Homemade cookies spread love — and save money



NEW YORK (JTA) — During my childhood, I loved Purim more for its cookies than the chance to dress in costume. I have such sweet memories of the hamantaschen, rugelach and almond crescents (once called vanilla kipfurl) served at Purim parties at my synagogue.

I recall holding a cookie in each hand stationed at a long table laden with platters of pastry. With a ponytail popping from beneath my crown, I was the only Queen Esther in history who would have traded my royal gown for a rolling pin.

I was eager to make these cookies at home but my mother, who never baked anything she could buy, was unable to help me get started. To be nice, she bought me a children’s cookbook called “Wendy’s Kitchen Debut,” leaving me to my own devices.

After mastering all of Wendy’s sweets, which required no baking, I was ready for more challenging desserts. Like most Americans, my first foray into cookie preparation entailed the recipe for Toll House chocolate chip cookies, which then as now appears on bags of Nestle’s chocolate morsels.

Much to mom’s delight, my initial results from this accessible recipe were stunningly delicious. It sparked a lifelong passion for cookie baking that became part of my Purim repertoire.

What would Purim be without an array of confections to give and receive? At this holiday, many Jews exchange mishloach manot, boxes or baskets containing at least two kinds of food, traditionally pastries.

The custom arose in ancient Persia, when King Ahasuerus was on the throne granting his vizier Haman great power.

With rumors running rampant that Haman disliked the Jews, Mordechai, a respected member of the Jewish community, stood by the palace gate, where he heard that Haman was building a gallows to annihilate the Jews.

The king, who sought someone to marry, had invited all eligible women to attend a gala event; Mordechai asked his niece Esther to become a contender. Esther was a dark-haired beauty, and luckily Ahasuerus chose her to be his queen.

Still sensing danger, Mordechai warned his niece to keep her religion a secret at court. But taking a chance, Queen Esther exposed Haman’s wicked plot to her husband, explaining that she was Jewish. The king became so enraged with his vizier, he hung Haman on the gallows he had planned for the Jews.

As the Jewish community rejoiced at their good fortune, Mordechai requested that people remember this close call with death by exchanging gifts, a gesture that grew into the present-day mishloach manot that are sent to family and friends.

While the custom began with presenting pastries on small silver trays, centuries later our grandmothers found less expensive packaging for the cookies and cakes they baked from scratch.

With many women now juggling several roles – careers, motherhood, keeper of the home – and free time a scarce commodity, few bake anymore. In many cases, Bubbie’s cookie recipes and the confidence to handle pastry dough have been lost.

Instead a growing number of Jews are relying on professional companies to send Purim gifts to family and friends. It’s a convenient option, but it can be pricey.

In a flagging economy, this year would be the ideal occasion to organize an old-fashioned cookie exchange. If you enlist some friends, with minimal effort and cost, you can amass dozens of cookies in different varieties to share with your loved ones.

If you’ve never baked before, don’t despair. The recipes below are designed to turn novices into pros.

Since there is nothing better than the mouthwatering taste of homemade cookies, an assortment of even the simplest cookies is more tantalizing than the snazziest mishloach manot package delivered to the door.

Cookies are an ideal pastry. Because of their durable surfaces, many kinds travel without smearing or breaking. These bite-sized treats can be served for dessert or as an extra indulgence after a holiday cake or pie. The perfect snack, cookies complement tea, coffee or milk. They can be packed in children’s lunch boxes, or frozen and quickly defrosted should unexpected guests arrive.

In years gone by, ordering mishloach manot seemed like a good idea because a phone call or mouse click ensured that everyone on your list received a gift of goodies. But in these uncertain times, spreading love through baking cookies and spending time with friends is a more meaningful way to commemorate Purim.

The following recipes are by Linda Morel. All call for parchment paper to line cookie sheets.
Poppy seeds are a traditional Purim pastry ingredient. These perky cookies taste great with a hot cup of tea.

