Recipes: Holidays are a good time to show that ‘Cookies Are Magic’

Christmas is the perfect time for cookies, like this selection (clockwise starting at bottom of the plate): California fruit bars, Viennese marzipan bars, Palm Beach brownies and brittle peanut bars. Chris Hunt for The AJC
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Christmas is the perfect time for cookies, like this selection (clockwise starting at bottom of the plate): California fruit bars, Viennese marzipan bars, Palm Beach brownies and brittle peanut bars. Chris Hunt for The AJC

Credit: Chris Hunt

Credit: Chris Hunt

“I heard a doctor talking on television about the dangers of stress. The doctor listed ways of coping with stress. Exercise. Diet. Yoga. Take a walk. I yelled, ‘Bake cookies.’”

That’s from the very first page of “Cookies Are Magic” by Maida Heatter (Little, Brown and Co., $28).

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“Cookies Are Magic” author Maida Heatter believed that baking cookies is a good way to deal with stress. Courtesy of Voracious

Credit: Handout

“Cookies Are Magic” author Maida Heatter believed that baking cookies is a good way to deal with stress. Courtesy of Voracious
Caption
“Cookies Are Magic” author Maida Heatter believed that baking cookies is a good way to deal with stress. Courtesy of Voracious

Credit: Handout

Credit: Handout

Heatter died in 2019 at age 102. We could speculate on how much of her longevity can be credited to her love of baking, but her philosophy about the benefits of baking cookies is the reason why, during a pandemic, I turned to her cookbook to relieve any upcoming holiday cookie stress.

This year, many of us are thinking about packable holiday cookies — the ones we can ship in boxes to people we haven’t seen in way too long, and the ones we can leave on the porches of lucky local family and friends.

My requirements: no fussy frostings; sturdy enough to travel well, including holding up when packed in layers; and enough variety to satisfy the peppermint fans, the gingerbread lovers, the fruitcake contingent, and those who just have to have nuts in their cookies. And, since there were no holiday cookie swaps in my plans for this year, I wanted cookies that would freeze well, so they could be doled out in batches as needed.

Bar cookies turned out to be the answer.

“Maida Heatter’s Book of Great Cookies” (Knopf Doubleday, out of print) was my guide as a first-time baker, and I still pull my well-thumbed copy off the shelf many times a year. But, now we have “Cookies Are Magic,” a compilation of nearly 100 recipes published over Heatter’s almost 50-year career. That’s where I turned to find cookie recipes that would meet my 2020 holiday requirements.

RECIPES

We think 2020 just might be the year of the holiday bar cookie, and we suggest these four recipes from “Cookies Are Magic” by Maida Heatter (Little, Brown and Co., $28). Heatter was one of the most trusted cookbook authors, because her recipes worked. The self-taught baker tested her recipes many times, to be sure her readers would have perfect results, and her instructions gave confidence to thousands of beginning cooks.

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Palm Beach brownies may have been Maida Heatter's signature cookie. Chris Hunt for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution

Credit: Chris Hunt

Palm Beach brownies may have been Maida Heatter's signature cookie. Chris Hunt for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution
Caption
Palm Beach brownies may have been Maida Heatter's signature cookie. Chris Hunt for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution

Credit: Chris Hunt

Credit: Chris Hunt

Palm Beach Brownies

This simple recipe may have been Heatter’s signature cookie. It’s said that she seldom traveled without a few individually wrapped bars in her purse to share with friends, and those she met along the way. This is the cookie you want to give to the thin mint lovers in your life. And, like many Heatter recipes, it’s flexible. Not a fan of York peppermint patties? Use another chocolate covered mint. Must have nuts? Add up to 2 cups of your favorite, chopped. The recipe calls for a stand mixer, but you easily can mix up these brownies by hand.

Palm Beach Brownies
  • 8 ounces unsweetened chocolate
  • ½ pound unsalted butter
  • 5 eggs
  • 2 teaspoons vanilla
  • ½ teaspoon almond extract
  • 3¾ cups granulated sugar
  • ¼ teaspoon salt
  • 1⅔ cups all-purpose flour
  • 28 unwrapped York peppermint patties
  • Heat the oven to 400 degrees. Line a 9-inch by 13-inch baking dish with foil, then spray with nonstick cooking spray.
  • Put unsweetened chocolate and butter in a medium microwave-safe bowl and heat in 30-second increments until the butter melts and the chocolate is starting to melt, about 1½ minutes. Remove from the microwave and stir until the chocolate is completely melted.
  • In the bowl of a stand mixer fitted with the paddle attachment, beat the eggs with vanilla and almond extract for 1 minute. Add sugar and salt and beat on high speed for 5 minutes. Reduce speed to low and add the chocolate-butter mixture. Beat only until mixed. Add flour and beat again, only until mixed. Remove the bowl from the mixer. If using nuts, stir them in now.
  • Spoon just over half the batter into a prepared baking dish. Arrange peppermint patties on top of the batter. Pour the remaining batter into the dish and smooth the top. Bake 25 to 35 minutes. You want to remove the brownies from the oven when they have a firm top crust. Do not overbake. Remove from the oven and allow to cool completely on a wire rack in the baking dish. You can refrigerate at this point.
  • When ready to remove from the baking dish, cover the dish with a cookie sheet and turn the dish and the sheet over. Remove the dish and slowly peel the foil off the brownies. Cover with waxed paper and another cookie sheet and turn over again. Trim the edges, if desired, and cut into bars. Makes: 24

