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Turn Your Holiday Cookie Bake into an International Incident

Looking for holiday cookie inspirations beyond chocolate, peppermint, and eggnog? Seek inspiration abroad.

Published Dec. 21, 2020.

Kevin Pang

As I count down the days of this forsaken year, I’ve found the act of baking cookies a soothing balm. This shouldn’t surprise readers of this site, but consider the unlikely source: Me, a non-cookie person, whose culinary curiosity leans closer to confiting my Thanksgiving turkey in three pounds of duck fat. But baking cookies has been meditative, especially this year, and gifting them to others has felt tremendously satisfying. 

That said, I’ve never been satisfied with base recipes; a chocolate chip cookie is great, but a chocolate chip-pretzel cookie is better. I’ve always been a tinkerer. In thinking about the tradition of holiday desserts, it always seemed like the same handful of flavors were at play (chocolate, peppermint, eggnog etc.).

So this is my mission this year: Take a classic sugar cookie, and add toppings and ingredients that aren’t typically associated with American holiday desserts. I wanted a cookie that was simultaneously familiar and unfamiliar.

I reached out to three chefs and cookbook authors I admired—Andrea Nguyen, Cheetie Kumar, John Kanell—for their guidance.

From left: Andrea Nguyen (photo: Rory O'Brien), Cheetie Kumar (photo: Joe Payne), John Kanell (photo: Preppy Kitchen)
From left: Andrea Nguyen (photo: Rory O'Brien), Cheetie Kumar (photo: Joe Payne), John Kanell (photo: Preppy Kitchen)

Andrea Nguyen

Nguyen’s book Vietnamese Food Any Day is among the most sauce-splattered, dog-eared cookbooks in my kitchen. Her Umami Garlic Noodles with Shiitake Mushrooms has entered that tier of “genius recipes” that I’ll turn to twice a month. 

Since Christmas flavors involve a lot of warm spices, Nguyen suggested substituting Chinese five spice for any recipe that involves, say, pumpkin spice or cinnamon. Chinese five spice—used frequently in Vietnamese cooking—is the combination of star anise, fennel seeds, cinnamon (or cassia bark), cloves, and Sichuan peppercorn. It’s that last ingredient that imparts the subtly spicy, numbing effect in dishes. Nguyen says it’s easy enough to buy your own spices and make Chinese five spice at home, but you can also inexpensively find it at Asian grocers.

Another source of cookie inspiration comes from Vietnamese coffee (cà phê đá). Its defining quality is very strong, very darkly roasted coffee beans, plus condensed milk, often served over ice. Nguyen could see that making its way into a cookie, or even better, a brownie.

Cheetie Kumar

I’ve been hearing Cheetie Kumar’s name a lot lately. India raised, Bronx reared, culinarily self-taught, and a righteous rock guitarist, Kumar has made waves as chef of Garland, a Raleigh restaurant melding Indian and American Southern influences. 

Kumar and I spent much time talking about baking in Indian cultures (you’re more likely to find a tandoor than Western-style range ovens), and how many desserts involve the reduction of milk and sugar. But in incorporating Indian influences into American-style cookies, Kumar mentioned several readily available ingredients that could slot right into recipes.

For example, when creaming butter, consider using ghee. Ghee is just clarified butter, which means it's cooked until its milk solids are removed. In simmering butter into ghee, it imparts a nutty flavor that will give cookies a deeper, roastier quality. 

Indian gastronomy’s embrace of spices would also work well in cookies. Green cardamom and ghee are a potent and popular pairing. As is freshly toasted black pepper in anything rich and fudgy. A touch of ground fennel seed or ginger powder would add considerable warmth. Beyond spices, Kumar could see incorporating orange blossom or rose water into cookies, as well as dried fruits.

John Kanell

I’ve found John Kanell’s Preppy Kitchen one of the more inspired sites in the food blogosphere, especially when it comes to desserts. When I spoke with Kanell, he mentioned how he was the son of parents raised in Mexico and French Canada, which would inform his cooking and baking inspirations.

Kanell’s mother grew up in Villa Purificación, a small town in Jalisco, where her family grew up eating buñuelo, a fried disc of yeasted dough rolled in cinnamon sugar. His father grew up in Quebec to Greek parents, and homemade baklavas were readily found.

Kanell developed a hot chocolate cookie recipe, but suggested adding 1/4 teaspoon chili powder and 3/4 teaspoon cinnamon to give the cookies a Mexican hot chocolate tinge. Likewise, you could also add Nestle Abuelita hot chocolate mix to the cookie dough. His idea of a baklava cookie also intrigued me: Kanell adds spiced honey, chopped pistachios and walnuts to give his cookies a Mediterranean flair.

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