A holiday baking celebration: Salon Food's 6 favorite cookies to enjoy right now

Let's go on a virtual cookie walk! Celebrating the iconic holiday cookie, in all of its delicious forms

By Michael La Corte

Deputy Food Editor

Published December 22, 2022 4:30PM (EST)

Traditional home-made Christmas cookies (Getty Images/Sean Gallup)
Traditional home-made Christmas cookies (Getty Images/Sean Gallup)

For as long as I can remember, my church has held a "cookie walk" on the Sunday before Christmas. Basically, whoever wants to participate can bake up a batch of their family's favorite holiday cookies, then stand in a small auditorium at a plastic folding table to proudly offer up their creations.

For a paltry $5, my mom, brother and I gain access to the auditorium, where we stroll from table to table. We use our gloved hands to grab a cookie here and a cookie there, filling the tins or plastic baggies we have in tow to the brim with the homemade wares of our fellow parishioners. 

Chitchatting with the churchgoers hawking their products, strategizing with my family as we navigate the room and adding to the bounty of baked goods to schlep home are all sources of warm, wonderful holiday memories. It's hard not to want to bring each and every cookie home to enjoy during the most wonderful time of the year.

These cherished moments, however, pale in comparison to our own holiday cookie tradition. Continued on in the lore of my mom's family, we bake sheet tray upon sheet tray of festively colored and decorated butter cookies, which range from green wreaths with sprinkles to white snowflakes with colored sugars. (In perusing the internet, it seems as though most deem this type of cookie a "butter spritz cookie.")

We make double or triple batches, using our largest bowls and wooden spoons to ensure we have a surplus of cookies that last through the end of the season. They're the primary component of our Christmas Day dessert, as well as a "favor" of sorts that we sometimes send to relatives. For as long as I can remember, the towering amount of cookie tins on the dining room table has been a permanent holiday fixture. My dad was an especially big fan of these cookies, and he would often pile an excessive amount in his hands to munch on as he watched TV.

We use the old-school "cookie guns," sometimes called cookie presses, which allow for what feels like assembly line-style efficiency and productivity. This typically involves one person mixing the dough, a second filling the "gun," another pressing the cookies, someone decorating them and someone else supervising the oven.

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In about an hour, we're able to churn out scores of cookies, which we later pack in nostalgic holiday tins complete with a piece of bread to help slow the cookies from hardening as January creeps closer. (We're not exactly sure of the science of how this works, but a single slice of white, whole wheat or potato bread inside of the closed tin results in much softer, more tender, less stale cookies.)

Incredibly simple and deeply comforting, these cookies are emblematic of the holidays, as well as practically perfect in every way. Crisp yet soft, immensely craveable and perfectly sized, I'd liken them to Pringles or popcorn because it's pretty much impossible to have only one.

Their aroma, bite-size shape, soft chew and festive colors permeate all of my holiday memories. (I don't believe I was munching on them at three months old, but I've enjoyed these cookies for 99.9% of my Christmases.) My mom's parents were German and Slovak, and while we know this is some sort of classic European butter cookie, we're not entirely certain where the recipe originated. Mom's entire immediate family is put to work during the holiday cookie-baking process, with Nana tallying up the precise number of cookies made and comparing the total to previous years.

I'd liken them to Pringles or popcorn because it's pretty much impossible to have only one.

The one nonnegotiable component of this process? We always play Hanson's 1997 magnum opus "Snowed In." (Trust me, Hanson should be known for much more than just "MMMBop.") In many instances, I let the album loop, ensuring that our holiday soundtrack continues to play in tune with the sights and smells of seemingly endless cookie baking.

Often made by my aunts, the rest of our selection may include chocolate chip cookies, nut balls, pecan clusters, pizzelle, decorated sugar cookies, anise- or lemon-flavored rounded cookies with brightly colored icing, as well as those crescent moon-shaped cookies often decorated with a heaping amount of powdered sugar. An assortment of these cookies, my family's butter cookies and our haul from the church cookie walk sustains us throughout the entire season — and then some.

