Over my years of writing for The Kitchn, I've shared almost all of my favorite holiday cookies with you, from my mother's famous Peppermint Cream-Filled Butter Cookies (followed by the much less finicky Peppermint Cream Squares the following year) to Rugelach and Gingerbread Men.
I've saved one of my most beloved cookies for last. These candy cane cookies are the best. As a kid, I loved them for pretty spiraled colors, their soft vanilla-mint sweetness, and the fact that they hooked so perfectly over the edge of a mug of cocoa. Simple pleasures. And isn't that what the holidays are all about?
I also may have loved these cookies because I could actually help make these — unlike the more delicate cut-out cookies. The dough is as soft as playdough and easy for little hands to roll into "snakes" and twist into candy cane spirals. Do note, however, that this dough is easiest to work with when it's slightly chilled; chill it in the fridge for at least an hour before shaping the cookies.
My brother wasn't a huge fan of peppermint flavor as a kid, so my mom sometimes made these with almond extract instead. As grown-ups, we both love that vanilla-mint flavor, but if you or your kids are similarly averse to the strong flavor of peppermint, know that almond is a perfectly acceptable and time-honored substitute!
One last thing to share about these cookies: they're better the second day. I don't know why this is, but I always find it to be true. Just after baking, they're okay — a perfectly decent butter cookie. But the second day, suddenly I find myself making excuses to walk through the kitchen just so I can break off another nibble.
I hope you and your families enjoy these cookies as much as mine!
Candy Cane Cookies
Makes 2 dozen cookies
unsalted butter, softened to room temperature
peppermint extract (or 1/2 teaspoon almond extract)
1/2 to 3/4 teaspoon
red food coloring
Cream together the butter and sugar in the bowl of a stand mixer with a paddle attachment or with a hand mixer until they look soft and frosting-like. Scrape down the sides of the bowl, then mix in the egg, vanilla, and peppermint. Scrape down the sides of the bowl. With the mixer on low speed, mix in the flour and salt just until no more visible flour remains.
Use a stiff spatula to mix the dough a few times by hand to work in any last bits of flour. Divide the dough and set one piece aside. Add 1/2 teaspoon of red food coloring to the remaining dough and work the dye into the dough with the spatula, kneading by hand, or in the mixer on low, whichever method seems easiest to you. Add additional food coloring as needed until the dough is a bright, vibrant red.
Pat both pieces of dough into 1-inch thick circles, wrap in plastic, and refrigerate for at least 1 hour or up to 3 days. This will make the cookies easier to roll out and shape.
When ready to bake the cookies, preheat the oven to 375°F. Place one rack in the top third and another rack in the bottom third of the oven. Line two baking sheets with parchment or nonstick baking mats.
Remove both pieces of dough from the fridge and unwrap. Pinch off walnut-sized pieces of dough (roughly 2 tablespoons) and roll each into a thick rope about 6 inches long. Pinch the two ropes together at the top and gently twist them together. Transfer the twisted ropes to the baking sheet and gently "hook" the top to create a candy cane shape.
Repeat with the remaining dough. If the dough starts to break as you roll it or become hard to work with, put it back in the fridge to chill for 15 minutes. When all the cookies have been shaped, chill both sheets of cookies for 15 minutes before baking — this helps the cookies hold their shape during baking.
Bake for 10 to 12 minutes, until the bottom edges and the tips of the cookies are just barely starting to turn golden. Cool for 10 minutes on the baking sheet and then transfer to cooling racks to finish cooling completely.
Store cookies between layers of wax paper in an airtight container. They are actually best the day after baking (their flavors have time to mellow) and will stay fresh for about 2 weeks.
If you don't like peppermint flavor, try replacing it with 1/2 teaspoon of almond extract in this recipe.