Santa has always had a monopoly on the good cookies. But it took Julia Usher a while to ponder the bigger issue: Why should the winter holidays get all the gingerbread? And why should something as deliciously fun as a cookie exchange be relegated to December?
Her answer unfolds in mouthwatering fashion in the new book "Cookie Swap: Creative Treats to Share Throughout the Year," published by Gibbs Smith.
Whether it's Valentine treats, back-to-school cookies or Halloween temptations, cookie exchanges are about more than shared calories, says Usher, a former California Bay Area engineer turned bakery diva.
"It's an opportunity to draw family and friends into the kitchen and swap memories and recipes," she says by phone, halfway through a national book tour. "It's one thing to take the cookies home. It's even better when you can take the stories home. A lot of the cookie swap tradition is about carrying on what's been important into the future -- giving and sharing, handing down the legacy of recipes."
And what's important to Usher -- at least at this time of year -- are tiny vine-festooned pumpkins, meringue ghosts and a gingerbread house that would send Hansel and Gretel scampering back up the breadcrumb trail.
Usher will be spending a jam-packed week in the Bay Area later this month, conducting cookie decorating demonstrations and signing cookbooks at food boutiques and bookstores from Pleasanton to Menlo Park. But she won't even have to Mapquest those directions.
This is the former mechanical engineer's stomping ground. Usher went to grad school at UC Berkeley and Stanford, worked in the city and lived in San Jose for more than a decade before embarking on an entirely new -- and tasty -- career path. She opened a bakery in St. Louis.
The career switch may seem a bit dramatic for some, but Usher says it wasn't that big a stretch.
"We were a very avid baking and cooking family. Nothing came into the house that wasn't made from scratch," she says. "Mom would go crazy making jams and jellies. Same thing with breads. Often those things were made and swapped around the holiday time."
Now, if Usher has her way, they'll be swapped all year long. The new book offers eight different cookie party ideas -- including a bridal shower and bunny-centric Spring party -- with something for every level of expertise.
Take the Giant Pumpkin cookie recipe, she says, which can be decorated with fondant flourishes or simply dipped in orange icing.
"It's a lovely spice cookie that's really suitable for the fall season," she says.
And the Meringue Ghosts can be piped over a chopped date cookie base, or directly onto parchment-covered cookie sheets. Add mini-chocolate chips for eyes and tuck the adorable, ridiculously simple results into a warm oven for an hour.
Usher also offers up clever ideas for invitations, decorations and take-home containers. And yes, there are plenty of winter holiday cookies for Santa, too.
Great Pumpkin Cookies
Makes 3-4 dozen cookies
2 1/4 cups all-purpose flour
2 tablespoons cornstarch
1 teaspoon baking soda
1 teaspoon baking powder
2 1/2 teaspoons cinnamon
1 teaspoon ground cloves
1 teaspoon grated nutmeg
3/4 teaspoon ground ginger
3/4 teaspoon salt
1 cup granulated sugar
3/4 cup packed brown sugar
1/2 cup plus 2 tablespoons unsalted butter, softened
1 large egg
11/4 cups pumpkin puree
11/2 teaspoons vanilla
11/2 cups walnuts, coarsely chopped, optional
11/4 cups raisins, optional
Fondant or marzipan, cinnamon sticks to garnish
2 pounds powdered sugar
1/2 teaspoon cream of tartar
5 large egg whites
1/2 to 1 teaspoon water
Orange soft gel food coloring
1/2 teaspoon orange extract
4 tablespoons orange juice
1. Preheat the oven to 350 degrees, and line your cookie sheets with parchment paper.
2. Combine the flour, cornstarch, baking soda, baking powder, spices and salt in a bowl. Set aside.
3. In a mixer, cream the sugars and butter on medium-low speed. Add the egg and beat on medium-high until light and fluffy, 1-2 minutes.
4. Turn the mixer to low and beat in the pumpkin purÃ(c)e and vanilla, scraping down the sides of the bowl as needed.
5. Stir in the flour mixture, followed by the walnuts and raisins. Using a small scoop or tablespoon measure, drop small balls of dough onto the prepared cookie sheets. Bake 15-20 minutes, or until dry and firm on the outside. Transfer to wire racks and let cool.
6. For the icing, mix the powdered sugar and cream of tartar in the bowl of an electric mixer. Add the egg whites and beat on low speed to blend, then on medium-high for about 2 minutes, or until the icing is silky, thick and very white.
7. Scoop out a half cup and blend in 1/2 to 1 teaspoon of water to reach a good piping consistency. Stir in a single drop of orange food color. Seal with plastic wrap, pressing it against the surface of the icing, and set aside.
8. Add the orange extract to the remaining icing, and enough food coloring to reach a deep orange tint. (Adding a few drops of red and brown will give it a burnished shade.) Add enough orange juice to make a thick glaze.
9. Set a wire rack over a sheet of parchment paper. Dip each cookie in the glaze, gently shaking to remove excess, and place on rack to dry. Insert a small piece of cinnamon stick or a chocolate chip in the top to make a stem. Let dry.
10. Add contours by piping lines with the reserved, pale orange icing. Use green-tinted fondant or marzipan to make leaves and vines, if desired.
--Recipes are from Julia Usher's "Cookie Swap."
