Driving back from razor clamming, my friend and I were discussing Christmas cookies, and we hit an impasse. He said Sugar cookies! and I said Sugar cookies? Ick.
See, I’m not from a sugar cookie family. I’m not even from a cookie family. The thought spending a day baking for the holidays with my mother makes me laugh out loud. When the weather outside got frightful, we skied.
But somewhere up the line, there must have been a cookie gene, because I love baking them. Just not. . .them.
We bantered a bit, driving home in the dark. My friend extolled the attributes of his family’s recipe, and I narrowed my eyebrows in disagreement, a bit thankful he couldn’t see me. I know I won’t fool anyone with any claims to cooking with virtuous ingredients all the time, but really, really, I don’t see the point of a plain white cookie with sugar-based icing on top. It just tastes like sugar.
Yes, I hear you. They’re called sugar cookies. But still. Boring. Who wants to bite into an anemic-looking thing, no matter its shape, with one flavor and the same too-yeilding texture the whole way through, when you could sink your teeth into something with a surprise in the middle, or a whole bouquet of flavors, or chocolate, for goodness’ sake? Plus, all the sugar cookies I’ve met stay fresh forever, and that freaks me out.
I argued briefly for cardamom snaps, and little sandwichy bites with ganache smooshed in between, and waved sugar cookies out of my brain entirely when I dropped him off.
I wanted to turn the page, but she had me at “cookies that are especially crispy.” She used baking soda instead of baking powder, and only the yolk of an egg, which means the cookies actually rise less, and stay more snappy after they’re baked. Plus, her riffs on the same recipe got my wheels turning. The smell of my perfect cardamom snap floated out of the page.
But did I really want cardamom? I paused. As a spice, it’s delicious, but totally oversubscribed these days, if you ask me. Abused, even. I think it’s best used subtly, fresh from the pod, for aroma and background flavor, not as a main ingredient. But dammit, there was the convenient ground stuff, at arm’s reach. I couldn’t say no.
I hit the kitchen. First change: whole wheat flour. I figured I didn’t want something really soft, so I brazenly subbed all white whole wheat flour for her all-purpose flour, then changed the ginger flavors to cardamom and stirred in the zest of a couple of Satsuma tangerines.
The moment I took the dough out of the fridge, I knew it wasn’t right. It was cracking in the same sad, parched way a pie dough with not enough liquid does, and I knew it would never roll to the soft, thin, silky sheet I’d need for good-looking, smooth-topped snaps.
I tried anyway, and got the first half of the dough to about 1/3″ thick before it started falling apart. I cut out cute little flower shapes, and baked them off, changing my mind: I’d make thumbprint cookies, with apricot jam. Yes.
Only, we were out of apricot jam. So I tried a little of everything: I let some flowers bake alone, but the tops came out cracked and ugly. I pressed whole apricots into the center of a few, but those, too, were unimpressive, and the apricots would have needed a quick poaching first, perhaps. I filled some flowers with orange marmalade, and the flavor was great, but I hadn’t made my impressions in the cookies deep enough to hold the marmalade, so it oozed out over the cookie in a sickly pool of orange. I tried smashing little pieces of dough into rough-edged snaps, but no go there, either, they just came out looking like squished dough. And cardamom squishes doesn’t really have that nice ring.
By this time I was frustrated and tired, flinging measuring cups into the sink from across the kitchen. I debated throwing the second half of the dough into the trash. My brain swirled with hateful thoughts toward all sugar cookies. I’d thought it would be a quick experiment – I had other, more pressing things to do – and by the time the squishes came out, I was swearing I’d never bake again, or cook, for that matter.
The phone rang. It was Adriana, with a quick question. I did my best to sound normal, determined not to give away my frenzied mental state, and when we hung up, I tried to reevaluate my mess. Let’s not be brash, I thought to myself. I am a big girl. I can handle a cookie disaster gracefully.
I touched the rest of the dough: I’d spent so long messing with the first batch that the second would surely be too warm to work with. But when I picked it up to toss it in the trash, I noticed that the dough was holding together much better than it had right when I’d taken it out of the fridge. Well, I’ll be darned.
So I rolled, and thumbprinted, and filled the cookies with the thick, spicy ginger spread I’d found at Trader Joe’s. And while I puttered around the kitchen, wishing the days were longer and my cookie temper slower, the cookies did their part. They puffed and cracked, and held the jam in just fine. And now, by golly, they’re pretty good cookies. They don’t flop and disintegrate between the teeth, like some cookies we know. They’re upstanding cookie citizens, these little thumbprint gems, fortified with the flavor of whole wheat and what certain picky jam eaters of this household might call jam for real men.
Just don’t call them sugar cookies.
Whole Wheat Cardamom-Ginger Thumbprint Cookies (PDF)
Recipe 332 of 365
Based on Grace Parisi’s recipes for Double-Ginger Sugar Cookies and Coconut-Raspberry Thumbprints from the December 2007 issue of Food & Wine magazine, these are sugar cookies with a little more attitude than what usually comes around on the Christmas plate. Plus, you can tell anyone that cares that they’re made with whole wheat flour, and those that don’t won’t know the difference.
TIME: 30 minutes active time
MAKES: about 4 dozen cookies
2 sticks (1/2 pound) unsalted butter, room temperature
1 1/4 cups sugar
2 1/2 cups white whole wheat flour
1 tablespoon ground cardamom
1/2 teaspoon baking soda
1/2 teaspoon salt
2 teaspoons Satsuma tangerine (or orange) zest
1 large egg yolk
1 teaspoon vanilla
Thick ginger jam, for the centers (apricot or peach jam would also be delicious)
Preheat the oven to 350 degrees.
In the work bowl of a stand mixer fitted with the paddle attachment, cream the butter and sugar together on medium speed until light, about 3 minutes. Meanwhile, whisk the next five ingredients together in a mixing bowl, and set aside. Add the yolk and vanilla to the butter mixture, and mix on low to blend, scraping the sides of the bowl if necessary. With the machine on low, slowly add the flour mixture, and mix just until all the flour is incorporated.
Roll the dough into 1” balls and arrange about 1” apart on ungreased baking sheets. Bake for 15 minutes. Using your thumb or the back of a round 1/2 teaspoon measure, make an indentation in the top of each cookie, and fill each with a scant 1/2 teaspoon of the jam. Return cookies to the oven, switching the positions of the sheets, and bake another 10 minutes.
Cool cookies 10 minutes on pan, then cool completely on racks. Store in an airtight container up to 1 week.