Thinking inside the box

Homemade cookies packed in a festive holiday package are a perfect way to show you care

The most festive, tasty and safest way to spread good cheer is gifting an assortment of homemade cookies such as Fudgy Bourbon Balls, Black and White Brownies, Sparkly Gingerbread, Honey-Roasted Peanut Thumbprints, Toasted Almond Snowballs, Cornmeal Lime Shortbread and Vanilla Bean Spritz Cookies. (The New York Times/Johnny Miller)

Eleven months out of the year, I make what would be considered an above average, but not excessive, number of cookies.

But come December, when I pretend my baking obsession is just an expression of seasonal glee, I give myself free rein. Around the holidays, I can legitimize a baking frenzy that, in June, would seem like the flour-dusted ravings of a gingerbread maniac.

While eating the cookies is part of the appeal, so is giving them away, packed by the dozen into tissue-paper-lined boxes. Off they go, to friends, neighbors, teachers, mail carriers -- the list is as long as the shortbreads are buttery.

And, pandemic be darned, I plan to continue the tradition this holiday season. Even though I won't throw a big latke party or Christmas Eve dinner, I can still deliver cookie boxes at a safe distance to my loved ones, a tangible way to spread joy when we need it more than ever.

To keep my yearly baking blowouts at least somewhat organized, I've kept a cookie log over the last two decades, noting substitutions, successes and the occasional cookie box failure.

The log is also helpful for remembering which cookies I've made so I don't repeat myself too often, and to preserve the recipes for future baking. My goal is always to create a visually stunning cookie box with a balance of flavors and textures that tastes even better than it looks.

If you're feeling the urge to make cookie boxes for family and friends, here are my tips for putting them together.

• When it comes to cookie varieties, more is more. I believe in offering a wide assortment of cookies in every box. There's nothing better than discovering a hidden almond snowball beneath a gingerbread frog. Being enthusiastic, I strive for eight kinds, but three or four is enough to create the thrill.

• Every box needs a fruity, jammy note. Jam-filled cookies like rugelach and honey-roasted peanut thumbprints are sturdy and pretty, and the moisture in the jam keeps them soft for a few weeks. Plus, their chewy fruitiness adds another dimension of flavor and texture.

• Something sparkly and colorful is a must. Put these on the top to dazzle when the lid comes off. Think vivid-hued gingerbread painted with royal icing and festooned with sprinkles or sugar-topped vanilla bean spritz cookies with delicate, browned edges that melt in your mouth. Flat, plain cookies like shortbread can rest on the bottom.

• Plan to include something with crunch. Either a buttery, nubby crunch like a cornmeal lime shortbread or a nutty crunch, like toasted almond snowballs dusted with lots of powdered sugar, will round out the textures of the mix, making it even more fun to eat. Plus, crunchy cookies are perfect for dunking, which is a necessary cookie box pastime.

• A chocolate moment is nonnegotiable. Whether sprinkled with sea salt, strewed with chopped candy canes, or -- as I'm doing this year -- crowned with nuggets of white chocolate that caramelize as they bake, brownies are some of the easiest cookies to make, and possibly the most beloved chocolate option. But truffles, chocolate sugar cookies or double chocolate cookies will also get you there. And if you can't make up your mind, no one will be sad to find two different chocolate cookies cozied up in one box.

• Pack something for the grown-ups. Bourbon balls, rum balls, brandy snaps, even mini fruitcakes are perfect for the holidays, and the alcohol helps preserve them, so they keep for weeks. Just warn your friends that some of the cookies in the box may not be kid-appropriate -- which will also guarantee there will be something leftover for the adults.

Boozy cookies are my particular favorites to have on hand when all the flour has been wiped off the counters and the sparkly sugar has been mopped from the floor. That's when I can relax with a bourbon and a bourbon ball, savoring the fruits of another excellent holiday cookie extravaganza -- while already planning for the next one.

