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The Joy of Cooking Christmas Cookies (1998)by Irma Rombauer
Freshly home-baked cookies are one of life's most satisfying pleasures. For most people, the mere mention of cookie baking conjures up images not just of tantalizing aromas and good flavors, but of warm kitchens and good times with family or friends. For many of us it also evokes happy childhood memories of "helping" with the cookie-making process — mixing, rolling-out, decorating, and of course surreptitiously sampling raw dough, chocolate chips, colored sprinkles, and other assorted goodies!
Christmas and cookies are inseparable. Cookies fuel the holiday season even as they help define it. It has always irked us, however, that the enjoyment of these delightful confections should be restricted to a few weeks each year. Some of the recipes that follow are for cookies with a long traditional association with Christmas; others are our own seasonal family favorites, without which we can scarcely imagine the holidays; still others, lots of them, are "anytime" cookies. Our theory is that all of these cookies are special enough for grand occasions — but also perfectly delightful whenever the cookie-making spirit should move us.
Besides the obvious pleasures of the end result, we're convinced that cookie baking is so popular simply because it's so easy, and just plain fun. Cookies usually require only very basic ingredients, equipment, and techniques, and making them truly can be "child's play." On the other hand, as there are definitely secrets to successful cookie baking, we've outlined them here.
MEASURING DRY AND LIQUID INGREDIENTS
With dry ingredients like flour and sugar, the most precise method of measuring is to weigh them on a kitchen scale. This is the first time in Joy that we've indicated weights as well as volume in the recipes. In earlier days, home cooks baked more often and had developed instincts for measuring. Now when people occasionally take the time to bake (like at Christmas), they must have precise instructions and results they can rely on. All weights for dry ingredients have been rounded to the nearest 1/4 ounce.
If you don't have a kitchen scale (though it seems to us that every frequent baker should), use graduated "dry" measuring cups or spoons in the exact increments called for (1 tablespoon, 1/2 cup, etc.). Scoop out dry ingredients directly from the container with these cups, then level them by sweeping a long-bladed spatula or knife across the surface; do not pack down. This is known as the "dip and sweep" method of measuring.
For liquid ingredients use clear glass or plastic measuring cups with quantities clearly marked on the sides.
The method used to mix a dough is directly related to the texture of the finished cookie. Unlike cakes, which can all be made with an electric mixer, cookies range in texture from flaky and crispy to soft and chewy, each dependent upon the appropriate mixing technique. We use a variety of methods throughout this book, from the food processor to the electric mixer to beating the ingredients with a spoon. For best results, follow the instructions in each recipe.
TEMPERATURE OF INGREDIENTS: Unless otherwise specified, it's best to let butter, flour, eggs, nuts, and other ingredients that have been refrigerated (or stored in a cold pantry) warm up almost to room temperature before using. If a recipe calls for "softened" butter — and many of them do — make sure it's not too cold and firm (which will make it too stiff and lumpy to fluff up or "cream" properly) or nearly melted (which will make it too thin to fluff up at all). If the butter is too cold or too warm, it can even change the temperature of the dough enough to significantly alter baking time. If possible, let butter soften naturally at room temperature; if you're in a hurry, place it in a microwave-safe bowl and microwave it on low power, checking its consistency every 30 seconds and stirring it lightly when it begins to soften. If no microwave is available, put it in a metal bowl set inside a larger, shallow bowl of warm water and stir frequently as it begins to soften.
SUBSTITUTIONS FOR BUTTER: Some cooks prefer margarine to butter, either for reasons of economy or health. We love butter, and would rather have one cookie made with it than two or three without — but we must admit that with many kinds of cookies, quite satisfactory results may be obtained by replacing up to half the butter with the same amount of regular nondiet stick margarine. (Please do not use diet stick margarine or any tub margarine or "spread" in place of butter, as these can drastically change the texture of the dough.) We cannot in good conscience recommend substituting even some margarine for butter in short-breads or butter cookies, though, because the flavor of these depends so much on a truly buttery richness.
