I’m hosting a Winter Solstice party this Saturday and I was out of ideas for dessert. Seriously, dessert is my game yet I had the hardest time deciding on what to make for a crowd. You see, with all the hosting distractions, I want dessert that requires zero attention from me the day of the party. I want something impressive, portioned, bite-size, made ahead of time, does not take up fridge space, and to be lingered over jolly conversations. While I was having breakfast last week, it dawned on me that I should prepare a dazzling assortment of holiday cookies. If I may say so myself, I’m an accomplished cookie baker. A platter of cookies is exactly what I want to serve.
It’s that time of year when everyone bakes cookies. Based on my experience with bake sales and holiday homemade gifts, there are a few tips that I would like to share. Over the next few days, I’ll also show you batches of cookies coming out of my kitchen as the full assortment takes shape.
Variety Is Exciting
To me, what makes holiday baking extra special is the dizzying choices. My eyes widen with excitement just taking in all the different kinds of cookies. I usually start with six recipes to showcase various flavours and textures. For example:
- chocolate: always a crowd pleaser
- molasses & spice: the smell alone means holiday to me
- butter: it’s hard to refuse buttery shortbread made with highest quality ingredients
- citrus: brings zesty lightness
- coconut: I love the tropical richness of anything made with coconut
- nuts: the base for many traditional European cookie recipes
Texture is often associated with how the cookie is made. I have strong preferences due to ease. You see, when I’m trying to tackle over a dozen recipes, I do not look forward to multi-day productions just for a precious couple dozens.
- chewy: chewiness is the mark of success for many drop cookie recipes. Classics such as chocolate chip cookies, molasses spice, peanut butter with their cross hatch marking, and oatmeal raisin are good examples. Quick release cookie scoops in one tablespoon and two tablespoons sizes ensure uniform portions.
- crumbly: many hand-shaped cookies yield a melt-in-your-mouth crumbly texture. That includes roll-and-cut cookies, slice-and-bake icebox cookies, and free-form dough which you shape by hand. The key to success is not to overwork the dough and handle the dough with delicate touch. I am not a big fan because of the extra work.
- cakey or fudgy: this is by far my favourite because bar cookies fit perfectly into this category. This can mean anything from brownie, to blondie, to gingerbread, to lemon squares, to kitchen-sink goodness of Hello Dolly. It is ridiculously easy to dump the batter into a pan and slice into pieces when baked! Truly a gift to the busy cook.
Spread Out The Work
When you’re attacking so many different recipes, it is good idea to divide the work between multiple days. Holidays can be a stressful time of year and I don’t need another daunting task on my already busy to-do list. The best thing about cookies is that each individual recipe does not take much effort to complete. It only gets crazy when you realize you have to do it a dozen times.
So how do I plan? Not all cookies are made equal and some stay fresh longer than others. Holiday standbys such as shortbread and gingerbread are great examples of good keepers. It comes as no surprise that they are popular choices for mailing cookies to far away places! Here is the rough order of my planning:
- 1 to 4 weeks in advance: make and freeze the dough for icebox cookies.
- 1 to 2 weeks in advance: make shortbread (and variations) and hard gingerbread (e.g. gingerbread cut outs, lebkuchen, pfeffernüsse).
- 1 week in advance: make biscotti and crispy meringue-based cookies.
- 5 days in advance: slice, bake, and decorate icebox cookies.
- 3 days in advance: make drop cookies and keep in airtight containers.
- 2 days in advance: anything moist, cakey, and fudgy including bar cookies, recipes with fruit & jam, perishable treats (cheesecake bars, lemon squares).
Make Them Small
When there are so many cookies to choose from, people only want a taste of each. Although I love the “more-ish” feeling of munching through an oatmeal cookie the size of my palm, this is not the time for that kind of indulgence. Think bite size. Imagine your guests dress in fancy clothes and elegantly savouring your cookies in two bites at most…while balancing a mug of mulled wine in the other hand. I come across many recipes that call for portioning cookies into two or even three tablespoon sizes. That’s way too much of a good thing. Stick with one tablespoon size or smaller. Your cookies will come out looking dainty and so much more appealing. After all, you want your guests to try as many different cookie as they can!
Double Batch Is Overrated
Unless I am serving a very big crowd, I rarely need to double up on any one recipe. Generally speaking, most cookie recipes yield between two to four dozens. With the smaller portions, I can get even bigger yield. Before you decide to make a double batch, do a bit of math. If you plan on twelve recipes, you already have 288 to 576 cookies! That is way more than enough to feed 40 guests.
Showcase Your Hard Work!
An assortment of cookies can look very striking if you present it well. Instead of piling every last cookies onto the table, I like to fill a couple of large platters with a bit of each variety. Mingling the different shapes and sizes and colours guarantees your guests will light up at the very sight.
I hope you find my holiday cookie baking tips useful. I am counting down the days to my party and following my own planning advice. The cookies you see in this post all comes from America’s Test Kitchen Christmas Cookies 2012 issue (on the newsstand now).
- Not-Spritz Cookie Pretzel: the dough was too stiff to pipe so I portioned into one tablespoon size and shaped into pretzel twist. Sprinkled with raw sugar. I splurged with European style 84% butter. Yum.
- Lebkuchen Bar: soft and just the right amount of spice. I love how the lemon icing sets perfectly smooth on top of each bite-size squares.
- Peppernuts (Pfeffernüsse): much softer than I expected and not as spicy. The coffee taste is quite prominent. Shaped into easy-to-eat small sizes.
- Classic Peanut Butter: a good recipe that incorporates roasted peanuts. I used fresh ones I bought from Picard in Niagara-on-the-Lake.
- Hazelnut Chocolate Chip: a chocolate chip cookie that tastes like Nutella without a lick of the chocolate hazelnut spread. Woah! Using ground hazelnuts, chopped hazelnuts, and hazelnut extract in this cookie delivers huge flavour.