Why It Works
- Toasting the nuts before grinding them reduces moisture and improves flavor.
- An extra-long bake time and the addition of baking soda removes all traces of pastiness from these cookies.
- Dipping the cookies in confectioner's sugar while still hot allows their residual heat to melt the sugar and form a glaze around the cookie, no extra work required!
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.
Testing Different Methods
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.
Types of Nuts
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!)
Improving Texture and Flavor
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.
1 cup slivered almonds (4 1/2 ounces; 130g) (see note)
1 scant cup all-purpose flour (4 1/2 ounces; 130g)
1/2 teaspoon (3g) baking soda
1/4 teaspoon (1g) salt
4 ounces unsalted butter, softened (1 stick; 115g)
3 tablespoons (35g) granulated sugar
1 teaspoon (5ml) pure vanilla extract
1 1/2 cups (about 200g) confectioners' sugar
Adjust oven rack to center position and preheat the oven to 325°F. Spread the almonds out on a pie plate and toast until golden, about 8 minutes. Let cool, then transfer the nuts to a mini food processor and pulse until finely chopped. Transfer to a small bowl and whisk in the flour, baking soda, and salt.
In the bowl of a standing electric mixer fitted with the paddle attachment, beat the butter with the granulated sugar and vanilla until creamy, about 4 minutes. On low speed, add the nut mixture and beat until evenly combined, scraping up the bottom and sides of the bowl once or twice, about 1 minute.
Line a large sturdy baking sheet with parchment paper. Scoop level tablespoons of the dough into balls and gently roll. Arrange the balls 1 inch apart and freeze until just firm, about 10 minutes. Bake until lightly golden on top and deep golden on the bottom, about 22 minutes.
Place the cookie sheet on a rack to cool for 10 minutes. Put the confectioners' sugar into a shallow bowl. Working with no more than 2 cookies at a time, roll them in the confectioners' sugar. Return them to the baking sheet and let them cool completely, undisturbed, until the glaze is set, about 1 hour. Sift the confectioners' sugar to remove any crumbs and re-roll the cooled cookies. Store cookies in an airtight container between sheets of waxed paper for up to 2 weeks.
Toasted pecans, walnuts, or hazelnuts can be used in place of almonds.
Mini food processor, stand mixer, baking sheet, wire rack
Make Ahead and Storage
Cookies can be stored at room temperature in an airtight container for up to two weeks.
|Nutrition Facts (per serving)|
|Amount per serving|
|% Daily Value*|
|Total Fat 7g||9%|
|Saturated Fat 3g||13%|
|Total Carbohydrate 15g||5%|
|Dietary Fiber 1g||3%|
|Total Sugars 10g|
|Vitamin C 0mg||0%|
|*The % Daily Value (DV) tells you how much a nutrient in a food serving contributes to a daily diet. 2,000 calories a day is used for general nutrition advice.|