FLOURS: Although we use all-purpose white flour in nearly all our cookie recipes, we know that some cooks like to incorporate whole wheat flour into their cookies. If you wish to experiment, we recommend that you start with highly flavored cookies (those with molasses or chocolate, for instance), and replace no more than a third of the white flour with whole wheat. If you can find it, whole wheat pastry flour is best. However, cookies made even with this whole wheat flour will always be slightly darker and heavier than the white-flour variety. Once you add flour to the liquid ingredients in a recipe, don't overbeat the dough; this can result in tough cookies, especially in lower-fat recipes.
RULES FOR MAKING GREAT COOKIES
x The best cookies are made from the best ingredients. Use unsalted butter, and don't stint. If possible, use unsalted nuts, and make sure that they're very fresh. (Nuts are oily, and the oil can turn rancid with age.) Dried fruits such as raisins, dates, and candied citrus bits should always be plump and moist; hard, dried-out "bullets" are not only untoothsome, but will draw off moisture and make cookies dry. Don't economize on baking chocolate or on spices. Believe it or not, there is a dramatic difference between the flavor of genuine cinnamon and that of ground cassia, often sold as a cinnamon substitute. Always buy pure vanilla, almond or other extracts, not imitation which can taste tinny and artificial.
x Always use large eggs when baking. Their size is closely regulated for uniformity, one large egg weighing 2 ounces in the shell and 1.75 ounces out of the shell. It is important to note that an egg is a liquid ingredient and substituting extra-large or jumbo eggs will throw off the balance of a recipe.
x Baking, unlike some other kinds of cooking, is not a casually improvisational art. Read each recipe all the way through before starting, always preheat the oven for 20 minutes before baking, and measure out all the ingredients carefully before you start mixing them.
x A cookie must have certain characteristics to earn it a place in the home-baking hall of fame: a distinctive texture, be it brittle-crisp, chewy-gooey, crunchy, silky or melt-in-the-mouth (great cookies are rarely dry or cakey); an inviting appearance — which is not to say necessarily a picture-perfect one; a size and shape suitable to the cookie's character (oversize and sturdy for munching from a baggy in a lunch box, say, or dainty and chic for perching on a saucer at a tea); and most of all, of course, good flavor.
HANDLING AND SHAPING COOKIES
Resist the temptation to add extra flour to make a cookie dough more manageable during shaping or rolling, as you might if you were making bread or pasta. To prevent most cookie doughs from sticking to your work surface and rolling pin, roll portions between sheets of wax paper, occasionally checking the underside of the paper and smoothing any creases. Then keeping the wax paper attached, layer the dough on trays and chill until slightly firm. Molasses doughs are too sticky to be rolled between wax paper, but letting them rest at room temperature for several hours before rolling out tames them enough that you'll be able to get by with minimal added flour. With short, rich doughs that seem too soft to handle, on the other hand, just the right amount of chilling will bring them under control. Refrigerate them until they're firm enough to hold their shape, but remove them before they become too cold and stiff. For doughs that warm up and soften very rapidly, start with only a portion of the dough, keeping the rest refrigerated until needed.
When cutting or otherwise shaping cookies, try to keep them all about the same size and thickness, so that they bake evenly. And remember that if you choose to make cookies larger or smaller than the recipe specifies, the amount of spreading, the baking time, and the recipe yield will vary.
BAKING COOKIES AT HIGH ALTITUDES
Baking, being a delicate process, can be affected by altitude. In general, up to 3,000 feet no adjustments are necessary to obtain attractive, properly textured cookies — and even at higher altitudes, cookies are nowhere near as susceptible to problems as cakes are. It is worth remembering, though, that at high altitudes liquids boil faster, which causes moisture to evaporate quickly (and thus concentrates the flavors of the other ingredients); and that chocolate chip and other drop cookies tend to bake flatter than usual, and are perhaps sweeter. When baking above 3,000 feet, some cooks, and we are among them, recommend that you lower the oven temperature about 25°F, which helps the cookies retain moisture. It also helps to reduce the sugar in the recipe by 2 tablespoons for every 1 cup. For rich chocolaty or very sweet doughs, slightly reducing the baking powder may be helpful. Above 5,000 feet, it is sometimes necessary to reduce baking powder by half and sugar by about 2 tablespoons for every cup. In sour cream doughs, baking soda should not be reduced beyond 1/2 teaspoon for each cup of sour cream.
