Free Range on Food: Holiday cookie recipes

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The Food Section
of the Washington Post
Wednesday, December 9, 2009; 2:00 PM

Free Range on Food is a forum for discussion of all things culinary. You can share your thoughts on the latest Washington Post Food section, get suggestions from fellow cooks and food lovers, or swap old-fashioned recipes the new-fashioned way. The Food section staff goes Free Range on Food every Wednesday.

A transcript of this week's chat follows.

Check out the 2009 Holiday Cookie Guide for recipes for 25 tasty treats!

Check out the archive of past discussions. Read the Food section blog All We Can Eat. Follow the Food section on Twitter at @WaPoFood.

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Joe Yonan: Greetings, all, and welcome to Free Range, the chat that today brings you much cookie goodness -- can't you smell them baking? -- along with ideas, tips, and other recipes galore. We have some special help today to handle all cookie (and other baking) questions: Tiffany MacIsaac, subject of Jane's profile today and source of some fab recipes. (If you haven't had her desserts at Birch and Barley yet -- well, all I have to say is run, don't walk!) We're also hoping to have cookbook author extraordinaire Nancy Baggett in the room, so we'll be very baker-heavy today.

We'll have four giveaway books for our favorite posts, so plenty of chances to impress us with your wise/witty/fun queries.

Now, let's get going -- we've got lots of questions to address.

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Madison, Wisconsin: Oh, boy! I'm so excited with so many new cookie choices today! We have a blizzard, and the state and local governments, as well as the UW-Madison, have shut down today, so other than shoveling 17 inches of snow, I'll bake whatever new cookies I can (no macadamia nuts in the house, so I'll hold off on those). Thanks for another great Holiday Cookies bonanza.

Bonnie Benwick: Sounds like excellent baking conditions. This is a good time of year to have extra pantry stuff on hand: a variety of nuts, candied fruit, Superfine sugar. I just grabbed some last night at the store.

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Southeastern, Ohio: I have heard that dough can be made ahead and then frozen before baking. What tips do you have for preparing cookie and bread doughs to freeze and then baking afterwards?

Tiffany MacIsaac: I am a huge fan of making a large batch of dough, freezing and baking when needed. It makes it so easy to have fresh baked cookies around the house. You can freeze the cookies in a few forms... Rolled, slice and bake logs, or rolled and cut out. My general rules are as follows. If I like my cookies a bit dry and crispy I would do slice and bake, (gingersnap, Peanut Butter, Graham Crackers.) If you like a chewy cookie that spreads a bit I would do rolled (chocolate chip, oatmeal, peanut butter.) The cookies with drier doughs, (mainly shortbreads) do well rolled and cut into shapes with parchment separating the cookies or slice and bake.)

Nancy Baggett: I second the motion. Just pack the dough airtight so it doesn't pick up any flavors/odors or dry out during storage.

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Cookie icing help, please!: Several years ago, you all printed a recipe for root beer cookies that have become a holiday staple in my house. Even though I love them and I always eat them anyway, the icing rarely comes out right for me. It's usually kind of runny and grainy-looking, instead of creamy and smooth. Any ideas on what I might be doing wrong? (The icing calls for creaming 2c. powdered sugar with 1/3c. butter, then adding a mixture of 1 tsp. root beer concentrate and 2 to 4 T. water.)

Bonnie Benwick: Try mixing the icing with an electric mixer, so that it gets very smooth. And I'm assuming you start with the minimum amount of water and work your way from there? And you're icing the cookies once they're completely cool (sorry, just had to check).

Nancy Baggett: If the icing is runny I'd suggest adding less butter (maybe 3 or 4 tablespoons). It can get runny when it is warm. Also, start with only 1 1/2 T water--then add more if the consistency is too stiff.

Joe Yonan: Here's that recipe, by the way: Root Beer Cookies.

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Falls Church, Va.: Could somebody please post the correct recipe for the flooded sugar cookies? The link in the cookie guide goes to the recipe for florentine bars instead. Thanks!

Bonnie Benwick: Sorry! This should work.

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Report from the field - Arlington:: I made the Cranberry Bundt Cake that was listed in last week's discussion and it was a big hit! It tastes more like gingerbread than a typical coffee cake. Yum! It will be a nice addition for Christmas morning! Thanks.

Joe Yonan: Great to hear! That recipe again, for those who missed, is here. We'll try to get it in our database for more to enjoy.

CRANBERRY CAKE (9-inch Bundt cake, 12 servings)

From "Have Your Cake and Eat It, Too" by Susan G. Purdy (Morrow, 1993). Don't wait for Thanksgiving to make this coffeecake. It's delicious.

Butter-flavor nonstick cooking oil spray and flour for the pan

2 cups sifted all-purpose flour

1 teaspoon baking soda

1 teaspoon cinnamon

1/2 teaspoon salt

1 cup fresh cranberries or frozen whole cranberries, picked over, rinsed and patted dry

1 cup granulated sugar

2 tablespoons canola or safflower oil

2 tablespoons unsalted butter, at room temperature

1 large egg

1/2 cup apple cider or apple juice

1/2 cup unsulfured molasses

Position a rack in the center of the oven and preheat oven to 350 degrees. Generously coat a 9-inch Bundt pan with cooking spray. Dust with flour and tap out excess flour. (Be sure to grease and flour the pan very thoroughly so the cranberries do not stick.)

Sift together the flour, baking soda, cinnamon and salt onto a sheet of wax paper or into a bowl. In another bowl, combine about 3 tablespoons of the flour mixture with the cranberries and toss well. Set aside.

In the large bowl of an electric mixer, beat together the sugar, oil and butter until well blended. Add the egg and beat well.

In a small saucepan, bring the cider or apple juice to a boil. Remove from the heat and add the molasses, stirring until it dissolves.

With the mixer on very low speed, alternately add the dry ingredients and the molasses mixture to the beaten sugar-egg mixture, beginning and ending with the dry ingredients. Stir in the cranberries. The batter will be quite thin.

Spoon the batter into the prepared pan. Bake in the preheated oven for 45 to 50 minutes or until the top is springy to the touch and a cake tester inserted in the center comes out clean. Cool the cake in the pan on a wire rack for 15 minutes, then invert onto another rack and let cool.

Per serving: 228 calories, 3 gm protein, 44 gm carbohydrates, 5 gm fat, 23 mg cholesterol, 2 gm saturated fat, 202 mg sodium

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Greenbelt, Md.: Cream cheese in the filling of a gob/whoopie pie? Apostacy! Also, you're messing with my childhood.

Half the pleasure of the gob is the fluffiness of the icing contrasting with the weight of the cookies. I cannot believe you're going to get that texture with cream cheese.

In conclusion, just because it's 2 cookies glued together with white frosting, it's not a whoopie pie.

Bonnie Benwick: I enjoy the laid-back attitudes of our chatters. Feel free to lob some marshmallow fluff in there, Greenbelt.