In honor of these traditions, I decided to host a "virtual cookie walk" with Salon Food, allowing our team to share their favorite holiday cookies, as well as what makes them so special. (You can thank me later for that Hanson recommendation!)

Italian Wedding Cookies
Italian Wedding CookiesItalian Wedding Cookies (Getty Images/Photo by Cathy Scola)Image_placeholder
"I somehow manage to find myself eating buckets of Italian wedding cookies each holiday season," says nights and weekends editor Kelly McClure.
Also called anginetti, these treats (which are similar to the butter cookies mentioned above) are often flavored with almond or anise and sometimes include sprinkles or nonpareils. Airy and light, with a flavor that is both buttery and nutty, you may not be able to stop at just one. (Be prepared to clean up all of the powdered sugar that accumulates on your fingers from eating multiple!)
Peanut Butter Cookies
Peanut Butter CookiesPeanut Butter Cookies (Getty Images/Alyona-Kos)Image_placeholder
"I'm ride or die for peanut butter cookies, at the holidays and every other time of the year," says senior writer Mary Elizabeth Williams. "And my favorite is a flourless, 3-ingredient version that somehow hits the sweet spot between nostalgia and novelty. They are the most 'peanuty' peanut butter cookies you can possibly make, which means they are the best peanut butter cookies you will ever eat."
No matter the type — whether chocolate chip cookies with peanut butter, chocolate-dipped peanut butter cookies or peanut butter blossom cookies — PB nuts have a slew of options to choose from during the holidays.
Rum Balls
Coconut covered rum ballsCoconut Covered Rum Balls (Getty Images/AzmanL)Image_placeholder
"Do rum balls count?" senior politics writer Amanda Marcotte asks me. Rum balls are dense, rich treats that almost act as a mix between a truffle and a cookie. They're often spruced up with cocoa, nuts and — of course! — quite a bit of rum, often spiced. Some recipes even include vanilla wafer cookies.
Rum balls make really neat gifts, as they're easy to wrap individually in decorative paper cups. Bonus: Many home cooks love the fact that they're a decisively no-bake option, yet still manage to feel quite festive.
Linzer Tarts
Linzer tart cookiesLinzer Tart Cookies (Getty Images/Norman Posselt)Image_placeholder
Chief revenue officer Justin Wohl is a big fan of Linzer tarts during the festive season. A shortbread pie or cookie hailing from Austria, these crumbly, delicious treats are usually slathered in a just-sweet-enough spread of jam, jelly or preserves.
Sometimes "sandwiched" with another cookie on top (with a hole for the jam to peek through), they're also often dusted in powdered sugar. Many opt for raspberry for the jam, but apricot or peach are always welcome.
Cranberry Date Bars
Cranberry Cookie BarCranberry Cookie Bar (Getty Images/manyakotic)Image_placeholder
Deputy food editor Ashlie Stevens asks "can cranberry date bars count as a Christmas cookie? If so, those are mine! My grandmother used to make a gorgeous version with a buttery crust and royal icing, and I adored them. They are similar to the cranberry bliss bars at Starbucks, but are a little warmer thanks to the addition of spices like nutmeg and star anise."
German Lebkuchen Cookies
Lebkuchen; German heart cookiesLebkuchen, German Heart Cookies (Getty Images/Nikada)Image_placeholder
Editor in chief Erin Keane has a particular fondness for these cookies — but not for the reason you may expect.
"I kind of hate the way they taste, but I just had friends over to bake and decorate those lebkuchen hearts you find at German Christmas markets," Keane says. "Nothing looks quite as much like Christmas to me as a jumble of those hearts strung up on ribbon, waiting to be given away. I don't know who eats them, but I do know they can hang around the house for a couple of weeks to contribute to festive decor."

You can share your favorite holiday cookies and the photos, recipes and stories behind them by clicking here to email us. Happy holidays!

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By Michael La Corte

Michael is a food writer, recipe editor and educator based in his beloved New Jersey. After graduating from the Institute of Culinary Education in New York City, he worked in restaurants, catering and supper clubs before pivoting to food journalism and recipe development. He also holds a BA in psychology and literature from Pace University.

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