The days after Thanksgiving are ones I associate with a whirl of flour, sugar, and butter. When I was growing up, my mother and my aunt spent evenings and weekends shaping and baking at least a dozen different varieties of Christmas cookies. Sometimes they let me help, but with their decades of experience, I was occasionally shooed away, leaving me to watch from the kitchen doorway.
Some cookie doughs simply needed a few hours to chill, but other varieties took days. My favorites were German springerles, a dense, anise-flavored cookie akin to shortbread. They are a three-step process: make and chill the dough, roll out the cookies with a specially embossed rolling pin, and let them sit before baking.
As my relatives aged and my career got busy, I began to cheat. I cut down my baking sessions to a selection of the easiest cookies I could make successfully, such as Chinese New Year’s cookies, a no-bake concoction of chocolate, nuts, and chow mein noodles. I began to simply purchase the more labor-intensive varieties. While some of these professionally made cookies tastesd far better than my efforts (my gingermen turned into gingerblobs), others couldn’t live up to the memory of what my family made.
There is absolutely no shame in serving purchased cookies at the holidays. You will save precious time and avoid wasting increasingly expensive baking ingredients. But not all bakery-bought cookies are winners. Here are some tips on where to buy cookies besides the grocery store, spots that aim to help customers who are overwhelmed this time of year.
Your favorite bakery
It’s logical to try your favorite bakery first, especially if it specializes in cookies from other countries with holiday traditions, such as Germany and Italy. Some bakeries crank up their preparation weeks ahead of the holidays to make sure they’ll have enough cookies in stock.
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Many bakeries, like Chicago’s legendary Roeser’s, post photos and lists to their websites and social media pages of what will be available, but you can also ask at the counter or over the phone. Don’t rule out a great bakery just because you might not associate it with Christmas cookies specifically. I walked into a favorite Vietnamese-owned donut shop in Ann Arbor to find boxes of traditional cookies from a local baker.
Church bazaars, craft fairs, and festivals
Holiday fairs often abound with plates and boxes of picture-perfect cookies. Even if a craft fair is focused on gifts, there’s often a food section with plenty of baked goods. Festivals are another great source, especially if they’re weekend affairs where people will be hungry. Many of these bakers have an online presence (which helps them get the word out), so be sure to scan before you arrive. You may even be able to order ahead for pickup at the venue.
Cities across the country abound with independent bakers who advertise their cookies on Etsy, Facebook, Craigslist, and Instagram. When I searched for cookies on Etsy, I was astounded by the artistry and variety. Many of these are old-school decorated cookies that almost look too good to consume.
In Pittsburgh, weddings traditionally feature a cookie table with hundreds if not thousands of cookies. A number of the bakers for these events will sell privately. Quantities are sometimes limited, because they often have to deal with local and state requirements governing home baking. But you should be able to find what you need.
Family and friends
Does someone specialize in a particular cookie? Are they looking for some extra spending money at Christmas? Commission them. Ask if they’d make some for you if you pay for their time and ingredients. Keep in mind that the prices of many ingredients have jumped in the past few years, especially for butter, nuts, and chocolate. Don’t try to nickel and dime them; remember, the relationship is more important than getting a deal.
Mail order companies
You can buy cookies from all manner of places online, ranging from well-known names such as Harry & David, to Milk Bar, to individual businesses, many of which are now using Goldbelly to sell their cookies. Taste of Home has a great list of cookie delivery services taking orders this year. Mail order can be tricky, however.
After trying to make springerles myself, I gave up last year and ordered a packet from Zingerman’s Mail Order. To my surprise, they arrived harder than the ones that my family made, and we had to abandon them rather than try to gnaw through them.
True to its customer service form, Zingerman’s promptly offered me a replacement or a refund. The springerles are back this year (the price has gone up $1 from 2021), along with several other types of holiday cookies, including those baked by Zingerman’s itself. For all the risks involved in mail order, companies will usually try to correct any mishaps along the way.
Tips for buying holiday cookies
Order as early as you can. With supply chain issues and price hikes, many bakeries and private sellers are only accepting pre-orders, and once they reach capacity for the season, that’s it.
Remember that commercial cookies are probably made with different ingredients than your ancestors used. They might be baked with shortening or margarine, and grocery store vanilla, whereas an elite bakery or independent baker might only use the best butter and exotic spices.
Prices will not be cheap. In my own search for desserts, I found that holiday cookies generally cost a minimum of $1 each, and often $2, and much more if you are buying sumptuously decorated ones. Shipping is often added on top of that. But if you’re buying something that will serve as a gift, party favor, or the centerpiece of your holiday spread, the added cost is worth it.