I don't think there is any food that makes people happier than cookies. And when they're Christmas cookies, the cheer is doubled. Maybe even tripled.
Peppermint and chocolate. Lemon and coconut. Cinnamon and pumpkin. Really, what's not to be giddy about, especially when those flavors mingle on a cookie tray at a holiday gathering or tempt passersby at the office?
Those flavors, and more, are represented in our 11th Annual Christmas Cookie Issue, which drew a record number of reader submissions this year. Nearly 600 recipes came via email and snail mail, a pleasant surprise more than a decade after we started this sweet endeavor. What fun to sift through the pile of recipes to select 30 or so for testing. It's always humbling — and intimidating — to see the recipes stack up.
You won't be surprised to know that many of the submissions are repeats, or very similar, to recipes we've published before. I wouldn't expect readers to remember the Chocolate Reindeers from 2003 or Santa's Whiskers from 2005. But I do, and so those submissions conjure sweet memories, but I generally avoid repeats, no matter how delicious.
This year, as she has for at least five years, Karen Pryslopski, who by day is a Tampa Bay Times photo assignment editor, is the main cookie tester. (I am the main cookie taster!) Santa's elves would be very much at home in her kitchen in the weeks leading up to Halloween with powdered sugar flying and all manner of holiday aromas filling the air.
We try to finish all the baking and taste-testing by the end of October so that the photographer, copy editors and designer can do their thing. This year's cover is by illustrator Stefano Vitale of New York, whose style we feel reflects the joy of dreamy holiday treats.
Karen also helps me select the recipes for testing, and we have a joke about that process. If left to her, all the cookies would be laden with coconut. Me? Peanut butter, all the way.
Each year we have our favorites, based on taste and ease of preparation. This year's hands-down favorite is Canadian Chocolate Sparkle Cookies sent in by Joyce St. Clair of St. Petersburg. What makes them Canadian? They are a specialty of pastry chef Thomas Haas of Vancouver, B.C. Whatever their nationality, these cookies are delightful. They were the first gone from the tasting platter. This is a flourless and, thus, gluten-free cookie, too.
I asked readers to send in special-diet recipes this year and got a few. Since gluten-free baking is a big trend, I wanted to see what was out there. Vegan Gluten-Free Carob Chip and Walnut Cookies from Mary Skinner of Dunedin was the best of what we received. It's a dense cookie with lots of flavor.
Among my favorites were Orange Cornmeal Crisps, sent in by both Joyce Hartman of Palm Harbor and Patricia Kucera of Seminole. The cornmeal gives them an interesting crunch, and the citrus flavor from zest and extract packs a Florida punch. I am partial, too, to the Currant Sandwich Cookies, an adaptation of a recipe submitted by Gail Sloan of Tampa. You can change up the jelly filling with whatever flavor suits you or the season. Gail likes it with peach preserves.
Karen and I are in agreement that the Double-Pecan Cookie Bars sent in by Jeanne Chouinard of Palm Harbor and the no-bake Tumbleweeds submitted by Vivian B. Rhiner of Brandon are this year's most addictive offerings. No way you can eat just one, though you know you should. The weird ingredient in the Tumbleweeds is canned, fried potato sticks, which add salt, fat and crunch. They serve the same purpose as the crushed chips in the popular Potato Chip Pecan Cookies we ran in 2004. This year, I jumped in with a few offerings from The Daily Cookie by Anna Ginsburg (Andews McMeel, 2012), a compendium of 365 recipes. I couldn't resist S'mores Chocolate Chip Cookies and Chocolate-Covered Wafer Cookies.
So, another year, another two-dozen delicious cookies. I hope these recipes make you as happy as they've made us during our season of testing and tasting.
Now, it's time to break out the mixer.
Janet K. Keeler can be reached at [email protected] or (727) 893-8586.