This year, we decided to take a scientific approach to the cookie conundrum. We asked a bunch of our colleagues what kind of cookies speak of the holidays to them. What cookie do they absolutely have to have for it to truly be Christmas?

In our world, this counts as a scientific poll.

Not surprisingly, the results were pretty much what you would expect. Our scientifically selected respondents turn out to crave some of the most popular cookies of the season.

We're talking gingerbread men, sugar cookies, those cookies with a Hershey's Kiss in the middle (but an especially good version). All the classics: haystacks and chocolate chip.

Essential chewy sugar cookies.
Essential chewy sugar cookies. (Hillary Levin / St. Louis Post-Dispatch)

As it happens, columnist Joe Holleman has an excellent recipe for chocolate chip cookies that he worked on and tweaked until he got it to have a crisp outside but a soft center, and also so it does not spread out too much on the tray while baking.

I believe he began with the Toll House recipe, which is in itself perfection. But then he gilded the perfection with a handful of extra steps. So I guess the recipe is perfecter than perfect.

He begins by toasting walnuts or pecans and then grinding them to a near-powder, which he adds to the dough. He also triples the called-for amount of vanilla, melts the butter, stirs the liquid ingredients three times and chills the dough before cooking it.


If the chocolate chip cookies take a lot of time and effort, the haystacks were the fastest and easiest.

Melt chocolate. Add chow mein noodles, nuts and salt. Let them dry, and serve. They're crispy, chocolatey, salty and nutty. Basically everything you want in a sweet snack.

Gingerbread cookies can be made two ways: thick and chewy or thin and crispy. I prefer thin and crispy, because I like their bite, their crunch, their satisfying snap.

Chocolate haystacks.
Chocolate haystacks. (Hillary Levin / St. Louis Post-Dispatch)

When I bite the head off a gingerbread man, I want him to know it.

The difference in making the two is fairly small. I just rolled the dough thinner, to one-eighth of an inch, and baked them a bit longer in a slightly cooler oven. I also added a touch more ginger than the recipe originally called for, because I like ginger.

Sugar cookies can be made two ways, thick and chewy or just as thick and crisp. I prefer thick and chewy because they're so nice and soft and welcoming.

The ones I made are also spectacular (some of our ravenous taste testers liked them the most of all). The recipe comes from "The King Arthur Flour Cookie Companion," and those people know something about making cookies. Or at least sugar cookies.

What makes them so good? I can't quite tell for sure. Maybe it's the use of baking powder and baking soda, to give them just enough rise. Maybe it is the combination of granulated and brown sugars, with extra sweetening from corn syrup. Maybe it is the hint of nutmeg, or just the right amount of vanilla.

Perhaps it is the proportion of all the ingredients mixed together that makes them so flavorful. But if I had to guess, I'd say it's the butter. These cookies use a lot of butter. Butter is pretty much the answer to every culinary question.

Cookies with a Hershey's Kiss in the middle are a standard, but the Chocolate Candy Cane Kiss Cookies I made are a real standout.

The cookies themselves are chocolate, which is an improvement on most of the other versions I have had, and they are softer and chewier, too. I suspect the addition of a small amount of Greek yogurt is the secret to that texture.

And then there is the Kiss itself, which in this case is a peppermint-flavored candy-cane Kiss. The peppermint of the Kiss, combined with the chocolate of the cookie, is a mouth-pleasing mixture that is sheer indulgence.

The Essential Chewy Sugar Cookie

1 1/2 sticks (12 tablespoons) unsalted butter

3/4 cup granulated sugar

1/2 cup brown sugar

1/4 cup light corn syrup

2 teaspoons vanilla extract

1/4 teaspoon nutmeg

1 1/2 teaspoons baking powder

1/2 teaspoon baking soda

1/2 teaspoon salt

1 large egg

2 1/2 cups all-purpose flour

1/4 cup coarse or granulated sugar, for coating

Directions: Preheat oven to 375 degrees. Lightly grease (or line with parchment) 2 baking sheets.

In a large mixing bowl, beat together the butter, granulated sugar, brown sugar, corn syrup, vanilla, nutmeg, baking powder, baking soda, salt and egg. Stir in the flour.

Place the coarse sugar in a shallow dish. Drop the dough by the tablespoonful into the sugar, rolling the balls to coat them. Place them on the prepared baking sheets.

Bake for 10 minutes, until the edges are just barely beginning to brown. Remove from oven and cool on the baking sheets for 5 minutes before transferring to a wire rack to cool completely.

