Our sous chef, Becky Herdering, has a lifelong love of holiday cookies. How does she make so many delicious varieties every year? Join us for her comprehensive guide to holiday baking–just in time for your Christmas cookie marathon! Thanks so much for all your baking expertise, Becky!
Cookies. Who doesn’t like them? They make a perfect gift this time of year for all of those people who you appreciate, but may not be inclined to buy a gift for. Coworkers, teachers, neighbors, a last minute visitor you didn’t expect but would like to have a gift for. And what hostess doesn’t love a guest who shows up with a festive plate of holiday cookies?
I love to bake cookies. Baking cookies always reminds me of home and holidays and good times with family. As the oldest of five children, I learned how to bake cookies when I was 7 or 8, because Mom just didn’t have the time. I was warned that I would get very sick if I ate any of the raw cookie dough… something that my sister and I proved to be untrue very quickly! (I think Mom just wanted to be sure that there were still plenty of cookies left to eat!) I learned to mix up a double batch from the start, which is a skill that has served me well… both in math class and in life. The only thing that keeps me from multiplying even bigger batches is the size of my mixer.
When we were young, I was the oatmeal raisin queen, and my sister was the master of the chocolate chips. As I’ve gotten older, I have branched out and tried dozens of different recipes and have read scores of cookbooks, magazines, and articles about cookies on line. I watch cooking shows, and I love to experiment. And I’ve learned a lot, from both my successes and my failures. The one thing I am asked over and over again is “how do you get it all done?” Again, I have learned by trial and error… and some success! So as I embark on another Christmas Cookie Marathon, I thought I’d share some tips with you.
The first thing to do is to make a plan. If you just pick out some recipes and start cooking, chances are you will be at it twice as long as you planned, and/or you will get frustrated and stop before you have enough. Here are the steps I follow.
- Ask yourself these questions:
- Who do I want to give the cookies to? How many cookies will be included in each package? Think of everyone that you want to gift cookies to. Do they have a family and/or kids that they will be sharing with? You may want to change the amount that you give some people based on this fact. If you are gifting co-workers, you may decide to give everyone the same amount regardless… this is fine! I always plan to bake more than I need… and I always seem to need every one!
- How much time do I have to spend on this project? Be very realistic when estimating this. It always seems to take longer than you expect, and there’s nothing worse than running out of time and feeling that your gifts are incomplete. If you don’t mind staying up half (or all) the night a few times, then be ambitious! If you’ve gotten past the age when you can bounce back after an all-nighter, then you might need to reign in your expectations. Something I often do if I’m limited on time is to include a handful of purchased colorfully wrapped Christmas candies on each plate. I will also sometimes include a couple of pieces of fruit to fill up the plate. Another trick that I’ve come up with is chocolate-covered pretzels. They are super-quick and easy to make, and inexpensive as well. You can even get red and green candy melts and drizzle festive colors over the chocolate for a little extra pizzazz!
- How many varieties will I include? This will depend on both your skill level and the time you have available for baking. The more varieties you include, the nicer your gift will look, but I’ve never had anyone turn their nose up at a tin full of nothing but chocolate chip cookies!
- What specific recipes do I want to make? Choose your varieties wisely. Sugar cookies rolled out and cut into festive shapes and iced with beautiful colors and special sprinkles are wonderful, but they take an incredible amount of time. Gingerbread cookies are also time consuming, although they can take much less time than sugar cookies to decorate. If you really want to include a rolled, cut and decorated cookie, maybe just include 3 or 4 pieces and make the rest of your selection simple drop cookies. You could also include some bar cookies to round out your selection… these are incredibly easy and often give a texture to your gift that you can’t get from regular cookies.
- Am I going with old favorites or trying something new? Remember that a new recipe will probably take longer than one you know like the back of your hand. I am certainly not discouraging you from trying new recipes… in fact, this could be the perfect time to try that new recipe you’ve been eyeing, and I almost always add a new variety every time I’m making a large amount of cookies. Sometimes it works out, and sometimes it doesn’t, but even with my considerable experience, there is always a learning curve before they consistently come out of the oven perfectly cooked. I can’t stress enough that you need to be realistic when estimating the time you have available for your cookie project.
- How much money do I have to spend on ingredients and packaging? Again, this is something to realistically evaluate. Do you have the budget for luxury name-brand chocolate chips, or do you stick with the store brand? When baking cookies for myself, I use the store brand of almost everything except for chocolate chips. I also make candy, and have found that there IS a difference in the baking chips… my fudge never turns out right when I use generic chips. This being said, we use the highest quality name-brand ingredients at RMC, and it DOES make a difference in cakes, biscuits, and many other recipes—we also try to use local eggs and high quality and/or organic butter in our company kitchen.
