Holiday Style

Recipes: 5 classic holiday treats made simple

From sugar cookies to chocolate-toffee cracker candy, these family favorites offer shortcuts for busy bakers.

Sugar cookies with royal icing
Photographs by Anthony Tieuli; photo styling by Karen Tully;/ food styling by Denise Drower Swidey
Sugar cookies with royal icing.


Anthony Tieuli

Makes about 60 medium-sized cookies

To save time and simplify the process, roll the dough out in sheets of plastic wrap before refrigerating. Plus, you can store it in the freezer for future use; simply defrost on the counter for about 10 minutes until it’s pliable enough to stamp.

1         pound unsalted butter, at room temperature

1         scant tablespoon kosher salt (Diamond Crystal brand recommended)


2        cups sugar

4        large egg yolks

2        tablespoons pure vanilla extract

5½ cups all-purpose flour (plus extra for rolling cookies if not using plastic wrap)

Royal Icing (see following recipe)


Light and dark colors of fine sanding sugar (for decorating)

Cream the butter, salt, and sugar together in a bowl, using an electric mixer or the paddle attachment on a stand mixer. Beat at medium speed for about one minute, until it’s light in color and fluffy in texture. Scrape down the sides of the bowl.

Add the yolks and vanilla extract and continue beating until the mixture is well incorporated. Scrape down the sides again. Add the flour and beat on low speed until it is just mixed in.

Divide the dough in two. Sandwich one piece between two large sheets of plastic wrap. Using a rolling pin, roll to form a sheet of dough, about 11½ inches by 16½ inches. It should be about ¼-inch thick throughout. Repeat with the remaining half of the dough. Turn over a large sheet pan and store the sheets of dough on its backside to keep them flat. Refrigerate until firm, at least one hour.

Place racks in the middle and lower middle of the oven and preheat it to 350 degrees.


Remove one sheet of dough from the refrigerator at a time. Discard the top layer of plastic wrap, but keep the bottom piece in place. Using cookie cutters, cut the dough into desired shapes. Remove the cookies from the plastic wrap using a spatula, or bend the wrap slightly to pry them off. If the dough gets too warm to easily work with, return it to the refrigerator to re-chill.

Place the cookies half an inch apart on baking sheets lined with parchment paper or a nonstick silicone baking mat. Bake both sheets simultaneously, rotating them on the racks halfway though. Bake until the surface of the cookies are set and the edges are golden, about 15 to 20 minutes, depending on the size of the cookie. Raw scraps can be re-rolled, chilled, and reused once or twice.

Cool the cookies on the sheets for about 10 minutes, then transfer them to a cooling rack. Cool completely before icing.

Using a small offset spatula or a butter knife, spread about ½ tablespoon of Royal Icing to cover the entire surface of the cookie with an even coat. Dust the entire surface with one of the colored sugars. Shake the cookie gently to remove excess crystals. Use a skewer and “draw” any details, making sure to pull the skewer through both the sugar and icing layer. Dust the second color of sugar over the lines, to fill in the decorations. If you work over a piece of printer paper, you can use it to recapture each color of sanding sugar to re-use.

Allow the iced cookies to dry uncovered for several hours, or overnight. The thicker the coat of icing, the longer the cookies will take to dry. Cookies can be stored in an airtight container for up to 2 weeks.


Makes about 1 cup 

3        cups confectioners’ sugar

3        tablespoons pasteurized egg whites

1½    tablespoons fresh strained lemon juice

In a medium bowl, beat the confectioners’ sugar, egg whites, and lemon juice until smooth. The icing should be similar in consistency to mayonnaise. If you draw a mark with a knife in the surface, it should disappear in about 15 seconds. If necessary, thin it with water or thicken with more confectioners’ sugar. Cover the icing tightly if you are not working with it immediately, as a hard layer will develop on the surface.


Makes 25 brownies

Boozy dark chocolate-pecan brownies.
Photographs by Anthony Tieuli; photo styling by Karen Tully;/ food styling by Denise Drower Swidey
Boozy dark chocolate-pecan brownies.

The versatility of this easy recipe allows you to create as many flavors as you can imagine. Try making a minty version by using crème de menthe instead of bourbon, or scatter the surface of the icing with broken candy cane pieces instead of pecans. Note: The taste of alcohol in this recipe will be pronounced.

