Food & Drink

Hauntingly good: Cookies that will scare your taste buds

Santa has always had a monopoly on the good cookies. But it took Julia Usher a while to ponder the bigger issue: Why should the winter holidays get all the gingerbread? And why should something as deliciously fun as a cookie exchange be relegated to December?

Her answer unfolds in mouthwatering fashion in the book “Cookie Swap: Creative Treats to Share Throughout the Year” (Gibbs Smith, 160 pages, $19.99)

Whether you want to host a cookie swap on Halloween or just make cookies for your family, these recipes are bound to work.

Great pumpkin cookies

Makes 3-4 dozen cookies

2 1/4 cups all-purpose flour

2 tablespoons cornstarch

1 teaspoon baking soda

1 teaspoon baking powder

2 1/2 teaspoons cinnamon

1 teaspoon ground cloves

1 teaspoon grated nutmeg

3/4 teaspoon ground ginger

3/4 teaspoon salt

1 cup granulated sugar

3/4 cup packed brown sugar

1/2 cup plus 2 tablespoons unsalted butter, softened

1 large egg

1 1/4 cups pumpkin puree

1 1/2 teaspoons vanilla

1 1/2 cups walnuts, coarsely chopped, optional

1 1/4 cups raisins, optional

Fondant or marzipan, cinnamon sticks to garnish

Orange icing

2 pounds powdered sugar

1/2 teaspoon cream of tartar

5 large egg whites

1/2 to 1 teaspoon water

Orange soft gel food coloring

1/2 teaspoon orange extract

4 tablespoons orange juice

Preheat the oven to 350 degrees, and line your cookie sheets with parchment paper.

Combine the flour, cornstarch, baking soda, baking powder, spices and salt in a bowl. Set aside.

In a mixer, cream the sugars and butter on medium-low speed. Add the egg and beat on medium-high until light and fluffy, 1-2 minutes.

Turn the mixer to low and beat in the pumpkin puree and vanilla, scraping down the sides of the bowl as needed.

Stir in the flour mixture, followed by the walnuts and raisins. Using a small scoop or tablespoon measure, drop small balls of dough onto the prepared cookie sheets. Bake 15-20 minutes, or until dry and firm on the outside. Transfer to wire racks and let cool.

For the icing, mix the powdered sugar and cream of tartar in the bowl of an electric mixer. Add the egg whites and beat on low speed to blend, then on medium-high for about 2 minutes, or until the icing is silky, thick and very white.

Scoop out a half cup and blend into 1 teaspoon of water to reach a good piping consistency. Stir in a single drop of orange food color.

Seal with plastic wrap, pressing it against the surface of the icing, and set aside.

Add the orange extract to the remaining icing, and enough food coloring to reach a deep orange tint. (Adding a few drops of red and brown will give it a burnished shade.) Add enough orange juice to make a thick glaze.

Set a wire rack over a sheet of parchment paper. Dip each cookie in the glaze, gently shaking to remove excess, and place on rack to dry. Insert a small piece of cinnamon stick or a chocolate chip in the top to make a stem. Let dry.

Add contours by piping lines with the reserved, pale orange icing. Use green-tinted fondant or marzipan to make leaves and vines, if desired.

Julia Usher, “Cookie Swap” (Gibbs Smith 2009)


Makes 1-1 1/2 dozen

2 1/2 cups all-purpose flour

1/4 teaspoon baking soda

1/4 teaspoon salt

1 cup unsalted butter, softened

1 1/4 cups sifted, powdered sugar

1/4 cup plus 2 tablespoons granulated sugar

1 large egg

3/4 teaspoon vanilla

2 teaspoons orange or maple extract

Orange and yellow soft gel food coloring

Egg wash (see below)

Stir the flour, baking soda and salt together. Set aside.

Cream the butter and sugars together on medium-low speed until light and creamy, about 1 minute. Add the egg, vanilla and other flavorings, and beat until smooth. Gradually add the flour mixture and mix just until incorporated. Divide the dough in half. Combine the first half with roughly a quarter of the second, and tint it bright orange. Divide the remaining dough into two portions, one about three times the size of the other. Tint the larger portion bright yellow. Wrap everything separately in plastic, and chill 1 to 2 hours before shaping.

