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Tips from Philly chefs to improve your cookies and impress your guests

As we suggest a few modern innovations to impress your cookie swap crew, we do so with the caveat that you have to know your audience.

Pistachio Millionaire's Shortbread.
Pistachio Millionaire's Shortbread.Read more

Don’t let the innocent puff of confectioners’ sugar deceive you. Holiday cookies can be surprisingly controversial. One woman’s crowd-pleasing spritz might be another’s yawnfest. Peppermint tends to be as divisive as any of Twitter’s conspiracy theories. And messing with a beloved family biscotti recipe could invoke a full-on dessert rebellion. So as we suggest a few modern innovations to impress your cookie swap crew, we do so with the caveat that you have to know your audience.

“Cookies are so subjective,” said High Street Hospitality Group’s Aaron Manuyag. “I can make something and everyone will have a different opinion. Someone will always want it crunchier or chewier, sweeter or saltier.”

The good news is that many of the wintertime classics — shortbread, gingersnaps, thumbprints — are simple to begin with and amenable to substitutions or additions. An easy one is using fragrant cardamom in place of the usual cinnamon-allspice-clove swirl, or isolating any one of the traditional spices and letting it sing.

Parc’s Abby Dahan is a fan of the underrated nutmeg-derived spice mace, which she will add instead of nutmeg to a recipe, giving the cookie a citrusy and slightly pungent, peppery note. Or even working with a different cinnamon, like Ceylon cinnamon, can pleasantly change up your typical cookie repertoire, she said.

No shade to raspberry jam, but Linzer or thumbprint cookies can seem much more intriguing with a dulce de leche, praline, or fruit curd filling. Or a less predictable but still seasonal fruit preserve like cranberry or currant can give these old cookie-platter standbys new life. At Classic Cake Co., Robert Bennett seals his buttery thumbprint hollows with fig jam.

“You can also introduce some finely chopped nuts into the cookie to give it a different texture,” he said.

Shortbread welcomes all kinds of variations and is an ideal way to spin out multiple different types of cookies in one baking session. Try adding mix-ins like coconut, dried fruits, or bits of toffee. Crushed-up pretzels, finely ground candy brittle, or coffee grounds layer in crunch. Or fold subtler flavors like tea or fresh herbs like basil into the dough. Shortbread shapes can be turned into a sandwich cookie with buttercream frosting, sweet tahini, Nutella, or even cream cheese filling.

Manuyag rethinks the peanut butter cookie by grinding his own butter from roasted pumpkin seeds and tossing in dried cranberries and toasted pecans for interest. Better still, these nutty little rounds are made with gluten-free oats — perfect for the sweets-loving celiac.

The basic chewy snickerdoodle, always good on its own, can benefit from some flavor finagling. Baker and Cookie Book author Rebecca Firth spikes hers with rum extract for a boozy effect. Chai spice with black pepper, cardamom, ginger, and clove can also modernize the sugarcoated staple. Some people even stuff theirs with caramel, cheesecake, or cookie butter, but if there’s a gooey filling inside can we even still consider it a snickerdoodle?

Less perceptible innovations can go a long way. Dahan recently ate a gingersnap a friend made that featured pomegranate molasses in place of blackstrap molasses, giving it a brighter yet still sweet note. Dahan recommends playing around with grains, replacing a third of all-purpose flour with more interesting quinoa or buckwheat flour, or even a nut meal like hazelnut, which can be echo the whole or chopped nuts in a cookie for more impact.

“If you made a pecan shortbread with pecan meal, it would add so much more flavor and complexity,” she said.

Swap in dessert darling brown butter for some or all of the butter in the recipe. Add a sprinkle of flaked salt on the top or bottom of the cookie shapes (but not both) before baking. Toast ingredients like oats, sugar, or flour to add another dimension. Experiment with chocolate: chunks instead of chips; a mix of white, milk, and dark instead of just one kind of chocolate; an extra dip on the edge of a simple cookie; or caramelized white chocolate or gianduja to really go over the top.

For the bold baker and eater, sprinkling in completely unorthodox flavors can create dramatic effects. The Pistachio Millionaire’s Shortbread with Coriander Butterscotch from Food 52 Genius Desserts offers a savory twist on a typically cloying dessert bar — but it’s not going to win everyone over. Fennel macarons? Saffron wedding cookies? Matcha Rice Krispie bars? It’s a slippery (but potentially delicious) slope, people. Proceed with caution.

Pumpkin Seed Butter Cookies

Yields 6 dozen

4 ounces unsalted butter

8 ounces light brown sugar

5 ounces cane sugar

12 ounces pumpkin seeds

1 ounce pumpkin seed oil

5 large eggs

2 tablespoons baking soda

5½ cups gluten-free oats

2½ teaspoons salt

7 ounces dried cranberries

5 ounces toasted pecans

  1. Toast the pumpkin seeds. Transfer them to a food processor, add the oil, and grind to a smooth butter, scraping down the sides of the bowl as needed.

  2. Cream the butter and sugar together in a mixer until light and fluffy. Add the pumpkin seed butter. Add the eggs to the mixture one at a time until fully incorporated.

  3. Combine the baking soda, oats, and salt in a separate bowl, then add the egg and butter to the mixture. When fully combined, stir in the dried cranberries and pecans with a spoon.

  4. Chill dough in refrigerator until firm, at least one hour.

  5. Preheat the oven to 350° and line 2 cookies sheets with parchment. Using a cookie scoop or tablespoon, scoop out the dough, leaving at least 2 inches between cookies. Bake for 12 minutes or until firm and golden. Cool on a rack. Repeat with remaining dough.

