When I was in grade school, Eddy Cercone's mother sent a shopping bag full of crisp, anise-flavored pizelle cookies to our class Christmas party every year. There must have been more than 200 cookies!
Al, a chef friend, and his wife, Lynn, make thousands of fried rosette cookies every Christmas to give to friends and family. They work at it for weeks before Christmas and spend vacation time adding to their collection of rosette molds and special equipment.
In my own household, it can't be Christmas until I finish making my 12 different kinds of cookies, at times hundreds of each. I don't even know enough people to give them all away. Still, I make them.
Christmas cookies can be both a passion and an obsession. Cookies also can be hard work and a stumbling block on the way to the perfect holiday. Like everything else, Christmas cookie-baking can be easier with a little planning. You can either concentrate all of your efforts on one kind of cookie or decide on a magic number of recipes as a goal.
Whichever route you choose, you need to do some planning right now. Think about the time you have available. Look at the calendar. How many cookies will you need to bake each week? Do you want to make those sugar cookies that need intense hours of decorating? Maybe you need to balance those with several kinds of bar cookies that require almost no time and some drop cookies that other family members can help with. Will you devote one whole day per week to cookies or squeeze baking in after dinner? With cookies as with life, timing is everything.
There are cookies--such as gingerbread or roll-out sugar cookies--with doughs that can be made weeks ahead. There are cookies--like German pfeffernuesse--that bake up hard as rocks and can be baked months in advance and stored in a canister. Some raw doughs, like lebkuchen, get better as they age. In fact, German bakers age the dough for as long as a year to produce a better flavor.
On the other hand, there are cookies that must be made at the last minute and require special storage but are someone's favorite. Take all of this into consideration when planning. Then write the name of a cookie on the calendar on the day you might have spare time to bake (spare time sometimes being that period after everyone in the house has gone to bed and before they get up).
Remember that many cookie recipes are very forgiving. You can measure the ingredients and set them aside until you have time to mix them. You can make some doughs and then wrap them in wax paper (label it--many doughs look alike) and refrigerate them. Raw dough may be refrigerated or frozen for three to four weeks but must be completely thawed or brought to room temperature before rolling or shaping. Years ago I found that my cookie dough actually got better when I kept it in the refrigerator for a week or longer.
Once you have scheduled your baking, think about storage. Some tips:
Always let the cookies cool completely before putting them in the container.
I save the clear cake containers that supermarket bakeries use for tube cakes. They hold a lot of cookies, seal tight and are see-through. Just use them upside down with the black lid on top. Like my mother, I've also used shoe boxes lined with foil.
Any cookie that has a dab of icing or jam on top, is filled or is topped with candied fruit must be packed with wax paper between each layer.
Cookies that have been rolled in confectioners' sugar should have an additional heavy dusting of the sugar sprinkled on each layer of cookies as you place them into the container.
Don't mix different kinds of cookies in the same container until it's time to give them away--flavors and textures migrate.
Joyce Dodson Piotrowski is a catering manager and writer in Virginia.