Honey-Roasted Peanut Thumbprints

1 2/3 cups chopped honey-roasted peanuts, divided use

2 cups all-purpose flour, divided use

½ cup dark brown sugar

½ teaspoon kosher salt

¼ teaspoon freshly grated nutmeg

1 cup unsalted butter, cold and cut into 1-inch cubes

2 eggs, separated

1 tablespoon vanilla extract

1 ½ teaspoons lemon or orange zest

2/3 cup chopped salted, roasted peanuts (or use more honey-roasted peanuts)

About ½ cup Concord grape jam (or other thick jam)

Heat oven to 350 degrees. Line three baking sheets with parchment paper or lightly grease them.

In the bowl of a food processor, pulse together 1 cup honey-roasted peanuts and ½ cup flour until the nuts are coarsely ground. Pulse in remaining flour, sugar, salt and nutmeg, then add the butter and pulse until the mixture is crumbly. Pulse in the egg yolks, vanilla extract and zest. Continue to pulse until the dough is well combined and starts to clump (but doesn't form a ball).

Working with 1 tablespoon of dough at a time, form the mixture into 1-inch balls.

Put the egg whites in a shallow bowl, then beat them lightly with a fork until frothy. Put the remaining 2/3 cup chopped honey-roasted peanuts in another shallow bowl, and stir in the salted, roasted peanuts.

Dunk each ball of dough first in egg whites, then in the nuts, rolling to coat the balls well. Place the balls on the baking sheets 2 inches apart. Using your thumb, press an indentation in the center of each round of dough.

Using a small spoon, fill the indentations with jam. Bake until the edges of the cookies are just golden, 12 to 18 minutes. Transfer to a wire rack to cool.

Makes about 3 dozen.

Sparkly Gingerbread

3 cups all-purpose flour, plus more for rolling the dough

1 teaspoon baking soda

¼ teaspoon fine sea salt

2 teaspoons ground ginger

1 teaspoon ground cinnamon

1 teaspoon ground cardamom

½ teaspoon freshly grated nutmeg

¼ teaspoon ground cloves

¾ cup dark brown sugar

¾ cup unsalted butter, at room temperature

1 egg

½ cup molasses

1 teaspoon finely grated fresh ginger

Nonstick cooking spray (optional)

Royal Icing, for decorating

Food coloring, for decorating

Colored sugar, sprinkles and dragées, for decorating

In a medium bowl, whisk together flour, baking soda, salt and spices. Using an electric mixer fitted with the paddle attachment or hand-held electric beaters, beat brown sugar and butter on medium speed until light and fluffy, 2 to 3 minutes. Add egg, molasses and fresh ginger, and mix until well combined.

Reduce speed to low and gradually add dry ingredients. Mix until just incorporated.

Divide dough in half and scrape onto two pieces of plastic wrap, wrapping each piece separately into a flat disk. Refrigerate for at least 2 hours, or up to 5 days.

When ready to bake, heat oven to 350 degrees. Use parchment paper or nonstick liners to line three baking sheets, or lightly grease them with nonstick cooking spray. (You may need to bake the cookies in batches.)

On a clean, lightly floured work surface, roll one disk of dough 1/8-inch thick. Using cookie cutters, cut out all the dough. With a small metal spatula, place the gingerbread cutouts onto the prepared baking sheets, leaving about 1 inch between cookies. Repeat with remaining dough. You can reroll the scraps once. Collect them from both pieces of dough, smush them together into a disk and chill before rerolling again.

Bake small cookies for 8 to 12 minutes, and larger ones for 10 to 15 minutes, or until cookies are firm to the touch and their edges are slightly darker in color. Rotate baking sheets halfway through for even baking.

Let cookies cool on baking sheets until firm enough to lift, about 5 minutes. Using a metal spatula, transfer cookies to wire rack to cool completely before decorating.