3/4 cup (1 1/2 sticks) sweet butter at room temperature
1 cup granulated sugar
2 eggs
1 1/4 teaspoons orange extract
1 teaspoon orange juice
2 cups flour
1/2 teaspoon baking soda
1/2 teaspoon salt
2 tablespoons poppy seeds
1 1/4 teaspoons ground ginger
3 teaspoons orange zest (about the skin of one orange)

1. Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Line cookie sheets with parchment paper.
2. In a large bowl, cream butter and sugar. Add eggs, orange extract and orange juice, mixing until well incorporated.
3. Sift flour, baking soda and salt into a medium-sized bowl. Spoon into orange mixture, mixing on low speed until flour dampens.
4. Add poppy seeds, ginger and orange zest, beating on high speed until well incorporated.
5. Using a coffee teaspoon, scoop enough dough to fill three-quarters of its bowl. With another teaspoon, push dough onto a cookie sheet. Dropped dough will form uneven mounds. Repeat until all dough has been spooned out. Bake for 10 minutes, or until tops turn golden and edges brown a little. Yield: 4 dozen cookies.

Ground pecans lend a crumbly texture to these perky cookies. Try one and you’ll reach for more.

1/2 cup sweet (1 stick) sweet butter at room temperature
1/2 cup (1 stick) salted butter at room temperature
1/4 cup brown sugar, packed down
1/4 cup granulated sugar
2 cups flour
1 teaspoon ground allspice
1 teaspoon almond extract
1 teaspoon rum extract
1 cup pecans, finely chopped
48 pecan halves in perfect condition (not nicked or broken)

1. Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Place parchment paper on cookie sheets.
2. In a large bowl, cream 2 butters and 2 sugars.
3. Add remaining ingredients – except pecans. Beat on low speed until flour dampens and then on high speed, until well combined. Add chopped pecans and mix into dough until evenly combined.
4. Roll dough into a ball. With a sharp knife, cut dough ball into 4 equal parts. From each quadrant, break off 12 equal pieces of dough. With your hands, roll each piece into a ball, about 1 inch in diameter.
5. Place each small dough ball on parchment paper and flatten with the palm of your hand. You’ll have 1 1/2-inch circles, about 1/8 inch tall. Lift each circle of dough and, if necessary, even the edges with your fingers. Replace circles on parchment. Gently press a pecan half into each circle.
6. Bake 14-16 minutes, or until cookies brown on top and darken a little at the edges. Yield: 4 dozen cookies.

These crunchy cookies exude all the bells and whistles you wish were in oatmeal raisin cookies.

1/2 cup (1 stick) sweet butter at room temperature
1/2 cup granulated sugar
1/2 cup dark brown sugar, packed down
1 teaspoon confectioner’s sugar
1/2 teaspoon vanilla extract
1/4 teaspoon almond extract
1 large egg
3/4 cup flour
1/2 teaspoon baking soda
1/4 teaspoon salt
1/2 teaspoon cardamom
1 cup uncooked oats (old fashioned, not instant)
2/3 cup dried cherries
2/3 cup butterscotch morsels

1. Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Line cookie sheets with parchment paper.
2. Cream butter and all 3 sugars. Add vanilla extract, almond extract and egg, mixing well.
3. Add flour, baking soda, salt and cardamom; mix on low speed until flour dampens. Then mix well on high speed.
4. On low speed, mix in oats, cherries and butterscotch morsels until evenly incorporated.
5. Fill the bowl of a coffee teaspoon with dough. With another teaspoon, push dough onto prepared cookie sheet. You’ll get uneven clumps, about 1 1/2 inches in diameter.
6. Bake for 12 minutes, or until cookies brown. Yield: 4 1/2 dozen cookies.

Brimming with bittersweet chocolate, milk chocolate and white chocolate chips, these chunky cocoa cookies are a chocolate lovers dream.

