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Aside from opening presents on Christmas Day, baking holiday cookies may just be one of the most joyous—and tastiest—of seasonal tasks. The sweet aroma of sugar cookies baking in the oven mingles with the scent of a twinkling evergreen standing sentinel in your family room. The snow falls silently outside your kitchen window—all is right with the world.

Darlene Vella, owner of Bellavella Cookies in Topsfield and winner of this year’s Best of the North Shore cookie award, grew up on the North Shore in a big Italian family and learned how to cook and bake from her mother and aunts. Later, as a stay-at-home mom, she wanted to start a business that she could run from home. She turned to her sweet tooth and passion for baking.

During the Christmas season, she bakes thousands of cookies for her customers in 10 different varieties—oatmeal with brown butter icing, anise, chocolate chip, and raspberry thumbprints to name a few. She and her four children—all under 10 years old—leave a selection of cookies out for Santa, and, of course, a carrot for the reindeer. We asked Vella to create holiday sugar and gingerbread cookies for the pages of the magazine—the results are spectacular (and delicious)!

Gingerbread Cookies

 > 1/2 c. (1 stick) butter,
at room temperature

> 1/2 c. dark brown sugar

> 1/4 c. light molasses 

> 1/2 tsp. vanilla

> 1/2 tsp. ground nutmeg
(about 50 grates if using fresh nutmeg)

> 1 Tbsp. cinnamon

> 1 Tbsp. ground ginger

> 1 tsp. baking soda

> 1 1/2 tsp. ground cloves
(these are optional—I leave them
out because I don’t like a heavy
spice in my cookies)

> 2 c. all-purpose flour

> 2 tsp. water

In a large mixing bowl, cream the butter, brown sugar, molasses, vanilla, spices, and baking soda until the mixture is smooth. Blend in the flour and water to make a stiff dough. Chill at least 30 minutes or until firm. Preheat oven to 375°F, roll dough 1/4-inch thick, and, using a cutter, make your gingerbread shapes. Bake 2 inches apart on an ungreased cookie sheets for 12 to 15 minutes.

Sugar Cookies

> 1 1/2 c. butter, softened

 > 2 c. white sugar

 > 4 eggs

 > 1 1/2 tsp. vanilla extract

 > 5 c. all-purpose flour

 > 2 tsp. baking powder

 > 1 tsp. salt              

In a large bowl, cream butter and sugar until smooth. Beat in the eggs and vanilla. Stir in the flour, baking powder, and salt. Cover and chill dough for at least one hour. Preheat oven to 400°F. Roll out dough on floured surface 1/4” to 1/2” thick. Cut into shapes with any cookie cutter. Place cookies 1” apart on ungreased cookie sheets. Bake 6 to 8 minutes. Cool completely.