Don't feel like holiday baking? Let the professionals do the work.
Positive thinking guru Norman Vincent Peale once famously intoned that, "Christmas waves a magic wand over this world, and behold, everything is softer and more beautiful."
Rev. Peale obviously never saw the wreckage that is my kitchen after several rounds of Christmas cookie baking. Which is why I was so relieved to discover that plenty of Twin Cities bakeries stand ready to take the heat off frazzled December bakers, stocking their cases with all manner of holiday favorites.
Walk into 3 Tiers and it's not difficult to get the impression that baker/owner Sarah Herr is into Christmas, because her case is filled with a variety of holiday lovelies, from colorful iced sugar cutouts (don't miss the blue bells), giant spritz, super-moist Peanut Blossoms and thin, teasingly spicy gingerbread boys.
But it's the Chocolate crinkles ($1) that really impress. While they're gooey inside, they've got that hard-to-achieve crisp shell on the outside, with all that chocolate-y goodness buried under a seasonally appropriate powdered-sugar blizzard. They can totally pass as homemade, which may be the most cherished gift that Herr can pass along to her time-crunched customers.
The classic diamants at Patisserie 46 are a year-round staple of baker/owner John Kraus, yet they seem so Christmas-y that they practically go caroling themselves. The coin-shaped chocolate cookies (95 cents) are utter simplicity, each sinfully buttery treat glistening with coarse sugar. Is it possible to sneak just one? Doubtful. Are they attention-getters on a crowded cookie tray? Definitely.
The grandmotherly Christmas cookie selection at A Piece of Cake is not only heartwarming, it's priced to sell. Dainty, sugar-dappled spritz, feisty little gingerbreads, iced sugar cutouts, shortbread horns dipped in chocolate and finished with chopped walnuts, they're all here, but the don't-miss goodie is definitely the star-shaped sandwich cookie ($1) built with that can't-miss combination of chocolate and mint.
Although their place is called Cake Eater Bakery and Cafe, co-owners Emily Moore Harris and Sheela Namakkal aren't exactly slouches in the cookie-making department. Witness their crisp, golden, melt-in-your mouth sugar cookies ($1), iced with a pretty snowflake and sparkling with ice crystal-like sugar. Their Hanukkah version was awfully special too.
While the folks at Patisserie Margo put up a swell apricot-craisin-walnut rugelach ($1.75), their No. 1 eye-catcher is what has to be the Twin Cities' prettiest sugar cookie cutout ($2), a gigantic, intricate snowflake that will put a smile on even the most blizzard-weary Minnesotan.
The talented bakers at the Turtle Bread Co. also demonstrate considerable finesse with a cookie cutter. Their A-plus effort is a tender, star-shaped almond-cinnamon cutout, finished with tangy apricot filling and criss-crossed with a grid of vanilla icing. It's a little slice of Christmas elegance at $1.50 a pop.
I haven't encountered a homemade rosette since my great-aunt Marian Moe hung up her irons for good in the 1980s, and my Swedish-Norwegian family has felt the loss ever since. Fortunately, Soile Anderson of the Finnish Bistro maintains the tradition of these delicate, sculptural beauties ($2.50). And yes, they taste as good as they look. God jul!
Speaking of tradition, the yuletide season would be decidedly less jolly without powdered sugar-dusted Russian tea cakes. Many bakeries feature them, but the plump, golf ball-sized shortbreads at It Takes the Cake ($10 per dozen) sport just the right crumbly-nutty bite.
The nostalgia-tinged sweets in the case at the Avalon Tearoom & Pastry Shoppe, never disappoint, particularly the iced cake cookies (80 cents) that are the specialty of co-owners Jan Boe and Becky Radel. The cashew version, with a brown sugar icing, earns high marks, but my appetite always goes for its chocolate sibling, finished with a fat swipe of vanilla buttercream frosting and a cute Santa candy. "It's like eating a slice of chocolate cake," said Radel, and she's absolutely right.
The big Christmas tree cutouts ($1.50) from Butter Bakery Cafe also radiate that winning brand of made-at-home loveliness, although this home baker can never quite achieve the thin, crisp, buttery rolled-cookie perfection the way baker Amy Kovacs obviously can. Someday, perhaps. But until then, I'm relying on Kovacs.
At Bars Bakery, where butter and sugar meld into glorious goodness, co-owners Sandi Younkin and Kara Younkin Viswanathan don't sell individual Christmas cookies, but that's OK, because for $10 they'll assemble a veritable cookie exchange in a box, nearly two dozen bite-size treats that range from snappy gingerbread squares and rich chocolate sables to, naturally, a few expertly made bars. My favorite? The tiny, melt-in-your-mouth butter cookie sandwiches -- if pie crust could marry a sugar cookie, their offspring would taste like this -- filled with raspberry or apricot jam and a thin layer of the mother-daughter team's deliriously delicious caramel.
A few more ideas: They're not Christmas cookies per se, but the perky salted caramel French macaroons ($1.50) from Sweets Bakeshop have got the green look of the season down pat, and they're made with equal parts TLC and skill. The beyond-spicy ginger cookies ($1) from Rustica sure know how to throw a one-two "happy holidays" punch, with no spiked egg nog in sight. A package of the chocolate-sea salt cookies from ($1.50 per cookie) Lucia's to Go is a guaranteed road to merriment. Empty-handed partygoers should consider dropping by Patrick's Bakery & Cafe and grabbing the $6.95 bag of basic but well-made butter cookies -- roughly two dozen -- cut into angels and snowflakes.
Finally, I'm all over the idea of cookies as stocking stuffers, particularly the impressive products ($4.95) from Get Cookies, sold at the Golden Fig. Each festively wrapped cookie (a sugar cookie snowman, a gingerbread person) gets the kind of artful decorative treatment that we all wish we could accomplish at home, but never can. Well, at least I can't.
Rick Nelson • 612-673-4757