Beyond the chocolate chip: Local bakers share their favorite holiday cookies

WARM WELCOME: The White Gate Inn & Cottage will offer tho-tho's (Sicilian Christmas cookies) to guests this holiday season. Photo by Hayley Benton

Move on over, Thanksgiving pies. ‘Tis the season for cookies — and local bakers are breaking out their holiday specialties. From classic ginger molasses cookies from Well-Bred Bakery in Asheville and Weaverville to Dough’s bright red holiday French macarons to gluten-free, chocolate-dipped biscotti from the Swannanoa-based Dolci di Maria, there are plenty of cookies in town that you would be proud to show off at that annual cookie swap. (You don’t have to bake them yourself, right?)

Of course, if you are a fan of baking, you could try your hand at the recipes provided by the Asheville Bed and Breakfast Association. This year, local inns are offering a two-night holiday package that includes, among other perks, a gift of holiday cookies provided by the innkeepers.

“All our our Asheville Bed and Breakfast Association inns make a point of adding personal, home-like touches to the guest experience,”  says Frank Salvo of 1889 White Gate Inn & Cottage. “Homemade cookies, many coming from passed-down family traditions, are just a natural extension of what we do best.” Some old favorites like the molasses crinkle cookies will likely remind you of the ones your grandma used to make. Others, like Salvo’s tho-tho, a Sicilian Christmas cookie with cocoa, cloves, walnuts and a powdered-sugar glaze, might end up being a new addition to your repertoire.

While any cookie could arguably find its place in a holiday assortment, Christmas is often a time for bringing out those extra-special recipes that take a little extra effort compared to your typical chocolate chip fare. Many of these once-a-year kind of recipes highlight winter ingredients like pecans, nutmeg and molasses. Others, like sugar and shortbread cookies, get decked out festively with bright reds and greens.

One of those more complex cookies is the almond horn, which also happens to be a speciality at Black Mountain Bakery. The almond horn is named for its crescent shape and almondy, almost marzipan-like flavor. It is a sweet, light pastry rolled in almonds and hand-dipped in chocolate. Crispy on the outside and chewy on the inside, it’s no wonder that this particular cookie, packaged in holiday tins, is Black Mountain Bakery’s big seller through the winter.

Serious cookie enthusiasts can taste holiday cookies from Black Mountain Bakery, as well as holiday-themed treats from other Black Mountain purveyors, at Creative Mountain Food Tours’ Sugar Plum Holiday Dessert Tour on Friday, Dec. 19, at 2 p.m. During this walking tour around Black Mountain, participants will sample cookies and more from places like Dobra Tea, Hey Hey Cupcake and the Red Rocker Inn.

Asheville bakeries are also readying their holiday treats. Geraldine’s Bakery has been in business for a little over a year and has already won over patrons with its classic take on cakes, scratch-made doughnuts, breads and pastries. Owner and baker Fred Dehlow owned a bakery on Long Island for 25 years before opening Geraldine’s on Merrimon Avenue and is looking forward to another holiday season. Customers can buy an assortment of cookies by the pound, including shortbread cookies of various flavors and Christmas-themed colors. Last year, says Dehlow, the big seller was his gingerbread men. The gingerbread houses were also very popular and will be making a reappearance this season.

For people who don’t eat gluten, cookies can be a challenge. Sheila Horine, branch manager of the Gluten Intolerance Group of Asheville, knows this all too well. “As we all know, wheat flour makes products fluffier and hold together,” says Horine. “Flour substitutes are mostly rice flour-based. Once rice flour is baked in a cookie, it often becomes brittle, and you end up eating crumbs.” To avoid this common gluten-free pitfall, Horine recommends that beginners use a mix. Local companies Ardenne Farms, Dolci di Maria and Moon Rabbit Foods all sell gluten-free baking mixes for cookies and more. “The Ardenne Farms Oatmeal Cookie mix is one of my favorites,” adds Horine.

And luckily, with more people (and bakers) becoming aware of alternative diets, finding gluten-free cookies — while challenging — is hardly impossible. With a little research and help from local bakers, everyone can enjoy cookies this holiday season.

The Asheville Bed & Breakfast Association’s Inn-Sider’s Holiday Package is available through Jan. 3. For details, visit AshevilleBBAcom or call 877-262-6867.

The Sugar Plum Holiday Dessert Tour takes place at 2 p.m. Dec. 19 in downtown Black Mountain. Cost is $35. creativemountainfoodtours.com or 419-0590 

LOCAL COOKIE RECIPES

Brevard resident Karen Koelling, a member of the Celiac Support Group of Hendersonville, was diagnosed with celiac disease as an infant and can tolerate no gluten in her diet. She provides her recipe for chocolate snowball cookies as a gluten-free dessert alternative for the holiday season. “These are delicious and gluten-free,” says Koelling.

Chocolate Snowball Cookies

1 1/2 cups gluten-free flour (available from most retail grocers)

2 teaspoons baking powder

1/2 teaspoon salt

1 cup sugar

1/2 cup butter, softened

1/2 cup unsweetened cocoa powder

1  large egg

1 teaspoon peppermint extract

1/2 cup powdered sugar

In a medium-sized bowl, blend flour, baking powder and salt.  Set aside. In large bowl, cream together sugar and butter. Add cocoa and egg. Beat until well combined. Add peppermint extract. Mix well. Add dry ingredients to butter-cocoa mixture, and mix until dough forms. Refrigerate for 30 minutes. Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Line cookie sheet with parchment paper. Place powdered sugar in a shallow bowl. Removed dough from refrigerator. Scoop out tablespoon-sized pieces and form into balls. Roll balls in powdered sugar. Place on cookie sheet and bake 13-15 minutes. Cool 1 minute before removing from cookie sheet. Store in air-tight container.

