I’m a sucker for pretty pictures in recipe books.

So as I flipped through a stack of books, my eye was immediately drawn to Krisztina Maksai’s “European Cookies for Every Occasion.” Stunning photos document not just finished sweets, but the step-by-step process of baking cookies far fancier than the ones that normally come out of my kitchen. Simple sugar cookies these are not.

Maksai, who grew up in Europe and has been baking cookies since childhood, tries to make what could be daunting recipes simple by offering easy-to-follow instructions and categorizing them by skill level. Still, this is definitely not a book for new bakers. As she notes in the introduction, “baking is like learning how to drive. With practice you will improve.”

To follow the recipes faithfully, you’ll have to plan ahead a couple weeks. Most of Maksai’s recipes call for vanilla sugar, a common ingredient in pastry recipes in Germany, Finland, Austria, France, Hungary, Romania and Slovenia. Making the vanilla sugar is easy – it’s vanilla bean scraped into granulated sugar – but it rests for two weeks before it’s ready to use. You can substitute vanilla extract if you’re impatient (or, like me, leave your baking to the last minute).

After what felt like hours slowly flipping through the recipes and ogling the photos, I finally settled on a recipe for Raisin Baskets, cute little cookies with a raisin and orange filling. The recipe for the filling and dough were simple enough, but I ran into problems getting the cookies to stay in the proper crescent shape.

In the end, I had flat cookies with filling on top, but the taste made up for the questionable appearance. The orange zest in the filling balanced nicely with the raisins and almonds – not too sweet, but still a bit decadent.

Maybe with enough practice I’ll get them to look as good as they taste.

Raisin Baskets

Makes about 36 cookies

For the cookie dough:
1 2/3 cups all-purpose flour
1/2 cup granulated sugar
2 tablespoons vanilla sugar (recipe below)
1 stick unsalted butter, at room temperature
2 medium egg yolks

For the filling:
2/3 cups raisins
1 teaspoon rum or orange juice
1 medium egg yolk
1 teaspoon heavy cream
1/4 cup chopped almonds
Grated zest of one orange

Additional ingredients:
1 medium egg white

Combine the dough ingredients in a bowl and, using the dough hook attachment of an electric mixer, knead until the dough is smooth, 3 to 5 minutes. Form the dough into a small loaf. Wrap the loaf in plastic wrap and let it rest in the refrigerator for about 1 hour.

Using a sharp knife, dice the raisins and put them in a medium-size bowl. Add the rum or orange juice, egg yolks, heavy cream, almonds and orange zest, then stir with a fork.

Preheat the oven to 350 degrees.

Lightly flour a working surface and roll the dough out thinly, about 1/8-inch thick. Using a round cookie cutter that is about 2 inches in diameter, cut the dough into about 36 cookies.

Line a baking sheet with parchment paper and then transfer the cookies carefully to the sheet with a pastry spatula, spacing them about 1 inch apart. Whisk the egg white and use a pastry brush to spread it around the edges of each cookie. Place 1/2 teaspoon of the filling in the middle of each cookie. Use your fingers to form the cookie into the shape of a three cornered hat around the filling.

Bake the cookies for 15 minutes or until lightly golden. Be sure to not let them turn brown. Carefully remove them from the baking sheet with the pastry spatula and place them on a cooling rack to cool completely.

These cookies are good for about three weeks stored in an airtight container at room temperature.

VANILLA SUGAR:

Makes 2 cups

Put two cups of granulated sugar in a 1-quart glass storage container with a tight lid. Using a sharp knife, slice one whole vanilla bean lengthwise. With the side of the knife, scrape the insides of the bean into the container with the sugar. Cut the bean into two or three pieces and push them deep into the sugar with your fingers. Seal the lid tightly and shake the jar until the vanilla flakes are visible and spread evenly throughout the sugar.

Put the container on a dark shelf and shake the jar vigorously every three days for two weeks. After two weeks the vanilla sugar is ready to use.

(If you don’t have time to make vanilla sugar and can’t find it at the store, substitute 1 teaspoon of vanilla extract for 2 teaspoons of vanilla sugar.)