If you’re like me, you’re racing toward Christmas on Saturday, trying to complete your holiday baking. It really can get a little crazy this time of year – but it’s so much fun! And what a great time to try out some new cookie recipes and dust off your favorites.
I often hear from other bakers about cookies gone awry. Following some easy tips will help you make cookies that have the perfect texture, flavor and appearance.
- Butter and Sugar The most common complaint I hear from students about cookie making is that their cookies spread too much. This is especially a problem at the holidays when you’re making beautiful cut-out cookies. There are a few ways to combat this common problem. When you start off making a cookie dough, most recipes will say “cream the butter and sugar” or they might say “beat the butter and sugar.” With most cookies, all you really need to do is bring the butter and sugar together. Years ago, a pastry chef told me that the French call this “melange” which means “to combine.” Makes sense. If the butter and sugar are creamed or beaten heavily, the cookie dough will become airy and spread when baking. (This is how you leaven a traditional pound cake containing no baking powder or baking soda.) So be gentle with mixing the butter and sugar. And finally, always start with butter that is room temperature so that it combines easily with the sugar.
- Scrape More, Mix Less It seems simple enough. Scrape the bowl and paddle as you go. But it’s easy with a mixer to get lazy and think it’s going to do all of the work. My routine goes something like this: Combine the butter and sugar and start mixing on low speed. Stop. Using a spatula, scrape off the paddle and then scrape down the sides and around that pesky bump at the bottom of the bowl. Mix a little more. Scrape. Add the eggs, mix a little, stop and scrape. Mix until the eggs are combined with the butter and sugar. Add the flour (all at one time) mix a little. Stop and scrape. Mix just until combined. Seems tedious, but all of this scraping will turn out consistently beautiful cookies.
- Chill – Then Bake Nearly all individual cookies bake best and hold their shape well if they’ve been rested and are cold. This is especially critical for cut-out cookies. I do a little assembly line of rolling, cutting and chilling, rotating cookie sheets from the freezer or fridge to the oven. The resting allows the gluten that you’ve created to relax. Remember to never put unbaked cookies on a warm cookie sheet!
- Good baking requires good equipment It’s critical for bakers to have good tools. I love using heavy-duty baking sheets and I usually have 3 or 4 on hand when I’m baking a lot of cookies. Style isn’t much of a concern as rimmed or unrimmed sheets both work. Stay away from insulated baking sheets as they prevent your cookies from getting some bottom heat which is key for a good bake. I prefer to always use parchment as opposed to a nonstick sheet because the cookies never stick and the parchment keeps your baking sheets in good shape. (Extra tip: Use the parchment more than once by turning it over for a second bake.)
- Store Your Cookies Carefully This is where all of those beautiful cookies that you’ve just made can really bite the dust. When you’re storing your cookies together (in an airtight bin, of course), put the heavy cookies on the bottom (like bar cookies) and the light delicate ones on top. You might need two or three containers depending on how many cookies you’ve made. I keep most of my cookies in one container and my chocolates and confections in another. No crumbs on the chocolate!
My all-time favorite Christmas cookie is thumbprint. Simple, classic and a little fruity. This year I also tried (and loved) Speculoos from Dorie Greenspan’s Around My French Table. They’re a thin, crisp and spicy Belgian cookie that lasts well. And finally, I broke from my cookie phase for a try at divinity, a fluffy meringue-like confection with walnuts. I’m looking forward to sharing them with my friends and family.
Happy baking and happy holidays!