Mary Ann Lienhart-Cross
Food & Nutrition
We have celebrated Halloween, had our great American Thanksgiving and are now in to the Christmas holiday season. Now it’s time to talk about holiday baking — and when I type that I mean real baking where you measure ingredients, cream a fat with some kind with sugar, and add flavoring and flours to make a special cookie recipe. I say this because I hear more people talking about buying cookies in a slice or frozen cookie dough, and they call these homemade cookies. I know we live in busy times, but there is so much value to people coming together in the kitchen and being involved in the entire process of food preparation, not just in eating.
One of my wishes for all of you for the holidays is that you figure out what is really important to your family, and I hope what’s important is time spent together and possibly doing food preparation together. Whether it’s cleaning vegetables for a vegetable tray with a dip that you make or mixing up a cheese ball, making candies or baking, the important part is that you spend time together. Yes, it takes time and there is the clean-up and the cost, but it is all worth it when you remember the aroma, the tasting and the memories.
Ingredients are what make flavorful cookies. The main four ingredients are sugar; eggs; some kind of fat such as butter, margarine, solid shortening or oil; and flour. Other ingredients — including chocolate, cocoa powder, nuts, raisins, citrus zest, oatmeal, spices and extracts — are added in various combinations to create flavor and texture interest.
Fat is what makes for the flavor of the cookie, and also the softness or tenderness, and color. The fat also supplies the moisture that dissolves the sugar during the creaming process, and this contributes to the overall smooth flavor of the cookie.
Butter, salted or unsalted, makes for the best flavor in cookies and adds a creamy richness. Butter makes cookies that are on the crisp side. When solid shortening is used, the cookies will be more tender or moist/soft. That’s why sometimes combining fats gives you the advantages of flavor and tenderness. Margarine is sometimes suggested as an alternative, but cookies made with margarine tend to have a different texture and the dough may be harder to roll. If the recipe calls for margarine, make sure you use stick margarine because tub margarine has more water and air incorporated into it and you will not have the same baking results. Also, don’t try substituting oil for butter or solid shortening because you can mix oil and sugar till the cows come home but the sugar will never dissolve.
Regardless of which fat you choose, have it room temperature so it will cream easier and the sugar will dissolve faster.
For the best dough, thoroughly cream softened butter with sugar using an electric mixer until it is light and fluffy. Buying extra-fine sugar, which is often used in candy-making, will speed the creaming process. Creaming can take about five minutes if the fat is room temperature, but if it is not room temperature, it seems to take forever.
Next, blend in all liquid ingredients such as milk or eggs. The final step is to add the dry ingredients as the recipe directs. Remember, do not overmix the dough once the flour is added or the cookies will become tough.
Many cookie dough recipes say to chill before baking. Chilling the dough prevents excess spreading and gives the flavors a chance to blend together. Except for bar cookies, choose cookie sheets that are without sides or have only the tiniest rims. Specialty cookie sheets help bake cookies that are evenly brown and softer. If you want to bake light or golden brown cookies, use a light-colored cookie sheet or a baking stone. The dark cookie sheets make darker, crisper cookies. Also, cookies baked on greased sheets spread more than those baked on ungreased ones.
Space cookies far enough apart on the baking sheet to allow sufficient room for spreading during baking; an inch is usually good. Also, try to make the cookies the same size and shape so they bake in the same amount of time. A good way to do this is to use a scoop. For bar cookies the dough needs to be spread evenly in the pan.
In the day of energy conservation we got into telling people they did not need to preheat their oven for baking. When it comes to cookies, it makes a difference. Always preheat the oven at least 15 minutes before using. For even browning, turn the cookie sheets halfway through the baking. You might want to bake only one baking sheet at a time, in the center of the oven, and allow an inch or more between the sheet and the oven wall so heat can circulate. It is best if you wipe the cookie sheet and cool it before reusing so the next batch does not bake too quickly. When using two baking sheets, space them evenly and switch positions halfway through baking. It is better to under-bake cookies slightly.
Holiday baking bottom line: slow down, plan time to do holiday baking with family or friends, and then enjoy eggnog or hot chocolate with some of the cookies.
Mary Ann Lienhart-Cross is an Extension educator in consumer family science. Write to her at 17746 E. C.R. 34, Goshen, IN 46528; call 533-0554; fax 533-0254; or email firstname.lastname@example.org.