Shape the yellow dough into a 3 1/2 x 4 1/2 inch rectangle that is about 1/2 to 3/4 inch thick. Shape the orange dough into the same rectangular shape, but 1 1/2 to 1 3/4 inch thick. Lightly brush the top of the yellow rectangle with egg wash — 1 egg beaten with one teaspoon water — and press the orange brick on top.

Shape the remaining white dough into a 1 x 4 1/2 inch rectangle, about 1/2 to 3/4 inch thick, and affix it to the top center of the orange dough with egg wash. Wrap in plastic and freeze 1 to 2 hours.

Preheat the oven to 375 degrees. Line cookie sheets with parchment paper. Cut the dough crosswise into multicolored slices, each about 3/16 inch thick. Cut each slice into a candy corn triangle. Blunt the corners with your fingertips. Bake for 7-10 minutes. Transfer to wire racks and let cool.

Julia Usher, “Cookie Swap” (Gibbs Smith 2009)

Meringue ghosts

Makes about 2 dozen

1 cup dried pitted dates, finely chopped

1 1/2 teaspoons finely grated orange zest

3 tablespoons orange juice

2 tablespoons candied orange peel, finely chopped

1 1/2 tablespoons Grand Marnier

1/2 cup plus 2 tablespoons pecans, finely chopped

3/4 teaspoon cinnamon

1/8 teaspoon ground cloves


4 large egg whites

1/4 teaspoon cream of tartar

1 cup sifted superfine sugar

1 1/2 teaspoons cornstarch

Miniature chocolate chips

Preheat oven to 225. Line cookie sheets with parchment paper.

Mix the dates, orange zest, juice, peel and liqueur in a medium saucepan. Cook over medium heat, stirring regularly, until all the liquid has been absorbed, about 10 minutes. Cook another 3 minutes, stirring regularly to prevent scorching. Remove from heat and stir in the chopped pecans and spices. Cool. Form 3/4-inch balls and arrange them evenly around the perimeter of the baking sheets.

Make the meringue by beating the egg whites and cream of tartar on low speed until frothy, then turn the mixer to medium and gradually add the sugar, a tablespoon at a time. Turn the mixer to high and beat until the whites are very stiff and glossy, about 10 minutes. Sprinkle the cornstarch evenly over the surface and beat 30 seconds more.

Fit a pastry bag with a large (3/4-inch) star-tip and fill with the meringue. Hold the bag perpendicular to each date ball, with the tip touching the top, and press, so the meringue covers as much of the ball as possible. Slowly lift the pastry bag straight up, still applying pressure, to make a ghost. Then pull up quickly, without pressure, to create a peak.

Place two mini chocolate chips on each cookie to form eyes. Press the chips in with the tip of a paring knife. Bake until bone-dry to the touch, but not discolored, 1 to 2 hours, depending on the ambient humidity. Transfer to a wire rack to cool.

Spider truffles

3/4 cup heavy cream

4 cinnamon sticks, broken

10 whole cloves

1 strip orange zest

8 ounces bittersweet or semisweet chocolate

Garnishes: unsweetened cocoa powder, white or dark chocolate, licorice whips, red candies

Bring the cream, cinnamon, cloves and orange zest almost to a simmer. Turn off heat and let rest 30 minutes.

Chop the chocolate and place it in a heat-proof bowl.

Bring the cream back to a simmer, then pour it through a sieve onto the chocolate. Cover with plastic wrap and let stand 10 minutes. Stir until smooth. Then pour into a shallow pan and chill until the mixture is very cold and set but still pliable, about 30 minutes. Using a small scoop or 1/2-inch melon baller, scoop balls of chocolate mixture, transferring them to a baking sheet lined with parchment paper as you work. Chill 10 minutes.

Dip each truffle in cocoa powder to coat, then shape into a ball. Truffles can be dipped in melted dark chocolate to form spiders — make the legs from strands of black licorice and the eyes from small red candies — or white chocolate for eyeballs.

Adapted from recipes by Martha Stewart and Julia Usher