Nutritional information

Per serving: Per brownie: 464 calories (percent of calories from fat, 40), 6 grams protein, 65 grams carbohydrates, 3 grams fiber, 21 grams total fat (12 grams saturated), 89 milligrams cholesterol, 60 milligrams sodium.

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California fruit bars are the bar cookie for the fruitcake fans in your life. Chris Hunt for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution

Credit: Chris Hunt

California fruit bars are the bar cookie for the fruitcake fans in your life. Chris Hunt for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution
Caption
California fruit bars are the bar cookie for the fruitcake fans in your life. Chris Hunt for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution

Credit: Chris Hunt

Credit: Chris Hunt

California Fruit Bars

No mixer is needed here. This is the bar cookie for the fruitcake fans in your life. Make it with chopped dried fruit (we used raisins, dates and dried apricots) or with commercial fruitcake fruit mixture. The amount of fruit is flexible. One cup? Two cups? The batter can accommodate either. The nuts are completely optional. We left them out, and we used kitchens scissors to cup up our fruit.

If you have fans of both gingerbread and fruitcake to bake for, add a teaspoon each of ginger and cinnamon, and a quarter teaspoon of cloves.

California Fruit Bars
  • 1 to 2 cups firmly packed chopped dried fruit or fruitcake mix (see note)
  • 4 eggs
  • 2¼ cups firmly packed light brown sugar
  • 1 teaspoon vanilla
  • ¼ teaspoon salt
  • 2 cups all-purpose flour
  • 2 cups walnut or pecan halves, optional
  • powdered sugar, for garnish
  • Heat the oven to 400 degrees. Line a 9-inch by 13-inch baking dish with foil, then spray with nonstick cooking spray.
  • To soften the dried fruit: put it in a microwave-safe bowl and add water. Cover with wax paper or a plate, and heat on high for 1 minute. Carefully remove from the microwave, drain off the water and cover the fruit until it cools.
  • In a large saucepan, whisk the eggs and sugar. Place over medium-low heat and warm 10 minutes, or until the sugar dissolves. Remove from the heat. Add vanilla and salt, then whisk in the flour. Add fruit and stir until the fruit is incorporated and there are no streaks of flour. If using nuts, add them now. Turn the mixture into a prepared pan and spread evenly. Bake 15 to 20 minutes, or until the top is golden brown and shiny. Remove from the oven and cool on a wire rack. Let the cookies stay in the dish until completely cooled.
  • When ready to remove from the dish, cover the pan with a cookie sheet and turn the dish and the sheet over. Remove the dish and slowly peel off the foil. Cover with waxed paper and another cookie sheet and turn over again. Trim the edges, if desired, and cut into bars. Dust with powdered sugar, if desired. Makes: 30

Nutritional information

Per serving: Per bar (without nuts): 113 calories (percent of calories from fat, 8), 2 grams protein, 24 grams carbohydrates, trace fiber, 1 gram total fat (trace saturated fat), 25 milligrams cholesterol, 44 milligrams sodium.

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Fans of peanut butter cookies, peanut brittle and peanuts will love brittle peanut bars. Chris Hunt for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution

Credit: Chris Hunt

Fans of peanut butter cookies, peanut brittle and peanuts will love brittle peanut bars. Chris Hunt for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution
Caption
Fans of peanut butter cookies, peanut brittle and peanuts will love brittle peanut bars. Chris Hunt for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution

Credit: Chris Hunt

Credit: Chris Hunt

Brittle Peanut Bars

Four-ingredient cookies — how easy is that? Fans of peanut butter cookies, fans of peanut brittle and fans of just peanuts will love these bars. They are, as the name says, “brittle,” so be sure to follow the directions about when to cut them into bars.

Not a peanut fan? Just substitute roasted pecans for the peanuts.

