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How to build the perfect holiday cookie box, plus 5 recipes to get you started – USA TODAY

Cookie boxes packed to the brim with sweets are my favorite thing to give during the holidays.

For 11 months of the year, I’m not really a baker. But as soon as the calendar flips to December, my kitchen turns into a bakery. All the mixing bowls, pans and sprinkles I’ve neglected are thrust back into commission and my oven churns out batch after batch of cookies such as delicate spritz cookies, jam-filled thumbprints, mouthwatering ginger molasses, and heavenly peanut butter blossoms. Sure, my family eats some of them, but most cookies are destined to be packaged into festive boxes for friends and family. It is the season of giving, after all.          

Over the years, I’ve learned a few things about building the perfect cookie box. They should have a mix of flavors, be packaged with care and delivered early in the season to help spark holiday cheer.

‘The best sugar cookie I’ve ever baked’: Get the recipe 

When I make cookie boxes, I pick at least one recipe from five categories:

  • Warming flavors such as gingerbread, snickerdoodle and chai cookies
  • Sweet ones like butterscotch chip, white chocolate macadamia nut and Christmas candy bark
  • Pretty cookies like iced sugar cookies, peppermint pinwheels or stained-glass cookies
  • Chocolate delights such as chocolate crinkle cookies, chocolate chip and chocolate covered cherry cookies
  • Buttery cookies such as jam thumbprints, shortbread and butter pecan

Presentation is as important as taste, so how should you arrange your cookie box?  

  • Put cookies with strong flavors, like ginger and cinnamon, into a treat bag before adding it to the box. This will ensure they don’t seep into milder cookies and overpower them.
  • I opt for well-made cardboard boxes over tins to save money. You can find nice selections at baking stores and online retailers. If you’re shipping treats, tins are the sturdier option. 
  • Parchment paper is your friend. Use it to line the box and create separators to group like cookies together.
  • Pack cookies snug in the box to prevent them from moving around during transport.

A few other things to keep in mind:

  • Make a baking strategy. Thoroughly read your recipes before you start baking so you can make a shopping list and estimate how much time it’ll take to make each type.
  • Note which doughs need to be chilled, which can be made ahead of time and how many batches you’ll need of each.
  • If you’re making more than three types of cookies, you’ll likely need to bake over two or three days to get everything finished.  

USA TODAY Gift Guide:  No matter how you holiday, make it iconic. Shop the USA TODAY holiday gift collection. 

Here are some recipes to help get you started on your best holiday cookie box yet:

Giant ginger cookies

From Josh Johnson, The Kentucky Gent via Southern Kitchen 

Ingredients:

  • 2½ cups all-purpose flour
  • 2¼ teaspoons baking soda
  • ½ teaspoon salt
  • 1 tablespoon ground ginger
  • ½ teaspoon ground cloves
  • ¼ teaspoon ground pepper
  • ¾ cup (1½ sticks) unsalted butter, room temperature
  • ½ cup packed light brown sugar
  • ½ cup granulated sugar, plus ⅓ cup for coating
  • 6 tablespoons molasses
  • 1 large egg

Instructions: 

Preheat oven to 350 degrees, with racks in upper and lower thirds.

Line two baking sheets with parchment paper; set aside.

In a medium bowl, whisk together flour, baking soda, salt, ginger, cloves and pepper.

With an electric mixer, cream butter, brown sugar, and ½ cup granulated sugar until light and fluffy.

Beat in molasses and egg.

With the mixer on low, gradually beat in flour mixture until just combined.

Flatten into a disk, wrap in plastic and freeze for 20 minutes.

Divide dough into twelve 2-inch balls.

Place remaining ⅓ cup granulated sugar in a bowl.

Roll balls in sugar to coat; place at least 4 inches apart on prepared baking sheets.

Flatten into 3-inch rounds. Sprinkle with sugar remaining in bowl.

Bake until brown, rotating sheets halfway through, 12 to 15 minutes.

Cool cookies on a wire rack.

Kathleen’s Sugar Cookies

From Anne Byrn’s blog “Between the Layers” via Southern Kitchen 

A recipe like this is made for a cookie swap, but I will warn you that everyone may gravitate to your decorated cookies! I love cookie swaps because of the variety. You show up with one kind of cookie and go home with eight to 10 more.

Makes: About 5 dozen cookies

Prep: 10 to 15 minutes to make the dough, plus 1 hour for decorating

Chill: At least an hour, or overnight

Ingredients:

  • 1 cup (8 ounces) unsalted butter, at room temperature
  • 1 cup granulated sugar
  • 2 large eggs
  • 2 teaspoons pure vanilla extract
  • 3 cups all-purpose flour
  • 1 large egg white, lightly beaten with a fork
  • Colored sugars of your choice

Instructions:

Make the cookie dough: Place the butter and granulated sugar in a large bowl and using an electric mixer on medium speed, beat until light and fluffy, 1 to 2 minutes. Add the eggs and vanilla and beat well. Beat in the flour on low speed until just combined. Cover the bowl and chill at least 2 hours, or preferably overnight.