Nancy Baggett: I am picky about the filling, too. Should be a marshmallow base in MHO!

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Use for leftover buttermilk: The chat has had some inquiries about this recently. I found a recipe for buttermilk roast chicken on the internet a while ago.

Marinate a whole 3 1/2 - 4 lb. chicken for a day or so in:

2 C buttermilk; 2T coarsely chopped fresh rosemary (or 2 t dried); 2 cloves chopped garlic; 2T honey; 2 T olive oil; 1/2 T crushed peppercorns

Preheat the oven to 350. Place a v-rack in a roasting pan, and spray with non-stick spray. Remove chicken from buttermilk marinade and place on rack breast side down in the rack.

Roast the chicken for 20 minutes per pound, (do NOT baste,) until the juice runs clear when a thigh is pierced. Halfway through cooking, flip the chicken the breast side up. (Use pads of paper towels or silicon pot holders to turn the chicken.)

Roast until juices from thigh run clear when pierced with a small knife, covering loosely with foil toward the end if browning too quickly, approximately 1 hour. Let chicken stand 10 minutes before serving.

Delicious and easy. I usually serve with buttermilk biscuits and a green vegetable.

Joe Yonan: Yum.

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Alexandria, Va.: I have a recipe for chocolate almond balls (I've dubbed them Almond Joy balls).. it calls for paraffin wax in the dipping chocolate. I've never used paraffin wax, and have looked for it at Giant & H. Teeter. Any tips on either where to find it, or a better substitute? Is it common to use in dipping chocolate? Would love to hear any tips you have on melting chocolate for this and what to add.

Thanks in advance..

Nancy Baggett: The only place I have seen it in recent years is with canning supplies sold mostly in summer. I'd call a couple hardware sorts of places and see if they have it. If not, just do an on-line search....

It can be used to set up dipping choc but produces a waxy sort of texture. It's really better to learn how to quick temper. Again, directions should be available on line.

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Question for Tiffany: I was just reading Alice Medrich's advice about cookie sheets. She says she's very picky and doesn't like the insulated ones that have a layer of air between two layers of metal, or the dark nonstick ones. I happen to think the insulated ones keep the cookie bottoms from overbaking, but maybe my oven's off. What is your advice on the best sheets?

Tiffany MacIsaac: I am not a big fan of the darker, non-stick sheet trays simply because I find it difficult to see the color of the cookies when I open the oven to take a quick peek. My home oven does not have a light in it and the dark tray makes everything look darker than it is. I have never tried the ones that are insulated so I can't comment on that but I imagine it helps keep the bottom of the cookies from burning. I use an empty cookie tray placed on the rack below the cookies I am baking to help absorb some of the heat from the bottom of the oven (which is where my oven heats from) My cookies tend to get dark on the bottom before the top when baking at home. I think at the end of the day the thing that works best depends on your oven so play around with it and stick to what works for you!

Joe Yonan: I'm a big fan of the Doughmakers sheets.

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Arlington, Va: This morning, like every Wednesday, I got up before anyone else in my house, made myself a cup of coffee and started reading the FOOD section in peace. I got so excited when I saw cookies all over the page of the FOOD section. Just looking at the pictures I could taste each and everyone of them. I love WP Food section, love your recipe finder and love allwecaneat blog.

I got so excited that Tiffany MacIsaac spoke up about the difference between "easy to make cookies" and "great cookies." I enjoyed Jane Black's article about baking at Birch & Barley and Lois Baron's story about her quest for perfect shortbread. (hope she'll write again.) I was in heaven. Finally, quality and taste are considered more important than the abominable omnipresent "quick&easy" trend in cooking.

And then POOOF! My joy vanished. I started reading the recipes and realized that I won't be using any of them because you are not giving weights. You, professionals, know better than the rest of us home cooks that accurate weight, especially that of flour, is crucial for making perfect cookies. Electronic scales are widely available and affordable for a home cook.

PLEASE, consider giving weights in your recipes. There is certainly need for recipes for quickly prepared meals by non- cooks, but not all of the FOOD section readers are "beginners" in the kitchen. Please consider our interests and needs when making editorial decisions. Thank you and Happy Holidays. ( We are having Bonnie's Latkes tonight.)

Bonnie Benwick: Hag sameach, Arlington. You are going to love those latkes.

We've found that most cooks do not own kitchen scales, although the world would be a happy place if more people did. For now, we have to consider the general public, and to a lesser degree, space limitations in the world of modern newspapers where recipes should keep a low newsprint/footprint. I've just finished reviewing a cookbook that did list weights as well as cups, tablespoons, etc., and it made the ingredients harder to follow. Are you finding weights being given in lots of other publications?

In truth, none of these cookies today suffer greatly from the weight translation. Perhaps I wouldn't be able to say the same for cake recipes. I do have Tiffany MacIsaac's original recipes with weights; if you're interested in testing the difference, shoot me an e-mail (food@washpost.com) and I'll send them along.

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Danville, Pa.: My office celebrates different dessert days during the month. Last Friday was cookie day and next Tuesday is National Cupcake Day. Any cupcake recipes you'd recommend? I was thinking of trying Ina Garten's coconut cupcake recipe- has anybody tried that? Many thanks!

Joe Yonan: We have 11 cupcake recipes in our database, including great Coconut Cupcakes from Lisa Yockelson and scrumptious Chocolate Ganache Cupcakes from the Cupcake Wars-winning Georgetown Cupcake.

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Boulder, Colo.: I guess I could have worse problems but I'd love to bake all of these cookies yet I have nobody to eat them! My small office is too health conscious for cookies and I am not a member of any groups where I could take them. Yet I love to bake! Any thoughts on what I could do with the goodies? Would shelters accept them I wonder?

Joe Yonan: You sound like a good candidate for Drop In and Decorate, my friend (and food blogger) Lydia Walshin's great program whereby you get people together to bake and decorate cookies to take to charity. Lydia has all the advice, directions, etc., you need.

Other than that, how bout your neighbors?

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re: Madison, Wisconsin: I recently had two friends each tell me they craved baking cookies during a snowstorm. Apparently, both the action and the results. So, when there is a forecast of a big snow, they run to the store for milk, bread, TP, and cookie ingredients. Who knew?!

Bonnie Benwick: Sounds right to me. Baking weather. Stove warms the house, house smells great, shut-ins have things to dunk in hot cocoa.

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Hammonton, N.J.: Ever year, we make cookies w/Borden's None Such condensed mincemeat. This year, I'm having trouble finding it. One store here, the Super Fresh, advised me it's been discontinued. I did score the last two boxes, being remaindered.

Haven't seen the mincemeat in a jar, either. Have they really discontinued it? If not, do you know of a source for it? The cookies are family favorites and well received when made for others and I'd be sorry to hear the ingredient is history.

Nancy Baggett: I'm not surprised it's now hard to find. Fewer people are interested it it anymore. My advice is almost always the same for this kind of problem--do an on-line search. If you find any local chains that carry it, you can then call to see if they actually have it.