Candy Corn Cookies
Makes 1-11/2 dozen
2 1/2 cups all-purpose flour
1/4 teaspoon baking soda
1/4 teaspoon salt
1 cup unsalted butter, softened
11/4 cups sifted, powdered sugar
1/4 cup plus 2 tablespoons granulated sugar
1 large egg
3/4 teaspoon vanilla
2 teaspoons orange or maple extract
Orange and yellow soft gel food coloring
Egg wash (see below)
1. Stir the flour, baking soda and salt together. Set aside.
2. Cream the butter and sugars together on medium-low speed until light and creamy, about 1 minute. Add the egg, vanilla and other flavorings, and beat until smooth. Gradually add the flour mixture and mix just until incorporated.
3. Divide the dough in half. Combine the first half with roughly a quarter of the second, and tint it bright orange. Divide the remaining dough into two portions, one about three times the size of the other. Tint the larger portion bright yellow. Wrap everything separately in plastic, and chill 1 to 2 hours before shaping.
4. Shape the yellow dough into a 31/2 x 41/2 inch rectangle that is about 1/2 to 3/4 inch thick. Shape the orange dough into the same rectangular shape, but 11/2 to 13/4 inch thick. Lightly brush the top of the yellow rectangle with egg wash -- 1 egg beaten with one teaspoon water -- and press the orange brick on top.
6. Shape the remaining white dough into a 1 x 41/2 inch rectangle, about 1/2 to 3/4 inch thick, and affix it to the top center of the orange dough with egg wash. Wrap in plastic and freeze 1 to 2 hours.
7. Preheat the oven to 375 degrees. Line cookie sheets with parchment paper. Cut the dough crosswise into multicolored slices, each about 3/16 inch thick. Cut each slice into a candy corn triangle. Blunt the corners with your fingertips. Bake for 7-10 minutes. Transfer to wire racks and let cool.
--Recipes are from Julia Usher's "Cookie Swap."
Makes about 2 dozen
1 cup dried pitted dates, finely chopped
11/2 teaspoons finely grated orange zest
3 tablespoons orange juice
2 tablespoons candied orange peel, finely chopped
11/2 tablespoons Grand Marnier
1/2 cup plus 2 tablespoons pecans, finely chopped
3/4 teaspoon cinnamon
3/8 teaspoon ground cloves
4 large egg whites
1/4 teaspoon cream of tartar
1 cup sifted superfine sugar
11/2 teaspoons cornstarchMiniature chocolate chips
1. Preheat oven to 225. Line cookie sheets with parchment paper.
2. Mix the dates, orange zest, juice, peel and liqueur in a medium saucepan. Cook over medium heat, stirring regularly, until all the liquid has been absorbed, about 10 minutes. Cook another 3 minutes, stirring regularly to prevent scorching. Remove from heat and stir in the chopped pecans and spices. Cool.
3. Form 3/4-inch balls and arrange them evenly around the perimeter of the baking sheets.
4. Make the meringue by beating the egg whites and cream of tartar on low speed until frothy, then turn the mixer to medium and gradually add the sugar, a tablespoon at a time. Turn the mixer to high and beat until the whites are very stiff and glossy, about 10 minutes. Sprinkle the cornstarch evenly over the surface and beat 30 seconds more.
5. Fit a pastry bag with a large (}-inch) star-tip and fill with the meringue. Hold the bag perpendicular to each date ball, with the tip touching the top, and press, so the meringue covers as much of the ball as possible. Slowly lift the pastry bag straight up, still applying pressure, to make a ghost. Then pull up quickly, without pressure, to create a peak.
6. Place two mini chocolate chips on each cookie to form eyes. Press the chips in with the tip of a paring knife. Bake until bone-dry to the touch, but not discolored, 1 to 2 hours, depending on the ambient humidity. Transfer to a wire rack to cool.
--Recipes are from Julia Usher's "Cookie Swap."
1/2 cup heavy cream
4 cinnamon sticks, broken
10 whole cloves
1 strip orange zest
8 ounces bittersweet or semisweet chocolate
Garnishes: unsweetened cocoa powder, white or dark chocolate, licorice whips, red candies
1. Bring the cream, cinnamon, cloves and orange zest almost to a simmer. Turn off heat and let rest 30 minutes.
2. Chop the chocolate and place it in a heat-proof bowl.
3. Bring the cream back to a simmer, then pour it through a sieve onto the chocolate. Cover with plastic wrap and let stand 10 minutes. Stir until smooth. Then pour into a shallow pan and chill until the mixture is very cold and set but still pliable, about 30 minutes.
4. Using a small scoop or 1/2-inch melon baller, scoop balls of chocolate mixture, transferring them to a baking sheet lined with parchment paper as you work. Chill 10 minutes.
3. Dip each truffle in cocoa powder to coat, then quickly shape into a ball. Truffles can be dipped in melted dark chocolate to form spiders -- make the legs from strands of black licorice and the eyes from small red candies -- or white chocolate for eyeballs.
--Adapted from recipes by Martha Stewart and Julia Usher
Host a cookie exchange
Send out invitations that include the theme (Halloween, a college care package cookie exchange, etc.), cookie quantity, and any additional instructions. Some hosts ask guests to submit a recipe ahead of time, so the recipes can be bound into a little cookbook. Others ask them to bring copies to the party itself.
Plastic wrap, trays and any take-home containers.
Julia Usher's "Cookie Swap" and Rose Levy Beranbaum's "Christmas Cookies," are great recipe resources. Or, download recipes and party tips from Epicurious.com or Hershey's kissescookies.com.
The day before the party, bake your own cookies, and clear a table for the cookie platters. Set out blank cards so guests can label their contributions. Prepare any beverages or snacks you plan to serve.
Then, welcome your guests, enjoy their company and exchange cookies, so each guest ends up with an assortment of treats to take home.
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