Place a rack in the center of the oven and preheat the oven to 350°F. Line a cookie sheet with parchment paper or leave it ungreased.

Working with a quarter of the dough at a time, roll it out on a floured surface to about 1/8-inch thickness. Keep the remaining dough refrigerated. Cut with cookie cutters dipped in flour and transfer cookies carefully to the baking sheet, spacing them about 1 inch apart.

Decorate the cookies: If you are using colored sugars, brush the cookies with a little egg white before sprinkling on the colored sugars. If there is room, place the cookie sheet in the fridge for a few minutes for the cookies to get nice and cold before they bake.

Bake the cookies until they are golden brown, 10 to 12 minutes. Transfer the baking sheets to wire racks and let the cookies cool on them for 1 minute. Then, using a spatula, transfer the cookies to wire racks to cool. Repeat with the remaining cookie dough.

Once the cookies are cool, place in tins, lined with parchment or waxed paper. Place the lids on the tins. Left tightly covered, the cookies stay crisp for up to a week.

Rose’s Dream Chocolate Chip Cookies

From “The Cookie Bible” by Rose Levy Beranbaum (Harvest, an imprint of HarperCollins Publishers)

My dream chocolate chip cookie has crisp edges and is moist and chewy inside. Here’s how I accomplish that: I brown the butter to remove the water, which promotes crispness and also adds flavor. Then I add golden or corn syrup to make the inside of the cookies moist and chewy. Golden syrup adds a delicious butterscotch note. Unbleached all-purpose flour gives the cookies a slightly chewier texture than bleached flour. I like to add walnuts, but the cookies are still delicious without nuts.

Makes: Twenty-two 2¾ inch cookies

Ingredients:

  • 8 tablespoons (1 stick) unsalted butter
  • 1 large egg
  • 1 teaspoon pure vanilla extract
  • ¾ cup walnut halves
  • 1⅓ cups all-purpose flour, preferably unbleached, lightly spooned into the cup and leveled off
  • ½ teaspoon baking soda
  • ¼ teaspoon fine sea salt
  • ¼ cup plus 2 tablespoons (firmly packed) light brown sugar, preferably Muscovado
  • 2 tablespoons granulated sugar
  • 2 tablespoons golden syrup (or corn syrup)
  • 1 cup dark chocolate chips, 52% to 63% cacao

Instructions:

At least 20 minutes before baking, set an oven rack at the middle level. Preheat to 350°F.

Thirty minutes to 1 hour ahead, cut the butter into tablespoon-size pieces. Set on the counter to soften.

Thirty minutes ahead, into the bowl of a stand mixer, weigh or measure the egg. Whisk in the vanilla extract. Cover tightly with plastic wrap.

Brown the Butter: Have ready by the cooktop a 1 cup glass measure with a spout.

In a small heavy saucepan, melt the butter over very low heat, stirring often with a light-colored silicone spatula. Raise the heat to low and boil, stirring constantly, until the milk solids on the spatula have become little brown specks. An instant-read thermometer should read 285° to 290F°. Immediately pour the butter into the glass measure, scraping in the browned solids as well. You should have about ½ cup minus 1 tablespoon. Allow the browned butter to cool to 80°F.

Toast and Chop the Walnuts: Spread the walnuts evenly on a baking sheet and bake for 5 minutes. Turn the walnuts onto a clean dish towel and roll and rub them around to loosen the skins. Discard any loose skins and let the nuts cool completely, then chop into coarse pieces.

In a small bowl, whisk together the flour, baking soda, and salt.

Make the dough:

Into the bowl of the stand mixer fitted with the flat beater, add the browned butter with the solids, the sugars, and golden syrup and mix on low speed for 1 minute.

Add the flour mixture. Starting on the lowest speed, beat just until the flour is moistened. Continue beating on low speed for 30 seconds, or until well mixed. Add the chocolate chips and walnuts and continue beating just until evenly incorporated.

Divide the dough in half (about 345 grams each). Wrap each piece in plastic wrap. If the dough is very sticky, refrigerate for about 30 minutes.

Shape the dough:

Divide one piece of dough into 11 walnut-size pieces (31 grams each). Roll each piece of dough in the palms of your hands to form a 1½ inch ball.

Place the balls 2 inches apart on a cookie sheet. Flatten the cookies to about 2 inches wide by ½ inch high.

