Seasonal treats make life that much sweeter
Typically perceived as playful and charming, cookies have a way of brightening any scene they enter. And during the holidays, these unassuming treats reach a whole new level of popularity.
Derived from the Dutch word koekje, which means “small or little cake,” the cookie’s history in America dates back to the 17th century. Back then, the hand-held treat’s prominence during Christmas isn’t far off from what we see today. Families made a large amount to share with friends and neighbors, an offering that was, most importantly, easy to store for long periods of time.
We don’t have a preservation concern today, yet cookies still reign supreme when it comes to the hierarchy of holiday desserts. And it’s not only the taste that makes memories surrounding them so sweet.
To many, they hold a sentimental value that starts in childhood and lasts the test of time.
“Around the holidays I think of my mom baking lots of cookies,” Alexa Cayce, owner of The Spotted Bulldog in Neenah, remembers. “She would make huge gift baskets of homemade goods. That’s what I think of: our dining table full of baskets and us getting to eat the extras.”
“It’s something about the nostalgia that makes (cookies) so popular, it’s remembering making them at home, ” Dawn Ebert, owner of Simple Simon Bakery in Appleton, adds.
Sugar (cookie) rush
While there are several types of cookies associated with the holidays, there’s a standout winner in the Fox Cities area: the traditional sugar cookie made in various seasonal shapes and decorated with royal icing.
“Cutouts are the most popular, hands down,” Chanda Anderson, owner of Caramel Crisp & Cafe in Oshkosh, says. “There’s nothing better than the memory of eating a sugar cookie at Christmastime. Everything about a sugar cookie is Christmas.”
They’ve taken the bakery scene by storm, in fact. Beginning in January and going nonstop, the cookies have taken on a personality of their own, showing up in virtually any shape imaginable: snowflakes in January, hearts in February and so on.
“We have cutouts for each season and shapes according to that season,” Ebert explains. “People just love them! Ours is more of a traditional, homemade cookie.”
Pumpkins, turkeys and autumn leaves are most common for Thanksgiving, while trees, ornaments, stars and even reindeer appear for Christmas.
Cayce runs her at-home bakery, The Spotted Bulldog, under Wisconsin’s Food Cottage Law, which allows at-home bakers to sell goods that have been cooked in an oven.
“Bread, cakes, brownies and cookies are all fine,” she explains. “Another thing to note is that copyrighted images are a big thing. I can do inspiration versions where you definitely get the idea for a theme but you can’t do actual images… it can be anything you want. Simple wreaths, snow globes, snowmen.”
All three bakeries offer DIY Cookie Kits year-round that extend beyond Christmas. They include everything you need to create the iconic-looking (and tasting) treat: holiday shaped, unfrosted cutout cookies, frosting, sanding sugar and sprinkles.
“At Thanksgiving, you could have your kids decorate the turkey and pumpkin cookies as place cards.,” Ebert suggests. “You can have a beautiful dining room table that is done up with a little turkey cookie at each place setting with your family member’s name on each one. It’s special.
“We have a Gingerbread Cookie Kit that’s really fun to do with the kids too. It’s more of a project… Our gingerbread is fresh and it tastes so good.”
“I do regular vanilla or chocolate cutouts,” Cayce says. “Typically it would be 6 or 12 naked cookies, and I include instructions for everything and a picture of how you can decorate them.”
Simple Simon Bakery’s party platters can be customized and generally include butter cookies, decorated Christmas cutouts, peppermint bark, Mexican wedding cookies and gingerbread. Plus a couple options reserved for the special gatherings this time of year.
“Mexican wedding cookies are pecan cookies that literally melt in your mouth,” Ebert says. “Typically we only have those during the holidays. And molasses cookies too.”
“For Christmas I am also going to offer drop cookies, which are chocolate chip, chocolate crinkles, Ginger Creams—a very spice-filled cookie with simple buttercream—and the cutouts,” Cayce says. “I have a bunch of fun ideas in my head. One is going to be a note to Santa and a cookie in the shape of a carrot for the reindeer.”
At-home baking tips
While creative juices obviously flow during the decoration phase of baking, Anderson explains that if you’re struggling, it’s vital to remember that the actual recipe is a science, not an art.
“You need to follow the recipe, you need to be precise,” she urges. “ I highly recommend switching to pounds and not using cups because it’s more precise. Two tablespoons of flour can throw off a whole recipe. Too much baking soda is going to screw it up, the same with eggs.
“I did a talk a while ago and I said, ‘Here’s the secret to my success: butter!’ I take a lot of time and develop those recipes and I put a lot of effort into determining what makes it better. As soon as you take butter out of the equation, it makes it worse.”
“Try reading the whole recipe first before doing anything,” Cayce adds. “Then pull your ingredients out, line them up in the order you need them. Measure everything out first and you’ve got it ready.”
Both Simple Simon Bakery and Caramel Crisp & Cafe utilize in-store and online ordering for all baked goods, DIY Cookie Kits and cookie dough.
“If you are an amatuer baker but you have grandma’s antique, special cookie cutters that you want to use, I would buy our cookie dough,” Ebert says. “Cheat a little bit. It’ll make your life so much easier.”
The Spotted Bulldog’s holiday cookies are available for pre-order. Alexa recommends staying tuned to their Facebook page for dates and pop-up sales, as well as simply sending a message regarding customized orders.
“Cookies are the best finger food there is,” Anderson says. “You can’t eat cake without a fork, you can’t eat a cupcake without a napkin. You can’t do pie or a bowl of ice cream. Cookies are the all-time best thing.
Christmas cutouts are undoubtedly popular, but these area bakeries have more up their sleeves the community can’t get enough of. What’s one of their signature holiday cookies?
Caramel Crisp & Cafe: “Cherry shortbread cookie that’s half dipped in white chocolate and then dipped in red sugar. Those we can’t keep stocked,” Anderson says. “It’s very festive looking.”
Simple Simon Bakery: “I think our homemade butter cookie,” Ebert says. “It’s like a spritz cookie. We dip them in white chocolate, milk chocolate, caramel, sprinkles, nuts or coconut.”
The Spotted Bulldog: “I focus on sugar cookies, but will offer the Ginger Cream this year,” Cayce says. “It is now my daughter’s favorite Christmas cookie and was my favorite Christmas cookie growing up.”