Who else loves to spend time before Christmas up to your elbows in flour? If so, this one's for you! It's my collection of practical Christmas cookie-baking tips, packed with ideas for new and experienced bakers both.
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ALANNA aka CERTIFIABLE COOKIE FIEND
So will it surprise you to learn that I am crazy-stupid for Christmas cookies?! One year, my sister’s then-young sons stacked all the cookie tins they could squeeze between their chins and outstretched arms – and then started to count, not cookies, not dozens of cookies, but different “kinds” (yes, kinds) of cookies. Five. Ten. Fifteen. Twenty. Thirty. Laughing so hard at their crazy aunt, somewhere in the 30s the boys lost count and loaded cookies onto a plate for a cookie party. (Cookie party? Yep, they’re a family tradition! More below.)
Any way you count, thirty-five kinds of cookies is a lot – more cookie recipes than I've shared on Kitchen Parade in nine whole years. That year, some cookies came from my annual cookie swap but the rest I’d made myself, one small batch at a time, a mix of old favorites and new inspirations. It’s been a few years since I’ve baked much for Christmas, thanks to somehow losing my stack of favorite Christmas cookie recipes. :-( But this year, I’ve got the baking itch again. If butter and flour go into short supply, you'll know why. :-)
[cartoon credit ichef.com]
HOLIDAY BAKING TIPS
KNOW YOUR RHYTHM
What’s your style? Some prefer a flurry of baking, all in one day. Me, I’m slow and steady, one batch a day for a week or more.
SLOW & STEADY – The first night, I mix two batches of cookies but bake only one. The next night, I mix a third batch but bake the second batch. This way, I spend maybe one to two hours a night, no cookie-baking marathons for me.
BAKING BONANZA – For anyone who wants to do all the holiday baking all in a single day, consider mixing the cookie doughs ahead of time (at least those that need chilling, so many do) but then baking and packaging on a single day.
OLD FAVORITES – Fancy cookies are one thing. But what people really love are the old favorites. One year, my friend Ann brought rice krispy bars to my cookie swap. They were so festive with a little red and green food coloring, also a few M&Ms slipped in. I thought the kids would love them – but the grown-ups did too! My favorite old-time cookie recipes are Molasses Cookies, Cinnamon Sugar Cookies and Oatmeal Raisin Cookies.
ONE STICK PER BATCH – To go for variety, versus quantity, choose recipes based on a single stick of butter. If the recipe calls for more, cut it in half. The one exception is shortbread – shortbread has such a high proportion of butter, use a recipe that calls for a cup of butter, that’s two sticks.
HEALTHY COOKIES – Forget ‘healthy’ cookies! 100% whole wheat flour hardly matters when paired with butter and sugar. Unless you’ve got a recipe that you know people love, just go for it.
BITE-SIZE COOKIES – But do consider making small cookies. I make cookies that are only two or three bites big. That lets my favorite cookie monsters eat two or three or even five at a time, the equivalent of one or two large cookies.
‘PAINT’ A COOKIE PLATE
MIX IT UP – Mix flavors, colors, shapes and textures when choosing the cookie recipes. You don’t want all chocolate cookies any more than all round shapes, all nut-based cookies any more than all iced cookies, all butter cookies more than all meringue cookies.
INSTANT COLOR – One way to easily add instant color to a cookie plate? Dip moist dried apricots into melted bittersweet chocolate, let cool on waxed paper.
COLORED COOKIES – For color, I swear by red and green M&Ms in my friend Kathy's Perfect M&M Cookies (pictured below in the back). The dough itself is dyed for Colored Roll-Out Sugar Cookies (pictured below in the center as "Christmas Stars" with silver dragées). Fresh Cranberry Drop Cookies are made with fresh cranberries, very pretty, and Cranberry-Mac Morsels are made with macadamia-nut butter and colorful dried cranberries.
Okay, okaaaay. You’ve heard it before here, I know. But “make soup” is the first step before a big baking or cooking project. That way, there’ll be something to eat when you’re done and the last thing you can imagine is cooking dinner. That way, if you sample the cookie dough along the way, you’ll have a healthy dinner waiting as antidote. This week I remade this Turkey Sweet Potato Soup: what a winner!