Joe Yonan: I see in a quick online search that others are sharing your pain. I also see it listed for sale here.

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Potomac Falls, Va.: OK, I was super excited to see the big cookie issue this week and now all I can say is boo :(

I get that fancy, differently textured cookies are a nice change for the food connoisseur/normal reader of this chat but I just like simple, easy to make cookies. What happened to basic chocolate chip and sugar cookies? I guess I don't know what I was really expecting but most of these cookies are just not for me.

Joe Yonan: Thanks for letting us know, but the very basic recipes are pretty easy to find, aren't they? But I'd also point you to several that we have that are indeed on the simpler side:

Thin and Crispy Coconut Oatmeal Cookies

.

Molasses Cookies

.

Brown Sugar Shortbread

.

Flooded Butter Cookies

.

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"Fancified" Amish cookies: It was a nice try at making the sugar cookies a bit more fancy, but those are very ubiquitous, fairly standardized, "everyday" cookies in Pennsylvania. They are neither shaped nor iced, but sometimes are sprinkled with white sugar before baking. There is also a rather popular molasses version of this cookie. baked with an egg wash, if you're looking to try a variation.

Bonnie Benwick: They are everyday -- our annual 25 don't have to be all fancy! I attempted to re-create the cookies that someone in the office brought to me and said: Can you make these? This recipe was close, although they barely held the edges and are fairly sweet.

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Lothian, Md.: In the article on shortbread today --

"Overmixing is one of the ways to make pie crust tough, because the more you mush flour together with other ingredients, the more the protein in flour turns into gluten. Gluten gives a food structure and chewiness: good for bread, bad for food you want to be flaky or tender."

Texture for shortbread cookies has to do with fat and flour, she explained. "When all that butter hits the flour," she said, "it's going to grease the flour so it can't grab on to protein so it can't make gluten."

Does this mean that shortbread cookies could be considered gluten-free?

Joe Yonan: Nope. Shirley really meant that the gluten couldn't be developed -- it's not that there's none in there at all, as any person with celiac disease will tell you. If the wheat's there, it's a no-go for them.

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Richmond, Va.: I can make pies and cakes, but not cookies! I always burn them! I made chocolate bats for Halloween and my nephew asked if he had to eat them! A kid turned down chocolate bat cookies!!

Tiffany MacIsaac: Don't feel bad about the chocolate cookies... I have burned more chocolate cookies n my career than I can count on two hands... The color makes it hard to tell when they are done. Also, the balance of cocoa powder and sugar needs to be just right or they can taste bitter, burned or not. If you have a recipe for sugar cookies you really like you could experiment with taking out a bit of the flour and replacing it with cocoa powder. A little goes a long way so I would start with a Tablespoon and work from there. As far as burning goes, never trust the times on the recipes. Every oven is SO different. Maybe your oven runs a bit hot. Also try using a 2nd sheet tray, placed below the cookies you are baking, to help absorb some of the heat from the bottom of the oven.

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Arlington, Va.: I can't wait to try the salted chocolate cookie recipe. Would it be ok to sprinkle with kosher salt instead of fleur de sel?

Nancy Baggett: Yes, kosher salt would work--if the fleur de sel called for is not the fine grained type (I recall it comes both ways.) The point is you don't want the coarse texture unless it is supposed to be there. I just did a salt tasting, and unless you palate is really sensitive the kosher is going to seem just fine!

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chilled butter -from the last chat: During last week's chat, someone asked about combining cold butter with flour, oats and the like to make crisps. I have a suggestion: chill the butter (I freeze it) then use the large holes on your box grater. The shredded butter will incorporate nicely with the dry ingredients, still giving you pockets of butter to produce flakiness but not big clumps. I use this approach for several types of baking. (It probably is what I will do when I make the lovely flooded cookies that snuck their way into spot 25 on your list. I was about to post a question today asking for information on "flood" icing and then I saw that last little cookie. So Excited to try it. Thanks much for all the work of testing and editing and providing ideas for us. And pretty pictures!)

Bonnie Benwick: Tiffany's cookies were lovely...you didn't even get to see the various mittens she did. I like the shredded butter idea.

Tiffany MacIsaac: I do hope you try the flooded cookies at home! I look forward to making them every year at Christmas and valentines day. I also made them for the guests of my sisters wedding. All you need is 3-4 colors of icing and you can do some really creative decorating!

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Alexandria, Va.: This is a spirits question for Jason. My sister has asked for a nice bottle of gin for Christmas. She mostly drinks gin and tonics. Which brands would you suggest?

Thanks!

Joe Yonan: Jason says:

"I usually don't recommend pricier gins. Tanqueray, Plymouth, or Beefeaters usually work for most things. But of the more artisan brands, I've liked Hendrick's for a long time. But my newest favorite is G'Vine Nouaison. There are two G'Vines, and this is the more juniper-forward of the two. You can find it at places like Ace Beverage and elsewhere in the area."

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Silver Spring, Md.: I have been a daily and Sunday Post subscriber for some years. I opened the long-awaited cookie issue of the food section this morning to find that the recipes for 10 of the 25 beautifully photographed cookies are available ONLINE ONLY. This has been a growing frustration; I curl up on the sofa with the paper, only to be referred to the computer. I would really like to know: Why should I pay for the print edition? Shouldn't those of us who pay get the extra content?

Joe Yonan: Thanks for writing us about this. I know what you mean -- it seems counterintuitive to get less when you're paying, doesn't it? The problem is, we have unlimited space online, while our print space is finite. So when ads are down, as they have been (although they're picking back up at year's end, which is great), it's difficult for us to fit in as many cookies in print as we'd like. But let me ask you this: What other newspapers are giving you even 15 cookie recipes this year, let alone 25?

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Arlington, Va.: Re the "flooded butter cookies," what purpose does the cream cheese play in the recipe?

washingtonpost.com: Flooded Butter Cookies

Tiffany MacIsaac: That's a great question! There is no egg product in this recipe. The cream cheese acts as a binder and brings the dough together. It also lends a richer flavor than using butter alone. I prefer the crispy, crumbly, buttery texture of these cookies that I feel holds up well against the frosting.

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Alexandria, Va.: I've recently been told to cut most carbs out of my diet for health reasons. Are there any low carb or healthy carb options out there?

Nancy Baggett: I have to say I have not been happy with the cookies I've tried to make with faux sugar. However, I have made no-bake chocolate-nut drops using sugar-free chocolate and it tasted surprisingly okay. You will either have to keep the drops refrigerated or quick temper the chocolate--directions on how to do this should be available on line.

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Blue Cheese Walnut Cookies: Two questions,

I'm somewhat of a purist when it comes to baking and don't have a food processor or hand mixer, yeah I whip everything with a whisk. That being said, do you think mixing the blue cheese and butter requires a mixer/processor?

