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updated: 12/6/2011 2:29 PM

Sweet butter secret to success for scrumptious holiday baking

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  • Annie Overboe's Peppermint Snowflakes

       Annie Overboe's Peppermint Snowflakes
    Paul Michna | Staff Photographer

  • Annie Overboe's Peppermint Snowflakes

       Annie Overboe's Peppermint Snowflakes
    Paul Michna | Staff Photographer

  • Annie Overboe's Peppermint Snowflakes

       Annie Overboe's Peppermint Snowflakes
    Paul Michna | Staff Photographer

 

With holiday festivities in full swing, we look forward to enjoying the homemade cookies that inspire our yuletide cheer every season. What's the secret behind those signature treats from your favorite baker's oven? It's none other than sweet butter.

This luscious ingredient infuses smooth texture and mild creamy taste into cookie doughs and melds seamlessly with diverse partners such as nuts and spices, without overpowering.

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Before you dust the flour off your heirloom recipes and grab the butter from the fridge, let me share some of the secrets of success for baking with butter that I have learned over the years.

Know the product: Look for solid butter sticks. Save for toast the light butters, margarines and spreads that contain water and/or whipped air to reduce fat and calories. Using these products in cookie doughs causes extreme spreading while baking and gives the finished product an undesirable taste and aroma.

Quality counts: For the best tasting cookies, use unsalted butter and save the salted varieties for table use. Salt acts like a preservative in butter, so unsalted butter is always a fresher choice. Also, choosing unsalted butter allows you complete control over the salt content in recipes.

Protect your investment: In blind taste tests, Land O'Lakes butter bests the competition. The secret weapon appears to be that special wrapping that protects butter from other pungent foods in your refrigerator. Real butter is pricey. Shop the sales and store butter double wrapped in plastic and sealed in clear bags. Ditto if you want to freeze it.

Handle with care: Butter is very temperature sensitive. Warm butter gently at room temperature, but do not use in cookie doughs if it is ultra pliable. Butter should feel soft and slightly firm. Mixing causes friction and extra heat to melt butter. Cookie dough made with very soft butter never achieves the correct texture to prevent over spreading in the oven.

Chill out: Butter cookie dough must be chilled thoroughly before rolling. Depending upon thickness of dough, refrigerator time should be at least 1 hour. If it chills for much longer than that, allow dough to warm slightly at room temperature before rolling. For clean cookie cuts, chill rolled cookie dough 10 minutes before cutting into shapes.

Cutout smarts: Minimize rerolling the dough. Too much handling means more flour and that means tough cookies. Cut cookies right up next to each other and press firmly. Use an offset spatula to lift dough around cutout. If dough feels soft, chill on cookie sheet 10 minutes before baking.

Bake like a pastry chef: Don't skimp by forgoing the parchment paper. This bakeshop staple earns its keep by preventing butter cookies from over browning and saving oodles of time panning dough and cooling finished goods.

Parchment paper is available on rolls in large stores or at GFS kitchen supply stores.

Today's recipe for Peppermint Snowflake Cookies showcases butter with a flavor and decorative assist from aromatic peppermint. I upgraded a basic shortbread recipe to a dough suitable for rolling and cutouts by reducing the sugar and boosting the vanilla extract.

Crushed candy canes tossed with white sanding sugar sprinkle on top of an easy powdered sugar frosting. Enjoy the season with these festive sparkling cookies.

• Annie Overboe, a Culinary Institute of America graduate, lives in Villa Park. Write her at food@dailyherald.com.

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