½      cup all-purpose flour

½      cup cocoa powder

Pinch of kosher salt

6        ounces dark chocolate chips (about 1 cup)

8        tablespoons (1 stick) unsalted butter

¼      cup bourbon plus 2 tablespoons for icing

¾      cup firmly packed dark brown sugar

2        large eggs

½      cup toasted, chopped pecan halves plus 25 whole pecans for garnish

¾     cup confectioners’ sugar

Heat the oven to 350 degrees.

Line a 9-inch-square pan with aluminum foil, coat with nonstick spray, and reserve. In a medium bowl, combine the flour, cocoa powder, and salt. Set aside.

In a double boiler over low heat, melt the chocolate and butter. Transfer to a small bowl. Cool slightly. Whisk in ¼ cup of the bourbon, the brown sugar, and the eggs. Add the wet ingredients into the dry ingredients, mixing until just incorporated. Fold in the chopped pecans.

Pour the batter into the prepared pan and bake for about 25 minutes. The brownies are done when they start to pull away from the sides of the pan and a skewer comes out clean. Remove from the oven and cool.

In a small bowl, combine the remaining 2 tablespoons of bourbon with the confectioners’ sugar. For a less pronounced bourbon taste, use 1 tablespoon of bourbon and 1 tablespoon of water instead. Spread the icing on the cooled brownies and dot the surface with the remaining pecan halves. Cut into 25 squares.


Makes about 90 medium-sized, very thin cookies

Latvian pepper cookies (piparkūkas)
Photographs by Anthony Tieuli; photo styling by Karen Tully;/ food styling by Denise Drower Swidey
Latvian pepper cookies (piparkūkas).

With sincere apologies to Latvian bakers who grind their own spices for these cookies, this recipe takes the blasphemous American shortcut of using pre-ground pumpkin pie spice (but please do buy a fresh jar), and reducing the number of spices from 10 to 5. Try to make the dough up to two weeks ahead of time so the flavor can intensify.

½      cup honey

½      cup molasses

1         cup firmly packed dark brown sugar

8        tablespoons (1 stick) unsalted butter

3        tablespoons vegetable shortening

5        teaspoons pumpkin pie spice

½      teaspoon freshly ground black pepper

5        cups all-purpose flour (divided) plus more for dusting

2        large eggs

½      teaspoon baking soda

1½    teaspoons baking powder

½      teaspoon kosher salt

In a large saucepan over medium heat, bring the honey, molasses, brown sugar, butter, and shortening to a boil. In a medium bowl, combine the pumpkin pie spice, pepper, and 3 cups of the flour. As soon as the liquid starts to boil, remove it from the heat. Add the flour mixture and stir with a wooden spoon until smooth.

Transfer the mixture to a large bowl and allow to cool about 30 minutes, or until just warm. Using the paddle attachment of a stand mixer or a wooden spoon, add the eggs and stir the mixture until it’s homogenous.

In a medium bowl, combine the remaining 2 cups of flour, baking soda, baking powder, and salt. Using the stand mixer or your hands, incorporate the dry ingredients into the mixture. Knead it until the dough holds together and is workable. Store in the refrigerator overnight or, ideally, for 1 to 2 weeks.

Heat the oven to 400 degrees. Dust a work surface and rolling pin with flour and roll a small piece of dough as thinly as possible without tearing, about 1/8 to 1/16 of an inch. If you have one, a home pasta sheeter works well to speed up this process. Stamp the dough with cookie cutters, transfer to a baking sheet, and bake for about 6 minutes until golden brown and crisp.

Cool and decorate with Royal Icing (see recipe on page 23), using a small pastry piping bag or a small resealable bag with a small corner cut off. Allow the cookies to dry completely before storing.

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Makes 25 bars

Spiced clementine-cranberry bars
Photographs by Anthony Tieuli; photo styling by Karen Tully;/ food styling by Denise Drower Swidey
Spiced clementine-cranberry bars.

The bottom crust dough does double duty as the spiced topping for this spirited holiday treat.

10-12 small clementines

16      tablespoons unsalted butter (2 sticks) at room temperature, cubed

½      cup confectioners’ sugar

2        cups all-purpose flour

½      teaspoon kosher salt

½      teaspoon cinnamon

3        cups fresh cranberries (one 12-ounce bag), picked through and rinsed

1½    cups sugar

2        cinnamon sticks

4        large eggs

Preheat the oven to 350 degrees with a rack placed in the middle position. Line a 9-by-13-inch pan with foil, coat with non-stick spray, and set aside.