Second, this seems to be a recipe where the dough could be rolled into a log shape and then sliced off in appropriate rounds and number of cookies immediate use, anyone try it?

Bonnie Benwick: These were on my top five list of favorites from this year.

Certainly you can slice and bake, because the dough is firm. I think a whisk might not bring the crumbled cheese and other elements together. Better to use your hands, maybe after you've used a pastry cutter to get the right consistency/incorporation of fat and flour.

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Buttermilk - Amish sugar cookies: Don't forget that the Amish style cookies also use buttermilk. As does ranch dressing, chicken marinade, biscuits, pancakes, oatmeal muffins, etc. If you think of 4 recipes that use 1 cup each, you can use the entire quart. Or go really old school and have a glass of it before bed - yuck!

I won a prize on this chat a while back for boasting of doing just that, because it is such a challenge to do so.

Bonnie Benwick: The ol' buttermilk question....

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Adana, Turkey: I have found fresh sweet potatoes here, but I don't think they will be available much longer. Is there a way to freeze them? Your freezing guide says to blanch vegetables before freezing them - should I boil the sweet potatoes and then freeze them?

Bonnie Benwick: Welcome. You must be our farthest-flung chatter today! Yes, best to blanch the sweet potatoes, and I've just read something online that mentions dipping the pieces in acidulated water (with lemon juice) to keep the cooked potatoes from darkening as they freeze. I'd try that, too.

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NoLo, DC: Just wanted to send a shout out to Tiffany, whose take on sticky toffee pudding I got to enjoy on Sunday. I'm looking forward to trying many more of her desserts at Birch and Barley, as well as the graham crackers and poppy seed cookies at home!

Tiffany MacIsaac: Yay! I am so happy to hear you enjoyed your dessert. We use dried black mission figs in place of dates in our stick toffee pudding, adding a darker flavor and a bit of crunch. Also, the graham cracker recipe featured today is currently on the menu, served with a spiced hot chocolate with stout chantilly. I do hope you enjoy re-creating them at home!

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Alexandria, Va.: My candy thermometer has been through it all... years of taffy and toffee and fudge and candy. I have never had an issue and have always had wonderful results. However, last week I was tempted to 'test the calibration' after reading some online reviews of thermometers. I put it in a pot of water to see if it boiled at 212. Well, the water had little bubbles at about 150 and then larger bubbles continuously surfacing about 180 and then by 190 it reached what I would consider a rolling boil. What gives? Is my Alexandria water salty? My thermometer broken? I find the second one hard to believe since it produces flawless candy, in my opinion. Maybe I am just confused about the physics of it. What part of of the boiling process is water officially considered to be boiling?

Joe Yonan: If your origin wasn't listed as Alexandria, I'd think that perhaps you were writing from some mountaintop somewhere, because one sure cause of a lower boiling point of water is higher elevation. But you'd have to be REALLY high for it to truly boil at only 190 degrees. By 8000 feet, it's down from 212 to 197.

Oh, and it's the full rolling boil you're looking for, indeed.

A couple of questions, then: Were you boiling in a deep pot, deep enough that your thermometer could be submerged without it touching the bottom of the pot? Oh, and you weren't touching the sides, were you? If not on either, I'd say the thermometer's off, no matter what has happened with your candy.

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Cutout cookies without frosting?: I am on the lookout for yummy cookies that work well to cut into holiday shapes but but work well without frosting. I've tried too many recipes that are just flat without frosting, and we just aren't frosting types. So do the "flooded" sugar cookies in the cookie section today taste good without the frosting, or am I better off looking for something else?

Also, how does one review/modify a recipe to get good cut-outs from it? I tried one recently and all the cookies fell in on themselves. They tasted ok, but didn't look appetizing.

NB: I'm planning to make the rosemary pine nut bars to a potluck dinner tomorrow night, they sound FAB.

Tiffany MacIsaac: The butter cookies have a nice texture, even without the frosting, but you might try jazzing them up a bit with some zest (lemon, lime, orange or a mixture) Also, most recipes are better with a bit more salt added to them. If you have a favorite recipe, try adding 50% more salt than it calls for. Or for crispy gingersnaps use fresh ginger in place of dry. These little changes should make a huge difference in flavor.

Good Luck!

Bonnie Benwick: She's being modest, perhaps. My family loved the tender, not-too-sweet crumb of the cookies -- they are almost shortbready, really.

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Silver Spring, Md.: Hello and so glad to see the rain has stopped here in DC. I am trying to find Masa Harina (looked it up on the web) for a roasted tamale soup. I tried the usual places in Silver Spring, SS Co-op, Whole Foods, Giant and Safeway and no luck. We used to have small ethnic Latino stores but they have all but disappeared when SS went upscale. Does anyone out there know where I can find this corn flour in SS or Washington, DC. Thanks

Bonnie Benwick: Odd, I could have sworn it was at my Giant in Bethesda. Bestway has it in Mount Pleasant (202-265-3768); I just called.

Joe Yonan: You mean such as Maseca brand, right? I've bought it at my local Safeway on 17th Street, and at Panamerica grocery on 14th.

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Washington, DC: Do I toast nuts first then chop them, or is it the other way around?

Joe Yonan: Toast, then chop. Particularly if using a food processor, make sure to cool before chopping -- or you'll run the risk of turning those nuts into a paste.

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re: Boulder, Co: How about taking your excess baked goods to a local nursing home? I'm sure there are residents there who would appreciate them. Or even the workers there...

Bonnie Benwick: I like that idea -- especially the workers.

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Maryland: How come yogurt isn't as good as buttermilk in baked goods like pancakes, biscuits? Because I've tried substituting and it's just nowhere near as good. Yet yogurt is great for marinating meat or chicken, just like buttermilk. Please enlighten me...

Nancy Baggett: I actually like yogurt a lot in some baked goods--especially muffins and quick breads. It helps keep them moist. I am guessing that you like the buttermilk taste better because it is a cultured product produced to have a rather concentrated and tangy flavor. I have not looked into the process for making today's buttermilk. It is quite different from the buttermilk left from churning butter--which is fairly watery and not all that flavorful.

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Weights and measures: I am a crazy-enthusiastic home cook and I still prefer cup/tsp/tbsp measures in recipes, instead of weights. I own a kitchen scale and use it frequently, but for flour I just want to know what size cup I'm leveling off.

Then again, I bake with salted butter, so I am probably a heathen.

Bonnie Benwick: Aha! Maybe you've answered the butter poll. I'll discuss results tomorrow on the blog.

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Spicy Christmas: The holidays generate lots of talk about sweets and simple carbs. But what about those of us who like spicy cuisine? What do we do as the holidays approach and people keep offering us sweet potatoes?

I need a little spice in my holiday! Please share your favorite spicy holiday-themed recipes. Thanks!

Bonnie Benwick: I'll start with a simple one -- Green Curry Aioli. Great for dipping.