— Recipe from Karen Koelling

Frank Salvo of the White Gate Inn & Cottage will offer his Sicilian Christmas cookies to guests this holiday season. Photo by Hayley Benton

Tho-Tho Cookies (Sicilian Christmas cookies)

Cookies:

4 cups all-purpose flour

1 cup sugar

4 teaspoons baking powder

1 cup cocoa

2 teaspoons ground cinnamon

2 teaspoons ground cloves

1 cup shortening

4 large eggs

½ cup milk

1 ½ cup chopped walnuts

Powdered Sugar Glaze:

1 cup sifted powdered sugar

1 ½ tablespoons milk

½ teaspoon vanilla extract

Preheat oven to 350 degrees.

Make cookie dough: Combine first six ingredients in bowl; set aside. Beat shortening at medium speed of an electric mixer for 2 minutes or until light and fluffy. Gradually add eggs and milk, alternating with flour mixture. Mix until smooth. Stir in walnuts. Bake for 10 to 12 minutes or until cookies are done.

Make powdered sugar glaze: Combine sugar, milk and vanilla, stirring well.

Coat baked cookies with glaze. You may have some glaze left over.

— Recipe from 1889 WhiteGate Inn & Cottage, Asheville NC, a member of the Asheville Bed & Breakfast Association

Molasses Crinkles

¾ cup shortening

1 cup brown sugar               

1 large egg, beaten              

¼ cup molasses                  

2¼ cups all-purpose flour

¼ teaspoon salt

2 teaspoons baking soda

1 teaspooon ground cinnamon

1 teaspoon ground ginger

1 teaspoon ground cloves

¼ cup sugar

Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Cream shortening and sugar in an electric mixer until light and fluffy. Add egg and molasses, beating until  blended.  Combine flour, salt, baking soda  and  spices.  Slowly add the  dry  ingredients to the mixture, beating well. Shape dough into balls and roll in ¼ cup sugar. Bake on an ungreased baking sheet for 12-15 minutes.

— Recipe from Dry Ridge Inn, Weaverville, NC;  a member of the Asheville Bed & Breakfast Association. 

Sour Cream Nut Drops

2 cups all-purpose flour

1 teaspoon baking powder

1/2 teaspoon baking soda

1 large egg

1/2 cup butter, softened

1 cup light brown sugar

1 teaspoon vanilla extract

1/2 cup sour cream

1 1/2 cup chopped pecans or walnuts

Preheat oven to 375 degrees. Combine flour, baking powder and baking soda in a large bowl; set aside. Combine egg, butter, brown sugar, vanilla and sour cream into a blender or food processor.  Blend/process for 30 seconds on puree.  After 15 seconds, add nuts.  Add blended ingredients to dry mix.  Drop from teaspoon measuring spoons onto parchment-lined baking sheets.  Bake for 10 minutes. Makes approximately 7 dozen.

— Recipe from Applewood Manor Inn, Asheville, NC; a member of the Asheville Bed & Breakfast Association.

Florentine Island Shortbread Cookies with Almond Caramel

Shortbread:

2 cups all-purpose flour

2 tablespoons cornstarch

6 tablespoons unsalted butter

1/3 cup sugar

Combine the ingredients above in your food processor bowl. Process with the metal blade of your food processor until the dough comes together. Finish kneading with your hands.

Wrap in plastic wrap and chill in the refrigerator for an hour.

Almond-Caramel:

2/3 cup sugar

2 tablespoons honey

7 tablespoons butter

1 cup heavy cream

2 cups slivered almonds

7 ounces bittersweet or dark chocolate

Combine sugar, honey, butter and cream in a heavy saucepan; cook for 5 minutes over medium heat. Stir in almonds. Cook for 7 minutes or until the mixtures turns to an amber color. Let stand, uncovered, away from the heat until the shortbread cookie dough is ready.

Roll the shortbread dough into balls that are ½-inch in diameter. With your hands, press the balls flat onto a cookie sheet lined with parchment paper. The rim of the cookie might crack a little; that’s OK.

Bake cookies in a preheated 375-degree oven for 10 to 12 minutes. The cookies should be light in color; they are not done yet. With a spoon in one hand and the fingers of your other hand, form an indention in the center of the shortbread cookie and add a heap of almond-caramel to the center of the cookie. Return cookies to the oven for about 5 minutes or until the almonds turn dark amber.

Place cookies on a baking rack and let cool. Melt chocolate in a saucepan or your microwave oven; drizzle over the cold cookies. Let harden. To store, layer cookies carefully between wax or parchment paper in a cookie tin.

— Recipe from The Sweet Biscuit Inn in Asheville, NC; a member of the Asheville Bed & Breakfast Association.

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About Lea McLellan
Lea McLellan is a freelance writer who likes to write stories about music, art, food, wellness and interesting locals doing interesting things.

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