Kitchen Wit & Wisdom: Baking up an international flavour

Christmas baking from around the world: Polish Cream Cheese Kolaczki

Christmas is less than a month away and many homes are already beginning to enjoy the smells that come from baking their favourite cookies. As for me, I’m only at the stage of making my lists for the season, well, except for these cookies that I needed for today’s column.

I wanted to try a number of favourite  internationaI Christmas  cookies and started with five recipes. It was not a good day for me as the only one that worked as written was the Scottish shortbread. Good old reliable Scots! The Polish cookie would have been fine except I used freezer jam: not a good idea as it’s too runny, luckily I managed to salvage enough for the photo. The German cookie was far too soft to hold a proper form and I remade that one with one of my proven recipes. The first Norwegian recipe I tried was far too stiff to go through a cookie press  as directed and the Swiss cookie dough was so sloppy it couldn’t be rolled out even when chilled, in fact it was a complete disaster that wasn’t even salvageable.

So just remember, if you’re looking for recipes on the Internet, a “prize winner” may be just that, or on the other hand, it could be missing ingredients or not properly tested! Here are four that did work for me.

Polish Cream Cheese Kolaczki

1 (8-ounce) pkg. cream cheese, softened

12 ounces (3 sticks) butter, softened

3 cups all-purpose flour

2 (14-ounce) cans fillings of choice (apricot, prune, raspberry, etc.)

Confectioners’ sugar

Granulated sugar

Mix cream cheese and butter until light and fluffy. Add flour 1 cup at a time and mix well. Wrap dough in plastic and refrigerate for at least 1 hour.  Heat oven to 350 degrees.

Roll out dough 1/4-inch on a surface that has been dusted with equal parts confectioners’ and granulated sugars (not flour), because the granulated sugar will act as ball bearings and help keep the dough from sticking. Cut into 2-inch squares. Place 1/2 to 1 teaspoon filling on centre of each square. Overlap opposite corners of dough to the center over filling.

Bake for 15 minutes or when corners start to brown. Cool and dust with confectioners’ sugar. These tend to become soggy if held for several days, so store them tightly covered (or freeze) without the confectioners’ sugar. Dust with confectioners’ sugar just prior to serving.  Makes about 5 dozen.

Scottish Shortbread

2 ¼ sticks butter

Tiny pinch of salt

½ cup fine/caster sugar, plus extra for sprinkling

2 cups all-purpose flour, plus extra for dusting

3 ½ oz.  cornstarch/cornflour

Preheat the oven to 325 degrees F

In a large bowl, cream together the butter, salt and sugar until light and fluffy and pale in colour. This can take at least 10 minutes. Alternatively, use a food mixer.

Mix together the flour and cornstarch and sieve into the bowl of butter and sugar. Mix quickly and thoroughly to bring all the ingredients together but do not over-mix.  Tip the mixture onto a lightly floured work surface and knead lightly and quickly to form a loose dough, then use one of two methods:

Method one: Roll out the dough between 2 sheets of parchment paper to ¼-inch thick. Prick the surface all over with a fork. Cut into desired shape or rounds using cookie cutters. Place the Scottish shortbreads on a lightly greased baking sheet and bake for 25 minutes or until pale brown and crisp. Sprinkle the warm Scottish shortbreads with fine sugar and leave to cool on a wire cooling rack.

Method two: grease a Swiss roll tin 9” x 13” with butter. Press the dough into the tin and press with your fingers to level the surface, prick all over with a fork. Bake in the preheated oven for 45 minutes or until golden brown. With the shortbread still in the tin, cut into squares or fingers; leave to cool for 15 minutes then carefully remove to a wire cooling rack.

Store in an airtight tin or box.

German Vanilla Half Moons

3/4 cup butter, softened

1/2 cup white sugar

2 egg yolks

1 1/2 vanilla beans, divided

1 1/2 cups all-purpose flour

1/2 cup ground almonds

2 cups confectioners’ sugar for rolling

In a medium bowl, cream together the butter and white sugar until smooth. Beat in the egg yolks one at a time. Split the half of vanilla bean and scrape the seeds; stir the seeds into the butter mixture. Mix in the flour and ground almonds. Divide the dough into two pieces, wrap and refrigerate until firm.

Preheat oven to 350 degrees F. Line cookie sheets with parchment paper. Break off tablespoonful sized pieces of dough and roll them into little ropes about 2 inches long. Bend the ropes into a half circle and place them 2 inches apart onto the prepared cookie sheets. Bake for 10 to 15 minutes in the preheated oven, until lightly browned.

Scrape the seeds from the remaining vanilla bean and stir them into the confectioners’ sugar. Carefully roll warm cookies in the vanilla sugar.

Norwegian Spritz Cookie

2 cups butter, room temperature*

1 cup granulated sugar

1 egg, well-beaten

1 teaspoon pure vanilla extract

4 cups sifted all-purpose flour

* You must use butter in this recipe. The secret of a great spritz cookie is a dough that is fat enough to press or pipe yet sturdy enough to hold its shape in the oven. It must be butter, not margarine.

Preheat oven to 375 degrees F. Refrigerate UNGREASED cookie sheets until ready to use.

NOTE: Pressing the dough out onto cool, ungreased baking sheets makes it possible for each application to stick on contact. You will need to clean off the cookie sheets between batches.

In a large bowl, mix butter until creamy. Gradually add sugar; cream until light and fluffy. Add egg and beat well; stir in vanilla extract. Gradually add flour to mixture, beating well after each addition.

The secret lies in the dough, which should be neither too soft nor too firm. If it is too soft, the cookies will have no definition, and if the dough is too firm, the cookies will bake too dry.

To test the dough’s consistency before baking a batch, press a small amount of dough through the cookie press cylinder. If the dough is too soft so that it doesn’t go through cleanly, chill the dough for about 15 minutes. If the dough seems too firm, stir into the dough about 1 or 2 teaspoons whole milk. If dough becomes too soft during use, refrigerate dough about 5 minutes or until firm enough to hold its shape (the dough will crumble if it is too cold, and it won’t stick to the cookie sheet).

Editor’s note: Spritz are traditional Christmas cookies in Scandinavian countries. You’ll need a cookie press to make these cookies, which are formed into a variety of shapes.

Cathi Litzenberger is The Morning Star’s longtime food columnist.