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My mother, the queen of Christmas cookies (even years after her death), made dozens and dozens of varieties every year. To get the jump on Christmas, most people bought electronics on Black Friday; my mom, on the other hand, bought butter, sugar, and nuts. Some of my earliest cookie memories were of her Christmas snowballs. Buttery and nutty and melt-in-your-mouth tender, they were delicious! What really intrigued me was the creamy-sugary glaze hiding beneath the powdery dusting of confectioner's sugar that gave them their name. It seemed inexplicable how each cookie was neatly and evenly glazed—that is, until my mom shared the secret. She rolled the warm cookies in confectioner's sugar, which melted into a glaze from the residual heat. Then, to get that classic snowball look, she rolled them again when cool. Hers were pretty awesome, so that was a reasonable starting point for me to dig deep.
What I liked about hers was the buttery, almond-y flavor and creamy glaze. What I wanted to improve was the texture, and I tackled that in three specific ways: baking time, handling the dough, and the ingredients.
Regarding baking time, Mom's recipe (and several others I cross-referenced) advised against over-baking, saying that 15 minutes was long enough. The texture at that point was a bit pasty and lacked crunch, so I upped it to 22 minutes, which was a step in the right direction, but not quite enough to do the trick.
In terms of the dough, my thought was that the cookies would spread and flatten if too soft. I chilled the dough after mixing, but I found that made the dough brittle and difficult to form into balls—they kept falling apart in my hands. So I scooped level tablespoons of the softened dough, gently rolled them into balls, and froze them for 10 minutes before baking. It helped control spreading.
I also tried using a tablespoon-size ice cream scoop (inherited from my mom) without rolling, thinking that the rolling would compact the dough and make the cookies dense and tough, but it turned out not to affect the texture significantly. I retained the rolling step to give the cookies a nicer shape.
As for the ingredients, the nuts specifically, the original recipe called for raw almonds, which I found made the cookies a little gummy. So I toasted the almonds, which not only boosted the flavor but also added a nice crunch. The toasting evaporated some of the water, allowing the fat to crisp up the nuts, but the texture was still dense and pasty.
Next test: I used a fattier nut—one with a higher proportion of fat to protein—thinking the extra fat (and less water) in pecans would make the cookies light and crisp. I toasted the pecans, too, to get a nutty flavor boost. They were delicious and less pasty, but since almonds are traditional, I still wanted to find a way to make them work. (I've used almonds here, but you can use pecans, walnuts, or hazelnuts—toasted, of course!)
Remembering my go-to recipe fix for dense, cakey gingerbread men (and other cookies, cakes, quick breads, and biscuits), I added a little baking soda. It imparts lightness and crispness, which is exactly what I wanted in these cookies. A half teaspoon was enough to give them a bit of a snap and some airiness, without changing the nature of these classic cookies (baking powder would've made them cakey). Texture solved!
Finally, I added a pinch of salt. It might sound like nit-picking, but adding a little salt gives balance and leaves a tiny prick of interest on your tongue. It's what I always look for in something sweet.
My mother may still posthumously be the queen of Christmas cookies, but maybe I'll consider taking a run at the crown some day.
Let's Start Cooking!
You can jump straight to the recipe below, or check out the step-by-step gallery for a walk-through of the process.