$150 Worth of Christmas Baking

We overloaded so you don't have to.

Two Christmases ago, I decided to inaugurate an annual tradition of baking boxes of cookies for friends and relations. I researched 19th-century recipes, candied my own orange and lemon rind and roasted my own nuts, and bought reams of tissue paper for wrapping. By the next year, though, I realized that for every cookie I was giving away, one never made it out the door of the apartment. Waistline: inflated. Annual tradition: scrapped. This December, I decided to reduce my own cookie intake by limiting myself only to what I could buy using the Weekly's Christmas-cookie expense account ($150). I sampled the holiday offerings at some 15 Seattle bakeries in order to find the best of the best, or at least the most of the most. They are as follows. Best improvement on fruitcake: The "Kentucky bourbon cake" ($12) at the West Seattle branch of the Great Harvest Bread Co. (4709 California Ave. S.W.) was dense with dried fruit, nuts, and a few jiggers of bourbon—with no fluorescent-red cherries in sight. Whole-wheat flour gave the bread a depth beyond the usual sugar-molasses rush. (Blame that same whole wheat, though, for a gingerbread man that tasted like whole-grain cardboard.) If you insist on the more traditional fruitcake, Nielsen's Pastries (520 Second Ave. W.) unapologetically sells one, priced at 50 cents an ounce. Seattle's only sugar cookie worth eating: Sugar cookies—the kind made to be canvases for Martha Stewartizing, which form clean-edged shapes when stamped out with a cookie cutter and bake up with perfectly level tops—are uniformly awful. They taste like manila envelopes and/or baking powder, and the decorator icing tends to harden into space-shuttle caulk. Many of the 20-plus sugar cookies that I attempted to down were gorgeous: The illustrations actually looked like what they were supposed to depict, as opposed to, say, the "scarf" that my family always puts on our snowman, which makes Frosty look like pink or green blood gushes from his slashed throat. However, I did find one exception to these bland beauties: the only holiday cookie that the grinches at Dahlia Bakery (2001 Fourth Ave.) are selling this year. It's a snowflake ($1.50), embellished with thin frosting lines and snowy white sugar crystals. What makes it so good, you ask? Butter. Lots and lots of butter. Most garishly decorated sugar cookies: Remo Borracchini's Bakery (2307 Rainier Ave. S.) must purchase food coloring in quantities big enough to alert the Department of Homeland Security. I saw a Christmas tree cookie the color of AstroTurf in its cases, and the stocking-shaped cookie I bought ($1.09) was covered in frosting redder than Mao's little book. Borracchini's sells so many kinds of smaller sugar cookies (30 cents apiece) that you could shower your friends in sugar sprinkles for the same amount you'd spend on a pound of See's Candies. Best question to resolve by Christmas 2008: Biscotti—holiday cookies or not? I spotted a lot. Still not sure whether they qualify. Most gingery gingerbread cookie: I have grown to appreciate gingerbread over the past few years, as long as it satisfies two conditions: it must (a) be slightly chewy and (b) actually contain ginger. For my money, the gingerbread lady at Macrina (multiple locations) is top drawer—delicately spicy, its ginger flavor isn't overwhelmed by molasses. Sure, the palm-sized cookie cost $3.50, and sure, my lady looked like an alopecia-stricken Cathy in a bikini. But that was fine, because moments after I bought her she became one-armed hairless Cathy in a bikini, and soon afterward, headless, no-armed Cathy. Would that the same fate befell the cartoon Cathy. Most pointless import: Why do thousands of us shell out $12 to $30 every year for a hat box of panettone from Italy? Let me stress: imported bread. Every year I pick up at least one loaf in the hopes that I'll see what the fuss is about, but a single slice is enough to give me the thirst of a marathoner. The local stuff's not much better. Panettone French toast, however—soaking the mushroom-shaped fruit bread in eggs and cream, frying it, and then covering the slices with brown sugar and lemon juice—I could get behind. Most unappetizing holiday cake in Christendom: The priapic snowman mounted, so to speak, on a wintry cake at the Erotic Bakery (2323 N. 45th St.). Best holiday treat to buy in bulk: If I could pick a favorite holiday snack, it would have to be stollen, the flat, rectangular German yeast bread flavored with brandy and lemon rind and filled with marzipan as well as 20 million kinds of dried fruits and nuts. It slices up well, makes great toast, and looks impressive when you present it to your building manager. My friend Ellen's recipe is still the best, but I bought decent versions at North Hill Bakery ($10 for 1-pound loaf; 518 15th Ave. E.) and Bakery Nouveau ($20; 4737 California Ave. S.W.), both made with citrus rind that the bakers candied themselves. Best gesture of cookie inclusiveness: The dreidl sugar cookie at Columbia City Bakery (4865 Rainier Ave. S.) with a pretty Israeli-flag-blue rim. See above for my feelings about sugar cookies, however. Most essential pre-holiday-party stop: For $8, Columbia City Bakery sells a candy-red Chinese takeout box containing a dozen small holiday cookies. This screams last-minute host gift—one that will shame all those lemmings who brought $30 bottles of wine. The box contains chocolate-peppermint crinkles, Mexican wedding cakes, sugar-cookie snowflakes, and one of my favorite holiday cookies this year: dried-cranberry and pistachio shortbread. Most intriguing selection of non-American holiday cookies: James Miller at Cafe Besalu (5909 24th Ave. N.W.) is a man after my heart. Not only has he mastered the croissant, humanity's most perfect expression of butter, but his holiday selection runs to the obscure and the Germanic. Some of his cookies—such as the Basel leckerli ($1.50), flavored with candied citron and honey—cloy (though authentically, I'm sure). But his crispy German spice cookies ($1.25) smell like you've just stuck your head into the bulk bins at an Indian market. His linzer cookies ($1.50)—buttery fluted rounds with a pool of raspberry jam at the center)—are almost as good as the croissants. And I was most impressed with his springerle ($1.25): Delicately flavored with aniseed, the light, egg-white-leavened cookies almost made me want to invest in one of those $99 Sur La Table springerle molds I've been admiring for a decade now. The holiday treat that tells your guests either "I love you with all my heart" or "Aren't you glad I have better taste than you?" depending on the spirit in which it is presented: The bûche de Noël ($40) from tony Bakery Nouveau—a rouleau with chocolate sponge cake, hazelnut paste, and Valrhona chocolate mousse, and frosted with coffee buttercream to look like a yule log—is so gorgeous that you'll daydream about the forest it came from. Most excessive use of marzipan: The jule log at Nielsen's Pastries ($13.50) is essentially a 9-inch tube of almond paste, with a hazelnut nougat core and dark-chocolate bark decorated with little sugar berries and things. Based on my experience, a half-inch slice should do you for the season. Most eclectic offerings: The holiday selection at North Hill Bakery ranges from julekake (an eggy, fruit-studded bread) to gingerbread and chocolate crinkles. Not to mention fudge, cakes, and pies. Reserve soon if you want them for your Christmas dinner. Most important lesson learned: After tasting three dozen or so holiday treats, I'm still convinced that the ones we love best are the ones our parents made. I've gifted enough of the Kauffman family pfeffernüssen to the ungrateful to know that my addiction to them is genetic rather than aesthetic. Professional bakeries make fantastic bread, pastries, and cakes. But can they beat your grandma's chocolate cornflake drops? Not likely. In the end, though, the decision to make or buy your holiday sweets may boil down to math. Which is worth more to you: a box of $3-a-piece shortbreads or a January's worth of salad and self-abnegation? jkauffman@seattleweekly.com

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