I love baking Christmas cookies with my daughters. To find out how we can all make even yummier ones, I talked with a pro – Rose Levy Beranbaum, author of Rose's Christmas Cookies. (Yes, she is a Jewish Christmas cookie expert!) Excerpts:
What are the biggest mistakes most people make when they're baking Christmas cookies?
They make different size ones on the same tray so they bake in different amounts of time. They also leave them on the tray too long or they over bake. I like to use a cookie scoop or ice cream scoop so you know each cookie is the same size. Another thing is that no oven is even front to back. So if you're baking two trays, partly through the baking, reverse the trays from top to bottom and front to back.
Why do some recipes call for baking at 375 degrees and some at 325 degrees? How does higher heat for less time vs. lower heat for more time change the texture and taste of the cookie?
With bread, it makes a thicker crust when you bake it at a lower temperature. With cookies, if something is a thicker cookie, and you do it at too high a temperature, the outside will burn before the inside is cooked. If you have honey in a cookie, you need a low temperature because honey browns quickly. If you use unbleached flour, that browns faster.
Which should we use, bleached or unbleached flour?
I prefer bleached because it's more tender, and it works best for most of my cookies. I like to explain in my recipes why I choose certain things. The reason bleached is more tender is bleach destroys some of the protein. With a butter cookie, you might want a higher temperature to help it keep it's shape.
Butter is the secret to a good Christmas cookie?
Oh, yes! But there are other wonderful cookies, like meringues, that don't have butter.
So should we use real butter?
Yes! The flavor is different. Butter carries the flavor of other ingredients.
And margarine doesn't?
You get no taste and no enhancement. Crisco, of course, is a total disaster.
Is it best to roll out dough between sheets of floured waxed paper?
I don't like waxed paper because it tends to crinkle. You won't have a nice smooth cookie. I use a mat, the Magic Dough mat. I can put that on the counter [with the dough on top of it]. And I use plastic wrap, with a tiny bit of flour under it.
What's the secret to making an edible gingerbread house and not resorting to glue?
I have the Notre Dame Cathedral in my cookie book! The secret is royal icing. It's edible because it's made just with egg white and powdered sugar.
I like using flat cookie trays without sides because I think it keeps my cookies from getting burned on the edges. Am I right?
Flat trays keep cookies crisp and even. If people don't have them, I say turn them over [trays with sides]. Sides reflect the heat down and cause the cookies on the outside to burn.
What about lining the trays with parchment paper?
It's excellent. Some cookies don't need it. They won't stick because they have so much butter in them. Parchment helps if you're doing many batches, and you only have one cookie sheet. You can just slide off the parchment.
What's the secret to putting together a great cookie tin to give as a gift? Should you try for different colors and textures?
If you mix textures, the crisp cookies will become soggy. If it's a moist, chewy cookie, have all that kind of cookie.
Is it OK to freeze dough?
I love that. Cookie dough is so forgiving.
Can I add extra vanilla extract to try to make my cookies more flavorful?
It depends on the type of vanilla you use. If you're to add more of the vanilla extract with alcohol in it, it can become bitter. A vanilla bean is more intense. I store a vanilla bean in my vanilla to make it more intense.
Is that why some recipes call for vanilla beans?
Yes. The bean has the most flavor. In small amounts you wouldn't notice the bitterness with vanilla extract, but if you start increasing it, you run into trouble.
Some recipes call for room temperature ingredients, such as butter and eggs, and some don't. Why?
I like to have the butter cool because I get a more flaky consistency like in a piecrust. If it's too cold, and you're mixing dough, it won't blend easily. With a streusel or crumb topping, I discovered that if you melt the butter, you get a much crunchier topping.
What's your favorite Christmas cookie to bake – and to eat?
It's the rugelach. You have to roll them like croissants into little pinwheels. They're not nearly as hard as I thought when you add more flour. It's walnuts and cinnamon and raisins. It's every texture you want. It has the zing of the raisins and the cushy softness of the cream cheese. I cannot control myself if they're in the house. It's the perfect pastry and cookie.
What's the best way to ship cookies?
You have to use packing material that's going to keep the cookies from breaking. Use edible popcorn! There has to be at least six inches on all sides of the box between what you put it in and the sides of the box. If you don't want to make the popcorn, use clumps of poofed up newspaper and dress it up with tinsel. Of course, if you're going to ship cookies, choose ones that have a long shelf life — ones with dried fruit and ones with ginger. Ginger is a natural preservative. A lot of people keep butter without refrigerating it in Europe, it will keep at room temperature. Egg will shorten the shelf life.
What's a good way to decorate cookies?
With egg yolk and food coloring, when you bake it, it gets brighter and glossy. It's really gorgeous.
What about eating raw cookie dough?
Rose: For the very young, the very old, and the immune impaired, it's dangerous. Actually salmonella will make anyone sick, so it's important for everyone to use pasteurized eggs. But you can buy pasteurized eggs.
Any final baking tips (before I head to the kitchen!)?
Rose: At Christmas time, you can use your entire outdoors as your refrigerator, as long as the bears don't get it! And work in the living room or dining room, but not in the hot kitchen.
For more about holiday entertaining and your family, read: