Frankincense and myrrh may have passed out of favour as Christmas gifts, but the spirit that inspired them as gifts is still very much with us. While trends change, one gift that remains timeless is a gift from the heart.

Anyone who loves to bake knows that baking during the holidays is about much more than baking cookies. My mom was an excellent baker; every Christmas she would put out a magnificent display of her culinary talents with impressive trays of holiday cookies. She always made her famous shortbread that everyone fought over, and there were never enough of her mini pecan tarts or thumbprint cookies; her iced cut-out cookies were sheer holiday decadence, and everyone would wrestle for her mincemeat tarts.

Sometimes she would make her luscious chocolate and mint squares, her festive dried fruit icebox cookies, Italian pitzels, or anything else that caught her eye that season. She would even craft the most beautiful gingerbread house that adorned our table, begging to be nibbled at throughout the season.

My favourite holiday gift from her was a tin filled with her cookies because it represented a gift from the heart. Holiday baking is more about sharing with loved ones than about eating. At this time of year, these irresistible cookies become icons of enchantment, perfect for gifting, decorating the tree, and of course, leaving for Santa.

I try my best at baking during the holiday season, but my mom’s shoes are big ones to fill. My house is filled with my mom’s traditional cookies, and I’ve also added my own traditions such as Whisky Pecan Bites, Niagara Biscotti, and Cream Cheese Sugar Cookies. For younger children, nothing says Christmas more than sugar cookies cut out into holiday shapes, iced with different coloured icing, and sprinkled with red and green sugar or multicoloured little candy beads. They’re not only great for eating, but can you imagine anything more festive than a beautiful Christmas tree decked out with sugar cookies?

One year I crafted a flat Christmas tree by shaping chicken wire into a triangle shape and wiring live evergreen boughs through it. This was hung on the front of a door in full view and iced sugar cookies threaded with red ribbon hung from it as decorations. Then every day for 2 weeks before Christmas my children looked forward to eating one cookie a day until the tree was empty and it was time to set our attention to the real tree in the living room with the neatly wrapped presents below it. It was a great tradition.

The kind of cookie you bake is not as important as the flavour. If you like that “melt-in-your-mouth” burst of flavour decadence in a cookie, nothing delivers that better than butter. I’ve discovered through trial and error, however, that cookies made with shortening hold their shape better. It must be because butter melts at lower temperatures –body temperature in fact– and that makes the cookie spread out over the baking time. I don’t use margarine, but if you do, never use a whipped margarine; the solid sticks are much better for baking, and besides, they’re easier to measure.

If you’re a fan of chewy cookies, you can melt the butter before adding it to the sugars, and of course, cook them a few minutes shorter than the recipe calls for. Brown sugar will give you a chewy cookie, while white sugar makes them crisper. If you like your cookies crispy, try using two egg yolks instead of a whole egg.

As children grow up, holiday cookies evolve from iced sugar cookies to gourmet and chocolate renditions. This is the time to dribble some whisky into the praline, icewine into the homemade marshmallows, and dot the shortbread with macadamia nuts. Truffles get made into trees, toffee is covered with pecan crumbs, and chocolate is melted into peppermint bark.
A new trend in cookies is making its way into the holiday season; they’re the small round one-bite sandwich cookies with creamy filling, mounded between two little puffy cookies. I first discovered them in little boutique shops in Paris, France. These little meringues come in hundreds of flavours and colours. All around the world for the holiday season, these little gourmet mouthfuls take on the red, green, and white colours of the holiday season.

Wine in holiday cookies should be a natural for Niagara home cooks who spill a little Chardonnay into a saucepot, or Merlot into a roasting pan. Cookies with a vinous flair include Black Chocolate Baco Noir Cookies, Lavender Raspberry Cassis Cookies, and Cabernet Crescents. Even the trendy meringues take on a Niagara flair with framboise cream between two little raspberry coloured cookies, and champagne cream in light gold cookies.

Christmas is a hectic time of year, a time when people who usually don’t bake find themselves in the kitchen trying out family recipes. For some, it’s a chance to relax and transform a few simple ingredients into something magical that captures the joys of the season. For others, it’s a chance to create gifts that come straight from the heart — a symbol of the sweetness of friendship and family. For me, it’s about family tradition.

Each Christmas, no matter how hectic our work schedules get, I take time out for a weekend of baking cookies with my family. It not only ensures the tradition of holiday baking is passed on to the next generation of cookie chefs, but it also gives us a chance to remember the great cooks in our family who baked these same recipes for family and friends.

To you and your family this holiday, all of my best wishes for a season full of home-baked goodness, and the bounty of family and friends to share the sweet goodness.

Black Chocolate Cabernet Cookies

1 1/2 cups (375 mL) all-purpose flour
3/4 cup (180 mL) cocoa powder
1 teaspoon (5 mL) baking soda
1 teaspoon (5 mL) salt
½ cup (125 mL) butter, softened
3/4 cup (180 mL) granulated sugar
3/4 cup (180 mL) packed brown sugar
1 large egg
1 teaspoon (5 mL) pure vanilla extract
1/2 cup (125 mL) Cabernet Sauvignon or dry red wine
1 cup (250 mL) dark chocolate, broken into chunks
icing sugar for dusting

Preheat oven to 375F (190C). Whisk together flour, cocoa powder, baking soda, and salt in a bowl. In a bowl of an electric mixer, combine butter and sugars until fluffy. Add egg, vanilla, and wine, and beat until well mixed. Slowly add the flour mixture until just combined. Fold in the chocolate. Place a heaping tablespoon of dough for each cookie about 2 inches apart from each other. Bake 8 to 10 minutes. Cool on a wire rack and dust with icing sugar when completely cooled. Makes about 3 dozen cookies.

Niagara Holiday Biscotti

½ cup (125 mL) butter, softened
1 cup (250 mL) sugar
2 eggs
1 teaspoon (5 mL) pure vanilla extract
2 cups (500 mL) all purpose flour
1 ½ teaspoons (7.5 mL) baking powder
dash of salt
1 cup (250 mL) Niagara walnuts
½ cup (125 mL) dried cherries

Preheat oven to 325F (160C). Line a baking sheet with parchment paper. Beat the butter, sugar, and eggs in a large bowl of an electric mixer until light and fluffy. Meanwhile, whisk flour, baking powder and salt together. Add dry ingredients to the whipped butter mixture and stir only to incorporate. Add the walnuts and dried cherries, and mix well.

Shape the dough into 2 logs on a baking sheet. Flatten the logs with your fingers into ¾- thickness. Bake for 30 minutes. Remove from the oven and reduce the temperature to 300F (150C). Slice the log into 1-inch slices and place each slice on its side. Bake for 10 minutes, remove from oven, turn the cookies over and bake for another 10 minutes. Remove from oven and cool. Makes approximately 4 dozen cookies.

[box type=”shadow”]Lynn Ogryzlo is a food, wine and travel writer and international award-winning author of Niagara Cooks cookbook series and The Ontario Table. You can reach Lynn for questions or comments at lynn@localfoodworld.com.

Lynn has recently organized a Pinterest board of over 200 holiday cookie recipes – be sure to check out all the delectable recipe ideas for the season: http://pinterest.com/ontariotable/home-baked-sweetness-from-the-heart/[/box]