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Philadelphia, Pa.: Great work on the cookie guide! I haven't seen the print edition but the online version is beautiful and easy to use. Tempted to make those pine-nut-rosemary bars right away.

Been toying a lot with shortbread lately, and thinking about making a chai-spiced version. Can't figure out any way to infuse flavor from whole spices, though, with such a short ingredient list. Would you just use ground spices (cardamom, cinnamon, cloves, etc) or try melting the butter and steeping whole spices in that?

Bonnie Benwick: Thanks! I think you might miss the undernotes of tea.

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Wheaton, Md.: I have never been good at rolling out cookies, like sugar cookies or gingerbread for a house. What's the secret, gurus and chatters?

Nancy Baggett: There is indeed a secret--roll out portions of dough between sheets of baking parchment or wax paper. Roll while the dough is fairly soft(check the undersides & smooth out any wrinkles). Then stack the sheets (with paper attached) in the refrig until chilled. Peel off top sheet, pat back into place, the peel off and discard second sheet. The cookies will be firm enough to cut and transfer to pans easily. If the dough warms and softens, put back on tray and refrigerate to firm again. This also avoids overflouring and messing up the countertops.

Bonnie Benwick: I endorse this approach!

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Arlington, Va.: Any idea how many people visit the Food section online as opposed to as hard copy?

Joe Yonan: I could tell you, but then I'd have to kill you. ;-)

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Silver Spring, Md.: Cookies too dark on the bottom? Try double-sheeting.

I use Vollrath heavy sheets these days. Recommended by some prominent cooking mag, and they actually do make a HUGE difference. I make dozens of the Sesame Thins you guys featured a couple of years ago, and they all work great with the Vollrath sheets.

Bonnie Benwick: Love those cookies. Did you see Tiffany's tip in the blog today about placing an empty baking sheet on the bottom rack to absorb heat/guard against burning?

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Charlottesville, Va.: I am confused by the amount of almond flour listed in the Pistachio Cookie recipe. It is printed as 1 0.660 cups. Is it approximately 10 2/3 cups, or 2/3 cups, or 1 2/3 cups?

washingtonpost.com: Pistachio cookies

Looks like it's 1 2/3 cups!

Joe Yonan: I also see it correctly at 1 2/3 cups, in print and online...

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Arlington, Va.: I've been trying some recipes from an all- organic-ingredient recipe, but the only organic ingredient I've been using has been cane sugar for regular granulated (the intro on ingredients said it made a difference). How much do you figure I'm screwing up the recipes by not using organic anything else? (The chocolate cookies I tried were very dense--almost dry on the outside and fudgy on the inside. The marshmallow frosting looked about right...how light is marshmallow frosting supposed to be, mouthfeel wise? I've only seen it on store cupcakes that I refuse to buy because they cost too much.)

Bonnie Benwick: Scratching our heads collectively here....can you link to the recipe?

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Cookies!: Love the cookie guide this year. Was looking at the Flooded Butter Cookies, and really want to try making them. My only hesitation is the frosting! I would love to find a frosting that doesn't have raw egg in it. Any other frosting suggestions that would work?

Thanks!

washingtonpost.com: Holiday Cookie Recipes for 2009

Tiffany MacIsaac: I totally understand your hesitation. I use pasteurized whites for merinques and frostings like the royal icing I use to flood sugar cookies. Because of this I have never had a problem and I don't need to worry about the freshness of the egg whites. You could also try powdered egg whites which are used mainly for icings. Since I have never personally tried a recipe that doesn't use egg whites I guess I can't really comment but I am sure at the very least there is a pre-made product you could try.

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Centreville, Va: I wanted to answer the question on the lower carb cookies. I personally aim for that as well and noted that the graham crackers and the Molasses Cookies were 12 grams of carb and the other is 9 g of carb. Unfortunately, the nutrition info doesn't say the portion size. I assume for one cookie. My suggestion is to count the cookie in as part of your meal allotment of carb. Portion control is the key. You can have 2 cookies, not 5....!!!!

Bonnie Benwick: The nutritional information does specify 1 cookie; we ran each of these recipes per cookie.

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Adana, Turkey: Thanks for the sweet potato answer. And I love the cookie guide!

Bonnie Benwick: Our homepage producer Julia Beizer and washingtonpost.com whiz Noel Smart worked to make that look so nice.

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Christmas Breakfast for 2: Hi Food Section! My husband and I will be celebrating our first Christmas together this year as husband and wife. We'd like to make breakfast together that morning. Any suggestions? We would like something "festive" but not too much food since there's only two of us. Also, my husband is very allergic to strawberries, so nothing with strawberries in the recipe, please. Thanks in advance!

Jane Black: Nothing like pancakes to celebrate, in my humble opinion. Our apple-walnut pancakes are always fabulous. Or how about some savory goat cheese and smoke salmon scones? You could also do just cheese scones and serve with smoked salmon on the side.

Chatters? Any other Christmas morning favorites?

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Arlington, Mass.: Tiffany,

My sixth grade teacher gave me a recipe for lemon poppyseed cookies that fell I in love with. Unfortunately, I only got to make it once because my mother accidentally threw it out and my teacher subsequently passed away.

Your recipe for Lemon Poppyseed Sandwich Cookies is the closest I've ever seen to Mrs. Decker's recipe.

Do you think I could make cookies from your recipe that are rolled into a ball and pressed with a sugared glass? Any recommendations on baking time?

Thanks for making my day. We have a lovely 'wintry mix' going on outside as I type this...perfect for a night of baking.

Tiffany MacIsaac: That sounds like a great idea. I believe the dough would be moist enough to be pressed out like that. And the sugar crystals would be beautiful and textually interesting. The baking time depends on the thickness of the cookie. The thicker the cookie, the lower I would set the temperature so the cookie doesn't get dark on the outside before it is cooked through. I would say 300-325 degrees. I do hope you enjoy them. It sounds like a perfect day!

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Cookies!: Loved all the great recipes for cookies. I'm having a baking extravaganza with mom and my girlfriends this weekend and I'm excited to try some new recipes.

So, my question, if you could only bake ONE kind of cookie for the holidays, what would it be?

Joe Yonan: That's like asking me to choose between my children. Oh, wait -- I don't have any children! It's hard to not go for the good old Salty Oatmeal cookies, but I also love the Chocolate Shortbread from a couple years back, and feel pretty happy about the Pistachio Cookies as well as the Thin and Crispy Coconut Oatmeal Cookies I tested this year. Oh, my -- that doesn't help you at all, does it? OK, OK: One type, one type. I'm going to say ... Chocolate Shortbread With Cacao Nibs and Sea Salt.

Wait -- is it too late to change my mind?

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re: masa harina: I get MaSeCa at the Giant in Van Ness. I've seen it at other Giant stores as well. In the "International" aisle. I've also seen it at Harris Teeter at White Flint.

Bonnie Benwick: Right. International aisle is a good place to check.

