Back in May this year, while I was home recovering from a near-fatal brain injury and had found my way back into the kitchen, I did two very important things: I discovered and binge-watched three complete seasons of Great Australian Bake Off and then, inspired, baked hundreds of mini butter cookies. I coated a batch in marbled icing as an elegant component to Mum’s Mother’s Day present; the gradient blue and white and amber and white swirls looked like whirlpools and seashells in the tall glass jar that accompanied a collection of T2 teas that comprised part of Mum’s gift.
I kept all the leftover cookies, un-iced, in a large clamp-lid glass jar. I opened the half-full glass jar of cookies made from this batch just the other day to see what the cookies were like now. I was impressed: after all this time, they had retained a firm outer giving way to the softer melt-in-your-mouth buttery centre. So they keep well, given it is now December. What had impressed me the most with this cookie recipe is how well they hold their shape when you bake them; they puff up slightly, but they are perfect for cutting with all sorts of shapes and cutters. I thought to myself, these would be the perfect Christmas cookie, even as edible tree decorations, if only they had a little Christmas spice to them.
In Nigella Lawson’s brilliant Nigella Christmas book, she has a recipe for Edible Christmas Tree Decorations; biscuits which are flavoured with ground cinnamon and cloves and fresh cracked black pepper. I have made them once before and they were delicious, particularly if you prefer spice over sweet. This time, I wanted something that blended the woody spices of Christmas with the buttery goodness and long-lasting quality of the cookies I had baked in for Mother’s Day. So, I decided to do a mashup of Nigella’s Edible Christmas Decorations with the butter cookie recipe, and I must say, I am super pleased with the result.
These are an excellent alternative to gingerbread if you’re not a gingerbread fan (especially since there is no ginger in the recipe at all), but you still want the sugar and spice of a Christmas cookie. I prefer the use of a coarser sea salt for this recipe (Maldon is always to hand on my kitchen bench) as occasionally you get a little extra larger salt flake that cuts through the sweet and spice; the same can be said for the fresh cracked pepper over the fine pre-milled variety. You’ll find with these cookies that you get butter and a little sweet first, and then the warm spice develops as you eat. What I do suggest is that you don’t dull the spice by over-coating these in icing sugar. I laid my cooled cookies on a cooling rack and drizzled a fine stream of royal icing over them, from a height, moving back and forth haphazardly, leaving just a few criss-crossed stripes of icing on each cookie; a little, in this case, is more than enough.
One batch of this dough should get you around 50 cookies, depending on the size of your cutters. I prefer to use a mixture of larger and smaller cutters because they look interesting piled up on a plate in different shapes and sizes; also, ’tis the season for over-indulgence, so there is also something satisfying about eating three times as many tiny spiced cookies than you would otherwise with larger biscuits.
A friend at work commented that these biscuits ‘taste just like a mince pie but without the mince pie!’
I’ll take that as a win.
CHRISTMAS SPICED BUTTER COOKIES
Makes approximately 50
- 175g unsalted butter, softened and cubed
- 100g caster sugar
- 100g soft brown sugar
- 2 large eggs
- 4 Tablespoons honey
- scraped seeds of 1 vanilla pod or 1 teaspoon vanilla extract (preferably a vanilla extract that contains seeds)
- 400g Italian 00 or plain flour
- 1 teaspoon baking powder
- 1 teaspoon coarse sea salt
- 2 teaspoons freshly ground black pepper
- 1 teaspoon ground cinnamon
- 1/4 teaspoon ground cloves
Line two baking sheets with baking paper and preheat the oven to 180C.
Beat the butter and sugar together in a stand mixer until pale and creamy.
Add the eggs, honey and vanilla and beat until well combined.
Add the flour, baking powder, pepper, cinnamon and cloves. Crush the coarse salt by rubbing it between the palms of your hands just to break down some of the bigger particles and then add to the bowl. Mix gently until all ingredients are well combined and a dough has formed.
Turn the mixture out onto a lightly floured surface. If you think the mixture is a little too sticky, turn it a few times in the flour and add a little extra flour, sparingly, until you have a soft dough that is not tacky to the touch. Be wary of adding too much extra flour as your dough and biscuits will become tough.
Halve the dough and form both pieces into flat discs with your hands. Wrap the discs in cling wrap, and place in the fridge for an hour to firm up just a little.
Remove one half of the dough from the fridge and from the plastic. Place it on a lightly floured surface and sprinkle the top of the dough with a little extra flour. Roll the dough out to about 1/2 centimetre thickness before cutting into shapes using your cutters. Dip the cutter into some extra flour as you go to stop the dough from sticking. Re-roll any excess dough from your cuttings to cut more biscuits.
Be sure to keep the second half of the dough in the fridge until you are ready to roll and cut it. If you find the dough starts sticking to your floured surface and becomes a little impractical to work with, wrap it and place it back in the fridge for a few more minutes. The high butter content doesn’t play well with hot Australian summer kitchens or hot hands.
Place the biscuits on the lined baking trays leaving just a little space between each one – they don’t really spread, so 1cm apart is generally okay. Bake the biscuits for 10 – 12 minutes on the top and middle racks of your oven, or until they turn lightly golden on the edges.
Cool the biscuits on a rack. Wait for them to cool completely before icing and decorating.
Store in an airtight container or glass jar.
NOTE: If you want to turn these into tree decorations, use a chopstick or bamboo skewer to pierce a hole in the top of each biscuit before baking through which you can thread fishing line or a decoration hook through after decorating.