Silver Bells (Chinese Five Spice Butter Cookies)

On the first day of Christmas … my true love gave to me … Chinese Five Spice Butter Cookies.

I have always loved bells, both looking at them and listening to them. Whenever I’m at the New Renaissance Bookstore in Portland Oregon, I rush over to the wonderful bells selection and play them all, slowly, first one, then another. I’m sure the staff loves to see me coming through their door.

In certain meditation CDs, a single bell is sometimes used to signify the beginning or ending of a section. It has the effect of both grounding and silencing the mind. For a brief second, or maybe it’s a split second, the mind is empty and the most exquisite silence takes the place of the usual dirge. It’s like a reminder to come home to oneself.

Throughout history and across cultural boundaries, bells have come to symbolize beginnings, endings, remembering, beckoning, announcing, warning, waking, safety, merriment, good fortune, joining, prosperity, protection, hope, and of course, giving. And as we all certainly know, every time a bell rings, an angel gets its wings (It’s a Wonderful Life). So bells symbolize all things heavenly as well. And what’s more heavenly than Christmas?

There are several renditions of the classic Carol of the Bells in my Christmas music collection. This one in Straight No Chaser’s Holiday Spirits album is especially lovely. In fact, it was playing as I was baking cookies for this year’s Twelve Days of Christmas Cookies and asking myself for the hundredth time what the name of this year’s cookie collection should be. Should it be Rudolph’s Nose? Or perhaps Santa’s Whiskers? How about Dance of the Sugar Plum Fairies?

And then, as if on cue, I heard these lines in the song: “Hark how the bells, sweet silver bells, all seem to say, throw cares away.”  And that, dear readers, is how this year’s cookie collection came to be called Silver Bells.

Well, that and the fact that I have a darling little bell cookie cutter that I really wanted to use.

Silver Bells (Chinese Five Spice Butter Cookies)

Because bells have such rich symbolism across cultures, I wanted to flavor these buttery cookies with something slightly exotic. Chinese Five Spice fills the bill with its fragrant mixture of star anise, cloves, cinnamon, fennel, and Sichuan or black pepper. There’s a recipe below in case you want to make your own blend. Toasting and freshly grinding the spices makes a considerable difference, and you will be rewarded by the evocative aroma.

3 cups King Arthur unbleached, all-purpose flour

1½ cups unsalted butter, cool room temperature (3 sticks)
1 cup sugar
finely grated zest of 1 large lemon
finely grated zest of 1 large orange
2 teaspoons ground Chinese Five Spice  (purchased or homemade)  
½ teaspoon fine sea salt

¼ teaspoon lemon oil
1 large egg

2 cups powdered sugar
3-4 tablespoons fresh lemon juice
Wilton’s white icing color, optional

silver sanding sugar

  1. In a large mixing bowl, sift the flour. Reserve.
  2. In a stand mixer fitted with the paddle attachment, cream together the butter, sugar, lemon zest, orange zest, Chinese Five Spice, and salt, until creamy, smooth, and well combined.
  3. Add the lemon oil and egg and incorporate thoroughly.
  4. Add the flour and mix very briefly on very slow speed, just until a dough forms.
  5. Remove the dough from the bowl and divide into thirds. Flatten and then enclose each piece on a sheet of plastic wrap. Frig at least 2 hours and preferably overnight.
  6. On a floured pastry cloth, using a covered and floured rolling pin, roll out one portion of very cold dough at a time to a ?-inch thickness. (Keep the remainder of the dough cold while you are working on one portion at a time. If the dough becomes too warm and sticky while you are working with it, return to the frig until chilled.) Use a little flour to keep the dough from sticking if necessary, but try not to work too much additional flour into the dough.
  7. Using a 2½-inch bell cookie cutter (or cutter of your choice), cut out the cookies.
  8. Line an edged baking sheet with parchment paper. Arrange cookies slightly apart on the cookie sheet.
  9. Bake each sheet of cookies at 350° for about 10 minutes, rotating the pan at the halfway point to ensure even browning.
  10. Remove from the oven, loosen each cookie with a thin spatula and let cool for 3-4 minutes on the pan. Remove cookies from the cookie sheet and place on a wire rack and cool completely.
  11. While the cookies are cooling, make the glaze. In a medium bowl, whisk together the powdered sugar and lemon juice. The glaze should be thin enough that you can dunk the topside of a cookie in it and let the excess quickly drip off. If the glaze is too thick, it won’t run off the cookie; if it’s too thin, it will not coat the cookie surface adequately. If desired, stir a few drops of white coloring into the glaze to make it white and opaque.
  12. When the cookies are completely cool, dip each one, surface-side-down, into the glaze and let the excess glaze run off. Immediately put the cookie back on the wire rack and sprinkle with sanding sugar while the glaze is still wet. Repeat for all the cookies, and then let the glaze dry completely, which may take an hour or longer.
  13. Store cookies airtight, layered between wax paper rounds, in a cookie tin, in a cool, dry place. These cookies improve with age. They keep for 2-3 weeks. Cookies may also be frozen.

Makes about 6 dozen, 2½-inch diameter cookies.

LunaCafe Chinese Five Spice 

The aroma of these spices when they are toasting is remarkable.

3 whole star anise pieces, broken
20 whole cloves
3-inch Mexican (canela) cinnamon stick, broken
1 tablespoon fennel seeds
1 tablespoon whole Sichuan or black peppercorn

  1. In nonstick skillet set over medium heat, toast the spices just until fragrant, about 1 minute.
  2. Immediately remove from the heat and grind to a powder in a spice grinder.
  3. Put through a large mesh strainer to ensure that you don’t have a any remaining large chunks.
  4. When cool, store in an airtight container in a cool, dark, dry location.

Makes about 4 tablespoons.

To follow along as we bake our way through this year’s cookie collection, see the kickoff post:

And check out our previous two Christmas cookie collections:


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  1. Natalie Taylor says

    Thanks so much for this exquisite recipe. I have made these cookies several times and they are just wonderful. My friends are always delighted when they are part of our Christmas cookie exchange. Merry Christmas!

  2. Erna says

    Good blog you have here.. It’s difficult to find quality writing like yours these days.
    I truly appreciate people like you! Take care!!
    Erna recently posted…ErnaMy Profile

    • Susan S. Bradley says

      Shannon, YES, lemon oil and lemon extract are different ingredients. Lemon oil provides a very true lemon flavor and because it is so potent, must be used with great discretion–usually just a few drops. Lemon extract can be substituted for lemon oil if necessary, but increase the quantity to about twice that of lemon oil. Hope that helps and happy baking! :-)

  3. Claire says

    i might try these! i was randomly looking through the kitchen and randomly discovered some chinese five spice(s?) so…yeah…looks lovely!


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