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Nutella nut: We adore Nutella and were wondering if any of you have tried to use it in a cookie (aside from a filling in a sandwich cookie) and could suggest a recipe.

Nancy Baggett: I have tried Nutella in several recipes. Any butter cookie or hazelnut cookie will work. I just sandwich two cookies together with Nutella in the middle for yummy sandwich cookie. The cookies should be small ones or the servings will be too large.

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Noplace, nohow: Do I REALLY have to stock up on unsalted butter for cookies that have a teeny bit of salt already? I know it might make a teeny difference, but I hate to buy unsalted and have 3 sticks sit around forever because I don't make enough cookies.

Bonnie Benwick: I guess you should go with what you're used to tasting. But who needs excess sodium these days? Might you not use the unsalted butter for sauces or for making flavored, compound butters?

Joe Yonan: And if you buy unsalted and just use one stick, freeze the rest. Butter freezes beautifully.

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Reston, Va.: Happy sunny day, food gurus! I've been devouring (figuratively) your cookie recipes--so many goodies, so little time! I have a basic question--most of your recipes call for lining the cookie sheets with parchment paper or a nonstick liner. I tend to use aluminum foil (it's just a bit faster and easier). How much does this matter? What am I losing? Thanks so much for your help!

Bonnie Benwick: I don't think you're losing much of anything, but I'll gladly defer to the experts we have in-house today. It's easy to check doneness -- cookie edges, etc. -- on parchment. And there might be some recipes where the cookie dough might not spread quite as much on paper or Silpat. If you're baking with foil and it works, keep up the good work.

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Cupcakes!: For the person making the cupcakes for work, pb & j cakes have always been a big crowd pleaser for me!

1 c. of peanut butter (NOT All natural-- you need to break out the Skippy or Jiff for these); 2 c. sugar; 3 c. flour, sifted (I try to use cake flour but all purpose will work too); 3 tsp. baking powder; 1/2 tsp. salt; 4 eggs; 2 tablespoons of vanilla; 1 cup milk (soy milk works just as well too and actually lends an added nutty flavor); Berry preserves (bonus if you've made your own!).

Preheat oven to 350. Cream peanut butter and gradually add sugar (process should take 10 minutes. In a separate bowl, sift flour and add baking powder and salt. Add eggs one at a time to the peanut butter. Add flour mixture alternately with milk and vanilla. Stir until smooth. Fill cupcake liners halfway with cake batter. Put a spoonful of preserves in each cup. Put the second half of the batter in each liner, on top of the preserves. Bake in the oven at 350 for about 18-20 minutes. Ice with Peanut Butter Frosting and serve.

Peanut Butter Frosting

4oz of cream cheese (1/2 package) (still cold); 3/4 cup of peanut butter; 2 tbsp butter, softened; 3 cups of confectioners sugar, sifted; Splash of vanilla or rum; Milk to thin if necessary.

Beat together peanut butter, cream cheese, and butter. Slowly add the confectioners sugar. Add the vanilla or rum. Add milk one tablespoon at a time (or additional rum) to thin, as necessary. Makes about 3 cups.

Makes about 24 cupcakes or 12-15 jumbo cupcakes.

You can also easily make them peanut butter chocolate cupcakes by subbing chocolate in for the preserves.

As for all of the cookies-- I'm excited to try out those gingerbread hazelnut rumballs!

Joe Yonan: Thanks for this -- cupcake baker, if you make them, report back...

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I know the chat is all about cookies this week but....: I made the easy shrimp creole recipe that was posted a few weeks ago (dinner in 40 min) and am eating right now during the chat. It is so good and I wanted to share my praises. This is definitely a recipe I will keep for future dinners. Thanks!

Bonnie Benwick: That was from the Lee Brothers book of new Southern cuisine, I think, right? Definitely a keeper. Their book is on my list of giftable cookbooks for 2009, which will run in Food next week.

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Arlington, Va.: Sorry to move off cookies (I LOVE COOKIES), but I'm wondering if y'all have a favorite recipe for baguettes?

Jane Black: To make a great baguette at home, the first person you need to know is Sam Fromartz, a Washington journalist and stellar home bread baker. He went to France to learn to make good bread and, in a City Paper taste test, beat out all his professional competitors.

Full disclosure: I've never tasted his baguettes. But I have had his homemade pizza, an equally hard thing to get right at home without a pizza oven. Incredible.

He posted his recipe here on his excellent blog

ChewsWise

.

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Washington, D.C.: I LOVE the idea of the blue cheese cookies. Similar in concept to the olive biscuit recipe I found on Epicurious. Do you have any other recipes for more savory cookies?

Also, just a request. The spicy cucumber margarita from the blog sounds intriguing, but I might need to be reminded of this in the sweltering days of summer. Will you remind us of this? Thanks.

washingtonpost.com: Bonus recipe: Spicy Cucumber Margarita (All We Can Eat, Dec. 10)

Joe Yonan: Will you remember to remind us to remind you? ;-)

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Philadelphia, Pa.: Following up on the chai shortbread... definitely, I should put some tea in there. So do I need to melt the butter to steep the leaves in, or will they pull enough moisture from the surrounding cookie during baking? I don't want crunchy tea-leaf bits.

Bonnie Benwick: I think you could use some powdered tea, actually. Look for a natural kind, not flavored with lemon or anything. Maybe matcha? If you use tea leaves, just strain the butter mixture (although that way you might lose some spices).

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Gaithersburg, Md.: I was excited when I saw that the first cookie was cheese and walnut (Yum - savory cookies!), but my excitement died down when I realize it was _blue_ cheese, which I don't like. But I'd really like to try making something like those cookies - or those cookies themselves if you can recommend some substitute type of cheese.

Nancy Baggett: I had the same reaction and wonder if goat cheese might work. Of course, without trying, I can't be sure! For something less "gourmet" you could try a cheddar--walnuts and cheddar are nice together.

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Alexandria, Va.: I have a question regarding the use of cardamom pods or seeds in Indian cooking -- and it seems to be one that many people have according to a Google search I just did. All of the online "answers" seem to be contradictory and non-authoritative.

When you buy those cardamom pods at Indian grocery stores, how do you use them when your cookbook just says "add 4 pieces cardamom?"

Do you add them husk and all to the pan and just leave them in the dish? Do you crush the pods and add them husk and all? (And then as some say, remove the husks later?) Or do you crack open the pods and take out seeds and crush them?

Thanks.

Joe Yonan: Of course, we took your question to Monica Bhide, who writes the weekly iSpice blog post on All We Can Eat (including this entry on cardamom). Here's what she says:

Thanks for your question. Here are a couple of things -

--For green cardamom, the entire pod is edible (unlike the black one, which is used to flavor like a bay leaf and then removed).

--When using green cardamom, if it says to use the whole cardamom pod, crush it gently so it opens up. The husks are edible and don't need to be removed.

--When baking, use only the seeds

--When using the black cardamom, there is no need to crush it. Add it whole and remove before serving.