Brittle Peanut Bars
  • ½ pound unsalted butter
  • 1 cup granulated sugar
  • 2 cups all-purpose flour
  • 1 cup chopped salted peanuts, divided
  • Heat the oven to 375 degrees.
  • In the bowl of a stand mixer fitted with the paddle attachment, cream the butter and sugar 3 minutes. Add the flour and beat on low speed, scraping down the sides and making sure all the flour is incorporated. Beat just until the mixture holds together. Remove the bowl from the mixer and stir in ½ cup of peanuts. Spread the mixture in an unbuttered 9-inch by 13-inch baking dish. Spread evenly, then sprinkle with the remaining ½ cup of peanuts. Use the bottom of a flat measuring cup to firmly press the peanuts into the dough.
  • Bake 20 to 25 minutes, or until golden brown. Move the pan to a wire rack and cool 5 minutes. Cut the cookies into bars while they are still warm. Use a wide spatula to move the cookies from the pan to the rack, and allow them to finish cooling. Makes: 32 bars

Nutritional information

Per serving: Per bar: 132 calories (percent of calories from fat, 55), 2 grams protein, 13 grams carbohydrates, 1 gram fiber, 8 grams total fat (4 grams saturated), 15 milligrams cholesterol, 1 milligram sodium.
Caption
If fancy, colorful cookies are a must for your holidays, Viennese marzipan bars are the cookie for you. Chris Hunt for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution

Credit: Chris Hunt

If fancy, colorful cookies are a must for your holidays, Viennese marzipan bars are the cookie for you. Chris Hunt for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution
Caption
If fancy, colorful cookies are a must for your holidays, Viennese marzipan bars are the cookie for you. Chris Hunt for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution

Credit: Chris Hunt

Credit: Chris Hunt

Viennese Marzipan Bars

If fancy, colorful cookies are a must for your holidays, this is the one for you. Make the marzipan layer any color you like. Our choice was green. Instead of the classic apricot jam Heatter calls for, try strawberry or seedless blackberry. For a little extra color, top, as we did, with holiday sprinkles, added while the glaze is still warm. These are best after they stand for a few hours, and should be refrigerated for storage.

1 cup all-purpose flour

½ teaspoon baking powder

⅓ cup unsalted butter (5⅓ tablespoons)

½ cup granulated sugar plus another ⅔ cup granulated sugar, divided

2 eggs, divided

1 tablespoon milk

¾ cup blanched almonds

¼ teaspoon salt

1 teaspoon vanilla, divided

few drops food coloring of your choice, optional

½ cup apricot preserves, lightly warmed

½ ounce unsweetened chocolate

1 tablespoon unsalted butter

½ cup powdered sugar

1 tablespoon boiling water

sprinkles, if desired

Heat the oven to 375 degrees. Line the bottom and sides of an 8-inch-square baking dish with foil, and lightly spray with nonstick cooking spray.

Sift the flour and baking powder together and set aside.

In a medium bowl, use a hand mixer to cream the butter. Add ½ cup sugar and beat well. Add 1 egg yolk and milk and beat until the mixture begins to hold together. Move the mixture to a prepared baking dish and press firmly to form a smooth bottom layer. Put in the oven for 5 minutes. Remove from the oven and set aside.

While the bottom crust is baking, make the filling: In the bowl of a food processor, grind almonds to a fine powder. Add salt and the remaining ⅔ cup sugar and pulse until combined. Add the remaining egg and egg white, ½ teaspoon of vanilla and a few drops of food coloring, if using. Pulse until combined.

Spread the apricot preserves over the hot crust, then top with filling. Return to the oven and bake 25 minutes, or until the top of the cookies springs back when lightly pressed with a fingertip. Do not overbake. Remove from the oven and cool on a wire rack.

While the cookies are cooling, make the glaze: In a 1 cup glass measuring cup, combine chocolate and butter and heat in a microwave in 20-second increments until the chocolate begins to melt. Remove from the microwave and stir until completely melted. Stir in powdered sugar, water and the remaining ½ teaspoon of vanilla and stir until completely smooth. Pour the glaze over the cooling cookies and spread evenly. If using sprinkles, add now.

Let them stand until completely cool; overnight is fine. Remove from the baking sheet, peel off the foil and cut into 16 bars. Makes: 16

Per bar: 220 calories (percent of calories from fat, 37), 3 grams protein, 32 grams carbohydrates, 1 gram fiber, 9 grams total fat (4 grams saturated), 35 milligrams cholesterol, 57 milligrams sodium.

All recipes have been adapted from “Cookies Are Magic” by Maida Heatter (Little, Brown and Co., $28).