Tuesday, December 25, 2012

Seahorse Cookies

Seahorse cookies are legend in our family. My grandma used to make hundreds of cookies every December and bring them out one tin at a time, one tin after another, to be happily seized upon by all of the aunts and uncles and cousins. Grandma made lots of types of cookies, but the seahorses were everyone's favorite. These tender almond-flavored sugar cookies are iced with vanilla buttercream and studded with cinnamon red hots and colored sprinkles. They're pretty unusual as Christmas cookies go, which makes for a unique and special family tradition. I  think of Grandma every year when I bake these cookies and I think of her again every time I pull a cookie from the tin. 

My grandma shaped every cookie by hand, first rolling the dough into little snakes and then forming wreaths, candy canes, and--for reasons that escape me--seahorses. Merry Christmas, have a seahorse! In honor of Grandma, we follow a very strict protocol when we make these cookies. Wreaths must be green with three red hots, candy canes must be white with three red hots, and seahorses must be pink with one red hot for an eye. We love these cookies for the memories, but they also happen to be pretty delicious. 

Seahorse Cookies
Recipe from Virginia McGovern. Makes 8 dozen cookies.

1 pound (4 sticks) unsalted butter

1 teaspoon salt
1 cup sugar
2 eggs
1 teaspoon almond extract
4 cups flour

6 tablespoons unsalted butter

1/4 teaspoon salt
1 lb powdered sugar
1/4 - 1/2 cup milk or cream
1 tsp. vanilla extract

Use a mixer to cream together the butter, sugar, and salt (or use salted butter and omit the salt). Mix in the eggs one at a time, then the almond extract, then the flour. If the dough seems dry, sprinkle it with a few drops of water until it just sticks together and doesn't crack when press your hand into it.

I usually divide the dough into three big balls, then divide each piece into 32 smaller balls by halving the dough four times (the balls should be slightly less than 1" each). The dough should then be chilled in the refrigerator until it a is bit firmer and easier to work with.

Shape the cookies by rolling the balls into little snakes, then forming them into wreath, candy cane, and "S" shapes. Press down lightly until the cookies are a little less than a quarter inch thick.  Bake at 350 degrees for 8-10 minutes. The cookies should not brown at all and will seem a bit soft when they come out of the oven, but they should taste dry (not doughy) if you bite into one, sort of like very tender shortbread. Cool the cookies in the pan until they firm up a bit, and then move them to a cooling rack until they are completely cool.

Make the icing by combining all the ingredients in the mixer. Add just enough milk or cream to get a spreadable consistency. Dye the frosting with food coloring, then spread it on the cookies and immediately decorate them with red hots and sprinkles. Allow the cookies to sit out for a bit, until the icing hardens slightly. Then transfer them to an airtight container (a Christmas tin?) and share generously--this recipe makes 96 cookies! 

Grandma's handwritten recipe


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