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updated: 12/3/2012 2:26 PM

Baking secrets: Crafting your culinary legacy

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  • A touch of thyme adds unexpected richness to Annie Overboe's holiday cookies.

       A touch of thyme adds unexpected richness to Annie Overboe's holiday cookies.
    Bev Horne | Staff Photographer

 

For me, the holiday season centers on baking and gifting my signature cookies to family and friends.

I have been fortunate to learn the baking craft from my grandmother, a few old-fashioned cooks with Southern roots and those exacting European pastry chefs at the Culinary Institute of America in Hyde Park, New York. Today I share with you what I learned from these mentors about crafting a cookie that can become your culinary legacy.

The three-cookie rule: Don't dilute your culinary energy. Choose two different recipes you feel passionate about baking, then invest time and resources in developing these cookies to fit your holiday traditions. Leave room for one new cookie each season that boasts interesting concepts or flavor combinations (like my accompanying Holiday Thyme Cookies). You keep your skills sharp and family keeps the favorites.

Ingredients matter: Elevating a cookie to signature status begins with understanding the power of high quality ingredients. In cookies, unsalted butter plays a dominant role, bringing authentic flavor and melt-in-your-mouth texture to recipes. Shortenings or margarine offer cost savings but fall short on flavor or leave distracting aftertastes.

Enhance flavor: Toast nuts just until fragrant before chopping. Swap dark brown sugar for the light variety to tap into the powerhouse taste of molasses. Real vanilla extract imparts unique aromas and tastes to cookies. In cupcakes this is pricey; for signature cookies, this is priceless. Handle dough with care. Butter must be soft, but slightly firm to the touch, to blend correctly with other ingredients. Scrape mixing bowl often and well. To achieve consistent results, weigh flour and sugar or always use the same measuring method. Chill dough overnight to allow ingredients to meld and develop richer flavor.

Embrace the nuances: What do all great bakers know about recipes? That recipes are simply guidelines and that the same recipe rarely turns out the same way for different bakers. Your unique way of mixing the ingredients and shaping the dough becomes part of your signature style.

Know your oven: Test temperature accuracy with an oven thermometer; it's a great piece of baking insurance. Always use parchment paper and rotate cookie pans while baking for even browning. And if you have a convection oven, don't forget to adjust time, as cookies bake faster.

Invest in professional tools: My years in culinary school taught me the value of good equipment. Heavy duty mixers take a beating season after season. Shop Schweppe in Lombard or GFS Marketplace (multiple locations) for items like half-sheet baking pans, small plastic hand scrapers, offset spatulas, medium and small cookie scoops and large grate cooling racks.

Try this recipe: Today I'm debuting my 2012 cookie: Holiday Thyme Cookies. Adding a touch of savory to dessert seems all the rage now and thyme, a member of the mint family, lends a mellow essence to these butter cookies. Fresh lemon zest and juice perk up the butter flavor and tenderizes the cookie's texture. Hold the frosting and decorate with a touch of sanding sugar to let the cookie flavors shine.

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

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