumbprint with the back of a teaspoon when the cookies come out of the oven the second time.) Continue baking for an additional 10 minutes. The cookies do not brown; they are cake-like. Let sit for a few minutes and transfer to a cooling rack.
In a medium bowl, microwave caramels and heavy cream on high for 30 seconds. Stir, then microwave for an additional 15 seconds or until soft. Place a dollop of caramel into each cookie thumbprint. Sprinkle coarse salt on top of each as desired. Makes about 3 dozen.
-- "Cookies for Grown-Ups" by Kelly Cooper (Red Rock, Dec. 2012, $23.99)
Peanut Browned Butter Banana Bacon Cookies
9 tablespoons unsalted butter, room temperature, divided
1 cup dried banana chips
4 slices thin-sliced bacon
1/2 cup creamy or crunchy peanut butter
1/2 cup firmly packed brown sugar
1/2 cup granulated sugar
1 1/2 teaspoons vanilla extract
1 large egg
1 tablespoon mild molasses
1 tablespoon whole or reduced-fat milk
1/2 teaspoon salt
1/4 teaspoon baking soda
1/4 teaspoon baking powder
1 3/4 cups all-purpose flour
1/2 cups peanut butter chips
About 40 bite-size miniature peanut butter cups
Preheat oven to 350 degrees and place a rack in the center.
In a large skillet, melt 1 tablespoon of the butter. Add banana chips and saute until the butter starts to brown and the banana slices soak up some of the butter and brown a little around the edges. Transfer the banana chips to a paper towel and let cool. Wipe skillet clean. Place bacon in skillet and cook until crisp. Drain on a paper towel; then chop the bacon into pieces.
In the bowl of a stand mixer fitted with a paddle attachment, or in a large mixing bowl, using a handheld electric mixer, beat the remaining 8 tablespoons butter, peanut butter, and both sugars on medium speed until smooth. Beat in the vanilla, egg, molasses and milk. Beat in the salt, baking soda and baking powder, scraping the sides of the bowl to make sure the ingredients are evenly distributed. Add the flour and stir until mixed. Stir in the peanut butter chips, fried banana chips and bacon.
Scoop up rounded tablespoonfuls of dough and shape into balls about 13/4 inches in diameter. Arrange 3 inches apart on the baking sheets and pat the tops down slightly. Bake 1 sheet at a time for 12 to 14 minutes. Remove from the oven and immediately arrange about 4 peanut butter cups over the warm cookies (they'll kind of melt, then reset and adhere to the cookies). Let the cookies cool on the baking sheet for about 5 minutes, then transfer to a wire rack to cool completely. Serve the cookies when they are completely cool and the peanut butter cups have set. Makes 20.
-- "The Daily Cookie: 365 Tempting Treats for the Sweetest Year of Your Life" by Anna Ginsberg (Andrews McMeel, Nov. 2012, $24.99)
1/2 cup (1 stick) butter, softened
1 cup sugar
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
Grated zest of 1 lemon
2 cups all-purpose flour
1/2 teaspoon baking powder
2 cups hard candies, such as Jolly Ranchers, in different colors
Cream the butter and sugar in a large bowl with an electric mixer until fluffy. Beat in the egg, vanilla and lemon zest, then add the flour and baking powder. Form the dough into 2 balls, wrap each in plastic and chill them for 30 minutes.
While the dough is chilling, unwrap the candies, dicing them into groups according to color, and put each color in a small zip-top storage bag. Use the bottom of a heavy mug to crush the candy into tiny pieces (it doesn't have to be powder; little chunks are fine).
Preheat the oven to 350 degrees and line 2 baking sheets with parchment paper.
Sprinkle a little flour on a clean work surface and roll out the first ball of dough to 1/4 inch thick. Use cookie cutters to cut out holiday shapes and lift the cookies onto the baking sheets with a spatula, leaving 2 inches between each cookie. Use the tip of a paring knife to cut out the interior of each cookie, following the outline but leaving at least 3/4 inch of cookie dough as a rim. (You can also just cut a diamond or a circle in the center of the cookie, or you can use another, smaller cookie cutter.)
Use a teaspoon to sprinkle color of the crushed candy into the opening you've cut out of each cookie. Fill it in evenly, but be careful not to sprinkle the candy on the dough. When all the cookies are filled, put the baking sheets in the refrigerator for 10 minutes. This will stop the cookie dough from spreading so much in the oven.
Bake the cookies for 8 minutes, just until the dough is set and the candy is melted. Let them cool on the baking sheet for 5 minutes. Transfer the cookies to a cooling rack to cool completely. Repeat with the remaining dough and candy. Makes 3 dozen.
-- "Sweet Christmas" by Sharon Bowers (Stewart Tabori & Chang, Nov. 2012, $19.95)
Easy Apricot-Walnut Rugelach
The pizza cutter suggestion is ingenious - it makes these cookies a snap.
-- Rebecca Sodergren
3/4 cup (1 1/2 sticks) unsalted butter, slightly softened and cut into chunks
6 ounces cream cheese, slightly softened and cut into chunks
1/2 cup powdered sugar
Generous 1/4 teaspoon baking soda
1/8 teaspoon salt
2 cups unbleached all-purpose white flour, plus more if needed
For the filling
Very generous 1 cup walnuts
Very generous 1 cup apricot preserves
1/4 teaspoon ground cinnamon
For the garnish
1 large egg beaten with 1 tablespoon whole or low-fat milk
Generous 2 tablespoons granulated sugar
In a large bowl, combine the butter, cream cheese, sugar, baking soda and salt. Beat on medium speed until very well blended and smooth. On low speed, beat in half the flour until evenly incorporated. Beat or stir in the remaining flour until evenly incorporated.
Divide the dough into 3 equal portions. Roll each portion out into a thin, 12-inch diameter round between sheets of baking parchment; the dough doesn't have to be perfectly round. Check the underside and smooth out any wrinkles.
Stack the rounds (paper attached) on a tray or baking sheet. Refrigerate for at least 45 minutes.
For the filling: In a food processor, process the walnuts, preserves and cinnamon just until any large pieces of nuts and apricot are chopped fairly fine and the mixture has spreading consistency.
Baking preliminaries: Position a rack in the middle of the oven; preheat to 350 degrees. Line several baking sheets with baking parchment.
Working with 1 dough round at a time and keeping the others chilled until needed, remove the top sheet of parchment. Using a third of the filling (no need to measure), spread it evenly to within 1/4 inch of the edge; the filling layer will be thin. Using a pizza cutter, cut the round into quarters, then eighths, then sixteenths.
While the dough is still cool and slightly firm, working from the outside edge inward, roll up each wedge into a pinwheel. Space the rugelach about 2 inches apart on the baking sheets. Lightly but evenly brush the tops with the egg wash, then generously sprinkle with the granulated sugar. Repeat the process with the 2 remaining rounds.
Bake on middle rack sheet at a time for 17 to 23 minutes or until the rugelach are nicely browned all over; don't underbake. Let the pans cool on wire racks until the rugelach firm up, about 3 minutes. Then transfer them to racks using a wide spatula. Thoroughly cool on wire racks before packing for storage. Makes 4 dozen.
-- "Simply Sensational Cookies" by Nancy Baggett (Wiley, Oct. 2012, $29.99)
Rebecca Sodergren: firstname.lastname@example.org and on Twitter @pgfoodevents. First Published December 13, 2012 5:00 AM