Zest four clementines and reserve the zest (about 1 teaspoon). Juice the clementines to yield 10 tablespoons of juice. Reserve the juice and the whole peels of 3 clementines.

In a food processor fitted with a metal blade, combine the butter, confectioners’ sugar, flour, and salt. Pulse until the mixture has the consistency of sand and holds together when pressed. Remove ½ cup and combine with the cinnamon. Reserve for the topping. Press the remaining mixture flat into the prepared pan. Bake the crust for about 20 minutes, until pale golden brown.

Meanwhile, make the fruit filling. In a medium saucepan over medium heat, add 2 tablespoons of water, the cranberries, sugar, cinnamon sticks, and reserved clementine peels. Cook over medium heat for about 15 minutes, until the cranberries have burst and the sauce is beginning to thicken. Remove from the heat and discard the cinnamon sticks and clementine peel. Transfer the filling to a medium bowl, cool slightly, and add the reserved clementine juice and zest. Beat the eggs and stir them into the fruit mixture.

Pour the fruit mixture on top of the crust. Bake for 10 to 15 minutes, until the filling is just starting to set. Scatter the reserved topping on the surface. Bake for an additional 8 to 12 minutes, until the topping is golden brown and the fruit mixture is fully thickened. Remove from the oven and cool completely before lifting out the foil. Cut into 25 pieces.


Makes 3 sheets of candy

Chocolate-toffee cracker candy.
Photographs by Anthony Tieuli; photo styling by Karen Tully;/ food styling by Denise Drower Swidey
Chocolate-toffee cracker candy.

This recipe gives you the option to make your own large cracker base from lavash bread, which is now available in many supermarkets. Or try saltine or gluten-free crackers. For another time-saver, you can melt chocolate wafers instead of tempering the chocolate. Flex your creative muscles by dusting the warm chocolate with any festive topping.

3        sheets lavash bread (9½ by 13 inches) or 72 saltine crackers

1         tablespoon canola oil

Kosher salt

16      tablespoons (2 sticks) unsalted butter

1½    cups sugar

3        tablespoons honey

10     ounces semisweet or bittersweet chocolate, tempered, or use melting discs like Ghirardelli or Wilton (about 2 cups)

¾     cup chopped raw pistachios (optional)

¾     cup chopped dried cranberries or cherries (optional)

Heat the oven to 325 degrees. Oil three sheet pans. Lay one piece of lavash bread flat on each pan, brush it with 1 teaspoon of canola oil, and sprinkle lightly with salt. Bake for about 15 minutes, or until the sheets are golden brown, dried out, and beginning to crisp. Rotate the sheet pans during baking and check frequently as they are thin and can over-bake easily. Remove from the oven and cool completely in the pan to keep the cracker as flat as possible.

Line a heatproof counter or sheet pan with parchment paper or a nonstick silicone baking mat. Lay the lavash or saltine crackers on top, tightly fitting them next to each other.

In a medium saucepan over medium heat, melt the butter. Stir in the sugar, honey, and 3 tablespoons of water. Raise the heat to medium-high, and cook, stirring occasionally, until the mixture reaches exactly 300 degrees on a candy thermometer. (If you don't have a candy thermometer, this is the "hard crack" stage. Test by drizzling a small spoonful of the candy into a cold glass of water. It should form brittle strands that break easily.) Remove from heat and immediately — and carefully — pour the toffee onto the crackers. Use a metal offset spatula to spread the mixture evenly.

Allow the toffee to cool completely, then wipe the candy surface with a paper towel to remove the excess oil.

Melt the chocolate in a double boiler or in the microwave for 20 to 30 seconds at a time, stirring after each burst until it’s completely melted. Using an offset spatula, quickly spread the melted chocolate completely over the toffee layer. Immediately scatter the pistachios and dried fruit (if using) over the chocolate surface. Leave at room temperature until the chocolate sets, about 10 minutes.

To serve, break the candy into pieces. The candy may be stored in an airtight container at room temperature for several weeks.

Denise Drower Swidey is a frequent contributor to the Globe Magazine. Send comments to