Felicia Pinedo bakes holiday spirit into her sweet treats.
PHOTOGRAPHY BY NATE ABBOTT

THE VALLEY

FOOD

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To some of us, holiday cookies are merely standard confections dressed up with special-occasion sparkle. They might be covered in red and green sprinkles, dusted with silver sugar, layered with snow-white icing, or cut into the shape of Christmas trees and stars. To others, they embody the true spirit of the season — thoughtfulness, good will, and generosity — and are often injected with a little something special and splurge-worthy.

“When we bake holiday or Christmas cookies, we aren’t just baking something yummy,” says Maggie Unzueta of food blog Mamá Maggie’s Kitchen. “We are making memories and keeping traditions alive. It’s a way to be able to share culture and family recipes. Especially at the holidays, they really do bring us closer together.”

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Felicia Penido, a Brazilian-born clothing designer with a petite frame and perfectly blunt brunette bob, certainly doesn’t look the part of Santa Claus. But in her midcentury enclave of Canyon View Estates in South Palm Springs, she’s become the Kris Kringle of Christmas cookies, doing her part to spread a little holiday cheer to her neighbors via the intricate sweets she laces with luxe ingredients and a lot of love.

“My grandmother was such a good baker and people would want to order things from her. She’d say, ‘No, I cannot bake for a faceless person. It won’t taste the same because I won’t put my heart into it,’” shares Penido, who purchased her home in 2017 and moved from Los Angeles to the desert full time two years later. “Today, I understand. I want to bake for the people I know.”

After befriending many of her fellow residents, she decided to start sharing her edible versions of the holiday spirit with them via her now-fabled holiday cookies. Yes, they bring others happiness along with deliciousness, but, like many gifts from the heart, they give avid baker Penido an equal measure of gratification.

“I like making, decorating, and creating them, and I like seeing how much everyone loves them,” she says. “It brings back my childhood. I think it was a way I first felt loved by my grandma. When she would make something special for me, she was showing her love through baking. It was a way for her to express herself.”

Peek inside kitchens around the country — or world for that matter — this time of year, and you’ll find home bakers sifting, folding, and mixing into the wee hours, almost always with the plan of sharing the sweets of their labor with others.

“What I love about holiday baking is that it is completely, 100 percent for pleasure,” says Devan Cameron, a chef and owner of recipe website Braised & Deglazed. “The biggest difference between cooking and baking is that no one bakes because they have to. Instead, people bake for pure enjoyment. It’s a stress-relieving activity.”

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Felicia Penido puts her heart into baking holiday cookies and crafting gift boxes tuned to the tastes of her neighbors in Palm Springs.

That’s definitely the case for Penido, a vegan who avoids sugar and seldom indulges in what she makes, but says that baking is her “Zen thing.” She forgoes preservative-and-artificial-color-laden decorations and replaces them with natural, often premium, ingredients.

“The spirit of the holiday cookie is it has to taste special,” according to Penido. “It shouldn’t taste like any other cookie. I might use almond or hazelnut flours. There are some fantastic jams out there. I’ll look for exotic fruits. I’ll use Brazil nuts, cashews, macadamia nuts, and really good chocolate.”

To give the cookies that dazzle of classic Christmas colors, Penido utilizes dried cherries for red and pistachio nuts for green, and also adds a festive touch with the holiday-themed boxes she buys at craft stores. She starts selecting her recipes and procuring her ingredients in early November, usually choosing 10 varieties, and freezing them as she goes. Come the week of Christmas, she fills each box with four or five bite-size cookies of each type and delivers them to around 20 neighbors. Translation: She bakes somewhere between 800 and 1,000 cookies each season.

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“I know what my neighbors like,” Penido adds. “Some people won’t eat nuts, are gluten-free, prefer sour, citrus cookies over chocolate. So I make a variety.”

Inspiration for her ever-changing annual selection comes from cookbooks, Pinterest photos, blogs, and, sometimes, serendipitously stumbling into the perfect cookie in person. That’s exactly what happened when she discovered what’s become one of her favorites when she attended a holiday house party in L.A. catered by the well-known Italian restaurant family Drago a few years back. There, a freeform creation caught her eye.

“I looked at it because I’m a cookie fanatic and I said, ‘Oh, what is that? I need to taste it,’” Pendio recalls. “I said, ‘This cookie is fabulous,’ and I fell in love.”

The cookie in question turned out to be Bruttiboni (which translates to “ugly but good”), a sticky hazelnut meringue cookie originated in central Italy. “I started researching and going on the internet. There were so many recipes. And I made several until I found the one that tasted like
that one.”

Through trial and error, Penido perfected the misshapen treat and began adding it to her colorful cookie box, juxtaposed with more artful and even avant garde offerings. “I don’t want to do a box of just traditional cookies,” she says. “I want to mix it up.”

She usually includes a cookie or two that highlight comforting, warm winter flavors that might come to life through a cinnamon-and-sugar-coated rugelach (a rolled-and-filled crescent cookie) or thin and delicate lace cookies she spices with nutmeg, pumpkin, or ginger.

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Penido uses almond and hazelnut flours, exotic fruits, jams, nuts, and high-quality chocolate to create a variety of special holiday treats.

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Holiday cookies can vary by region, of course, and Penido tries to reflect the spirit of both the season and Southern California by taking advantage of the area’s abundant local winter citrus. The lemons she utilizes in her Canyon View Estates lemon crinkle cookies (a staple in each year’s box) aren’t just local; they’re grown on trees in the communal areas of her neighborhood. She also includes a taste of her own heritage via Brazilian wedding cookies called casadinhos. This year, she’ll stuff some of the sandwich cookies with a dulce de leche filling and others with a ruby-red guava paste to give them a holiday hue.

Not surprisingly, her neighbors are both grateful and touched. They put them out at their own holiday parties, share with family and friends, and sometimes simply hoard them in the freezer, taking them out a few at a time. It’s the joy the cookies bring to others that makes Penido want to do it all again next year, knowing that her lavish and lovely cookies can give grownups a dose of the same magic we used to get from unwrapping gifts under the tree as kids.

“People love the surprise,” she says. “You know how in Forest Gump, they say life is like a box of chocolates? I say the holidays are like a box of cookies. You never know which one you’re going to get.”