Every year I see photos of star shaped cookies formed into a cookie tree. It’s been on my list to make and finally this year I made one. Using a chocolate shortbread cookie dough cut with multiple sized snowflake cookie cutters, iced, then stacked into a winter tree. A great holiday table centerpiece that’s easier to make than gingerbread houses.
This cookie dough recipe is an adaptation from the Iced Eggnog Shortbread Cookie Trees in the Bake From Scratch NOV/DEC 2019 issue.
No Chill Cookie Dough
The cookies are lovingly spiced with a hint of cocoa, slightly crispy on the outside and buttery on the inside. And the best part is there is no chill time for the cookie dough. That’s right, you can just mix the dough, roll it out, and get to baking! A holiday time saver for sure.
I used my homemade easy royal icing to pipe snowflake designs and to secure the cookies to one another. This is totally optional and you can skip the designs if you like and just pipe some icing or frosting into the centers for assembly. If you do skip the icing designs, might I suggest dusting your cookie tree with confectioner’s sugar for a snowy effect.
This cookie dough recipe will yield enough cookies to make two cookie trees using 15 chocolate shortbread cookies per tree. You can opt for making several short trees or two large trees. Either way they’re super fun to build, eat, and display.
What You’ll Need
- A set of snowflake cookie cutters in at least 5 different sizes. You will use 3-5 of each size to create your tree. Most online baking stores will sell a set of cookie cutters for making a cookie tree.
- My largest cookie cutter is 5 inches and the smallest was 1 inch.
- Kitchen scale for measuring out cookie dough ingredients. Not totally necessary, but I always use one to be exact.
- Rolling pin, cookie baking pans, silicone mats or parchment paper.
- Batch of Easy Royal Icing for decorating cookies and adhering them to each other during tree assembly.
- Pastry bag for piping the icing works great, but a large plastic zip bag would work too.
- A petite piping tip for icing that can be plain or star shaped.
- Sparkling sugar to sprinkle onto wet icing for a glitter effect.
- Confectioner’s sugar and a small sifter if you want a dusting of sugar snow.
Tips for Cookie Tree Success
- Use room temperature butter when making your cookie dough. Either set it on the counter for an hour or microwave at half pour for 5 second intervals until just softened.
- Don’t swap for confectioner’s sugar, its the key to the soft texture of the cookie dough.
- Weigh the flour with a scale. Being exact with measurements always helps produce a better bake.
- Sift both the flour and cocoa powder for a smooth texture. Cocoa powder tends to be lumpy and makes little balls. Sifting assures the ingredients are well distributed.
- Use your hands to bring the cookie dough together. Once you’ve formed it into a ball, divide the dough in half. Wrap one half in plastic wrap to prevent drying out while you roll out and cut cookies with the second half.
- Dust your work surface with confectioner’s sugar. I find that flour dries out the dough, so I prefer to roll my cookies out on confectioner’s sugar instead.
- Roll the dough to ¼ inch thickness. These cookies do not spread much and the thicker ones hold their shape and are great for stacking.
- Make the easy royal icing ahead of time and store in the fridge.
- When frosting your cookies try to keep the piping smooth. A lot of bumps will make it harder to keep the cookies level when stacking. If this becomes a problem, I carve away a little dip in the bottom of each cookie at the center to help with stacking.
Storing Chocolate Shortbread Cookies
Cookie dough can be made a day ahead, wrapped in plastic wrap and stored in the fridge. Just allow the dough to warm to room temperature before rolling out. Otherwise it will be too firm and hard to work with. This is why I just prefer to make the dough right before baking.
Baked cookies can be made 2-3 days in advance of assembling your cookie tree and stored at room temperature in an air tight container. This also works for iced cookies, where the icing has hardened.
Christmas Shortbread Cookie Tree
Chocolate Shortbread Cookies
- 1 cup (227 g) unsalted butter softened
- 2 cups (240 g) confectioner's sugar plus more for rolling
- 1 large egg room temperature
- 1 teaspoon bourbon
- 1.5 teaspoons vanilla extract
- 3 cups (375 g) all purpose flour
- ¼ cup (25 g) dutch processed cocoa powder
- 2 teaspoons baking powder
- 1 teaspoon fine sea salt
- 1 teaspoon ground cinnamon
- 1 teaspoon ground nutmeg
- ½ teaspoon ground cardamom
- ½ teaspoon espresso powder
Chocolate Shortbread Cookie Dough
- Preheat oven to 375 F (190 C) and line two cookie sheets with silicone baking mats or parchment paper.
- In a large bowl beat together softened butter and confectioner's sugar with a hand mixer. Start on low and increase to medium as the sugar starts to blend into the butter, about 2-3 minutes. Scrape bottom and sides of bowl with rubber spatula as needed.
- Add the egg, bourbon, and vanilla mixing until distributed.
- Using a medium bowl whisk together the sifted flour and cocoa with the baking powder, salt, cinnamon, nutmeg, cardamom, and espresso powder.
- Mixing on low speed, spoon the flour mixture into the butter mixture until a cookie dough is formed. If it seems clumpy, just pat together with you hands to form a large ball of dough.
- The dough should not be dry and crumbly, nor wet. But, a nice soft smooth texture that does not stick to your hands and packs well.
- Divide the dough in half. Then wrap one half in plastic wrap and set aside.
- Dust your work surface and rolling pin with confectioner's sugar. I find that flour dries out the dough, so I prefer to roll my cookies out on confectioner's sugar instead.
- Shape cookie dough into a disc with your hands. Roll out to ¼ inch thickness.
- Cut with the 5 gradual sized snowflake cookie cutters. Making sure to cut out 3 of each shape for your cookie tree.
- Place cookies on baking pans spacing 1.5 inches apart.
- Bake on middle oven rack for 7-9 minutes. Be careful not to over bake your cookies. Remove when the edges are a bit darker than the rest. (Yes, chocolate cookies are harder to tell, but they should be thick, well shaped and have a slight crinkle on the top). They will be slightly soft when warm, but firm as they cool. (8 minutes was the sweet spot for me)
- Place pans on wire cooling rack for 1-2 minutes. Then carefully transfer cookies directly onto rack using a rubber spatula to completely cool.
- Repeat with remaining half of cookie dough.
- Pipe cooled cookies with royal icing in desired designs. Let icing dry and firm.
Assemble Cookie Tree
- With the first set of cookies start with the largest snowflake first. Stack cookies from biggest to smallest, twisting them ever so slightly to keep the points from lining up.
- You can use 3 of each size to create your tree. Or 4 if you aren't planning on making 2 duplicate trees.
- Pipe royal icing onto the center of each cookie as you stack them to act as a glue to hold them together. You can also stack a few cookies, let them set and then move on to the next.
- For the vertical "star" on the very top, use royal icing on the center of the last cookie then stand the little "star" upright to act as the tree topper.
- Repeat with remaining cookies for a second cookie tree.