Wednesday December 7, 2011

Holiday Cookie Survival Guide

Every Christmas our homes undergo a magical transformation. I don’t mean the miles of twinkling lights covering every available gutter, bush or porch column. Not talkin’ bout trees in livings rooms, candles in windows, or the sudden appearance of inflatables in the yard. No, this one happens inside the kitchen.

Thousands of dishes with a greasy film of butter fill the sink. A thick blanket of flour covers the counter. Dye stained towels crusted with royal icing litter the floor. Spilled jars of brightly colored sanding sugar, jimmies, and Christmas sprinkles send little bits of holiday magic to the farthest corners of the home, harder to clean up than confetti or glitter.

People who rarely bake fire up their ovens for family favorites and seasoned bakers prepare to take things up a notch with new recipes. When it comes to church, office or neighborhood Cookie Swaps, holiday cookies for gift giving, or just a plate for ol’ Saint Nick, everyone puts her mixer to the test in December.

Table 310 Cookie Trio

At work, I make a crap ton of cookies. Seriously. I have six different kinds on my current menu and churn out hundreds every week. I have sandwich cookies, drop cookies, cut out cookies, macarons, piped cookies and boiled cookies. But here’s the thing: I don’t even consider making them a significant part of my job. Nope. They account for just a small fraction of my workweek, the easy part squeezed in between chocolate tempering, puff pastry folding, candy making, ice cream churning and countless other chores.

As my friend Gail likes to say, “cookies are a piece of cake.” At least, when you’ve had several hundred hours to work out the kinks. To bake as many cookies as I do in a month or as Gail does in a week, you’d have to get a lifetime of holiday baking seasons under your belt.

Or, just mainline these tips straight from the source.

Generally, pros tell you to do really obvious stuff. The stuff you know you should do, but get impatient and skip. And I won’t lie, your cookie factory would run a lot more smoothly if you got your mise en place, scaled your ingredients out before you started mixing, and took the time to clean up along the way. But I hope to offer some insights you might not have thought of before.

1. Give yourself two days, not necessarily in a row. Do all of the making on one day and the baking on another. By splitting up the work, you can enjoy the process at a more leisurely pace, which you’ll find especially important if you have kitchen helpers, pint sized or otherwise. When you cram making and baking several batches into one day, you’ll more likely wind up exhausted, stressed and with a debacle that falls short of your visions of domestic, holiday bliss.

Insider tip: You can refrigerate almost any cookie dough for a week or more before baking. Especially any kind of cookie dough that you’ll roll out or drop from a spoon. Most cookies will actually improve after a day or two in the fridge; flavors will meld together and the dough will thicken for improved rolling and a more even spread in the oven. In fifteen minutes on a week night, you can whip up a batch of dough and toss it in the fridge. By Saturday, you’ll have tons of cookies ready to rock and roll. A few exceptions: You need to bake Florentines, biscotti, macaroons, macarons and other piped cookies as soon as you’ve made the batter.

chocolate drizzled florentines

2. Don’t grease your cookie sheets. Use parchment paper instead. Ever wonder why sheet pans develop that weird funky blackness in the corners and creases? Pan spray. Only a heavy duty scrubbing with a metal pad can get it off; every bit that gets left behind builds up, becoming more caked on with every use. This residue makes it more likely for cookies, candy, whatever you make to stick mercilessly in the future. Keep your sheet pans shiny with a sheet of parchment instead. Cookies will come off perfectly and you can reuse the sheet pan as soon as it cools, without having to wash and dry it in between. You’ll have a lot of dishes to do anyway, you don’t need any extra.

Insider tip: If you have a bakery, sweet shop or restaurant you regularly visit, try asking politely if they’d mind selling you a few sheets of parchment paper. The type of parchment sold at groceries comes rolled up and takes a little effort to flatten out, but the kind used in restaurants and bakeries comes in a huge box with thousands of sheets laid out flat. One piece, cut in half, will cover two of your cookie sheets. Professionals fly through parchment like tissue paper. The question doesn’t have to do with whether or not they can part with it, but whether or not they see doing so as a nuisance. So ask sweetly at a time when the shop isn’t swamped and they’ll likely accommodate your request. An informal survey of my professional friends revealed everyone would gladly sell or give away a few sheets of parchment to a regular, and most would accommodate a stranger if asked nicely.

