The L.A. Times 2021 holiday cookies

Plates of assorted holiday cookies
A collection of holiday cookies for vegans and gluten-free friends and everyone who loves them.
(Silvia Razgova / For The Times; prop styling by Kate Parisian)
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Each year, when I start thinking about the L.A. Times’ holiday cookies, I always ask friends what they’re wanting in holiday treats that particular year and try to let that inspire me. In 2021 several people independently asked if I was doing any recipes that were vegan or gluten-free. Some liked cookies I had made in the past that fit those diets, while others want more than the obligatory one or two recipes I offer in a collection of a dozen or so cookies. So, I thought why not make all of the cookies appropriate for those diets? Seeing as though, apparently, the friends with those diets are the most fervent cookie makers I know.

Holiday cookie time usually shuts out anyone not able to eat copious amounts of butter, sugar and flour, so it’s about time the vegans and gluten-free among us — a larger number than many people may think — get their chance to also indulge in too much of a good thing.

In that spirit, the 2021 L.A Times holiday cookies are all either vegan or gluten-free (and one happens to be both). But if you’re not vegan or gluten-free, don’t worry; these are the type of diet-specific cookie that even those not adhering to those ways of eating will love. I eschew gluten-free flours, odd egg substitutes and any other edible oddities that would make my job easier in favor of real, whole ingredients that can be wielded for delicious results without having to take a road trip to a “natural” health food store.

For the gluten-free contingent, I use ground nut flours — easily accessible via Bob’s Red Mill in virtually any grocery store these days — to great effect. Almond flour is the most neutral-tasting and complementary to other flavors, so it gets a lot of use in all three of the cookies I make for the flour-averse.

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Hazelnut and Cream Bars with Raspberry-Lime Jam
(Silvia Razgova / For The Times; prop styling by Kate Parisian)

In my Oat and Hazelnut Chess Bars With Raspberry-Lime Jam, I use almond flour mixed with hazelnut flour and rolled oats as the base for a layer of cream cheese topped with a quick raspberry jam punched up with lime juice and zest. If you squint, you can see the influence of old-fashioned Linzer cookies in these bars, but this is the lazy person’s version that’s, thankfully, equally delicious.

Gluten-free Candied Gingerbread Macarons with Lemon Curd
(Silvia Razgova / For The Times; prop styling by Kate Parisian)

In my Candied Gingerbread Macarons, I add all the cookie’s characteristic spices to give you the taste of the holidays without the heft of the traditional cut-and-glazed gingerbread man. Made with almond flour and egg whites, French macarons are a simple cookie that can seem intimidating to make, but with my fool-proof method (I tested this recipe more than two dozen times), I guarantee they’ll work out perfectly for you.

Aromatic Meyer lemon curd makes the ideal filling to further lighten the heady-spiced but delicately textured cookies — but any store-bought lemon curd, jam or tropical fruit spread works just as well — with a welcome pop of citrus brightness. A sliver of candied ginger on top doesn’t just gild the lily but adds an extra oomph of spice to further balance the sugar needed to make these elegant treats.

 Gluten-free Eggnog "Dream" cookies
(Silvia Razgova / For The Times; prop styling by Kate Parisian)
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And in the final GF cookie, I take inspiration from Sweden and make an eggnog-flavored version of “dream” cookies, so named because they dissolve quickly in your mouth as if they were never there. Superfine almond flour and superfine sugar contribute to my Eggnog “Dream” cookie’s delicate texture, but the real superstar is an ingredient you’ve probably never heard of: baker’s ammonia. It’s a leavening agent that gives the cookies a shatteringly crisp texture and is worth seeking out to experience at least once in your cookie-baking life.

Once used before baking powder and soda, ammonium carbonate is used to achieve a light and airy texture in cookies.

For the eggnog flavor, I use lots of egg yolks for a custardy intensity, freshly grated nutmeg for that characteristic aroma, and a pinch of cloves, which, oddly, helps amplify the nutmeg. A dose of rum extract — sold by McCormicks in most grocery stores — also adds a bit of buttery, boozy flavor to further nail the quintessential holiday vibe.