- Do I have everything I need on hand? Try to get everything you need before you start! Carefully look at your recipes ahead of time and write a thorough shopping list. The biggest waste of time I encounter when baking a huge quantity of cookies is running to the store for more flour or butter… this not only throws off your budget, but your time management as well. If you can, buy extra flour, sugars, and butter. Even if you don’t end up needing it, you’ll use it eventually—extra butter can be frozen to extend its shelf life.
- How am I packaging the cookies? This can get really expensive if you use boxes or tins and have a lot of people that you are gifting cookies to. I have found that a nice sturdy paper plate and plastic wrap works just fine and looks beautiful, especially with a pretty bow on top.
- Where am I going to stage, cook, package, and store the cookies? This makes a difference in your execution. Can you mix up a bunch of cookie dough in the weeks before your baking day(s) and keep it in your freezer? This is a great way to make things easier on yourself, especially if you have a separate deep-freezer with room in it. I don’t recommend freezing already baked cookies as the freezing makes them crumbly and often dry. Freezing the dough works much better. Mix up a double batch of dough each night for a week or two, and then you’re ready to go on baking day. I will say though that chocolate chips/pieces may look like they have a white film on them if you freeze the dough, but the taste is not affected. Ingredients like M&M’s will freeze fine, but the colors may run when defrosting, so it’s best to wait to mix up dough that uses these types of ingredients.
- How will I logistically manage my cookie project? How big is the oven? Can you fit a cookie sheet in it? I had an apartment sized stove for a while. Those years, I made candy instead of cookies. Do you have a huge double oven? Invite a friend to come help you bake and get it done twice as fast! I have found that even if you have the oven capacity to bake 12 sheets of cookies at once, you can only drop cookies and get them off the sheets when they are done so fast. I can keep 2 sheets going at once… 2 in the oven, and 2 getting staged and ready to go. Many more and I get behind and then I have an oven sitting empty, wasting time and power.
- Do any of the recipients have any food allergies or special diets? For example, if someone has a nut allergy, you want to be sure to bake all of the cookies without nuts before you cook any of the others to avoid cross-contamination of allergens. In this case, you will also need to store the nut-containing cookies away from the nut-free varieties, and make sure that you thoroughly clean your hands and any utensils and surfaces before handling the nut-free varieties. I have not personally tried it, but I know many people who use artificial sweeteners to bake for people with diabetes. There are also many gluten-free flours out there, and you can even find recipes for flourless (and usually gluten-free) baked goods. Just search on the internet… there are literally millions of free recipes right there at your fingertips. I always read the comments sections before I decide to try a recipe. This gives you a pretty good idea of how the recipe will turn out.
- OK, so now you are ready to go! How do you carry it out?
- I recommend having 3 separate areas set up. My current kitchen is quite small, but my dining room is huge. I use my kitchen to cook and mix the dough. I have 2 six-foot tables set up in my dining room. One is for my ingredients. I don’t have a lot of counter or cabinet space, and it’s harder to work efficiently when surrounded by clutter. If you are baking a large quantity of cookies, you probably don’t have enough room in your cabinets for all of the sugar, flour, and specialty ingredients, even if you have a large kitchen. I put all of my ingredients on this table, and then just gather what I need as I mix up each recipe. I include my butter and eggs on this table also, since your cookies will turn out better if these ingredients are at room temperature.
- The other table in my dining room is for staging (putting the dough on the cookie sheets), cooling, and packing. This gives me plenty of room to work, and also leaves my kitchen free for mixing up the next batch of dough.
- Now it’s time to bake! But how to get 10 double batches of cookies done in a day or two? Have a game plan and make sure that you are ready and comfortable! I need to have some good music playing (this time of year it’s Christmas music, of course), a good apron, and comfortable shoes! You will find the little things that make you a happy baker too. I usually start with a good cup of coffee, but have to be careful with that because it goes so well with cookies! A little tip… switch to something like grapefruit juice that tastes terrible after eating something sweet. This keeps me from eating too many cookies and gaining 10 pounds! Of course, wine can be a good choice, too 😉
So some quick tips for actually mixing and baking:
- I try to get something in the oven right away. Bar cookies are good for this, because then you have a half hour or so while they are cooking to get other things going.
- Look at your chosen recipes. Does any of the dough need to be refrigerated? You should mix up this dough next so that it can chill while you are making and baking other varieties. Transfer the dough to be chilled into a gallon sized ziplock bag and flatten. This helps the dough to chill faster, it takes up less room in your fridge, and it frees up the bowl.