3. Don’t use flour to roll out your cookies. For light colored doughs, use powdered sugar and for chocolate cookies, use cocoa powder (or mix of half cocoa powder, half powdered sugar). When you use flour, every time you gather the scraps, re-knead and re-roll, you work more gluten into the dough via extra flour. The more gluten, the more likely the cookies will turn out tough. As you work more flour into the dough this way, the cookies gradually become less sweet and more cracker-like. Using powdered sugar will keep them sweet and tender. Rolling chocolate cookies out with cocoa powder will give them a gorgeous chocolate color, rather than one mottled with white, floury splotches. Sure, this will also make them less sweet with each re-rolling, but they’ll become more chocolatey at the same time. Fair trade, no?

Insider tip: most cut-out cookie recipes tell you to gather and re-roll the scraps once or twice. By using powdered sugar or cocoa, you can get an extra round of re-rolling from the scraps without sacrificing the flavor or texture of the cookies.

4. When rolling dough, measure the thickness. Really. If you don’t do a lot of measuring in your line of work, you probably have a surprisingly inaccurate idea of 1/4” vs 1/8”. The most common mistake I see in cut-out cookies or sandwich cookies has to do with thickness. Most people don’t measure the thickness of their dough because they don’t have a ruler handy. No biggie, just grab a handful of change. A stack of three quarters is about 1/4” thick. Two dimes are about 1/8”.

stacked macaron trio

Insider tip: if you’re making sandwich cookies, roll the dough to about 1/8”. If the raw dough starts at 1/4” thick, the baked cookie will measure about 3/8”. Two of those cookies with filling sandwiched in the middle? Dangerously close to an inch thick in the best of circumstances. Not elegant, pretty or fun to eat.

5. Loosen rolled dough from the counter with a metal spatula (not the burger flipping kind, the cake decorating kind). Nothing sucks more than picking up an adorable gingerbread man and having his arm tear off, stuck to the counter. Or pulling up a reindeer and having its leg stretch out and deform as you lift it. By running a long metal spatula or thin knife between the dough and the counter, you’ll ensure your dough hasn’t stuck in any places and that your cookies will all have a perfect shape.

Insider tip: Cut out all the cookies before transferring them to the sheet pan. It doesn’t seem like much when you pause after cutting each cookie to set down the cutter, transfer the cookie to the baking sheet, pick up and reposition the cutter. But in the end, it makes the process twice as long. So save yourself the time and cut ‘em all out in one go, then transfer them all. While you’ve got that spatula out, use it to handle the cookies rather than your fingers. This prevents cookies from breaking in half during transit or getting smushed at the edges as you try to pick them up.

6. Cool hot sheet pans directly on the countertop, not a wire rack. A hot cookie sheet placed on a marble, tile or stainless steel counter will cool lightning fast because the counter actively conducts heat away from the pan. If you don’t have a heat resistant counter surface, you could get the job done on a concrete or tile floor, but of course having to guard the hot cookie sheets from kids or pets might prove more annoying than just waiting it out.

Insider tip: don’t cool sheet pans by rinsing them in cold water. The drastic change of temperature can cause them to warp or buckle. The quick fix isn’t worth the long term damage.

7. Use a bench scraper to clean up. Nothing feels grosser than the wet play-doh goop that forms when a wet dish towel soaks up chunks of baking debris, like flour, powdered sugar, or the dough itself. First scrape up the bulk of the mess with a bench scraper, metal spatula, or some other make-shift scraping device. Next, wipe up with a soapy rag, followed by a final wipe with a freshly rinsed rag.

Insider tip: your bench scraper can clean up after you drop an egg like nobody’s business. Towels just smear the egg around, and picking it up with your hands? Ewww. Use a bench scraper to scoop it all up at once.

cookie details

8. For drop cookies, save a few mix-ins to garnish. At work, whenever I pull a tray of chocolate chunk cookies from the oven, I immediately top them with a chocolate piece or two, which melt from the heat into a perfect, shiny buttons. This simple step makes each cookie look super inviting.

Insider tip: skip the red hots. Quite possibly the most overrated cookie garnish ever. Their eponymous flavor overwhelms your delicious cookie and they’re notorious for sticking in teeth. Unless you know your family loves to eat ‘em, find something else cute and red to use instead. Think outside the baking aisle: use M&Ms or Sixlets. Make your own sprinkles (see the sidebar on the right for a link to the recipe). Use dried cherries or pistachios for a natural splash of color with better flavor and texture.

