Three short weeks ago, I scoffed at what seemed a hyper-consumerist lament that Thanksgiving’s late date shortened the shopping time until Christmas.
Now, like so many people, I imagine, I’m exclaiming that the holiday really sneaked up on me. I know I must have company in this regard because we’ve received just a handful of Christmas cards compared with previous years. I count it a small miracle that I got mine out at all.
Baking seems even more unlikely. I’ve blogged in previous years about my misspent efforts and can’t imagine any improvement this late in the game. It pains me to admit that the best cookies I could muster would constitute a custom array of dried fruits and nuts to prepared cookie dough. See a story about that shortcut on our Holiday 101 page.
For everyone still trying to crank out real, homemade cookies amid all this flurry, here is a time-tested recipe and some tips courtesy of McClatchy News Service, that I would be seriously studying if I only had the time. Read more stories about holiday baking on Holiday 101.
How you measure makes a difference. For dry ingredients, use dry-cup measures — the flat rim lets you level them easier. Glass or plastic liquid measuring cups are difficult to fill accurately with dry ingredients. To measure flour and sugar, spoon them into the cup until they’re above the rim, then level off with the flat edge of a knife.
Be careful about adding fresh dough to a still-hot cookie sheet — it can melt and spread. The easiest way: Line the cookie sheet with parchment paper, then slide it off to a cooling rack and rinse the sheet with cold water. You can portion out the next batch of dough on parchment paper too, so it’s ready to slide onto the cooled sheet.
“Room temperature” butter should be soft, but not too soft or it won’t hold air when you beat it. Let it stand until you can just press a fingertip into it and leave a mark. To hurry it, cut the butter into 1-tablespoon slices. Don’t soften butter in the microwave. The center may melt before the outside softens.
“Creaming” means to beat fat (usually butter) with sugar. Beat it long enough to make it light-colored and fluffy, which can take several minutes.
Cooling matters: If you remove cookies from a baking sheet too soon, they’ll break or bend. If you don’t have a cooling rack, pull out the second rack of your oven or the rack from inside the toaster oven. (Cover the rack with paper towels if it’s stained.) Always cool cookies completely before decorating or storing them.
Roll-Out Sugar Cookies
1 cup (2 sticks) unsalted butter
1 cup sugar
¾ teaspoon salt
1 ½ teaspoons baking powder
2 teaspoons vanilla extract
½ teaspoon almond extract (optional)
1 large egg
¼ cup heavy cream or sour cream
3 cups unbleached all-purpose flour
3 tablespoons cornstarch
In a bowl with an electric mixer, beat the butter, sugar, salt, baking powder, vanilla and almond extract, of using, until light and fluffy. Beat in the egg. Add half each of the cream and flour, along with the cornstarch; beat well. Add remaining cream and flour, mixing just until incorporated.
Divide dough in half. Flatten into rounds and wrap well. Refrigerate at least 1 hour and up to several days.
Preheat oven to 350 F. Lightly grease 2 baking sheets or line with parchment.
Transfer 1 section of chilled dough to a lightly floured surface. Lightly flour a rolling pin and roll out dough to 1/8 to ¼ inch thick. Using cookie cutters dipped in flour, cut out shapes and transfer to prepared baking sheets.
Bake in preheated oven for 10 to 12 minutes, until cookies are set but not browned. Remove from oven and cool for 5 minutes before removing from baking sheets. Cool completely before decorating.
Makes about 4 dozen cookies, depending on cutter sizes.
SIMPLE COOKIE GLAZE: Whisk together2 ¼ cups powdered sugar, 2 tablespoons light corn syrup and 1 ½ tablespoons milk or cream. Spread a little on 1 cookie. If it doesn’t smooth out after a minute, dribble in a little extra milk. Divide into small bowls and stir in food coloring if desired.
— Recipe from “The King Arthur Flour Cookie Companion” (Countryman Press, 2004).