'Tis the season for festive holiday cookies! Before you step into the kitchen and dust off those heirloom recipes, let me offer my baker's dozen of culinary secrets to crafting a signature cookie:
1. The 3-cookie rule. Don't dilute your kitchen energy. First, choose two different recipes you feel passionate about baking. Invest time and resources into developing these cookies to fit your holiday traditions. Leave room for a new cookie each season, exploring interesting concepts or flavor combinations. You keep the skills sharp and the family keeps their favorites.
2. Quality ingredients matter. Elevating a cookie recipe to signature status begins with understanding the power of quality ingredients. In cookies, unsalted butter plays a dominant role in bringing authentic flavor along with melt-in-your mouth texture. Shortenings and margarines offer cost savings but fall short on flavor. (Not to mention, distracting aftertastes.)
3. Enhance flavor. Toast nuts just until fragrant before chopping. Swap dark brown sugar for the lighter variety to tap the powerhouse taste of molasses. Real vanilla extract imparts unique aromas and flavor to cookies. For signature recipes, this ingredient is priceless. Try your hand at making homemade vanilla extract, as it's remarkably easy to do!
4. Be a mix master. The right small tools make the job easier. Rounded dough scrapers, available online or kitchen supply stores, act like an extension of your hand when mixing and scraping bowls -- without all the mess. Deep bowls prevent splatter when using a hand mixer. Scoops or dishers portion dough evenly and quickly.
5. Details make the difference. What do all great bakers know about recipes? That they are simply ideas that don't often behave the same way for different bakers. The nuances on how you mix and shape dough bake into a unique cookie that becomes your signature style. Embrace the culinary possibilities …
6. Know your oven. Want inexpensive baking assurance? Test temperature accuracy with an oven thermometer by moving it around the racks. This indicates hot spots in your oven. Convection ovens bake cookies fast and furious. Always rotate sheet pans while baking for even browning.
7. Invest in professional tools. My stint at culinary school taught me the value of good equipment. Heavy-duty hand mixers take a beating, season after season. Shop at GFS Marketplace or online for the following items: half-sheet baking pans (shiny), small plastic hand scrapers, offset spatulas, medium and small cookie scoops and large cooling racks.
9. Protect your investment. Start fresh by replacing last year's baking soda, powder and yeast. These leavenings cost much less than pricey chocolate and butter. How old are those spices? Purchase small quantities or share with a fellow baker. Use good quality plastic wrap and freezer bags to protect flavors and textures.
10. Respect the food science. Butter is temperature sensitive and microwaves soften unevenly. To quickly soften cold butter, cut hard sticks into very small pieces and warm for 10 minutes at room temperature. Butter should feel soft and slightly firm to the touch. Cookie dough made with ultrasoft butter seldom achieves the best texture for rolling and shaping.
11. Chill out. Butter cookie dough must be thoroughly chilled before rolling. Depending upon thickness of your dough ball, refrigerator time should be at least 1 hour. If longer, allow dough to warm slightly at room temperature. For clean cookie cuts, chill rolled dough 10 minutes before using cutters.
12. Cutout smarts. Minimize rerolling dough by cutting cookie shapes right up next to each other and press firmly. Use an offset spatula to lift dough around cutouts. If dough feels soft, chill on cookie sheet 10 minutes before baking.
13. Bake like a pastry chef. Don't skimp by forgoing the parchment paper. This bakeshop staple earns its keep by preventing butter cookies from overbrowning and saves time preparing for the next pan. Parchment paper also doubles as a counter protector and cookie storage liner.
To achieve consistent results, season after season: weigh flour and sugars, or always use the same measuring method.
Today I offer my new cookie for this year: Pistachio Crescents. It boasts a "pop" of holiday color for the dessert table and gives a snack nut the chance at signature cookie status. Happy baking and always remember that nothing creates a more lasting culinary tradition like a homemade holiday cookie.