Since 1995, I’ve baked approximately a thousand of these beautiful jewel-colored jelly bowl cookies. And although (or, perhaps, because) everyone in my life expects me to keep baking these cookies, I will continue to bake thousands more.
When I was a teenager, I would eagerly await the arrival of the end-of-the-year holidays. Not only were there the promises of exciting presents and Christmas break, but also the appearance of the December issue of Gourmet Magazine, which always contained fun dessert projects for the holidays.
In 1995, Gourmet featured a stunning, mouth-watering assortment of cookies on the front cover of the December issue, as well as a recipe for “Basic Butter Cookie Dough.” I persuaded my parents to let me buy a copy of the magazine as we waited in the checkout line at our local grocery store.
When I finally read through the butter cookie recipe, I flipped back and forth between the article and the front cover, amazed that one basic cookie dough served as the foundation of all of the beautiful cookies on the cover. I was especially enchanted by the pretty cut-out star cookies that sandwiched a orange-colored jam — apricot, perhaps?
I made a couple batches of the cookies that year, and over the years, I experimented with most of the recipes: the exotic-sounding Raspberry Hazelnut Triangles, zingy Orange Cranberry Oatmeal cookies, Mocha Butter Balls (perfect for chocolate lovers), and the beautiful, but time-consuming, Apricot Stars. However, after my first few years tinkering with the butter cookie recipe, I stopped making all of the other variations…and the one variation that I’ve made consistently over the years — the overwhelming crowd favorite — is the Jelly Bowl Cookie.
The premise of the Jelly Bowl Cookies is incredibly simple: roll the dough into small balls, press an indentation into the middle with your thumbs, and fill the resulting holes with strained jam. The combination of slightly sweet, savory butter cookie dough with jam is utterly addictive, especially if you use a tart jam and bake the cookies until they’re well-browned to bring out the nutty notes of the butter.
While other Christmas cookie recipes have come and gone, I’ve baked these jelly bowl cookies almost every year since I was in high school. I have many memories of frantically shaping the cookies on Christmas Eve, with my mom or sister rolling balls of cookie dough while I shaped the cookies and added the jam with a tiny teaspoon. A couple of years ago, I even changed to a slightly-different version of the recipe, published in the Los Angeles Times as “Banbury Tarts” — the LA Times recipe produced a dough that contained slightly more flour (and was therefore a little easier to work with), and yielded cookies that tasted so similar to Gourmet’s version that no one even noticed the difference.
The process of making jelly bowl cookies forces me to slow down during the hectic Christmas season. I shape each individual cookie, measuring out the dough carefully in teaspoons, rolling them into balls, carefully creating each cookie’s indentation with my thumbs, heating and straining jam and dropping it in the indentations with a tiny espresso spoon. It’s a surprisingly intimate process — as my friend pointed out, my actual thumbprints are in each cookie! — and I often wonder when I give the cookies away whether the recipients will fully comprehend just how much of myself I’ve put into each diminutive jelly bowl. It’s probably the most personal cookie I bake.
Last year, I toyed with the idea of changing up my Christmas cookie menu. It’s not that the jelly bowl cookies aren’t delicious — they are absolutely, objectively delicious, more than most cookies I’ve ever consumed — but the lack of feedback left me wondering if people had gotten bored with the cookie over the years. See, you bake a recipe time and time again, and without the benefit of feedback, at some point you feel like the cookie has become invisible, maybe even irrelevant to the recipients. It’s like making art (or, heck, blogging): you send the products of your endeavors out into the universe, and hope that someone, somewhere, out there appreciates your efforts.
So, as I sat there looking up cookie recipes, I mused out loud to my husband, “Maybe this year I won’t make the jelly bowl cookies.” He stopped in his tracks. “No. You HAVE to make the jelly bowl cookies. They’re an institution!”
And I knew he was right. If I didn’t make the cookies, it wouldn’t feel quite like Christmas. Even though I’m easily distracted by other recipes, I have to admit that there’s something kind of nice about a tradition that everyone expects you to adhere to. And this is a recipe that’s easy to love: it produces a butter cookie dough that’s low-key and perfect for the hectic days of December. The dough is easy to work with and will survive several days of refrigeration. The cookies store well, pack well, and make excellent multi-purpose gifts, to boot: If you make these as gifts for Jewish holidays, you can call them round Hamentaschen. 🙂
Packed into a pretty glass jar, the cookies, with their shiny jam interiors, seem to glow and twinkle like jewels, calling to you until you pop just one, and then another, and yet another into your mouth. They’re my tradition, and I hope they become yours, too. Happy holidays, friends.
Christmas Special: Jelly Bowl Cookies
- 4 cups flour
- 1 1/2 cups 3 sticks butter, at room temperature
- 1 cup sugar
- 2 egg yolks
- 3/4 teaspoon vanilla extract
- 3/4 tsp. salt if using unsalted butter; if using salted butter, reduce to 1/4 tsp. salt
- 1 cup jam heated until warm and then strained fine (preferably raspberry or apricot jam; blackberry and strawberry are also fine options)
- Heat the oven to 350 degrees.
- Measure the flour by spooning it into your measuring cup and sweeping off the excess with the back of a knife. Set aside.
- Cream together the butter and sugar by hand or using a mixer until light and fluffy, 3 to 5 minutes. Beat in the egg yolks, then the vanilla and salt. Slowly beat in the flour until combined and smooth to form the dough (unless your butter was extremely soft, the dough might be a bit stiff at the end, and you may need to add the last cup of flour by hand). Taste the dough at this point: if it's not salty enough, add an additional pinch or so of salt. (The salt helps to bring out the flavors of the butter and candied jam.)
- At this point, you can either proceed with baking or refrigerate the dough, well-wrapped, for up to three days, and let come to room temperature before proceeding to the next step. If your dough is very soft, definitely follow the instructions to refrigerate before proceeding.
- Form the dough into teaspoon-sized balls and make a depression in the middle with your thumb. (If the dough starts to crack, don't hesitate to roll it again between your hands until the dough warms and softens.) Spoon jam into the depression.
- Space the cookies about 1-1.5 inches apart on a baking sheet and bake until medium brown, approximately 20-25 minutes, turning the cookie sheet from front to back about 5 minutes before the cooking time is up.