As for the vegans, I take inspiration from one of my favorite cookies of all time: the vegan chocolate chip cookies from Ovenly bakery in New York. In their genius recipe, they use oil and water in place of butter and eggs, but instead of just mixing the two into dry ingredients for the dough, they first vigorously whisk the oil and water with sugar until it emulsifies into a gel-like liquid, similar to the texture of beaten eggs. When added to flour, the dough, while lightly prone to shearing, holds together rather well and makes for a lovely-textured cookie.

Vegan Spiked Orange and Chocolate Biscuits
(Silvia Razgova / For The Times; prop styling by Kate Parisian)

In my Spiked Orange and Chocolate Biscuits, I use orange juice in place of water and mix it with olive oil, orange zest and orange liqueur for a sophisticated take on the British jaffa biscuits (these are “biscuits” in the British vernacular, akin to our “cookies”). The fragrant dough balls are rolled in crunchy turbinado sugar, then flattened and baked until crisp like shortbread. After cooling, they get a quick dip in melted dark chocolate and a fascinator of candied orange peel to let your cookie recipients know what’s inside.

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Vegan Salty Black-and-White Chocolate Crinkle Cookies
(Silvia Razgova / For The Times; prop styling by Kate Parisian)

No garnish is needed in my Salty Black-and-White Chocolate Crinkles because, well, you want people to be surprised when they eat them. Inspired by Genevieve Gergis’ licorice and white chocolate bonbon at Bavel restaurant in the Arts District, I wanted to create a chocolate crinkle cookie with licorice that would be tasty even to someone who hates the stuff (like me). But unable to use white chocolate chunks to balance the rich anise perfume of chopped black licorice, I searched for the next best sweet and creamy (vegan) thing: almond paste.

I chop and chill the paste so it stays in discernible chunks, then mix it into a rich chocolate dough with the licorice before rolling into balls and coating in powdered sugar. The cookies get a hearty pinch of flaky salt — licorice’s favorite flavor pairing — before they head into the oven to spread in all their cracked beauty. Once cooled, they’re chewy and complex and guaranteed to elicit a strong opinion. But as a friend of mine said when I ran the odd flavor pairing by her, “Take the chance! No one needs another peppermint cookie for the holidays.”

Vegan Cherry and Walnut Mexican Milk Fudge
(Silvia Razgova / For The Times; prop styling by Kate Parisian)

And finally, for a treat that’s vegan and unintentionally gluten-free, there’s my Cherry-Walnut Mexican Milk Fudge, which is not really a cookie at all. Inspired by jamoncillo de leche — the traditional Mexican candy that gets its brown color and nutty flavor from caramelized whole milk and sugar — I use coconut milk and coconut cream in my vegan version, and I add a little ground cinnamon, as opposed to the delicate-flavoring of a stick, for the extra toastiness that would have been provided by caramelized milk solids.

Roasted walnuts and candied cherries are mixed with the caramelized milk fudge, then topped with a hefty dose of flaky sea salt on top to balance all the sweetness. They’re an intentionally rich bite, so cut them small and enjoy them when you need a small pick-me-up during the holidays.

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My aim with developing these cookies — aside from a professional challenge — is to show that even cookies that don’t use traditional baking ingredients can still be wonderful on their own and not relegated to substitute or second-class status. Set these treats out at your next holiday party or for Santa Claus on Christmas Eve and, with all the options you have this time around, you won’t have to worry about anyone not being able to participate in the festive cookie-eating we all look forward to this time of year.

Get the cookies:

Oat and Hazelnut Chess Bars With Raspberry-Lime Jam

Time1 hour 30 minutes
YieldsMakes 4 dozen

Candied Gingerbread Macarons

Time2 hours 20 minutes
YieldsMakes 40

Eggnog Dreams

Time1 hour 30 minutes
YieldsMakes about 50

Spiked Orange and Chocolate Biscuits

Time1 hour 15 minutes
YieldsMakes about 2 1/2 dozen

Salty Black-and-White Chocolate Crinkles

Time1 hour 30 minutes
YieldsMakes about 2 1/2 dozen
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Cherry-Walnut Mexican Milk Fudge

Time45 minutes, plus 4 hours cooling
YieldsMakes 64 pieces