Cookie primer, from the pros


A cellophane cookie wreath is an easy, inexpensive way to package treats for neighbors. Every 21 / 2 feet of a regular-size roll can hold/create eight compartments of two or three cookies. (Julia Ewan/THE WASHINGTON POST)

Some pretty wonderful bakers have graced the pages of our annual Holiday Cookies issue over the years, and they’ve provided us with a folder full of tips. Here are some of our favorites:

ORGANIZING

If you’re using recipes from multiple sources, photocopy them first to avoid piling books, magazines and newspapers onto crowded counters. (Be sure to label the copies!)

Take an inventory of equipment and ingredients — and that includes opening containers. Sniff spices to make sure they’re fresh.

Overestimate your need for staples such as flour, sugar, butter and eggs/egg replacer. You never know when you’ll be inspired to double a particular batch.

If recipes require ingredients such as butter or cream cheese that need to be softened, it’s safe to take them out of the refrigerator late the night before. Eggs should stay in the fridge until an hour or two before they are used.

For marathon baking sessions, get an early start. Baking in the early hours means you won’t be distracted by phone calls and tweets. Also, make or plan what you’ll have for lunch in advance; it will keep you from picking at nuts and chocolate throughout the day.

To maximize the number of cookies you can make in the shortest amount of time, freeze the doughs in advance.

If you’re hosting a cookie swap, each participant should plan on bringing six dozen, plus six to 12 cookies for snacking and sharing.

ASSEMBLING

For cutout cookies, roll the dough between two pieces of wax paper. Peel off the top layer of paper, use the cutter to make designs in the dough, then put the top layer of paper back on. Slide onto a baking sheet and freeze for 15 minutes. The cutouts will be easier to dislodge and transfer for baking.

To slice thin, even cookies from logs of dough, chill or freeze first until quite firm. Use a serrated knife for cutting.

When rolling small pieces of a soft, chilled dough, incorporate the scraps right into the next piece of dough rather than re-roll all of them at the end, when they might be too soft to roll easily.

Dip cookie cutters with intricate corners or designs into flour before creating each cutout cookie, tapping off any excess flour; this will help keep dough from sticking.

FLAVORING

To get the most out of citrus zest, mince or grate it and then mix it into the amount of sugar called for in the recipe. That way, the citrus oils will be dispersed and evenly released.

Toast coconut (spread on a baking sheet) before you add it to recipes that call for coconut; this will add a subtle crunch.

Liquid food coloring can affect a cookie’s flavor; Americolor brand food coloring gel (available through Amazon.com and some crafts stores) is flavorless.

Blanched almonds are the traditional nut used to produce French-style macarons; that nut has the right quantity of oil and moisture.

DECORATING

Adding a bit of orange extract to a royal icing mixture will help to cut the sweetness.

Colored icing should sit, covered, for 10 minutes to develop its color, which will intensify. If you add too much color and your icing is too dark, add white icing, not water.

Instead of using the flood-and-fill method for royal icing, use a brush to paint it on; the icing should be the consistency of white glue.

Use long, angled tweezers for neatly placing dragees and sprinkles on cookies with icing.

It’s best to use food-safe gloves when working color into cookie dough.

BAKING

Know your oven: Find out whether it heats from the top or the bottom. To guard against burning cookies that are baked on the lower or even middle rack, place a similarly sized empty baking sheet on the bottom rack (to absorb some of the heat).

Preheat a gas-powered oven at 25 degrees hotter than the temperature required in a recipe. When the sheet of cookies goes in, reduce the heat to the proper temperature. (The oven temperature usually drops when you put something into the oven, causing the flame to ignite. Starting at a slightly higher temperature will allow for a drop without further ignition.)

Place larger or thicker sugar cookies on the perimeter of the baking sheet and smaller or thinner ones on the interior. This will help ensure they’ll all get done at the same time. (This works for many kinds of cookies.)

Letting unbaked macarons sit uncovered on a baking sheet at room temperature for about 30 minutes will produce the characteristic smooth, shiny and crisp tops once the cookies are baked.

When baking chewy cookies, pull them out of the oven 1 minute before you think they are done. Overbaking will ruin their texture.

STORING

The best way to keep cookies fresh (and keep flavors separate) is to wrap one, or a few, in wax paper, then store in airtight plastic containers or tins.

Pack crisp cookies separate from soft, chewy ones to help preserve their textures.

Store or ship baked and decorated cookies with a small packet of food-safe silica gel, which will help retard moisture. The packets can be purchased online, or you can reuse the ones found in several packaged food products. (Do not use gel packets found in non-food packages.) The gel packs can be restored for reuse by placing them on a baking sheet and baking them in a 170-degree oven for 15 minutes.

To make sure your clean cookie cutters are completely dry before putting them away till next year, place them in a 180-degree oven for about 3 minutes.

Bonnie S. Benwick has the job most envied among cocktail-party conversations. If they only knew ... Cook with her each week at Dinner in Minutes: washingtonpost.com/recipes.
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