GET ORGANIZED – Make your baking list, noting names and cookbook page numbers. If you’re baking recipes from online sources, print out the recipes. Read through each recipe, noting special equipment, whether the dough needs chilling, baking temperatures, etc. Make a grocery list; I make my list by cookie so that if I decide later to skip an entire batch, it’s easy to skip the groceries, too.
BUTTER – Look for butter on sale throughout the holiday season, there’s just no reason to pay full price. Watch for great value in unusual places. One year, the best price for my favorite Land O’ Lakes butter was at Target. If you end up not using it all for cookies, butter freezes beautifully. So many recipes call for unsalted flour so that the baker can control the amount of salt to add – but to my taste, we bakers never add enough salt. So especially for old-fashioned classic recipes, I
nearly always always-always start with salted butter.
BUTTER vs MARGARINE – I’m an all-butter all-the-time kinda girl but this year learned the fascinating tip that 50:50 butter:margarine makes for those thick almost-square edges we see in many bakery cookies.
FLOUR – If your flour is more than a couple of months old, invest in fresh flour. It makes a tremendous difference. My number one tip for excellent cookies? Fluff the flour to aerate it before measuring – you’ll use up to 25% less flour in weight and your cookies will be ever so much more tender and light. The exception here is if your recipe always lists flour by weight.
SHORTENING – If any cookie recipes call for Crisco and you’ve got an old tub hanging around, smell it – you’ll likely want to get fresh shortening. I used to buy the big tub, now, never.
SPICES – Look for great sale prices on spices before the holidays. Take inventory and refresh all the herbs and spices that are running low.
VANILLA – Some people swear by the highest-quality vanilla, every time, every cookie. My own take is that high-quality vanilla is important when vanilla is the most significant flavor – vanilla ice cream, say, or homemade custard. But once it’s mixed with spices and fruit and chocolate, it matters less.
CHOCOLATE – I like to use the mini chocolate chips, you can use fewer because they distribute more widely.
NUTS & DRIED FRUITS – Trader Joe’s has by far the best price on nuts and dried fruit, including pre-toasted pecans, walnuts and almonds, a time-saver at no additional cost. Even if a recipe doesn’t call for it, do toast your nuts ahead of time (except black walnuts), the nutty flavors just really deepen.
NEW LEAVENING – Baking powder and baking soda lose their oomph. Unless you’re a regular baker or happen to have new containers, invest in new ones.
PAPER SUPPLIES – Check to see what’s on hand, parchment paper (for baking), paper towels (for cooling cookies on open counters), waxed paper (for separating layers of cookies in storage containers), aluminum foil and plastic wrap (for wrapping doughs and gift plates). I especially love the Christmas-y plastic wraps sold this time of year.
MIXERS – If a standing mixer is on your Christmas wish list, maybe Santa would offer early delivery? But a hand mixer works just fine – I used a $9.99 model for 20 years before inheriting my mother’s vintage-gold Kitchen Aid. I still turn to it more often than not.
COOKIE SHEETS – Cookie sheets, who knew they performed so differently? I wish I could recommend my very favorite cookie sheet – because I wish I knew how to buy several more for myself. Since losing one a few years back, I’ve bought a half dozen cookie sheets, some inexpensive, some expensive. None perform as well and worse, they all perform differently. So I’ve taken to testing cookies on my one remaining ‘good’ cookie sheet plus on parchment and on silicone mats.
PARCHMENT vs SILICONE – I’ve learned to prefer parchment, for the bottoms of the cookies turn slightly crispy and golden. With silicone mats, the cookies bake fine but the texture just seems off to me.
TIPS for CUT-OUT COOKIES
A good cut-out cookie recipe is worth hanging onto! I have yet to find my own perfect recipe for cut-out sugar cookies, in part because I so love my year-round recipe for Cut-Out Spice Cookies adapted from my very first cut-out cookie, Frosty Christmas Trees. But – later this month, I'm going to share a no-roll, no-fuss butter cookie that tastes like the very best sugar cookie you've ever eaten but without all the work! It's pretty, too!
POWDERED SUGAR, NOT FLOUR – Before rolling out the dough, sprinkle your work surface with powdered sugar, not flour. The sugar will melt into the surface.
CHILL OUT – Roll-out cookie dough is usually easiest to handle after it’s chilled all the way through so allow an overnight of chilling. If you’re short on time, break the dough into three or four disks about an inch thick, these will chill faster.