To decorate, thin the royal icing with water until it is as thick as heavy cream (thinner than you would use for piping). Divide it into small bowls (or a muffin tin), and use food coloring to tint it different colors. Use a brush to paint the cookies with icing, and, if you like, use toothpicks to apply more icing to make patterns. Sprinkle with colored sugar or other decorations while the icing is still wet. Put the decorated cookies on baking sheets to set, then move them to tins or other airtight containers with parchment between the layers.

Yield varies by size of cookie cutter.

Vanilla Bean Spritz Cookies

1 cup unsalted butter, softened

½ cup sugar

¼ cup light brown sugar

1 egg, at room temperature

2 teaspoons vanilla bean paste OR 1 tablespoon vanilla extract

1 teaspoon grated lemon zest or orange zest; or ¼ teaspoon ground cinnamon or cardamom; or ½ teaspoon almond extract (optional)

2 ¼ cups all-purpose flour

½ teaspoon fine sea salt

Decorative sugar, for sprinkling

Heat oven to 350 degrees. Using an electric mixer fitted with the paddle attachment or a handheld electric mixer, beat butter and sugars on medium speed until light and fluffy, 2 to 3 minutes. Add the egg, vanilla and the zest, spices or almond extract (if using), and mix until well combined and smooth.

Reduce speed to low, and gradually add flour and salt until just incorporated.

Load dough into a cookie press. Following the directions that came with your cookie press (models can vary), push the dough onto ungreased baking sheets, leaving about 1 inch between cookies. Sprinkle cookies with decorative sugar.

Bake until firm to touch and golden brown at edges, about 12 to 17 minutes. Transfer cookies onto a wire rack to cool completely.

Makes 4 dozen.

Cornmeal Lime Shortbread Fans

2 limes

1 ½ cups all-purpose flour

2/3 cup fine cornmeal

2/3 cup sugar

1 teaspoon fine sea salt

1 cup cold, unsalted butter, cut into 1-inch chunks

½ cup confectioners' sugar

Heat oven to 325 degrees.

Grate 1 teaspoon zest from the limes. (You can usually get 1 teaspoon from 1 lime, but you may need to grate some zest off the other.)

In a food processor, combine the lime zest, flour, cornmeal, sugar and salt and pulse once or twice to combine. Add butter and pulse until the mixture resembles fine crumbs. Pulse a few more times until some of the crumbs start to come together, but don't overprocess the dough. It should be somewhat crumbly and not form a ball. (Or, you can mix this in a bowl using two knives, or use a pastry cutter to mix the butter into the flour.)

Press the dough into an even layer in an ungreased, fluted 9-inch tart pan with a removable bottom or in a 9-inch pie pan. Dock the dough all over with the tines of a fork. Bake until golden brown, about 40 to 50 minutes.

Transfer to a wire rack to cool. Using a butter knife, cut the shortbread into 12 wedges while still warm.

Make the glaze: Halve the zested lime and squeeze 1 tablespoon juice into a small bowl. Whisk in confectioners' sugar and, if you like, more lime juice to taste. (More lime juice will make the glaze thinner and more tart, while less lime juice yields a thicker, sweeter glaze.) Drizzle glaze over the cooled shortbread, then zest the second lime over the icing before it sets. (Use a citrus zester, if you have one, or a regular zester, if you don't.)

Makes 1 dozen.

Toasted Almond Snowballs

2/3 cup almond flour

¾ cup unsalted butter, softened

2 ½ cups confectioners' sugar, divided use

1 egg yolk

1 tablespoon brandy, pastis or ouzo

½ teaspoon almond extract

1 ½ cups all-purpose flour

¼ teaspoon fine sea salt

In a medium skillet over medium heat, toast the almond flour, stirring constantly, until golden brown and fragrant, 6 to 8 minutes. Immediately pour flour into a small bowl to cool. Watch carefully: Once the flour begins to toast, it will happen very quickly.