— Aaron Manuyag of High Street Hospitality

Pistachio Millionaire’s Shortbread with Coriander Butterscotch

Yields 3 dozen

For the shortbread

1 cup unsalted butter, softened

¾ cup sugar

1 packed tablespoon finely grated lemon zest

1¼ cups shelled pistachios

1½ cups all-purpose flour

For the butterscotch

2 tablespoons coriander seeds

½ cup unsalted butter

1½ cups turbinado sugar

½ cup heavy cream, plus more if needed

½ cup Irish whiskey

2 teaspoons kosher salt

For the chocolate top

8 ounces bittersweet chocolate (70 percent cacao), finely chopped

2 tablespoons unsalted butter

  1. To make the shortbread, heat the oven to 350°, with a rack in the center. Line a large rimmed baking sheet with parchment paper. In the bowl of a stand mixer fitted with the paddle attachment, cream the butter, sugar, lemon zest, and salt on high speed until fluffy, about three minutes.

  2. In a food processor, pulse the pistachios to a fine meal (some small chunks are OK). Add the ground pistachios to the butter mixture and blend on low speed until incorporated. With the mixer running on low speed, add the flour, about ½ cup at a time. When no streaks of flour remain, increase the speed to high and mix just until the mixture holds together in a thick dough, about 1 minute.

  3. Scrape the dough onto the baking sheet and press with your hands into a 12-by-9-inch rectangle that’s ½ inch thick. Bake until the edges brown and the top is dry but still slightly sticky, about 15 minutes. The center should look underbaked. Let the shortbread cool completely in the baking sheet on a rack.

  4. To make the butterscotch, toast the coriander seeds in a medium skillet over medium heat, shaking occasionally until they smell fragrant and have darkened slightly, then pour off into a wide bowl to cool. Once cool, grind finely in a spice grinder or a mortar and pestle. You should have 2 tablespoons, plus a bit extra to sprinkle over at the end.

  5. Melt the butter in a heavy 3-quart saucepan over medium heat. Increase the heat to high, add the sugar, and stir to toast the sugar for about 30 seconds. Carefully pour in the cream and whiskey, then add 2 tablespoons of the coriander and the salt, stirring to dissolve the sugar. Bring to a boil, stirring constantly until the butterscotch is thick enough that a rubber spatula leaves a dry trail that quickly closes at the bottom of the pan, 5 to 10 minutes. Remove from the heat and let cool until warm and spreadable. If the butterscotch hardens, reheat it over low heat, stirring in an extra tablespoon or two of cream. It may look broken, but just whisk it back together.

  6. To make the chocolate top, melt the chocolate and the butter in a small saucepan over low heat, stirring often to keep the chocolate from scorching. When the chocolate is mostly melted, remove it from the heat and stir until smooth.

  7. To assemble the bars, pour the butterscotch over the shortbread and spread into an even layer with an offset spatula. Refrigerate until the butterscotch is firm, about 10 minutes, then spread the chocolate on top of the butterscotch in a thin layer. Sprinkle with ground coriander and refrigerate until the chocolate is firm, about 20 minutes. Cut into 1-inch squares with a sharp knife and serve chilled or at room temperature. Alternatively, cover the cookies well in plastic wrap and freeze for up to 1 month.

— From Food52 Genius Desserts by Kristen Miglore (Ten Speed Press, 2018)

Eggnog Snickerdoodles

Makes 24 large cookies

8 tablespoons unsalted butter, room temperature

¾ cup light brown sugar, packed

¾ cup granulated sugar

2 large eggs, room temperature

¾ cup sunflower seed oil or other neutral oil

3 teaspoons real vanilla extract

1 teaspoon rum extract

1¾ cups bread flour

1 cup all-purpose flour

2 teaspoons cream of tartar

1 teaspoon baking soda

1 teaspoon sea salt

1 teaspoon nutmeg

¾ teaspoon ground cinnamon

For the cookie coating

¼ cup granulated sugar

¾ teaspoon ground cinnamon

½ teaspoon ground nutmeg

  1. To make the cookies, in an electric stand mixer fitted with the paddle attachment, add the butter, brown sugar, and granulated sugar and mix on medium speed for 4 minutes, or until light and fluffy. Add the eggs one at a time, scraping down the sides and bottom of the bowl and making sure they’re fully blended before adding the next. Add the oil, vanilla, and rum extract and mix for 1 minute more.

  2. In a medium-size bowl, whisk together the bread flour, all-purpose flour, cream of tartar, baking soda, salt, nutmeg, and cinnamon. Pour the flour mixture into the butter mixture, stirring to combine. Don’t overmix, but make sure everything gets well blended together. I like to mix just until the flour disappears. Wrap tightly and store in the fridge for several hours, or until firm enough to roll.

  3. Preheat your oven to 375° and place a rack in the top third at least 6 inches from the heat source. Cover several baking sheets with parchment paper.

  4. To make the cookie coating, in a small bowl, mix together the granulated sugar, cinnamon, and nutmeg.

  5. Take the dough out of the fridge and roll about 1½ tablespoons of it between your palms into a nice ball. Give the ball a generous coating of the sugar-spice mixture and set on the baking sheet. Make sure there are 2 inches between each ball, allowing space for spreading during baking. Freeze the balls for 15 minutes, then take them from the freezer to the oven and bake for 11 minutes. Let them cool on the baking sheet for 10 minutes and then finish on a cooling rack.

— From The Cookie Book: Decadent Bites for Every Occasion by Rebecca Firth (Page Street, 2018)