Every December when I have finally peeled myself away from my books, and gathered lots of flour and butter, I start baking. I put aside one to two days (some times three) to put my mixer and oven to good use and churn out a few different Christmas cookies. My favourites are Sugar Cookies (festive) and Cranberry Pecan Shortbread (very easy), then I rotate between a couple of different cookie recipes that I have collected over the years. This year, in addition to the two standard recipes, I also baked Chocolate Peppermint Sandwich Cookies, Triple Ginger Cookies, and Orange Pistachio Crescents (which in the end actually became a sandwich linzer-cookie-type concoction). Hyperlinks for the cookie recipes are the same recipes that I used, with the exception of the Sugar Cookies, Chocolate Candy Cane Cookies, and Triple Ginger Cookies, which are linked to similar recipes.
Cookie baking requires quite a bit of elbow grease, but if you have time, patience, and love being crafty, this makes a fun activity where in the end you have treats to share. I do not do a gift exchange with anyone outside of my immediate family, but for friends I like to give personally baked cookies for the holiday. Giving cookies can also be a more cost efficient endeavour than buying individual gifts for everyone on your list, though it does require quite a bit of an upfront investment. After the first purchases, the annual replenishment of perishable ingredients (butter, eggs, etc.) and the replacements of such items such as candy sprinkles and cookie containers, are required.
When I first started baking Christmas cookies, I was an apprentice to the baking world. I love cooking, but baking barely has any room for improvising allowed in cooking; baking requires exact ingredient measurements and faithfulness to the temperature requirements of the recipe (more on butter temperature is below). It has now been a few years of cookie gifting, so I gathered some tips for Christmas baking neophytes.
CHRISTMAS COOKIE BAKING TIPS
Butter is the foundation of the cookie recipe, so it is important to be mindful of the temperature of the butter used. Cookie recipes often require butter at room temperature for creating the dough. If you are leaving out a block of butter on your countertop for it to warm from the refrigerator cold, make sure to leave the butter out for at least a couple of hours if not overnight. This is so that the whole block of butter is uniform in temperature. If the butter is not properly brought to room temperature, usually the exterior perimeter of the block will have become warmer while the interior of the butter is still cool. To decrease the amount of time required for the butter block to lose its chill, cut the butter into smaller blocks. Make sure that the butter is not running and melted, but is soft at about 18°C or 65°F. Also, use fresh butter and if the butter is not being used immediately, seal the butter in foil and tape the edges together for storage.
2. Chilling the Cookie Dough
After mixing your dry and wet ingredients together, you have created the cookie dough. If you will be cutting out shapes from the dough, whether it is by using cookie cutters or if your cookies will be pyramid-shaped, it is best to let the cookie dough chill for at least 1 hour. (When using cookie cutters, the recommended time is 2 hours.) This chill period is required so that the softened butter in the cookie dough hardens, allowing the dough to take on the desired shape once cool.
For cookies that will be rolled flat and stamped out with cookie cutters:
Meld the cookie dough together and shape into one big ball, then flatten slightly to create a big and thick lily pad. Completely wrap the flattened dough in clingy plastic wrap, making sure that no portion of the dough is exposed. Chill for two hours.
Once the dough is chilled, unwrap the dough and divide into two parts. Wrap one part back into the clingy plastic wrap and place in the fridge. Take the other half and place on a well floured and smooth cutting board. Take a rolling pin sprinkled with flour and roll out the dough so that the dough is thin and even in thickness. Cut out the desired shapes from the dough, and place the cut outs on a baking tray lined with parchment paper. Finally take out the other half of the dough from the fridge and repeat.
3. Line the Baking Tray
Parchment paper can be purchased from specialty baking and cooking stores. Using parchment paper for baking cookies is essential as the paper prevents the dough from sticking to the pan without using butter, which may affect the shape of the cookies being baked.
Cut the paper to size to completely cover the bottom of the tray so that edges of the tray do not fold up. The paper can be reused for future baking projects on the same tray.
4. Use Specialty Cookie Tools
A few years ago I collected several cookie baking tools and supplies, which at first made cookie baking seem like an expensive project. But if you are an avid cookie baker, or like me and cranks out mega batches of cookies once a year, the investment will eventually pay off. Here is a list of my essential cookie tools and supplies:
- Cookie Scoops: These mini ice cream scoop doppelgängers allow you to portion even amounts of cookie dough for drop cookies.
- Cookie Lifters: Cookie lifters are very handy when you need to very carefully move the cut out shape onto the baking tray.
- Circles Nesting Cookie Cutters: Nesting cookie cutters are great for the variety of cutter sizes, and are especially useful when making sandwich cookies with holes in the centre of the top layer.
- Cookie Sprinkles: Sugar cookies definitely use them, and no other cookie is as festive as sugar cookies. I collect different sprinkles as found throughout the year to use in my future baking projects.
- Cooling Trays: Cookies should be transferred to cooling trays after they are taken out of the oven and the baking trays become cool to touch. I find cooling trays useful when making large batches of cookies and to speed up cooling time, especially if using icing which must be applied on completely cooled cookies.
5. Be Prudent of Baking Times
Different ovens have varying actual temperatures. Hence, when baking your first batch of a recipe, test out the temperature at the low end of the required baking time so that you do not end up with burned but beautifully shaped cookies that took a lot of time to complete.
NOTES ABOUT RECIPE SELECTION
I personally always bake two batches of sugar cookies, as I find them the perfect festive cookie for Christmas, and one shortbread recipe since these cookies do not require a chilling period for the dough and are easy to make. In addition to these two cookies, I will also make about two to three other cookie recipes, and my selection often depends on how much time I have to spare.
In the ideal situation where I am not limited by time, I like to be more creative and devote my time decorating sugar cookies and for making at least one sandwich cookie (sandwich cookies take a lot of time to prepare compared to single layer recipes). I also enjoy recipes with holiday ingredients such as dried cranberries, citrus, chocolate, and peppermint, and I also love making macaroons which can be simple to make. Additionally, I am mindful of baking cookies in a variety of shapes and colours, as together they look great in a box or a bag.
However, taste is also of obvious importance as I will definitely make a batch of the most popular cookie the following year, which may not necessarily be the most complex recipe. Therefore, you may be just happy making simple drop cookies that are big on taste but not a high scorer in terms of its fancy aesthetics. And this is where fancy packaging may come in to dress up simple looking cookies — wrap the cookies in cellophane and use fancy ribbons and tags, and voilà! Festive cookies!