- The Washington Times - Tuesday, November 30, 2004

Cookies may be everyday food, but at this time of year they are stars. Holiday cookies are an essential part of many celebrations, and most families have favorite recipes they prepare each year. My hope is that the cookies in this story will be added to your annual collection. They are easy to make and keep well, so you won’t have to bake at the last minute to serve excellent cookies.

Glance through the following hints and questions I have received from readers through the years. The answers just might help you achieve the best cookies ever, during the holidays and otherwise.

COOKIE HINTS

Measure accurately. Use dry-measure cups for flour and other dry ingredients. For flour, cocoa or confectioners’ sugar, spoon it into the cup, rather than using the cup to scoop it up. You’ll wind up with too much if you scoop.

Mix carefully but not too much. Delicate doughs and batters can’t tolerate having an excessive amount of air incorporated into them. This will cause them to distort or fall during baking.

Don’t try to make too many recipes at the same time. This only leads to confusion and ruined cookies. Do plan on baking with a friend or family member. Repetitive work such as cookie baking goes more quickly when two persons are doing it.

Bake carefully. If you are baking more than one pan of cookies at a time, change the cookie-sheet position. About halfway through the baking process, raise the upper pan up a rack and place the lower pan above it. At the same time, turn the pans back to front. This will help distribute the heat more evenly and make for more consistently baked cookies.

Cool thoroughly. Cool the cookies on the pan or on a rack as the recipe indicates. Packing up warm cookies will make them soggy and unappealing.

Keep cookies prepared in advance in a tin or plastic container with a tight-fitting cover. Layer the cookies between sheets of waxed paper or parchment to keep them from sticking together.

Above all, enjoy the process as much as the cookies themselves. Holiday baking is meant to be a pleasure, not drudgery.

ANSWERED QUESTIONS

Q: I like to bake cookies for the holidays, but don’t like to do it at the last minute. Are there any cookies that freeze better than others?

A: Bar cookies freeze well because of their moist, cakelike texture. Wrap and freeze the whole slab of baked bar cookies and cut when you intend to serve them. Moist-textured drop cookies also freeze well. Pack them for the freezer in a tin or plastic container with a tight-fitting cover between sheets of waxed paper.

Q: What are the best baking sheets for cookies? Do I need to buy the insulated ones?

A: I usually use commercial aluminum half-sheet pans (about 12 by 18 inches), available in restaurant supply and some kitchenware stores. They are heavy enough to provide adequate insulation. But if you find that cookies burn on the bottom when they are in the lower third of your oven, stack 2 pans together for extra insulation. This is much more practical than buying insulated sheets.

Q: I baked chocolate chip cookies recently, and they puffed well in the oven, then flattened out at the end of the baking time. What was the problem?

A: Two things are possible: You either used too much baking soda in the recipe or overbeat the dough. Each of these would make the cookies puff a lot during baking. The dough would not be able to sustain such a high puff and would then fall afterward, making the cookies flat and maybe hard.

Q: A friend gave me a recipe for fried bow-tie cookies. Hers are great, but when I make them, they are greasy. Am I doing something wrong?

A: The frying fat is probably at too low a temperature. Invest in a deep-fry thermometer that looks like a ruler, and fry the cookies at between 350 and 375 degrees.

Q: Last week, I made some cookies baked with a whole almond in the center. After the cookies were baked, most of the almonds fell off. How can I prevent this?

A: Dip the bottom of each almond in some lightly beaten egg white before pressing it on the cookie. The egg white is very good glue and will keep the almond in place.

Q: I have a recipe for shortbread that calls for rice flour. What is this and where can I get it?

A: Rice flour is sometimes added to shortbread dough to lower the protein content of the flour and make the dough less elastic and the cookies more fragile. You can substitute cornstarch for rice flour. Or, if you have access to an Asian grocery store, you may be able to find rice flour there.

Q: When I sandwich cookies with jam, they become soggy a short time later. Is there a way to prevent this?

A: Yes. Cook the jam briefly over low heat until it is slightly sticky and no longer watery. And don’t use too much. Half a teaspoon of jam is enough to sandwich most cookies, unless they are very large.

