Dec 17, 2013

Bake a Better Christmas Cookie

Making tastier Christmas Cookies
Growing up, my house was not a Christmas Cookie house.  In fact, my house was not an any sort of cookie house, except for selling girl scout cookies. My in-laws, however, are the baking type.  They start baking in early December, and run straight through till Christmas.  I think there's usually at least ten types of cookies, plus pecan rolls, making up plates for offices, schools, neighbors, churches, etc.  It's an impressive sight to see.  Being back in Boston, and not in Hawaii (so having a little extra heat from the oven is a good thing) I've been having a fair amount of fun getting into the Christmas cookie habit myself (although on a much, much smaller scale).  A mug of hot apple cider, a Christmas movie marathon, and a table full of cookies, royal icing, piping bags, and candy accouterments sounds like a great way to spend an evening to me.

I am not going to be the one to tell people what recipes to use for any Christmas Cookies. Often it is much more tradition than baking, and tends to factor into the "taste" of Christmas for people.  I'd rather talk about techniques.  Anyone who has ever made cut out sugar cookies knows how finicky they can be.  There are very few ingredients, and the general flavors can be very subtle.  That tends to mean that there are an awful lot of ways to mess it up.  Cut out sugar cookies are pretty much the pie dough of the cookie world.

Life lessons that I have learned making cookies:

  1. Butter: As one of the main flavor components, I always make sure that my butter is fresh.  It should smell like butter, and only like butter (not like anything else from the refrigerator).  Also, if the recipe calls for creaming the butter and the sugar, the butter has to be the right temperature.  If the butter is too warm, the cookies will be greasy, flat blobs.  Cold butter takes longer to cream (and can be hard on a hand mixer). But as long as you keep the butter below 68 degrees (when it starts to melt), then creaming will help to add air into the cookie, providing a lighter finished product with better texture. General tip: When starting a recipe, turn on the oven to preheat, cut your butter into chunks, put it in the mixing bowl, then gather and prepare the rest of your ingredients.  The increased surface area will help to warm the butter faster, but not overwarm it.
  2. Gluten: When making bread, the goal is to work the dough a lot, to create gluten and end up with nice, chewy bread. Cookies are not bread.  While some gluten is desired to help keep the cookies together and not become crumbly (which is why most cookies call for all purpose flour instead of cake flour), over working cookie dough is much more likely than underworking it.  The result is that what should be a light, tender cookie is tough and hard.  This is also why, when making cut out cookies, the first ones tend to come out nice and pretty, and the more times the dough is rolled out, the worse they are.
  3. Oven temperature: Most home ovens are not precise on their temperature.  America's Test Kitchen has someone come in to calibrate their ovens once a month.  A basic oven thermometer can be bought for under $10, and can save a lot of heartache in poorly baked cookies.  I even go the extra step and keep a pizza stone on the bottom rack of my oven to act as an insulator, helping to keep the temperature even.
  4. Baking Process: First, every time you open the oven, you're letting heat out. And the longer the oven is open, the more heat can escape.  Therefore, when I put cookies in the oven, I usually have the cookie sheet on top of the stove, with my oven mitts on before I open the oven.  I'm losing the bare minimum of heat possible, and the cookies spend more time in the oven at the correct temperature.  This also means  I open the oven as few times as possible while cookies are in there.  Most modern ovens have a window in the front, and a light inside.  Use them.

    I have also found that, for many types of cookies, baking cookies is like cooking eggs.  When cooking eggs, always take the pan off the heat slightly before they look done.  The heat of the pan will continue cooking them.  It's the same with cookies.  It took me multiple batches of ginger cookies before I learned when to take them out of the oven.  If they looked done, the bottoms were going to be overcooked.
As far as decorating sugar cookies goes, I'm not an artist.  I can't draw, I can't paint, even my handwriting is atrocious. Bee in our Bonnet has some fabulous information on sugar cookies and decorating them. This year I tried using tricks I learned from that post for my cookies, with mixed success.  My royal icing was too firm to really "flood", but the decorating was a lot cleaner than ever before.  Any of the "mixed" part is all my skills, and not the suggestions from the site.  I did even try a little bit of this "knit" technique on one of my cookies.

Be mindful of the details, and be happier with your results.  And don't forget, most importantly, have fun!

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