Cookies may be fun to make but they’re even better to eat. And with thousands of variations spanning so many flavors and shapes, there’s a cookie out there for every taste. Creative bakers have made them into sandwiches and bars, coated them with ganache, filled them with jam and even stuffed them with candy. There’s really no end to the possibilities. F&W’s guide to these tiny desserts offers tons of holiday ideas, healthy recipes (yes, really) and lessons from the experts for perfecting your techniques.

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Nightcap Cookies

After all the excesses and indulgences of the holidays, I usually start the new year with a pressing need to rein in my eating. Too much rich food and booze starts to take a toll, after all. But here’s the thing: I can’t just quit cold turkey, going from aaaaalll the cocktails and sweets to none at all. (OK, technically I could. I just don’t want to.) So I go for a gentler come-down strategy that centers on my Nightcap Cookies, aka five-spice pecan shortbread. These are My. Kind. Of. Cookies. They’re buttery, a little salty, incredibly nutty, and crumbly-crisp—and a good way to bridge the gap between holiday hedonism and everyday reality. They’re way less sweet than most holiday desserts but just sweet enough to feel like a treat. And they’re made with whole-wheat pastry flour, not so much for the whole-grain goodness (though that’s a great benefit) but for the toasty flavor it adds. See, I have a theory that with certain baked goods, all-purpose flour’s blandness dilutes the flavors you want to play up—especially nutty or chocolaty ones. But whole-wheat flour, with its inherent nuttiness, amplifies those delicious notes. And because of whole-wheat pastry flour’s superfine texture, it works beautifully in pretty much any dessert. I like using cultured butter for these shortbread cookies instead of traditional butter because it adds a little bit of tang and deeper flavor overall. And I really enjoy kosher salt here for the little pockets of salinity it creates. A hint of five-spice powder, with its light anise fragrance, adds just enough subtle oomph to keep you interested bite after bite. And for heaven’s sake, I implore you to use toasted pecans so that they’re crisp, with intensified nuttiness. The cookies will be infinitely more delicious with well-toasted pecans instead of raw ones. By well-toasted, I mean roasting in the oven at moderate heat (around 300°F) for 18 to 23 minutes until the nuts are roasted throughout, not just on the outside like they are when you toast them in a skillet. (And when you’re toasting nuts, go ahead and toast a lot of them and store them in the freezer so you’re a step ahead later when you want a great topper for your oatmeal or salad.) These shortbread cookies are great to keep on hand, holding up well in an airtight container for a week or two. They’re the cornerstone of my new, more reasonable nighttime routine: one or two cookies after dinner with a prudent pour of bourbon. Because they’re really good with bourbon, poured neat. Promise.
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Lemon-Tahini Cookies

Last winter I had the good fortune of spending a week traversing the cities, deserts, ports, and verdant fields of Israel in the company of 20-plus fellow food-obsessed chefs and food writers; culinary heavyweights Jonathan Waxman, Ruth Reichl, Jenn Louis, Nancy Silverton, and Marc Murphy were among them. We were on a spiritual pilgrimage of a new kind: to uncover and understand what is arguably the most complex convergence of food cultures in the world. Together we visited farms, home and restaurant kitchens, morning markets, wineries, food incubators, renowned dining rooms, and late-night food stalls. We were eager to taste and to learn how a land so fraught by ages of conflict (yet still so new in its independent history) can preserve its ancient foodways with such passion and purpose. We were a ravenous bunch, consuming, questioning, and squealing with glee at every flavorful find. In fact, our discoveries felt so plentiful that after a while I lost count, even with the pages of notes and flurry of photos I took each day. Despite our feeding frenzy, there were several distinct moments of clarity and revelation, when I tasted something so utterly satisfying that it is now and forever burned into my sense memory. One such instance took place at the Carmel Market in Tel Aviv, known to the locals as Shuk HaCarmel. We spent the morning guided through stalls and stands by author Adeena Sussman, whose new Israeli cookbook Sababa was inspired by the vendors and foods of the market. Toward the end of the tour we stopped at a beautiful display of molds for halvah, the dense sweet that in the Middle East is often made of pressed sesame paste (tahini) and sugar then swirled or sprinkled with anything from dark chocolate to nuts to rose oil. The shopkeeper placed a piece of his favorite in my hand, and as soon as it dissolved in my mouth I knew it would be my favorite, too. Bright, tart lemon zest (not juice) added the most fragrant, floral note to the otherwise dense, earthy dessert. Dark, just-bitter cacao nibs balanced out what otherwise would have been a cloying sweetness. It was a masterful combination, one I knew I needed to bring back to my kitchen. Of course I bought a large slab and have been nibbling on it ever since (Pro tip: Halvah will keep, well wrapped, in a cool, dark spot in your pantry for over a year!). In addition, the trinity of lemon zest, tahini, and cacao nibs has been making its way into my sweets and baking repertoire ever since, from morning pancakes to the perfect ice cream topping—and these unassuming, irresistible Lemon-Tahini Cookies. They may just be the ideal holiday gift for everyone on your list this year, no matter your culture or creed. After all, deliciousness knows no bounds.
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Gluten-Free Cacao Nib Meringues