Q: What’s a good filling for sandwich cookies, other than preserves or jam?

A: Try using melted milk chocolate or semisweet chocolate (not chips) for sandwiching the cookies. This is especially good with nut-based cookies.

Q: My holiday spritz cookies were a failure. I tried piping them out with a pastry bag and tube and almost broke my arm. Did I do something wrong?

A: This type of cookie is meant to be extruded from a cookie press or gun, which is available in kitchenware stores. The dough is firm, so the cookies retain their decorative shape during baking.

Q: I have a great recipe for oatmeal lace cookies, but they always stick to the pan. Any suggestions?

A: Yes. Bake the cookies on sheets of buttered foil. A good choice is the new nonstick foil, but butter it anyway. It’s then easy to peel away the foil after the cookies have cooled and become firm.

Nothing equals a tray of homemade cookies, whether for holiday entertaining or just as special treats for the family. Plan ahead and you, too, can enjoy the pleasure of a holiday season enhanced by your own family specialties.

Currant squares

Few foods are homier or more comforting than these old-fashioned moist squares loaded with currants. Substitute dark or golden raisins, or a combination, if you wish.

Butter for greasing pan

1 cups currants

1 teaspoon baking soda

2 cups all-purpose flour

1 teaspoons baking powder

teaspoon freshly grated nutmeg

12 tablespoons (1 sticks) unsalted butter, softened

1 cup sugar

1 teaspoon vanilla

2 large eggs

Butter a 9-by-13-by-2-inch pan, and line it with buttered parchment or foil. Set aside.

Combine 2/3 cup water and the currants in a medium saucepan. Bring to a boil over medium heat. Remove from heat, stir in baking soda and allow to cool completely.

Place flour, baking powder and nutmeg in a bowl. Stir well to mix.

In the bowl of an electric mixer fitted with the paddle attachment, beat butter and sugar on medium speed until well-mixed, about a minute. Beat in the vanilla, then the eggs, one at a time, beating smooth after each addition. Remove bowl from mixer and, with a large rubber spatula, stir in currants and water. Then stir in the flour mixture. Scrape batter into prepared pan; smooth the top.

Bake on middle rack of preheated 350-degree oven for about 30 to 40 minutes, or until it is well-risen and well-colored and a toothpick inserted in the center emerges clean. Cool on a rack for 10 minutes, then remove the pan from the rack. Use the paper to transfer the cake from the pan to the rack to cool completely.

Place cake on a cutting board, and slide a long knife or spatula under it to loosen the paper or foil. Remove the paper or foil. Use a ruler to mark, then cut the cake into 2-inch squares.

Store the squares between sheets of parchment or waxed paper in a tin or plastic container with a tight-fitting cover for up to several days. Freeze for longer storage. Makes about 24 2-inch squares.

Two-tone peanut butter thins

This combination of plain dough and chocolate-peanut-butter dough improves on a good thing.

2 ounces bittersweet (not unsweetened) chocolate, cut into 1/4-inch pieces

2 cups all-purpose flour

teaspoon baking powder

teaspoon salt

8 tablespoons (1 stick) unsalted butter, softened

1 cup light brown sugar, firmly packed

2/3 cup creamy peanut butter

1 large egg

Cover 2 or 3 cookie sheets or jellyroll pans with parchment or foil. Set aside.

Put chocolate and 2 tablespoons water in a heatproof bowl. Bring a small pan of water to a boil, then turn off the heat and set it over the hot water. Stir occasionally until the chocolate has melted; remove pan from hot water bath and set aside to cool.

In a bowl, combine flour with baking powder and salt; stir well to mix.

In an electric mixer fitted with the paddle attachment, beat butter with brown sugar on medium speed until light, about 2 minutes. Add peanut butter and egg, beating smooth between each addition.

Remove bowl from mixer and stir in flour mixture with a large rubber spatula. Remove a little more than half the dough from the bowl; set it aside. Add the cooled chocolate mixture to the dough left in the bowl, and stir it in thoroughly.

On a floured piece of foil or waxed paper, pat each piece of dough into an 8-inch square. If the dough is extremely soft and sticky, slide the paper onto a cookie sheet and chill briefly.

