NewburyportNews.com, Newburyport, MA

December 12, 2012

Cookies with a kick

Infuse Christmas dessert with out-of-the-ordinary ingredients

By Alison Ladman
Associated Press

---- — Forget about those traditional recipes for snickerdoodles, anise cookies or peppermint bark that you turn to year after year. This season, why not spice up your Christmas cookie offerings with, well, common spices you’ll find in your kitchen.

If you love lemon bars, try this twist on the classic treat. We gave our bars a deliciously crumbly shortbread crust, then spiked the lemony filling with the earthy flavor of paprika. We also mixed a bit of extra paprika into the powdered sugar we sprinkle over the top. Delicious and perfectly festive.

LEMON PAPRIKA BARS

Start to finish: 1 hour (plus cooling)

Makes 24 bars

For the crust:

1 cup (2 sticks) butter

1/2 cup sugar

1/4 teaspoon salt

21/4 cups all-purpose flour

For the filling:

11/2 cups sugar

2 teaspoons paprika, divided

1/3 cup all-purpose flour

5 eggs

1/2 cup lemon juice

Zest of 2 lemons

1/2 cup powdered sugar

Heat the oven to 350 F. Coat a 9-by-13-inch baking pan with cooking spray, then line it with parchment paper, leaving enough excess to slightly overhang 2 sides.

In a medium bowl, use an electric mixer to beat together the butter, sugar and salt until light and fluffy. Add the flour and mix just until combined. Using a silicone spatula, press the dough into the prepared pan, spreading it evenly over the surface. Bake for 18 to 20 minutes, or until golden brown and cooked through. Remove from the oven and set aside.

While the crust bakes, make the filling. In a medium bowl, whisk together the sugar, 11/2 teaspoons of the paprika, and the flour. Whisk in the eggs, lemon juice and lemon zest.

When the crust is done, pour the filling over the top. Return the pan to the oven and bake for another 15 to 18 minutes, or until the filling is set. Allow to cool completely in the pan. Once cooled, use the paper to gently lift the bars from the pan. Peel away and discard the paper.

Cut into 24 bars (can be any shape). Just before serving, stir together the powdered sugar and remaining 1/2 teaspoon paprika. Sprinkle over the tops of the bars. Store in an airtight container at room temperature for up to a week.

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Looking for classic, comforting flavors in a chewy, soft cookie? This is it. We took a basic oat drop-style cookie and added the comforting, holiday flavors of cinnamon and honey. These treats beg to go with tea, hot cocoa or even milk left for Santa on Christmas Eve.

Want more bang for your buck? Try adding dried fruit and nuts, too. Golden raisins and peanuts would be a great combination.

CINNAMON-HONEY OAT DROP COOKIES

Start to finish: 30 minutes

Makes 36 cookies

1 cup (2 sticks) unsalted butter, room temperature

1 cup packed brown sugar

1/2 cup honey

1 teaspoon vanilla extract

4 eggs

21/4 cups all-purpose flour

1 teaspoon baking soda

1/2 teaspoon salt

11/2 teaspoons cinnamon, divided

21/2 cups old fashioned oats

1/4 cup granulated sugar

Heat the oven to 350 F. Line 2 baking sheets with parchment paper.

In a medium bowl, use an electric mixer to beat together the butter, brown sugar, honey and vanilla. With the mixer running, add the eggs, one at a time, scraping the bowl in between additions.

Stir in the flour, baking soda, salt and 1 teaspoon of the cinnamon. Stir in the oats.

Scoop by the tablespoonful onto the prepared baking sheets, leaving 2 inches between each cookie. Using a slightly moistened hand, flatten the cookies until 1/2 inch thick.

In a small bowl, stir together the granulated sugar and remaining 1/2 teaspoon of cinnamon. Sprinkle lightly over the top of each cookie.

Bake for 8 to 10 minutes, or until no longer glossy and just starting to turn golden brown at the edges.

Let cool on the pan for 10 minutes, then transfer to a rack to cool completely. Store in an airtight container at room temperature for up to a week.

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These honey-glazed bars are crumbly, richly sweet and incredibly nutty. The combination — thanks in particular to the floral notes added by freshly grated nutmeg — is a bit like baklava, only transformed into a more substantial bar-style cookie. If you want to go crazy, toss some walnuts and pecans in there, too.

NUTMEG NUT BARS

Start to finish: 1 hour

(plus cooling)

Makes 24 bars

For the crust:

1/2 cup (1 stick) unsalted butter, room temperature

1/2 cup packed brown sugar

1 teaspoon vanilla extract

1 egg

11/2 cups all-purpose flour

For the topping:

1 cup pine nuts, toasted

1 cup chopped hazelnuts, toasted

1 cup chopped pistachios, toasted

1 cup packed brown sugar

1/2 cup (1 stick) unsalted butter, room temperature

1/4 teaspoon salt

1 teaspoon freshly grated nutmeg

1/2 cup honey

1 teaspoon rosewater (optional)

Heat the oven to 350 F. Coat a 9-by-13-inch baking pan with cooking spray, then line it with parchment paper.

To make the crust, in a medium bowl, use an electric mixer to beat together the butter, brown sugar and vanilla until creamy. Add the egg and beat until smooth and well combined.

Stir in the flour. Press the dough into the bottom of the prepared baking pan in an even layer. Bake for 10 to 12 minutes, or until golden brown.

Meanwhile, to prepare the topping, in a medium bowl mix together the pine nuts, hazelnuts, pistachios, brown sugar, butter, salt and nutmeg.

