THERE ARE cookies for the cookie jar, made to ward off after-school starvation, with raisins, oatmeal, peanut butter and chocolate chips.
There are other cookies, however, more appropriately served on the Limoges between the cheese course and the cognac: delicate nut wafers; plain, pale, butter-rich rounds and light-as-air meringue kisses.
Besides being delicious, these homemade cookies are also good "keepers," and, therefore, a fine dessert choice for the cook who likes to keep day-of-the-party preparations to a minimum. For a small group a tinful will do, but serving a crowd doesn't take much more effort. For example, in just an hour or so, an ardent baker can turn out eight or nine dozen simple yet seductively rich sour-cream cookies.
Elegant cookies can be dessert all by themselves, offered only with coffee, espresso or tea. Or they can be paired delectably with countless other dessertts. Julia Child likes almond or walnut tuiles with ice cream or sherbet, and madeleines with a colorful macedoine of fruits bubbling in champagne. Well before Julia, another great American menu-maker, Thomas Jefferson, put together pots de creme with meringues and macaroons for a special spring dinner at Monticello.
To decide what to serve with cookies, consider the texture and main ingredients of each. Any of the cookies below would be appealing served with a goblet full of homemade or good quality store-brought ice cream. Here are some other more specific serving suggestions for each.
Orange-Coconut Clusters -- Try these toasted-on-the-outside, chewy-on-the-inside cookies with something contrastingly smooth and rich such as bavarian cream or flan. Offer them with fresh pineapple, cut into chunks and left on the shell, or a glass bowl full of peeled and sliced seedless oranges that have been tossed with rum.
Buttery Almond Thins -- These faintly sweet, delicate cookies are a perfect foil for a light and creamy dessert such as lemon mousse, creme caramel or a fruit sorbet -- pear, perhaps, with raspberry sauce.
Rum-Laced Double-Chocolate Bars -- For an irresistibly sweet finale to a dinner that's on the light side, serve these dense brownie-like bars with a frozen mocha mousse or mocha ice cream. Or, because they are nutless, offer them along with small silver or glass bowls filled with whole toasted or caramelized almonds, pecan halves or walnuts.
Sour Cream Cookies -- Rich and refined with a slight tang, these cookies are a nice accompaniment for a fruit dessert -- a fool, which is crushed or pureed fresh fruit folded into whipped cream; cubed fresh mango that has been sprinkled with orange-flavored liqueur; or ripe fresh strawberries, served with a mixture of granulated sugar and cinnamon for dipping.
Pecan Meringue Puffs -- These nut kisses are light, crunchy and lovely with fresh raspberries or strawberries drizzled with cream or with tossed fresh fruit that has been macerated in wine or liqueur.
Whether serving the cookies alone or with something else, make the presentation special. Raid your cupboards for pretty serving dishes. Unusual china platters or small silver trays are good cookie plates. Or arrange the cookies in a basket lined with a linen napkin, or in a shallow glass or silver serving bowl. If you're serving them alone, garnish the serving dish with a few well-placed fresh strawberries or bing cherries, stems left on, or with little clumps of purple, red and green grapes, which guests can pluck off the plate along with the cookies. ORANGE COCONUT CLUSTERS (About 4 dozen) 2 egg whites, room temperature Pinch of salt 1/4 teaspoon almond extract 1/2 cup sugar 2 cups shredded coconut 3 tablespoons grated orange rind Butter or flour for cookie sheets
Preheat oven to 350 degrees. In a medium mixing bowl, beat egg whites with salt and almond extract until soft peaks form. Add sugar, a few tablespoons at a time, and beat until mixture is stiff and glossy.