Use a pastry brush to paint the square of chocolate dough with water. Top it with the square of plain dough. Starting at any edge, roll up the two kinds of dough as you would a jellyroll, keeping the roll straight and even. Roll the dough onto a piece of plastic wrap, wrap and chill.

When you are ready to bake the cookies, set racks in the upper and lower thirds of the oven and preheat to 350 degrees. Slice the roll about every 3/16 inch, and arrange each cookie on the prepared pans about 2 inches apart from the next one and from the edges of the pan. Bake for about 12 to 15 minutes, until the cookies are firm and slightly colored.

Cool on the pans on racks.

Keep the cookies between sheets of parchment or waxed paper in a tin or plastic container with a tight-fitting cover. Makes about 40 cookies.

Petit beurre cookies

This type of commercially made cookie was popular when I was a child. These, made at home, are even better. They’re perfect cookie-jar cookies because they stay fresh almost indefinitely.

3 cups all-purpose flour

cup cornstarch

1/4 teaspoon salt

teaspoon baking powder

teaspoon baking soda

12 tablespoons (1 sticks) unsalted butter, softened

1 cup sugar

3 large egg yolks

cup milk

Cover 2 cookie sheets or jellyroll pans with parchment or foil. Set aside.

In a bowl, combine flour, cornstarch, salt, baking powder and baking soda, and stir well to mix.

In bowl of an electric mixer fitted with the paddle attachment, beat together the butter and sugar on medium speed for about a minute. Add egg yolks, one at a time, beating smooth after each addition.

Stop mixer, and scrape bowl and beater. On lowest speed, add half the flour mixture. After the dry ingredients have been absorbed, beat in all the milk. Stop the mixer; and scrape the bowl and beater. Then, on lowest speed, add remaining flour mixture.

Scrape dough onto a piece of plastic wrap. Press dough into a rectangle about inch thick. Wrap dough; chill for several hours or up to 3 days.

When you are ready to bake the cookies, set racks in the upper and lower thirds of the oven and preheat to 325 degrees.

Place dough on a floured work surface, and lightly flour the dough. Press and pound the dough gently with a rolling pin to soften, then roll it out into a 12-inch square. Cut the square in half, then roll each half to make a 9-by-12-inch rectangle. With the tines of a fork, pierce the dough at half-inch intervals. Use a pizza wheel to cut each rectangle into 3-inch strips, then cut across the strips at 1-inch intervals to make 48 rectangular cookies. Use a narrow spatula to transfer the cookies to the prepared pans. Leave about an inch in all directions around each cookie.

Bake cookies in preheated 325-degree oven for about 15 to 20 minutes, or until they are light golden all over. Slide the papers or foil holding cookies onto cooling racks. Store the cooled cookies between sheets of parchment or waxed paper in a tin or plastic container with a tight-fitting cover. Makes about 48 cookies.

Lacy chocolate oatmeal-cookie sandwiches

8 tablespoons (1 stick) unsalted butter, melted

1 cup rolled oats (regular oatmeal) finely chopped, but not ground to a powder, in the food processor

1 cup sugar

teaspoon salt

1 large egg

2 teaspoons vanilla

6 ounces semisweet or bittersweet chocolate, melted and cooled, for sandwiching the cookies

Cover 3 or 4 cookie sheets or jellyroll pans with buttered foil.

Pour melted butter into a bowl. One at a time, stir in rolled oats, sugar, salt, egg and vanilla, stirring smooth after each addition. Use a -teaspoon measure to drop batter onto prepared pans. Space the cookies about 3 inches apart in all directions to allow room for them to spread.

Bake cookies in preheated 350-degree oven for about 8 to 10 minutes, or until they have spread and are brown around the edges and lighter brown toward the center. Slide the foil onto racks to cool the cookies.

When cookies are completely cool, peel them off the foil and arrange half of them bottom side up on a pan. Use a small offset spatula to spread about teaspoon of chocolate on each inverted cookie. Top with another cookie, bottom to bottom.

Store finished cookies between sheets of parchment or waxed paper in a tin or plastic container with a tight-fitting cover. Makes about 30 sandwich cookies.

Nick Malgieri is the author of “Perfect Cakes” (HarperCollins).

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