Food & Drink

The Holiday Cookie Box Has Gotten a Major Makeover

Restaurants and bakeries across the country are offering their spin on a holiday favorite.

maman cookies
Maman | Photo by Cole Saladino for Thrillist
Maman | Photo by Cole Saladino for Thrillist

‘Tis the season for cookies, and according to Instagram, they better be impressive. And, it’s no surprise that in 2020—the year of limited restaurant dining—that restaurants, cafes, and bakeries are jumping on the cookie bandwagon, with many selling photogenic and delicious cookie boxes for the first time ever.
 
Dandelion Chocolate in San Francisco launched a holiday cookie box for the first time with creations like cacao currant pinwheels, cacao-fruit linzer cookies, and chocolate dipped pistachio biscotti and in Chicago, Stephanie Izard and Faith Taheny’s new bakery Sugargoat, is offering a holiday cookie box shipping nationwide with meticulously decorated classic cookies like chocolate crinkle, brown butter pecan, and oatmeal raisin. The boxes are another way for consumers to support restaurants during this difficult time and places across the country are stepping up with some of the most beautiful and creative cookie boxes we’ve ever seen.
 
“Our pastry chef Tiffany Wood’s pastries always get the most engagement on our social media,” says Matt DeBusschere, the general manager of Sun in My Belly, a breakfast and brunch restaurant in Atlanta, selling a holiday cookie box for the first time this year. “Times are really tough right now, so I figured a cookie box would be a smart move—and a fun one.”

Maman, a French-inspired cafe with multiple locations in New York City and Canada, has been shipping cookie boxes since 2017 and has seen a large increase in orders this year. “I think so many people are trying to support local restaurants in light of the year we have had,” says founding partner and creative director, Elisa Marshall. “We are also receiving many more orders from corporate accounts and businesses who have had to cancel their annual Christmas parties and pivot to employee gifting.”

Maman
Maman | Photo by Cole Saladino for Thrillist

But a typical cookie box may not be enough for some this year. Elana Berusch, a Denver-based food scientist and baker who shares her creations on Instagram @LaniBakes, is known for her photogenic baked goods. When she unveiled her 2020 holiday cookie box to her 10,500 followers, they were treated to a truly modern collection. When designing her box, she made a point of using at least five different colors and experimental flavors, which netted results like Sparkly Garam Masala Gingerbread, Brown Butter Shortbread with Sunflower Seed Christmas Lights, and Black Cocoa Marbled Shortbread.
 
The flower-filled Café Lola in Las Vegas has Instagrammable décor and over-the-top desserts, and its Christmas cookie box, shippable nationwide, is no different. Co-owner Alexandra Lourdes used her time in lockdown to evolve and enhance her cookie offerings. “Cookie boxes are so trendy, especially this year, because cookies offer a wonderful canvas for creativity,” says Lourdes. ”
 
Katie Mark, an orchestra teacher in Long Island who lives in Brooklyn, ordered a holiday cookie box for the first time ever from Ursula, a new Brooklyn café serving New Mexican cuisine. Accordingly, their box includes biscochitos, piñon caramel tarts, and pecan thumbprints with red chile raspberry jam. “I’m trying to support local businesses—especially one that had the guts to open in the middle of a pandemic—without accumulating more ‘things’ in our apartment,” said Mark, who usually participates in a cookie swap at school, which was canceled this year. 
 
The cookie swap, a time-honored American tradition, is yet another thing the pandemic has taken from us, because cookie swaps are now germ fests. Avery Ruzicka, founder, head baker, and partner of Manresa Bread in Los Gatos, California, remembers attending cookie swaps at her grandmother’s house when she was young.

“Cookie boxes are a humble gift, echoing a simpler time. I think we’re all craving that right now.”

“My grandmother used to host a cookie box party every year, where each guest would bring a dozen or so cookies they had baked at home. At the party they would play bridge, drink Southern Comfort Manhattans, and assemble a variety tin from the buffet of cookies,” says Ruzicka. Now she uses the Manresa Bread cookie tin to introduce others to lesser-known flours, by including cookies like Cherry Almond Rye Biscotti, Ginger Molasses Oat Chew, and Nibby Coffee Buckwheat Butter Cookie.
 
