From traditional butter cookies in Christmas-themed tins to Jewish rugelach to trendy peppermint bars, the holiday season is filled with cookies.
Almost synonymous with the season are cookiebakes, in which generations of family spend a December day together creating crusty confections. Then there are first-year moms aiming to shine in their new cookieswap.
To aid all such endeavors, we've compiled some of our favorite tips gleaned over the years.
•If you're using recipes from multiple sources, photocopy them first to avoid piling books, magazines and newspapers onto crowded counters. (Be sure to label the copies.)
•Take an inventory of equipment and ingredients. Sniff spices to make sure they're fresh.
•Overestimate your need for staples such as flour, sugar, butter and eggs/egg replacer. You never know when you'll be inspired to double a particular batch.
•If ingredients such as butter or cream cheese need to be softened, take them out of the refrigerator late the night before. Eggs should stay in the fridge until an hour or two before they are used.
•For marathon baking sessions, get an early start. Baking in the early hours means you won't be distracted by phone calls and tweets. Also, make or plan lunch in advance to keep from picking at nuts and chocolate throughout the day.
•To maximize the number of cookies you can make in the shortest amount of time, freeze the dough in advance.
•In a cookie swap, each participant should plan on bringing six dozen, plus six to 12 for sharing.
•To get the most out of citrus zest, mince or grate it and then mix it into the amount of sugar called for in the recipe. That way, the citrus oils will be dispersed and evenly released.
•Toast coconut (spread on a baking sheet) before you add it to recipes that call for coconut; this will add a subtle crunch.
•Liquid food coloring can affect a cookie's flavor; Americolor brand food coloring gel (Amazon.com and some crafts stores) is flavorless.
•Blanched almonds are the traditional nut used to produce French-style macarons; that nut has the right quantity of oil and moisture.
•Adding a bit of orange extract to a royal icing mixture will help cut the sweetness.
•Colored icing should sit covered, for 10 minutes to develop its color, which will intensify. If you used too much color and your icing is too dark, add white icing, not water.
•Instead of using the flood-and-fill method for royal icing, use a brush to paint it on; the icing should be the consistency of white glue.
•Use long, angled tweezers for neatly placing dragees and sprinkles on cookies with icing.
•Use food-safe gloves when working color into cookie dough.
•For cutout cookies, roll the dough between two pieces of wax paper. Peel off the top layer of paper, use the cutter to make designs in the dough, then put the top layer of paper back on. Slide onto a baking sheet and freeze for 15 minutes. The cutouts will be easier to dislodge and transfer for baking.
•To slice thin, even cookies from logs of dough, chill the log until it's quite firm. Use a serrated knife for cutting.
•When rolling small pieces of a soft, chilled dough, incorporate the scraps right into the next piece of dough rather than re-rolling all of them at the end, or they might get too soft to roll easily.
•Dip cookie cutters with intricate corners or designs into flour before creating each cutout cookie, tapping off any excess flour. This will help keep dough from sticking.
•Know your oven: Find out whether it heats from the top or the bottom. To guard against burning cookies that are baked on the lower or even middle rack, place a similar-size empty baking sheet on the bottom rack to absorb some of the heat.
•Preheat a gas-powered oven to 25 degrees hotter than the temperature required in a recipe. When the sheet of cookies goes in, reduce heat to the proper temperature. The oven temperature usually drops when you put something into the oven, causing the flame to ignite. Starting at a slightly higher temperature will allow for a drop without further ignition.
•Place larger or thicker cookies on the perimeter of the baking sheet and smaller or thinner ones on the interior. This will help ensure they all get done at the same time.
•Letting unbaked macaroons sit uncovered on a baking sheet at room temperature for about 30 minutes will produce the characteristic smooth, shiny and crisp tops once the cookies are baked.
•When baking chewy cookies, pull them out of the oven 1 minute before you think they are done. Overbaking will ruin their texture.
•The best way to keep cookies fresh (and keep flavors separate) is to wrap them in wax paper, then store in airtight plastic containers or tins.
•Pack crisp cookies separate from soft, chewy ones to help preserve their textures.
•Store or ship baked and decorated cookies with a small packet of food-safe silica gel to retard moisture. You can buy them online or reuse those found in packaged food products. To restore gel packets for reuse, bake at 170 degrees for 15 minutes.
•Ensure your clean cookie cutters are dry before putting them away till next year. Place them in a 180-degree oven for about 3 minutes.
A cellophane cookie wreath is an easy, inexpensive way to package treats for neighbors. Space the cookies evenly from top to bottom on the cellophane and tie ribbons at intervals to create the compartments. Close and tie the ends to form a wreath.
•11 tablespoons (5 1/2 ounces) unsalted butter, at room temperature
•2/3 cup sugar
•1/4 teaspoon salt
•1 teaspoon vanilla extract
•1 large egg yolk
•2 cups flour
•Heavy whipping cream, as needed
•Sliced almonds, preferably unblanched
•Chow mein noodles or pieces of fiber cereal
•Chocolate mini-chips or currants
Position a rack in the middle of the oven and preheat to 350 degrees. Line two baking sheets with parchment paper.
Beat the butter and sugar in the bowl of a stand mixer fitted with the paddle attachment, or with a hand-held electric mixer, at medium speed. Once it is light and fluffy, after 3 to 4 minutes, beat in the salt and vanilla extract. Reduce the speed to low and beat in the egg yolk. Add the flour 1/2 cup at a time, stirring by hand or using the lowest speed of the mixer, until fully combined. The dough should be slightly dry, but not so dry it falls apart. If your dough is too dry to easily mold, add cream 1 tablespoon at a time until dough is malleable.
Scoop up tablespoonfuls of dough and shape them into little ovals with a pointy end. Arrange them about 2 inches apart on the prepared baking sheets. Insert the almond slices for ears and a chow mein noodle or piece of cereal for a tail. Use chocolate mini-chips or currants to make the eyes.
Bake one sheet at a time for 15 to 20 minutes, or until slightly browned. Transfer to a wire rack to cool completely.
Yield: 36 cookies