Jane Says: It's Time for Holiday Cookie Baking
“This year, I’m participating in my first holiday cookie swap. It sounds like fun, but I’m not a baker. What are some tips for success? One or two easy recipe suggestions would really be appreciated as well!”
The idea behind a cookie swap is that you bake just one kind of cookie—usually a dozen for each person attending the party, and everyone ends up with a varied assortment that will last throughout the holidays. It’s a way to pare down and simplify amid the holiday’s culinary chaos—you only have to make an abundance of a single cookie, after all—and it’s no surprise that some cookie swaps have been going on for generations. They’re really as much about a sense of community as an avalanche of sweet treats.
Baking cookies is not difficult, but it’s fair to say that attention must be paid. Because they cook so quickly, factors such as the type and color of baking sheets, the oven, and baking time are all important. The following tips come from a range of baking authorities, including my former colleagues at Gourmet, and Shirley Corriher, author of BakeWise: The Hows and Whys of Successful Baking.
• Measuring correctly goes a long way in ensuring success in baking, so don’t be tempted to use a glass liquid measuring cup for dry ingredients. Instead use dry-measuring cups, which are typically made out of metal or plastic and sold nested together in a set.
• A stand mixer is by no means necessary, but comes in handy for large amounts of dough.
• Even if you’re not spatially challenged, an inexpensive ruler is invaluable for checking the size of cookie cutters and measuring the thickness of rolled-out dough. Measure the thickness of slice-and-bake cookies by putting the ruler on top of a log of chilled dough, scoring it lightly with the tip of a paring knife, then (duh) removing the ruler before cutting slices. If you’re making a pan of bar cookies, use the ruler in much the same way, marking the bars with toothpicks so you can cut them all the same size.
• Nonstick baking sheets may be easy to clean, but their dark color means that they absorb heat faster, thus cookies can quickly overbrown or burn on the bottom. Light-colored aluminum baking sheets that are of a medium weight conduct heat beautifully and encourage even browning. The commercial-grade aluminum half-sheet pans with inch-high sides available at most cookware stores are terrific, but true baking sheets, which only have one or two lipped sides, allow you to easily slide baked cookies onto a cooling rack.
• Silicone-treated baking sheet liners (available at cookware stores and even some supermarkets; one popular brand is Silpat), used by professional chefs for ages, take the fear out of baking delicate cookies; they allow you to spread batter smoothly, evenly, and thinly.
• You can never have too many wire-mesh cooling racks. If counter space is an issue, you can stack the racks, separating them with small glasses. If you, like me, expand baking projects onto the dining or coffee table, you’ll find the Expandable Cooling Rack from Lee Valley Tools extremely useful, not just for cookies, but all sorts of culinary endeavors.
• Use a small ice-cream scoop for perfectly uniform drop cookies.
• You don’t need a professional pastry bag for decorating with icing; a resealable plastic bag with one corner snipped off makes a fine substitution. If you want to get fancy and “trace” (outline) cookies with icing, a plain round writing tip for a pastry bag, available at kitchenware stores, will make you look like a pro.
• Like anything you bake, bring all ingredients to room temperature unless noted otherwise in a recipe.
• Let baking sheets cool between batches; otherwise, the cookies will spread too much during baking.
• When measuring flour, spoon it (instead of scooping it) into a dry-measuring cup so that it overflows slightly, then level it off with the straight edge of a knife. Measure teaspoons or tablespoons of dry ingredients the same way.
• Beat in eggs one at a time and just to blend. Beating too much after adding the eggs may cause a shiny, meringue-like crust on the top. You may have seen this on brownies or blondies, but it can occur on flatter cookies as well.
• Don’t overmix the dough after adding the dry ingredients; overdeveloping the gluten makes for one tough cookie, so to speak.
• When rolling out cookie dough, don’t flour the work surface or rolling pin too generously, or, again, your cookies will be tough.
• To ensure even baking (thus batches of cookies that are all the same color), rotate the baking sheets, typically halfway through the baking time. Turn them front to back, and, if you have sheets on both the upper and lower racks of the oven, swap their positions.
• When cutting out cookies, start at the edge of the rolled-out dough and work inward. Cut out the shapes as close to each other as possible.
• When you rotate baking sheets or check doneness, work quickly. Every time you open the oven door, oven temperature drops dramatically—in just 30 seconds, it can drop 150° or more.
• Most cookie doughs can not only be made in advance, but are the better for it. Refrigerating a dough overnight or longer allows it to hydrate more thoroughly (you’ll notice it’s firmer, drier, and easier to handle) and the flavors to meld and develop.
A Few Recipes
Slice-and-bake (icebox) cookies are dead simple to make—there’s no rolling out necessary— and these Pistachio Cranberry Icebox Cookies, from Gourmet, are beautiful, delicious, and unusual. And it’s hard to beat cut-out Gingerbread Snowflakes, one of the world’s great holiday cookies.
But me, personally? Well, in all honesty, I can pretty much take or leave holiday sweets. What I’ll be dedicating oven time to is old-fashioned southern cheese “biscuits,” which would make a great savory addition to any cookie swap.