—Recipe from "The King Arthur Flour Cookie Companion"

Thin, Crisp Gingerbread Cookies


3 cups all-purpose flour

3/4 cup dark brown sugar, packed

3/4 teaspoon baking soda

1 tablespoon ground cinnamon

1 tablespoon ground ginger, see note

1/2 teaspoon ground cloves

1/2 teaspoon salt

11/2 sticks (12 tablespoons) unsalted butter, softened but still cool, cut into 12 pieces

3/4 cup molasses

2 tablespoons milk

Note: If you want a sharper flavor, use 1 heaping tablespoon of ground ginger.


1/4 cup meringue powder, see note

1/4 teaspoon salt

3 to 4 cups powdered sugar

1 teaspoon vanilla extract

Food coloring, optional

Note: Meringue powder can be found in the baking aisle of many large grocery stores.

Directions for cookies: In a food processor, process the flour, brown sugar, baking soda, cinnamon, ginger, cloves and salt until combined, about 10 seconds. Scatter the butter pieces over the flour mixture and process until the mixture is sandy and resembles very fine meal, about 15 seconds. With the machine running, gradually add the molasses and milk; process until the dough is evenly moistened and forms a soft mass, about 10 seconds.

Scrape the dough onto a work surface; divide it in quarters. Working with one portion at a time, roll the dough 1/8-inch thick between two large sheets of parchment paper. Leaving the dough sandwiched between the parchment layers, stack on a baking sheet and freeze until firm, 15 to 20 minutes.

Adjust the oven racks to the upper- and lower-middle positions and heat the oven to 325 degrees. Line 2 baking sheets with parchment paper or spray them with nonstick cooking spray.

Remove 1 dough sheet from the freezer, place on the work surface. Peel off the top parchment sheet and gently lay it back in place. Flip the dough over; peel off and discard second parchment layer. Cut the dough into gingerbread people, transferring shapes to prepared baking sheets with a wide metal spatula, spacing them 3/4 inch apart; set the scraps aside. Repeat with the remaining dough until the baking sheets are full.

Bake until the cookies are set in the center and the dough barely retains an imprint when touched very gently with a fingertip, 11 to 15 minutes, rotating the baking sheets front to back and switching positions top to bottom halfway through the baking time. Do not overbake.

Cool the cookies on the sheets 2 minutes, then remove with a wide metal spatula to a wire rack; cool to room temperature. Gather the scraps, repeat rolling, cutting and baking in steps 2 and 4. Decorate with royal icing.

—Recipe from "Baking Illustrated"

Directions for icing: In a medium mixing bowl, whisk together the meringue powder, salt and powdered sugar. Add the vanilla and 3/4 cup cool water and stir or beat on slow speed. The mixture will seem hard and lumpy, but the sugar will dissolve after 4 or 5 minutes and everything will smooth out.

Once the mixture is smooth, gradually increase the mixer speed to high, taking several minutes for the transition. Beat at high speed until the icing is fluffy. Add food coloring, if desired. Keep the icing covered with plastic wrap or a damp cloth to prevent it from drying out, if you won't be using it right away or if you're tackling extra-long projects.

—Recipe from "The King Arthur Flour Cookie Companion"

Chocolate Haystacks

24 ounces chocolate chips (milk, semisweet or dark)

2 cups chow mein noodles

1 cup toasted nuts; choose from almonds, peanuts, cashews or pistachios

Salt, optional

Directions: Prepare 2 sheet pans with parchment paper. Set aside.

Melt chocolate chips according to package's instructions. Add chow mein noodles and nuts to the melted chocolate and carefully combine until noodles and nuts are well-coated with the chocolate.

Heap teaspoons full of mixture onto parchment paper and allow to cool. Sprinkle with salt, if desired. Serve or store in an airtight container.

—Recipe from

Chocolate Candy Cane Kiss Cookies

1/3 cup (about 5 tablespoons) butter, softened

1/2 cup brown sugar

3/4 cup granulated sugar

1 egg

1/3 cup plain Greek yogurt

2/3 cup dark cocoa powder

1 teaspoon baking soda

1 1/2 cups all-purpose flour

Coarse red, green and white sanding sugars

36 Candy Cane Kisses, unwrapped

Directions: Preheat the oven to 350 degrees.

Beat the butter, brown sugar and granulated sugar until creamy. Add the egg and yogurt, and beat again. In another bowl, stir together the cocoa powder, baking soda and flour. Slowly beat the butter mixture into the flour mixture.

Roll the dough into 36 balls and roll them in the red, green and white sugars. The cookie dough will be very sticky. Place on a baking sheet. Bake for 8 minutes. Cool on baking sheet for 1 to 2 minutes. Remove to a sheet of waxed paper on the counter.

Press a Kiss into the top of each cookie. Do not move the cookies until they are completely cool and the kiss has set back up. Store in a sealed container.

—Recipe by