BUMP UP THE FLAVOR – Make sure your cookies taste like more than sugar, flour and butter by adding vanilla than usually called for. But vanilla may be too subtle, I almost always substitute lemon extract for vanilla, at Christmas some times I choose peppermint extract.
ONE TRAY AT A TIME – Don’t get ahead of yourself. A tray of cut-out cookies should sit out for only a few minutes before going into the oven. Otherwise the dough gets too soft and the cookies lose their shape. You can put them into the fridge to chill but that changes the temperature too.
GENTLE, GENTLE – Roll out the dough as few times as possible. The more the dough is rolled and handled, the tougher those cookies will get. So roll out all the dough once, collecting the scraps on the side. Then gather together the scraps into a dense ball, form into a flat disk and refrigerate until ready to roll out again.
At Christmas, it just seems right to "dress up" cookies just a little. One favorite pecan cookie has a smear of icing that holds a pecan half; a mocha square has a zigzag of icing with a chocolate-covered coffee bean. Need inspiration? Just search for "Christmas cookie" on Pinterest or "Christmas cookie" on Tastespotting!
DECORATING SUGARS – Too often, these just fade into the cookies so these days, I only use red and green colored sugars.
SPRINKLES – So vibrant, so pretty! I love sprinkles!
COLORED ICING – If you are going to use different colored icings, count on lots of waste. Double or triple the icing recipe so there will be enough. My favorite icing comes from Cut-Out Spice Cookies. For a small batch, mix 3/4 cup powdered sugar with 1/2 teaspoon extract (see below) and 2 tablespoons water. A few drops at a time, add more water to thin a little but be careful, it should be pretty thick so that it doesn't just wash all over the cookies.
FLAVOR! – Don't forget to put an extract or something into the icing, otherwise it's just sugar. Vanilla, almond, lemon, peppermint, anise, coffee, they all work!
FOOD COLORING – Gel dyes create more vibrant frosting, liquid dyes are less expensive, however. Add just a little dye at a time, start with light green, then add more for medium green, still more for dark green. I like to dye two or three shades of the same color. For contrast, make a full batch of white icing.
REALLY REALLY WHITE ICING For extra-white icing, pick up a bottle of this Wilton product called Icing Color White-White. It works on icing that has been dulled by vanilla, say. It also works in buttercream that is tinted yellow from the butter. It also works beautifully to make a lighter tint of an brightly colored icing, very pretty!
FREEZER BAGS – Freezer bags make great frosting dispensers, just snip a corner; start small and make it bigger as needed. When working with several colors at once, put small plates in the middle of the work surface, one bag per plate.
MAKE IT A TRADITION, MAKE IT A "FAMILY" TRADITION
Baking's no fun when it's done alone so gather up aprons for the kids or a friend or two. Laughs shall ensue. My recipe card for krumkaka includes the note that was made by the mother of my own mother's dear friend Dian "1952 - Grandma Borg made for Xmas Day at our house. Di was home from school from Chicago. We used Grandma's iron, wish I had one." (Who else misses the old 3x5 recipe cards?)
PICK ONE COOKIE, BAKE IT WITH DAD – Here's the Judd family tradition: each child (there are six!) picks a cookie and then bakes it with their dad. I was so taken with this tradition when I was interviewing Pat Judd from The Daily Bread Bakery & Cafe in Des Peres for my own column in the Post-Dispatch that I shared it with my editor. She loved it too – and the Judds are this week's very fun cover story! Here's the story, recipes too, eight of them, one for each kid and mom and dad too! Don't forget Pat's great list of cookie-baking tips, I've learned several new things from this long-time baker!
FLOUR YOUR NOSE! aka HAVE FUN! – If you look really closely at the family photo of the Judds below, you'll see flour on everyone's noses! Pat told me that this tradition started with his mother and daughter Annie. Love it!
COOKIE PARTY! – In my family, anyone is allowed, at any time during the day to call out, "Cookie Party!" That's the signal to set the table with pretty paper Christmas plates and napkins and to put together a plate of cookies. And then we sit down and eat – cookies, just cookies. Well, and drink milk or tea.
DROP IN & DECORATE – My friend Lydia has the biggest heart. Any surprise that she founded the great non-profit, Drop In & Decorate? It helps people host cookie-decorating parties for charity. It’s a fun afternoon's project, one year my cookie swap guests decorated cookies for a church in downtown St. Louis which makes lunch for homeless people. It's not too late to host your own party, Lydia has all the tools and tips to make it easy as
apple pie, I mean, cookies!