Decorations greatly assist the appearance (and disappearance) of cookies — but make sure the decorations are suitable. Coarsely chopped nuts or chocolate morsels are wonderful toppings for big, flavorful, rough-textured cookies, but would be out of place on delicate wafers and crisps. Likewise, fine piping, tiny nonpareils, crystal sugar, or dainty dabs of jam are fine for tea cookies, but would seem fussy on hefty drop cookies and bars. We've always liked the idea of decorations that provide a clue to a cookie's flavor: a sprinkling of cinnamon-sugar to advertise a hint of spices; a few coconut shreds to signal a coconut filling; a drizzle of yellow-tinted icing hinting at the tang of lemon zest inside. Somehow, our appetites are heightened by having an idea of what to expect.
To ensure that nonpareils and other garnishes will stay on top of cookies, press them firmly into the dough before baking (use a wide-bladed spatula if the cookies are flat) — or secure them with Royal Icing, p. 108. Cookies can also be decorated with food-coloring paint. To paint cookies before baking, beat together an egg yolk with about 1/4 teaspoon water and a drop of the desired food coloring. (Remember that blue coloring will turn green when mixed with the yellow yolk; for a true blue, use egg white instead.) For paint to be applied after baking, simply combine a drop of food coloring with a bit of water to dilute it to the appropriate intensity. (This color wash only shows up well on Springerle, sugar cookies, and other light-colored cookies.) Apply the paint in either case with a soft, fine-tipped paintbrush — or a small pastry brush if detail isn't important.
Don't overdo it, though. A good general rule is to keep cookie decorations simple — unless of course you're baking for (and/or with) children, in which case the more excessively and fancifully decorated the cookies are, the better!
We've always believed that the "rules" of what is now considered healthy eating ought to be suspended when it comes to cookies, especially when they're baked for holidays or other special occasions. Just this once, we tell ourselves, we'll be free with the butter or shortening, not worry about the sugar, add eggs without fear. Nonetheless, we are not unaware of the dietary concerns that face modern man and woman, and we readily understand the appeal of good-tasting cookies made without the traditional abundance of fat, calories and cholesterol. Thus, we have included a number of trimmed-down recipes here.
THE ROLE OF BUTTER: Because some fat is essential for flavor, tenderness, proper crisping, and browning in almost every kind of cookie we can think of (meringue kisses are a rare exception), we've significantly reduced fat without eliminating it entirely. Cookies that might originally have contained 4 to 8 grams of fat apiece, for instance, now contain 1 1/2 to 3 1/2 — enough to maintain good flavor and an attractive texture. We've also de-emphasized butter in favor of canola and corn oil. Some butter is usually needed to produce a manageable consistency and a hint of buttery taste, however, so we've left in a little bit.
BUTTER SUBSTITUTES: Please don't be tempted to substitute low-fat margarine or "spread" for butter, since these products tend to have a high water content, which can turn cookie dough runny and yield a flattened-out and overdone end result. If you insist on avoiding butter, use regular nondiet stick margarine instead. You'll lose some flavor, but at least the consistency should be right. Wherever possible, our reduced-fat recipes also cut down on the number of egg yolks used. If a recipe does call for egg yolks, though, it's because they're essential for tenderness or flavor.
It is particularly important not to overbeat reduced-fat cookies, as this can turn lean doughs tough. Pay close attention to recommended baking times, too, and remove cookies from the oven the instant they're done, as lower fat means less moisture and these cookies can dry out quickly.
ABOUT COOKIE MIXES
We know that busy people think mixes and store-bought refrigerator doughs save time. We also know homemade cookies can be made equally fast and taste and look so much better that we cannot, for an instant, recommend these purchased mixes. You need only read the ingredient statements to know that you are paying for ingredients that you would never dream of putting in your family's food. Fresh ingredients and preservatives notwithstanding, anyone accustomed to the texture and pure flavors in even the simplest homemade cookies will immediately taste the additives and exaggerated artificial flavors and find the texture of commercial mixes and doughs unnatural and unsatisfying. If you and your family are used to commercial mixes and doughs, you'll find home-baked cookies a revelation and reward. To our minds, the matchless flavor of real home-baked cookies more than compensates for the extra five or ten minutes spent making them. Start by mastering a few simple bar cookies and you'll soon venture even further.
PREHEATING THE OVEN: Always turn the oven on 20 minutes before baking.