Bake the cookies:

Bake for 4 minutes. Rotate the cookie sheet halfway around. Continue baking for 4 to 6 minutes, or until the cookies are just beginning to brown on the tops. When gently pressed with a fingertip, they should still feel soft in the middle.

Cool the cookies:

Set the cookie sheet on a wire rack and let the cookies cool for 1 minute, or until firm enough to lift from the sheet. Use a thin pancake turner to transfer the cookies to another wire rack. Cool completely.

8. Repeat with the second batch.

Store airtight: room temperature, 2 weeks; refrigerated, 1 month; frozen, 3 months.

Authentic Linzer Cookies

From “Bigger Bolder Baking Every Day” by Gemma Stafford (Harvest, an imprint of HarperCollins Publishers)

Makes 18 sandwich cookies

Ingredients:

  • ¾ cup (1 ½ sticks) butter, softened
  • ¾ cup granulated sugar
  • 1 large egg, at room temperature
  • 1 teaspoon pure vanilla extract
  • 1 ½ cups all-purpose flour
  • ½ cup almond flour
  • 1 teaspoon ground cinnamon
  • 1/2 teaspoon baking powder
  • ½ teaspoon salt
  • ½ cup seedless raspberry jam
  • Confectioners’ sugar, for dusting

Instructions:

In a large bowl, cream the butter and granulated sugar together until pale and fluffy.

Add the egg and vanilla and beat until well combined.

In a medium bowl, whisk together the all-purpose flour, almond flour, cinnamon, baking powder, and salt. Gradually mix the flour mixture into the butter mixture until just combined.

Turn the dough out of the bowl and shape it into a flattened disc. Wrap in plastic wrap and refrigerate until very firm, at least 2 hours or up to 3 days.

When you are ready to bake your cookies, preheat the oven to 375°F (190°C). Line two cookie sheets with parchment paper.

On a floured surface, roll out the dough to about 1/8 inch thick. Using a 21/2-inch round cookie cutter, cut out as many cookies as you can, placing them 2 inches apart on the prepared cookie sheets. If you like, gather the scraps, roll them out, and cut more cookies.

Using a 1-inch round cookie cutter, cut a hole in the center of half the cookies. (You can bake them up separately if you’d like.)

Bake for 15 to 18 minutes, rotating the sheets halfway through, until the cookie edges are lightly golden brown. Let cool on the cookie sheets for a few minutes before transferring to a wire rack to cool completely.

Flip over the cookies without holes so they are flat-side up and spread about 1 teaspoon of jam into the center of each, leaving a small border.

Dust the cut-out cookies generously with confectioners’ sugar, then carefully place them over the jam-covered cookies. Press to seal very gently so you don’t break the top cookies.

Note: The assembled cookies are best enjoyed the day they are made, but leftovers can be stored in an airtight container at room temperature for up to 3 days.

Caramel-Rum Eggnog Cups

From “Betty Crocker Cookbook, 13th Edition” (Harvest, an imprint of HarperCollins Publishers)

Makes 2 dozen cookie cups

Ingredients:

Filling

  • ½ cup white vanilla baking chips
  • ¼ cup dairy eggnog (do not use canned)

Cookies

  • ½ cup butter, softened
  • ⅔ cup packed brown sugar
  • 1 egg
  • 1¼ cups all-purpose flour
  • ¼ cup unsweetened baking cocoa
  • ½ teaspoon baking soda
  • ¼ teaspoon ground nutmeg

Topping

  • 2 tablespoons salted caramel or caramel topping (from 15 oz jar)
  • 1 or 2 drops rum extract
  • Coarse kosher or sea salt, if desired

Instructions:

Heat oven to 350°F. Spray 24 mini muffin cups with cooking spray.

In small bowl, place vanilla baking chips. In 1-quart saucepan, heat eggnog just until hot; pour over baking chips. Let stand 3 to 5 minutes. Stir until chips are melted and smooth.

In medium bowl, beat butter, brown sugar and egg with electric mixer on medium speed until well mixed. Beat in remaining cookie ingredients until well mixed. Shape dough by rounded tablespoonfuls into 1¼-inch balls. (If dough is too sticky to handle, dust fingers with a little all-purpose flour.) Press 1 ball into bottom and up side of each muffin cup.

Bake 9 to 11 minutes or until set. Using the handle end of wooden spoon or rounded back of measuring teaspoon, make indent in center of each cookie cup. Cool completely in pan on cooling racks, about 15 minutes. Remove cookie cups from muffin cups to cooling rack. Cool completely, about 15 minutes.

Fill each cookie with 1 teaspoon filling. In small bowl, mix salted caramel topping and rum extract; drizzle over cups. Sprinkle with salt. Refrigerate cups in a single layer in a tightly-covered container.

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