Hope that helps.

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Philadelphia, Pa.: On the rolling-out-dough -- parchment or wax paper is a huge help for this, I agree. Have any of you used rolling spacers? They're like fat rubber bands you put on the ends of your rolling pin so you're rolling at a consistent distance from the board.

I hate to spend 20 or 30 dollars on what amounts to a few fancy rubber bands, but it seems like a smart way to make 100% sure you're rolling to an exact and consistent thinness.

Tiffany MacIsaac: The spacers work well if your rolling surface is perfectly flat. I have a little trick I show to my interns that seems to help. Roll the dough between parchment and hold the packet up to the light. The light will shine through more in spot that are thinner and less in spots that are thicker, helping you know where to adjust the thickness. Also, experiment with different types and shapes of rolling pins.

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St. Paul, Minn.: I always thought rum balls sounded revolting until I had some at an in-laws' house last year. I loved them! The ones I had were made with vanilla wafers. Any thoughts on variants on the rum ball theme?

Bonnie Benwick: I've made them using vanilla wafers. The ones we ran today using ground gingersnaps have a nice seasonal depth of flavor.

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Silver Spring, Md.: If I may address a question to Nancy Baggett about her bread book - I tried one of the oatmeal bread recipes and the dough was never stiff as described in the recipe, but always soft. It flumped out while baking.

I tried adding flour to get to the right texture, but nothing worked.

Any other ideas?

Nancy Baggett: Sorry to hear you had problems. The too much/too little flour is always a possibility due to the different moisture content of flours, but especially when the flour isn't weighed. Seems like there was just too much water initially. Normally adding in extra flour solves the problem. I am guessing that enough wasn't added--with these moist doughs they can take quite a lot and this will not wreck the recipe. Feel free to e-mail me if you'd like a more detailed discussion.

Nancy Baggett: I can be reached here: nancy@kitchenlane.com

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Anonymous: I am reading Victorian recipes for Christmas goodies, and note the widespread use of suet. So how do you get your hands on suet these days?

Jane Black: My first thought was to check Chowhound. People have asked and no one knew the answer. My second (better) thought was to call the Organic Butcher in McLean. They do get it in but not regularly and it can sometimes be hard to source. But if you need it, they can certainly get it for you with enough notice. 703-790-8300

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Montgomery Village, Md. mom: Thanks so much for your cookie focus today. I am hosting my annual cookie exchange on Sunday and hope to see a few of these selections show up at my gathering. My question, I want to serve some food ( party is in the afternoon) and a signature beverage or two. With the wide range of cookies I am expecting would you focus on a range of apps or serve a quiche or ham or other main type of dish. Any suggestions for a festive holiday drink?

Nancy Baggett: Depending on your tastes and that of your guests mulled cider or mulled wine is a nice option. Both fill the house with a fabulous aroma. The French option of Kir (white wine and a little Creme de Cassis or Champagne Kir is also nice for those who like to imbibe and takes virtually no effort.

Tiffany MacIsaac: I am a huge fan of making egg nog. I make it as much as I can at this time of year. It is much easier than you think and everyone gets so excited when they have it home made. Use farm fresh eggs, if you can, to insure freshness. Also, if the idea of serving eggs in a drink makes you nervous, use pasteurized eggs. The result will still be delicious!

Bonnie Benwick: I wish, wish, wish I had the recipe for spiced lemonade from Cork right now. I'd share it. Still hoping they'll send it my way. Sounds crazy, lemonade in cold weather. But it has all the good wintry spices in it and it was just delicious. It'd be not as filling as eggnog. So you could eat more cookies. Is this cruel, just to mention? I promise to blog about it if that ship comes in.

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Germantown, Md.: I did a lot of cookie baking this weekend with our snow, but despite wrapping well in foil they got stale quickly. Could you discuss the best ways to store cookies so they remain soft and wonderful?

Nancy Baggett: One thing that can cause cookies to get dry and stale too quickly is using dried out dried fruit. It will suck moisture from the dough. Once the cookies are completely cooled, then pack airtight and freeze (don't refrigerate). That keeps them very well.

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Fruitcake question: I just made my usual fruitcake recipe -yes, I am one of three people who really like fruitcake], and it seems to be 'greasy' this time. Same recipe, same pans, same everything. It was even kind of bubbling in the pans. Three sticks of marg is still 1 1/2 cups right? Any thoughts on what I might have done?

Nancy Baggett: If you are sure you added the right about of fat, then it seems likely that either the amount of flour or maybe eggs was wrong--probably less than what was called for. But really, it's hard to say.

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Washington, DC: When I need to put two pans in the oven at the same time (roast potatoes and a veg, say), and both won't fit on the same shelf, what's the best way to position the pans to get good heat distribution on both?

Bonnie Benwick: Do as they do when baking 2 sheets of cookies -- rotate top to bottom and front to back halfway through the roasting time.

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Richmond, Va.: Found a great idea for individual bread pudding: tear up one slice raisin cinnamon bread into a muffin cup. Pour the typical egg/milk custard mix on top and bake. Can spoon out of muffin tin into bowl, or bake in an aluminum baking cup inserted into the muffin tin. I'm much more likely to make bread pudding if I can made one or two servings.

Jane Black: Smart idea. And I bet it can look very pretty, though the goal is more portion control than presentation.

Joe Yonan: As a CF1 addict, I love this idea. May I steal it for profit and glory?

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Graham crackers: Would I be able to make the graham cracker recipe with white whole wheat flour with good results? Or would that not give the cookies enough wheat-y flavor?

All I have at home right now is the white whole wheat flour, but I'd get some regular whole wheat flour if I needed it.

Tiffany MacIsaac: It will work but the flavor will be a bit mild and the color a bit lighter. The texture should remain the same. I think if it isn't to much trouble it is worth it to pick up whole wheat flour on your next trip to the grocery store but either way they will be yummy.

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savory cookies: For the chatter looking for savory cookies, I just made a batch of the Cheese Dollars from Rose's Christmas Cookies this weekend and they are ADDICTIVE. Like a cheddar shortbread. She calls just for a pinch of cayenne and some black pepper, but I used 1/8 tsp of cayenne and 1/8 tsp of smoked paprika and was very, very happy with the results.

Nancy Baggett: Good to know. May have to try 'em myself!

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Hyattsville, Md.: I am a Christmas Cookie Baking Nut, who pores over cook books and websites each year trying to find the best of the best. I have to say, that the last two years have convinced me that the WashPo Cookie Baking features is a 'must read'. Really interesting and creative takes on the humble cookie. I am looking forward to trying some of this year's recipes this weekend.

This past weekend, my daughter and I baked 12 different varieties. The standout was a slightly savory version of Thumbprint cookies with hot pepper jelly in the center. Really, really good.

My question is Snickerdoodles. I don't have a good recipe for them and I have a friend who has requested that I make some. All the recipes seem to call for a combination of shortening or oil and butter. Is this necessary? I am a bit appalled at using anything other than unsalted butter but it may have something to do with texture?