PANS: Use medium- to heavy-gauge, shiny metal cookie sheets, rimless or with very narrow rims — the kind designed specifically for cookies — so that heat can circulate over the cookies evenly. (A pan with high sides will both deflect the heat and make the cookies hard to remove when baked.) Such sheets come in many sizes, but for most standard ovens, sheets in the 14 x 17-inch range that can accommodate 12 to 16 medium-size cookies are about right. Dark sheets may cause overbrowning or burning. If cookies burn on the bottom in your oven even with shiny sheets, you may want to invest in very heavy-gauge pans, or ones with an air-cushion inset.
For a more economical approach, try double panning — baking with one sheet set on top of another. Also consider buying an oven thermometer to make sure the stove setting and the interior temperature agree; it is surprising how many ovens are off, in one direction or the other, by 30 or 40 degrees!
If you don't have cookie sheets, create a rimless surface by inverting baking sheets. In the case of bar cookies, if you don't have the baking pan size called for, reduce the baking area of a rectangular pan by folding a piece of foil, inserting it in the pan, and placing dry beans or rice on one side as illustrated below.
PREPARING PANS: Unless a recipe gives other instructions, always grease baking sheets with butter or shortening or coat with nonstick spray. Several varieties of cookies — for instance, shortbreads and other kinds that contain no eggs but have a high percentage of fat — can be baked on ungreased sheets. And a few, like meringue kisses and others with a large proportion of egg whites and little or no fat, will stick tenaciously unless baked on parchment paper or generously greased and floured cookie sheets.
Unless your oven is extra large and the cookie sheets extra small, bake only one sheet of cookies at a time — and if you do bake more than one sheet at once, make sure the sheets are the same kind. Don't bake partial sheets of cookies, and be sure not to leave large gaps between cookies; doing either may affect spreading, browning, crisping, and/or overall baking time. If there is only enough dough left for a few cookies, switch to a very small baking sheet, 12-inch pizza pan, or an inverted metal pie tin, so the cookies can be spaced the required distance apart. This will ensure that the heat from the pan is absorbed evenly and that the amount of dough is right for the baking surface. Also, when a recipe specifies baking in the upper, middle, or lower third of the oven, be sure to follow instructions.
TIMING: Many factors can affect baking time, so a range of suggested times is given in the recipes that follow. Always set your kitchen timer to the minimum time specified; it's easy to reset it and bake longer if necessary, but once a pan is forgotten and cookies are overbaked or burned, there is no remedy.
COOLING: When cookies are done, remove the cookie sheet from the oven immediately. As soon as the cookies can be moved without crumbling or tearing, gently lift them one at a time with a wide, fine-bladed spatula and place them flat on wire racks until thoroughly cool. Usually this will be in a minute or two, but it's a good idea to check by trying to lift a test cookie with a spatula every 30 seconds or so. Very tender, short cookies may require considerable standing time, while thin, brittle ones may need almost none. (Where it's necessary to work very fast, we've noted this right in the recipe.) In any case, it is important not to dally when the cookies are ready, as they will continue to bake until removed from the cookie sheet and some may become rigid and stuck. Whenever cookies have inadvertently cooled and hardened, instead of prying them up and risking breakage, return the baking sheet to the oven a few minutes to soften them again.
Cookie sheets should also be thoroughly cooled between batches to keep the dough from warming too much, which can cause the cookies to flatten and spread and in some cases can even cause the butter in the cookies to melt. To avoid any problems, we like to have a couple of extra cookie sheets on hand and rotate among them.
PACKAGING: With so many plastic storage containers and self-sealing bags available to us, old-fashioned cookie tins or jars are no longer essential for storing cookies. Still, as long as their lids fit tightly, they do the job nicely and have a lot more charm than their plastic counterparts. Never put cookies away, in any kind of container, until they're completely cool. Warm cookies will produce steam, which will cause the entire batch to soften, and eventually to spoil. If cookies have been iced or painted, let the icing or coloring set up and dry completely before storing them.
SEPARATING FLAVORS: It is also recommended that you pack each variety of cookie in a separate container. Otherwise, butter cookies and mild bars will quickly take on the flavors of the spicy, citrusy kinds, and snaps and crisps will go soft from moisture borrowed from the thicker, chunkier selections. For extra-large "monster" cookies and oversize bars, the best solution might be to store them individually in sealed sandwich bags.
