Christmas cookies are one of Europe’s great culinary traditions. From one end of the continent to the other, inventive bakers have found ways to turn their local ingredients into rich and delicate treats to celebrate the season. Mediterranean countries feature warm-weather ingredients including almonds and citrus, while more northerly regions draw on their wealth of nuts, butter and eggs.
Rye flour is one of those regional ingredients in northern Europe, where local breads celebrate its rich brown color and nutty flavor. In Sweden it’s also used in a distinctive, shortbread-like Christmas cookie. Dusted with powdered sugar, these chestnut-brown rye cookies provide a striking visual contrast when combined on a cookie tray with pale golden butter cookies.
To make these tasty treats, begin by creaming a half-cup of sugar and a cup of butter until they’re light and fluffy. In a separate bowl, sift together a cup each of light rye flour and unbleached white pastry flour with a half-teaspoon of salt. Add the flour mixture in thirds to the creamed butter and sugar. Mix just until the flour is incorporated.
The dough is very buttery and soft at this stage. It needs to be refrigerated for at least an hour to make it firm enough to handle easily. Shape it into a rough disk and cover it with plastic wrap to prevent drying, then place the bowl of dough in the refrigerator until you’re ready to roll the cookies.
Dust your work surface very lightly with flour and preheat the oven to 350 F. Divide the cookie dough into thirds to make it easier to work with. Set one third on the counter and leave the others in the fridge, so they won’t soften and become difficult to roll while you’re working with the first portion. Roll the cookie dough a quarter-inch thick, using as little flour as possible to keep the dough from sticking to the counter and your rolling pin. Too much flour can make alter the cookies’ texture and make them tough.
Cut the cookies into small rounds or rings with conventional cutters, or use your favorite seasonal cookie cutters to make kid-friendly shapes. Transfer the cookies to a parchment-lined baking sheet, then gather up the remaining dough and brush off any excess flour. Combine the leftover dough with a new portion from the fridge and continue until you’ve cut all the dough into cookies.Sprinkle the cookies with coarse sanding sugar to give them an extra crunch, or leave them plain for a more delicate texture. Bake the cookies for six to seven minutes until they are aromatic and beginning to brown at the edges. Let them cool completely, then sift icing sugar over them before serving.