9. Use masking tape to make geometric designs. Line up filled sandwich cookies, macarons, or other cut out cookies in a straight row. Lay long strips of masking tape over the cookies (it doesn’t need to stick to or actually touch the cookies, just strategically cover them). Double up the tape in some places, or use a single strip in others to create a striped pattern. Lay a few strips with a perpendicular orientation for plaid or checkerboard patterns. Next, dust the cookies with cocoa or powdered sugar. Carefully remove the tape and admire your mod design.

Insider tip: for an extra burst of flavor, grind up freeze dried fruit with the cocoa or powdered sugar. Freeze dried raspberries or strawberries make a great addition to cocoa powder, and freeze dried bananas and mango work wonderfully with powdered sugar. If you don’t want to go to the expense of freeze dried fruit, consider using a little cinnamon or ginger. The flavor comes as total surprise to everyone, and makes your cookies stand out in a crowd. For a specific recipe, see this one on Raspberry Truffle Dust.

10. Splurge on disposable pastry bags. Making do with a zippy bag with a hole poked in the corner works for the occasional baking chore. And sturdy, reusable bags are the workhorses that get baking pros through the year.

But with goopy royal icing in a dozen holiday shades and a million gingerbread men to dress, give your self a break. Those Zippy bags will burst and make a mess of your cookies and kitchen. Meanwhile, it’ll take weeks to scrub the dye out of your reusable bags, not to mention the pain of having one more thing to wash and dry while you bake for the holidays. For five bucks, you can grab a dozen disposable bags from a baking, hobby, or craft store and make your day in the kitchen infinitely easier and cleaner.

If you haven’t already figured out what you’d like to make this year, check out the recipes used for the pictured cookies:

Peppermint Fauxreos
Chocolate Chunk or Gluten Free Chocolate Chunk
Hazelnut Shortbread with Salty Caramel Filling
Cocoa Nib Florentines
Pumpkin Seed Macarons

Not pictured, but awesome for any cookie plate:

Fudge Stripe Cookies
Nutter Butters (decorated as reindeer or Santa’s hat, perhaps?)
Almond Anise Biscotti
Soft Batch Cookies (with red and green M&Ms!)

posted byStellaand filed under:  Chocolate  Cookies  Gluten Free  macarons  Sideshow Photos

46 comments and counting

Dec 08, 2011 · 12:14 AM

This is the best For a non-baker like myself (well at least one who does not do large batches) this is very useful. Plus, there’s a link to the peppermint “faux-reos”

 · Mardi@eatlivetravelwrite ·

Dec 08, 2011 ·  7:42 AM

This is SUCH a fantastic list full of things I hadn’t thought of! I love it!

Regarding cooling the cookie pan right on the counter, when it’s tile, I always worry about the heat cracking the cool tiles. Is that totally dumb?

Saving this for future reference

 · Julie @ Willow Bird Baking ·

Dec 08, 2011 ·  9:53 AM

Gen-ius. Organization and preparation are KEY strategies to surviving holiday cookie baking. Excellent, Stella.

 · Gail  ·

Dec 08, 2011 · 10:08 AM

GREAT list, especially for non-regular bakers
And man, your cookies look amazing. Especially that chocolate one. Oh man.

 · Kiri W. ·

Dec 08, 2011 · 10:38 AM

Fantastic blog!! Even for us semi-retired bakers!

 · Vicky · 

Dec 08, 2011 · 10:45 AM

@Mardi, non baker, ha! Hope you get some peppermint fauxreos on; they’re really nice with the edges rolled in crushed candy canes too.

@Julie, my parents have tile counters and whenever I bake there, I just set the hot cookie sheets straight on the tile; I’ve never had any trouble. Ceramic, porcelain, granite, slate and marble tile are all heat resistant. Do a google search for your specific tile type so you can read about it for yourself for peace of mind; but you should be good to go!

@Gail, yes, there is no such thing as too much kitchen organization. Love you Tough Cookie! xoxo

@Kiri, thanks so much! Rosco did such a great job with these photos. Lucky to have him!

@Vicky, semi retired?! Is there such a thing when it comes to time in the kitchen? haha. Happy baking!


