There’s only one problem with fresh-baked, homemade cookies: just when you want to sit down and savor that warm, fragrant treat, there’s a kitchen full of doughy mixing bowls, flour trails and stray spatulas to clean up. That’s the beauty of old-fashioned icebox cookies: there’s a waiting period between mixing and baking. Although that time is required to turn the soft dough into a firm roll that can be sliced, while the dough is firming up there’s ample time to return the kitchen to a flourless, unsticky state.
Icebox cookies are perfect for December’s busy schedules, since the cookie dough can be made well in advance and then baked for a later occasion or for a last-minute gift. They’re also good for anyone practicing portion control; it’s possible to slice off just two or three cookies to bake for satisfying a craving, without creating the temptation of an entire batch of cookies.
While there is a huge range of flavors and textures possible within the icebox cookie genre, one has a special connection to the Texas Gulf Coast. Café brulot cookies are a baked spin on the classic New Orleans coffee drink, but actually, the flavor may have originated in Galveston. Café brulot was invented, legend goes, by the pirate Jean Lafitte and his henchman, Dominique Youx.
After fighting against the British in the Battle of New Orleans, Lafitte and his pirate crew were offered clemency by President James Madison. Lafitte and most of his men turned down the opportunity to go straight, preferring their outlaw lifestyle, but Youx accepted the offer and settled down in New Orleans, where he became a regular patron of the French coffee shops. While frequenting the coffee shops, he introduced them to cafe brulot, a flaming, spiced, sweet coffee that is still popular in New Orleans.
The cookie version of cafe brulot (literally translated as “burned coffee”) incorporates the citrus, cloves and brandy in a crisp and not-too-sweet cookie. It pairs well with coffee, cider or milk, and with a coastal resident’s retelling of pirate lore.
Not all icebox cookies have French roots, of course, but the herbes de Provence cornmeal cookies owe their distinctive, aromatic flavor to the south of France. While shaping them in squares makes them stand out on a cookie tray, they can be rolled and sliced into rounds for an easier baking session.
Cranberries, on the other hand, are as American as a berry can be, and in their dried form add a sweet and colorful note to oatmeal icebox cookies. Oatmeal may seem like an odd choice for a slice-and-bake cookie, but from a refrigerated state, it slices easily and makes for a crisp, crunchy cookie.
When mixing cookies for a gift box, it’s important to keep in mind that crispy cookies shouldn’t be stored with moister ones, because the moisture will soften the crisper cookies. If they have to be put in a tin or box together, it’s a good idea to wrap each kind in plastic wrap or seal them in a bag, so that each cookie is at its best.