I love a good cookie swap. There is no better holiday tradition for the cookie fanatic. But I have come to understand, just as with contributors to a potluck, everyone responds differently to the call of the swap.
Some who answer the call are cookie bakers with serious skills. They bring platters of carefully wrought reindeer, glistening stars and bedazzled snowflakes. There are bakers who rely on family recipes for snickerdoodles and candy-cane-topped chocolate chunkies. And then there are the nonbakers who fret at the very invitation, wondering what to make. They seek out recipes that seem easy enough, and, invariably unwrap their contributions, muttering "I'm not a baker."
Never apologize for making cookies, people.
Here is the cookie swap creation for nonbakers – including you, without a mixer. A large bowl and a sturdy wooden spoon will do. You use store-bought granola, a jar of good jam, and make a shortbread dough that is pressed in rather than rolled out.
The shortbread is sandy, sweet and firm enough to form a suitable base for the jam and streusel-like topping. I have used all flavors of jam for these bar cookies, including raspberry, spiced plum, lemon curd and even orange marmalade. Pick your very favorite. Mix the topping with whatever granola is in the house, but the simpler the better. (Read: With nuts maybe, but no dried fruit.) No granola on hand? Add a handful of rolled oats and toasted nuts to the topping's flour and butter instead.
Fit parchment paper into the pan carefully; neat and squared corners make pressing the shortbread into the pan easier. Use your knuckles, not fingertips, to press in the base (or use the flat bottom of a glass). With plenty of parchment overlap, the entire cooled slab can be lifted from the pan onto a cutting board for easy dissection. I have sliced them into sizable squares, but they also make tidy, slim bars. Measure carefully so that each one is the same size, just because they will look prettier on the platter.
With this crowd-pleaser, you can don that ugly Christmas sweater and stride into the cookie swap. No apology necessary.
• Barrow is a Washington cookbook author.
Shortbread Jam Bars
18 servings pieces
Use the best-quality jam and, if possible, high-fat European butter. Substitute your favorite jam flavor for the raspberry, but if it is particularly chunky, chop or blend it so the pieces are small and spread easily.
Make ahead: The shortbread base can be refrigerated a day in advance. The bars will keep, layered between wax paper in a tightly closed container at room temperature, for 5 days.
– From columnist Cathy Barrow.
For the base and filling:
12 tablespoons (1 1/2 sticks) unsalted butter, at room temperature (see headnote)
3/4 cup sugar
2 large egg yolks
1/2 teaspoon vanilla extract
3 cups flour
1/4 teaspoon kosher salt
8 ounces raspberry jam (see headnote)
For the topping:
1 cup homemade or store-bought granola (see headnote)
1/2 cup flour
2 tablespoons unsalted butter
Pinch kosher salt
For the base and filling: Line a 9-by-13-inch pan with parchment paper, with enough to hang over the two short edges (for ease of lifting out the slab later).
Combine the butter and sugar in the bowl of a stand mixer or handheld electric mixer; beat on medium speed for a few minutes until lightened and fluffy. Add the yolks one at a time, beating until fully incorporated, and then the vanilla extract. Stop to scrape down the bowl.
Add the flour and salt; beat on low speed to form a crumbly dough. Transfer to the pan; use the bottom of a dry measuring cup or glass to press it in, forming a uniform base of dough that's about 3/4-inch thick. Refrigerate for 15 minutes; this will make it easier to spread the jam on top.
Meanwhile, preheat the oven to 350 degrees F.
For the topping: Combine the granola, flour, butter and salt in a medium bowl. Use your fingertips to rub the butter into the dry ingredients to make a crumbly topping.
To complete assembly, spread the jam gently over the chilled base. Crumble the topping evenly across the jam. Bake (middle rack) for 25 to 30 minutes, until pale golden on the edges.
Cool completely before using the parchment paper to lift the entire slab out of the pan. Cut into 18 bars of equal size.
• Nutrition per piece: 280 calories, 4 g protein, 39 g carbohydrates, 12 g fat, 6 g saturated fat, 45 mg cholesterol, 30 mg sodium, 1 g dietary fiber, 17 g sugar.