Dec 08, 2011 · 12:43 PM

Good tips! Parchment paper is my best baking friend. It even beats the silpat.

I do have a tip for those in the Los Angeles area. Surfas in Culver City sells full and half sheets of parchment paper. Get together with a friend and split the massive stack.

 · Baking Barrister ·

Dec 08, 2011 ·  3:37 PM

this is such a great guide! i really loved reading it thanks so much for putting this together stella!

 · nicole {sweet peony} ·

Dec 08, 2011 ·  6:58 PM

I love the idea of grinding dried fruit into powdered sugar/cocoa powder, and the making the dough one day and baking it off another is a great tip that I often forget about, especially because I realized a lot of doughs taste better with age. I´ve been absolutely loving your serious eats posts btw, I look forward to them every Friday!

 · Eva ·

Dec 09, 2011 ·  2:14 AM

i love these tips and recipes THANK YOU! My best tip is to keep a cup full of water to rinse out slightly used measuring spoons. And definitely fill mixing bowls with soapy water right away and toss in dirty dishes – makes cleaning up much easier happy holidays

 · Karen ·

Dec 09, 2011 ·  9:23 AM

Now that’s what I call a Pro list, Stella! Thanks for sharing all your fabulous tips and techniques. As a non-pro, I’m always looking for extra space in my kitchen and so these words are golden.

 · Jill @ MadAboutMacarons ·

Dec 09, 2011 · 10:38 AM

Love the list of Pro Tip, thanks for sharing!

 · Lauren ·

Dec 09, 2011 · 11:59 AM

@Baking Barrister, ahhh! Such a good tip, my brother lives in LA, I’ll have to pass it on!!

@nicole, you’re so welcome. Thanks for taking the time to let me know.

@Eva, thanks so much! I’ve got Christmas Cookies on the agenda over there too; this week, Milanos for Santa!

@Karen, getting dirty dishes to soak ASAP is huge! It can really shave the time off the project!

@Jill, what part of published cookbook author do you think qualifies you as a non-pro?! LOL! You are so wonderful, Jill! Have you got on twitter yet?!

@Lauren, you;re so welcome, thanks for stopping by!


Dec 11, 2011 ·  2:21 AM

Love the coin tip — been rolling out some wonky cookies, this will be helpful!

 · Michelle ·

Dec 11, 2011 ·  1:40 PM

@Michelle, so glad to help!! I have a great ruler at work I use to measure my doughs, etc, but I don’t have one at home either, so I know how tempting it is to just eyeball it and how easy it is to make ‘em too thick. Happy baking!


Dec 12, 2011 · 10:34 AM

Hi Stella,
Love these tips!!! Masking tape? Genius.
FYI on parchment sheets – King Arthur sells big packages of half sheets. Watch for their free shipping deals and stock up!
Also, Gail (aka @THEToughCookie) swears by rolling pin bands for ensuring even thickness when rolling out your dough. I’m a total convert – LOVE them.
Wishing you a sweet holiday,

 · MrsWheelbarrow ·

Dec 12, 2011 · 12:36 PM

@Cathy, awesome tip on King Arthur, I had no idea! Thanks for the info. I for one have terrible luck with the rolling pin bands, but I may just be cursed. I’ll have to drop in on Gail next time I’m in NYC for a tutorial. I must be doing something wrong. So jealous of all your fun cookie photos with Gail, btw. Wish I was there!!


Dec 13, 2011 ·  4:42 PM

My mouth is watering.These tips are really useful. I will follow it.

 · Top 10 Lists ·

Dec 13, 2011 ·  4:53 PM

@Top 10 Lists, so glad you enjoyed it. Happy Baking!


Dec 13, 2011 ·  9:01 PM

Even with this terrific itinerary, I am still just not good enough. Sad but true. GREG

 · sippitysup ·

Dec 14, 2011 · 10:47 AM

@Greg, awwww.


Dec 14, 2011 · 11:35 PM

This is so great! I was planning on making a bunch of cookies on Christmas Eve and handing them out for Christmas Presents. What I’ll probably do is spend the day before making all the dough and spend Christmas Eve doing all the baking. These are so many great tips that I would never have thought about! You should have a show on the food network.

