Thursday, December 1, 2011

The Festive Side of Cookies

French Macarons a la Medrich

Family gatherings, school parties, celebrations with friends: There isn't a single occasion in autumn and winter that isn't made sweeter and more memorable by freshly baked treats. And there are no treats more delightful or varied than cookies.

Now, maybe you associate cookies with lunchboxes and everyday snacks. Nothing wrong with that! But there's a whole world of cookies—from French macarons to skewered cookie kebabs--that are fun, festive, and even glamorous enough to take pride of place at a holiday party… or to elicit admiring gasps at a cookie swap.

Our inspiration this season comes from two of our favorite cookbook authors, Alice Medrich and Krystina Castella, both of whom have recently published cookie cookbooks. Chewy Gooey Crispy Crunchy Melt-in-Your-Mouth Cookies, from Artisan Books, is Alice's celebration of the many delicious textures of cookies and shares invaluable tips about ingredients and techniques. Crazy About Cookies combines Krystina's playful creativity with her interest in shapes and structures—her "other" career is in industrial design. The two expert bakers shared their tips, insights, recipes, and photos with us so that you can embrace cookie-baking as enthusiastically and fearlessly as they do.

Details, Details

Norwegian Butter Cookies

Because cookies are small and often seem simple, some home bakers assume technique isn't important, says Alice Medrich. Not so. "Some of the most common oversights are not measuring carefully and not mixing too much," she cautions. "And watch the oven time—cookies are little pastries, with all the care that entails."

If your cookies come out too flat, the butter may have been too soft, says Krystina Castella: "Next time, refrigerate the dough for 20 to 30 minutes before baking." To prevent uneven baking, mix dough thoroughly, make cookies the same size—a melon baller or small scoop can help with drop cookies—and rotate cookie sheets in the oven (front to back, top rack to bottom) halfway through baking.

1001 Cranberry Nut Cookies

To build your confidence, try a simple, classic recipe such as our Brown Sugar Refrigerator Cookies, which are delicious enough to serve to company. Because you roll the dough and refrigerate, then slice it into disks for baking, the results are pleasingly consistent. Also convenient, especially if you plan to make a lot of cookies over the holidays, is our C&H 1001 Cookie Starter Mix, which be used in many recipes, including Nutty Chocolate Brownies and Cranberry Nut Cookies.

Or turn a basic recipe into something holiday-worthy with the help of a cookie press or a pastry bag fitted with a star tip. Norwegian Butter Cookies mix up quickly and look beautiful when dusted with C&H Pure Cane Powdered Sugar.

Recruit the Family

Peanut Butter Clouds

Cookies are often the first baking project children take an interest in. Encourage their involvement by assigning age-appropriate tasks. Young children will enjoy rolling cookies in sugar (wash those hands first!); if a child has an interest in kitchen chemistry (and plenty of patience), the task of beating egg whites will satisfy and delight her or him.

And speaking of egg whites, two classic recipes—meringues and French macarons—elevate the humble ingredient to sublime heights. Alice Medrich devotes a whole section of Chewy Gooey Crispy Crunchy to meringues. "I love meringues," she confesses. "And because they're often flourless and fat-free, you can serve them even to guests on strict diets." The cookbook includes recipes for coconut, chestnut-walnut, chocolate, mocha, and banana meringues—and for the Peanut Butter Clouds (Sesame Kisses) she shared with us. (Use unsweetened, natural peanut butter for the best results; substitute sesame paste for peanut butter for an exotic variation.)

Toasted Macaroon Bars

Because they're so light, meringues can also be used to decorate a Christmas tree. Follow our Meringue Ornaments recipe to make beautiful, edible adornments. The kids will enjoy dusting them with sparkles or colored sugar!

French Macarons (mah-kah-RONE) are distinct from American macaroons, which are moist and chewy and made with almonds and coconut. (Our Toasted Macaroon Bars are a rich and delicious variation on the traditional macaroon. Krystina Castella includes several variations on American macaroons in the "Party Cookies" chapter of Crazy About Cookies.) French Macarons, by contrast, are "pillowy soft, sweet, ethereal, ever-so-slightly chewy yet melt-in-your mouth almond sandwich cookies," writes Alice Medrich in the introduction to her recipe. The filling may be as simple as jam or peanut butter or as sophisticated as Lemon Curd or Chocolate Buttercream. To replicate the fancy French macarons showcased in fancy bakeries, tint the cookie batter with a few drops of food coloring to match the flavor of the filling—brown for chocolate, yellow for lemon, and so on.

Fun with Forms

Chocolate Turkeys

More than almost any other baked good, cookies let you play with shape and structure. Cookie-cutter cookies are the obvious example: use a large star-shaped cutter to make our festive Cinnamon Stars so you'll have a large "canvas" for dusting with C&H Pure Cane Powdered Sugar, cinnamon, and almonds. (Made without egg yolks or flour, this is another recipe that will accommodate almost every diet.)

For childlike delight combined with adult skill, nothing can match Krystina Castella's creations. Assembled from chocolate cookies, malt balls, and candy corn (for the "feathers"!), her charming Chocolate Turkeys are "part cookie, part candy… and chocolate is the world's best glue when it comes to cookies." They'll be the stars of your Thanksgiving dessert spread.

Gingerbread Robots

During the Christmas season, Krystina and her husband like to invite friends over for a cookie-decorating party. "We have contests for the most creative, most ridiculous, funniest, and most beautiful." Colorful Gingerbread Robot Cookies can easily qualify for all the prizes—and they're sure to thrill the kids! The dough is the perfect consistency for cookie cutters, says Krystina, who adds that your decorating party will be more fun if you bake the cookies in advance.

For an unusual cookie presentation that skews toward adult nibblers, try Krystina's Rum and Bourbon Ball Kabobs. A variation on the season's traditional rum balls, these creations start with pulverized shortbread cookies to which you add your choice of spirits or flavoring, then roll into balls and chill. Topped with coconut, cocoa powder, nuts, or sesame seeds and threaded on skewers, these confections are a sophisticated treat with a little kick.

Seasonal Flavors

Rum Ball Kabobs

Cinnamon, cloves, orange, and peppermint: for many of us, they're the flavors of the holidays. And they give your baking a special end-of-the-year aroma and taste. Alice Medrich's Holiday Spice Batons are quick to make because they start with prepared phyllo dough to which you add generous amounts of spices and orange zest. (Or try the "hotter" variation that includes ginger, cardamom, and a bit of cayenne!) Roll up the "batons" and invite the kids to sprinkle the sugar-spice mixture over them.

If you like candy canes, you'll love our Peppermint Kisses, yet another variation on our meringue theme. Piped from a pastry bag with red and green stripes, they're an easy yet impressive contribution to a cookie swap or holiday potluck. And if you're looking for a cookie that will survive being mailed to loved ones far away and still taste great, be sure to try our Chocolate Orange Biscotti. Yes, the double-baking process takes a little longer, but the results—a full four dozen delicious cookies—are undeniably worth it!

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