Fold in coconut and orange rind. Drop by heaping teaspoonfuls onto cookie sheets that have been greased and floured or lined with parchment. Bake for 10 minutes, reduce heat to 300 degrees and continue baking for 15 to 20 more minutes, until cookies are golden. Let stand on sheets for a few minutes to firm up before transferring to rack. Cool completely; store in airtight containers for 3 to 4 days or longer. BUTTERY ALMOND THINS (About 4 dozen) 10 tablespoons butter (1/2 cup plus 2 tablespoons), room temperature 1/4 cup sugar 1/2 teaspoon vanilla 1 1/4 cups all-purpose flour 1/2 cup ground almonds Waxed paper Butter for cookie sheet Blanched sliced almonds (for garnish)
Preheat oven to 350 degrees. In a medium-size bowl, beat together butter, sugar and vanilla until light and fluffy. Add flour, about 1/4 cup at a time, blending well after each addition. Add ground almonds and mix well. Divide dough in half and form each half into a ball. Cover with plastic wrap and chill in refrigerator briefly -- 15 to 30 minutes. Place dough between sheets of waxed paper and roll out to 1/8-inch thickness. Cut into rounds 1 1/2 to 2 inches in diameter. Transfer rounds carefully to greased cookie sheets. Re-roll scraps and cut remaining dough into rounds. Press an almond slice into center of each round. Bake for 12 to 14 minutes, until barely golden. Transfer carefully to rack to cool. Store airtight for 4 to 5 days or longer.
NOTE: These cookies are very easy to roll, but for cooks with an aversion to the rolling pin, dough may also be shaped into balls by the teaspoonful, then flattened into thin rounds, 1 1/2 to 2 inches in diameter, using the heels of the hands. Cookies will be slightly mounded, but still delicious. RUM-LACED DOUBLE CHOCOLATE BARS (About 32 cookies) 5 tablespoons butter 2 ounces unsweetened chocolate 2 eggs 3/4 cup plus 2 tablespoons sugar 1 1/2 tablespoons rum 1/2 cup all-purpose flour Pinch of salt 1/2 cup semi-sweet chocolate bits Butter for greasing pan Confectioners' sugar (optional)
Preheat oven to 350 degrees. In top of double boiler, melt butter and chocolate. Stir until smooth; let cool. In a medium-size bowl, beat eggs, sugar and rum until fluffy and pale yellow. Add cooled chocolate mixture and blend well. Stir in flour and salt; blend. Stir in semi-sweet bits. Spread batter evenly in greased 8-inch-by-8-inch-by-2-inch pan; bake for 30 to 35 minutes. (Be careful not to overcook; top should feel just barely firm and have a light crust.) Set pan on a rack and let cool completely before cutting into 1-inch-by-2-inch bars. If desired, dust lightly with confectioners' sugar.Stored tightly covered in a cool place, bars will stay moist for 2 to 3 days or more and may also be frozen.
NOTE: For ultra-rich and moist bars, sprinkle very lightly with a little rum after cutting. SOUR CREAM COOKIES (8 to 9 dozen) 2 3/4 cups all-purpose flour 1/2 teaspoon baking soda 1/2 teaspoon salt 1/4 teaspoon nutmeg 1 cup butter, room temperature 3/4 cup sugar 1/2 cup brown sugar 1 egg, well beaten 1 teaspoon vanilla 1/2 cup sour cream Butter for greasing cookie sheet Confectioners' sugar
Preheat oven to 375 degrees. In a medium-size bowl, combine flour, baking soda, salt and nutmeg. Set aside. Beat butter in a large bowl until fluffy; add sugars and beat until well blended and creamy. Add egg, vanilla and sour cream; blend well. Add flour mixture to butter and sugar, a little at a time, blending well after each addition.
Roll dough into balls by the teaspoonful; place on greased cookie sheets.Flatten each with a fork that has been dipped into a little granulated sugar. Bake for 8 to 10 minutes, until edges barely begin to brown. Tops should remain pale. Transfer to rack to cool; dust with confectioners sugar. Stored airtight, cookies will keep well for 6 to 7 days and taste best when aged for at least 1 to 2 days. Freeze extras. PECAN MERINGUE PUFFS (About 40 cookies) 2 egg whites, room temperature 3/4 teaspoon vanilla 6 tablespoons sugar 1/2 cup finely chopped pecans
Preheat oven to 250 degrees. Beat egg white with vanilla until soft peaks form. Add sugar, a few tablespoons at a time, and beat until stiff and glossy. Fold in nuts.
Drop by heaping teaspoonsful onto cookie sheets lined with parchment, or pipe onto lined sheets using pastry bag fitted with medium-size plain or star tip. Bake for 45 minutes; turn off oven and leave inside for 4 to 5 hours. (Do not open door.) Stored airtight, puffs will stay crisp for a week or longer.
NOTE: If using pastry bag, be sure nuts are very finely chopped. Larger pieces will clog tip.