Christmas "Circus" Cookies

By: Nealey Dozier

Gear up for holiday baking with Cooking Channel. Your favorite chefs & Food People have opened their kitchens to share their best cookie recipes. From mini Red Velvet Whoopie Pies to Chuck's Maple-Pecan Shortbread, we'll keep you baking all season. Visit our All-Star Cookie Swap, then head over to FoodNetwork.com for great takes on holiday baking from Food Network chefs.

I have a dark confession to make: I loathe holiday cookies. (I know, the horror!) Don’t get me wrong; I appreciate a family bake-a-thon as much as the next gal and I truly believe that homemade presents are the ultimate gift of love. But other than that, I just don’t get the obsession. Please tell me I’m not the only one.

Despite my aversion to candy-covered gingerbread men and peppermint-laden pinwheels, I’m no grumpy scrooge. I knew I would eventually have to slay my inner Christmas-cookie monster, so this year, I'm turning over a new leaf.

I set out to create a fun holiday-worthy recipe that's delicious enough to be enjoyed all year-round: no dried fruits or spices here. When I started brainstorming, all I could think about were those little pink- and white-frosted animal cookies I used to devour as a child. And that’s when the light bulb went off; I could try to recreate the famous Mother’s Circus Animal Cookies in cute little holiday shapes!

I did countless experiments with ingredient ratios and taste-tested many different frostings to get my animal cookies just right (minus the crazy preservatives). I don’t even want to think about how many I sampled in the name of perfection. Thank goodness all of the hard work paid off. Not only did I face my holiday baking fear, I ended up with a cookie I want to make over and over again. I guess that means no more bah humbug from me!

Christmas "Circus" Cookies

Active Time: 1 hour

Total Time: 9 hours

Yields: 7 to 8 dozen small cookies
Ingredients
1/2 cup (1 stick) unsalted butter, at room temperature
6 tablespoons granulated sugar
3/4 cup all-purpose flour, plus more for dusting
1/4 teaspoon baking powder
1/8 teaspoon kosher salt
1 large egg
1 teaspoon pure vanilla extract
1/2 teaspoon pure almond extract
8 ounces (1/2 pound) vanilla almond bark (white candy melts)
Red, green, and white nonpareils, for decorating
Directions

Using an electric mixer, cream together butter and sugar on medium-high speed until light and fluffy, about 3 minutes. Meanwhile, combine flour, baking powder, and salt in a separate bowl.

Reduce mixer speed to low and add the egg, vanilla, and almond extracts to the butter until combined. Lastly, add the dry ingredients and mix until just incorporated. Gather the dough into a disc and cover in plastic wrap. Refrigerate for 8 hours or preferably overnight.

Preheat oven to 325 degrees F. Place two baking sheets in the refrigerator to chill. Generously flour a smooth work surface and rolling pin, and have plenty of additional flour on hand.

Line one of the chilled baking sheets with parchment paper. Remove dough from the refrigerator and slice off a 2-inch knob. Rewrap the dough and store in the freezer. (You want the dough to be as cold as possible when rolling it.)

Working very quickly, roll out the dough to 1/8-inch (plus) thickness-too thin and the dough becomes unworkable, too thick and you can't tell what the cookie shapes are when baked. Be sure to keep flouring underneath the dough as well as on top, and use a bench cutter to prevent it from sticking to the surface. (I can't emphasize the importance of flour enough!)

Using well-floured 1 1/2-inch cookie cutters (holiday-themed or round), cut dough into desired shapes and place on baking sheet. (The best way to do this is to make sure the dough stays in the cutter, then gently push it out onto the pan. Removing the cut dough with a spatula directly from the work surface can cause it to stick or lose its shape.)

Gather up the soft scraps into a small round and place in a bowl in the freezer. Repeat the above process until you have used up the original dough. Freeze the filled baking sheets until the cookies are firm, about 5 minutes. Bake the first pan of cookies until light golden brown and just a bit crisp, 12 to 13 minutes. Cool completely.

Wait until the scraps of dough in the freezer have firmed up, and continue cutting out the remaining cookies. Bake on the second chilled sheet pan, just like above. Repeat with all the scraps until all the dough is used.

Place a large cooling/wire rack over a baking sheet or parchment paper. When all the cookies have cooled, melt the almond bark according to package directions. Using your finger (or a small paint brush), spread a smooth coat of almond bark onto a cookie and clean up the edges with a thin cotton swab, such as a q-tip. Alternatively, cookies can be dunked in the almond bark and coated on each side. Place on wire rack to set. (Reheat almond bark in 15-second increments as necessary.)

Immediately sprinkle the iced cookie with nonpareils and set aside to harden. Cookies can be stored in an airtight container for up to 3 days.

Nealey moved from Alabama to the West Coast to follow her dreams, only to realize once there how much she missed good ol’ country cooking.  So she took to the kitchen and began re-creating the dishes of her past, but this time without any help from a can. What started out as a hobby turned into an obsession, so she quit her day job to pursue cooking, and eating, fulltime. Dixie Caviar is where you can follow her pursuits of all things Southern.

We asked food bloggers we love to share their inspired twists on classic holiday cookies.

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