When Tracy Mattson was growing up in the 1970s and '80s, her mother used to bake holiday cookies twisted into candy-cane shapes or trimmed into Christmas trees.
They looked pretty but tasted bland. Still, the baking ritual left a lasting impression on the Santa Rosa pastry chef.
"It was a big deal," recalled Mattson, who launched her own company, Cookie ... take a bite!, in 2011. "It was the one time people got into their kitchens to bake."
These days, cookies are a year-round obsession for Mattson, who handcrafts 2,000 gourmet cookies a week in a dozen classic shapes and perky flavors, from Coconut Macaroons to Lemon Moons, her signature.
The only thing these flavor-packed cookies have in common with her mother's is that they are small, so you can munch them up in two or three bites.
"It's the shape that attracts people," she said. "But the flavor brings them back."
According to Mattson, the quotidian cookie has enjoyed a sweet upturn during the down economy, along with cupcakes and other small, affordable luxuries.
"Cookies are back," she said. "They are the new couture treat. (Cookbook author) Dorie Greenspan just opened three Beurre & Sel (cookie) shops in New York. If New York is doing it, Sonoma County is next."
This holiday season, Mattson is baking up lots of festive bites, from a Pistachio and Lemon Biscotti to a Ginger Molasses Delight. The cookies, which come in red and gold boxes, make perfect hostess gifts and sweet finales for a holiday feast.
"At the holidays, I like the warm spices like ginger and cinnamon," she said. "It's amazing how nostalgic people are for the cookies that their grandmothers used to make."
While she was working as the pastry chef at Cyrus restaurant in Healdsburg, Mattson started experimenting with pink peppercorns.
"It's not too hot, but warm and citrusy," she said of the pretty pink spice. "I often use lemon or orange as a flavor layer. The acid tempers the sweetness."
When she developed her Zesty Tea Cookie — a twist on the traditional wedding cookie, dusted with powdered sugar — she decided to add pink peppercorns and lemon to the butter-and-almond flavor.
"It's a very classic cookie, but we don't do a traditional take on it," she said. "We give a new experience."
Mattson's signature cookie, Lemon Moons, are made from the Eureka lemons she picks off her own tree. The pastry chef ices half the cookie, creating an arc in the shape of the crescent moon.
"It's a great after-dinner cookie, elegant and clean," she said. "I always view cookies as a complete ending to a meal. It seals the deal."
If you're looking for something a bit more decadent, check out her Double Chocolate Chunk, which boasts both white and dark chocolate chunks.
At Cookie ... take a bite!, Mattson's philosophy is to make sure there's a cookie that appeals to everyone. So among the rotating flavors, she also includes four kinds of flourless and three kinds of vegan cookies.
Her vegan recipe for Almond-Cardamom Rolls came from chef Rob Hogencamp of the Ceres Project in Sebastopol, a nonprofit that teaches teens to cook and delivers healthy meals to people suffering life-threatening illnesses.
"It has almonds, maple syrup, freshly ground cardamom, orange zest and ginger," she said of the perky cookie. "There's a crust on the outside, but it has a chewy, nutty center."
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