Another reason cookie boxes are more popular than ever? Many of us can’t see our families now, and baking together is another beloved holiday tradition we’re missing out on in 2020. “The easiest way to make it feel like you’re celebrating together is to share an experience. Sending cookie boxes to your loved ones and taking a bite over Zoom is a funny kind of almost-togetherness we can all use a bit more of these days,” says Jacqueline Eng, founder of the new Partybus Bakeshop in NYC, which is shipping its holiday cookie boxes nationwide.
 
“Cookie boxes are a humble gift, echoing a simpler time. I think we’re all craving that right now,” adds Renato Poliafito, owner of Ciao, Gloria in Brooklyn, which is offering a cookie box featuring a mix of classic Italian and contemporary American cookies, a reflection of Poliafito’s upbringing as an Italian American in New York.
  
While cookies have been around basically forever, the history of the cookie tin traces back to England, where they were invented by Huntley and Palmers in the 1800s for travelers to keep their biscuits fresher, longer. “Cookie tins came about in the Victorian era, when all of sudden, tin plate was inexpensive,” says Katherine Spiers, the host and publisher of Smart Mouth, a podcast and newsletter on food history and culture. “Cookie tins became such a big deal because the tradition of giving people cookies on Christmas had been around since the Medieval Ages, when people started having access to all the spices that came to be associated with Christmas desserts.” Around the same time, cookie cutters became accessible to home cooks, adds Spiers, combining to make a new type of home-baked holiday gift.
 
Of course, cookie traditions beyond British have permeated American culture, and restaurants and bakeries across the country offer holiday cookie boxes that reference other cultures as well—and some have been doing it for a very long time.
 
Artuso Pastry Shop in the Bronx’s Little Italy has been making traditional Italian cookie boxes since 1946, and André’s Confiserie Suisse in Kansas City, Missouri, was opened in 1955 by André Bollier, a master pastry chef in Switzerland who moved to the U.S. Now run by his grandson René, the company is known for its traditional Swiss Christmas tea cookies packaged in a bright red box featuring a traditional Swiss paper cut. “André and his wife, Elsbeth, created a recipe book titled Schweizer Konfect that was published and sold in Switzerland to help fund the immigration of the Bollier family to the U.S.,” says René Bollier. “The book features the different types of tea cookies we still make today.”
 
And while it’s no surprise that European traditions are well-represented in the U.S., there are plenty of holiday treat boxes referencing non-Western cultures as well. La Famosa, a Washington, D.C., restaurant owned by Chef Joancarlo Parkhurst, who was born in Puerto Rico, is selling a Coquito and Cookies box this year, featuring the famous Puerto Rican holiday drink paired with Mantecaditos (shortbread style cookie) and Besitos de Coco (a type of coconut macaroon). Also in D.C., Paola Velez, who co-founded Bakers Against Racism during the pandemic and is executive pastry chef of Maydan and Compass Rose, recently launched La Bodega Bakery, a bakery that references her childhood in The Bronx and her Dominican roots. It has a monthly Decolonize Your Pastries box and December’s is a holiday cookie box featuring Papaya Lemon, Dulce de Leche, and Mango Lime cookies.
 
Miranti Kisdarjono used to host Brooklyn pop-ups featuring her native Indonesia’s cooking. Now she sells meal boxes and has an Indonesian-inspired holiday dessert box with items that feature Indonesian ingredients in Western presentations, like Pandan Swiss Rolls, Ube Snowballs, and Durian Macarons.
 
Perhaps so many cultures have embraced the holiday cookie box because it truly is the ideal gift. As Poliafito of Ciao, Gloria says, “It takes a lot of the stress out of gift giving. You don’t have to worry about them liking it, and the receiver doesn’t need to think, ‘Great, where do I put this now?’ You put it in your mouth, you enjoy it, and done!”

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Devorah Lev-Tov is a Thrillist contributor.
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