- While your dough is chilling, make your chocolate chip and other drop cookies. Follow your recipes as written! Baking is a science. With a stew or casserole, you can omit or add ingredients at will and still end up with a great dish. Not so when baking. You can adjust some of your spices and add or leave out things like nuts and baking chips, but you can’t substitute baking soda for baking powder or use less flour because you’re out. Go to the store and get what you need!
- Make a mise en place. I just learned this term recently, but I have been practicing it ever since I became serious about cooking many years ago. What it means is to have all of your ingredients out and measured before you actually start mixing anything up. It actually DOES make a difference when you combine the dry ingredients before adding to the batter. This also helps you to not forget anything, and makes the mixing go a lot more quickly.
- Use room-temperature ingredients. Eggs incorporate into the batter better when they are not cold, and melted butter can ruin the texture of any baked good that calls for softened butter.
- Do not overmix! The butter and sugars should be well beaten (light and fluffy) for most recipes, but your cookies will turn out much more tender if you only mix the dry ingredients in until they are just barely incorporated.
Once the dough is ready, it’s time to bake! Make sure to preheat your oven for at least 20 minutes, and open it as little as possible to keep the temperature from dropping.
- Use a scoop to portion the cookies. These are available anywhere that sells kitchen gadgets and will make your life so much easier! It will also ensure that your cookies are all the same size, something that will make your package of cookies more attractive. Don’t crowd the dough on the cookie sheets. When they spread into each other, it ruins the look of the cookie. I also recommend making gift cookies small. This way you can fit more varieties on the tray.
- Use parchment paper on your cookie sheets. This eliminates the need for greasing your sheets and lets you skip washing them in between each batch. This is the one luxury I allow myself even when funds are tight.
- Don’t put raw batter onto hot cookie sheets. I put baking sheets out on my porch to cool in between batches.
- Leave plenty of room around your cookie sheets. It’s tempting to squeeze two sheets on one oven rack, but if you don’t have at least 2 inches around each side of the pan, your cookies will cook unevenly. The cookies on the bottom rack will burn on the bottom and be raw on the top, and the cookies on the top rack will do the opposite. If you use two racks in your oven, switch the sheets half-way through cooking. If you like crispy cookies, cook an extra minute or two. If you like your cookies chewy, try undercooking them a bit, but be sure that they are ‘set’ or cooked on the outside. If they are shiny, let them cook longer.
- Set yourself up a good flow. I recommend having 6 cookie sheets if you are working alone. This gives you 2 in the oven, 2 staged and ready to go, and 2 cooling. Cooling your sheets between batches makes a difference in the size and shape of a cookie—hot sheets will result in a more spread-out cookie. I put one set of cookies into the oven and set the timer. Then I take the pans that just came out of the oven and remove the cookies to cooling racks. I take that set of pans out to the porch and grab the ones that were out there cooling. I come in and rotate the pans in the oven and then scoop out two more pans of cookies and have them waiting for when the timer goes off and it starts again. If I’m lucky, I get a few minutes to sit down!
- Allow your cookies to cool completely before putting them away
- Make a few extras, both for yourself and for those last minute gifts
- Keep up with your dishes as you go. There’s nothing worse than facing a mountain of dishes at the end of a long day of baking.
- Invite a friend or two over to help. You can share the cost and the finished product, and the day will be much more fun!
Armed with these tips, your holiday baking should be easier and more enjoyable than ever… and people will be asking YOU… How on earth do you do it?
Merry Christmas from Chef Becky, and Happy Holidays from the entire RMC team!
Here’s a great bar cookie recipe to get you started!
Chewy Pecan Bars
2 c flour
½ c brown sugar
5.5 oz (weighed on a scale) melted butter
Prepare a cookie sheet that has sides, or use a large cake pan–this recipe is proportioned for a “half sheet pan”. Grease, lay a sheet of parchment paper in the bottom, and grease again. Mix together flour and brown sugar. Stir in melted butter to form a dry dough. Press into prepared pan–you will have to work the dough hard to be thin enough to cover the entire bottom of the pan. Bake at 350° for 10-15 minutes until set. Remove and allow to cool slightly.
3 c brown sugar
1 c flour
2 t baking powder
1 t vanilla
5 c shredded, sweetened coconut
4 c chopped pecans
Beat eggs until light. Add sugar gradually while beating, until thickened. Mix in flour, baking powder and vanilla. Stir in coconut and pecans. Spread filling evenly over baked crust and bake an additional 20 min until golden brown. Cool in the pan.
Cut and enjoy!