Made with chocolate, cacao, and cocoa, these intensely flavored meringues have a delicate, crispy exterior with a soft, chewy, marshmallow-like interior.
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Forget Apple Pie—Bat and Pumpkin Cookies Are the Ultimate Fall Dessert

I'll always love Christmas cookies, but the glossy bats, spooky ghosts, and orange pumpkins we made for Halloween had my heart.
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More Cookies

Salty Smoked Pistachio–and-Honey Shortbread Cookies

If you passed my house over the last couple of years, chances are there was a plume of smoke rising from my grill. When neighbors (who have become accustomed to the rib eye aroma and the glowing embers) see me snipping rosemary, they ask what wine to bring for dinner. When I kiss my kids goodnight, they say my hair smells like a campfire. The culmination of all these home fires, Thank You for Smoking, my new cookbook, just hit the stands. To develop the recipes, I rigged my PK Grill as a smoker to season everything from cocktails to quinoa with a whiff of wood smoke. Based on their moisture or density, a few ingredients quickly rose to the top as favorites for smoking: namely, nuts. Thanks to their natural fat content, nuts like walnuts, cashews, and pistachios absorb the seductive qualities of wood smoke almost as well as steak. The process deepens their color and infuses them with a rich, bacon-y note. Smoked nuts are delicious on their own (pass the smoked cashews at happy hour, please), but they’re a true game-changer when used for pesto and for baked confections like quick breads, cakes, and cookies. Enter: the smoked pistachio shortbread cookie. The swoony flavor of smoked pistachios permeates the meltingly tender cookies the way a cross breeze whisks through a lakeside cabin. Lemon zest adds a balancing brightness, but you could also swap in lime zest, chopped fresh rosemary, or coarsely ground pink peppercorns. Use a European-style butter to create a depth that will transport you to a hike through the heather-covered hills of Scotland. Finishing the cookies with a lemony honey and a pinch of flaky salt creates a subtly savory edge that’s delicious with steaming mugs of tea, a nip of single-malt Scotch, or vanilla bean ice cream.
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Lemon-Buckwheat Shortbread

At Bellegarde Bakery in New Orleans, baker Graison Gill is part of a generation of renegade bakers who are eschewing industrially ground white flour in favor of grinding their own flours from crops like red Ruby Lee wheat and heirloom corn. “White flour is a corpse,” says Gill. “It’s a dead, shelf-stable product. Freshly stone-milled flour is a living ingredient, full of flavor, texture, aroma, nutrition, and nuance.” Buy Bellegarde Bakery’s stone-ground flour online at Lemon filling highlights the nuttiness of buckwheat flour in these shortbread cookie sandwiches from Nina Compton. Substituting store-bought buckwheat flour will yield a less nutty cookie. Be sure to store either flour in the freezer.
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Coffee Cookie Crumble

When developing the dessert menu for Pastaria in Nashville, pastry chef Mathew Rice knew he wanted to update the classic tiramisu. “The original has a uniform mouthfeel,” he says, “but I love to play with texture in pastry.” This crunchy, salty, coffee-laced streusel does just that in his Tiramisu Icebox Pie. Slideshow: More Dessert Recipes