More so than glimpsing Santa in the mall or hearing carols at every bend, what could be the truest harbinger of Christmastime? For us, it’s unearthing the holiday cookie cutters for yet another year and easing into a glorious weekend of baking, decorating, and celebrating.
The traditional Christmas cookie may seem simple, but its clean silhouette belies its potential fickleness—there are so many ways a baking escapade can go wrong. But this year, there’s no sense in worrying. Our step-by-step guide below guarantees it’ll all be good. Why? By trial and error, we’ve discovered the best way to make flat, sturdy, delicious cookies that are easy to bake and built for giving.
Psst: There’s more cookie action over on our Holiday Cookie Emergency Guide.
Using an electric mixer on medium-low speed, slowly beat the butter into the flour mixture, one piece at a time. Continue to beat the flour-butter mixture until it looks crumbly and slightly wet, 1 to 2 minutes. This process, called “reverse creaming” is what makes these cookies tender yet sturdy. This also produces flat cookies, without any air pockets, that are easy to decorate.
Once the butter and flour are properly combined, add the cream cheese (and vanilla) until fully incorporated. The cream cheese helps give the cookies flavor and makes the dough particularly easy to work with.
Divide the dough into two pieces, wrap them in plastic wrap, and refrigerate them for at least 30 minutes. This will make the dough easier to roll out.
Roll out the dough between two pieces of parchment paper until it is ⅛ inch thick. If you make the dough thicker, the cookies will be tough and clunky looking. Chill the rolled-out dough in the refrigerator for 10 minutes—this will make it easier to cut out the cookies.
Cut as many shapes from the dough as possible and transfer to a prepared baking sheet for baking. You can gather and chill the scraps for one more batch.
These thin cookies go from perfectly baked to overbaked in a matter of minutes so it’s important to watch for the subtle signs of when they’re done—they should show a slight resistance to touch and be starting to brown along the edges. Baking them one sheet at a time ensures that they will all bake evenly.
For a smooth, evenly glazed cookie, spoon a little glaze on the center of the cookie, then spread it out in an even layer using the back of the spoon.
To add detail to a cut-out cookie, pipe the design directly on the cookie. (You can use either a pastry bag with a small round tip or you can fill a zipper-lock bag with glaze and snip off a corner of it.)
While the glaze is still soft, place decorations on the glaze and allow them to set. And feel free to venture beyond the cookie-decorating aisle for embellishments—try red-hots, jelly beans, crushed peppermint candies, gum drops, or chocolate morsels, just to name a few.
By dragging a toothpick through two different colors of wet glaze, you can create all kinds of designs, from hearts and stars to wiggly lines and swirls.