FREEZING: Although cookies have a well-deserved reputation for keeping better than other baked desserts, most are truly at their peak of flavor in the first few days. Even with cookies that benefit from some mellowing, like spicy honey or boozy fruitcake varieties, fresh flavors begin to fade after several weeks. And cookies laden with butter and nuts may develop off-flavors as the butter fat and oil in the nuts go stale. Fortunately, most cookie varieties freeze well, staying moist and retaining their just-baked flavor for months if packed in airtight containers. Brownies, chocolate chip and sugar cookies, and thin crispy varieties freeze particularly well. If freezing bar cookies, pack them away uncut — in the pan in which they were baked, if you like — then cut into servings when partially thawed.
Though it is easiest to let cookies thaw at room temperature, if you want to eat them right away, lay them on baking sheets and warm in a preheated 300°F oven for a few minutes. Homemade, or even store-bought, cookies that have gone limp from exposure to humidity can also be rejuvenated and crisped this way. When setting cookies out to thaw, it's best to leave them partially unwrapped so they can breathe and condensation doesn't build up. Loosen the lids of plastic boxes or metal tins and untie and partially open plastic bags. Don't let cookies stand out long if the weather is very humid — the crispy varieties, in particular, may begin to droop.
Good storage practices are always our first recommendation, but cookies that have dried out and hardened can also be refreshed. Slip a piece of apple or dampened paper towel into an open baggy or loosely crumpled piece of aluminum foil. Insert into the container of cookies and close tightly. In a few days the cookies will have softened and the apple or towel should be removed.
PACKAGING COOKIES FOR SHIPPING
Common sense tells us that sturdy cookies, the "good keepers," are the most likely candidates for shipping. The best choices are probably small- and medium-size cookies, at least 1/4 inch thick and firm in consistency. Although softer, brownies, blondies, and other bar cookies also usually ship well — with the exception of bars with sticky fillings or icings. (Cut bar cookies into portions and wrap individually in plastic wrap, then pack in airtight containers before shipping.)
More delicate varieties can also be mailed successfully if they're packed carefully in tins or tough plastic boxes with plenty of crumpled wax paper added to keep them from jostling each other. Extremely thin, brittle cookies and tender, crumbly ones do not travel well, nor do cookies with sticky glazes or with moist fillings like jam or buttercream. Chewy-soft or fragile meringue kisses and other egg white cookies are likewise an unwise choice; in fact, they may disintegrate completely if thrown about.
After cookies are placed in durable, rigid containers, they then need to be packed in larger boxes filled with Styrofoam bits, plastic bubble sheets, "popcorn," crumpled newspaper, or other airy filler to cushion the goodies inside from bumps and knocks. As added insurance that the cookies will arrive at their destination unbroken, consider shipping by air.
PACKAGING COOKIES FOR GIFT GIVING
Pretty metal cookie tins, ceramic cookie jars, clear glass storage jars, and decorative wooden boxes all make a gift of home-baked cookies more special. Secure containers with loose lids by tying them up with a beautiful ribbon. If you have a modicum of sewing ability, you can also present cookies in fabric sacks tied with ribbon or fancy twist-ties made with wire ribbon. (Slip a plastic storage bag, cut down to size if necessary, inside the fabric for an airtight liner.) Small, dainty cookies can also be tucked in colored bon-bon papers or mini-cupcake cups in flat candy boxes. Resist the impulse, however, to create a sampler of different varieties. Unlike chocolates, cookies will pick up one another's flavors, so that no one cookie ends up tasting quite right. On the other hand, there's nothing wrong with presenting a sampler of one kind of cookie that has been piped, pressed, or hand-formed into a variety of shapes and decorated in several different ways.
CHRISTMAS COOKIES AS DECORATIONS
To prepare a cookie ornament for hanging, use a toothpick to poke a hole through the uncooked shaped dough. When the cookie is baked, remove the toothpick, wiggling it a bit if necessary to widen the hole. Loop ribbon, colored yarn or string, rick-rack, or even fine braid or lace trim through the hole and tie in a pretty bow. The "snow"-covered gingerbread house on p. 107 also makes a charming decoration for the table or mantelpiece.
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