1/2 cup (1 stick) sweet butter at room temperature
1/2 cup (1 stick) salted butter at room temperature
3/4 cup dark brown sugar, packed down
1 cup granulated sugar
1 rounded tablespoon confectioner’s sugar
2 eggs
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
2 cups flour
1/4 cup cocoa
1 teaspoon baking soda
1 cup semi-sweet chocolate morsels
1/2 cup milk chocolate morsels
1/2 cup white chocolate morsels
1 1/2 cups blanched almonds, chopped

1. Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Line cookie sheets with parchment paper.
2. In a large bowl, cream 2 butters and 3 sugars. Add eggs and vanilla, mixing until well combined.
3. Add flour, cocoa and baking soda, mixing on low speed until flour dampens, and then on high speed until ingredients are incorporated.
4. Add 3 kinds of chocolate morsels and almonds. Blend on low speed until evenly distributed. Dough will be sticky.
5. From a rounded coffee teaspoon, roll dough in hands, forming balls 1 1/2 inches in diameter. Place balls on prepared cookie sheets. Bake for 16 minutes, or until cookies feel slightly firm to a soft touch. Yield: 5 1/2 dozen cookies.


Some tips on baking cookies:

1. With a stand mixer, use the paddle attachment for making cookie dough. An electric hand mixer takes a little elbow grease but is also suitable for cookie dough.
2. When preparing cookie dough, scrape down the bowl with a spatula at least once while creaming butter and sugar. Additionally, scrape down the bowl after each round of ingredients is added.
3. To avoid greasing and scrubbing cookie sheets, cover them with parchment paper. Cookies glide off parchment paper. Each paper can be used two or three times.
4. Most cookie sheets accommodate 12 cookies. Do not squeeze in additional dough or cookies will run together.
5. If using the same cookie sheet for more than one batch, cool it to room temperature before placing more dough on its surface. Warm cookie sheets turn dough gooey and will not produce the best results.
6. Before preheating the oven, place the two oven racks just above and just below the center of the oven to assure even baking.
7. When two cookie sheets are in the oven, reverse their position halfway through the baking time. For example, if cookies are to be baked for 10 minutes, after five minutes move the cookie sheet from the upper rack to the lower rack and vice versa.
8. Cool cookies for five minutes on cookie sheets before moving to a wire rack or platter. Bring to room temperature before storing them.
9. Store cookies in clean, odor-free environments, such as plastic containers, tins or plastic zipper bags.
10. At room temperature, when stored correctly, cookies maintain their brightness for five days. They can be frozen for up to two months. Do not freeze cookies in tins.


Some tips on organizing a cookie exchange:

1. Nominate yourself as the organizer. Find at least three friends willing to bake and reap rewards.
2. Explain how the cookie exchange works. With an organizer and three friends, each baker makes four dozen cookies. There will be a total of 16 dozen cookies prepared. Each baker will keep one dozen of the cookies she makes, contributing the remaining three dozen cookies to each of her three friends. Her friends will do the same, yielding every baker a dozen of four different kinds of cookies, or four dozen cookies in all. (The number of cookies contributed increases with every person you add. However, the take-home quantity increases, too.)
3. Select a cookie recipe to bake and ask each participant to do the same. Make sure everyone selects a different recipe.
4. Set a date and time for the cookie exchange, preferably a few days before Purim.
5. Host the cookie exchange at your home. Brew coffee and serve pastry and fruit, or extra cookies. Otherwise, it will be torture to handle freshly baked cookies without something to nibble.
6. Suggest that each baker brings tins or containers to carry home her cookies. Better still, suggest that everyone arrive with her mishloach manot boxes and baskets.
7. Remind participants to keep a dozen of the cookies she baked for herself.
8. Set up a station for every cookie recipe, leaving room for each participant to pack her cookies. Dedicate flat surfaces, perhaps your kitchen and dining room tables. Kitchen counters or large center islands work well, too. If additional space is needed, use a card table or folding table.
9. To keep cookies from breaking when packing, line the bottom of boxes with foil or cellophane. Inside of boxes, pile cookies in columns, or stand them on their sides like files. To prevent cookies from shifting, put small bunches of foil or cellophane between piles. Carry boxes carefully.
10. Ask everyone to bring copies of her recipe to distribute to each participant. If your cookie exchange is successful, organize one next year, too. Once word spreads how easy, economical and fun this project is, others will want to join you.


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