Thanks for your help.

Nancy Baggett: Yes, it does have something to do with the texture--it is easier to get the crispy-chewiness due to the characteristic of solid shortening. That said, I use only butter in mine. I add a little corn syrup instead--which achieves the right texture in a different manner!

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Arlington, Va.: I made gingerbread cake last night and the recipe specifically called for "molasses, NOT blackstrap." I looked high and low and could only find blackstrap. The cake tastes good, but it has me curious as to the different varieties of molasses. Can you enlighten a girl (and, if the non-blackstrap is superior, point me in the right direction)? Thanks in advance.

Bonnie Benwick: We're running low on time, but basically blackstrap is about the thickest, strongest-flavored molasses, as it comes from a third boiling (according to Food Lover's Companion), as opposed to light molasses (first boiling) and dark molasses (you guessed it -- second boiling). I know you can order sorghum molasses online, which I've used in Southern recipes. I think Grandma's brand, available at lots of grocery stores, is not blackstrap, is it?

Jane Black: Grandma's isn't blackstrap and it's available in a lot of places. Last time I saw it was at Safeway.

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Washington, DC: Tips for forming cookie dough into square logs? Mine end up looking more round than square.

Nancy Baggett: One way I can think of to accomplish this is to line a loaf pan with foil, then pack the dough in it. Refrigerate until the dough is very cold and firm. Lift out dough, cut into square logs, then slice and bake. Keep in mind they will only stay square if the dough is fairly stiff and holds its shape during baking.

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Macaroons vs macarons: Can someone explain the difference? And provide a recipe for the non-coconut kind? Thanks!

Jane Black: I believe the macaroons you mean are the French kind, shiny, elegant cookies with flavors sandwiched in between.. They re made with almond paste or ground almonds and mixed with sugar and egg whites. The coconut macaroons substitute coconut for the almond which makes them clumpier.

We try to steer you to recipes we've tested but we don't have one in our database for French macaroons. But I feel comfortable sending you to David Leibowitz, an American chef who lives in Paris. Joe

profiled him

in August and he's terrific. Here is

his recipe

.

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Arnold, Md.: Just a fan letter! Weight vs. measurement (seriously?) Fancy, not fancy enough.

I woke up at 5:30, poured my coffee and read the entire food section, circling the ones I must make this weekend. My 6:30 am I had 3 emails from my cooking group- Saturday afternoon at my house the cookiefest begins. You will never please everyone, but you certainly thrilled 4 ladies in Arnold. Thank you Food Section staff!

Bonnie Benwick: Whew! I'm sitting up a little taller now.

Tiffany MacIsaac: Truth be told... not all of my recipes are in grams. Even in a professional kitchen I sometimes find it faster and, jut as easy, to use cups. Happy baking!

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Shirlington, Va.: I'm so excited to see the Holiday Cookie section today! Last year I assigned one recipe to each person in my office (small office so not all recipes were assigned) and we did a cookie eating/exchange one afternoon. Everyone rated their experience from easy to difficult and would or would not make it again. And then we rated our favorite. As it turned out all were rated easy or very easy, some but not all, were categorized as "would make again" and the most surprising result; each cookie was rated as a favorite by someone in the group. Next Tuesday is our exchange so the recipes came in the nick of time. Thanks for all the great new treats to try. Happy Holidays!

Bonnie Benwick: Speaking of picking favorites, in the blog on Friday we'll list the top 20 cookie recipes viewed in our Recipe Finder database by you, dear readers. You'll have to compare notes.

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Hanukkah dessert: Just been invited to my first Hanukkah dinner celebration and volunteered to bring dessert (not cookies, unfortunately). Could someone suggest something appropriate? No kids are involved, so this can be something more elegant.

Jane Black: We're running out of time but how about a pear-frangipane tart?

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Nutella: I know it's not a cookie...but Nutella cupcakes are always a hit when I make them.

Nutella Frosted Cupcakes 10 tbsp(140 grams) butter, softened; 3/4 cup white sugar; 3 eggs; 1/2 tsp vanilla; 1 3/4 cups (200 grams) sifted all purpose flour; 1/4 tsp salt; 2 tsp baking powder; Nutella, approx. 1/3 cup.

Preheat oven to 325F. Line 12 muffin tins with paper liners. Cream together butter and sugar until light, 2 minutes. Add in eggs one at a time, until fully incorporated. Don't worry if the batter doesn't look smooth. Add vanilla. Stir in flour, salt and baking powder until batter is uniform and no flour remains. Using an ice cream scoop, fill each muffin liner with batter. They should be 3/4 full, if you're not using a scoop. Top each cake with 1 1/2 tsp Nutella. Swirl Nutella in with a toothpick, making sure to fold a bit of batter up over the nutella. Bake for 20 minutes. Remove to a wire rack to cool completely. Makes 12.

Joe Yonan: I've heard this from others. Note to self: Try.

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Olney, Md.: I bake 'fruitcake' cookies every year for Christmas. I can't find candied cherries. Why is this?

Nancy Baggett: Maybe the manufacturers are skipping them because people are now avoiding the red dyes that are used. You can get ones that don't use the suspect red dyes. As usual, I'd suggest doing an on line search. Actually, though I think I've seen them in my local supermarket, a Giant.

Bonnie Benwick: Definitely at the Giant. In big containers and small ones, near the produce department.

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Dying to ask this...: Ever since I read a comment on the Starbucks oatmeal cookie recipe you ran. Someone wrote that they portioned out the dough onto the cookie sheet, then refrigerated it while they ran errands, then came back and baked it and the cookies came out better than ever. Does this work with chocolate chip and other kinds? I always have a problem with cookie dough spreading while it bakes.

Nancy Baggett: Yes, it works with lots of doughs. As the dough stand and chills the flour continues to absorb more moisture, ultimately producing cookies that spread less.

_______________________

Joe Yonan: Well, our filling is bubbling and has turned light golden all over, but we might be a little darker around our edges, so you know what that means -- we're done! Time to transfer us to a wire rack to cool completely.

Thanks for the great questions today, everyone -- and thanks to Tiffany and Nancy for great help with the cookie and other baking questions.

Now, for the giveaway books:

Lothian, MD., who asked about gluten: You'll get "Flying Apron's Gluten-Free and Vegan Baking Book" by Jennifer Katzinger.

Gaithersburg, who asked about subbing the cheese in the blue cheese/walnut cookies: You'll get "In The Cheesemaker's Kitchen" by Allison Hooper.

Chilled butter person, who suggested using a grater, you'll get "Unforgettable Desserts" by Dede Wilson.

And Washington chatter who asked for a reminder of that spicy cucumber margarita, of course you'll get "Spice & Ice." The book will be the reminder!

Send your mailing info to food@washpost.com, and we'll get you the books.

Until next time, happy baking, cooking, eating and reading...

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