Holiday Cookies With History

December 19, 2018 Updated: December 19, 2018

Every cookie has a story. That’s the idea behind bestselling author Anne Byrn’s “American Cookie,” as much a cookbook as a portrait of the country, captured through its favorite bite-sized treats.

History lessons abound, from the origins of snickerdoodles to whoopie pies. Italian fig cookies and German lebkuchen reflect our melting-pot population’s roots, while Southern tea cakes and New Mexico’s bizcochitos (its state cookie) highlight regional pride.

Recipes are borrowed from old magazines and cookbooks to Byrn’s own files, but perhaps the most charming come straight from the kitchens of families around the country. Though suitable to bake any time of year, they’re especially welcome inspiration now, to fill your cookie platters this holiday season.

Uncle Milt’s Christmas Cookies

Milton Howard Carter moved west from Vermont, married a girl from Washington State, and spent a happy life in Oregon, according to his niece Connie Carter. She says Uncle Milt and his family were known for their joyous, warm, western hospitality—as in “nothing is too much trouble.” Uncle Milt was also known for his fruitcake cookies, possibly the most perfect fruitcake cookie you will ever taste. They were always baked for Christmas.

And true to his living in the Pacific Northwest, these loaded cookies contained both hazelnuts and walnuts, as well as dates, pecans, cherries, and pineapple. Today they are the cookie to bake when dried fruits and nuts come into the supermarket for holiday shopping. They are the perfect cookie for gift-giving.

But should you not be able to find an ingredient—I couldn’t find candied pineapple off-season and used dried pineapple instead—you can successfully substitute. Although Connie says Uncle Milt was particular about his recipe, didn’t like to share it with just anyone, and didn’t like substitutions, you can improvise. My deep apologies to Uncle Milt, who died in 1982, but this wonderful fruitcake cookie recipe is ripe for improvisation. It easily could be delicious with chopped dried peaches instead of the pineapple. You could omit the dates and use raisins. But be forewarned that this is a big recipe, yielding more than 100 cookies. Choose an afternoon to spend a couple hours chopping, scooping, baking, and packaging. It’s worth it!

Christmas Cookies (Tina Rupp)
Christmas Cookies (Tina Rupp)

Prep time: 40 to 45 minutes
Bake time: 11 to 13 minutes

Makes 12 dozen (1 1/2-inch) or 9 dozen (2 1/2-inch) cookies

  • 8 ounces candied or dried pineapple, finely chopped
  • 1 pound candied cherries, coarsely chopped
  • 1 pound pitted dates, chopped
  • 2 1/3 cups all-purpose flour, divided use
  • 1 cup chopped walnuts
  • 1 cup chopped hazelnuts
  • 1 cup chopped pecans
  • 1 cup unsalted butter, at room temperature
  • 1 1/2 cups light brown sugar, lightly packed
  • 2 large eggs, at room temperature
  • 1 teaspoon baking soda
  • 1 teaspoon ground cinnamon
  • 1/4 teaspoon salt

In a large bowl, toss the pineapple, cherries, and dates with 1/3 cup of flour. Add the walnuts, hazelnuts, and pecans to the fruit mixture. Toss again, and set aside.

Place a rack in the center of the oven, and preheat the oven to 350 degrees Fahrenheit. Line two baking sheets with parchment paper.

Place the soft butter and sugar in a large mixing bowl and beat with an electric mixer on medium speed until light and creamy, about two minutes. Add the eggs, one at a time, and beat after each addition. Scrape down the sides of the bowl with a rubber spatula.

In a separate bowl, stir together the remaining two cups flour with the baking soda, cinnamon, and salt in a medium-size bowl. Fold half of the flour mixture into the butter and sugar mixture and beat on low speed until just combined, about one minute. Add the other half of the dry ingredients and beat until combined, one minute. Fold in the fruit and nut mixture a little at a time. The dough will be stiff, and you may need to mix it with your hands to get all the ingredients incorporated. If you have disposable plastic gloves, use them.

Drop the dough onto the prepared pans using a small cookie scoop or roll the dough into balls and place them on the pans. Space the balls 1 1/2 to 2 inches apart. Place a pan in the oven.

Bake the cookies until browned around the edges but still a little soft in the center, 11 to 13 minutes. Remove the pan from the oven, and let the cookies cool on the pan for two minutes. Transfer them with a metal spatula to a wire rack to cool completely. Repeat with the remaining dough. Store the cookies up to one week at room temperature.

Excerpted from “American Cookie.” Copyright 2018 by Anne Byrn. Photographs copyright 2018 by Tina Rupp. Published by Rodale Books, an imprint of the Crown Publishing Group, a division of Penguin Random House.