 · Sue · 

Dec 15, 2011 ·  6:22 PM

@Sue, thanks so much! I’m glad you’re armed with a game plan now! Hope your Christmas baking goes smoothly and you make lots of lovely memories in the kitchen. Merry Christmas!


Dec 17, 2011 ·  1:27 PM

Stella, I never got to comment on this – but thank you so much for such a great post. I used your tip re: powdered sugar vs. flour when I rolled out cookies this year (no idea why I never thought to do this), and it worked perfectly. Love your blog!

 · Evan ·

Dec 17, 2011 ·  4:17 PM

@Evan, thanks so much, I’m glad you enjoyed! I learned that at the restaurant while trying to keep food cost down by getting as many cut outs as possible from each batch of dough. What kind of cookies did you make?


Dec 21, 2011 ·  4:26 PM

Magnificent post Stella! This is exactly what people like me who don’t bake often need in this season to have on their kitchen wall. I’m taking every single word of this post serious and trying to do my best in baking this year. Happy Holidays and thanks for sharing these great tips.

 · visda ·

Dec 22, 2011 ·  3:19 PM

@visda, thank you so much! Hope you make wonderful memories with your holiday baking this year, perhaps with a little extra boost of confidence. Cheers!


Dec 27, 2011 ·  1:49 PM

Have you heard of Bjorn Frantzen, a Swede whose signature dish is carrot macarons filled with sweet corn? peace

 · uncle c · 

Dec 27, 2011 · 10:06 PM

Oh goshhhh I really really loove this post and I’m bookmarking it! I just learned so much from this, and I think that every bit of wisdom I gain in regards to cooking/baking is so valuable to me. BTW, if you ever get ugly cookies…call me, I’m available to eat them

 · Ellie@Fit for the Soul ·

Dec 29, 2011 · 11:58 AM

@uncle c, I haven’t! I’ll need to google that, it sounds fabulous! I love vegetables in desserts.

@Ellie, haha, I’ll be sure to keep you in the Scrap Loop. Glad you enjoyed the post, happy baking!


Jan 03, 2012 · 12:01 AM

I followed a link from eASYbAKED to your blog and I’m really glad I did! Your photography and recipes look really professional — and you work in weight measurements, woot woot!

 · Christine ·

Jan 03, 2012 · 12:27 PM

@Christine, hurray! Thanks for taking the time to leave a message! Yup, I develop all my recipes at work, so converting to volume just goes against the grain. Weight all the way!


Jan 04, 2012 ·  5:23 AM

Your cookies looks amazing and thanks for the super survival guide!

 · Me And My Sweets ·

Jan 04, 2012 ·  6:52 PM

@Me And My Sweets, you’re oh so welcome! Thanks for stopping by.


Jan 05, 2012 ·  4:56 PM

just found your blog, love the title and the cookies are sweet too!

 · tom@morethanpepper ·

Jan 06, 2012 ·  9:22 PM

Hi Tom, thanks so much for your kind words. I’m glad you stopped by, happy baking!


Jan 12, 2012 ·  5:47 PM

Your photos are so crisp! I can’t explain it.

 · greenbean · 

Jan 13, 2012 · 10:28 AM

@greenbean, that’s all thanks to Rosco Weber!! I’ll pass on the compliment!


Feb 02, 2012 · 11:52 PM

@stella – No love for the Rosco? I see how it is!

Can’t wait to come do more stuff together in a few weeks! Already salivating just thinking about it!

 · Rosco · 

Feb 03, 2012 · 10:20 AM

@Rosco, OMG, MY BAD!!!!! I leave all my comments from the admin side, without seeing the pictures and I’ve gotten into a habit of answering comments without paying attention to which post they match up with. OH NOES!!! I’m going to go edit that response right now!!!!


Feb 17, 2012 ·  6:22 PM

These look absolutely delicious!!!! I want them! Thanks for all the great tips.

 · Yummy ·

Feb 18, 2012 · 10:52 AM

@Yummy, you’re so welcome! Thanks for stopping by.


Apr 16, 2012 ·  6:10 PM

I’ve used almost all your tips as I prepare for my first baking gig. Thank you sooo much =)

 · CM ·

Apr 16, 2012 ·  6:14 PM

@CM, you are oh-so welcome! In pro-baking, the biggest hurdle is mental. Get organized in your head and the kitchen stuff will follow. Good luck baking, I hope everything goes smoothly for you!


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