When the crust is baked, spread the nut mixture evenly over the top. Return the pan to the oven and bake for another 13 to 15 minutes, or until the topping is browned and set up.

While the bars bake, in a small bowl stir together the honey and rosewater, if using. As soon as the bars come out of the oven, drizzle the honey mixture evenly over the top. Set aside and allow to cool completely. Once the bars are cool, run a sharp knife around the edge, then flip out onto a cutting board.

Remove the parchment paper and cut into 24 bars. Store in an airtight container at room temperature for up to a week.

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A delicate spice calls for a delicate cookie. So when looking for ways to make the most of the gorgeous color and ethereal flavor of saffron, meringue puff cookies were the obvious choice. The result is a decidedly adult-friendly cookie with a light, crunchy exterior and a wonderfully chewy interior.

ALMOND SAFFRON PUFF COOKIES

Start to finish: 45 minutes

Makes 36 cookies

1 pinch saffron threads, crushed

1 tablespoon hot water

5 egg whites

1 teaspoon vanilla extract

1/4 teaspoon salt

1/4 teaspoon cream of tartar

11/4 cups sugar

10 ounces (about 21/2 cups) finely chopped almonds

Heat the oven to 300 F. Line 2 baking sheets with parchment paper.

In the bowl of an electric mixer, combine the saffron and the hot water. Let stand for 2 minutes.

Add the egg whites, vanilla, salt and cream of tartar. Beat until soft frothy peaks form. With the mixer running, slowly add the sugar, a tablespoon at a time.

Continue whipping until thick, glossy, firm peaks form.

Use a silicone spatula to gently fold the almonds, half of them at a time, into the egg whites. Be careful not to deflate the whipped egg whites. Scoop the mixture by rounded tablespoonsful onto the prepared baking sheets, leaving 1 inch between the cookies.

Bake for 20 to 25 minutes, or until very light golden brown and puffy. Let cool completely on the baking sheets. Store in an airtight container at room temperature for up to a week.

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All the rich, fudgy flavor of a brownie, but with the convenience of an easy-to-handle cookie. And since we already were tinkering, we also added five-spice powder, a Chinese seasoning made from — you guessed it — a blend of five spices: fennel seeds, cinnamon, cloves, star anise and Sichuan peppercorns.

The result of that blend — of which star anise tends to dominate — is a peppery bite that works so well with the deep chocolate of the cookie.

CHINESE 5-SPICE BROWNIE COOKIES

Start to finish: 2 hours 45 minutes (45 minutes active)

Makes 4 dozen

1/2 cup (1 stick) unsalted butter

3 tablespoons vegetable oil

Two 10-ounce packages dark chocolate bits

6 eggs

1 cup packed brown sugar

1 cup granulated sugar

2 teaspoons vanilla extract

1 teaspoon five-spice powder

2 cups all-purpose flour

1 teaspoon baking powder

1/2 teaspoon salt

In a medium saucepan over medium-high, combine the butter and oil, heating until the butter has melted. Remove the pan from the heat, add the chocolate and stir until completely melted.

If necessary, return the pan to low heat, stirring constantly, to ensure all of the chocolate has melted. Set aside.

In a large bowl, whisk together the eggs, brown sugar, granulated sugar, vanilla and five-spice powder until smooth and slightly thickened. Whisk in the chocolate-butter mixture, then stir in the flour, baking powder and salt until smooth.

Cover and refrigerate for at least 2 hours.

When ready to bake, heat the oven to 350 F. Line 2 baking sheets with parchment paper.

Working in batches, scoop the dough by the tablespoonful onto the prepared pans, leaving 2 inches between. Bake for 10 to 12 minutes, or until puffed and crackly on top. Transfer to a rack to cool. Store in an airtight container at room temperature for up to a week.

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These bars are a serious triple-ginger threat. We packed three varieties of ginger into these tender, chewy bars — grated fresh ginger, dry ground ginger and chopped crystallized ginger. Combined with the elderflower liqueur-soaked cranberries that stud the bars, it is an intoxicating combination (but still child-friendly, though you may not be willing to share).

Want to go for a fourth source of ginger? Swap ginger liqueur for the elderflower. And if cranberries aren’t your style, chopped dried apricots or dried cherries would be good, too.

TRIPLE-GINGER CRANBERRY BARS

Start to finish: 45 minutes (plus overnight soaking)

Makes 24 bars

1 cup dried cranberries

1/2 cup Saint Germain elderflower liqueur

2 cups packed brown sugar

12 tablespoons (11/2 sticks) unsalted butter, room temperature

11/2 teaspoons salt

3 eggs

23/4 cups all-purpose flour

1 tablespoon grated fresh ginger

1 teaspoon dry ground ginger

1/2 cup chopped crystallized ginger

1/2 cup slivered almonds

In small bowl or glass, combine the cranberries and liqueur. Cover and let soak overnight.

When ready to cook, heat the oven to 350 F. Coat a 9-by-13-inch baking pan with cooking spray, then line it with parchment paper.

In a medium bowl, use an electric mixer to beat together the brown sugar, butter and salt until light and fluffy. With the mixer running, add the eggs, one at a time, scraping the bowl between each addition.

Stir in the flour, fresh ginger, ground ginger and the soaked cranberries (they should have completely absorbed the liqueur).

Spread the mixture into the prepared baking pan. Sprinkle the top with the chopped crystallized ginger and the slivered almonds. Bake for 25 to 30 minutes, or until light golden brown and slightly firm to the touch.

Let cool completely in the pan, then cut into 24 bars. Store in an airtight container at room temperature for up to a week.