Using an electric mixer fitted with the paddle attachment or a handheld electric mixer, beat butter and 1 cup confectioners' sugar on low speed until fluffy, 1 to 2 minutes. Beat in egg yolk, brandy and almond extract until well combined.

Reduce speed to low and gradually add all-purpose flour, salt and toasted almond flour until just incorporated.

Scrape the dough into an airtight container and refrigerate for at least 2 hours or overnight.

When ready to bake, heat oven to 350 degrees and line two baking sheets with parchment paper.

Using your hands, roll dough into 1-inch balls and place balls 1 inch apart on the prepared baking sheets. Bake for 12 to 18 minutes, until cookies begin to brown at edges. Rotate baking sheets halfway through for even baking.

Place ¾ cup confectioners' sugar into a sieve. As soon as the cookies come out of the oven, sift a thick layer confectioners' sugar over the tops. Once cookies are cool, put remaining ¾ cup confectioners' sugar (plus any sugar in the sieve) into a shallow bowl and toss cookies again in confectioners' sugar.

Makes 3 dozen.

Black and White Brownies

5 tablespoons unsalted butter, plus more for greasing

2 ounces unsweetened chocolate, coarsely chopped or broken up in ½- to 1-inch pieces

1/3 cup neutral oil, such as sunflower, grapeseed or canola

1 ½ cups sugar

1 cup all-purpose flour

¼ cup Dutch-processed cocoa powder

¾ teaspoon kosher sea salt

2 eggs, at room temperature

2 teaspoons vanilla extract

3 ounces white chocolate, coarsely chopped (about ½ cup)

Flaky sea salt, such as Maldon, as needed

Heat oven to 350 degrees, and lightly grease an 8-inch square baking pan.

Melt butter and chocolate in a small saucepan over low heat, stirring frequently until smooth.

Using a rubber spatula, scrape chocolate mixture into large bowl. Whisk in oil and sugar, and let cool for about 5 minutes.

As the chocolate mixture cools, whisk together flour, cocoa powder and salt in a medium bowl.

Whisk eggs into cooled chocolate mixture until well combined, then whisk in vanilla. Using a rubber spatula, fold in flour mixture. Fold in most of the chocolate chunks, reserving the larger chunks to place on top.

Scrape batter into prepared pan and smooth it into an even layer. Scatter the reserved chocolate chunks on top. Sprinkle lightly with flaky sea salt, and bake until the top is set and firm to touch, 17 to 23 minutes. Transfer the pan to a wire rack to cool completely before cutting into 16 squares.

Makes 16 brownies.

Fudgy Bourbon Balls

2 ½ cups chocolate cookie crumbs (such as Nabisco Famous Chocolate Wafers or chocolate graham crackers)

1 ¼ cups pecans, whole, halved or pieces

½ cup good bourbon

1 cup confectioners' sugar, plus more for rolling

3 tablespoons unsweetened cocoa powder

1 tablespoon honey

In the bowl of a food processor, pulse together the cookie crumbs and pecans until the nuts are finely ground.

In a separate bowl, stir together the bourbon, 1 cup confectioners' sugar, cocoa powder and honey. Add the mixture to food processor and pulse until just combined. Let the dough rest overnight, uncovered and at room temperature. This allows the mixture to dry out a little.

Roll the dough into balls about 1 inch in diameter, then toss the balls in confectioners' sugar. Store balls in an airtight container if you want them moist, or uncovered if you like them to develop a crunchy sugar crust on the outside. Sprinkle with more confectioners' sugar just before serving.

Makes 4 dozen.

Fudgy Bourbon Balls (The New York Times/Johnny Miller)
Fudgy Bourbon Balls (The New York Times/Johnny Miller)
Cornmeal Lime Shortbread (The New York Times/Johnny Miller)
Cornmeal Lime Shortbread (The New York Times/Johnny Miller)
Vanilla Bean Spritz Cookies (The New York Times/Johnny Miller)
Vanilla Bean Spritz Cookies (The New York Times/Johnny Miller)