[photo credit St. Louis Post-Dispatch]
HOW TO PACKAGE CHRISTMAS COOKIES
Trust me, after baking so many cookies, you really do want to give them away! I'm no expert on packaging, I arrange them on a metal Christmas plate, the ones you get for $.50 at the grocery store in after-Christmas sales. Fancy, eh? So I'm going to refer you to My Kitchen Addiction, who's really good at this stuff. Me, I'm learning!
FESTIVE PACKAGING FOR GIFTS – This post has many ideas for dressing up your holiday goodies. It's fabulous. I took Jen's advice and ordered a die-cut punch in the tag shape to use for labeling cookies and other food gifts. (FYI a trip to Michael's yielded some great card stock for this punch but not the punch itself.)
STORING COOKIES FOR HOME – I have a collection of cookie tins collected over the years, some small, some large. But use what you have, even heavy clean boxes (smaller and shallower work best) from an office supply store. It's best to store just one kind per container. To protect the cookies, put a layer of waxed paper between every layer. Label the container!
MAILING CHRISTMAS COOKIES – One year, my sister mailed a huge box of homemade Christmas cookies to our dad via the post office. What a mistake – they arrived some time in April. You just don't know how disappointed he was. It pays to be able to track the cookies, whether via the post office or UPS or FedEx.
AFTER CHRISTMAS, GULP, THROW AWAY LEFTOVER COOKIES
Yes, this one's going to be hard but when Christmas is over, throw any leftover cookies away. Away. AWAY! I tell you. Yes, they'll freeze. Yes, you can keep them if you have the willpower of a dog on the hunt. But I don't. I can freeze cookies for weeks and have no interest in them and then all of a sudden, bam, it hits me and they're calling to me from the basement, "Hey Alanna, we're down here and so yummy!" My sister tried to tell me this, unfortunately, I learned the hard way. So my advice, yes, is to throw them away.
[cartoon credit Lola]
Sorry, the giveaway is now closed. But if you'd still like to share your favorite baking tradition, just complete this sentence, "My favorite Christmas/holiday cookie tradition is ... ." I'd love to hear your story! ~ Alanna
You know how some of us like chewy cookies and others of us like crispy cookies? Well those are just two of the textures that Chewy Gooey Crispy Crunchy Melt-in-Your-Mouth Cookies author Alice Medrich organized her book around. Last year, it won several awards, including Best Book for Baking from IACP and Best of the Best from Food and Wine.
I've been pouring through her cookbook and at least two recipes will reach my own cookie plate this year. I think you'll like it!
Here's how to win.
THREE WAYS TO ENTER – Comment here, sign up for free e-mail subscriptions, tweet on Twitter or share on Facebook.
IMPORTANT! For a valid entry, you must leave your e-mail address too, so that I can notify you if, I mean when! you win. You are welcome to disguise your e-mail address so that I can read it but the automated address collectors cannot, something like, cookie hyphen baker at lovechristmas dot dot com.
FIRST ENTRY, COMMENT ON THIS PAGE Complete this sentence, "My favorite Christmas/holiday cookie tradition is ... ." Readers, feel free to leave a recipe in your comment. Bloggers, feel free to include a link to your favorite cookie recipe. (And don't forget to leave your e-mail address!)
SECOND ENTRY, SIGN UP FOR A FREE E-MAIL SUBSCRIPTION Sign up for either Kitchen Parade or A Veggie Venture, here's the subscription information. Then come back and leave an additional comment saying you did that. (And don't forget to leave your e-mail address.)
THIRD ENTRY, TWEET or SHARE on Facebook something like, "Great Christmas cookie-baking tips & cookbook giveaway @kitchenparade http://alturl.com/8xscs". Then come back and leave an additional comment saying you did that. (And don't forget to leave that e-mail address!)
THE FINE PRINT This giveaway is open to all U.S., Canadian (hello, Canadian readers!) and worldwide readers. All entries must be received by midnight CST on Thursday, December 8, 2011. Winners will be chosen by Random.org and notified via valid email address. If I don't hear back from the winner within 48 hours, I will select another and try again. My copy of the cookbook was given to me by the publisher Artisan Books but the giveaway idea and the shipping costs are my own.
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