If you’re anything like us, one of the biggest thrills of the holiday season is all the cookie baking (and eating!) that you know lies just ahead. To help you get the yummiest, gooeyest, most delicious treats at the annual exchange, RareSweets founder and pastry chef Meredith Tomason offers her tips for flawless cookies.
1. Plan in Advance
You’ll look and feel like Martha if you can offer guests a freshly-baked batch of cookies with no visibile effort. The trick: make the cookie dough in advance, scoop it out onto a pan, and freeze. You’ll have oven-ready cookies for last minute gifts, get-togethers, and late-night munchies. Don’t limit yourself to one type. “In my family, we have five or six types of cookies [ready to bake]. We are serious cookie people,” says Tomason.
2. Mind Your Ingredients
“If you haven’t cooked since last season, get some new baking soda and baking powder,” says Tomason. Like spices, baking ingredients should be replaced annually. Before starting, bring your ingredients to room temperature. Letting them sit out for a couple hours will not only make mixing easier, but will also produce a better cookie.
3. Assess the Oven
“You need to know your oven,” says Tomason. “Some ovens have hotspots.” Additionally, if you haven’t used your oven in a while, pop a baking thermometer inside to make sure the temperature is true.
Use a timer (the smoke alarm doesn’t count), and be mindful of sticking. Nonstick pans, cooking spray, or parchment paper will all make it easier to remove the cookies from the tray without leaving some gooey goodness behind. Be patient when removing cookies from the baking sheet. Let them cool completely—meaning they’ve achieved room temperature—and use an offset spatula to avoid squishing. If you have to use a pancake spatula, try metal—not plastic—because it’s thinner.
4. Ice with Care
There’s a classier way to decorate than slopping on the icing with a knife. Load the icing into a piping bag, or if you don’t have pro equipment, a Ziploc bag will do in a pinch. Scoop in the icing, twist the top of the bag so it resembles a carrot, and snip a small hole in the tip.
Once you have the bag ready, line the outer edge of the cookie. Do this for the entire batch, and let that icing harden. Then, add water or alcohol—Tomason suggests rum or bourbon to add flavor—to thin the remaining icing into a glaze. Pour the new mixture into the dam created by the hardened icing. The runny mixture should spread easily by itself, creating an even, purposeful coat ready for toppings.
To enhance the look, make sure your dough is chilled before it goes into the oven. “The edges are cleaner with cold dough,” says Tomason.
5. Liven Up the Cookie Exchange
Cookie exchanges are a holiday inevitability, but don’t just load up on Pepperidge Farm and call it a day. “Think about taste, texture, and shelf life,” says Tomason. Include traditional flavors—chocolate or spiced—but don’t hesitate to add a few wild cards.
Cookie tins are also a great chance to revive old family recipes, but if you’re trying an online find, skim the reviews for feedback and potential problems. Also be mindful of allergies, especially in this gluten-averse age.
6. Pair Responsibly
If you’re going for the classic milk and cookies, “go and get some really good milk,” says Tomason. Pastry chefs love local Trickling Springs milk for mixing into sweets and drinking solo (available at Union Market, farmers markets, and shops like Glen’s Garden Market).
Eggnog and hot chocolate work nicely for little ones, but for the adults Tomason suggests Vin Santo, an Italian dessert wine; it pairs especially well with harder cookies (like Italian Wedding cookies) or nutty recipes (like white chocolate and macadamia cookies). Try a smoky bourbon with creamy butter cookies, or warm cocktails like Baileys Irish Cream and Kahlúa, hot toddies, or spiked apple cider.
7. Repurpose Old Cookies
If all those holiday desserts are starting to go stale, toss them into a cookie trifle. Layer puddings (even instant pudding works for this, says Tomason), boozy cherries, cookies, and pastry creams. Voilà!—a Pinterest-worthy dessert.