Five years ago, right after I turned 25, I had spent enough Decembers away from home to realize that if I wanted things to “feel” like Christmas that I would need to cultivate them myself. Growing up I didn’t grasp how far a little Christmas music and a few decorations went in creating the cozy atmosphere and fun anticipation of the season.
So that year, to help create a little Christmas, I decided to bake a few batches of cookies to give out to friends and co-workers. Since then it has become somewhat of a tradition. I just finished baking and distributing cookies this past weekend so here now, for your enjoyment, are 10 Things that I have learned – either this year or from over the years of baking boat-loads of Christmas cookies.
1. Try new things. As daunting a task as it is to try new cookie recipes when efficiency and time are of the essence, trying new cookies is one of my favorite parts of the annual cookie bake. I’ve never made the same set of cookies two years in a row. This year I selected a few old favorites (see #2) and a few new cookies. Here are links to the recipes:
2. Have a few rock stars. As fun as it is to try new things, it is really important to include a few low-maintenance recipes – cookies that you have baked before and know will turn out and be a crowd-pleaser (See: Pretzel Chocolate Chip Cookies with Sea Salt). Included in this category may also be a “plan b” cookie. If one of your recipes turns out to be a complete and utter mess/failure (like my Red Velvet Fudge did) you can pull out the plan b cookie to save the day (See: Peanut Butter Blossoms with Chocolate Stars).
3. Double, triple, quadruple check your cornstarch measurements if you are baking with cornstarch. It is the most important ingredient in preventing this from happening. Yes, I had to re-make the Almond Sugar Cookies. Ugh.
4. You can’t please everyone. Not everyone will like everything you put in your cookies. Make the cookies anyway. And let people manage their own tastes. Bake with mint and nuts and weird things like sage and sea salt. It will make your cookies interesting at the very least.
5. Stir preserves before adding them to thumbprint cookies. No one told me to do this. Good thing I was making two batches of these.
6. Don’t feel like you should make only “Christmas” cookies. Even if your cookies aren’t shaped like Christmas trees or angels people will still think of your cookies as “Christmas cookies.” Its all in the presentation so don’t be afraid to pull out some non-traditional cookies along with the classics. Just wrap them up in a decorative cellophane bag or put them on a holiday plate and you are golden.
7. Mix up your flavors. We all know the holidays provide plenty of sugary things. It can be refreshing to find something that breaks through that sweetness. This year I did that with a “savory” cookie – the Blackberry Sage Thumbprints. The sage and blackberry were great together without being too sweet and the dough, which included yellow cornmeal, provided a good, not-too-sweet base. The sea salt and pretzels in the Pretzel Chocolate Chip Cookie also helped.
8. Don’t poke your brownies too much. When you are trying to see if your brownies have set, jiggle the pan. If the batter moves the brownies are not set and it should stay in the oven. Only after the batter doesn’t move anymore when you jiggle it should you try the toothpick test. Otherwise they’ll slope in the middle.
9. Plan ahead. If you’re going to try to bake 5 kinds of cookies in a day because you’re crazy like me, make sure to plan well ahead. I have three thing I do: 1) Read the WHOLE recipe ALL THE WAY THROUGH – there is nothing as painful as realizing you missed a key ingredient, or have the wrong pan, or that the dough needs to chill for 3 hours while you are baking; 2) Make a grocery list by adding up all ingredients from all cookies into one giant list, and 3) Sketch out a rough timeline. This might sound really Type A but if you have dough that needs to chill or rest or have multiple layers to work with, having a rough plan can really help.
10. Perfection is boring. Love all the little mistakes. Relish all the things you learn. And remember no one will see anything but delicious cookies made with love from you.
Happy baking and Merry Christmas to you, dear readers!