Monday, November 28, 2016

Getting Ready for the Cookie Extravaganza

Every year around holiday time, I go crazy for cookies.

My holiday cookie baking obsession began several years ago, when I met the poet Jeanne-Marie Beaumont, who's a wonderful baker, and I asked if I could join her while she made her holiday cookies. As her two beloved cats slinked between our legs, we filled her Manhattan kitchen with dozens of cookies, some rolled, some baked as bars and then cut when cooled, some shaped, and some pushed through a special cookie dough extruder known as a "spritz" cookie press. Jeanne-Marie had an antique metal press she'd found at a garage sale, I believe, and it was fun to fit in the various disks and push out different shapes of cookies.

We had so much fun that our holiday cookie baking became an annual ritual. We'd scour cookbooks and magazines for new recipes to try, and learned to balance out flavors, colors, textures, and even processes. For example, it's no fun to make dozens of cookies that are all brown, or several doughs that all have to be rolled out.

I'd then share the results of our labors with friends, family, co-workers, doormen, dry cleaners, anyone in the neighborhood I knew and wanted to reach out to once a year, just to say, hey, I see you. I appreciate you.  I hope you have a great holiday.

When I moved to Washington, DC, four years ago, I couldn't let go of this beloved tradition, so I began baking on my own. The trouble was, I was making more cookies than I knew what to do with, so we decided to throw a small party and invite a few people over to share them.

Four years later, the party and the number of cookies I make have grown by quite a bit. I'm actually trying to cut back, but it's hard, with so many great new recipes to try. It's fun to see the trends in cookie-making from year to year, ranging from the whoopee pie craze, to green tea flavored cookies, to this year's craze:  funfetti. All three will be represented at my cookie table this year, alongside classics like gingerbread and sugar cookies.

Among the many lessons I've learned along the way:

1.  PLAN AHEAD!  It's not fun crashing through a whole bunch of recipes at the last minute. I divide my cookies into three categories:  A) cookies that can be made entirely and frozen until you need them B) cookies with dough that can be made ahead, frozen, and then baked off when you need them, and C) cookies that have to be made from scratch at the last minute.

In fact, almost all cookies freeze pretty well, but I do tend to find that some, like whoopee pies, just taste better when freshly made.

2.  BALANCE.  Different flavors, different textures (I have to remind myself to make a few crispy cookies like biscotti because my natural tendency is to soft-bake cookies), different colors, different shapes and sizes, different processes of cookie making.

3.  CONTROL.  This is something I'm still learning.  No cookie table needs four lemon-flavored or four  strawberry-flavored cookies. One of each, two max, is probably enough.

Pictured above are my spritz cookies, delicious buttery bite-sized morsels that can be decorated in a variety of ways including with sprinkles, melted chocolate, and candy melts. (I officially hate candy melts now—they harden up and clog your piping bag in the blink of an eye.) Though my spritz cookie press is a plastic version that I found at Michael's, not a lovely metal antique, as I use it, I think back to those early days when my friend Jeanne-Marie and I baked together in Manhattan, with plumes of flour rising from our hands and the mewing of cats resounding about our feet.

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